Red

The soup my ancestors made
was not like this.

Beets withered from cold storage
haven't changed, nor

the sharp bite of cabbage,
potatoes blinded by a paring knife

but who had tomato paste
in Stolpce or in Krasnopol?

They didn't store their broth
in freezer-safe Ziplocs

or browse a dozen recipes
for just the right black bread.

And when they heard
somebody hates the Jews

they might have said, so what?
Lake sturgeon swim upstream.

Some make it home to spawn;
some spill their gleaming jewels

at the tip of a fisherman's knife.
They don't complain. The water

that they breathe is all
they've ever known.

 


 

Hot Ukrainian Borscht is the Winter's Most Restorative Soup, Cook's Illustrated, January 2023.

A Family Finds Swastikas on the Lawn as Antisemitism Surges, The Washington Post, January 2023.

 

Also, it does look like tomato paste has long been a Russian staple -- though I'm guessing it was more likely to be homemade than to be the kind of mass-produced stuff most Americans eat now.


Finding The Missing Jew anew

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I don't have a copy of the original 1979 edition, alas.

 

When I saw the words "Jews do not come from heaven" in the table of contents of The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2022 by Rodger Kamenetz, unbidden my mouth said aloud, "they come from Russia."

I love this poem. I have been quoting its opening lines since I read a previous edition of The Missing Jew when I was in grad school the first time around, getting my MFA at Bennington. Here it is:

Jews do not come from heaven
they come from Russia.
With green eyes and olive skin.
Jews do not go to heaven
they go to Baltimore.

They do not come from heaven
because heaven is always
in the back of their minds.
They don't want to think about
heaven any more
it's too much trouble.

God bless Ben Yehuda Press (full disclosure: they published my books Open My Lips and Texts to the Holy, and they are Bayit's publishing partner on Beside Still Waters and Renew Our Hearts).

They've brought this new-old creation into print as The Missing Jew: Poems 1976-2022. The first section is the original 1979 collection. Rodger remixed his own work in 1992, and that's here too:

"Jews do not come from heaven..."

Jews are all people
in time
They are as plain
as day...

I thought to go back
to some Russia
of the eyes
Hazel eyes
green mixed with brown
young wheat, dark soil
streaks of sunlight
and a winter
of suffering...

I am here
in the thinnest sense
imaginable
an exile
wherever I go

Look how this poem speaks to its predecessor, like a great-grandchild answering a letter left by an ancestor. I hear melancholy Shostakovich, I feel my Russian grandfather looking over my shoulder.

And the remix of "Jews do not go to heaven" -- I will resist re-typing it here for you. I'm going to memorize that one, though. The one word he revised between 1992 and 2022 changes everything.

Is there a word in the world
waiting to be heard?
As if for the first time
and the only time is now?

That's from "Invisible Lines of Connection," dated 2020. Although this book was pieced from many sources -- published books, other poems from other moments -- it feels like an integrated whole. 

That integration makes me think of how the Talmud both holds and transcends the voices within. Even when the sages disagree, they are (as it were) on the same page. It's one interconnected conversation.

Here are psalms and songs from 1981-2021. Here are mourning poems, including "Lentil" which we reprinted in Beside Still Waters. It sometimes makes me gasp when I run across it again there.

This book is full of memory, and mysticism, and God speaking the world into being in Her own inimitable way, and Reb Nachman with his tears under the table pretending to be a turkey.

Fallen leaves recite kaddish. The infinite arrives on lightning feet. Every word is broken. Only the hidden can burst forth. We forgot what we were yearning for. Every one and every thing is for you.

I'm cheating: that paragraph is a pastiche of Rodger's lines. If that doesn't entice you, I don't know what would. I want to start a new commonplace book so I can copy these lines in my own hand.

 

The Missing Jew Poems 1976-2022 is available at Ben Yehuda Press or wherever books are sold.

 


Recycling (first published in The Light Travels)

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The midrash says when the invaders left
they carried off the golden lamp as loot.
The absence of the lampstand was an ache –
without its light, reserves of hope ran low.
We had to improvise with what we had:
the iron spears our enemies had dropped.

We made our Ner Tamid that year with trash,
repurposing the implements of war
for bringing sacred light. How about now?
The planet is our Temple – and it burns.
We can’t just close our eyes. We’re all
indicted by the plastics in the seas.

