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  • Editors’ Introduction
  • Kathryn Hellerstein and Maeera Shreiber

Jewish American Poetry

When we first put out our call for papers in January 2012, we conceived of a special issue of Studies in American Jewish Literature that would deal with a range of topics defining and investigating the various possible configurations and meanings of Jewish American poetry. We asked for essays on Jewish poetry written in America, on American poetry written by Jews on matters Jewish, or on American poetry written in Jewish languages, including Yiddish, Hebrew, and Ladino. The essays we envisioned could focus on a broad range of questions, including those of literary lineage, intertextuality, gender, genre, exegesis, translation, ethnicity, or identity. The eight final selections in response to our call cover just such a range of topics as well as intersections and crossovers between languages and cultures. We present in this issue four essays on Yiddish poetry, three on poetry in English, and one on an American Hebrew poet. This range reflects the expanding terrain of Jewish American poetry, which necessarily includes verse written in several languages.

The four essays on Yiddish poetry in America deal with writers and works from the 1920s through the 1950s. These pieces intersect in their various concerns with the ways that Yiddish writers adapted European, expressly non-Jewish poetic forms and tropes to engage American and Jewish themes. Poets I. J. Schwartz, Jacob Glatshteyn, Berish Weinstein, and Mani Leyb reconceived the idyll and the pastoral, the epic, the elegy, and the sonnet as Jewish and American forms that expressed the political and ethnic concerns of the day. Yet as each of these articles shows, such adaptations served to reconfigure Yiddish poetry itself.

The English-language writers discussed in the next three essays follow upon the Yiddish writers chronologically, from the 1930s into the 1960s, these selections taking up a set of poets who belong to what can be described as the middle generation—writing after the great swell of Jewish American modernists such as Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky. For the poets examined here, Muriel Rukeyser, Delmore Schwartz, and Stanley Kunitz afford a striking opportunity to acquire a fuller understanding of just how deeply Jewishness is implicated in the larger story of American poetry in the forties and fifties. Moving on into the [End Page 1] sixties, it might seem that a study of the all but unknown Hebrew poet Annabelle (Chana) Farmelant has little to add to this story. But our readers will discover that the wounds suffered by Farmelant speak powerfully to the kind of cultural disenfranchisement so characteristic of her moment. In this respect, Farmelant affords new perspective on much better known poets of the same period, such as Allen Ginsberg. The Yiddish essays in this special issue on Jewish American Poetry give the reader a sense of the complexity of the poets’ appropriation of non-Jewish imagery, motifs, metaphors, and poetic forms that allow them to internalize the most alien elements of the mainstream culture in which they wrote their Yiddish poems.

Proceeding chronologically, we begin with Avraham Novershtern’s article “The Bounty of the Earth: I. J. Schwartz’s Kentucky.” Novershtern considers how the central and longest of the six epic poems in Schwartz’s 1925 book Nayerd (New Earth) reveals themes of Jewish and American identity. Novershtern argues that Schwartz’s narrative concern with three generations of a Jewish family in America is unique among the immigrant Jewish writers because Schwartz sets his Jewish characters among a non-Jewish population, including many African-American figures, in the state of Kentucky. While Schwartz focuses on an “almost normative Jewish family” in its generational adaptation from Eastern European poverty to American financial success, and from Jewish to American culture, values, and morality, he tells a familiar immigrant story. Yet Schwartz’s epic stands out among the poems by his contemporaries for two reasons: it is set in the American South, far from the Lower East Side of New York City, and it avoids any ideological, political, or aesthetic thesis. Instead, Novershtern argues that Schwartz’s “moral and psychological approach” is itself deeply American, which makes this Yiddish epic an American Jewish poem.

Lawrence Rosenwald, in “On Glatshteyn’s Sacco...


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