The Solitudes of Adrienne Rich
Updated: Nov 2, 2020
The Jews among whom Adrienne Rich felt most rooted are those who were turned to smoke. Ethereal, weightless, floating high above the camps and the tracks yet indelibly rooted in, shaped by (burned by) their condition as Jew. “Reading of the chimneys against the blear air / I think I have seen them myself,” she writes in “Sources,” “the fog of northern Europe licking its way / along railroad tracks // to the place where all tracks end.”
Southern Jew of patrilineal descent, daughter of a Protestant mother and Jewish father, Rich was famously split at the root between her social Christianity and her deep connection to Jewishness. In her genteel white world at Radcliffe, back when being Jewish meant something to the WASPs of Cambridge, the basic split of her heritage was more than a question of affinity for one tradition over another, but a negotiation between outsiderhood and inclusion, distance from privilege and embrace of it. She writes to her father, “I saw the power and arrogance of the male as your / true watermark; I did not see beneath it the suffering of the Jew, / the alien stamp you bore, because you had deliberately arranged that / it should be invisible to me.” That alien stamp, she knows, is inherited, stored in the genetic code and in juridical structures; her particular blood quantum would have made her “a Mischling, first-degree — nonexempt from the Final Solution.” That is, Jewishness is an inescapable fact of a Jew’s existence. There is no structure in Judaism for excommunication, no grand hierarchical organization from which to disaffiliate. One does not resign from the chosen people.
But world Jewry is an impossibly large construction, and the alien stamp forms different conditions for different Jews. As Geoffrey Hartman writes, “God is One, but mankind or the Jewish people are not.” Rich, living the assimilated life of a doctor’s daughter on the oppressive side of her local racial formation, struggled with her positions both within Mississippi and the whole of Am Yisrael. “All during World War II / I told myself I had some special destiny: / there had to be a reason / I was not living in a bombed-out house / or cellar hiding out with rats,” she writes in “Sources.” “split at the root white-skinned social christian / neither gentile nor Jew.”
Rich places herself in communion with the incinerated Jews of the Holocaust as she stands apart from them, wrent by the apparent theoretical incommensurability of her material conditions, her non-halakhic Judaism, and her experiences of marginalization. Her gaze toward Europe, the inward examination of the oppression structuring Jewish life and death, contravenes the wishes of her father — builder of a “rootless ideology,” he “who had tried to move in the floating world of the assimilated” — “to become / a citizen of the world // bound by no tribe or clan.”
Scholars including Nell Irvin Painter and Karen Brodkin have argued that disavowing allegiance to a “tribe or clan” is a prerequisite for the acceptance of phenotypically-white national groups into the American social position of whiteness. American power is held by the deracinated who live in communities of one, a status to which Rich’s father aspired, and, to some level, attained. The assertion that “There’s nothing left now but the food and the humor” which Rich explores in Part XVII of “Sources” is apt; not only did assimilation hasten the decline of a robust American cultural Judaism, but assimilation could not have happened at all without that decline. Yet, Rich retorts, “There is something more than food, humor, a turn of phrase, a gesture of the hands: there is something more.”
It is the search for this something more that has motivated the actions of vast swaths of American Jews since most assimilated into whiteness. For many, like Rich’s father, Zionism mediated the contradictions between a deracinated white American life and a communal Jewish impulse, sublimating an ingrained sense of “tribe or clan” in a form of peoplehood acceptable to the structure of American whiteness: European Jews establishing a settler-colony in the Arab Middle East. “You told me not to look [toward the Holocaust] // to become / a citizen of the world” she writes to her father, “yet dying you followed the Six Day War / with desperate attention.” The existence of the State of Israel complicates the diasporic debate between asserting a solitary existence apart from the Jewish People, thus assimilating into the Gentile mass, and maintaining a multitudinous sensibility that separates one from the diasporic society and brings one closer to the pan-national Jewish collectivity. Israel allows the white American Jew to claim both.
Yet Rich evinces a deep distrust of the Zionist project in “Sources.” The “women who sailed to Palestine / years before” her birth — the halutzot — faced patriarchal oppression there, too, in the supposed utopia of Jewish resurgence. “Jeered / as excitable, sharp of tongue // too filled with life / wanting equality in the promised land,” the early Zionist women carried in their hearts the broken promises of the movement, the “half-chances, unresolved / possibilities, the life // passed on because unlived.” Its liberatory project was incomplete. “Zion by itself is not enough,” she writes.
