for poetry month (why april, by the way? ‘the cruelest month’? ‘with his shoures soote’? please.), here’s the text of a talk by irena klepfisz – a fantastic poet in yiddish, english, and both at once, as well as an insightful essayist and deeply committed radical – from a 2006 conference at barnard college called “Jewish Women Changing America: Cross-Generational Conversations”. at the bottom is a poem from one of klepfisz’s books. a complete transcript of the “Changing Culture” panel that klepfisz spoke on (and the rest of the conference) is available online here.

Irena Klepfisz:

I think it’s one of the great achievements. I think it’s wonderful that Bridges is able to last this long and have this wonderful reward where they actually just edit and Indiana just publishes it. They just have to do the battles.

I don’t trust myself these days to talk ad-lib, so I’m going to read a statement that I wrote.

There was a time when Yiddish criticism had only one aesthetic criteria, and by which a work of art was judged. A criterion embodied in the question, “Is it good for the Jews?? If it was, well, then it was good art. A work of art was good for the Jews if it didn’t reinforce Jewish stereotypes, fan flames of anti- Semitism, and if, in general, it showed Jews in the best light possible. In short, Jewish artists were supposed to be the unofficial image protectors of the Jewish people.

Contemporary Yiddish criticism has almost completely abandoned this fear that Jews must always be careful and make sure that what we say and do won’t be a shonda far di goyim, a disgrace in front of the gentiles.

But as “ordinary users? of art—I couldn’t think of a better term—Jews, on the whole, have not moved far away enough from this aesthetic. To cite a famous Yiddish phrase or saying [speaks in Yiddish – now, why couldn’t the conference folks ask for the words, or at least try to transcribe them?], the question itself—?Is it good for the Jews??—remains as problematic as it ever was, since there’s not much agreement on exactly what is good for the Jews.

One of the most destructive and sad effects of maintaining this aesthetic, which, by the way, is a deeply political one that supports the status quo, is that it robs the viewer or the reader of the opportunity and deep pleasure of responding spontaneously and directly with a work of art.

I have seen this operate in the classroom. I have taught Jewish women’s studies courses all over the country—California, Michigan, North Carolina, Vermont and now, at Barnard—and repeatedly, I have faced Jewish students who are afraid of engaging directly with the text. The first questions about a work are not, Does it move me? If so, what is its power, its art? Does it make me see the world and Jews with new eyes? Does it show me something about my own life, or someone else’s life that I had not known before? Instead of these questions, I hear, What will non-Jews think about this? Why doesn’t this novel portray a typical Jew or a happy Jewish family? Won’t this just feed anti-Semitism and show how mean and ugly Jews are?

Art is dangerous material to these Jews. And one of our many challenges as teachers of Jewish texts, as well as those of us who teach the creation of those texts, is to address this Jewish response to Jewish art. History and personal experience as a Jew and as an artist has shown me that what is dangerous or uglier and not good for the Jews today can become the everyday and the norm ten years later. Sometimes 100 years later.

And so, very reluctantly over the years, I have tried to aspire towards patience, both as an activist, a teacher, an artist. But artists by nature are not patient. And certainly, as a poet, I have shamelessly yearned for recognition, especially recognition from my community of origin.

This has been granted to me only in parts. I say, in parts, because I am aware how compartmentalized responses to Jewish artists can be. We revere what you have to say about the Holocaust experience: good for the Jews. We like what you have to say about Yiddish, in Yiddish: also, not so bad for the Jews. We’re “take it or leave it? about work and class: not really relevant to the Jews. We don’t like so much that stuff about feminism and lesbianism, but it’s okay. We really hate what you have to say about Israel and the Palestinians: very bad for the Jews. And we despise what you say about the politicization of the Holocaust: really bad for the Jews.

Of course, such compartmentalization occurs in the Jewish reader, and not in me. I can, in the same poem, use Yiddish and talk about lesbians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with total ease. In my mind, there are no compartments or boundaries. They are all connected because I have internalized them. As a Jewish poet, I need to reaffirm that unity or connection whenever I write. I have to dampen my desire for the pat on the head from my community, even my alternative community. As a Jewish artist, I need to struggle with what I believe to be true for Jews and for others, rather than what is good for Jews only.

In doing so, I don’t assume I’m infallible. I expect and want to be challenged. I want to be a part of a culture of debate where art does what has always done—at least, good art—which is confront the status quo, rudely, crudely, sometimes very unmusically. And what I also want is to have a reader who reads my words not through the eyes of some never-to-be-rehabilitated anti-Semite, but rather, who reads them through her open mind and her open heart.