We need to learn to sanctify what's here:
weave rags to rugs, old tires into shoes,
upcycle guns to instruments of song.
The miracle is not that God steps in –
it’s that we use these remnants to rebuild:
dedicate them and their sparks to God.

 

The midrash says. See Pesikta Rabbati 2:1. Ner Tamid. The “eternal light” that burns in every synagogue now, evoking the menorah lit in the Temple. The plastics in the sea. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is one example of vast accumulation of microplastics in our oceans. Old tires into shoes. This is done all over the world, and is beginning to happen in the United States. Upcycle guns. See Pedro Reyes Creates 6,700 Beautiful Instruments from Mexican Drug War Guns.  We use these remnants. Innovators have turned plastic waste into bricks. Rededicate. The name Chanukah means dedication. [S]parks to God. From the mystical teaching that creation is filled with holy sparks that it’s our job to uplift.

 

This is my contribution to this year's Hanukkah offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group. Click through for our whole collaborative offering of new poetry, liturgy, and art: The Light Travels.


Untitled poem

 

This hillside is still
copper and rust flecked gold,

the rest bare and barren
a foretaste of what's to come.

Why does this light
still shine

when the rest
have let go?

The leaves aren't hope.
The trees don't mind.

Sometimes it lifts,
the sense of endless loss

and sometimes it settles in
like early winter.

 


This poem came to me while I was driving. It's not inspired by this specific hillside, but this one is close enough.

I've considered several titles: Fall. Rust. Grief. Let go. To live in this world. (The titles themselves make a small poem.) What would you title it?


A mezuzah in time

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Today we touch a mezuzah in time.
Behind us: a road glittering with holy days.

Look back over your shoulder and see 
a week in the sukkah, and before that

the fierce intimacy of Yom Kippur,
Rosh Hashanah's gilded majesty, and

before that the still waters of Elul,
the grief and uplift of Tisha b'Av...

Ahead: a fallow field scattered with leaves.
Time to integrate our changes.

Shemini Atzeret is a day for pausing,
the silence after the chant.

Today God asks us to linger a little longer.
Seven days of Sukkot have ended, but God says,

"won't you stay in the sukkah with Me
one more day, beloveds?" And we do.

 

 

If this speaks to you, you might also enjoy Seven songs, a poem cycle commissioned by Temple Beth El of City Island a few years ago, and A Sestina for Shemini Atzeret.


Rain


By the edge of the lake
of large red pines

I learned my name
calls out for rejoicing

though it's almost
time to pray

for rain. Beneath
heavy clouds

red-gold flags flutter.
Sometimes watering

looks like weeping
when we're one stiff wind

away from barren.
Teach me

to remove the stone
blocking your lips.

 


After the festival

after Jack Kornfield

 

After the festival, the laundry.
After the festival, exhaustion
and punch-drunk laughter.

Collapsing into the armchair
and absently petting the cat.
After the festival, silence rings.

There's so much to do -- building
and repair, a new name for God,
making all our promises real.

But not today. Today, gratitude
for the washing machine, swirling
my Yom Kippur whites clean.


Abandon

 

כִּֽי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהֹוָ֣''ה יַאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

"Though my father and mother abandon me, God will take me in.” (Psalm 27:10)



It’s the start of Elul 
and these words
stick in my throat.

They’d grown so tired.
I told them it was okay,
they could go. But right now

it isn’t okay. They won’t
ever sit at my table again.
Their voices are silent.

All the high holidays
I haven’t lived yet
stretch ahead of me

without parents,
just still photos
behind the lit candle.

It’s a scant six months
since we buried him
on his side of the bed. 

Having no parents
is so much more (or less)
than having only one.




Womb


At the bend of the river
there's a pond we don't call
the womb of the world, though we could --
this patch of deep water reflecting
tall purple loosestrife.
The pond is a womb, the world
is a womb. Emerge glorious
and dripping, emerge like Chava
radiant and new. Then listen
to cricketsong's rise and fall --
the One Who speaks us into being
the One Who enwombs all creation
is murmuring blessing over
and over, telling us who we are.

 


Choice

Content warning: miscarriage, rape, child abuse, forced birth.  Please take care of yourself: if reading about any of those things would cause you harm, skip this poem.


