Page 278 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 39

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At that time the Second World War had begun, and the Jews in
Europe were being persecuted. Our family had a number of
relatives in southern Russia. My grandmother knew these people
— in the 1930’s she had travelled to Russia and visited her rela­
tives. She continued to write to them and assist them in any way
she could, for they were not rich people. But now, in the early
1940’s, the news that came out of Russia was ominous. When the
war covered that part of the world there was silence. As one o f my
poems says,
The village
and all who dwelled therein
have been swept from theface of the earth.
As I have said, I had no formal Jewish education, unless read­
ing the Old Testament in English can be thought of as an educa­
tion. At the school I attended in Jamaica we were required to read
the Old Testament as well as the New, and the psalms o f David,
translated into English, became a part of my thinking. To this day
the imagery of desert and rocky places presents itself to my mind’s
eye as though it were my native ground. I do not need to be told
how the Jews lived three thousand years ago — I understand the
despair of the people in the Wilderness better than I understand
their lives in the suburbs. My reading o f the Old Testament,
before I knew that I was a Jew, gave me a love of the solitudes in
which the God of the ancient tribes appeared and spoke.
I suspect that my ideas about the Jews are too much influenced
by my own feeling of solitude as a child, my longing for some
power that would arrive from outside, do something spectacular
and awe-inspiring, and set everything right. The lives o f Ameri­
can Jews, especially those who live comfortably, have little in
common with my vision of a wilderness in which a tribe wanders,
following a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.
During the Second World War the Jews suffered again as they
had under the Pharaohs, and their fate was even more terrible.
But though I could imagine what the Jews in Europe suffered,
this did not increase my understanding o f Jewish life. The Jew
who observes Jewish customs and keeps the Sabbath and the
religious holidays knows far more than I about the meaning of
Judaism. To wander in a desert or die in a concentration camp is
not the definition o f a Jew. The object of living for the Jew, as for