Here’s a great quality video of my entire speaking appearance at University Friend’s Meeting in Seattle this past Monday night. I attended series of wonderful – and at times inspiring – events during my short stay in the Northwest and will be reporting on them in due course. In the meantime here’s a taste:
I’ve just finished Chicago hip-hop poet Kevin Coval’s soon-to-be-released book, “Schtick” (Haymarket Books) – a collection of poems that takes aim and fires at the sensitive edge of every nerve ending in the American Jewish psyche. It’s a new take-no-prisoners Jewish classic.
Coval has long been known here in Chicago as one of our great local treasures. He’s probably best-known as the founder of “Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival,” which was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name. He’s also the author of numerous poetry collections, serves as Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, and offers youth writing workshops throughout Chicago and beyond.
While Coval has explored Jewish identity through his writing before, “Schtick” is his most extensive published collection of Jewish-themed poems thus far. It includes previously released poems such as “what i will tell my jewish kids” and “why i stopped going to shul” together with more recently written pieces – en masse, they serve to dissect the post-modern American Jewish experience in as devastating a fashion as you are ever likely to read.
Although I’m a longtime Kevin Coval fan, I will confess that there were more than few times in which I flinched at this unabashed, occasionally venomous assault on the hottest of Jewish hot buttons. I will also say without hesitation that these poems deserve to be read and discussed by the widest possible audience.
At heart, Coval’s work places him in long and venerable tradition of Jewish dissident writers – a legacy he very consciously celebrates. Indeed, this dissident tradition is palpable throughout virtually every poem in this collection. In “what will i tell my jewish kids,” for instance, he writes:
we are a bridge people. red sea parters. translators
between the warring. we see connections. the i in i
the i in thou. Buber taught us that or was it Haile Selassie
or Freud? and what was it Marx demanded, we live as Moses
bent and davening toward justice. a radical equity where everything is
sacred or nothing is. Einstein to unify the chaos.
Emma Goldman to arrange the pieces.
Though there will inevitably be those who find Coval’s writing to be the work of a “self-hating Jew” (he confronts this very issue in a poem entitled, you guessed it, “self-hating jew”), I’d suggest the poems in “Schtick” are quintessentially Jewish. Coval walks proudly in the “self-hating” Jewish steps of Abbie Hoffman, Philip Roth, Howard Zinn and Groucho Marx – a path trod by generations leading all the way back to the young Abraham, the Jewish upstart who one day grabbed a stick and smashed his father’s icons to shards.
As the title of his book implies, Coval’s counts the edgiest of the edgy Jewish comedians among his favorite iconoclasts. His clearest hero and spiritual ancestor is the great Lenny Bruce (“Lenny the Prophet!/Elijah, opening doors”). Coval also pays loving homage to Don Rickles, Sid Casear, Roseanne and Joan Rivers, with particular appreciation for the way they habitually skewer the goyishe power elite – and get away with it. (In “Don Rickles Roasts Ronald Reagan” Coval portrays Rickles as a sacrilegious Jewish court jester, peppering the poem with excerpts from his routine at Reagan’s Second Inaugural Ball.)
Of course, Coval finds equal inspiration from rappers, poets, freedom fighters and truth tellers as diverse as Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Allen Ginsburg, Fred Hampton and (in a choice certain to stick in many a Jewish craw) Louis Farrakhan. His target of choice is the American majority culture of power, privilege and empire – and the Jews who make their bed in it. He rails against racists of various shapes and sizes, including anti-Semitic icons Mel Gibson and Henry Ford as well as the recently resigned Pope Benedict (“the pope is a nazi/and this is the truth.”)
In poem after poem, he delves deeply into the adventures and follies of Jewish assimilation into the white American establishment – an act that he paints as the ultimate betrayal of our minority Jewish heritage. In one notable series, he explores this complex, often absurd process through poetic profiles of show biz figures Irving “White Christmas” Berlin, Al Jolson (“the confused horrible hope of this new country”) and Jennifer Grey (a third generation Jewish performer whose nose job successfully derailed her film career.)
