Jack Hirschman reads from the Italian edition of his book “The Arcanes.” (Photo/Marco Cinque)
Jack Hirschman reads from the Italian edition of his book “The Arcanes.” (Photo/Marco Cinque)

Jack Hirschman, S.F. poet laureate and ‘bad Jew,’ dies at 87

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Legendary working-class poet Jack Hirschman, a longtime denizen of North Beach who once described himself as “a bad Jew,” died on Aug. 22 at his home in San Francisco after contracting a cold. He was 87.

Poet laureate of the city from 2006 to 2009, Hirschman was a founding member of the Union of Left Writers of San Francisco and a longtime member of the Union of Street Poets. More than 100 volumes of his work were published, some of them on a copy machine in his home and some by City Lights. Many were translations, as he was a scholar and translator in nine languages. He wrote meditative reflections on his early life in the Bronx, poems influenced by jazz and by Kabbalah, and also translations of the work of Yiddish poet Hirsh Glik.

Hirschman’s declaration that he was a “bad Jew” came during an April 2014 sit-down with a J. reporter at Caffe Trieste to talk about a poetry reading scheduled at B’nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma.

“I’m a bad Jew,” Hirschman said. “Why do you want to talk to me?”

Reassured that judgment was not the theme of the interview, Hirschman spoke about being a Communist. “The Zionists came out against the Communists,” he said. “I haven’t been to a seder in 35 years, but I have intently studied Kabbalah. Not the mumbo jumbo; the theosophical dimensions, the works of [early Kabbalists] Isaac Luria and Abraham Abulafia. The poetry of Judaism, the language of Judaism, lies in the Kabbalah, which is the inner soul of the Bible.”

Two years ago he spoke at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in a talk titled “The Mystical Voice.”

Asked whether his political activism and his work on behalf of the homeless, the poor and the disenfranchised might be considered acts of tikkun olam, Hirschman thought for a second or two and then beamed. “Marxism is the ultimate healing of the world in that through Marxism, war can end,” he said. “So I am not religious, but I believe philosophy is key to the reparation of the world.”

After he was fired from the UCLA faculty for antiwar activism, Hirschman moved to San Francisco in 1972. He is credited with the rebirth of the San Francisco International Poetry Festival and he served for decades as poet-in-residence for the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. He also was active with the Revolutionary Poets Brigade and curated the Poets 11 Anthology.

Hirschman is survived by his wife, Agneta Falk, a Swedish poet, writer and artist, and his daughter, Celia Hirschman of Oroville.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.