Kevin Coval’s “Schtick” – A Take-No-Prisoners Jewish Classic

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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.”)

cityroom_20091230_mtownsend_143567_From_largeIn 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
like temples.
abraham raymer
the yiddisher lyncher
the jury of peers
the acquitted
the freshly born
and baptized
american
white man

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[1]” 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
just
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall

7 thoughts on “Kevin Coval’s “Schtick” – A Take-No-Prisoners Jewish Classic

  1. We’re pretty sure that last poem is going to be framed and hanging on our entryway and our church’s entryway – soon. And maybe a mantra for our peace group.

  2. “I’d suggest the poems in “Schtick” are quintessentially Jewish.”

    In what way? To begin the term or concept “schtick” as a title emphasizes the parochial nature of those poems. It is only (probably) a yiddish term understood by a tiny fraction of Jewry. I certainly have no clue what that means.

    What you have here basically is someone searching for higher universal ideals in his belly button.

    Quintessentially ashkenazo-centric, yes.

    • Well, going from the rest of the paragraph, Brant seems to be suggesting that the poems are quintessentially Jewish because they follow a tradition of questioning, “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”. That isn’t a particularly Ashkenazi-centric view to take in and of itself.

      But I do think you have a point, as Brant writes that the poet is following in the footsteps of ‘Abbie Hoffman, Philip Roth, Howard Zinn and Groucho Marx’ – all Ashkenazi names (except for Abraham himself). In the excerpt from ‘what i will tell my jewish kids’, Buber, Marx, and Freud make an appearance (right before Moses), but there are no distinguished Mizrahi or Sephardi Jewish names there. There is obviously a problem when the only non-European Jews featured are taken from the Bible, because it’s not as if none have existed since then. Several years ago, I was interested to see that Oxford University offers a dedicated Master’s program in Yiddish Studies. At the time it never even occurred to me to wonder if I could find a similar program called Ladino Studies or an entire university sub-department dedicated to the preservation and revival of Judeo-Arabic dialects, but if I had looked back then, I wouldn’t have found anything. Things have improved quite a lot in the last few years, but there does still seem to be tendency to conflate Jewish heritage with Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, unfortunately.

      • It’s so interesting to me to hear Kevin described as an “Ashkenazi-centrist” when at heart he’s really interested in exploding categories and boundaries. While he makes no bones about his white, Ashkenazic origins – and is as critical of the narrowness of this culture as anyone – I believe, as I wrote in the review, his message is universal. No, I didn’t include any Sephardi names in my list of his spiritual ancestors (my bad, not his) but I hope you noted that I also included Chuck D, Fred Hampton and Louis Farrakhan on that list well…

  3. Pingback: Tikkunista Top Links: Week Ending April 5th « Tikkunista!

  4. What Kevin Coval created with “Louder than a Bomb” is incredible. Get the movie. Watch it. If you are not moved, you have a heart of stone. Who would think a poetry contest could stir the passions of high school students from across Chicago with the intensity that avid football fans have for the Super Bowl? Well, Coval did it.

    Coval clearly finds a lot to critique in the Jewish community. Fine. If Kevin Coval were just a great poet, that would be enough. But you are not just a great poet, Kevin Coval. You are a brilliant organizer. Take your talents and build something incredible in the Jewish community that brings out the same passion and intensity that you bring out in the students in “Louder than a Bomb.” Now that would be a classic!

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