He is four, has been
for five months now, but
when you ask them how old
he will be at his next birthday
he doesn’t pause, says, “thirteen,”
with a smile that shouts, “yes
I know how to count quite well,
but sometimes I just choose not to!”
He is slowing down, actually,
the last week he decided he was seven
and decided he would be 27
on his next birthday.
I am certain it has nothing
at all to do with the presents
his classmate’s brother got
his Bar Mitzvah,
but there is something in the smile
of a Jewish four-year-old
that reminds even a grandfather
who long ago gave up the faith
that there is something magical
about turning thirteen despite
the ever dreaded thank you notes.
I am honored that this poem was just published in the Fall/Winter Issue of the Atlanta Review,
I had dinner the other night
with Rav Hillel
in a small Chinese place
just off Mott Street.
I asked him what it was like
in the afterlife, after all the years.
It gets a bit boring, he said,
now that old Shammai
has lost his edge,
just last month
for each Chanukah night
he lit four candles
from the center out
in each direction.
I told him
the steamed pork buns
were beyond belief,
he said try the shrimp dumplings
even better if you eat them
standing on one foot.
I asked him how he spent his days
and he only smiled,
most days I search
for Van Gogh’s ear
though that alte cocker Shammai
says it was Theo’s ear
that Vincent lopped off,
although Vincent wore
a bandage around his head.
It’s really not so bad
he said, there’s even
a lovely sculpture
just inside the garden gate
that bears a striking resemblance
to old Lot’s wife, not that she
was ever capable
of sitting still all that long.
He bid me farewell
and though I looked
for a fiery chariot,
he climbed into
his ’91 Taurus
with the hanging bumper
and rust spots, and drove slowly off.
Thanks for dinner, he shouted,
as I footed the bill yet again.
In Riga, my grandfather
was a master tailor,
the great and the rich
would come to his shop
some bringing bolts of fine cloth
and others trusting him
knowing that wools and silks
were not beyond his reach.
Even after they marked
his home as that of the Jew,
the Captain, who rode
through the city with his men
torches thrown through windows
would come to him,
late in the night,
seeking a new dress uniform.
Eventually they took his needles
threw his spools of thread
into the river, he could stand no more
and with the few kopecks that remained
he left for New York
where, he though, even
a poor tailor could walk
on golden streets and create
garments the likes of which
a Tsar could only imagine.
Each morning he would arise
and strap on the scarred phylacteries
to recite his morning prayers
then go out into the cold
in his threadbare coat
to the factories and couture houses
only to return before noon
to a bowl of bread soup
awaiting the visit of one
of the men or women in his tenement
who would ask him to sew
a new patch into a worn jacket,
a fraying dress, all
for a few pennies
He was, he said, the new Moses
free of bondage, told
that milk and honey
would be his portion
wandering the desert
of this new land, free
at last of the bonds
that had enslaved him
plucking the bitter manna
from among the sands
but free he would shout
to starve on the cliffs
overlooking the land
promised to him.
First appeared in Aura Literary Arts Review Vol. 26, No 1 (2000) and later in Legal Studies Forum Vol. 30, Nos. 1-2 (2006)
We bow our heads
and utter words
not to the cicada
a spring night
or the beetle
across the leaf
searching for the edge.
We bid the crow
silent, the cat mewling
his hunger, just
to crawl under a porch
the child to sleep.
The stream flows
slowly by, carrying
a blade of grass
and the early fallen leaf.
First appeared in Albatross, Issue 13, (2001)
As a child, a Jewish child no less,
December was always a bit difficult.
We had Channukah, which no Jew
would dare claim grew solely to compete
with Christmas, although we all knew
that was precisely what had happened.
The problem was Christmas, but had
nothing to do with Jesus, or the church
or even its historical teachings about
the supposed role we Jews played
in that story, a role for which we
had been paying for two millennia.
The problem was far more basic,
and all you needed to do was drive
down virtually any street in any city
and it would be at once apparent.
Christmas-celebrating homes were decked
out in all colors of lights, while
Jewish homes, those few who competed,
were left with a palate of white
and blue, or up to nine candles,
and that was a guaranteed for sure
last place finish in the December game.
When they lowered my grandmother’s casket
into the sodden earth, there wan’t
a dry eye, shoulder or leg, around.
She would’ve laughed aloud,
her children always too busy for a visit
now soaked to the skin
in a cold, windy downpour, all but me,
the one she chose to conduct the service,
the funeral director behind me
with the oversize umbrella, ensuring
the words of prayer and departure
were dry enough to read, washed
only by my tears, held back, unholdable,
the clunk of the first shovel of dirt
on the simple pine box still echoing.
I just want you to know
that the Old Man set me up,
and I’ll admit that, cagey as I am,
I never saw it coming.
I mean I knew he was capable
of anything, but he always adopted
this holier than thou persona so why
would I imagine He’d do this?
And it wasn’t like He clued
me in on it, how was I to know
that one was somehow different,
and weren’t they the smart ones?
So I take the fall, and you can bet it
will be an eternity of distrust, if not fear
or hatred, and I have to say, the damned
apple wasn’t all that tasty anyway.