MY JEWISH QUESTION: ON IDENTITY AND EDITING

BY ERIKA JO BROWN

 

My Jewish question is more of an answer to a question that needn’t be asked.

One of my co-editors is especially keen on soliciting and publishing poetry in translation. Another person, who presents as an ally, once told me, straight in the face, that the reason for this poetic proclivity can be explained away by the fact that said co-editor is a bleeding heart from South Africa.

This is not because of the diversity of languages regularly spoken there. Of which, by the way, there are 11, officially—Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

I was left to infer something about Apartheid and white guilt, I suppose, an inference that insults my co-editor’s agency over his own preferences, and emits acrid wafts of tokenism towards the works we’d accepted. It was tacitly saying that, had a different editor been chosen, with a different background, the journal would be taking other pieces, more “mainstream” or “normal” poems maybe.

Again, “normal” is to be inferred from this verbal legerdemain. As an academic in 23rd grade, I’ve been trained that “mainstream” poets are defined as those who win awards, are white males, and operate in a lyrical or narrative mode.

I’m not sure I agree with that estimate entirely, but I was left to fill the negative space, so I did the best I could. I’ve seen plenty of terrible award-winning experimental poetry by white people. In fact, I’ve seen all kinds of poetry in many permutations. My ear and presumably other body parts lead me in my own taste.

Must there be a reason for the work we choose as editors? If one doesn’t have a stated ethos, evidently one will be named for you.

Here is where I place an enormous hedge of neighborly privacy. I’m a poet, and while I devour think-pieces and all manner of nonfiction on this and others topics, I’m uncomfortable staking a claim that reflects my own preferences and that of the journal generally. Yes, I’m in the academy, which coaches students to make a claim. As a comp teacher, I coach my students to make a claim. Maybe I’m a wuss, hiding beyond the ambiguity and velocity of my poems. So be it.

But I understand that editing is a public practice. It’s an act of gatekeeping. Furthermore, it is one way to consider literary activism, not necessarily as an overt gesture, but with a stake in institutionalized power. We are experiencing tumult in this country—the indiscriminate slaying of people of color by the police, weapons essentially invited to college campuses, hijab-ophobia, reckless legislature on women’s healthcare, the astounding privilege of a so-called liberal activist referring to HRC as a “bucket of vomit” and propagating reasons to vote for you-know-who instead.

I’m not saying these will be solved by literature. But a journal can present a collective of differences. And not just the much maligned, 1980’s, culture war idea of diverse “voices.” I think the LANGUAGE vs lyric debate has tidily been put to bed by now. A journal can provide different representations of meditations, outside the clamor of social media.

I decided to embark on a thought experiment. As an editor, I prioritize diversity—aesthetically, linguistically, and culturally—and energy, and an Altmanesque overlapping of voices. If pressed to make an analogy, I would explain that I typically choose poems that sound like a stroll down a street in New York, which is where I’m from and which I consider the best city in the world. It has shaped my poetic sensibilities, through its music and sense of performance.

Compelled to dig even deeper, I hit against the root of my Judaism. My Judaism indeed, because it is a very old religion, subject to waves of diaspora, and espoused idiosyncratically—and often secularly—across the world. Many tribe members cannot read our formative texts in their original languages, and, because of that and other natural progressions, have wandered entirely from its practices and rituals.

Because we can’t read the original language, some feel disenfranchised from accessing the text. The religion seems stewarded by other people. But the culture, or the sense that I identify with it, is politically vibrant, radical, full of longing.

See saudade: Portuguese for profound nostalgia for a permanent absence; tizita: Ethiopian for a blend of memory and mourning, loss and longing, an apostrophized personification; or Sehnsucht: German for intense pining mixed with the knowledge of unattainability.

I’ve wrestled (cue Jacob and the angel) with my love for certain literary underdogs. Think Dorothy Parker, Kenneth Koch, and Grace Paley, who I didn’t know when I was reading then, but know now, identified in some way as Jewish. Parker, especially, a renowned wit, highly responsive to her time, generous in her melancholy. I was not shocked, but moved that a man named Abel Meeropol wrote the song “Strange Fruit.”

