Sifting Through Assimilation’s Wreckage to Offer Jews Redirection
by Kevin Coval
Haymarket Books, 2013
For over a decade, Chicago-based poet and educator Kevin Coval has wielded language as both cutlass and compass in the struggle for social justice. Coming to national prominence through multiple appearances on HBO’s Def Poetry, Coval has taken his place in a pantheon of contemporary writers and orators whose work is informed by a conviction not only in art’s ability to make tangible the most pressing of social crises, but also in its capacity to inspire action for remedying those ills. Coval likewise belongs to a generation of U.S. poets whose aesthetics are molded by a rich connection to their cultural heritage and an unbridled love and respect for hip-hop as community and creative form.
As a self-identified white Jewish participant in hip-hop, an artistic movement birthed and principally populated by people of color, Coval has forthrightly tackled issues of race, place, and responsibility in his writing. He’s unpacked and interrogated his and other whites’ identification with and personal empowerment through an arts practice that, at least in its infancy, offered a scathing criticism of structural racism and white American complicity in it. Along the way, and indeed as an essential component of the political project underscoring his literary practice, Coval has critically engaged questions of U.S. Jewish identity and collectivity, both celebrating the contributions of Jewish activists to U.S. civic discourse and calling the Jewish American body to task for what he sees as a far-too-frequent alignment with state power, a tragic abandonment of Jewish ethics and social consciousness.
Schtick, Coval’s fourth full-length poetry collection, proves to be his most comprehensive engagement with issues of Jewishness to date. In it, he thoroughly explores his own family’s relationship to the evolving status and perception of Jews in U.S. life, the complex legacy of Jewish American artists and entertainers in the twentieth century, the charged terrain of black-Jewish relations, and, most prominently, the profound, often overlooked price of Jewish assimilation into America’s so-called melting pot. Alternately hilarious and haunting, Schtick asserts in no uncertain terms that the U.S. Jewish community’s seeming success at the dawn of the twenty-first century hides a history of surrender to the very power structures by which it was once outcast, and that this history is in need of rigorous review if Jews are to adequately understand their role in U.S. life and reclaim the spirit of resistance once so central to their shared identity.
Though Coval is occasionally derided by mainstream Jewish American establishments for his unabashed criticisms of Israel and its U.S.-based lobby, one could easily argue that his politics and poetic defiance in fact embody the best of the Jewish prophetic tradition. His own belief in the inherent Jewishness of his iconoclastic confrontations surfaces early on in Schtick, namely in the poem “ben,” a clever yet painful skewering of his generation’s Jewish elders. This poem plays on the Hebrew term for “son” to question the normalization of oppressive behavior among the literal and figurative descendents of formerly persecuted Jews. Transitioning from opening lines that explore his own father’s entrapment in “american capitalism,” Coval writes:
into white-ness. ben skin
privilege and passing. ben
nation state. ben/t borders
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
who refuse health care. ben
bankers who disallow self-
determination. ben jews
on beaches. the sun only
for ben passports. other
sons unable to pass ports
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
ben fathers who were
pushed around themselves.
ben the bullied begat sons
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Cohen, Raphael. Sifting Through Assimilation’s Wreckage to Offer Jews Redirection. Tikkun 29(1): 47.