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 ...1