When I spent a week at the Yiddish Book Center last June, it dawned on me that that gallows’ humor, that survivor’s dirge, that balls-out, ironic twisty wistfulness might be an answer to my Jewish question.

The disclaimer hardly seems necessary: I’m not suggesting that there is a Jewish-American aesthetic. Adrienne Rich’s essay about her crypto-Jewish identity, “Split at the Root,” bears no resemblance to stand-up bits of borsht belt humor. Furthermore, there are different definitions of a Jew, which stretch from secular Israeli solders to Hassids, cultish, anachronistic, soldiers of a different order.

Nor am I saying, by negation, that goyim are locked outside of the magical wit factory for life, by pain of conversion. (A Jewish conversion seems like a particularly painfully searching experience.) Edna St. Vincent Millay’s candle burning at both ends is one of my favorite economically charming and bittersweet quatrains.

As a contemporary sanctioned poetry aesthetic, humor is in a minority position. I don’t mean the diffused third-generation New York School frenzy of the unexpected, but real wit. It is often overlooked, excluded by the canon, dismissed and mislabeled as light verse.

I’m not often made aware of my own religious minority status. Racially, I am coded within the dominant culture and I benefit from this privileged position. (Let’s revisit the hows and whys of the strong Jewish-American presence in certain literary and entertainment industries in a different essay. I’ll say briefly that the most convincing theory of Jews flocking to these particular creative industries, for me, is the idea of creating parallel universes in fantasy.)

I’m reminded of my otherness in ways that catch my breath. The almost-twee cuteness in my gut response of mazel tov in response to announcements of pregnancies, promotions, moves, and marriages. My abhorrence when U.S. presidential candidates perform their Christian faith by design, as if it’s an authentic testament to character. (See Donald Trump’s reverence to “two Corinthians,” and beyond.) I find liturgical passages at weddings boring beyond belief, and not infrequently unsettling.

On a read trip last summer, my husband and I had to stop at a filling station in northern Alabama. It was plastered with red, white, and blue bumper stickers, pro-gun and anti-Muslim, and I was triggered with a Semitic ancestral fear.

I used the bathroom, bought peanut m&m’s as deliberate compensation for this service, and tried not to talk, for fear that my Jewishness might somehow surface and endanger me. It is irrational, but so are most feelings, especially ancestral ones.

Jews are a diasporatic people but “pass.” Consequently, there is a certain self-othering that occurs, bordering at times on xenophilia or a creepy automatic affinity for other others. How much relational attachments can one be expected to feel? Are American Jews distinctly intersectional?

Aren’t I personally proud of the Jewish traditions of socialism, sexual liberties, the hundred year-odd books written in Yiddish about Buddhist theology? What sort of interventions are asked of us by Hashem?

But these questions smack of exceptionalism. There are revolutionaries in China, Muslim feminists, dark humor in Chile, the ambiguity between nation, culture, and religion in desperate places, like Kashmir and South Sudan. Furthermore, literary activism is poorly defined, somewhere closer to the armchair than a downtown protest.

Which circles back to my first scruple. The personal does not dictate reader response, nor does politics. Consider the contrasting notions of essentialist representative voice and the supposed democracy of experimental writing. I’m not saying that age, gender, geography, sexual orientation, educational background, nationality, class, etc, etc, do not bear any relevance in the engagement of literature or aesthetic affiliations. I’m saying that it seems to me to be a dystopian nightmare if there’s a one-to-one relationship, barring any empathy through imagination. The infrastructure as it stands would just spawn more of the same—and that is unacceptable.

Sitting on religious-themed panel once, Leonard Cohen let out his own barbaric yawp, exhorting people who identify as Jews to abandon empty practices and instead “break their minds on the universe.” That is the task of the editor. Not paternalism, not reciprocity or anything of the sort. Just a mind, breaking through a patch of the darkness that surrounds us.

 

Erika Jo Brown is the author of the poetry collection I’m Your Huckleberry (Brooklyn Arts Press). A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she’s currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Houston where she’s the reading series curator and poetry editor for Gulf Coast. 

