An Interview with Steve Zeitlin

The poet talks tragedy, Holocaust jokes, and the power of humor to help us endure.

An Interview with Steve Zeitlin

Steve Zeitlin, director of City Lore, an organization dedicated to the preservation of New York’s cultural heritage, is also the author or coauthor of a number of award-winning works, including The Poetry of Everyday Life and I Hear America Singing in the Rain. His commentary can be heard on nationally syndicated public-radio shows and read in the New York Times and Newsday. His new book is JEWels: Teasing out the Poetry in Jewish Humor and Storytelling.

Given that war is raging in Israel and Gaza, how is JEWels relevant to both Jews and non-Jews in these trying times?

Some of the jokes and tales I include in JEWels exist in that profound and nebulous human space where you do not know whether to laugh or cry. The poet Zev Shanken tells this piece that lands betwixt a joke and a dark parable with a thud:

A comedian dies and goes to heaven.
He meets God and says,
Are you okay with Holocaust jokes?

God says, Try me.

The comedian tells God the joke.

God says, I don’t get it.

The comedian replies,
Well, I guess you had to be there.

My hope is that, despite the tragedies unfolding in the Middle East, the stories in JEWels will continually remind us of the wisdom and humor which have always gotten us through the most difficult times. My wish is that readers, both Jewish and non-Jewish, will more deeply appreciate the endlessly rich and unique Jewish perspective on the world.

Tell us about your work as a poet.

When I was still in high school, I discovered these Middle English lyrics that were scrawled in the margins of religious tracts or epic poems. These brief, anonymous lyrics read to me like the folk expressions of the Middle Ages and cemented my lifelong love of short poems. Lifetimes later, those ancient lines cry out to me from way back when:

Christ that my love were in my arms
and I in my bed again

Later, I chanced upon New York City Folklore: Legends, Tall Tales, Anecdotes, Stories, Sagas, Heroes and Characters, Customs, Traditions, and Sayings by Benjamin Botkin and can still recall the children’s rhyme I read there:

I should worry
I should care
I should marry a millionaire

He should die
I should cry
I should marry another guy

Suddenly, I knew what I could do with my life. I ended up getting a Ph.D. in folklore and folklife, which led me first to the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival and then to starting City Lore in New York in 1985. My interest was always in the poetry of everyday life.

What is “the poetry of everyday life”?

I use the word poetry as it is used colloquially: to suggest the many ways we “artify,” “storify,” and poeticize our daily lives. My earlier book, The Poetry of Everyday Life, combines the two strands of my career — a folkloric perspective on the creative expressions of a culture with a creative-writing approach, which addresses personal creativity. I believe this convergence of poetry and folklore gives birth to something new: a way of seeing ourselves, of being in the world.

Many of the poems in JEWels retell stories and jokes that already exist in other forms. What made poetry the right mode for this collection?

One of my favorite quotes is from the anthropologist Harold Scheub: “It is in the nature of storytelling that the narrative is constructed around a poetic interior…Story is composed of words, of images, of feelings, of rhythm: all of these conspire to create the metaphorical yeastiness that is the poem in the story.” And so, JEWels is part of my lifelong dream of combining my interest in Jewish storytelling with my passion for short poems. Jews have always been a “portable people,” traveling from place to place — sometimes directed by God, other times by humans. My quest to miniaturize many Jewish stories and jokes into poems was to make them more portable, so Jews (and all of us) can more easily carry them with us.

There is a substantial number of jokes in JEWels, including those related to the Holocaust and spirituality. Why is humor so important to Jewish culture?

When a 2013 Pew survey asked American Jews, “What’s essential to being Jewish?” almost half of them answered, “Having a good sense of humor.” Jewish jokes themselves are proof of this concept. “What do you love most about me,” Becky asks her husband, Abe, “my natural beauty or my gorgeous body?” Abe: “Your sense of humor.”

Sailing into New York Harbor at the turn of the [20th] century, the Jewish immigrants carried with them far more than the meager possessions they bundled in their arms. They brought their indomitable sense of humor and storytelling. Their culture intermingled with the folk culture of New York City on the streets of the Lower East Side. The performer Annie Lanzillotto, who is not Jewish, asserted, “There is a Jewish joke for every problem.”

You’re the founding director of City Lore, an organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the diversity of New York’s and America’s cultural heritage. What’s the relationship between your work there and this deep dive into your own Jewish culture?

In writing JEWels, I have done what City Lore asks of each member of our audiences — to use the traditions of others they learn about from us as an inspiration…to explore their own stories and lifeways. That “repair in the fabric of creation” that comes from exploring one’s own cultural legacy is open to everyone.

John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various journals and anthologies, and his short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn long enough to be considered natives by anyone but his neighbors.

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