Instead, Rich places herself in a genealogy of struggle, as the inheritor of the disappointments accumulated over generations of women that “are stored / in the genetic code.” Every woman before her who has faced the patriarchy and been made to swallow the pain of a life unlived is her predecessor; all her contemporaries who suffer are her community, sharing in “a mystic biology.”
This communalism is the source of her strength. “Everything that has ever / helped me has come through what already / lay stored in me,” she writes. “Old things, diffuse, unnamed, lie strong / across my heart. // This is from where / my strength comes.” This is a distinctly Jewish understanding of intergenerational community — Rich engages in a sort of dialogue with her predecessors, bearing the load of their troubles and gaining the strength of their learnings. In this, the relationship between Rich and her chosen ancestors is not too dissimilar from the essence of commentary favored by Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, described by Hartman as: “One person may raise a question, and the other who is far away in time or space may comment on it or ask a question that answers it.” The question, in this case, is of the particularities of oppression, and the answer is the way to live through it. Rich’s strength is in the accretion of generations of knowledge.
This conception of Jewish strength is distinctly opposed to the hypermasculine, individualistic, militarized promises of Zionism. Rich displays no aspirations toward assuming the role of the New Jew. Rather, her diasporism is the root of her power, allowing her to form kinships across temporal and racial bounds and access the collective knowledge of the other “despised and endangered” who “have kept beyond violence the knowledge / arranged in patterns like kente-cloth // unexpected as in batik / recurrent as bitter herbs and unleavened bread // of being a connective link / in a long continuous way // of ordering hunger, weather, death, desire / and the nearness of chaos.” Rich subscribes to a politics of linked fates, seeking openings for understandings of shared experiences and shared struggle. Her liberatory vision extends farther and wider than the inward revanchism of Zionism does — perpetual distance from the center of any community or power structure (“neither gentile nor Jew”) leaves her finding community in multitude, in crafting commonalities that cut across vast swaths of humanity. From here, too, does she derive strength.
With this, the question that inaugurates her famous poem “Yom Kippur 1984” acquires new valences. “What is a Jew in solitude?” Rich asks. The rest of the first stanza follows:
Rich goes on to offer several counterexamples detailing what solitude does not mean. Solitude is not a prison complex, it is not a vigilante in Utah or the Golan Heights, it is not the isolated poet in a tower “facing the western ocean, acres of forest planted to the east.” These three images each offer us respective visions of solitude as carceral, as zealous, and as haughty. That is, solitude can be inflicted, violent, or artistic, and Rich is interested in none of these forms. Rather, her understanding of solitude seems to be one of peace, relating to the feeling of safety even in the absence of an inherited or chosen community. True solitude, it seems, would imply that one could separate from others and not long for the attributes of self that their presence delivered.
For marginalized people, this separation from the multitude is a difficult, even impossible, state to obtain. Rich asks if “drifting from the center” and being “drawn to the edges” is “a privilege we can’t afford in the world that is, / who are hated as being of our kind,” and goes on to list groups of people whose life is endangered by the very fact of its existence: “faggot kicked into the icy river, woman dragged from her stalled car...young scholar shot at the university gates…, nothing availing his Blackness / Jew deluded that she’s escaped the tribe...Jew who has turned her back on midrash and mitzvah...found with a swastika carved in her back at the foot of the cliffs (did she die as queer or as Jew?)” The folly of the deluded Jew, she who thinks that ignoring midrash will erase the alien stamp: the scene hearkens back to Rich’s rootedness in the smoke of the crematoria.
Multitude is a source of strength and safety — Rich’s self-crafted genealogy of sufferers, stretching from Jewish women of generations past to Indonesian weavers today, grants her her power and faith. As an organizational tactic, too, Rich advocates for community formations larger than one: “Find someone like yourself. Find others. / Agree you will never desert each other. / Understand that any rift among you / means power to those who want to do you in. / Close to the center, safety; toward the edges, danger.” And her Jewishness is deeply connected to the Jewishness of Jews the world over; Rich sees herself indelibly attached to the fates and conditions of world Jewry. (It is worth adding, too, that Judaism is naturally a religion that demands multitudinous community. Jews cannot engage in public worship unless they have a minyan, a quorum of ten Jews who can pray together. Jewish practice is intensely focused on cultivating and sustaining a the Jewish community, and, as Geoffrey Hartman reminds us, “no individual, not even Moses, can perfect Israel’s mission. The covenant is with the community as a whole.”)
