Page 35 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 15

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h a r l e s
ng o f f
HEREVER I lecture on Jewish-American literature I am
asked for lists of good novels and collections of short
stories. I am glad to comply and have no difficulty in giving my
audiences, at once, a score or two score of worthy titles. Sometimes
I am asked for the titles of good histories of Jewish-American life,
or even readable monographs, and I also oblige. In this instance,
however, I have to take more time, since the supply in this depart­
ment is meagre and contains several works that are more ambitious
than truly enlightening. But now and then I am asked for the
titles of genuinely good books of Jewish-American poetry — usu­
ally it’s a young woman who does the asking — and I am stumped.
I mention a volume or two, a name or two, but I hardly know what
else to say. There is, of course, more to say, but, frankly, not
very much. When, way back in 1940, the late Dr. Ludwig Lewi-
sohn dismissed all Jewish-American poetry, with the exception of
the work of Abraham M. Klein, as of no consequence, I thought
he was too harsh and needlessly “negativist.” Now I begin to
fear that, as in so many other matters, Dr. Lewisohn told the
simple truth.
This great lack in our cultural life presents a baffling problem.
The Jews are not merely the People of the Book; they are also the
People of the Song — of the Psalms, of the Song of Songs and of
all the biblical stories, which are really prose-poems. The whole
Bible is one tremendous poem of profound meaning and unending
delight. Jewish religious life is saturated with song. Every prayer
is a melody; every Jewish act of devotion is embroidered with
tunefulness. And yet this truly fabulous gift, which seems to be
an integral part of the very chromosomes of the Jewish people,
appears, at least so far, to have skipped over some Jews in the
post-Exilic world, and especially over the English-speaking Jews.
The Russian Jews who wrote in Hebrew before the first World
War, gave us Bialik and Tchernichovsky, to mention only two
names that come to mind at once, and the Russian Jews who
wrote in Yiddish gave us Abraham Reisen and Yehoash and Mani
Leib and many others. The German Jews have given us Heine,
and the Spanish Jews Judah Halevi and Solomon Ibn Gabirol.
But the Jews speaking and writing in English have given us —