TRIPTYCH

A triptych hangs in the gallery of memory. Admission is by invitation only.

The first panel is a time fogged mirror into which I stare. The adopted image hides behind the tarnished silver. My adopted mother’s voice is heard from a hidden speaker: “You were named after my father.” I want to tape his picture to the glass, a face to share the empty space. She has no pictures, she says, he never liked being photographed, said it would steal his soul. She can barely remember him: “He died when I was five.” I ask questions. I need to know more about the giver of names. She falls silent, drawing in, secreting memory.

In the second panel a woman sits, fidgeting. She is a striking blond. I cannot see her as being sixty-one, though she is. I deny that I am fifty. As the Rabbis climb the few steps to the Bimah, she leans over. “You know,” Lois says, “just like you, I was named for your grandfather. She talks freely of herbalism, life in New York, places she wants someday to see. “It’s funny,” she whispers, “I’ve never seen a picture of him; like he had some kind of phobia of being photographed.” Outside the Temple she stands with my mother and sister, arms interlocked, embracing both. I snap the picture. I am not captured on the film. Lois and I drive back to my mother’s apartment, stopping at one of the unending lights on Wisconsin Avenue. She touches my hand: “You know there was one more person named after him, your other sister.” The light changes.

There is only a picture hook in the wall — not even the faint outline that marks the space from which a picture is removed, the wall beneath unbleached by the sun. Lisa, my my sister, like me adopted and as quickly withdrawn, left no outward marks. She is a footnote in my father’s obituary. She is cast off by family, an unmentionable. She is my mother’s deeply hidden scar.

I am repeatedly drawn into this room. It’s walls never change, the pictures periodically replaced. I need to visit, to assure myself of — what? Someday, too soon, this exhibit will close.

First appeared in Pitkin in Progress, Vol. 3, No. 1 (2002)

SNAKE, PRAY FOR US

In a time set aside for mourning
we easily remember those, loved
or despised, taken by age, disease,
war or poverty and neglect.

But trapped in our isolation
we should also pause and recall
the snake, condemned for offering
knowledge for which we were ill-equipped.

Let us not forget the ram,
whose only sin was to be
in the wrong place at the wrong time,
traded for Isaac without remorse.

And let us share a moment’s silence
for those left behind as God’s waters rose,
wondering as they drowned, how Noah decided,
God hearing no appeals in His pique.

Who will mourn for us, when we
make our departure, or will we
be like the snake, ram and Noah’s overlooked,
awaiting for eternity a poetic moment.

First appeared in Song Between Our Stars, Issue 1, Spring 2021

https://thesongbetweenourstars.com/v1n1

APSE SOLUTION

One downside of growing up
Jewish is that you never meet
an angel or a church mouse

I have met angels, although they
were in the guise of Bodhisattvas,
and there are a surprising number
if you look carefully enough.

As to church mice, I do have
to wonder why they are symbolic,
for they have vast homes,
direct access to God, or
the Bishop or synod, and if
they aren’t tapping into
the collection plate,
they aren’t real mice, and as
for starving, do they keep
the communion supplies
in a safe, for if not, the mice
are certainly never go hungry.

TODAY’S PRAYER

Today’s prayer
shall be recited in silence,
total, not even the breath
indicating a longing for action.
Nor will it invoke
a holy spirit without us
for it is we who
we must inveigh
to attain the desired
actions for which we seek
holy intervention, casting off
free will, an accrediting
poor decisions, a goat
where we seek escape
and atonement
for the sins of all the others.
Today’s prayer
shall not be recited at all,
but it is this prayer
in which we find absolution.

First appeared in The Poet: Faith, Spring 2021

TOO MANY COOKS

I can still recall
the day my mother
was ecstatic on learning
that everything grew
out of a primordial soup.
It was proof, she
was certain, of a Jewish
God, even if he didn’t
do it all with his own hands.
And, with a broad smile
she said, I’m fairly certain
at the soup
was chicken, maybe
with kreplach on the side.

