We are used to reading about Jewish engagement with the American civil rights movement from an American perspective, but in the following poem Yoysef Kerler offers a view from the Soviet Union. Kerler was aware of what was happening in America because the USSR highlighted the plight of African Americans for its citizens and the international community in what many considered an effort to redirect focus from its own human rights abuses. Ultimately, the civil rights movement influenced both the refusenik movement of Jews seeking to leave the USSR and emigrate to Israel and the movement to aid Soviet Jewry in the United States.
While this poem may seem naïve to modern readers, Kerler was not writing from the relative security American Jews are often said to have acquired by the 1960s. He had been released from the Vorkuta Gulag only a decade before, and the memory and consequences of the Holocaust were an ever-present reality. In 1965, the year he wrote this poem, Kerler became one of the first refuseniks. The passion he felt upon seeing coverage of the Selma marches may have been fed by his own hunger to take part in such a public protest—an impossibility in the Soviet Union.
The relationship between Jewish people and African Americans has evolved over the past few decades. While solidarity is still present, there has also been strain. Thankfully, there is also far more awareness these days that being both a Jew and “a Black man too” is actually not all that unusual. —Maia Evrona
If I Were in Alabama . . .
I would go to Birmingham,
making my way through the midst—
Now I must be a Black man,
it’s no matter to me that I am a Jew!
Fury tempered on the tongue,
I have tasted more than once,—
Even today with butcher’s knife, poison, and flame
death still searches for me everywhere.
But my stride is unbroken,
with furious hatred I spit
on the Ku Klux Klan
and I rise, faithful, in brotherhood
With white and with black
against death—Never again!
Time will not be turned back,
to when people kneeled before animals!
If I were now in Alabama
in the pure commotion of the fight,
I would make a way, like a lightning bolt,
through to you, my Black friend.
My skin is white—
And yours—is dark,
but before you, brother,
open is my heart.
So fist is with fist,
as is—limb with limb.
One breath between us,
one anguish, one light—
It’s no matter to me that I am a Jew,
I must be a Black man too!
Maia Evrona is a poet, writer, and translator. Her translations of Yoysef Kerler were awarded a 2019 Yiddish Book Center Translation Fellowship. She also received fellowships for her translations of Avrom Sutzkever from the NEA and the American Literary Translators Association. Her poetry was recently supported with the inaugural joint Spain-Greece Fulbright Scholar Award.