Diaspora issues

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.


Comments welcome.

More on second generation issues

My conversation with Eleanor suggests that people who are Americans assimilated from other immigrant backgrounds, whether religious or ethnic, might identify with some of the issues raised by my book, and that I should emphasize that, rather than Jewishness in particular. I’ve retitled a few poems (“Ritual Bath” instead of “Mikveh” is one such) and I will add notes at the back. But the over-all packaging is a different question. I suppose I could start my elevator pitch with this idea:


People one or two generations from an immigrant past often feel a connection to the old religion or the old culture without being quite sure what claim it has on them and what they value in it. In the case of poet Judith Kerman, this connection is to Eastern European Judaism. But the issues raised by her collection of poems, Aleph, broken, may be of interest to North Americans from many other backgrounds who feel similar perplexities.

Many Jewish books offer relatively little to the large percentage of American Jews who are secular and whose relationship to Judaism is ambiguous or conflicted. The poems in Aleph, broken explore 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, which explore the ways in which life and Jewishness are not what Kerman was taught to expect, reflect both real and imagined personal experience. Beginning with her family origins, the book grapples with such contemporary issues as sexism, antiSemitism, the Holocaust, aging and death, ecology and social justice. Kerman’s explorations of other cultures, especially Latin America, bring her back to questions of her personal identity.

Kerman was raised in an atheist home with a 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. Many readers from a variety of cultures are likely to identify with her meditation on these challenges, which are 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.


This feels a little awkward, but maybe closer. Thoughts?

Second Generation

This is the first time I’ve actually felt like I might have something I want to “blog about.” I wonder if anyone’s listening? If you are, let me know.

A conversation with Eleanor Lerman about my current manuscript, Aleph, broken, raises the issue of whether there is an audience any more for “Jewish” writing. My poems wrestle, in a part that seems pretty central to the whole, with what I mean by thinking of myself as Jewish. It is apparently not the same thing more conventional Jews mean—by conventional, I mean members of synagogues, although I am one; people who, unlike me, think of the synagogue service and the religious tradition as meaningful to them, for whatever reason; Zionists; people whose identity is shaped more than mine was by the Holocaust. I don’t know if secular Jews think about these questions much, although I know that at least a few do, probably many of them subscribers to my friend Larry Bush’s magazine Jewish Currents. The fundamental question: if you don’t believe, what do you think it means to consider yourself a Jew?

Someone who commented on my collection said it’s about the way my experience of being Jewish is not what I was told it would/should be. That was very useful. More broadly, I think it’s about the way life has not been the way I was told it would/should be. Eleanor questions whether I should focus my “pitch” for the manuscript on a potential (or theoretical) audience of secular Jews who feel the same perplexities I do. She’s not convinced that I should, purely from the point of view of finding a publisher and, later, an audience.

(Wonderful to use, in a slightly different form the word “perplexed,” which seems to have been patented by Maimonides.)

Anyway… Here’s what I’ve been thinking of as my “elevator pitch,” the short speech you make to a captive audience “in the elevator” to pitch your project. I’m going to follow up, maybe tomorrow, with some thinking about a broader question – what does the second generation of any immigrant group make of its “roots,” when they have begun to attenuate but still have some resonance? Does my book deal with issues other descendants of immigrants might recognize?


The”elevator pitch” for my poetry collection, Aleph, broken, that I am currently using:

Many collections of Jewish poetry take 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 such readers. It 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, which explore the ways in which life and Jewishness are not what Kerman was taught to expect, reflect both real and imagined personal experience. Beginning with her family origins, the book grapples with such contemporary issues as sexism, antiSemitism, the Holocaust, aging and death, ecology and social justice. Kerman’s explorations of other cultures, especially Latin America, bring her back to questions of her personal identity.

Kerman was raised in an atheist home with a 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.


This is actually a little scary – might it lead me to have to revise the book again?

 

More anthologies!

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  • The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry edited by Deborah Ager and M. E. Silverman, published by Bloomsbury.
  • An Outriders Anthology: Poetry in Buffalo 1969-1979 and After, Selected with an Introduction by Max Wickert, published by Outriders Poetry Project.

This makes five. What a year!

Bird Neighbors in Woodstock

I love the variety of birds on my small property (less than 1 acre). I can’t identify many of the calls, although I’m trying to learn them. But I grew up on Long Island with a bird book and binoculars always near the dining room window, so my visual identification skills are pretty good.

A downy woodpecker, enjoying my suet cake, February 2013.

A downy woodpecker, enjoying my suet cake, February 2013.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

A red-bellied woodpecker, Spring 2013. Why don’t they call it red-crested, or red-crowned? You can hardly ever see the red on the belly. Beats me!

I took this shot, a juvenile broad-winged hawk, in summer 2010. A minute later, he made a kill.

I took this shot, a juvenile broad-winged hawk, in summer 2010. A minute later, he made a kill.

Aleph, broken

Here’s a poem I like, recently published in Earth’s Daughters magazine. It’s the title poem of my currently-circulating manuscript.

Aleph, broken

slides from his
warm soup into bitter air,
breathes but does not cry,
the start
of a life without promises,
the dirty floor where language
will creep but no one hears it.
He is the first son.
Describe poverty.
Describe the ache to say.
Ellipsis, not the egg
but disconnection.

When he is old enough
to read, the letters crack
and fall apart, flakes of burnt paper.
He is a window with a missing pane.
Wind blows through on winter nights.
His father’s hat and beard
hunch over the kitchen table,
a shawl over his shoulders,
his hand trembling with chill
as he traces the lines of text.

Welcome

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Buy my books (from me): Judith Kerman – Books for sale (opens a new page)

photo of Judith Kerman by Franco Vogt copyright 2014

I am Judith Kerman, a poet, performer and artist with broad cultural and scholarly interests. I have published ten books or chapbooks of poetry, most recently Aleph, broken: Poems from My Diaspora (Broadstone Books, 2016). My next book of poems, definitions, will be published by Fomite Press in May 2021.

I have also published three books of translations of Spanish Caribbean poetry and fiction by women, and edited or co-edited two scholarly anthologies.

My revised webpage is powered by WordPress. I may not blog very often, but I will post my current activities and publications, as well as my resume, bibliography, photos, etc.

The video documentary, Carnaval in the Dominican Republic, which I made in 2005, is now available on YouTube on the Judith Kerman channel, where you can also find videos of a number of my readings and  experimental videos.

For information about possible readings and interviews, please contact my publicist, Mary Bisbee-Beek, at mbisbee.beek@gmail.com.

Buy my books (from me): Judith Kerman – Books for sale (opens a new page)

My Author Page on Amazon: www.amazon.com/-/e/B00IZQ6WPI (opens in a new page)