Trending Topics:

Kevin Coval’s ‘Schtick’ – A take-no-prisoners Jewish classic

on 7 Comments

I’ve just finished Chicago hip-hop poet Kevin Coval’s soon-to-be-released book, “Schtick” (Haymarket Books) – a collection of poems that takes aim and fires at the sensitive edge of every nerve ending in the American Jewish psyche. It’s a new take-no-prisoners Jewish classic.


Coval has long been known here in Chicago as one of our great local treasures. He’s probably best-known as the founder of “Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival,” which was recently the subject of an award-winning documentary of the same name. He’s also the author of numerous poetry collections, serves as Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, and offers youth writing workshops throughout Chicago and beyond.

While Coval has explored Jewish identity through his writing before, “Schtick” is his most extensive published collection of Jewish-themed poems thus far. It includes previously released poems such as “what i will tell my jewish kids” and”why i stopped going to shul” together with more recently written pieces – en masse, they serve to dissect the post-modern American Jewish experience in as devastating a fashion as you are ever likely to read.

Although I’m a longtime Kevin Coval fan, I will confess that there were more than few times in which I flinched at this unabashed, occasionally venomous assault on the hottest of Jewish hot buttons. I will also say without hesitation that these poems deserve to be read and discussed by the widest possible audience.

At heart, Coval’s work places him in long and venerable tradition of Jewish dissident writers – a legacy he very consciously celebrates. Indeed, this dissident tradition is palpable throughout virtually every poem in this collection. In “what will i tell my jewish kids,” for instance, he writes:

we are a bridge people. red sea parters. translators
between the warring. we see connections. the i in i
the i in thou. Buber taught us that or was it Haile Selassie
or Freud? and what was it Marx demanded, we live as Moses
bent and davening toward justice. a radical equity where everything is
sacred or nothing is. Einstein to unify the chaos.
Emma Goldman to arrange the pieces.

Though there will inevitably be those who find Coval’s writing to be the work of a “self-hating Jew” (he confronts this very issue in a poem entitled, you guessed it, “self-hating jew”), I’d suggest the poems in “Schtick” are quintessentially Jewish. Coval walks proudly in the “self-hating” Jewish steps of Abbie Hoffman, Philip Roth, Howard Zinn and Groucho Marx – a path trod by generations leading all the way back to the young Abraham, the Jewish upstart who one day grabbed a stick and smashed his father’s icons to shards.

As the title of his book implies, Coval’s counts the edgiest of the edgy Jewish comedians among his favorite iconoclasts. His clearest hero and spiritual ancestor is the great Lenny Bruce (“Lenny the Prophet!/Elijah, opening doors”). Coval also pays loving homage to Don Rickles, Sid Casear, Roseanne and Joan Rivers, with particular appreciation for the way they habitually skewer thegoyishe power elite – and get away with it. (In “Don Rickles Roasts Ronald Reagan” Coval portrays Rickles as a sacrilegious Jewish court jester, peppering the poem with excerpts from his routine at Reagan’s Second Inaugural Ball.)

Of course, Coval finds equal inspiration from rappers, poets, freedom fighters and truth tellers as diverse as Public Enemy’s Chuck D, Allen Ginsburg, Fred Hampton and (in a choice certain to stick in many a Jewish craw) Louis Farrakhan. His target of choice is the American majority culture of power, privilege and empire  – and the Jews who make their bed in it. He rails against racists of various shapes and sizes, including anti-Semitic icons Mel Gibson and Henry Ford as well as the recently resigned Pope Benedict (“the pope is a nazi/and this is the truth.”)

In poem after poem, he delves deeply into the adventures and follies of Jewish assimilation into the white American establishment – an act that he paints as the ultimate betrayal of our minority Jewish heritage. In one notable series, he explores this complex, often absurd process through poetic profiles of show biz figures Irving “White Christmas” Berlin, Al Jolson (“the confused horrible hope of this new country”) and Jennifer Grey (a third generation Jewish performer whose nose job successfully derailed her film career.)

His poem, “how the jews became white” – a meditation on the tragic events that unfolded during the Springfield race riots of 1908 – unpacks the most extreme example of Jewish “assimilation” imaginable. Among the more infamous moments during the riots occurred when Abraham Raymer, a poor Jewish delivery man, was accused of participating in the murder and lynching of of William Donnegan, an elderly, relatively wealthy (and intermarried) African-American man in front of his wife and neighbors:

Donnegan is not isaac
Donnegan is the lamb
abraham sacrifices to the white
g-d of america
slit throat and strung up
front lawn of a house they’d burn
like temples.
abraham raymer
the yiddisher lyncher
the jury of peers
the acquitted
the freshly born
and baptized
white man

After reading this poem, I couldn’t help but think that while the lynching of Leo Frank has entered  deeply into Jewish mythic consciousness, the name Abraham Raymer remains utterly unknown to most American Jews. And that, of course, is precisely Coval’s point.

