What Makes a Poem Jewish?

Cover of The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry.The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry
edited by Deborah Ager and M.E. Silverman
Bloomsbury Academic, 2013

What makes a given poet a Jewish poet? It may be stories about Hebrew school and holidays, memories of the shtetl or the Lower East Side. It may be a focus on ethics rooted in the prophetic tradition, or mysticism rooted in the Kabbalah. It may be an engagement with political issues pertaining to Israel and the peace process. Whatever it is, read a selection of a poet’s work and the Jewish aspects usually cohere into some kind of pattern.

But what constitutes Jewish poetry? Round up a large enough sample of different writers, and any of the above elements may start to cancel or contradict one another. Any observation you can make, the opposite is also likely to be true. Factor in a scattered set of allegiances to different schools of poetry or different styles of writing, and it becomes almost impossible to separate Jewish poetry from the main currents of poetry in general.

Deborah Ager and M.E. Silverman, the editors of The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, have chosen to present a broad selection and let the contradictions speak for themselves. “We wanted to share distinctly Jewish American voices,” they explain in the introduction, “which include second-generation Jews, converts, those who’ve made aliyah, and others. We included poems that both do and do not focus on Jewish themes, and we did that to convey the breadth and depth of Jewish personhood.”

The book covers writers born after 1945, which excludes many of the twentieth century’s best-known Jewish poets (Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, Alicia Ostriker, Robert Pinksy, et al.). The focus is on more contemporary voices, offering a vision of where Jewish American poetry may be headed in the early twenty-first century. But that vision is not entirely in focus, due to the wide internal variations of the book.

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