Reviewed by Ed Bennett
Those of us who grew up in any metropolis east of the Mississippi share the same definition of “neighborhood”. It was a mostly working class enclave of immigrants with a distinct cultural flavor of the people who settled there. The boundaries were demarked by large boulevards or highways and there was an implied safety of being with “your own”. This could turn quite tribal. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, before the great urban flight to the suburbs, one ventured carefully beyond the neighborhood precincts.
When I was in my 20s I was working on the lower East Side of Manhattan as an ambulance technician. While I was learning the streets of this area I came upon a large ornate building that my driver, Jesse, seemed to treat with deference. He identified the edifice as the Bialystocker Synagogue, a place of prayer erected by the Jewish immigrants of Bialystock, Poland who settled in New York after the many persecutions they were forced to endure. It was erected with the first wave of immigrants in the late 1850s and soon became a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Prior to this, my understanding of my neighborhood was from the perspective of an enclave. The Bialystocker Synagogue represented something more. It was an enclave, of course, but it was an enclave of people who came to New York City for protection from the pogroms of Europe and to practice their faith freely. The neighborhood was quintessentially Jewish, with its Hebrew lettering on the store fronts and its severely dressed men going to pray yet it was quintessentially American. It was quite literally a settlement of the people that one found in the poetry of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty. These people, fellow New Yorkers, were the descendents of “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Tina Hacker’s collection of poems, “Cutting It”, is a generous and loving slice of the life of the immigrant waves who came across the Atlantic from Eastern Europe for more than just the opportunity. It was a place where the all pervading presence of the Torah could be followed without the fear of fire or state sponsored death. What makes these poems resonate, however, is their universality to every second generation child of the city who grew up with two languages spoken in the home. She captures this perfectly in “American Shtetl Circa 1948” where she observes:
“a place where new mothers gossiped and joked,
If one changed the word “Yiddish” into Italian or German or Polish or any of the polyglot tongues of the community, the effect would be the same. Ms. Hacker has taken the insularity of an ethnic enclave and universalized the experience.
Growing up was not without its difficulties. In “Unaccented” there is the ever present taunt given to all children of immigrants trying to “mainstream” in Public School System:
“Talk American. Ya gotta talk American.”
At the end of the poem, the narrator loses the accent, part of the cost of becoming truly “American”. But the road to being American has ruts that do not appear for the non Jewish Community. In “Becoming Prince Valiant” her friend tells her that she needs to convert to Christianity because
“The nuns told him Jews like me
“Cutting it” is a lyric memoir of growing up in an age where ones origins defined them and the memory of calamity is fresh in the conversation of adults warning their children. Even in the safety of post World War II America, a child could still seek some secret nook in case Nazis should appear, as in “Hiding Places”, or take part in the ritual of doling out food because there was once a depression and the current recession doesn’t look all that different.
While there is a starkness in some of the imagery of growing up Jewish in America, Ms. Hacker intersperses poems of the grown children overcoming the bias of the larger society. “What You Are” is the realization of a young girl that the five pointed stars so pervasive in our religious and political totems are not her heritage. She “Made the coloring book mine” by substituting the Star of David as her mother taught her to do. In “Not White” the narrator grapples with a “Duchess of admissions”. Despite her blonde hair and blue eyed Aryan appearance, the applicant circled “other” on an admissions questionnaire asking about race. The Admissions Officer morphed into the image of “Torquemada interrogating a Marrano”, a Cardinal of the Spanish Church with life and death powers seeking out “Marranos”, Jews who practiced their religion in secret. The narrator stubbornly resists changing the classification and bests the Admissions officer who:
“Vexed with my stiff - necked stance,
Each poem in “Cutting It” is a finely crafted work. The usual tone of an author in this type of collection is usually argumentative or scolding. There is none of this here. What seems to be a memoir opens into the greater scale of people living with ancient beliefs in a new culture. The story may be the same for many immigrant communities, as mentioned above but the Jewish experience adds a theme of religious survival to the equation. Ms. Hacker’s language and tone is subtlety nuance as she describes the horrors of the past imprinting themselves in the children one step removed from it.
Each of the poems is written in accessible language and tells a straightforward story. The seeming simplicity of the work is a mask for the larger issues that remain unspoken much like the midrash tradition of the Jewish people. The directness of plot is reminiscent of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories. The main difference with these works is there is there is no insularity. “Cutting It” is written with the poise and self assuredness of one who has entered successfully in this new culture yet still feels the pull of the past. It is this tension that made us Americans, each created equally and with a unique cultural fingerprint.
In times when we see the anti immigration laws in Arizona and parts of Texas, Ms. Hackers book takes on a greater theme, something that every child of immigrant parents knows in their heart of hearts: one does not live the American Dream simply because of birthplace. The American Dream is elusive and has to be grasped and clutched to ones heart. Yet that heart needs to be big enough for the story of ones past, ones people, and of a culture that can never be totally abandoned. Tina Hacker’s poetry is an example for our children who now wrestle with our cultural canon and the meaning of what our Constitution really says to us today.
Like Ms. Hacker, I lived in my own “shtetl” and heard the argot of my grandparent’s language intertwined with my own. Their English was heavily accented but they had their pride in my “American” ways. “Cutting It” is an American story. It is a tale of “huddled masses” becoming the bone and sinew of a new nation. If you want to know how we became America this is one of many stories of how that happened. Mazel tov.