Coval’s forte has always been poems that seamlessly mix the personal with the political – and in the chapter entitled “the family business,” he explores Jewish identity politics through his own personal family history. While I doubt his family members will kvell at some of his revelations, his remembrances of his 1980s Bar Mitzvah (by turns mortifying, hilarious and heartbreaking), family seders and Thanksgiving dinners resonates with a deep truth and the kind of love that refuses to profane his memories with shallow nostalgia.

While American Jews of a certain generation will likely nod in recognition with many of his family reminiscences, Coval’s family poems manage to be both brilliantly universal and nakedly specific at the same time. He shines a particularly unflinching light on the painful dissonance he experienced growing up in an economically struggling Jewish family living in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Among other things, these profoundly personal reflections go a long way to explain his own deep identification with the Jews as a “bridge people.”

The chapter entitled “all the pharaoh’s must fall” contains his most directly political pieces, most of them centering on the subject of Israel/Palestine. And for all of his deeply edgy poems, I have no doubt that it is from here that “Schtick” will almost certainly receive the most venomous reception from the Jewish establishment.

While Coval has long addressed the issue of Israel in his work, he took on these themes on in earnest in 2009, when he publicly declared himself to be “a Jewish-American man in solidarity with the Palestinian people.” In a widely read article for the Huffington Post, Coval wrote:

I am in solidarity with Israeli and American and all people who work and risk their lives and livelihood for justice. I am not restricted to working within the confines of the Jewish-American community. Justice and the resistance to imperialism is a global, human concern for all people down to struggle. For Jews, yes, but not Jews alone. For Palestinians, yes, but not Palestinians alone. It will take us all to push and demand governments and corporate interests to create fair, equitable living conditions. It will take all people to hold history accountable for the atrocities that occur.

Coval has expressed these convictions in numerous poems he has written since then, many of which are included in this latest collection. The poignant “explaining myself[1]” is written as a plea for understanding to his father. The title poem of the chapter, a stirring call to action written in response to the Arab Spring, deserves to become a seder table staple.  And in his final poem, appropriately entitled, “post-schtick,” Coval uses an attempted lynching of Palestinian youths by Israeli teenagers as a frame for understanding the sorrows of Jewish empire: “you don’t ask the mouth/from which the rope hangs/to explain the reasons/it’s being lynched.”

In “on becoming a man,” Coval recalls that before his Bar Mitzvah service began, his rabbi made him promise that he would not return to be confirmed.  By standing so firmly on the third rail of Israel/Palestine, Coval is virtually ensuring that he will remain outside the proclaimed borders of the American Jewish establishment. No matter. In the meantime he continues to carve out an authentically Jewish place in the borderlands – a place where Jews have always made their most productive homes.

But make no mistake, Kevin Coval is not simply interested in tossing spitballs from the back of Hebrew school class. On the contrary, he’s knocking loudly at the door. His Jewish vision is carefully and mindfully cultivated, his grasp of Jewish cultural memory undeniable, his respect for his spiritual Jewish ancestors deep and palpably real. And he is among the leaders of an eloquent generation that seeks to find a genuinely Jewish voice to sound a universal message of liberation:

wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall

Rabbi Brant Rosen

Rosen is the midwest regional director of the American Friends Services Committee

Other posts by .

Posted In:

7 Responses

  1. Les on April 4, 2013, 1:43 pm

    Here’s a different breaking story which should be especially interesting when our Israel Lobby media reports on it. Too difficult for the NY Times?

    Egypt’s navy ‘intercepts arms-laden ship from Israel’

    By Agence France-Presse
    Thursday, April 4, 2013 11:55 EDT

    Egypt’s navy on Thursday seized a weapons-laden ship and detained its crew who had set off from the Israeli port of Eilat en route to the African country of Togo, security officials said.

    Officials said the navy intercepted the ship, “which was flying the flag of an African country,” after it strayed into Egyptian territorial waters.

    The ship, with a crew of 14 and a cargo of 105 crates of unspecified weapons and ammunition, belonged to an African security company, the officials said.

    The crew and vessel will be held in the Red Sea port of Safaga until the authorities ascertain whether the weapons were being smuggled, the officials added.

