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.

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

Jerusalem’s Economic Crisis, Its Arabs, and Its Future

Oct. 18 2018

The population of Israel’s capital city is 38-percent Arab, making Arab eastern Jerusalem the largest Arab community in the country. Connected to this fact is Jerusalem’s 46-percent poverty rate—the highest of any Israeli municipality. The city’s economic condition stems in part from its large ultra-Orthodox population, but there is also rampant poverty among its Arab residents, whose legal status is different from that of both Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Haviv Rettig Gur explains:

Jerusalem’s Arab inhabitants are not Israeli citizens—in part because Palestinian society views acceptance of Israeli citizenship, [available to any Arab Jerusalemite who desires it], as acceptance of Israeli claims of sovereignty over the city, and in part because Israel is not eager to accept them, even as it formally views itself as having annexed the area. Nevertheless, they have a form of permanent residency that, unlike West Bank Palestinians, allows them unimpeded access to the rest of Israel. . . .

There are good reasons for this poverty among eastern Jerusalem’s Arabs, rooted in the political trap that has ensnared the Arab half of the city and with it the rest of the city as well. Right-wing Israeli political leaders have avoided investing in Arab eastern Jerusalem, fearing that such investments would increase the flow of Palestinians into the city. Left-wing leaders have done the same on the grounds that the Arab half would be given away in a future peace deal.

Meanwhile, eastern Jerusalem’s complicated situation, suspended between the Israeli and Palestinian worlds, means residents cannot take full advantage of their access to the Israeli economy. For example, while most Arab women elsewhere in Israel learn usable Hebrew in school, most Arab schools in eastern Jerusalem teach from the Palestinian curriculum, which does not offer students the Hebrew they will need to find work in the western half of the city. . . .

It is not unreasonable to argue that Jerusalem cannot really be divided, not for political reasons but for economic ones. If Jerusalem remains a solely Israeli capital, it will have to integrate better its disparate parts and massively develop its weaker communities if it hopes ever to become solvent and prosperous. Arabs must be able to find more and better work in Jewish Jerusalem—and in Arab Jerusalem, too. Conversely, if the city is divided into two capitals, that of a Jewish state and that of a Palestinian one, that won’t change the underlying economic reality that its prosperity, its capacity to accommodate tourism and develop efficient infrastructure, and its ability to ensure access for all religions to their many holy sites, will still require a unified urban space.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Israeli Arabs, Israeli economy, Jerusalem