1. Miscarriage

Thirteen years ago I went to sleep pregnant and woke with thick clots sticky on my thighs. Swamped with blood and despair, I pleaded please God please don't let this be a miscarriage, but my prayer was null. That pregnancy was already over. At least my body expelled the tissue without incident. I didn't go septic. And back then if I'd needed a doctor, I could have entered any public hospital, even in a red state. If it happened today I could be like the woman sent home from the hospital to wait for infection to set in. Or the one sent home to fill a bathtub with blood because the D&C she needs is now against the law. She says they'll stop trying to conceive: in the state where she lives, it's no longer safe. Grief and rage rise in me like a hurricane, like a tsunami, like the flood of blood I couldn't stop.


2. As if

as if
the agony of our bodies betraying us
weren't enough

now 
we might be blamed for feticide
we might be jailed

hemorrhaging
we might have to beg the pharmacist for drugs 
they still might say "I can't help you" 

 

3. Weep

For the one who knows a second bout with postpartum depression will be fatal.
For the one with preexisting conditions for whom pregnancy means death.

For the one shadowed with bruises, trapped in an abusive marriage.
For the rape victim now twice forced

For the pregnant child, almost certainly violated 
by someone they know, body wracked and changed.

For the one forced to carry a dead fetus to term and labor to birth it. 
For the one who just doesn't want to get pregnant.

For everyone now realizing that if they get impregnated, a cluster of cells trumps.
For everyone who's known that choice is not enough, and could be taken away.

 

4. Questions

Which is worse: being jailed for miscarriage
or forced into giving birth?
Had you considered that question before this year?

Did you previously understand
the Supreme Court could strip away bodily autonomy
as though it were a dress we no longer get to wear?

If your answer is no: are you white, affluent, cisgender,
straight, and/or temporarily able-bodied?
Do you think those adjectives will protect you now?

 

 


 

I don't live in a forced-birth state, though the GOP is already talking about banning abortion nationwide if they gain control of the Senate in November.

For now I'm thankful that I retain autonomy over my own body, and I grieve and rage for everyone for whom that is no longer true (and/or was never functionally true -- I'm aware that for many, the promise of "choice" was meaningless without access and resources.)

My practice is to grieve and rage (and write furious poems) when I need to, and then find something I can do to help people who have it worse than I do. If you have a few dollars to spare, donate to the NCJW Jewish Fund for Abortion Access. It doesn't fix what's broken, but it will help.

 


Not the First

the same poem that appears below, beside a photograph of tealight candles

 

Lately the drumbeat of lies,
the erosion of rights feel like
constant bombardment.
I know incitement of hatred
is never good for the Jews.
I also know we're not the first
generation to live like this.
When bad news batters at the windows
I remember the Jews who fled Europe
and those who couldn’t leave in time.
Aish Kodesh, rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto
who buried wisdom in a coffee can
before the Nazis shot him.
I remember Cossacks, Crusades, Rome
all the way back to exile
by the waters of Babylon...
Every Friday night I cup
my hands around twin flames.
Millennia of ancestors stand
behind me. Their hope still burns.
I mean clear-eyed awareness
of just how broken this world is
and refusal to let that be
the last word. Yes, everything’s
shattered, our mystics told us that.
They also knew beneath every shard
is a holy spark nothing can ever quench.

Originally published at Bayit.

 

That's one of the poems I wrote for Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group, to share as part of our collaborative offering for Tisha b'Av this year, which is called For the Sake of Ascent.

This year, it feels like we live in Tisha b'Av -- in the brokenness -- all the time. Between ongoing pandemic, the climate crisis, and the stripping-away of rights, there's no escaping what hurts.

This year, we wanted our Tisha b'Av offering to acknowledge the broken places, but beyond that, to offer some meaning and hope despite all of our shattered places... or maybe in them and through them. 

And this year, the holiday falls on Shabbat, so it will be observed the following day, which is actually the tenth of Av -- and the first day of the reverse Omer count, the 49-day journey toward Rosh Hashanah.

That's the hook on which our offering hangs. The lowest point of our year is also the beginning of uplift: from rock bottom, where else is there to go? We respond to what's broken with building back better.