His poem, “how the jews became white” – a meditation on the tragic events that unfolded during the Springfield race riots of 1908 – unpacks the most extreme example of Jewish “assimilation” imaginable. Among the more infamous moments during the riots occurred when Abraham Raymer, a poor Jewish delivery man, was accused of participating in the murder and lynching of of William Donnegan, an elderly, relatively wealthy (and intermarried) African-American man in front of his wife and neighbors:
Donnegan is not isaac
Donnegan is the lamb
abraham sacrifices to the white
g-d of america
slit throat and strung up
front lawn of a house they’d burn
the yiddisher lyncher
the jury of peers
the freshly born
After reading this poem, I couldn’t help but think that while the lynching of Leo Frank has entered deeply into Jewish mythic consciousness, the name Abraham Raymer remains utterly unknown to most American Jews. And that, of course, is precisely Coval’s point.
Coval’s forte has always been poems that seamlessly mix the personal with the political – and in the chapter entitled “the family business,” he explores Jewish identity politics through his own personal family history. While I doubt his family members will kvell at some of his revelations, his remembrances of his 1980s Bar Mitzvah (by turns mortifying, hilarious and heartbreaking), family seders and Thanksgiving dinners resonates with a deep truth and the kind of love that refuses to profane his memories with shallow nostalgia.
While American Jews of a certain generation will likely nod in recognition with many of his family reminiscences, Coval’s family poems manage to be both brilliantly universal and nakedly specific at the same time. He shines a particularly unflinching light on the painful dissonance he experienced growing up in an economically struggling Jewish family living in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Among other things, these profoundly personal reflections go a long way to explain his own deep identification with the Jews as a “bridge people.”
The chapter entitled “all the pharaoh’s must fall” contains his most directly political pieces, most of them centering on the subject of Israel/Palestine. And for all of his deeply edgy poems, I have no doubt that it is from here that “Schtick” will almost certainly receive the most venomous reception from the Jewish establishment.
While Coval has long addressed the issue of Israel in his work, he took on these themes on in earnest in 2009, when he publicly declared himself to be “a Jewish-American man in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” In a widely read article for the Huffington Post, Coval wrote:
I am in solidarity with Israeli and American and all people who work and risk their lives and livelihood for justice. I am not restricted to working within the confines of the Jewish-American community. Justice and the resistance to imperialism is a global, human concern for all people down to struggle. For Jews, yes, but not Jews alone. For Palestinians, yes, but not Palestinians alone. It will take us all to push and demand governments and corporate interests to create fair, equitable living conditions. It will take all people to hold history accountable for the atrocities that occur.
Coval has expressed these convictions in numerous poems he has written since then, many of which are included in this latest collection. The poignant “explaining myself” is written as a plea for understanding to his father. The title poem of the chapter, a stirring call to action written in response to the Arab Spring, deserves to become a seder table staple. And in his final poem, appropriately entitled, “post-schtick,” Coval uses an attempted lynching of Palestinian youths by Israeli teenagers as a frame for understanding the sorrows of Jewish empire: “you don’t ask the mouth/from which the rope hangs/to explain the reasons/it’s being lynched.”
In “on becoming a man,” Coval recalls that before his Bar Mitzvah service began, his rabbi made him promise that he would not return to be confirmed. By standing so firmly on the third rail of Israel/Palestine, Coval is virtually ensuring that he will remain outside the proclaimed borders of the American Jewish establishment. No matter. In the meantime he continues to carve out an authentically Jewish place in the borderlands – a place where Jews have always made their most productive homes.
But make no mistake, Kevin Coval is not simply interested in tossing spitballs from the back of Hebrew school class. On the contrary, he’s knocking loudly at the door. His Jewish vision is carefully and mindfully cultivated, his grasp of Jewish cultural memory undeniable, his respect for his spiritual Jewish ancestors deep and palpably real. And he is among the leaders of an eloquent generation that seeks to find a genuinely Jewish voice to sound a universal message of liberation:
wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall
I’ve been pointing out for some time now that Israel has been increasingly building settlements in Area C of the West Bank, while evicting Palestinians from their homes there and moving them to far reaching sections of Areas A and B. The intention? To eventually annex Area C to Israel and warehouse the Palestinian population of the West Bank in disconnected, isolated, bantustans.
Now it’s come to this: Israeli coalition leaders are unabashedly bandying about this plan in public:
Israeli annexation of the West Bank’s Area C – where all settlements are located – received public support from two high-ranking Likud politicians on Tuesday evening, Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein and MK Ze’ev Elkin.
“Lack of Israeli sovereignty over Area C means the continuation of the status quo,” said Edelstein, as he spoke about an area of the country that is now under Israeli military control. “It strengthens the international community’s demand for a withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines.”
But Edelstein and Elkin cautioned that annexation was a process that should happen slowly, not immediately.
