Helen Engelhardt: Muriel’s Gift–Rukeyser’s Poems on Jewish Themes

© Helen Engelhardt

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift.

So begins the most well-known and beloved of the poems written by Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), who was astonished when the Reform synagogue movement included it in their revised prayerbooks in the 1940s. “To Be a Jew” also appears under the heading, “Israel’s Mission” in the 1975 edition of Gates of Prayer. “One feels that one has been absorbed into the line,” Rukeyser said of its inclusion, “and it’s very good.”

Except for “a Bible on a bookshelf [and] a ceremonial goblet handed down from a great-grandfather who had been a cantor,” there wasn’t a trace of Jewish culture in her assimilated childhood home, Rukeyser wrote in “The Education of a Poet,” an essay published four years before her death: “no stories, no songs, no special food.” But “my mother… gave me a treasure that I believe has a great deal to do with the kind of poetry I think of as unverifiable fact. She told me we were descended from Akiba, the martyr who resisted the Romans in the 1st century and who was tortured to death after the Bar Kokhba rebellion was defeated. Akiba was flayed with iron rakes tearing his flesh until at the end he said, ‘I know that I have loved God with all my heart and all my soul, and now I know that I love him with all my life.’ Now this is an extraordinary gift to give a child.”

She eventually wrote a long poem in the 1960s about the revered Akiba, but twenty years before that, she wrote “To be A Jew” — a poem so familiar that many people believe it to be complete onto itself. It isn’t. “To Be a Jew” was originally published in 1944 in Rukeyser’s fourth book, Beast in View, as the seventh section of “Letter to the Front,” a ten-part sequence of poems, in which she responds as both a woman and a poet to the Spanish Civil War, and as a Jew to World War II, at a time when American war poets were largely ignoring the Holocaust. To restore “To be a Jew” to its proper place, to read it within its original context, is to receive the “gift” with enriched understanding.

Before going to Spain in 1936, Rukeyser had been politically outspoken enough to attract the attention of the FBI. She had traveled to Alabama five years earlier to cover the notorious “Scottsboro Boys” rape trial, and had been arrested there for fraternizing with black journalists. She wrote about her experiences in the Communist Daily Worker and New Masses, and she worked for the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party, which supplied the legal team defending the Scottsboro Boys. The FBI would gather information on Rukeyser for nearly thirty years until they closed her file in November, 1963, with the terse and accurate assessment, “no indication of subversive activities on her part since 1949.”

It was in Spain that she found her voice. Sent there on assignment by London Life and Letters in July, 1936 to cover the People’s Olympiad in Barcelona, which was to serve as an inter-national protest against the Olympics scheduled to take place in Nazi Berlin in early August, Rukeyser crossed the border on July 17th, the very day the Spanish Civil War began. The Spanish fascists under Francisco Franco had timed their coup to coincide with the opening day of the People’s Olympiad — which was cancelled as the elected government called a general strike and fought back.

Although Rukeyser had to leave after only five days, that brief visit changed her forever. In her most famous book, The Life of Poetry (1949), a man asks her as they sailed away from the Spanish coast: “And in all this — where is the place for poetry?” “I know some of it now,” she replies, “but it will take me a lifetime to find out.” She never ceased writing about Spain in essays, poetry, and a novel, The Savage Coast, which was rejected by her editor as “bad” for its modern impressionistic style in 1937 but recently rediscovered and edited by Rowena Kennedy-Epstein, and published by the Feminist Press in 2013.

Women and poets see the truth arrive.
Then it is acted out
The lives are lost, and all the newsboys shout.

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 fourth to sixth sections of the poem evoke her experiences in Spain:

Coming to Spain on the first day of the fighting,
Flame in the mountains, and the exotic soldiers,
I gave up ideas of strangeness, but now, keeping
All I profoundly hoped for, I saw fearing
Travelers and the unprepared and the fast-changing
Foothills. The train stopped in a silver country.

Suddenly, in section 7, “To be a Jew” enters the sequence. Why here, and why as a Petrarchan sonnet, a traditional form for a love poem? Rukeyser had completed her poems about Spain, but before turning her attention to the United States and the political and personal impact of World War II as it raged in Europe, she paused to write and insert a most peculiar love poem about the consequences of accepting the “gift” of being a Jew — at the very time when millions of people were being murdered for being Jewish.

There is a secret concealed in this poem. Muriel had not only fallen in love with Spain, but with Otto Boch, a German Communist athlete who had come to participate in the Games as a runner, but as soon as the Civil War began, immediately volunteered to fight alongside other exiled German athletes. They hastily formed the Thälmann Battalion of the International Brigades, named in honor of a Communist leader of Weimar Germany who had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1933 and was being held in solitary confinement. (Ernst Thälmann was eventually shot by Hitler’s order in 1944 in Buchenwald.) Rukeyser, sent home with all the other foreigners who could be neither warriors nor nurses, never saw Boch again; he was killed fighting the fascists in the last days of the Spanish Civil War.

“To be a Jew,” her love sonnet, is written for him. She is assuring her lover, who died on the battlefield, that she is engaged in the battle in her own way, accepting the gift, accepting a history of persecution, of mental torture and physical suffering, and drawing strength from her own traditions.

