Magnified and sanctified be the names in the census:
these print-outs piled on the kitchen island
like petals from some vast magnolia scented with toner;
these passenger manifests showing which ancestor
came when and lived with whom (and where.)
Family and boarders, all "Hebrew," all literate, together!
Blurred and scanned, puzzled and deciphered: praise
the crabbed handwriting giving us (now)
all these names, each a part
of the great name, just as stars
are part of the galaxy, burning on and on.
And may we all remember, their descendants,
that Poland wasn't black and white, but real, like here.
Endless database of names, hold our memories for us,
inscribe us on an everlasting hard drive, and we say: amen.
This week's portion is Bamidbar, the first portion in the book of Bamidbar, which in English we call Numbers. Most of the portion concerns the taking of a census of the whole Israelite community, "by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head." (Numbers 1:2)
When I was in San Antonio last week, an aunt of mine who's deeply interested in genealogy showed me her printouts from Ancestry.com, passenger manifests from ships and records from the 1910 census that showed my great-great-grandparents' arrivals and living arrangements. So the notion of the census was immediately resonant for me.
This week's portion is full of names, which put me in mind of a teaching I learned from Reb Arthur Waskow about the shmeh rabbah, the Great Name, which we invoke in the kaddish (the prayer we say at the conclusion of study, as a gate or bridge between different parts of the service, and also in our mourning). The kaddish recited after study offers a chance to remember our teachers and their students and their students' students. Reb Arthur teaches that each of their names becomes part of the Great Name, the Name of God which includes and enfolds all of our names. The same might be said of a yarzheit list (the list of names we read in memory of those who have died), and of the long list of names in this week's portion.
The rhythm of the poem may be familiar. It mirrors the mourner's kaddish, which is typically spoken aloud
rather than sung. (Though I suppose I could also sing this poem
in weekday nusach!) These rhythms help me read the lists of names in this week's
portion in a more personal way.
As usual, if you can't see the audio player at the top of this post or if you'd like a copy of the recorded poem, you can download census.mp3.