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On "To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century"


Susan Schweik

"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.]


Janet Kaufman

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).

from "'But Not in the Study': Writing as a Jew" in "How Shall We Tell Each Other of the Poet?": The Life and Writing of Muriel Rukeyser. Ed. Anne F. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999. Copyright 1999 by Anne E. Herzog and Janet E. Kaufman.


Ellen McWhorter

In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (1992), by Shoshana Felman and psychoanalyst Dori Laub, Felman writes:

The contemporary writer often dramatizes the predicament (whether chosen or imposed, whether conscious or unconscious) of a voluntary or of an unwitting, inadvertent, and sometimes involuntary witness: witness to a trauma, to a crime or to an outrage; witness to a horror or an illness whose effects explode any capacity for explanation or rationalization.

In some cases, she goes on to explain, a witness will be one of only a handful of survivors who have in their lives experienced firsthand a human tragedy of the degree of WWII's concentration camps and lived to talk about it, and for that reason must bear a marked solitude ("isolation" in Rukeyser's poem) alongside a marked responsibility. "To bear witness," Felman writes, "is to bear the solitude of a responsibility, and to bear the responsibility, precisely of that solitude." Oftentimes, this means to bear the responsibility of telling their tale of survival, and by extension, the responsibility to speak for those who no longer can. To put this another way, in order to speak, witnesses mark themselves as exceptions. While the witness herself is defined as such by her status of solitude (that is, by her status as a sole survivor), the act of testifying can bring about a broad range of important repercussions for those whom she addresses. Felman offers: "By virtue of the fact that the testimony is addressed to others, the witness, from within the solitude of his own stance, is the vehicle of an occurrence, a reality, a stance or a dimension beyond himself."

With this model of testimony in mind, we can find at the heart of Muriel Rukeyser's "(To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)" (1944) a debate over--and between--the solitude and responsibility of a survivor. Rukeyser's poem does not announce itself to be situated within a particular national context, but we can imagine that the testimony of a person practicing Judaism in mid-twentieth century Germany resounds differently than the testimony of a young American practicing Judaism in the latter half of the twentieth century. In the first case, the testimony comes from a survivor who witnessed Hitler's campaign to exterminate everyone of the Jewish faith (or race, depending on which theorist you read), and who successfully avoided this extermination him/herself. In the second case, the testimony perhaps carries more weight as proof that Hitler failed and Jewish lineages still propagated after the war. In any case, despite the explicit qualification in the first line of the poem that what comes next takes as it foundation the fact that the subject being discussed IS Jewish, Rukeyser's speaker muses over taking the "gift" of Jewishness and rejecting the "gift" of Jewishness. It seems to me that these musings may be read as questions of testimony.

Throughout the poem, Rukeyser keeps the meaning of "gift" eclipsed by the many internal states brought about by its acceptance or rejection by a Jewish subject. The origin of refusal, she makes clear, is the desire "to be invisible" (ln 3). Here we might remember Felman's argument that to act as a witness means, one the one hand, to mark oneself out as an exception, that is, to draw attention to a subject position that is somehow painfully "different," even if ultimately reparative. We can surmise that the threat of this positioning is exactly what would cause the subject being discussed in "(To be a Jew)" to wish for invisibility in the first place. Yet, refusal of the gift carries negative consequences: "death of the spirit, the stone insanity" (ln 4). In terms of Jewish testimony, a silent witness corresponds, in a sense, to Hitler's partially successful extermination of Jewishness. One cannot assert success against him, nor can one speak from a witnessing subject position from a point of
invisibility. And when one neglects to "bear the responsibility" of witness--by my reading, to refuse the gift--one ensures the more wholesale internal isolation and solitude imaged in the poem as "death of the spirit" and "stone insanity."

Acceptance of the gift causes its own special set of torments. According to Felman's theoretical model, testimony entails remembering and attempting to put into words horrors of an impossible scale. Rukeyser writes that acceptance of the gift is acceptance of "evening[s] deep in labyrinthine blood/ Of those who resist, fail, and resist" (lns 6-7). These are no doubt insufferably painful memories, intentionally conjured as a result of the gift, whether put into words and told to a non-witness or not. Moreover, acceptance of the gift may result in its own form of "isolation" (discussed above in the context of Felman's work) or--further--"torture of the flesh" (ln 10). As we well know, to be a Jew (and especially to make Jewishness known in the public sphere) in 1944 was to risk violent, residual WWII racism, no matter the country one inhabited. Nevertheless, according to the speaker of Rukeyser's poem, the totality of the negative consequences of accepting the gift do not outweigh the hope and spiritual wholeness engendered by acceptance. If I can invoke Felman's argument one last time, it might be possible to complement Rukeyser's cryptic final word on the matter of being a Jew in twentieth century ("impossibility") with Felman's discussion of the redemptive quality of testimony. Felman writes of testimony as "the vehicle of an occurrence, a reality, a stance or a dimension beyond [the witness]," and infuses this definition with the spirit of a counter-force to internal suffering in/and isolation. It is a "whole and fertile spirit" writes Rukeyser, who "[dares] to live for the impossible." Only the act of testimony offers to a witness the possibility of moving through the isolation and solitude of witnessing, Felman offers. Perhaps then testimony is a "guarantee/ For every human freedom" (lns 12-13)contingent, of course, on acceptance of Rukeyser's mysterious "gift," which I have suggested, of course, can itself be read as the acceptance or refusal to testify.

Copyright 2001 Ellen McWhorter


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