Poetry: Know Your Place

Be powerful, but not too powerful.
Be wealthy, but not too wealthy.
Be intelligent, but not too intelligent.
Be successful, but not too successful.
Be vocal, but not too vocal.

Try harder.

Be a leader, but not the leader.
Be private, but not secretive.
Be resourceful, but not stingy.

Desire progress, but don’t be greedy.
Save money, but don’t hoard it.
Be political, but don’t influence policy.
Vote left, or be disloyal.
Vote right, or be disloyal.
Be loyal, not disloyal.

Try harder.

You say you want to fit in, to assimilate, to belong?
Live amidst everyone else, but in your own area.
Work with everyone else, but with your own kind.

Know your place, Jew.

You might look white, black or brown, but you’re still a Jew.
You might self-profess an atheist, Buddhist or Christian, but you’re still a Jew.
The best you can do, is to be a self-hating Jew. You’ll be our poster-child, then. But you’re still a Jew.

Know your place, Jew.
You’re welcome to stay here, until the tide changes, until the ruling party directs their attention to you.
And then our collective finger points to you, Jew.
Get out or we’ll kill you, Jew.
You think you fit in, but we’ll find you, Jew.
You never belonged.
You should have tried harder.

Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments:

This poem took my breath away when I first read it, and it still does. The drumbeat of the poem arouses the reader with its martial rhythm, underlying the impossible requirements for assimilation then turns into rasping hate-speech that evolves into sneer, into threat. The nastiness of the voice is the nastiness of white supremacy, drunk with anger and meanness, that drives both antisemitism and anti-African Americanism in our time. We should not forget that this serpent lives and thrives, undefeated, among us.