The concluding three sections of “Letter to the Front” take us to the United States. She names the names of pro-fascists in her country:

They are all here in this divided time:
Dies the inquisitor against the truth,
Wheeler, Nye, Pegler, Hearst, each with his crews,
McCormick, the Representatives whose crime
Is against history, the state, and love.

She celebrates the contributions of women, the “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.”

You little children, come down out of your mothers
And tell us about peace…

She then concludes her ”Letter to the Front,”

offered in time of war,
As I now send you, for a beginning, praise.

In an essay published the same year as “Letter to the Front” and included in a feature, “Under Forty: A Symposium on American Literature and the Younger Generation of American Jews” (in The Contemporary Jewish Record, February, 1944), Rukeyser elaborated on her theme of Judaism as a gift, a guarantee “not only against fascism but all kinds of temptations to close the spirit… My themes and the use I have made of them depended on my life as a poet, as a woman, as an American and as a Jew… if the four come together in one person, each strengthens the other.”

Among the eleven essayists, Rukeyser was the only one insisting on the interdependence of her identities. She imagined the “angel of the century” singing to her the news that her “three lions of heritage” — woman, American, and Jew, standing respectively for “life, freedom, and memory” — were her guardians. They also represented three imperatives, Rukeyser said: to give, to create, and to fight. They alone allowed her to resist the evil of the age.

“If one is free,” she wrote, “freedom can extend to a certain degree into the past, and one may choose one’s ancestor, to go with their wishes and their fight.” Rukeyser did not have to choose, however, having probably inherited an ancestor who embodied much of what she believed in and connected her to study as a sacred obligation and to creating art inspired by social justice.

Her poem, “Akiba,” was commissioned by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and published in 1967 in American Judaism. Akiba’s is one of the two lives Rukeyser wrote about (the other is Käthe Kollwitz) in her 1968 collection, Speed of Darkness.

Like “Letter to the Front,” “Akiba” is a lengthy poem divided into sections, in this case five. “The Way Out” deals with the Exodus:

firstborn forbidden by law of the pyramid.
Drawn through the water with the water-drawn people
Led by the water drawn man to the smoke mountain.
The voice of the world speaking, the world covered by signs,

Music of those who have walked out of slavery.

“For the Song of Songs” celebrates Akiba’s radical insistence that this beautiful, erotic text — koshered by the Talmudic rabbis as expressing the love between God and Israel, though it never mentions God — be included in the Biblical canon.

“The Bonds” looks at Akiba’s mythical transformation from ignorant shepherd to brilliant scholar thanks to the generosity and courage of his wife, Rachel, who agrees to marry him only if he promises to study. Disinherited for her choice of a husband, she nevertheless encourages Akiba to keep his promise. He is away from her for twenty-four years (so says the medieval Avot de-Rabbi Natan), and returns a revered rabbi with a huge crowd of disciples.

In the landscape of the Word he stares, he has no word.

He is young. This is a shepherd who rages at learning,
Having no words. Looks past green grass and sees a woman.
She, Rachel, who is come to recognize.
In the huge wordless shepherd she finds Akiba

who can now come to his power and speak:
The need to give having found the need to become:

More than the calf wants to suck, the cow wants to give suck.

“Akiba Martyr” deals with his torture and execution at Roman hands for continuing to teach the Torah after the defeat of the Bar Kokhba uprising.

Does the old man in uprising speak for compromise?
In all but the last things. Not in the study itself.
For this religion is a system of knowledge;
Points may be one by one abandoned, but not the study.
Does he preach passion and non-violence?
Yes, and trees, crops, children honestly taught. He says:
Prepare yourselves for suffering.

The final section of “Akiba,” “The Witness,” brings together the Exodus, Akiba’s story, and Rukeyser’s own attitude to history.

You who come after me far from tonight finding
These lives that ask you always Who is the witness –

All this we are and accept, being made of signs, speaking

To you, in time not yet born.
The witness is myself.

And you,
The signs, the journeys of the night, survive.

Rukeyser wrote four other poems with Jewish themes, three about specific women. When familiar stories are retold from a woman’s perspective, the very act can be transgressive, since, until the Jewish feminist movement of the 1970s, men wrote nearly all midrashim. For a resolutely secular Jew like Muriel Rukeyser to compose midrashic poems was also quite unusual. Some Jewish religious feminists and poets rejected the practice in the belief that reinterpreting patriarchal texts still gave too much power to the patriarchy. Rukeyser, however, enjoyed the tension between the three components of her identity: woman, American and Jew. She embraced contradictions.

