Muriel Rukeyser wrote this poem, Letter to the Front, in 1944, as the first reports of the Nazi Final Solution became public:
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.
And, yet, as the carnage in Europe proceeded, Jews in America were prospering and, increasingly, distancing themselves from traditional Jewish life, as practiced in Europe. To assimilate, it was widely believed, would ensure prosperity and well-being. While true that assimilation resulted in disastrous consequences in Europe, America, they believed, was different. To remain “the other,” would mean perpetual exclusion from the great American melting pot.
On some level, the motivation to assimilate may have been driven by the desire for material gain, professional and academic success and acceptance as full-fledged members of society. As the five sons in the 1970s Broadway musical, The Rothschilds, sing to their skeptical mother as the ghetto in Frankfurt is closed for the nightly curfew, “We want everything, everything, everything other men aspire to.” (An kind of obscure reference, I know, but I recently saw a revival of the play in New York, so it’s fresh in my mind) But, the assimilation of American Jews was, at least on some level, a response to a collective existential fear that America would eventually turn on its Jews, as had every nation before it. The reports of the massacre happening in Europe further validated such fear.
Rukeyser references the “gift” of being a Jew which comes at great cost. Refusing it means “death of the spirit.” Accepting it, comes with “full agonies” and “labyrinthine blood.” She challenges the Jew, saying to refuse the gift is “wishing to be invisible.” What is assimilation, anyhow, if not the desire to disappear into the crowd?
So, death of the spirit or, simply, death. A kind of Sophie’s Choice, decades before William Styron brought the phrase into the lexicon.
Rukeyser, throughout a career spanning 40+ years—during which she produced poems, essays, and plays—rarely wrote about Jews or Jewish subject matter. Letter to the Front was a complete anomaly (in fact, the poem is the seventh in a series of 10 poems or “Letters” about the Spanish Civil War and World War II). In a biography of Rukeyser, by Michael Schwartz, the author reports “there was not a trace of Jewish culture in the [Rukeyser] home, with the exception of a silver Kiddush cup and a legend that Rukeyser’s mother was a direct descendant of Rabbi Akiva.” In her later years, when both the American Reform and Reconstructionist movements incorporated Letter to the Front into their respective prayer books, Rukeyser was shocked they would find inspiration in the work of a person such as her, who was completely removed from Jewish life. How ironic that she would write the seminal poem, of the time, espousing Jewish identity; she who questioned her own.
I bring this up because with the arrival of Chanukah, I’ve been thinking about assimilation. Chanukah, after all, is the anti-assimilation holiday during which we commemorate the Maccabees’ rejection of a foreign culture, in favor of remaining a distinct people. They understood that the values of Sinai and values of Greece are fundamentally incompatible. In an essay on the Aish.org website, Rabbi Benjamin Blech puts it nicely: “What the Greeks worshiped was the holiness of beauty. What the Jews wanted to teach the world, instead, was the beauty of holiness.”
But, it’s not only on Chanukah that I think about assimilation. And one need not be a Judaic scholar or demographic expert to know that for the last few generations, Jews have been assimilating in startling, unprecedented numbers. Synagogue affiliation is down. Jewish schools and summer camps attract only a small percentage of Jewish children and with skyrocketing costs, these institutions face uncertain futures. Outside of Orthodox circles, commitment to adult Jewish education, religious observance and the Hebrew language is diminishing, especially among young Jewish adults. Israel remains important to many Jews, but the number of young Jews who feel no connection to Israel or even exhibit hostility toward it, is growing rapidly. And then there is intermarriage, the most existential of all threats to the future of the Jewish people, inasmuch as it greatly diminishes the chance that the children of these marriages will feel any connection to the Jewish people.
It’s in this context that I’ve written my own poem about assimilation, entitled To Be a Jew in the Twenty-First Century. Inspired by Rukeyser and informed by my own concerns for the Jewish future, it serves as a continuation of the bleak story she told in 1944. I hope that one day, I’ll be able to write a less despairing poem about this topic; to write the story of the modern-day Maccabees we have become. But, all I really know about the future is that the coda will be written long after I am gone, engraved in stone by the finger of God.
To Be a Jew in the Twenty-First Century
To be a Jew in the twentieth century is to be given a gift…the gift is torment.
–Muriel Rukeyser, Letter to the Front
Well, nothing has changed. The gift is still torment.
The torment of wanting. An old story by now.
A weary immigrant sets down the heavy bags
of persecution. Craves acceptance. Trades history
for the promise of a new beginning. He sees a door
in the distance and wants to enter. He wants this
more than he has wanted anything. Decipherer
of science, mathematics, medicine; winner of prizes.
Surely they will appreciate such noble contributions
and let him in. But, fearing this may not be enough,
he brings his children as an offering.
The centuries pile in a towering mountain of time,
eclipsing the sun. And the Jews stand in silent horror
as an ancient darkness descends upon the land.