According to conventional non-wisdom, American Jewish literature started in a Lower East Side sweatshop and then migrated to New Jersey, where it has remained until Philip Roth’s retirement. Of course, reading this way necessitates leaving out things that don’t fit the mold, like a canonical epic Yiddish poem about … Kentucky.
Kentoki, as it’s known in Yiddish, first published serially in 1921–22, is largely forgotten today, revived only in translator Gertrude Dubrovsky’s 1990 English rendering published by the University of Alabama Press (and quoted here). But this vast lyrical masterwork was once required reading in Jewish schools from Lithuania to Argentina and was even set to music performed by Yiddish choirs around the world, providing an entire generation of Jews with their first glimpse of a wider America. Reading Kentoki today is an unsettling experience, not only because of its lyrical heights, but also because its America isn’t the “Golden Land” of sweatshop ancestors who made this country their own. Instead, Kentoki, with its rich beauty, racial tensions, and dramas of assimilation and return, feels weirdly familiar—a drill-down to the sources of the intertwined ease and discomfort that characterize Jewish life in America today.
Y.Y. Shvarts (often called “I.J. Schwartz” in English) was a Yiddish poet whose trajectory was entirely typical of his generation until he crossed the Mason–Dixon Line. Born in a shtetl near Kovno, Lithuania, in 1884, in 1906 Shvarts followed the mob to America, where he continued his career as a Yiddish poet and translator, producing Yiddish editions of medieval and modern Hebrew poets as well as Shakespeare, Milton, and his greatest influence, Walt Whitman. He lived long enough to enjoy his generation’s ultimate Eden: retirement in Florida. But it was his move to Lexington, Kentucky, at the age of 33 that left its mark on the Jewish American epic. And Kentoki is an epic in the largest sense.
Kentoki isn’t merely a book-length saga covering three generations of Southern Jewish life. Its language also imposes a grandeur on its characters that would be comical if its lyrics were any less majestic than they are. The poem opens with a canto titled “After the Civil War.” We enter first in der fremd, “in the strangeness,” an expression used by more than one American Yiddish poet to describe America. Here it means the unfamiliar Southern landscape itself, infused with a very sexual beauty and menace:
Untended thick succulent grass,
And humid woods here and there,
One tree grows into the next,
And root entwines with root.
From all this throbs, hot and strange,
An unknown tropical essence
Of blossoming and decay.
Overhead arched the sky, undulating and pink,
The evening sky of the south.
The whole landscape appears
By red trees and rose colored plains.
From the blue eastern horizon,
Facing the burning west,
Across the red tract, the wanderer
Came with the pack on his shoulders.
The land’s threatening seduction will return later, in lyrical episodes involving unplanned pregnancies, armed hillbillies, lynchings, and a Jewish peddler beaten to death by drunken rednecks. But for now, any casual reader of Jewish literature will recognize this nameless wanderer. He acquires a name only when he knocks on a farmer’s door, asking for shelter in the barn in exchange for some goods in his pack, and delighting local farmers’ wives with his stash of tablecloths, eyeglasses, and toys. Finally, the stranger reveals his name: Joshua, though the backslapping farmers call him “Josh.” And so Joshua arrives “in the new Land of Canaan”—which, in case this was too subtle, is the title of the next canto. Our Joshua continues his conquest of Canaan by invoking every possible biblical allusion, even making his first real-estate purchase for his daughter’s burial plot, a riff on Abraham buying a cave to bury Sarah.
Josh slowly rises from peddler to scrapyard dealer to owner of a four-story warehouse, imagining himself fusing with the strange landscape: “When Josh bought old Tompkin’s place,/ He felt, suddenly, as if he had taken root deep in the earth.” Yet all is not well in the Promised Land. To Josh’s dismay, his children merge with the landscape too, enjoying church socials; one son elopes with a Christian girl. But startlingly, Kentoki’s assimilation tale turns out to be reversible. When a daughter dies, her brother transforms: “Overnight, the little devil Jake/ Became the old Yankele again…/ He recited Psalms through choking tears.” A wave of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants reinvigorates the community. A widowed daughter’s grief moves her to Torah study. The Christian daughter-in-law lights Sabbath candles; her daughter marries a rabbi. Another grandchild becomes something new in the past two millennia: a Jewish farmer. The Promised Land’s strangeness constantly scrambles expectations.
The depictions of African Americans in Shvarts’ poem are, to put it mildly, uncomfortable for today’s readers, not unlike depictions of Jews are in nearly the entire Western canon. (Cringeworthy words like “monkey” appear more than once.) But they aren’t uncomfortable for the characters, which is fascinating for contemporary readers. Sam, a freed slave whom Josh hires as his first scrapyard worker, develops a profound friendship with Josh over many decades. Related poems appended to Kentoki are even written from African American points of view.
Yet what’s most intriguing about Kentoki’s depictions of black-Jewish relations is the groups’ mutual dependence—and how much Southern Jewish success came from Jewish exclusion from “white privilege.” In cities like Lexington, Jews succeeded by filling the commercial vacuum created by racism. As one enterprising German Jew tells Josh: “The matter is simple: the black man/ Will have to start buying pants,/ Because the pants that he once/ Received from his rich white master/ Are all frayed and falling apart./ Furthermore, the landowners have an abundance/ Of old pants.” Demoted white Christians won’t do business with their former slaves, stagnating the economy for all. The Jews bridge this divide, providing both blacks and whites with desperately needed goods, capital, and credit—precisely the role Jews played in European economies for centuries. The word translated here as “master” and “landowner” is poritz, a Yiddish word for the land-rich, cash-poor nobles who historically “owned” Eastern European Jews and relied on them for liquid capital.
Racism benefits these Southern Jews, sometimes because they’re considered white, but also because they aren’t. When Shvarts’ Kentucky Jews decide to establish a synagogue, their opportunity comes from “white flight”: The elders of a white church sell the Jews their building when the neighborhood fills up with freed slaves. The Jews celebrate Hanukkah in their newly dedicated temple, their victory secured by being neither black nor white. Moments like these challenge today’s simplistic binaries regarding race and also reveal the unspoken discomfort that still shapes American Jewish life: a constant awareness, even among the native-born, of a strangeness that endures.
That entrance into the American fremd is the poem’s great achievement, transcending the bluegrass to reveal the ultimate strangeness of life itself, lived on land that outlives us. As Josh reflects shortly before his death:
It was as if a thick skin
Was peeled off of his old eyes…
Time stops. The landscape, pink,
A deep void within a large disc
Of a fantastically large red sun.
And in the large red disc, someone
Walks with a pack on his back,
Walks and walks and walks.
All of us, Shvarts suggests, are strangers in a land no mortal can conquer, bearing our days like a pack on our shoulders.