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.