Janet Kaufman: "(To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)"

Rukeyser's first published poetic lines reflecting on the meaning of being Jewish emerge in a Petrarchan sonnet in her ten-poem sequence "Letter to the Front" (1944), which confronts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Searching for a way to respond to these wars specifically as a woman and a poet, the sequence opens with a visionary declaration: "Women and poets see the truth arrive" (OS 61). Progressing through the sequence, Rukeyser imagines the influence women could have by responding to war and beckons for their "Involvement in the world." Finally, she concludes by imagining the heroic efforts of resistance fighters that began with "signs of belief" and offered hope; her poem, a letter to the front, becomes an effort to return the favor of those signs: "As I now send you, for a beginning. praise" ( OS 68).

Giving no hint of itself earlier in the sequence, the seventh poem of the sequence. a sonnet, announces itself with a proclamation: "To be a Jew in the twentieth century / Is to be offered a gift." (OS 65). Imagine writing these lines at the apex of the Nazi genocide. In a poem-letter addressing women in general and herself as a poet—and indirectly addressing her lover, Otto Boch, who had died fighting in the Spanish resistance—why did she abruptly insert this declaration? What could she have meant by it, and why would she write it as a Petrarchan sonnet, the ultimate form for the love poem? The octet continues:

                                  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. (OS 65)

The "gift," these lines make clear, is not offered unconditionally; the price of refusing it is "death of the spirit." Accepting it, however, means knowingly accepting "full agonies," willingly stepping into "labyrinthine blood." She invokes centuries of persecution against Jews with these words, as well as the

courage and persistence of Jews who resisted persecution throughout history. Her words also disturbingly echo the appellation of God in Jewish liturgy—"King of Kings" or "Host of Hosts"—when they claim that accepting "full agonies" also means facing a history with God fallen, reduced to "hostage among hostages." This was 1944.

The sestet of the poem rescues, offers hope, even while it equates the gift with torment:

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 "torment" evokes not only the physical suffering inflicted by a history of oppression, but the mental torture of hoping for freedom and peace that, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War and World War II described in "Letter to the Front," seems impossible. The "accepting wish" torments because it dares and tethers one to a life of resistance and risk-taking. Rukeyser's language evokes the covenant between God and the Israelites at Sinai, contingent upon the Israelites, and all succeeding generations, accepting it. When Moses says to the people, "Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, even us, who are all here alive today" (Deut. 5:3), the people respond: "We will hear it and do it" (5:24). To accept the gift is to accept a binding responsibility, but a responsibility that liberates, making the impossible possible. Many have argued that the notion of the covenant distinguishes the Jewish people and Jewish history; Rukeyser seizes on this idea in her sonnet: the gift of Judaism is a binding relation to God, history, and the future. With the seed of this idea in an essay earlier in her career, Rukeyser had written, "To me, the value of my Jewish heritage, in life and in writing, is its value as a guarantee" ("Under Forty" 9).

Although, ostensibly, one can accept or deny the contract posited in the sonnet, choice does not seem viable. As the octet declares, not to accept the gift, if one is born a Jew, is to be invisible, to blind one perhaps even to oneself. Rukeyser published these lines in a time not only when Jews were being annihilated in Europe but when, in America, Jews were striving to assimilate rapidly into mainstream American society. Given that, in childhood, Rukeyser found her parents' temple bereft of meaning and that she remained distant from organized Judaism, the fact that both the American Reform and Reconstructionist movements adopted "To Be a Jew" into their prayer books "astonished" her. "One feels that one has been absorbed into the line and it's very good" (Packard 122). Much of Rukeyser's poetry displays these conventional qualities of prayer: praise, supplication, argument, dialogue, and risk. We see this, for instance, at the end of "Nine Poems for the unborn child" (1948): "praise / To the grace of the world and time that I may hope / To live, to write, to see my human child" (OS 78), or in "The Poem as Mask" (1968): "Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand, / the fragments join in me with their own music" (RR 213). Prayer entails a spiritual risk of participating in a conversation that offers no certainty of response; writing to and trusting so emphatically in poetic language, Rukeyser creates a listener, drawing upon poetry as prayer as a way to "live for the impossible." When she asserts in "Notes for a Poem," early on in her first volume, Theory of Flight, that the poem offers "a plough of thought to break this stubborn ground" (CP 11), she harkens back to Isaiah's injunction: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks" (2:4). While Rukeyser's sonnet in "Letter to the Front" emphasizes the liturgical qualities of her poetry, it also defines Judaism as a source of courage to break through the silences that perpetuate injustice.

Rukeyser reinforces this idea in an essay published the same year as the sonnet "To be a Jew," in a collection entitled "Under Forty: A Symposium on American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews" in the Contemporary Jewish Record. The editors of this symposium wanted to know whether the writer's position as artist and citizen had been "modified . . . by the revival of anti-Semitism as a powerful force in the political history of our time." Among the essays, Rukeyser's was the only one insisting on the interwovenness and interdependence of her various identities. Elaborating on her theme of Judaism as a gift, Rukeyser wrote about her sense of her Jewish heritage as a guarantee: "Once one's responsibility as a Jew is really assumed, one is guaranteed, not only against fascism, but against many kinds of temptation to close the spirit" (9).


Title Janet Kaufman: "(To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Anne F. Herzog, Janet E. Kaufman Criticism Target Muriel Rukeyser
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication But Not in the Study': Writing as a Jew
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

No Data
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media