I attended an enjoyable and stimulating gathering of poets at the Gell Center in Naples, NY, this weekend. The theme was pilgrimage, which somehow hooked up to diaspora at one point, and it gave me a new idea for the “elevator pitch.” So here’s a new version:
America is often described as a land of immigrants. It is less often noticed that America is a land of diaspora. People from all kinds of backgrounds, religious and ethnic, find themselves in an ambivalent relationship to assimilation and also to their cultures of family origin. We work at finding a home here while also thinking about the old home place (physical, cultural, spiritual) that may or may not be possible to visit. We often feel tugged toward cultural memories that may be heavily romanticized or traumatic or both. One obvious example of this phenomenon is the situation of American Jews. Although the dominant experience of American Jewish life is assimilation and attenuation of religious meaning, much Jewish poetry takes the religious tradition as a given. However, this leaves out the large percentage of American Jews who are secular and whose relationship to Judaism is ambiguous or conflicted.
Aleph, broken, a collection of poems by Judith Kerman, will appeal to readers, both Jewish and not, interested in the tension between American identity and the other resonances rooted in culture of origin. The book explores an unconventional but not atypical Jewish identity, one that is scientific and secular but yearning for connections usually found in Jewish observance, history and belief. These poems center around ways in which life and Jewishness are not what Kerman was taught to expect. They reflect both real and imagined personal experience, related to Judaism but also to larger contemporary issues and Kerman’s explorations of other cultures as they connect to personal identity.
Kerman was raised in an atheist home with a strong sense of history and progressive politics as part of Jewish identity. She acquired a broad knowledge of both the Hebrew Bible and Jewish culture through reading. In her late forties, she became active in Jewish religious and community life. However, the conventional understanding of Jewishness remains problematic for her, while the tradition of argument, exploration and dispute remains compelling—a challenge faced by all those who still feel rooted in their culture of origin while finding a deeper meaning in the great scope of human experience.