“Behaving Like a Jew” acts almost like a direct response to another famous poem, “Travelling Through the Dark” by William Stafford. In Stafford’s poem, the speaker relinquishes any personal grief to the larger forces of nature: “Around us all I could hear the wilderness listen.” Stafford’s response is one of stoicism and practicality. In Stern’s poem, there is no “us” and no concept of an autonomous “wilderness.” The lone speaker is wailing into the void, flaunting his grief with grandiose impracticality. It is for nothing—and everything—that he stands at the side of the road and moans.
The poem is also reminiscent of another poem by Stern, “The Dancing,” in which the speaker remembers his family’s raucous celebration at the ending of World War II. That poem follows a process of association to a conjunction of specific time and place that sends the speaker reeling outward in his imagination to the shared experience of millions and, finally, to the unknown (and unknowable) mind of God: “oh God of mercy, oh wild God.” The poem is Jewish to its core—especially in its enigmatic closure, which is worthy of whole pages of the Talmud. In “The Dancing,” Stern was speaking not about his Jewishness but through it—speaking out its painful wrestling with the nature of a God who can spare or condemn as part of the same dance.
If “The Dancing” began with celebration and ended with a...
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