SMALL MIND, AMERICA

[A NOTE FROM THE EDITORS]

Every month or so, PANK will bring aboard a Guest Editor from another publication to foster dialogue and new conversation. This month, we give Brett Rawson, from The Seventh Wave, the keys to the car.


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Last fall, I went for an early morning apology around Prospect Park: a three-mile run after a night of lagers and little sleep. Afterward, I sat in the shade on a stonewall and, at the age of thirty, I ate my first pickle.

I don’t know why I went for the wasabi-brine, but as I teared up, a man roughly my age stretched balloons five feet away from two girls playing with tin mud cakes on the ground. His elbows began to twitch, which sparked an aggressive arm-wrestling match with the air until abruptly, he extended a multi-colored dog to one of the girls. She asked if it was a cat, and we were all a little disappointed, including my stomach, which was now on fire. I contemplated the healing power of blades of grass, but instead, I slipped off the cement wall and walked, bleary-eyed, through an aisle of food trucks in search for a water fountain.

I didn’t find one, so I purchased a bottle from a colorful umbrella, and when I turned around, I saw two white tents on top of a grassy hill: outside, three people in matching t-shirts stood smiling, clutching onto clipboards, while just above their heads hung a sign with two words: White Conversations.


* * *
My body froze. My mind, however, raced. The sight of white people talking to white people about white problems in wedding-like tents just outside of a sun-filled park struck me as unusual. And being on the periphery of the crowded Food Truck Rally and festive Greenmarket added to my imaginary ideas. Later that night, for example, I pictured a person, coffee cup in hand, dropping off their compost, purchasing some organic beets, and just before rushing home to feed the cat, making a pit stop at the Privilege Tent to hash out some pent-up white pressure. But in the moment, I knew this feeling of something was from somewhere else, which was enough to calm down, and when I did, I realized these were people I wanted to speak with. So I approached the tent, but not with the intent of talking to them about me, but to them about them: the upcoming issue for the online magazine I co-founded centered around race, and we happened to have a column called side conversations where we talk to individuals and organizations leading efforts related to our issue.

I told them all of this before saying hello, and when I finally took a breath, I noticed I was now being stared at, but more so, that my magazine wasn’t the only thing that has an issue talking about race. Would I like to talk inside the tent? they asked. Oh no, I said backpedaling in place, I work from noon to seven on Saturdays, to which they nodded and smiled. They handed me a card. Come back next week, they said, we’d love to talk with you. I definitely will, I said.

I never did go back for another run or talk, but ever since, I’ve thought about the combination of both: running and talking, and all the words can come in between. I wouldn’t know this until later, but the reason I didn’t talk to them is because I hadn’t yet talked to myself.


* * *
In high school, a time when my mind was consciously making sense of my surroundings, I experienced race as subject. I was at a private day school, which sat on more acres of land—seventy-five—than the number of students in my graduating class—sixty-three. We studied the history of mistakes, wrote papers about injustice, planned daylong programs to address social issues, and had a diversity club. We were a pretty fearless group, eager to embrace our environment, but when your high school looks like a college, is a ten-minute drive from Microsoft, and costs a dozen-thousand dollars a year (nowadays, that figure is triple), you are bound to create barriers through which only sameness can really enter. The majority of us were white, our families had money, and, growing up, we had grown accustomed to going wherever we wanted. The majority of us knew this then—that there was a majority, and that we were it—but when you experience race as subject, or understand diversity as an intellectual concept, you don’t study yourself as the subject of race.


* * *
We’re wrestling over the right white words. It seems to be intensifying, but then again, I am holding the magnifying glass more closely these days, so it’s hard to tell. It wasn’t until this past year that I specifically sought out novels and research related to race, and so my historical mind exists in physical proximity to the present, and trying to go back in time is like digging up the backyard of my brain. But I’ll never find anything in this mental backyard, because these issues are buried bone deep and beyond my memory. And so to dig them up, and out, I first have to come to terms with the terms themselves, which means understanding the origins and angles of the labels.

