Words of the Week: Jo-Anne Berelowitz

“Jewish poets and writers need to be heard, not silenced, by publications such as yours.”

Source: a response from Jo-Anne Berelowitz to Poets & Writers magazine.

A link to the full text, and a few observations (from me), below.

  • Berelowitz was responding to an essay by Philip Metres titled “In This Time of War: The Muses Refuse Silence.” That piece was published online in early April and within the magazine’s May-June print issue; it’s linked within Berelowitz’s response (although it now seems that you may need to be logged into the site to read it; there’s no charge for an account). Berelowitz’s is the second “letter to the editor” featured in the current (July-August) issue.
  • Please read Berelowitz’s text closely. Notice how much editorial work appears to have gone into softening/qualifying her message. (We don’t know, either, how much material has been removed altogether, as reflected by the use of ellipses.)
  • I am immensely grateful to Berelowitz, not only for devoting the time/effort that’s necessary to write a response like this one, but also for her courage in sending it—it can be a professional risk to go against the prevailing winds in the literary community with such a public statement.
  • I, too, found the essay published in April to be deeply problematic. Although I’ve also sent critique to Poets & Writers for possible publication in the past, when it came to this essay, I wrote to the Editor-in-Chief privately and directly. So I’m also grateful to know that I was not the only one to indicate to him how flawed that piece was. It’s especially important that Berelowitz wrote and sent her feedback because of the far more laudatory message (also from a self-identified Jewish writer) that appears above it. Had that been the only response, the editor would have had less reason to give my message credence. Always remember: Our words matter. Now, more than ever.
an assortment of screens: laptop, phone, tablet, plus other desk items, and a text label that reads, "Words of the Week"

11 thoughts on “Words of the Week: Jo-Anne Berelowitz

  1. Heidi Rabinowitz says:

    The edits on Berelowitz’s letter are disturbing. All those additions of [some], while technically accurate, impose an “All Lives Matter” vibe on the piece.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      If only they’d applied such intensive editorial attention and technique to the original essay….

  2. Abby says:

    I was really surprised to read that article in Poets & Writers magazine. I was trying to read it with an open mind, but it was certainly a stab in the heart.

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Lots of similar moments, these days. Unfortunately, P&W also routinely links to anti-Israelist items in its Daily News curation—with precious little to counter it. An observation I also shared with the EiC when I wrote to him.

  3. Erika Dreifus says:

    Given the interest that this post seems to be evoking across platforms, I’m moved to add here the body of my own message, sent in mid-April:

    “I hope that this message finds you well. As you may have noticed, I’ve long since ceased writing regarding other problematic content published and/or amplified by Poets & Writers. (For example: Relying so heavily on Literary Hub for “news” in connection with Gaza is something that I’ve been relieved to see Publishers Weekly stop doing; I hope that Poets & Writers might consider doing the same.) I’m not going to offer a detailed critique this time, either. Frankly, at this point, it’s too much labor for me.

    I’m going to address only one element of Philip Metres’s new essay, because I am hoping, sincerely, that it’s something you simply are not aware of. In this essay, Metres repeatedly invokes Jewish Voice for Peace. Unfortunately, JVP is considered an extremist, fringe organization by the vast majority of global Jewry. Self-identified Jewish writers affiliated with JVP (such as quoted in Metres’s essay) are not exempt from charges of promulgating antisemitic rhetoric and incitement; citing JVP or similar sources is by no means a way to persuade most Jewish/Israeli readers that the author is concerned as much for their welfare as for that of others. (For clarifying background, refer, for example, to https://www.adl.org/resources/blog/jewish-voice-peace-jvp-what-you-need-know * and https://aish.com/uncovering-the-real-voice-of-jewish-voice-for-peace/.)

    Admittedly, I no longer subscribe to Poets & Writers, and I no longer read its online content with the same frequency and attention that I used to. If there’s been coverage of what I and other Jewish and/or Israeli writers (beyond the fraction who ground their Jewish identities in anti-Zionism) have been experiencing since October 7 and the worst massacre of Jewish people since the Holocaust, perhaps I have missed it. (On this page of my website, on the other hand, you’ll find a few relevant resources that do attend to this subject: https://www.erikadreifus.com/resources/jewish-writing/.)

