When Allen Ginsberg was my anchor to Jewish culture

Ever feel like a Jew out of water?The other day in the late afternoon, I felt like that — here, in the fair city of San Francisco. In the exciting and eclectic vicinity of North Beach no less. One of my favorite neighborhoods, where I get tons of pleasure from bookstores and urban insanity. But amid the European tourists, Asian shoppers and Italian signs, I felt strangely melancholy and alone.

I stopped and looked at myself — what was this really about? And then I realized I was looking in the window of the bar Vesuvio, which is next to City Lights Books. Of course! This wasn’t about just feeling out of place now; it was really about when I was really a Jew out of water, and Allen Ginsberg ironically became my anchor to Judaism.

Allen Ginsberg, the famous beat poet who made City Lights infamous and controversial. Ginsberg lived just blocks from here in the late ’50s when he composed “Howl” and other poems that put him on the map.

I, however, associate the queer socialist Jewish Buddhist beat-hippie bard with a time in my life where I was bereft of everything Judaic — my three years in Boulder, Colo.

I was a creative writing graduate student at the Naropa Institute. The school at large was created by a Tibetan Buddhist guru and his followers — including Ginsberg, who co-founded the writing program with other beats like Anne Waldman and William Burroughs.

Boulder is a thick stew of alternative spirituality. New Age practices shine like neon signs that obscure any trace of traditional churches, mosques or synagogues. The few Jews around me were so involved in their non-Jewish practices that even their cultural Judaism seemed diminished.

It’s not like I was looking for someplace to daven, but I moved to Boulder from Los Angeles, where I always felt some comfort driving down Fairfax and having corned beef at Canter’s Delicatessen, with the judaica store on the corner. Boulder wasn’t quite a Christian dominion as, say, Utah, but I occasionally felt like a Jewish alien.

In the summers, Ginsberg would come out from New York to teach and preside over his school. He was the closest thing to a rabbi I would see on a regular basis; his nasal melodic voice, quasi-rabbinical beard and Lower East Side neuroses always seemed somehow nostalgic for me.

I know, it’s a little weird to think that Ginsberg, the rebellious, sometimes annoyingly self-righteous Buddhist was a Jewish reference point for me.

With time though, Ginsberg the Jewish anchor makes more and more sense. I knew him in his last years, when he was a cantankerous alterkocker, comlaining about his semi-fictional ailments and kvetching about this and that.

And his poems as they age couldn’t seem more Jewish. I think the events of the past few decades have caught up with his outrageousness so that he seems more tame.

What could be more Jewish than these lines from “Kaddish,” an elegiac poem about his mother, Naomi, who died with severe mental illness:

“Blessed be you Naomi in Hospitals! Blessed be you Naomi in solitude! Blest be your triumph! Blest be your bars! Blest be your last years’ loneliness!”

The crotchety old man from Boulder here sounds almost like a cantor to me. His spirit of the Jewish prayers, his willingness to confront the dark stuff of life — these to me are powerful Jewish traits.The ecstatic spirit of Renewal organizations in the Bay Area like Knesset Ha’lev, Kehilla and Chochmat Ha’Lev probably owe something to the raucous incantations that Ginsberg would intone at readings with his harmonium and strange songs about smoking and Buddhist devotion.

So maybe the notion that the freakish beat poet was my link to Judaism high in the Rocky Mountains isn’t so strange.

After all, Abraham was an iconoclast as well.

Jay Schwartz never wrote Beat-influenced poems. He can be reached at [email protected].