Take white privilege. The term itself doesn’t have a long history: in 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote the paper, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies.” Among many things, it outlined 46 examples of white privilege. For example, “If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.” She also wrote this: “various interlocking oppressions take two forms: an active form which can be seen; and an embedded form which members of the dominant group are taught not to see. To redesign the social system therefore requires acknowledgement of its colossal unseen dimensions.” At that first comment, I felt defensive, or fenced in, and wanted to pick back up the shovel and keep digging, but with the second, I set the shovel down, walked inside, and stood in front of the mirror.


* * *
Admit it, white people, you have white privilege.

Some have, but to mixed reactions: great start, some say; congratulations on the self-congratulation! some say; and, stop being a self-hating liberal, others say. How else could the confession come off sounding? It serves the very self that has always been the subject, and never the object, and owning up to something new to only you isn’t a solution but absolution. It is great to have gotten to recognition, but we’ve yet to get to any realizations. We’re stuck in a spider web of semantics.

Speaking of, I wonder if it has to do with our handling the word have, which frames the phrase as a portrait of physical possession, and few people want to be caught holding the upper hand or be seen stealing something that wasn’t theirs. But the very thing about privilege is that it’s in relation to someone else, which means we don’t always know when we have it, for how long we’ve had it, how we got it or how to give it back, and what exactly it even is that we have, since the thing we have is also half-about what another person doesn’t have. And so in short, it always depends, constantly changes, and never ends.

The point, perhaps, is that by this point, we usually arrive at an impasse, for precisely the what Roxanne Gay pointed out in her article “Peculiar Benefits:” “We talk about privilege with such alarming frequency and in such empty ways, we have diluted the word’s meaning.” And so when we attempt to use the word again, “it tends to fall on deaf ears because we hear that word so damn much the word has become white noise.”

And so no longer does it feel like we’re in a wrestling match, but plastic war.


* * *
When I first thought this, I assumed it was an outward one wedged between two bodies, but it is not taking place on level ground nor is it a purely physical fight: for one, the battleground is the body, but for the other, it takes place inside the mind, and only ever reaches the mouth.

I’m sure it sounds unfair to simplify such complex landscapes and realities, but when equity is the very thing at stake, we have to climb a mountain range of maybes to see anything with clarity. It takes great length to see the thin lines between life and death, promotions and unemployment, classrooms and jail cells.

Part of the complexity is that it is one-part a complex—an issue of the ego—and one-part about complexion—the way our skin is seen. White people don’t like it when things get complicated, like their complicity in something as large as systemic and institutional racism, but they also don’t like it when things get simplified, like how the color of someone’s skin can be a fatal difference. They want to continue thinking that their success and achievement are direct descendants of effort and intelligence, not an inheritance that was built upon the back of someone else. In short, they want to remain invisible, white, comfortable, and right.


* * *
I read comment threads. Sometimes, I read hundreds beneath a single article. I’ve never gone cave diving, but it is a kind of spelunk: you must jump in, and very soon, you are travelling through narrow channels of thought, and you don’t always make it out. Some people say these conversation threads are a fight to the death, and they cite psychological terms like deindividuation or experiments over anonymity, as well as the evolution and instincts of survival. I am sure a lot of this is true, but unlike their predictions, I don’t usually become enraged or engaged when I read comments. For example, a guy named Chris recently wrote: “We’re getting used to ridiculous claims by Black voices, claiming racism whenever their ilk isn’t represented enough somewhere. The race card is being pulled so often, I’m surprised it holds any credence at all anymore. I guess there will always be drama queens ready to throw their arms in the air, however ridiculous the claim. I’m still waiting for the same stupidity with regards to Nobel prize nominations, but I guess achievement is still acknowledged as necessary for that one, so they’re still holding off (for now). I don’t know how this will go down in History, but if common sense survives, it won’t be proud moment for Blacks.”

