by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
The High Holy Days of Judaism begin with Erev Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year’s Eve, and conclude on Yom Kippur, the ‘Day of Atonement.’ Since the Jewish Calendar is based on the cycle of the Moon, the secular calendar dates of the High Holy Days are different every year, but they begin sometime between the first of September and early October. Instead of a Leap Day like the secular calendar, there is a Leap Month periodically to keep the calendar in sync with the seasons of the year.
This year, Yom Kippur begins tonight at sundown. So I thought that the poems of Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) would be appropriate, since one of them, now called “To Be A Jew,” has been included by the Reform synagogue movement of Judaism in their revised prayerbook since the 1940s. “To Be a Jew” appears under the heading, “Israel’s Mission” in the 1975 edition of Gates of Prayer.
Muriel Rukeyser was astonished when asked for permission to include her poem in the Reform prayerbook, but later said of its inclusion, “One feels that one has been absorbed into the line, and it’s very good.”
The poem is part of her Letter to the Front, a ten-part series of connected poems inspired by her experiences as a correspondent for London Life, on assignment to cover the ‘People’s Olympiad’ in Barcelona, which was organized as an international preemptive protest against the 1936 Berlin Olympics in Nazi Germany in August.
The People’s Olympiad never happened. Muriel Rukeyser arrived at the Spanish Border on July 17th, the day the Spanish Civil War broke out, so she spent five days covering the war instead. These experiences became one of the enduring wellsprings of her poetry.
This is the opening poem of Letter to the Front:
Women and poets see the truth arrive.
Then it is acted out,
The lives are lost, and all the newsboys shout.
Horror of cities follows, and the maze
Of compromise and grief.
The feeble cry Defeat be my belief.
All the strong agonized men
Wear the hard clothes of war,
Try to remember what they are fighting for.
But in dark weeping helpless moments of peace
Women and poets believe and resist forever:
The blind inventor finds the underground river.
The poem now known as “To Be a Jew” originally appeared as:
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.
Before going to Spain in 1936, Rukeyser had been so outspokenly to the Left that the FBI opened a file on her. Five years earlier, she went to Alabama to cover the notorious ‘Scottsboro Boys’ trial, in which nine black teen-aged boys were accused of rape on the shakiest of evidence. Rukeyser herself was arrested there for fraternizing with black journalists. She wrote about her experiences in the Communist Daily Worker and New Masses. She also did work for the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party, which supplied the team of lawyers defending the Scottsboro Boys. The FBI gathered information on Rukeyser for thirty years, until they closed her file in November, 1963, with the ten-word assessment, “no indication of subversive activities on her part since 1949.”
The last two poems of Letter to the Front seem eerily relevant to the 21st century:
Among all the waste there are the intense stories
And tellers of stories. One saw a peasant die.
One guarded a soldier through disease. And one
Saw all the women look at each other in hope.
And came back, saying, “All things must be known.”
They come home to the rat-faced investigator
Who sneers and asks, “Who is your favorite poet?”
Voices of scissors and grinders asking their questions:
“How did you ever happen to be against fascism?”
And they remember the general’s white hair,
The food-administrator, alone and full of tears.
They come home to the powder-plant at twilight,
The girls emerging like discolored shadows.
But this is a land where there is time, and time;
This is the country where there is time for thinking.
“Is he a ‘fellow-traveler’?— No. —Are you sure? —No.”
The fear. Voices of clawhammers and spikes clinking.
If they bomb the cities, they must offer the choice.
Taking away the sons, they must create a reason.
The cities and women cry in a frightful voice,
“I care not who makes the laws, let me make the sons.”
But look at their eyes, like drinking animals’
Full of assurance and flowing with reward.
The seeds of answering are in their voice.
The spirit lives, against the time’s disease.
You little children, come down out of your mothers
And tell us about peace.
I hear the singing of the lives of women,
The clear mystery, the offering and pride.
But here also the orange lights of a bar, and an
Old biddy singing inside:
Rain and tomorrow more
They say there will be rain
They lean together and tell
The sorrow of the loin.
Telling each other, saying
“But can you understand?”
They recount separate sorrows.
Throat. Forehead. Hand.
On the bars and walls of buildings
They passed when they were young
They vomit out their pain,
The sorrow of the lung.
Who would suspect it of women?
They have not any rest.