The theme for Bayit's Tisha b'Av collaboration this year is Descent for the Sake of Ascent. This is a Hasidic idea that I deeply love. In a word, our falling down is precisely the first step of our rising up.

Anyway: I hope you'll click through to read the whole collection of poetry, liturgy, and art for this year's Tisha b'Av, available both as a PDF and as google slides: For the Sake of Ascent - Tisha b'Av 5782.


Titanic

Unfortunately I did not manage
to solve gun violence today.
Instead I soaked a cup of beans
-- big plump ayocote negros --
and simmered them with a mirepoix
of shallot and celery, peppercorn
and bay. Tonight I'll peel and fry
the blackest plantain, dusting
ginger and red pepper flakes
over its sweet insides.
Probably more people were shot
today, somewhere, many of them
with weapons that do damage
no surgeon can repair. Also
the Supreme Court keeps
stripping rights away, and
people say that's only the start.
Did you know there's a megadrought
in the southwest, the worst
it's been in twelve hundred years?
Armageddon isn't included
in my theology, though
that doesn't preclude collapse
of climate, or government, or
everything I hold dear. Still
I offered a prayer for gratitude
when I got out of bed, cooked
black beans, prepared for Shabbes.
I may be rearranging deck chairs
or conducting the string quartet
on the Titanic, but the thing is
this life is the only boat we have.
There might as well be beauty
and a meal, a prayer and a song.


 

with weapons that do damage / no surgeon can repair - See What I Saw Treating the Victims from Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns, Heather Sher, The Atlantic

the Supreme Court keeps / stripping rights away - See What Rights Could Be Next?, Politico; The End of Roe Could Be Just the Beginning, GQ

Did you know there's a megadrought - See Megadrought In the Southwest Is Now The Worst In At Least 1200 Years, Study Confirms, State of the Planet. 


Phone call


Your number is still in my favorites.
(So is Mom's.) This morning
I touched the screen by accident
and for an instant I dialed you.

I hung up quick as I could, before
the recorded voice could tell me
this number is no longer in service.
(As though I could forget.)

Opened my email instead, and
there in my inbox: a photo of you
and me, and my son (maybe five?)
at the zoo. To see you again

happy with your grandson...!
Maybe the tap of my iphone screen
came from the other side. It's been
three months, you're learning how

to place a call from there.
Good morning, Dad. I'm doing okay.
So good to hear your voice.
I had a heart attack just like you.

(I've been saying I wanted to be
more like you were in later life.
This wasn't what I had in mind.)
But I'm going to be fine. Last time

you were here we talked about
someday expanding my tiny mirpesset:
I did that this year. I like to think
you sit with me out there sometimes,

when you're not playing backgammon
with Phillip again, or taking Mom
to parties overflowing with champagne
where the band never stops.

 


 

If this speaks to you, you might also find resonance in Crossing the Sea, the book of poems that arose out of my first year of mourning my mom.

 


Rhythm

Heart2

 

 

The sea is good medicine after a heart attack. This is how you do it, heart. Listen to this unceasing rhythm.

Flowing in, pouring out. Pushing and pulling. Kissing the shore, then dancing away.

 

 

Like Shabbes

followed by week

followed by Shabbes

followed by week

forever and ever.

 

 

Slipper shells and pebbles of quartz and granite tumble against the shore.

Then pull away. Then return.

 

 

A distant seawall marks the horizon.

The tug and release pulls at my ankles, shifting the ground beneath my feet.

Months from now there will still be grains of sand in my car.

 

 


Lake

Bend low, dipping
until my fingers
skim the warm water
near the surface.

This syllable
means death in Hebrew
but let's prolong
hope's steady drip.

A tor rises
from the hillside:
aspiring only
to keep existing.

Listen to the trill
of cricket opera
as my little boat
glides on.

Not certain, but maybe
something trails behind,
a string dragging
lines across the lake.

And you, hovering
over the face
of the waters
like a mother bird.

 


The list of medications I am now taking is long, and their names can sound like a foreign language. Scanning my meds, I remembered a poetry technique from my time at Bennington -- "translating" words into English (seeking out homophones, more or less), and then using that somewhat random assemblage of words to spark a poem. This poem arose out of my list of meds in that way.


Magazine

 


The pages of my magazines
are smudged with sriracha
and spattered with schmaltz.