She included “Ms. Lot” in her last book, The Gates, published in 1976. The title slyly prepared the reader for her interpretation:

Well, if he treats me like a young girl still,
That father of mine, and here’s my sister
And we’re still traveling into the hills —
But everyone on the road knows he offered us
To the Strangers when all they wanted was men,
And the cloud of smoke still over the twin cities
And mother a salt lick the animals come to –

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, appears in Breaking Open in 1973, in the second section out of fourteen in “Searching/Not Searching.” She is a woman of power, a priestess leading the women with their timbrels, dancing, and singing. Their song follows the Biblical “Song of the Sea,” one of the oldest parts of the Torah. Rukeyser imagines Miriam continuing to sing her own song:

High above shores and times,
I sit on the shore
forever and ever.
Moses my brother
has crossed over
to milk, honey,
that holy land.
Building Jerusalem.
I sing forever
on the seashore.
I do remember
horseman and horses,
waves of passage poured into war,
all poured into journey
My unseen brothers
have gone over,
chariots
deep seas under.
I alone stand here
ankle-deep
and I sing, I sing,
until the lands sing to each other.

The Book of Judith, probably written by a Jew in the period of the Second Temple, was excluded from the Hebrew Bible. It is essentially a short, shocking novel about a widow who seduces and murders the Assyrian enemy of her people. Rukeyser’s “Judith,” in The Turning Wind (1939), is no longer the seducer-assassin of the military general who threatens her home and homeland, but “a dark woman/ [who] leaves the blond country with a backward look, adventures into the royal furious dark/ already spread from Kishinev to York.” From pogrom to massacre, from Russia to England, from the early 20th century to the 12th, Rukeyser’s “Judith” evokes the entire history of murderous anti-Semitism in Europe.

In her fourth Jewishly themed poem, “The Writer” (in Breaking Open, 1973), Rukeyser honors a contemporary teller of Jewish tales, Isaac Bashevis Singer:

His tears fell from his veins
They spoke for six million
From his veins all their blood.
He told his stories.
But no one spoke this language
Noone knew this music.

His music went into all people
Not knowing this language.
It ran through their bodies
And they began to take his words
Everyone the tears
Everyone the veins
But everyone said
No one spoke this language.

Rukeyser produced fourteen books of poems, from her first when she was 21, Theory of Flight (published as the winner of the Yale Younger Poets Award in 1935), to her final collection, The Gates, in 1976, four years before her death at 66. She also wrote essays, children’s books, biographies, a novel, plays, and television scripts, and translated poetry from various languages into English. She taught at the California Labor School in the early 1940s and at Sarah Lawrence in the ’50s and ’60s, where she invited the custodial staff to attend her classes.

Her intimate life was as unconventional as her public one. During the years she lived in San Francisco, she decided to be a mother, and, ignoring all warnings that she would have to choose between writing and mothering, she became pregnant by a man whom she never saw again. Disinherited by her family, she raised her son alone.

Although her partner in a decades-long love relationship was her literary agent, Monica McCall, Rukeyser never wrote or spoke publicly about her bisexuality. Two years before her death, she accepted an invitation to participate in a Lesbian Poetry Reading at the conference of the Modern Language Association, a decision that suggests an intention to assume a more public lesbian identity — but she suffered a stroke prior and could not attend.

According to Anne F. Herzog, co-editor of The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, her work has been “enormously important to many feminist and lesbian readers [because] she has constantly [broken] silence around previously unwritten areas of female experience”:

sex, menstruation, breast-feeding, moth- er-daughter relationships, female aging… in her well-known tribute to Kathe Kollwitz, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?/ The world would split open” … Rukeyser is at her most eloquent, challenging women to break their self-imposed and socially encouraged silences. She herself declared that she was “unable to speak, in exile from myself” and spent her life-time as a writer “working out the vocabulary of silence.”

Until recently, however, Herzog observes, “Rukeyser was virtually unacknowledged as a primary influence on writers who emerged during the last thirty years of the 20th century in response to the women’s movement.”

For me as a college student in the late 1950s, Rukeyser was, as I wrote,

… the teacher I never had
The poet who wrote my poems before I thought of them.
… Midwife of the transfiguration

I had the privilege and pleasure of being in her presence three times and hearing her recite in her inimitable, musical voice: at a Sarah Lawrence seminar, at a 25-hour poetry marathon in protest of the Vietnam War at the St. Mark’s Church, and at a poetry evening in Cooper Union. “You stood alone in Cooper Union’s Great Hall,” I wrote afterwards,

On a Friday night in the early ’70s.
You called up to us The Ballad of the Orange and the Grape,
The Conjugation of the Paramecium, The Speed of Darkness.
You left the microphone and walked to the edge of the stage
To talk to us.
Said the man behind me, “She stands tall.”

In 1964, after the first of her series of strokes, she wrote the following on a scrap of paper:

Dedication

My songs are for you

And my silences.
We are one life.
We are many songs.

My songs are for you, Lovers, the unborn — For you, stranger
Now sing your songs.

Helen Engelhardt is the author of The Longest Night: A Personal History of Pan Am 103. The audio version of the book was an Audie Finalist for Original Work in 2010. Her poem, “Muriel: In Memoriam,” is published at jewishcurrents.org/muriel-memoriam-25226 and here on this website. She thanks Bill Rukeyser, the son of Muriel Rukeyser, for granting permission to publish extensive excerpts from his mother’s poetry in this essay, which was first published in Jewish Currents (2015)  and is posted her with permission of Jewish Currents.

 

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