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National Poetry Month: An Homage to Jewish Poets

According to Poets.org, April was designated National Poetry Month in 1996 to “highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets” and to “encourage the reading of poems,” among other reasons. Poetry has had an incredible influence on our culture. It’s hard to imagine a world without Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” Maya Angelou’s “I know why the caged bird sings,” or Shakespeare’s “All the World’s a Stage.” In honor of this month-long celebration, our Federation has highlighted a few Jewish poets (American and Israeli) who have made an extraordinary impact through their poetry.

Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887)

A Sephardic Jew, Emma Lazarus was raised among six other children in New York and Newport, Rhode Island. As a teenager, she sent Ralph Waldo Emerson a copy of her first poetry anthology, privately published by her father. Emerson would soon become her mentor and dear friend. By the 1870s, Lazarus had published her second book of poetry and a novel, and was a frequent contributor to magazines. In 1883, she penned “The New Colossus,” perhaps her most famous work, as part of a fundraiser to pay for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. It wasn’t until after 1903, years after her death, that her sonnet was engraved on a plaque in the pedestal. Lazarus spoke out in numerous publications against anti-Semitism, and became an advocate for immigrants, working with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society and helping establish the Hebrew Technical Institute as well as agricultural communities for Eastern European Jews in the U.S. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Lazarus “called on Jews to unite and create a homeland in Palestine before the title Zionist had even been coined.”

Read Lazarus’s “The Banner of the Jew”
Read Lazarus’s “In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport”

Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)

Yehuda Amichai was born “Ludwig Pfeuffer” to an Orthodox German family in 1924. They immigrated to Palestine in 1936, settling in Jerusalem where the poet lived until he passed. Fighting in World War II and the Israeli War of Independence among other battles, Ludwig attended Hebrew University where he studied Hebrew literature. He changed his name to Yehuda Amichai in 1946, which translates to “my people lives.” His love of Israel informed much of his poetry, some of which was set to music. Yehuda won numerous awards throughout his career, both in Israel and on an international scale. He was known for a unique style and usage of the Hebrew language and was regarded by many as Israel’s greatest contemporary poet.

Listen to a reading of Yehuda Amichai’s “The Jewish Time Bomb”
Read Yehuda Amichai’s “Jerusalem”

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, to Jewish parents. His mother suffered from mental illness, which inspired Ginsberg to write a lengthy “Kaddish” for his mother in 1958. While still in high school, he developed a passion for the poetry of Walt Whitman. He later attended Columbia University, during which time he met Jack Kerouac and others that dubbed themselves the “Beat Generation” writers, founding a movement that swept the nation. Ginsberg expressed discontent with society, materialism and conformity, which he began to share through his poetry. He published his infamous “Howl and Other Poems” in 1956, which included explicit imagery and was later banned for obscenity. Ginsberg’s vehement anti-war stance led him to coin the phrase “Flower Power” in 1965 as a way of turning war protests into celebrations of peace. Though he often used racy language and wrote about radical topics, Ginsberg was a visionary, part of a literary revolution that is still studied and revered today.

Watch Allen Ginsberg sing “A Western Ballad” (Please note:  There is no explicit language in this piece)


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