We could write this off as some vile form of dialogue, and call this person whatever name we want to, but here’s the thing: when no one is looking, this is what someone is thinking as they read an article about the Oscars that is unaggressive but written by a black woman. People ask why waste your time with these people, and I say, because they are people. Though, of course, I do fantasize about the kinds of things I would write back to Chris. For example, to his reference to “History,” I might leave this:

Chris, you should read The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter. It’s a great read. Oh yeah, Nell’s black! Enjoy the rest of the weekend. Your Ilk, Brett

I am not familiar with the idea of white privilege. I am also not the idea of white privilege. I am white privilege. This is not a confession, but a clarification. I remember days when it felt unfair, accusatory, and misplaced to be verbally blamed for something that, I felt, on many visible levels, I was not directly at fault for, nor did I personally contribute to. But it is unfair, accusatory, and misplaced to be physically blamed for something you didn’t do, which is exactly why people of every color, including white, have been speaking out.

A twelve-year-old boy played with a toy in a park. He was shot dead, his sister tackled, and his mother threatened to not move near her bleeding son. Why? Not because he was playing with a toy gun in a park. A police office would not have gunned down a white twelve-year-old boy playing with a toy gun in a park. Why? Because he would have been at a different park, protected by police, not that park, patrolled by police.


* * *
Some comments, however, have made me want to use the word fuck right next to you. For example, “the ‘white privilege’ nonsense is also a way for blacks and self-hating liberal whites to express animus toward the tremendous successes whites have achieved through their own intelligence and hard work, vis-a-vis enormous failures by most blacks in nearly every category besides sports. To even think about these enormously harmful black failures is no doubt racist unless one blames them on ‘white privilege.’” But I stopped drinking coffee, and beer for that matter, while reading these threads. And therefore, people like Frank Muse are not my anti-muse.

And in this calmer state, I’ve come to see these kinds of comments as a great, contagious flame. Sometimes, the words felt like a hand-forged fireplace poker was repeatedly jabbing me in the ribcage, but I keep my oxygen contained. Anger is the flame of a dying fire, and to give it words is to give it breath. Instead, I watch the words chase each other across the long cave of shadows.


* * *
The first time someone said I had white privilege, I felt like a comforter had been yanked off my sleeping body. Because when the comforter is yanked off of you, you don’t get it back. You might try to cover yourself up again, but what you saw is unseeable: yourself differently.


* * *
I met a musician from Nashville in Jamaica. The locals called him Thor. We all marveled at him, especially when he emerged from the hillsides holding a machete. There were nine Americans staying at a retreat center owned by an American man and Jamaican woman. We spent six days together drinking Session, coughing up clouds of grass, and watching as black smoke from cane fields charred the sky. I remember the musician well. He stood out, but blended in. Leaning against stonewalls, he talked the language of the locals; during afternoon breaks, he threw bones with the bricklayers; and during rainstorms, he slept up at Fire’s hut of twenty-six years at the top of the hill. The musician’s eyes heard sounds that others couldn’t sense.

A year after our trip, I was on my third cup of coffee inside an empty office. I signed into Facebook, and on my newsfeed, the musician had written a post that started, I’m gonna stir things up a bit. He did. He said we have to shut down the borders, toughen up, buy guns, and stop letting people walk all over us. We have to make America great again, he said, and take matters into our own hands, pull the triggers. At my last count, 116 people liked it. But 47 also commented. Some said, amen brother; others much worse. But others were shocked, myself included. Luc, how could you think this way? they wrote. Stick to music, others said, not words. I scrolled down his profile. His previous post, three hours earlier, was a link to a Jamaican band, with the accompanying text: Music: the international language.

A few weeks later, the first post was deleted, but I wonder if the thought is still there, and why people keep booking Trump and His Orchestra of Chaos.


* * *
I understand none of us understands anything in totality. Experience is the evolution of perception, and perspective is the arc. I also understand that if you close your borders, like some encourage you to do, you’ll close your mind. But if you close your mind, you’ve already closed your borders.

Brett Rawson is a writer and runner based in Brooklyn, New York. He is co-editor of The Seventh Wave and founder of Handwritten. His writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Narratively, Nowhere Magazine, and drDOCTOR.