  2. W.Jones on April 4, 2013, 1:48 pm

    The first poem R.Rosen cites is basically a “celebration”, as he calls it. I think that alot of pieces with very critical information are still positive portrayals of the culture overall, particularly Solzhenitsyn’s “200 Years Together”, which focuses on potential discrimination in the USSR. In the ancient prophets’ writings, as R.Rosen suggests, there is alot of condemnation on the people, but ultimately the goal is to make them better. To give an analogy, in Christian thinking there is a major idea of Christians themselves being sinners and thus there are regular prayers or services of confession to God. Or to give another analogy, a doctor can diagnose a patient with an illness and point out to the patient his/her problems. So this very critical talk can still be part of an overall sympathetic or hopeful attitude about a culture, religion, or community.

    Thus, it is important, in my mind, to go deeper than critical attitudes and look at the criteria for the person’s criticisms.

    For me, personally, one’s purely ethnic background (as opposed to religious beliefs) should not itself have a positive or negative moral meaning or rule their decisions. One of the main ethnicities among Americans is German descent, and yet that did not and should not have prevented them from opposing the system of the German State in WWII. An ethnic trait could “statistically predict” how a person will act or think, based on the actions of other similar people, but it should not be a decisive factor for that person’s decisions (eg. I am X, so I must do Y). So I think it is nicer when people openly associate and make friendships with other people of other ethnic backgrounds and do not make this a factor.

    When it comes to religion (or lack thereof), on the other hand, this reminds me more of politics, because it’s a belief system.

  3. W.Jones on April 4, 2013, 2:03 pm

    “a path trod by generations leading all the way back to the young Abraham, the Jewish upstart who one day grabbed a stick and smashed his father’s icons to shards.”

    To clarify, I do not think Abraham was a iconoclast- the objects he broke were graven “idols”- supposed deities, rather than simple painted icons (holy pictures) of venerated objects or people. Thus for example the cherubim on the Ark or frescoes in ancient synagogues were icons rather than idols.

    Iconoclasts, on the other hand, like Nietszche, break “respected images” in philosophy or society, that are not necessarily themselves deities. Someone who discredited Darwin’s teachings, for example, would still be an iconoclast, even though Darwin isn’t worshiped like a god anymore than, say, Abraham himself was. I think the distinction can be helpful when it comes to understanding religious paintings (“icons”) in churches.

  4. W.Jones on April 4, 2013, 3:18 pm

    “the lynching of Leo Frank has entered deeply into Jewish mythic consciousness, the name Abraham Raymer remains utterly unknown to most American Jews.”
    both sad.

  5. Citizen on April 4, 2013, 3:33 pm

    shiksa angel
    Kevin Coval
    an ode to Rachel Corrie
    oh Rachel Corrie, shiksa
    gone mad. angel standing
    before bulldozers, arms spread
    welcoming a raging star. white
    and blonde and sun-kissed before
    a home the government is trying
    to rubble. immovable Venus
    stoic goddess, the heroine
    in our hearts.
    your parents fight in your name.
    your letters are read as prophecies.
    you are considered a martyr, a model
    of solidarity. i hope there is youtube
    in heaven and you watch your picture
    raised at protests, hear the cantata sung
    in your blues. your play travels
    across country to educate the regular body
    to stand and ally and outrage at injustice.
    i hope there is fattoush and fatwa
    where you are, a mirror to see
    your beautiful ghost.

    I like the poem. Americans, Jewish or otherwise, do not know enough about Rachel Corrie. But was she really a “shiksa gone mad”? A poet could as well suggested she was in the best white civilized Christian tradition, rather than an aberration of it. Just check out her parents. If they are not examples of this tradition, who is?

  6. Citizen on April 4, 2013, 3:41 pm

    Get a load of the last part of “what will i tell my jewish kids”:

    i will tell my jewish kids
    we have long story. more than what is seen
    now. we are a people who wander and wonder
    who have a bag prepared in the corner. i will
    tell them israel is not a jewish state. it is
    an empire state, a state against people
    and a state against G-d. a G-d that is
    borderless and nationless, a G-d that is
    certainly without drone missiles and air
    raids. in a jewish state no tank stands
    between people seeking water or medicine.
    israel is a farce, the guilt of the western world.
    a christian admission of the holocaust.
    a watchdog over oil. a stepchild power mad.
    a baby country raging against everything
    i know to be jewish. i will tell them, help dis-
    mantle israel. Zion is yet to be, it is in the struggle
    of becoming. this is the truth. it will venerate us
    it will exodus, the truth will set us, free!

  7. RoHa on April 4, 2013, 7:55 pm

    “I’d suggest the poems in “Schtick” are quintessentially Jewish.”

    Ignoring capital letters is quintessentially Jewish? e.e. cummings and archie the cockroach did it first. (Though archie had no choice about the matter.)

Leave a Reply