It was not until adolescence, and only because of a shared love for poetry, that Bill Berkson learned that his father’s side of the family was Jewish.

“I knew my grandparents and spent long, long afternoons when they visited in the summers in Chicago with my grandmother, playing canasta, playing cards, and she told me all kinds of stories, but she didn’t get into that,” he said by phone. “Eventually she did, just by mentioning that she wrote poetry, which I later got to read, and that she published in the temple newsletter. And then she was sending me her poems when I was in my last years of high school. I used to get her poems and criticize them ruthlessly.”

Berkson laughed at the memory, but said the realization caused him to do a double take. “It changed things,” he said. “My house was a completely secular household, and completely agnostic. I mean there was no religion in the house. It wasn’t anti-religion, it just wasn’t there.”

But how the realization changed him is less clear, and the question — what exactly makes someone Jewish — is nearly as old as the written word.

Mark Twain’s eloquent rumination “On the Jews,” written in 1897, begins: “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.”

Depending on whom you ask, Jewishness is passed down through the father’s side of the family or the mother’s. To others, it’s a religion, its practice what constitutes its identity. It ought to be interesting, then, to experience a group of poets who are Jewish, in one way or another, and to see what they do and don’t have in common. This was the idea when Berkson and his friend Renny Pritikin organized a program of Jewish Bay Area poets reading work by deceased Jewish poets.

“Most of the people who will be reading probably have next to no obvious Jewish content or topicality in their work,” Berkson said. “I think that the effect will be one of immense diversity and disparity. Just looking at the list, what do all these people have in common in their poetry? They’re so different from each other.”

The roster is intergenerational, ranging from David Meltzer and Norma Cole to Suzanne Stein and Alli Warren, reading the likes of Paul Celan, Gertrude Stein and Charles Renikoff.

If you go

Jewish Poets on Jewish Poets: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 11. $5. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. (415) 655-7800.


This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.