What is the Grass?
by Elsie Levitan Available from Sholem Al-eichem Club, P.O. Box 27648, Philadelphia, PA 19150, $3.50.
A number of lovers of literature have already read Elsie Levi-tan’s work in Jewish Currents and other journals, but many more can now savor the tenderness, bite, astonishing imagery and cry for justice in What Is the Grass? This 53-page anthology of poetry and prose is large in range and theme, as well as form.
The poems move from a tribute to Yuri Suhl — gifted storyteller and historian of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust — to later atrocities in this century: the bombing of black children in Southern churches and napalmed children in Vietnam. Levitan’s powerful poems also intone private sorrows and memories.
In almost every poem, the opening lines expand and deepen to a stunning crescendo. In “Mein Shtetle Brent” the images of skewed huts burning are called up as a man bends his head and softly strums a mandolin. The images swell to the in gathering of survivors of the camps, “the delirium of nationhood,” and missiles trembling in the “eddies of power.”
In other poems, the transformation of Israel through wars, terrorist attacks and military power are recurring themes. The poet stumbles through these changes and hauntingly, “six million pairs of eyes turn and stare in bewilderment.”
In the prose selections, one essay, “The Cosmos of Isaac Bashevis Singer,” offers an unconventional analysis of Singer’s work. Levitan praises Singer as a master craftsman, but finds that his cosmos “hangs outside of history.” His characters are mostly slaves of their sensuality, doomed to damnation after small lapses from God’s laws. Freewill, compassion, and human trust give way to frenzies of madness, greed, and sexuality.
A second essay is a poetic appreciation of Jurek Becker’s Jacob the Liar, a universe away from Singer: a doomed Jew in the Lodz Ghetto keeps hope alive by concealing the truth of deportations.
Levitan’s third essay, an intriguing midrash on the story of the Exodus, dramatizes the courage and wit of the mid-wives Shifrah and Puah in circumventing Pharoah’s plans for the murder of Jewish newborn male children, and Miriam’s rejection of her father’s (and the Sanhedrin’s) plan to separate Jewish husbands from their wives in order to evade the Pharoah’s decree. Levitan also pays homage to Zipporah, who cared for Moses and later married him.
Levitan also comments wryly on how women — probably led by Miriam — refused to give their jewels to make the Golden Calf. In an imaginary colloquy with God, the author reminds Him that Miriam was afflicted for a week while Aaron was punished for only a moment.
The profoundly questioning spirit animating the whole anthology is expressed in Whitman’s lines, which also inspired the title: “A child said, What is the Grass?’ fetching it to me with full hands. How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.”