This poem was first published in What Stays, my second chapbook of poems (Bennington Writing Seminars Alumni Chapbook Series, 2002.) It has been used in congregations and independent minyanim during Kol Nidre services.
My people break our promises publicly.
We stand and say "Hey, God, you know,
you can't hold us to anything really,
I mean we're creation, right?" We declare
all vows, promises, and oaths
of the year to come -- all vows we're too silent
or too weak or forgetful to uphold --
null and void in advance.
We say, "God, you're listening, right?" We say,
"Don't worry, God. We still feel guilt."
We are like wild grapes.
We are beautiful, and we are sour.
Forgive us, and forgive
the stranger in our midst.
In Stolpce, my grandfather's town,
some sons ran away, abandoned God.
Joined the army, splashed water
on bare faces, cooked pea soup with bacon.
Even they would gather once a year,
press their ears to the synagogue door,
whisper the Aramaic words and weep.
My grandmother's house in Prague
had a Christmas tree up to the ceiling.
When children said she'd killed their God
she said, "That must have been the Polish Jews."
For Kol Nidre she wore her new fur coat
and walked the cobbled promenade.
At eighty she still fasted, stood and swayed.
Once my Hebrew teacher stood a girl
in the trash because she wouldn't learn.
I came home bursting with new sounds
and imitated his accent at the dinner table.
I argued with our yardman, a Jehovah's Witness.
Later Eloisa chewed him out in Spanish:
didn't he know what Jewish meant?
So that our vows may no longer be vows
we knock on our breasts with loose fists,
we speak an abecedarium of sins.
We know the disclaimer only lasts so long;
next year we'll be back with our court
of three, holding scrolls, looking solemn.
We know how foolish we sound
but the melody is old, and makes us cry.