The poem indicates that the speaker, and all Jewish people, have an empathetic and emotional approach to death. This is represented by one person’s reaction to seeing a dead opossum on the side of the road. He compares it to a large baby and spends most of the poem mourning its death, refusing to take comfort in the fact that death is a natural part of life.
Explore Behaving Like a Jew
‘Behaving Like a Jew‘ by Gerald Stern is a moving poem about what it means to be Jewish in contemporary life.
The poet describes his speaker stopping on the side of a road to move the body of a deceased opossum out of the road. He mourns the creature’s loss and describes how angry unnecessary death makes him as a Jew. He shows his anger at the country, its blood-covered bumpers, and the disregard people have for lives that don’t resemble theirs.
The poet ends the poem with a discussion of how he’s going to remain unappeased in the face of death, refusing to accept that it is a natural part of life.
Structure and Form
‘Behaving Like a Jew by Gerald Stern is a twenty-eight-line free verse poem that is contained within a single stanza, known as block form. The poem does not use a consistent rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines end with very different words, like “road,” “just,” and “back.” Stern uses a variety of literary devices in this poem, a few of which are described below.
In this poem, the poet makes use of a few literary devices. For example:
- Caesura: an intentional pause in the middle of a line of verse, for example, “It took me only a few seconds—just.”
- Juxtaposition: an intentional contrast between two images in the poem. For example, the description of the mangled body of the possum and the poet’s final description of the creature’s “little dancing feet.”
- Allusion: this poem alludes to the long history of suffering the Jewish people have endured and how it has changed, the poet’s opinion, and their approach to life and death.
When I got there the dead opossum looked like
an enormous baby sleeping on the road.
It took me only a few seconds—just
seeing him there—with the hole in his back
and the wind blowing through his hair
to get back again into my animal sorrow.
I am sick of the country, the bloodstained
bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of the grilles,
In the first lines of this unique contemporary poem, the poet’s speaker begins by describing seeing a dead opossum on the side of the road. He immediately compares it, through a simile, to an “enormous baby.” This is meant to evoke the reader’s empathy and make it very understandable why the man stopped to check on it.
The animal evokes what the poet calls “my animal sorrow.” It took only moments for the speaker to see the creature and immediately fill with sorrow for the animal and anger at the world that allows innocent creatures to die painfully on the side of the road.
His anger with the world and the country comes through in the next lines of the poem.
The poet’s speaker notes that he is “sick of the country” and the “bloodstained / bumpers” that indicate a car has recently hit an animal int the road. This depiction is meant to evoke the reader’s empathy for the animals as well as anger at the endless and emotionless murder that goes on day in and day out.
the slimy highways, the heavy birds
refusing to move;
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
The following lines continue the poet’s depiction of the world. The highways that carry the murderous vehicles and the murderous people driving them are “slimy” and also feature “heavy birds,” likely an allusion to vultures who prey on the dead. The lines continue, with the speaker indicating that there is a certain approach to death in the country that he’s tired of. It’s a “joy in death” and an elevation of violence to something good and meaningful. Carnage and death are understood philosophically in a way that he is not willing to accept.
As a Jew, he says, he is going to be “unappeased at the opossum’s death.” He’s going to refuse to accept it as something natural and unavoidable. He’s going to take a stand, as he says most, if not all, Jews would, and resist the urge to ignore the creature’s life and suffering.
In these lines, the poet is alluding to a specific ideological understanding of the world that he feels is unique to the Jewish people. It is not exceptional, the poet once said, to be unappeased at the suffering of others.
Jews are the ones, the poet suggests, who weep for the loss of life, support oppressed minorities and care about those no one else does (a result likely originating from the horrors of the Holocaust and a desire for all people to live without suffering).
The depiction of Jewish people continues into the poem’s final lines as the speaker moves the opossum off the road.
and pull him off the road.
I am not going to stand in a wet ditch
from his round belly and his curved fingers
and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.
In the final lines, the speaker moves the creature to the side of the road. It’s a process that’s less than enjoyable and moves the speaker emotionally. He’s going to “behave like a Jew” and allow himself to mourn the animal, even when no one else is. He admires the animal’s belly, fingers, whiskers, and “little dancing feet.”
This concluding depiction is meant to help readers imagine the animal alive and see it moving through life happily. It is a good example of juxtaposition as it is meant to make the loss of life all the more traumatizing.
The poet also writes in these lines that instead of spending these moments accepting that death is a part of life and admiring the cycle of life/death, he is going to remain unappeased and angry at the loss. He will not praise the balance of life and death and instead stands strong, refusing to accept that death is a necessary part of life. It is this approach to loss that makes him a Jew, the poet suggests, and is unique to Jewish people.
The theme is what it means to be Jewish in contemporary life. This theme is expressed through one person’s reaction to a deceased opossum they moved out of the road.
Stern likely wrote this poem in order to express the way that history has changed the way Jewish people react to death. They do not celebrate danger, violence, and carnage as much of the contemporary world does.
The tone is determined, emotional, and angry. The speaker expresses his opinion of how death and life are treated in the contemporary world and determines that he, as a Jew, sees things differently.
The poem is about a man’s encounter with a dead opossum and his reaction to it. How he reacts serves as a symbol for the way that all Jewish people, the poet says, consider loss.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Gerald Stern poems. For example:
- ‘The Dancing’ – a poem that wrestles with feelings of joy and bittersweetness inspired by a fond memory.
Some other related poems include:
- ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ by W.B. Yeats – describes moments of Yeats’ own experience when he struggled to find a theme to write on.
- ‘Animal Tranquility and Decay’ by William Wordsworth – depicts an old man who has distanced himself from the cares of the world.
- ‘Refugee Blues’ by W.H. Auden – a powerful poem that describes the plight of German Jews seeking a refugee from the policies of Nazi Germany.