Poets to Read This Jewish American History Month
It’s May, meaning that Jewish American History Month is once again in full swing and inviting us to celebrate the many accomplishments of Jewish Americans. The American Jewish population is currently estimated to be 5.8 million adults, or 2.4% of the country. This diverse, ever-shifting community includes historians, artists, musicians, and people in every profession who have achieved amazing feats—perhaps none more so than the large, thriving crowd of Jewish poets. From Emma Lazarus, whose revered, enduring verse can be seen on the Statue of Liberty, to Elie Wiesel, whose writing and activism were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, Jewish poets have played a significant role throughout history—and that role continues today. Here are five Jewish poets to read this month and beyond.
1. Sean Singer
Sean Singer’s first collection, Discography, won the Yale Series of Younger Poets award and the Norma Farber First Book Award, a legacy he’s built upon in the years since. Singer’s lively poetry, most often set in New York City, mirrors the vibrancy, sound, and momentum of the world around it. Taking inspiration from paintings, jazz, fashion, and more, Singer’s poems reflect the full, buzzing spectrum of art, showcasing how it comes out of busy but quotidian life.
Singer’s latest collection, Today in the Taxi, exemplifies the role of routine and of work in the writer’s poetry, with the book born out of Singer’s six-year career as a taxi driver. Singer says of Today in the Taxi, which won the 2022 National Jewish Book Award and garnered praise from Tyehimba Jess, “There are metaphors and poems all around us, even in the most commonplace or mundane exchanges.” The book brings together the voices of great artists and the voices of everyday passengers, arguing they’re more alike than different.
Essential text: Today in the Taxi
2. Yerra Sugarman
Praised as “a world poet whose concerns have no borders” by Marilyn Hacker, Yerra Sugarman’s poetry traverses wide geographies and an even wider emotional subject matter. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Sugarman confronts topics like violence, war, and anti-semitism, resisting a textbook historical approach and instead illuminating specific and heart-wrenching personal perspectives. Sugarman has won awards from PEN America and The National Book Critics Circle.
Sugarman’s latest collection, Aunt Bird, was a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and the Pleiades Press Editors Prize. This collection is an imaginative, multigenre journey into grief, in which Sugarman writes unflinchingly about the Holocaust from the perspective of the aunt she never knew, who died in German-occupied Poland. Described as a “poetry of witness,” Aunt Bird blends lyric poetry with journalistic reportage, truly traveling back in time and in lineage.
Essential text: Aunt Bird
3. Rachel Zucker
As the host of the highly popular and personal poetry podcast Commonplace, Rachel Zucker is an observant, brilliant literary scholar and critic whose deep love for language comes across in every conversation with her guests. In addition to interviewing figures like Bernadette Mayer and Sharon Olds, Zucker is a towering poet in her own right, and one of the greatest living writers of confessional poetry. Issues of family, gender, identity, and the self are at the heart of Zucker’s expansive poetry. In her work, Zucker investigates what it means to be a writer, a woman, a mother, a feminist, a wife, depressed, divorced, Jewish, and more, all amidst a turbulent, oftentimes hopeless political landscape. Fans of Zucker’s poetry appreciate that her complex, shifting poems often surface more questions than answers.
Soundmachine is the work that most expounds upon these disparate but interrelated themes. In sprawling, genre-bending pieces, Zucker invites the audience into her own internal dialogue. Centered around the idea that the human voice is both a meaningless sound and one of the markers of our existence—an idea she frequently returns to in Commonplace episodes—Zucker writes honestly and unrelentingly while also questioning the point of writing at all.
Essential text: Soundmachine
4. Adi Keissar
Adi Keissar’s poetry turns ideas of both Jewishness and language on their heads. Keissar is best known for her political literary project Ars Poetica. While “ars poetica” means “the art of poetry” in Latin—and has been used in the title of many literary works throughout the genre’s history—the Hebrew word “ars” describes lower-class Jewish men with Mizrahi origins. By titling her poetry project after this common insult leveled against people of her heritage, Keissar personifies the power of reclaiming language. Similarly, with her Yemenite origins, Keissar stands up against singular ideas about Jewish backgrounds and identities.
While her poetry is decidedly political, it’s also playful and warm, often exploring themes of family and coming-of-age. In “Black on black,” one of her poems which has been translated into English, Keissar recounts spending days with her grandma. Throughout the poem, whimsical, heart-tugging imagery of singing, pineapple yogurt, and hand-plucked flowers lead to bigger points about multilingual families, ancestry, mortality, and more.
Essential text: “Black on black”
5. Lauren Camp
Lauren Camp’s poetry has always evoked a strong sense of place. Her origins as a visual artist can be seen in her written work, which takes her readers on journeys through Baghdad, New Mexico, the Grand Canyon, and more. Other times, such as in her most recent collection, Took House, Camp’s focus is more singular—peering into one particular residence or individual landscape. No matter the scope, however, all of Camp’s work looks at the relationship between people and place, with eerieness standing in for real-life fear and the details of setting as a marker of intimacy. Currently, Camp is the poet laureate of New Mexico, a title she’ll hold through 2025.
In One Hundred Hungers, which won the Dorset Prize from Tupelo Press, Camp traces the bond between an Arab-American daughter and her Jewish-Iraqi father. The book is a stunning exercise in weaving together the personal and the political, as Camp paints tender, time-honored Sabbath dinners and emerging, violent tensions with equal care and importance, intertwining the story of a family with the story of a region.
Essential text: One Hundred Hungers
Happy reading! To explore more about Jewish history and its connection to writing, check out the virtual Emma Lazarus exhibit from the American Jewish Historical Society.