They fall open naturally
to roasted eggplant crosshatched
and crowned with tahini,

bright cubes of cantaloupe
punchy with ancho chile
and speckled with queso fresco.

But magazine can also mean
a chamber for holding cartridges
to feed automatically

into a gun, which reminds me
of the article I don't need
to re-read -- the one where

a radiologist describes
the slim silver line sketched
by an ordinary bullet,

versus the way
one fired from an AR-15
ripples waves of flesh

like a cigarette boat
traveling through
a narrow canal

turning any part of us
into smashed overripe melon,
nothing left to repair.

 


 

Roasted Eggplant With Caramelized Tahini, Milk Street

Chili Lime Melon Salad, Milk Street

What I Saw Treating the Victims from Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns, Heather Sher, The Atlantic


Don't Stop

Remember the timeline
made of soft colored felt?
Foot after foot of black:
the Big Bang, eventually stars. 

A band of yellow (planets form.)
Green for teeming plants.
Orange for the dinosaurs'
165,000,000 year reign.

At the end a tiny red line:
Neanderthals, Mesopotamia,
Toltecs, Industrial Revolution,
today's headlines. In that line

humans lift each other up
and tear each other down.
The dance has always been
two steps forward, one step back.

The arc of the universe doesn't
bend toward anything
unless we push and pull,
coax and cajole. Don't stop.

 

At the Judson Montessori school in San Antonio, where I went for preschool and first grade, there was a timeline of the universe made out of felt. I remember it like I remember lunchtimes listening to Ravel's "Bolero." The felt strip was maybe 4" wide, and many feet long, longer than I could count.

Mostly what I remember about the timeline now is the long stretch of black felt that signified the early history of the universe, and the tiny red line all the way at the right end that signified human history. (Kind of like this Kurtzgesagt video, but low-tech and tangible. It was the late 1970s, after all.)

That timeline has been coming back to me recently. How vast is the history of the universe. How tiny our human fraction of time. How much beauty, and how much horror, we've packed into the thin sliver of time when human beings have been alive on this earth. How much work we still have to do.


Not Knowing

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The only thing I know:
we are not "there" yet,
and I'm not sure where "there" is
or how we will feel
or with what we will serve.

It's scary not having a map
to safety. Scarier still
that some claim the plague
never happened, or the deaths
aren't important...

These years are wilderness
and sometimes I struggle to hear
the still small voice
calling me forth
from my armchair, calling me

into humble not-knowing
and into the splendor
of not making myself afraid.
This work isn't new, and
we won't complete it: that’s ok.

Yes, there were leeks
in the beforetimes. I miss
them too. But then I remember
not everyone got to eat
even then. We can do better.

It's all right to feel fear
as long as we put one foot
in front of the other.
There is no path to Sinai
other than this.




With what we will serve - see Exodus 10:26. The still small voice - see I Kings 19:12Not making myself afraid - After Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, והעיקר לא להתפחד כלל / the important thing is not to make oneself afraid. Humble…splendor - Two ways of translating הוד, the quality our mystics associate with this week. We won’t complete it - see Pirkei Avot 2:16. There were leeks - see Numbers 11:5.

 

Originally published as part of Step by Step: Omer 5782, the collaborative offering from Bayit's Liturgical Arts Working Group for this year's Omer journey. Find that collection here:  Step by Step: Omer 5782 at Bayit.


Hineni / Here I Am

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Here I am
ready and willing
to hear your voice

in the golden fire
that tips the willow trees
with spring sunlight --

to breathe your fragrance
on my fingers
kissed by rosemary --

to feel you with me
night and day
with every heartbeat.

You are becoming.
I want to become
worthy to walk with you.

I'm taking off my shoes,
exposed feet vulnerable
on shifting sand.

My heart is bare too:
ready to hear
and be changed.

 


 

Here I am -  הנני / Hineni is Moses' response to God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:4).

Ready and willing - As in the blessing before counting the Omer, "Here I am, ready and willing..."

You are becoming. - The Name that God gives to Moses at the bush is אהיה אשר אהיה / Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am becoming what I am becoming." (Exodus 3:14)

I'm taking off my shoes - See Exodus 3:5. (See also Remove the habits...)

 

 

This poem was written in preparation for Shavuot. Here are a few others: