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455 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Brilliant Poet, Ardent Activist, and Founding JVPSD Member
Steve Kowit Dies at 76

by Jewish Voice for Peace, San Diego [JVPSD]

Steve Kowit passed away in his sleep April 2nd. JVPSD has lost a deeply committed activist. We remember him for his enthusiasm, moral principles, gentleness, and intelligence.

A lifetime poet and teacher, Steve was never shy about challenging orthodoxies. At an early JVPSD meeting, he suggested dropping the word “Jewish” from the name of the group to emphasize a universal vision of humanity (he graciously accepted the rejection of his proposal). He was a whirlwind at demonstrations, animated, and sublimely happy! More than anyone, Steve kept alive the idea of a billboard campaign for San Diego after it had been officially put on hold, a campaign which recently came to fruition with great success. Thank you, Steve.

Steve was at his very best before a live audience, as a teacher and a poet, especially in reciting his own poetry. If the poet uses his own skin for “wallpaper,” as one poet complained, Steve’s skin was most sensitive to injustice. His poetry raged against the crimes of many, sparing no one. Some of his most moving lines decried the many abuses and indignities suffered by the Palestinians at the hands of Israel, supposedly in the name of the Jewish people.

Recently Steve read one of his searing tracts, the poem “Intifada,” before a live audience at a local radio broadcast. Here, Steve was the angry poet in suspenders evoking empathy for the Palestinians and outrage at the depredations inflicted upon them. He didn’t just “read” his poem; rather, Steve worked his audience by dramatizing his words, moving around, gesturing, and staring into faces. The result was unforgettable. This reading reflected his accessible, conscience-driven approach to poetry, a style which draws on the San Francisco beat poets of the 1940’s and 1950’s he admired in his youth.

Steve would also harness his pen for more prosaic tasks including a recent Op Ed in [The San Diego] Union Tribune [Is the U.S.-Israel love affair on the rocks?] that alerted San Diegans to JVP’s billboard campaign against Israeli oppression and decried Israel’s legacy of ethnic cleansing. He also published several well regarded essays on poetry.

In a recent email, Steve’s widow Mary referred to her late husband’s “wonderfulness.” Steve did touch the lives of many, including his students as indicated by the many tributes his passing has prompted. We JVPSD members are most grateful for having Steve in our community and for providing us with moral sustenance and inspiration as needed. We all remember his persistent exhortation to speak the truth when it came to Israeli injustices. Steve will be sorely missed but his impassioned model for justice will endure in our hearts.

—Previously published by Jewish Voice for Peace, San Diego and republished here with their permission. A version of the obituary which includes the JVPSD photo of Steve may be downloaded as a PDF.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury