The Yiddish Epic Poem “Kentucky” Shows Another Side of American Jewish Literature

Dec. 19 2017

First published serially in 1921-1922, I.J. Schwartz’s Kentoki was once a staple in the curricula of Yiddish-language schools the world over, and for many Jewish children who grew up before World War II it formed their image of America. The poem, writes Dara Horn, powerfully captures human drama, the Jewish immigrant experience, and something of the turn-of-the-century South:

Born in a shtetl near the then-Russian city of Kovno in 1884, in 1906 Schwartz followed the mob to America, where he continued his career as a Yiddish poet and translator, producing Yiddish editions of medieval and modern Hebrew poets as well as Shakespeare, Milton, and his greatest influence, Walt Whitman. He lived long enough to enjoy his generation’s ultimate Eden: retirement in Florida. But it was his move to Lexington, Kentucky, at the age of thirty-three that left its mark on the Jewish American epic. And Kentoki is an epic in the largest sense.

Kentoki isn’t merely a book-length saga covering three generations of Southern Jewish life. Its language also imposes a grandeur on its characters that would be comical if its lyrics were any less majestic than they are. The poem opens with a canto titled “After the Civil War.” We enter first in der fremd, “in the strangeness,” an expression used by more than one American Yiddish poet to describe America. . . .

The land’s threatening seduction [becomes one of the book’s themes, found] in lyrical episodes involving unplanned pregnancies, armed hillbillies, lynchings, and a Jewish peddler beaten to death by drunken rednecks. But [at the book’s beginning], any casual reader of Jewish literature will recognize this nameless wanderer. He acquires a name only when he knocks on a farmer’s door, asking for shelter in the barn in exchange for some goods in his pack, and delighting local farmers’ wives with his stash of tablecloths, eyeglasses, and toys. Finally, the stranger reveals his name: Joshua, though the backslapping farmers call him “Josh.” And so Joshua arrives “in the new Land of Canaan”—which, in case this was too subtle, is the title of the next canto. Our Joshua continues his conquest of Canaan by invoking every possible biblical allusion, even making his first real-estate purchase for his daughter’s burial plot, a riff on Abraham buying a cave to bury Sarah.

Read more at Tablet

More about: American Jewish literature, American South, Arts & Culture, Yiddish literature


Being a Critic of Israel Means Never Having to Explain How It Should Defend Itself

April 23 2018

The ever-worsening situation of Jews in Europe, writes Bret Stephens, should serve as a reminder of the need for a Jewish state. Israel’s critics, he suggests, should reflect more deeply on that need:

Israel did not come into existence to serve as another showcase of the victimization of Jews. It exists to end the victimization of Jews.

That’s a point that Israel’s restless critics could stand to learn. On Friday, Palestinians in Gaza returned for the fourth time to the border fence with Israel, in protests promoted by Hamas. The explicit purpose of Hamas leaders is to breach the fence and march on Jerusalem. Israel cannot possibly allow this—doing so would create a precedent that would encourage similar protests, and more death, along all of Israel’s borders—and has repeatedly used deadly force to counter it.

The armchair corporals of Western punditry think this is excessive. It would be helpful if they could suggest alternative military tactics to an Israeli government dealing with an urgent crisis against an adversary sworn to its destruction. They don’t.

It would also be helpful if they could explain how they can insist on Israel’s retreat to the 1967 borders and then scold Israel when it defends those borders. They can’t. If the armchair corporals want to persist in demands for withdrawals that for 25 years have led to more Palestinian violence, not less, the least they can do is be ferocious in defense of Israel’s inarguable sovereignty. Somehow they almost never are. . . .

[T]o the extent that the diaspora’s objections [to Israeli policies] are prompted by the nonchalance of the supposedly nonvulnerable when it comes to Israel’s security choices, then the complaints are worse than feckless. They provide moral sustenance for Hamas in its efforts to win sympathy for its strategy of wanton aggression and reckless endangerment. And they foster the illusion that there’s some easy and morally stainless way by which Jews can exercise the responsibilities of political power.

Read more at New York Times

More about: Anti-Semitism, Gaza Strip, Israel & Zionism