Page 36 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 15

Basic HTML Version

well, whom? One could mention many names, but one always
comes back to the name of Israel Zangwill, author, among numer­
ous poems, of “Israel,” “Yigdal,” “Adon Olam,” and “A Taber­
nacle Thought.” But lovely as some of these are, especially the
first two, one can hardly call them truly memorable, in the sense
that Heine’s “Princess Sabbath” is memorable. Alas, one cannot
deny that the most moving poems in English about Jews have
been written by non-Jews: Milton and Browning, Isaac Watts and
Owen Meredith.
The same has been more or less true in the United States.
Poems such as John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Two Rabbins,”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Jewish Cemetery at New­
port,” and Oliver Wendell Holmes’s “At the Pantomime,” are
more Jewish and better as sheer poetry than dozens of superficially
Jewish poems written by American Jews. Many American Jews
have written poetry, and some of their poems have dealt with
Jewish themes. But it is difficult to recall even a few of these
poems that have the true Jewish spirit, that magnificent, inde­
scribable combination of song and sorrow, despondency and pride,
bitter despair and limitless confidence. The Louis Untermeyers
and Arthur Guitermans and Babette Deutsches, the Robert
Nathans and Samuel Hoffensteins, the Karl Shapiros and Elias
Liebermans and Newman Levys have considerable talent, but, as
the Rev. Dr. David de Sola Pool has said, they “only rarely touch
on a Jewish theme or write out of a Jewish heart.” Most of them
are “Broadway Jews” or
Bohemian Jews. They know a
few Yiddish words, but the whole Jewish tradition is chiefly an
unconscious burden to them; they are almost totally ignorant of it,
hence it is alien to them even as an influence. One of them, Karl
Shapiro, a Pulitzer Prize poet, has even boasted, “I have nothing
to offer in the way of beliefs . . . I try to write freely, one day as a
Christian, the next as a Jew.”
Such spiritual obtuseness could not, of course, be ascribed to
Emma Lazarus, who wrote better poems than “The Colossus,”
which is inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, or to
Penina Moise and Adah Isaacs Menken, two other American
Jewesses who wrote poems about Jews. Yet even they were hardly
major poets, for there hovered over their verse what might be
called a forced intimacy with Jewishness rather than an outpouring
of Jewishness so deeply ingrained as to be subconscious. In other
words, their poems came, so to speak, from the top of the heart,
not from its innermost secret chambers.
One of the pleasant aspects of Jewish-American poetry of recent
times is the large number of creditable verses written by rabbis.