Sad dreams of the belly, of the lip,
Of the deep warm breast.
All sorrows have their place in flesh,
All flesh will with its sorrow die—
All but the patch of sunlight over,
Over the sorrowful sunlit eye.
Surely it is time for the true grace of women
Emerging, in their lives’ colors, from the rooms, from the harvests,
From the delicate prisons, to speak their promises.
The spirit’s dreaming delight and the fluid senses’
Involvement in the world. Surely the day’s beginning
In midnight, in time of war, flickers upon the wind.
O on the wasted midnight of our pain
Remember the wasted ones, lost as surely as soldiers
Surrendered to the barbarians, gone down under centuries
Of the starved spirit, in desperate mortal midnight
With the pure throats and cries of blessing, the clearest
Fountains of mercy and continual love.
These years know the separation. O the future shining
In far countries or suddenly at home in a look, in a season,
In music freeing a new myth among the male
Steep landscapes, the familiar cliffs, trees, towers
That stand and assert the earth, saying: “Come here, come to me.
Here are your children.” Not as traditional man
But love’s great insight—“your children and your song.”
Coming close to the source of belief, these have created
Resistance, the flowering fire of memory,
Given the bread and the dance and the breathing midnight.
Nothing has been begun. No peace, no word of marvelous
Possible hillsides, the warm lips of the living
Who fought for the spirit’s grace among despair,
Beginning with signs of belief, offered in time of war
As I now send you, for a beginning, praise.
One of the special charges which Jewish tradition says God has laid on his ‘Chosen People’ is Tikkun Olam, “repairing the world.” There is no exact equivalent in English. It is different from charity — more related to action springing from social conscience. The phrase comes from the Mishnah, a collection of classical rabbinic teachings.
Much of Muriel Rukeyser’s poetry is her voice raised in protest against injustice. Her words transcend their specific inspiration, and speak to our present-day injustices as vibrantly as they did to the injustices of the time they were written.
The final service of Yom Kippur is Ne’ilah, the “closing of the gates” of Heaven after the prayers of atonement have been received, and the new year begins with a clean page in the Book of Life. The Shofar, a ram’s horn, is blown a final time in confirmation and celebration of the good year to come.
In her poem “Akiba,” Muriel Rukeyser speaks of night “covered with signs,” and
The wilderness journey through which we move
under the whirlwind truth into the new,
the only accurate. A cluster of lights at night:
faces before the pillar of fire. A child watching
while the sea breaks open. This night. The way in.
May we all find our way through the wilderness to a good year.
- Academy of American Poets: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/muriel-rukeyser
- Muriel Rukeyser Website: http://murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/
- Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/muriel-rukeyser
- The Jewish Book of Why and The Second Jewish Book of Why by Rabbi Alfred J Kolatch, Jonathan David Publishers
- Theory of Flight (1935)
- Mediterranean (1938)
- U.S. 1 (1938)
- A Turning Wind (1939)
- The Soul and Body of John Brown (1940)
- Wake Island (1942)
- Beast in View (1944)
- The Children’s Orchard (1947)
- The Green Wave (1948)
- Elegies (1949)
- Orpheus (1949)
- Body of Waking (1958)
- Waterlily Fire: Poems 1932-1962 (1962)
- The Outer Banks (1967)
- The Speed of Darkness (1968)
- 29 Poems (1970)
- Breaking Open (1973)
- The Gates (1976)
- Out of Silence: Selected Poems (1992)
- The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser(2005)
- Willard Gibbs: American Genius (1942)
- The Life of Poetry (1949)
- One Life (1957)
- The Orgy (1967)
- Poetry, and Unverifiable Facts (1968)
- The Traces of Thomas Harriet (1971)
- The Education of a Poet (1976)
- Savage Coast (2013)
- Selected Poems of Octavio Paz (1963)
- Sun Stone (1963)
- Selected Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf (1967)
- Three Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf (1967)
- Uncle Eddie’s Moustache (1974)
- The Middle of the Air (1945)
- All the Way Home (1958)
- The Colors of the Day (1961)
- Houdini (1973)
- Come Back Paul (1955)
- I Go Out (1961)
- Bubbles (1967)
- Mazes (1970)
- Spanish Civil War militia
- Volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade
- American women in the 1930s summer dresses
- Spanish women in mourning
- Blowing Shofars
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud