PAPAL EDICT

She said “now what they’ve taken away limbo”
sounding a bit depressed,
“not that you proceed express
to the ferry dock, but
that was a snap, all
you were carefully taught
is suddenly wrong or irrelevant.
“It would be like Isaac,”
I say, “climbing Mount Moriah
with Abraham finding a ram
tethered to a waiting altar.”
My mother wants to know
how I can claim to be once Jewish
as though the moyel
also took my freedom of religion.
“We have no hell” she reminds me
“at least after death.”
I silently respond
and try to tell her that
I still don’t have a hell,
at least not as she conceives it.
“But I read,” she says, “the Tibetan
Book of the Dead, and hell
is very, very real.”
I tell her my Buddhism is Chinese
through a fine Japanese filter
and it is the next life
in which I will pay for this one.
She says “I wouldn’t want
to come back again,” and
on that point we find
the beginnings of common ground.

YIDDISH

My grandmother lapsed
into Yiddish only on special occasions
“where other words won’t fit”
she said, where there is
no English to describe
the indescribable, blessed
be He, but we knew
that it was merely
a convenient way to keep
us out of the conversation,
while they clucked.
Mah Johng is a game
that can only be played
in Yiddish, she said,
to hell with thousands
of years of Chinese history.

She remembers the Golem
she met him once
on Fourteenth Street
when she still had
the liquor store.
She thought it strange
that he wanted gin
and not Slivovitz
but Golem can be strange
under the right circumstances,
and he did speak Yiddish.

PLEASE CONTINUE TO HOLD

 

The thing I don’t get, he said,
is why whenever I put in a call
to heaven a male voice answers,
and says he will transfer me.
Usually the wait time is too long
but occasionally a woman will answer
and tell me the Queen
of Queens, blessed is she, is busy
but she knows my wishes and those
with enough merit will
be granted in due course.
She does, always, thank me for calling.

HOLOCAUST

Years later on, having walked
calmly away from my former faith,
I am left still pondering
where you find the words
to describe, to teach the unspeakable,
and how you use them to reach
children who have no right to know
the unspeakable, but who must,
lest they later speak it.
It was a generation ago for me, two
for them, three now for my own
grandchildren but the losses
they know are staggering: Las Vegas,
9/11, Manchester, Sandy Hook,
and on and on and on and on
and how do you help them grasp
the number six million, 10 million, when
they have but ten fingers,
shielding their eyes from the horror.

AN OFF YEAR

The was a winter, once
where even in the north
the snow refused to fall
and ice rejected jamming the culverts,
the sky stared down in amazement.
That was the year trees would not bud
and flowers fled deeper
into the sweetness of the earth,
grass singed and lay indolent.
It was a year my coat of many colors
was taken, pieced out among brothers
until each had a color and none a coat.
I would sit at the right hand of kings
dreaming of a day when dreams
might refuse to visit and then,
starved of images
I could reinforce foundations
preparing for their visit.
I am strapped to the altar
and the knife is poised in the hand
of a man who would like to be a father,
both of us looking up for intervention.
There was a year, once
when the ram broke free
of the thicket and picked his way
down the hill to his young.


First Appeared in Arnazella, 2001. Reprinted on Website of Poets
Against the War, 2003. Reprinted in Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 29,
No.1, 2005.

MARKED

The oddest thing about being
Buddhist is what I once was,
and not just in a prior life.
Born, it turns out, and adopted
into a secular Jewish family, I
must still be Jewish even if I might
have lapsed back to secularity, they say,
because my Jewishness is a mark,
Cain-like it seems, though I always
lacked the nose for the role.
Some a bit more knowing remind me
that I can be both, though they
can’t imagine why anyone would.
I tell them I’m simply, only Buddhist
and not-think what that really means.

ANOTHER GHETTO

She sits
in the bookstore cafe
her head covered
by a linen kerchief
bobby pinned to the
mass of walnut curls.
She cradles the cup
of cooling coffee
and stares down
at the slim book
of Amichai, yielding
to the Hebrew letters
that seem to dance
across the page.
I sit at the adjoining table
with my used
copy of Bialik, translated.
I glance at her
“I’ll miss him”
with a nod to Amichai
then “where are you from?”
She shifts
in her seat, legs
crossing, pulling back
staring over
my shoulder at
the slowly spinning fan,
then at the book.
I look for her eyes
but they dance away,
my hands clasp
and                  unclasp,
fingers drum on the table.
She mutters,
“Atlanta.”
“What part?”
“Warsaw, inside
the walls and wire,
that place
from which so few of us ever
manage to escape.”