Susan Schweik: On "(To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)"

"To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century" enacts most powerfully the struggle of the body and for belief:

To be a Jew in the twentieth century Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse, Wishing to be invisible, you choose Death of the spirit, the stone insanity. Accepting, take full life. Full agonies: Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood Of those who resist, fail, and resist: and God Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment. Not alone the still Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh. That may come also. But the accepting wish, The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee For every human freedom, suffering to be free, Daring to live for the impossible.

The significance of this poem’s representation of Jewish experience at a time when the great majority of American volumes of war poems ignored the Holocaust cannot, I think, be overemphasized. "To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century offers a profound extension and reformulation of the terms of the other poems in the "Letter [to the Front]" sequence and of the terms of Western war poetry and dominant American home-front culture. Stressing the active work of Judaism, it reworks the traditional rhetoric of election: Jews are people who must choose to be the chosen people. Giving new substance to the word "belief" which has cropped up so frequently in "Letter [to the Front]," it represents that belief as rooted and exemplified in Jewish cultural and spiritual tradition. Its figure of the gift which is also torment refigures conventional imagery of war’s exchanges; external battles and written, distant correspondences are replaced by an inward, invisible offering, an internal struggle to acknowledge and live by one’s identity and one’s principles. Finally, not least, "To Be a Jew" adds another dimension to the front which this "Letter to the Front" redefines, reminding us that in 1944 not only soldiers bore marks, scars, and wounds or capacities of vision and resistance.

There is a body at the center of "Letter to the Front." It is a Jew’s body. And, in this war poem . . . it is a woman’s body. "Letter to the Front"’s strongest revision of the tradition of war poetry and war letters lies here: the great questions of that tradition -- if, why, how the body should be or will be put to use, put in danger, for the sake of belief -- are claimed as questions, necessary and inevitable, for supposed "non-combatants."

[Susan Schweik, A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women’s Poetry of the Second World War (Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 169-170.]


Title Susan Schweik: On "(To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Susan Schweik Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 24 May 2016
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War
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