BUDDHA AND HILLEL DINE TOGETHER

The meeting occurred by chance,
two old men sitting in the same park
staring at the same empty chess board
as the waves of the Stygian Sea
lapped against the break wall,
the ferryman now at the helm
of the great cargo ship.
“So,” said Hillel, “you come here often?”
Old, bent Buddha paused
“as far as I know, I have
always been here, or perhaps
I am not here now, never have been.”
“I know the feeling” the ancient Rabbi said
“I’ve been here so long, I too
have begun to doubt my very existence.”
Buddha rubbed his great girth
and smiled placidly as a black bird
alighted on his shoulder.
The Rabbi stroked his beard
the stood on one foot,
only to have two bluejays
land, one on each arm.
“Would you care to join me,”
he asked, “for a meal at Ming’s
or if you prefer, we can do take out
from the Dragon Palace,
whatever suits your mood,
in any event, my treat this time.”
The saffron robed old man
unfolded himself, and erect
and bowing, said
“It would honor me to dine with you
but if you wouldn’t mind
I’d much prefer a bowl
of chicken soup with kreplach
and a pastrami on rye.”

First appeared here April 24, 2016

THE FINAL? TRANSCRIPTS OF ENTRIES FROM THE TAPE RECORDED JOURNALS OF YETTA GOLDSTEIN

ENTRY:    March 23, 1992

 

Damn David, what was he thinking?  I should be over at Shirley’s playing mah jongh, but no.  Ma, you need some adventure in your life.  Like I need hemorrhoids, I need this.  Schvitzing like a fountain, I’m the queen of Mardi Gras.  Who is he kidding?  I’m a Jewish dishrag in a swamp, Fat Tuesday.  For this I raised him, fed him, and bought him a fine education at the best goyishe schools money could buy.  And he sends me to a swamp.  Was I such a bad mother, I deserve this?  Tea at Sibley’s, that’s where I should be, but No, “Ma, you’ll have fun.”  If this is fun, God, bring on some suffering.  Where did I go wrong to deserve such tsuris.  Okay, so maybe there were days I didn’t change the diaper soon enough.  He resents me so much he sends me here?  Not a Jew in sight, and these fakokteh masks, I’m schvitzing my mascara off.  And what kind of hotel has fans and no air.  Local experience my tuchus.  At least in the mountains the air moves.  Here, bupkis.  So maybe it was her idea, that princess he married.  This is her way of getting even, for what, I don’t know.  She sits around the “Club” all day while he breaks his back making a life.  He would have been better off with that shiksah he dated in college, God should cut out my tongue.  Shirley save me from this madness.  Ethel, where the hell are you when I need you.  And Saul, may it be really warm in the place you are going, you putz, for giving me a son like this.

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ENTRY:  August 18, 2005

So he calls this morning, out of nowhere, my David.  He who’s allergic to the phone, how often he calls.  David, whose diapers I changed, it seems like forever, the sheets till he was ten.  His pediatrician had some long name for it, but I knew he was just too lazy to go to the bathroom during the night.  It’s not like he had to wash the pishy sheets after all.  And Lizzie hated handling the smelly things, but that’s what maids do I, had to keep telling her.  So he calls this morning, this son of mine, this child who, God willing, will say to me before I’m deaf as a stone like that composer, before they plant me in some discount plot with no view, Ma, thanks for all you did for me.  Like he even remembers!  From him I get mishegas in heaps, and tsuris in unhealthy doses.  And he calls in the morning?  Who died, I say.  And he goes silent.  The last time he was silent he was under general anesthesia, with a tube down his throat.  But now, he calls me for the first time in forever and then goes silent when I open my mouth.  I want to say thanks for the bupkis, but I bite my tongue, mothers shouldn’t be sarcastic.  Who died, I repeat.  “Dad is dead,” he whispers.  I say, “like I don’t know my father is dead, he died years ago, when you were still pishing your crib.”   “Not grandpa,” he says, “dad. You know, MY FATHER.”  Oh, I said, thanks for telling this to me.  “The memorial service is Thursday in the Interfaith Chapel over at the U.”  This I truly needed to know, I’m not at all sure why.  To me, I buried Saul, the schmuck, years ago, nice and deep in my memory, didn’t want his head popping up.  I buried the putz and now he’s got to go and die again, he couldn’t leave well enough alone.  So now I’m supposed to stand there in black, which makes me look twenty pounds heavier than I am, and pretend to cry, like I’d risk getting tears on good Italian silk.  Better they shouldn’t give me the shovel, I’ll dig him deeper still.  And with the black lace for the head, like a bit of drek landed on my hair.  So maybe that’s why he died, so I should stand around in black and everyone should stand around and whisper, just so I can hear, “look at Yetta, she looks so old, and has she put on the pounds.”  God, why do you punish me so?  Okay, so I made a mistake, I married the putz.  You blessed me with a child, so what if he can’t remember my birthday and thinks Mother’s Day is sometime in October, when he recalls it at all.  So now God, you think I haven’t suffered enough.  Like my tsuris meter is reading empty and I need a refill?  With a sense of humor like that God, it’s no wonder we had to invent the Borscht Belt.  Okay, so we had a couple of decent years, and the Caddy was a nice touch, but why would he think I’d want red?  You go figure.  And a memorial service at the Interfaith Chapel, what’s with that, unless it’s cheaper than the Chapel at the Schul.   So he thinks maybe he’ll pick up a shiksah in the next life, fat chance.  He didn’t want his non-Jewish friends to be uncomfortable, David said.  Like either of those goys could be uncomfortable in a room where there’s wine.  Discomfort? They should have shared a bed with Saul, they want to know discomfort.  You want sorrow?  Feel some for the Levy’s, next plot over, Saul, now they have to put up with your snoring for all eternity.  And me, all I got is this silent house with the toilet in the guest room that never flushes right.

First appeared here April 5, 2016

THREE MORE TRANSCRIPTS OF ENTRIES FROM THE TAPE RECORDED JOURNALS OF YETTA GOLDSTEIN

ENTRY:  March 27, 1971

So, finally he’s here.  Nine months, what God, another joke?  Okay, she ate the damned apple, so stick it to the snake.  But what would you know, another man.  For six hours I’m lying there, dying from pain before the shmendrick walks in like some king, smiles at all the cutesy nurses, finally sees me and says “Yetta, you look good.”  I look good and he should get a giant boil on his tuchus.  God, me again, a couple more things:  One, it would kill you if David, yes a good biblical name, to hell I was going before I’d agree to Morty like my Saul wanted, so it would kill you if you gave him some hair so he doesn’t look like an overripe peach with eyes?  Two, so how about a new rule, labor before childbirth lasts only as long as the act of conception.  I could live with a two minute labor, and that’s from when Saul starts thinking about it.  And David’s lying on my belly (God, you can have the extra weight back now, I’m done with it) and he’s smiling at me  and Saul says “can I hold him, you’ve been carrying him for nine months.”  It’s a good thing I’m so tired or Saul would get a second bris, this time with a butter knife and no wine.  So listen, God, I need some rest, but a tip for the next world you create.  Skip the cockroaches, and if women have to suffer, hemorrhoids will suffice – we don’t need husbands too.

 

ENTRY:   October 2, 1987

It’s Erev Yom Kippur, and this year Saul got the good seats.  Just in front of that new, cut young Cantor, what a Kol Nidre this will be.  And he’s single, not that I am.  Memo to self, find out what Saul’s hiding with the good seats.  I know he’s not schtupping his secretary, for that he’d have me made President of the Woman’s Club and maybe a seat on the Board.  And God, what to wear.  I could wear that new black silk, but it doesn’t go at all with my mink.  God, could you maybe give me a hint what kind of shmatah Natalie Stein, you know her, big nose and too much eye makeup, is wearing tonight?  Would that be too much to ask?

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ENTRY:     June 14, 1990

That putz, where does he get off saying he doesn’t love me, hasn’t for years.  What? I didn’t cook his meals, sew buttons back on his shirts always popping off, always a size too small.  This is how he repays me.  He should breakfast with worms.  It would be easier if there were another woman, maybe a bit younger, maybe a shiksa, that I could understand.  But no, god forbid, just “I don’t love you anymore.”  What a schmuck, and me – didn’t see it coming.  So God, this is payback for what, exactly?    That Yom Kippur I snuck a half a bagel before sunset.  Have a heart, there was no cream cheese, much less lox.  The kids are grown, I should be thankful for that I suppose, some nachos I’ll carry forward, that and the house the Lexus and the summer place, let him live in some apartment, may he someday rot in hell.  What to do?  First a good lawyer, heaven knows he’ll find some shyster.  Second, two buttons left on each of his damned shirts.  Let him poke himself with the needle, the prick.  I’ll survive, it’s not like my life with him wasn’t tsuris heaped on mishegas.   I’m better rid of him.  I’ll show him, clean him out good, he’ll think prunes are second rate when I’m done with him.  Oh God, am I such a bad person, you should make me suffer like this, you haven’t given me enough grief already?  This is how You repay a mother and wife?  God, you have some twisted sense of humor, but I’ll survive, just to prove You wrong too.  Oy, if only God were a woman, what a world this could be. 