    I’d be pleased to point you to other writers who might be open to contributing work on this subject. You might consider, for example, a piece on new literary outlets that have emerged in the wake of October 7 that actually do provide space for Jewish/Israeli voices like ours (examples, as I mentioned this week on this podcast [https://thecjn.ca/podcasts/inside-the-repressive-literary-world-of-jewish-and-israeli-writers-post-oct-7/], include this one [https://greengolemmag.com/], where I’ll soon have a piece published, and this one [https://writingonthewall.io/], which helped me write it). Or you might consider covering Julie Zuckerman’s remarkable monthly reading series, which brings together Jewish writers from around the world; since October 7, the series has included several “literary solidarity” events, with the next one scheduled to begin in about 10 minutes. I anticipate that a recording will be available shortly thereafter at the series page: https://www.juliezuckerman.com/literarymodiin.

    I realize that much of what I’m writing here may be new to you. That only points to how distorted and skewed the discourse has become throughout the literary sphere, and how marginalized/silenced the vast majority of Jewish/Israeli writers have become. Poets & Writers could do much to remedy this, and I hope that that will indeed happen. (I’ll add that I was relieved to hear, via a friend who was present, that the recent Poets & Writers gala was unmarred by toxic anti-Israelism. I’ll admit that I wasn’t confident that that would be the case, and I am grateful.)

    Thank you for taking the time to read and consider.”

    A couple of postscripts:
    First, per my “*” above: Now that there seems to be some effort to delegitimize the ADL (https://www.jta.org/2024/06/18/united-states/adl-faces-wikipedia-ban-over-reliability-concerns-on-israel-antisemitism), I’m glad that I added the second resource where i did.

    And if you’re wondering about the response I received–it was cordial and receptive. I won’t republish it here because the words aren’t mine to share. He thanked me for taking the time to share my perspective and for offering additional information on JVP as well as my ideas for future coverage. He promised to follow up/learn more and said that as they plan future coverage he’d reach out to me again.

    We’ll see what happens.

  4. A. Jay Adler says:

    P&W’s use of square brackets for anything other than editorial concision, if without Berelowitz’s agreement, is simply unacceptable. The [some] brackets, for instance, are clear substitutions of P&W editorial opinion over the writer’s, something we don’t see with the first letter writer when she writes of the “oppression that the Israeli government has perpetrated throughout my lifetime” or that the “U.S. government has perpetrated huge atrocities all around the world for decades on end.”
    It appears P&W’s editorial bias can’t make it through a single letter without showing itself. It argues for the removal of the square brackets in Berelowitz’s reference to “the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish bias in [some] American literary circles and institutions.”

  5. Miodrag Kojadinović says:

    The letter seems heavily edited, but: no, you do not need to log in to read those 3 letters to editor ie “Reactions”.

    Worth noting how Rose-Langston expresses an ambiguity in relating to the article, whereas Berelowitz is clear cut in her disapproving perception thereof.

    Wasn’t in the mood to spend time reading the original Metres’ article (or as both these women spell it, or maybe the journal does, “Metres’s” — I personally find that spelling fairly weird, but then I am from the late XVIII century, mentally), as I already kinda have a feeling what it would be like from the tone of these two reactions.

    Anyway…

    1. Erika Dreifus says:

      Apologies if I wasn’t clear–it’s the original essay that requires a login, not the responses.

  6. Jo-Anne Berelowitz says:

    Erika, I do very much appreciate your kind words and reference to my letter to P & W and I am grateful for the positive response from your readers.
    On a much happier note, I’d like to draw your and your readers’ attention to the most recent issue of The Colorado Review (51.2, Summer 2024) which features a powerful story by Erika Krouse, “Jude” about the Holocaust. I want to acknowledge the Review’s Editor in Chief, Stephanie G’Schwind, who has the courage and integrity to publish works by Jewish writers at a time when so many prominent literary journals are blacklisting Jewish writers. The Colorado Review published my nonfiction essay: “Looking for Joseph: A Memoir in Midrash” in its Summer, 2023, 50.2 issue as well as a piece by Dyanne Stempel, “Crashing Shiva.” Much as I deplore the editorial board of P & W, I am grateful to G’Schwind and The Colorado Review for taking a stand for merit and for going against the noxious tide of anti-Semitism! Thank you.

    1. Thank you so much, Jo-Anne, for the kind mention of Colorado Review. While I am indeed CR’s editor-in-chief and one of its nonfiction editors (my colleague Harrison Candelaria Fletcher is the other nonfiction editor), I cannot take the credit for the fiction we publish; Steven Schwartz and Jennifer Wortman are the ones to be thanked for their effort and care in selecting the stories for each issue.

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