In the summer of 1941, in the Polish town of Jedwabne, a massacre of Jews took place. Roughly 1,600 men, women, and children were rounded up and burned. As a witness described the scene: “Beards of old Jews were burned, newborn babies were killed at their mothers’ breasts, people were beaten murderously and forced to sing and dance.” Bloodied and wounded, they were pushed into a barn, which was then doused with kerosene and lit, by their non-Jewish neighbors.
As David Stowe observes in Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137, this terrifying episode re-enacts verses 3 and 9 of one of the Bible’s most enigmatic poems. Polish Jews are forced to sing and to put their children to death, or as the King James Bible puts it: “For there they that carried us away captive…required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion…. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”
While few of us have faced this kind of horrific suffering, many of us can sympathize with the vivid language of the psalm, in the way it articulates the experience of exile. Alienation, loneliness, loss, and estrangement: these are no less familiar to the suburban soccer mom than to the Syrian refugee.
Stowe, a professor at Michigan State University, structures his book according to the three parts of the psalm. With a nod to Paul Ricouer’s 2004 volume, these are history, memory, forgetting. Part exegetical commentary, part cultural history, part personal rumination, Stowe’s book maps the experience of the psalm to the experience of Israel and, in turn, to the experience of musicians, activists, preachers, and theologians throughout the centuries.
If a Hebrew psalm can have a biography, then Song of Exileis an attempt to tell its story.
A Poetic Memory Project
In the first section, “History,” Stowe examines the history behind the psalm, the 50 or so years following the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. He does so in conversation with the prophetic books of the Old Testament, the experience of Korean-Americans, the Bay Psalms Book of 1640, Elizabeth Smart's 1945 poem, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and musical settings of the opening lines of Psalm 137, from Bach to the reggae album “Rivers of Babylon” by the Melodians.
In part two, “Memory,” Stowe opens with a concert he attends in New Haven, Connecticut, featuring Hasidic rapper Matisyahu, whose song “Jerusalem” is a defiant Zionist anthem about a people “with no place to be.” For Matisyahu, Stowe writes, Psalm 137 is a charge to remember one’s identity. Stowe here distinguishes between mneme, a memory that pops to mind unbidden, and anamnesis, an active work of remembrance. Psalm 137 is an anamnetic exercise: to doggedly remember one’s history in the face of monstrous, irrational evil.
Antonín Dvořák's 1894 composition, Biblical Songs, Opus 99, #7, captures the psalm’s cry of remembrance in both “dark” and dissonant “jocular” tones. For African-Americans, from Frederick Douglas’ famous oration in 1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July,” to Jeremiah Wright’s sermon, “Faith in a Foreign Land” (which includes the phrase the audacity to hope), Psalm 137 voices their specific experience of exile. To sing Psalm 137, as a kind of poetic “memory project,” is to sing a protest against enslavement and second-class citizenry.