And yet, though “to be with my people is my dearest wish,” Rich writes, “I also love strangers... / I crave separateness.” The concept of separateness — specifically, white American Jewish separateness — has acquired various implications from the preceding bulk of Rich’s work. Her father who craved separateness lived in “a castle of air,” Israel compels Jews to look toward the Middle East rather than the world at large, and Rich has contended with the imperative to surrender allegiance to her tribe in pursuit of assimilation. Separateness is threatening to the marginalized, something this lesbian Jew is not sure she can risk.
Why, then, is separateness so important as to constitute a “nightmare”? In her imagined future, in the world Adrienne Rich would like to create, we could all be separate from one another and we could all exist as such in safety. The linkages between her and her community are not happy ones; she identifies with the lives unlived of the women before her, with the incinerated bodies of murdered Jews, with “the faith / of those despised and endangered // that they are not merely the sum / of damages done to them.” Important to stand in solidarity and communion, yes. Nourishing considering the conditions we’re dealing with. But when Rich imagines the ability to “wander far from your own or those you have called your own,” she is imagining a happier, easier existence: “to hear strangeness calling you from far away / and walk in that direction, long and far, not calculating risk / to go to meet the Stranger without fear or weapon, protection nowhere on your mind.”
Yet, it is hard to imagine a future in which Jews stand apart from one another. After all, the people share a God. Conceptions of Jewish peoplehood run deeper than shared persecution; they extend into the very bones of the faith. Rich’s epigraph spells out one of the most grave punishments in Scripture, from Leviticus 23:29: “For whoever does not afflict his soul throughout this day, shall be cut off from his people.” She reminds us of the distinction of Jewish suffering from those of the other marginalized groups with which she makes communion, writing, “(the Jew on the icy, rutted road on Christmas Eve prays for another Jew / the woman in the ungainly twisting shadows of the street: Make those be a woman’s footsteps; as if she could believe in a woman’s god).” Jews have unity in faith, living under the protective penumbra of a god to whom they can pray for themselves and for others.
The singularity of the Jew in this configuration is like the solitary and contradictory position of Rich, split at the root, within Judaism — neither here nor there. The shared struggle between American Jews and other marginalized groups in the United States is complicated by the fact that Jews in this country are mostly white, exceptionally wealthy and educated, mostly supportive of the conduct and existence of the State of Israel, and composed, in significant part, by people who are more than happy to flatly lay their claim to the spoils of racial caste. White Jews face an oppression that is a component of white supremacy while benefiting actively and passively from white supremacy, a difficult space to occupy in a landscape so discursively dominated by race.
But a Jew in solitude is an oxymoron. Adrienne Rich makes clear that to live a Jewish life is to live a life of multitude, that Jewishness is communion, and it is the role of the Jew who straddles social strata to decide with whom they will cast their lot. Muriel Rukeyser, Rich’s mentor, once wrote that to be a Jew in the twentieth century is to be offered the gift of torment, the wish for every human to be free. “If you refuse,” she wrote, “wishing to be invisible, you choose / death of the spirit, the stone insanity.” Those who accept “take full life. Full agonies: / Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood / Of those who resist, fail and resist; and God / Reduced to a hostage among hostages.”
A Jew in solitude is a Jew who chooses death of the spirit. This becomes clearer than ever at the conclusion of “Yom Kippur 1984,” when Rich revisits her opening question.
When the chaos of transition and the pain of world-building take hold, upon the collapse of dominant ecological and economic and political systems, the space for solitude will grow ever smaller and ever greater. Between the crushing-together of the center and edges will be people newly-adjacent, forming new political communities, new modes of kinship, shrinking our capacity to stand apart from others until Rich’s imagined future is realized, when the newborn and haunted world reshapes what it means to be alone. Maybe solitude then will be as simple as maintaining a discrete subject self. Maybe solitude, then, will mean dissent from the order of connectedness. Maybe solitude will be a constituent part of collectivity, a way of keeping space for oneself within the indelible mutuality of the social order, which is to say, maybe it will look quite Jewish.
Rich, Adrienne. “Sources,” “Yom Kippur 1984.” Collected Poems: 1950-2012, W.W. Norton, 2016, pp. 571–594, 633-637.