Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

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“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 sudden, sobering empathy, then “Behaving Like a Jew” begins with empathy and ends in celebration. It does this through a circuitous route, described by Stern in an interview with the Brockport Writers Forum in 1982: He was sitting in a hospital waiting room on a plastic chair reading Reader’s Digest, thinking about life and death and reading Charles Lindbergh’s treatise on the glory of death, and he began to think about Lindbergh—“about his embracing Fascism and his flying alone and thinking how a Jew wouldn’t go alone over the ocean, unless he was an Israeli”—until the entire experience coalesced into the five sentences that constitute the poem. All pretenses and postures, all of humankind’s lofty ideas and concepts, are stripped away in the face of death—any death.

The meaning of the poem can be discerned in its tone. It is at once dark and joyous, sweeping readers along in its urgency. It manages to speak for something larger than itself without pretending to speak for everyone. That it does this with great good humor is Stern’s greatest achievement. Contrary to what many critics have suggested, Stern does not seem to be a contemporary version of Walt Whitman. For all his long lines and his inclusive tone, his voice is lonelier, more independent, closer to the bone.

“Behaving Like a Jew” finds its own form of balance and beauty. It does not even mention God; it leaves that to the world that Lindbergh represents. To love life in spite of death is to forgive it. Gerald Stern loves with all the passion of someone who refuses to drown. The cumulative effect is life-affirming; for all its pain and irrationality, life has room for the ecstatic and the redemptive.