- Like a Dark Rabbi: Modern Poetry and the Jewish Literary Imagination by Norman Finkelstein
I'd like to get away from earth awhileAnd then come back to it and begin over.May no fate willfully misunderstand meAnd half grant what I wish and snatch me awayNot to return. Earth's the right place for love:I don't know where it's likely to go better.I'd like to go by climbing a birch treeAnd climb black branches up a snow-white trunkToward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,But dipped its top and set me down again.That would be good both going and coming back.One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.—"Birches" (1914) by Robert Frost
Beginning a Shofar review on Jewish poet and literary scholar Norman Finkelstein's Like A Dark Rabbi with "Birches," Robert Frost's chestnut about a boy swinging on a branch in the woods? Really? Can a goyish pastoral pass as Jewish poetry? After reading Finkelstein, who argues Jewish poetry represents ambivalence toward the realms of earth and sky, I now think Frost, the New Hampshire woodsman who depicted purportedly un-Jewish tasks like chopping wood, mowing hay, and picking apples, may don the Dark Rabbi mantel. Think of "Mending Wall" as Frost's crypto-cabbalistic take on tikkun olam. Align "Acquainted with the Night" with Finkelstein's reading of Hugh Seidman and Michael Heller, Dark [End Page 319] Rabbis who, like Frost, convey uncertainty, rupture, and loss. With its representation of a boy swinging "towards heaven," but wanting to land because Earth is the "right place for love," Frost's "Birches" prefigures the work of Jewish-born authors like Chana Bloch's "Furniture," which, Finkelstein writes, "intertwines the divine and the domestic, the cosmic and the ordinary: the thunder in heaven is like moving furniture" (144). Finkelstein attends to poets who signify Jewishness when they embrace liminality. Heller, paradoxically, regards "between" as "foundational" and diaspora as a "new kind of homeland" (114). (An exception would be Allen Grossman, who defined holiness as contingent on acts of separation; Heller sees holiness as "revealed at the heart of the secular" .) Describing Heller's "Ode to the Sky on the Esplanade of the New" as a "Buddhist Ode to the West Wind," Finkelstein notes how Heller modulates from "transcendental heights to a poetics grounded in history" (123). Jewish ritual, quotidian action, and an appreciation of language as a crucial form of mediation between persons and realms of experience inform Heller's poetry to the point "no one can safely say where the sacred leaves off [and] where the profane begins" (123).
The phrase "Like a Dark Rabbi," from the Pennsylvania Dutch-bred modernist Wallace Stevens's "Le Monocle de Mon Oncle" (1918), by itself indicates Finkelstein's open mind about who can write a Jewish poem. Like other philosemites such as Robert Duncan and Joseph Donahue, whose poetry Finkelstein treats in his study, Stevens is not a Jew by birth, ethnicity, or religious practice. In fact, as biographer Paul Mariani writes, Stevens was xenophobic and antisemitic. Nonetheless, Stevens expresses a "fascination and strong affinity with Jewish spirituality and Jewish texts" (222). In "Auroras of Autumn," for example, he writes of "that crown and mystical cabala" (162). Finkelstein's interpretation of Stevens, Duncan, and Donahue as practitioners of a Jewish poetics turns on his definition of rabbi as an Emersonian scholar. Describing Stevens as a "seeker of occult wisdom" (226) who views "imagination as emanation" (231), Finkelstein places him "somewhere between, if not beyond, the religious and the secular" (226). Like Frost's speaker in "Birches," Stevens is a rabbi because he seeks extraterrestrial wisdom "for human purposes" (223). [End Page 320] Regarding "Auroras of Autumn" as imagining a "post-religious space of redemption," Finkelstein aligns Stevens with Jewish-born poets ranging from objectivists such as Charles Reznikoff and George Oppen to the contemporary formalist Henry Weinfield to Bloch, the Israeli anti-Zionist author and...