Together with the Netanyahu government’s stated intention to build in the critical West Bank territory of E-1, it is clearer than ever that the conventional liberal Zionist notion of a two-state solution is a dead anachronism. It’s even worse, actually: as long as we cling to a two-state paradigm, Israel will be given free reign to entrench this injustice in perpetuity.
I’ve also come to believe that its high time for those who are interested in a truly just peace between Israelis and Palestinians to come forth with some new creative thinking that might provide alternatives to an obsolete two-state model. In this regard, I was happy to learn that “Beyond the Two State Solution: A Jewish Political Essay” by the great Israeli academic Yehouda Shenhav, has finally been published in English. Shenhav has long been providing precisely the kind of innovative thinking that I believe is so very lacking in political circles – and I’m delighted his work on this subject will now find a wider audience.
Using post-colonial political and critical theory, Shenhav challenges many of the fundamental paradigms and assumptions that have delineated the Israeli political “left” and “right,” while suggesting new and exciting models that might well help us to envision a better future for Palestinians and Jews in the land.
Here’s an excerpt, from his Introduction:
I am deeply concerned with the violation of the political rights of the Palestinians, but no less so with the future political rights of the Jews themselves. I believe that the combination of a persistent foundational state of emergency and blatantly racist legislation – which grows restrictive and bare-faced day by day – poses a threat not only to Palestinians, but to Jews in the Middle East. For this reason, I wish to unpack the Jewish-Israeli discourse on the conflict, to highlight the dangerous political zones within which it roams, and offer an alternative political vision in which the rights of both Jews and Palestinians are intertwined and co-determined…
In particular, I argue that the so-called “two-state solution” in the form proposed by the Israeli liberal left no only is unrealistic but in essence is based on false assumptions that sustain and reinforce the non-democratic Israeli regime and mask the essence of the conflict. Instead, I offer a different vision for political thought, which is not based on state terror or Jewish supremacy.
Shenhav is a well known thinker in Israel, but less familiar to American audiences. Whether or not you agree with his ideas, I hope you will at least be open to this sort of new thinking. I personally find it liberating – I do believe that these kinds of outside the box ideas serve to provide us with a ray of hope along what is otherwise a very dark road…
Had a wonderful whirlwind visit in Baltimore/DC, highlights included book readings in Baltimore, DC and Georgetown and a visit with the National Friends Legislative Committee to Senator Dick Durbin’s office to encourage him not to support a Senate defense authorization bill that sought to punish Palestinians for seeking non-member observer status at the United Nations. Thankfully, the amendment never came up for a vote.
To create political power, leveraging people power is the best method, and historically, this has been shown to be the case. The fact that Israel is reacting so harshly against it shows its potential. When Hillary Clinton says 3000 new settlements are “not helpful,” that doesn’t get Israel’s attention. But when (Jewish Voice for Peace), (Students for Justice in Palestine) and church groups move to get corporations and holding companies to divest from Israel, that’s front page news in Israel. That is a sign that this has a great impact, when used in a smart and concerted way.
One of the big pleasures of the trip was finally getting the chance to meet Just World Books publisher Helena Cobban and my editor, Sarah Grey, both of whom have thoroughly become my kindred spirits.
Some more pix from my trip:
This Sunday and Monday (December 2 and 3) I’ll be making a quick trip through Baltimore/DC for some “Wrestling in the Daylight” book readings. I’m looking forward to my first “Wrestling” gigs outside of my native habitat of Chicago.
On Sunday I’ll be appearing at a program sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace – Baltimore at Space 2640, 2640 St. Paul Street at 1:00 pm (click here for the Facebook event page). That evening I’ll be in DC at Busboys and Poets on 5th and K at 8:45 pm for reading sponsored by the DC Metro chapter of JVP.
On Monday, I’ll visit the Friends Committee on National Legislation, 245 2nd St, NE Washington (Wilson Conference Room) at 12:30 pm. And finally, I’ll speak that evening I’ll speak at St. John’s Church in Georgetown, 3240 O St. NW for a program sponsored by the Washington Interfaith Alliance for Middle East Peace.
If you live in or near the area, please drop by. I look forward to seeing you there!
A program note: I’m going to appear on Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview to discuss my new book “Wrestling in the Daylight” with Jerome McDonnell on Wednesday, September 5, 12:00 pm (Central). Locals can tune in at 91.5 – everyone else can catch it streaming from the WBEZ website.
Hope to see you there!