Man Out of Time: Allen Ginsberg in Montreal

Browsing the Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library—the Yiddish Book Center’s archive of remastered recordings from the Jewish Public Library in Montreal—in between poetry readings by well-known Yiddish poets and lectures by Yiddish scholars, I came across a name that I did not expect to see in the collection: Allen Ginsberg, the legendary beat poet. The recording captured a two-night series hosted by the McGill Hillel Student Society. The first night, October 31, 1969, was a press conference with local reporters, where Ginsberg answered questions about his faith, politics, and personal life. The following evening was a performance of poetry and song, one in which Ginsberg shared both old poems and fresh compositions, some written just days prior, interspersing singing, chanting, and harmonium playing throughout. The events took place only ten days after the death of Ginsberg’s friend and fellow beat writer Jack Kerouac.

The content of both nights is deeply spiritual—the specific environment prompted a consideration of Judaism, the religion of his parents—while the timing prompted Ginsberg to reflect upon Kerouac’s life. Here, Ginsberg explains the impact that his friend had on his development as a writer. 

Responding directly to the Jewish setting in which he was presenting, Ginsberg works through questions of faith and spirituality in real time, drawing connections between aspects of the Jewish religious tradition, specifically those found in Hasidism and Kabbalah, with Buddhist, Hindu, and Gnostic principles. Foreshadowing his night of poetry recitation, which included chanting and singing in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, Ginsberg speaks, during the press conference, to the power of “hypnotically repeated chants” of the rabbinical tradition and specifically the “spiritualized voice” of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. He relates the musical effect, the “elevat[ion] of consciousness,” to the power of Hindu and Buddhist chants, such as “Hare Krishna.” In the following excerpts, Ginsberg indicates his deep knowledge of various religious traditions, and he attempts to further understand Judaism within the context of the spiritual themes that he identified in these other faiths.

The most markedly Jewish aspect of Ginsberg’s recitation, and nod to the Jewish context, was a reading of his poem “Kaddish.” Written in 1958, “Kaddish” is a tribute to Allen Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, following her death in 1956. In it, he explores the challenges of her life, evoking memories of her childhood and imagery of her Jewish faith. 

Responding to questions about politics, Ginsberg shares his thoughts on the Vietnam War and the activism of young people confronting politicians. He relates the mass demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, of which Ginsberg was an important figure, to the Woodstock music festival, which had recently occurred in August of 1969. Ginsberg mentions the figures involved with organizing the event, several of whom had connections to Yiddish. For example, folk singer Arlo Guthrie’s grandmother was the Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, and The Fugs were a folk music group who incorporated Yiddish materials into their songs, most notably with “Nothing,” a take on the Yiddish “Bulbes” (“Potatoes”). (Seth Rogovoy discusses the connection of The Fugs to Yiddish in an early episode of the Yiddish Book Center’s podcast, The Shmooze.)

Allen Ginsberg, a voice of countercultural thought since the ’50s, offers tremendous insight into a particular perspective and reaction to the tumultuous political and social climate of the late ’60s, one which was reflected by the “hippie” movement, and which was displayed in the various protests and arts festivals occurring in this period. The timing of the event allows us to see Ginsberg, who coined the term “Flower Power,” as a figure important to both the beat movement of the 1950s and the countercultural political and arts movements of the late 1960s. He stands, then, as a point of connection between generations and ideas, providing a unique glimpse into the relationship of Jewish thought and the social and political consciousness of this era. In connecting Eastern faith traditions and Judaism, Ginsberg places Jewish spirituality into the context of the religious sensibilities of the ’50s and ’60s.

For me, as a musician and student of Yiddish, this series is particularly powerful in establishing Ginsberg as a link between the political activism of his mother’s generation and the activist spirit of the artistic community of the late ’60s, which was shaped prominently by Jewish musicians. Ginsberg artistically bridges these two worlds, allowing a modern listener to experience the goldene keyt linking Jewish thought of the early twentieth century and the beat, folk revival, and hippie movements of the ’50s and ’60s.

This event also reveals the dynamic nature of Montreal’s Yiddish community in this era. Taken as a whole, the Center’s Frances Brandt Online Yiddish Audio Library collection demonstrates the deep commitment of this community to the development and preservation of Yiddish culture and intellectual thought. Allen Ginsberg’s presence within this tradition highlights the extent to which Montreal’s Jewish community was interested in exploring the full range of Jewish identity as it related both to historical and contemporary issues. In this light, every recording found in the collection takes on a deep and exciting meaning.

—Zeke Levine