[further throughts during the question/answer period]

I’m sort of stumped about what to say. One of the things that we should maybe think about is, Who is invested in this dialogue not taking place? What is the payoff for this silence within the Jewish community? We never think about that. In some ways, tragically, Jews have a history of being pawns in various situations. And to some degree, that’s playing a part in this conflict, because I’m not very optimistic about officially Jewish institutions allowing this dialogue to take place, either through cultural events or just very openly and directly on the issue itself.

There’s a reason for that. And we have to really look at it in a much larger context than just within the Jewish community. There’s some kind of payoff here, for us not being able to resolve this conflict, even if there is an absurdity about it. That it’s gone on this long, that it’s been this bloody. And it doesn’t look to me very optimistic about the future. Like I said in my talk, I think we compartmentalize to such a degree that we divorce ourselves from being able to even see connections between issues.

You’re allowed to talk about this, but you can’t talk about that. I want to give a personal example: I was invited, a number of years ago, to do a reading someplace, in an academic setting. There was a Judaic studies teacher there who I learned was very interested in my poetry on the Holocaust and wanted to read with me. I said, fine, let’s do a reading together. You bring in your people, I’ll bring in my people; it will be a good event. Then I got the message that that would be great, except he had to ask me not to mention Israel. And I thought, here’s somebody who taught my work, he discussed my work, and he put that kind of a condition on my appearing at this university?

Of course, I said no. I ended up reading alone. But it was very interesting to me that somebody who could take these poems and not take these poems, could be so strict in separating things out, when in fact, how could you talk about Israel and not talk about the Holocaust? The connections are very important. And we need to learn to make the connections. I don’t know, this is not ending anywhere, but I’m going to stop.

[a poem included in the conference website]

’67 Remembered

From A Few Words in the Mother Tongue by Irena Klepfisz

for Khane

In ’67 you visited with your sister.
I was in Chicago. Richard Speck had just murdered
seven nurses. We were scared. The war was only
a few days over and everyone said
how well you and Gitl looked. Who would
have thought you’d just come
from a war-torn country
dressed chic in late ’60s fashion
smiling easy relaxed
confident the worst was over?
I still have the photographs.

How different that war
from that other in your life:
Siberia the Germans at your heels
your father chopping tress in the forest.
You learned Russian in the street
spoke Yiddish at home wrote Polish
in the segregated schools. You were
a linguist at eight ready to master
even more tongues for the sake of survival.

But in ’67 you’d already mastered
it all. You were so relaxed so easy.
It was a joke this war despite
the casualties. It was a joke
how relaxed you were.

And wasn’t I too? Weren’t we all?
Didn’t we all glow from it
our sense of power finally achieved?
The quickness of the action
the Biblical routes
and how we laughed over
Egyptian shoes in the sand
how we laughed at another people’s fear
as if fear was alien
as if we had known safety all our lives.

And the Bank?
I don’t remember it mentioned
by any of us.
We were in Chicago – it was hard to imagine.
But twenty years later
I hear how they picked up what they could
place it on their backs
how they marched through the hills
sparse coarse grass pink and yellow flowers
rough rocks defying cultivation
how they carried clumsy packs
clothing utensils images of a home
they might never see again.
A sabra told me who watched
their leaving as she sat safe
in an army jeep: it looked no different than the newsreels at school
of French Belgian roads. It was simple
she said: people were fleeing and
we egged them on.

Time passes. Everything changes.
We see things differently.
In ’67 you had not married yet and we all
wondered why never worrying about
marriage laws or rabbinic power.

And now more than 20 years later
you live in Jerusalem ruling
from your lacquered kitchen and sit
in that dream house trapped:
enough food in your mouth
in your children’s and enough warm things
for winter (coats shoes woolen stockings
good for Siberia)
and there’s no way out no one to call
about a bad marriage. It’s simple:
a woman without bruises
your lawyer says there’s not much hope
and you accept it:
I can’t say I’m happy but
I’ve got a truce.

Things fester. We compromise.
We wake up take new positions
to suit new visions failed dreams
We change. Power does not so much corrupt
as blur the edges
so we no longer feel the raw fear
that pounds in the hearts
of those trapped and helpless.
In ’67 in Chicago we though we’d be safe
locking the windows til Speck was caught.
We did not know there was a danger
in us as well that we must remain vigilant
and open not to power
but to peace.