First appeared here on April 4, 2016

LIGHTS

For eight days each December
they call out to me as the flame
of the candles flickers out,
“Remember me” they say in unison,
“remember me”, in the voice of the child,
an old woman, in Yiddish,
in Polish, German, Czech, Latt.
I want to remember but I cannot see
a face reduced to ash, blended
into the earth of a farm field outside Treblinka,
the winter wheat remembers.
I want to remember but I cannot stroke
the head of a young man whose bones
mingle with his brother’s, countless others
sharing a mass grave, his skull
and brains painting the trunks
of a nearby stand of trees.
I want to remember but cannot hear
the sweet tenor of the cantor
whose tongue was torn from his mouth
for refusing to speak of the tunnels
beneath his once beloved Warsaw.
I want to remember the lavender scent
of the young woman, fresh from the showers
but there is only the stench
of putrid flesh and Zyklon,
of bodies crammed into the converted boxcar.
I want to remember the taste
of a warm challah on Shabbat eve
that she lovingly shaped
into a braid and pulled from the oven,
but her arms were neatly removed
by the surgeon before she
was cast naked into the Polish winter.
I want to remember them all,
their names in a memorial
but they are only numbers
tattooed onto endless arms.
The candles die and their voices
fall silent for yet another year.

First Appeared in Rattle, Issue 7, Summer 1997. Reprinted in Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2005.

FIRST TRANSCRIPTS FROM THE TAPE RECORDED JOURNALS OF YETTA GOLDSTEIN

ENTRY:  July 30, 1970

So, is this fakokteh box doing anything?  Hello, HELLO?  Buttons, now I’m a button pusher.  Some kind of secretary now.  Hello?  Oh, hell, if it’s on it’s on and if not that’s Saul’s problem.  So yesterday I tell my Saul, “You wouldn’t believe, we’re pregnant!”  And Saul says, “you mean you’re pregnant Yetta, now isn’t a good time – can we talk about this later?”  “Later, schmater,” I say, “we’re going to have a baby, so what do you feel?”  And Saul pauses like emotions are alien to him somehow.  “You know I’m excited,” he says.  Like a dead person shows excitement as they lower him into the ground.  “But I thought we were going to wait until the business grows.”  And I’m thinking so Saul, did you tell your sperm they should be patient, maybe they should forget how to swim.  But when he gets home he got this plastic box with the cartridge thingee that only goes in backwards, a true goyish design.  “It’s a cassette recorder,” like I’m stupid, he says, “so you can keep a journal of your pregnancy so our child will know more about where he came from.”  So my hand is broken Saul, nu?  A pen and paper won’t do?  For five thousand years it worked just fine, but no more?  And so he’ll know where he came from?  He came from you getting all hot and bothered after watching Sophia Whatshername, the Italian one with the big you know whats.  Like your memory is so short you forgot what she looked like in the time it would take me to put in my diaphragm?  And four minutes later, I’m pregnant?  Charlton Heston, such a cutie even if he is a goy, couldn’t part the seas so fast as Saul is finished.  So I say “how does this thing work?” and my energetical Saul says “Yetta, I’m tired, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”  Which means my beloved husband, Thumbs Goldstein, hasn’t got a clue, what else is new.  So box, you getting this?  My child should know his father wants we should call her Sophia if it’s a girl.  I tell Saul she’ll be Sophia right after a blind moyel I hire recircumcizes you.  But by then, of course, he’s already snoring to wake the neighbors.  We’ll I’m gonna push the button says STOP/EJECT and hope it works.  If only our bed had an eject button.  God, now that my figure’s going to hell for nine months or so, thank You very much, you think on the next model of man you could put a nice on/off switch?  Well my kinder, welcome to the world, and if you’ve got complaints, go talk to your father.

First appeared here on April 3, 2016