The Jewish Days and Nights of Adrienne Rich

I received a review copy of A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008, a slim volume of Adrienne Rich’s prose. Like many people who went to college in the 1980s, I read–and mostly failed to understand–Rich’s poetry in classes. In the 1990s, I went to hear her speak and was surprised that she identified as a Jew–my professors had never talked about that aspect of her identity when we read her celebrated early feminist poems (“Diving Into the Wreck” )  in my classes.

If I’d known her work better, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Rich wrote a foundational essay on reclaiming Jewish identity in 1982 after growing up in an interfaith family, “Split at the Root: An Essay on Jewish Identity.” Born in 1929 to a Jewish father and a gentile mother, Rich was raised to hide the Jewish heritage she later came to embrace. She came of age as the crimes of the Holocaust were coming to light, and in “Split at the Root” recalls her first exposure, through newsreel footage, to Auschwitz.

Which may be why A Human Eye has a photograph of Muriel Rukeyser’s eye on the cover, and an essay about Rukeyser inside. Rich cites Rukeyser’s poem, “Letters to the Front,” 

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.

Adrienne Rich has chosen, as she writes in “Jewish Days and Nights,”

Every day in my life is a Jewish day. Muted in my house of origin, Jewishness had a way of pressing up through the fissures. … Jewishness was muted in my house of origin, but the sense of specialness was not: that house was–intensely–different from the homes of my middle-class, non-Jewish friends. For one thing, it was full of books.

The essay goes on to articulate a leftist Jewish political stance, one that is perhaps iconoclastic–but it is an insider’s stance.

As a poet and essayist who was among the first to transform the personal to the political, Rich has undergone many personal transformations in public. She was married to a Jewish man and raised three sons with him before she came out of the closet as a lesbian in 1970. Her feminist writing and poems about her lesbian experience have overshadowed these writings about reclaiming Jewishness. Yet they are here, fluent and beautiful, a testimony to the possibility of children of interfaith families passing on Jewish heritage and participating in the Jewish community–even in the capacity of voicing dissent.

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