The first Jew on Mars
sifts the red sands through gloved fingers
and kicks the small stone,
glares up at the heavens
the cold sun returning his stare
and waits patiently
for the rain of manna.
looks vacantly across the landscape
and curses under his breath
at the absence of a good
lean pastrami and a half sour,
or even Chinese take out.
pauses to wonder why God
left so much unfinished,
an endless desert to be wandered
for countless lifetimes,
no further tablets forthcoming —
perhaps He was tired, needed rest —
each day is Sabbath.
struggles to remember
the smoke rising from the chimneys,
the souls of a generation
whispering “do not forget us.”
shouts the Shema
to the void, imagining
it is falling on deaf ears.
First appeared in The Right to Depart, Plainview Press, (2008).
A Palestinian woman tells her son she loves him as he leaves their home
in much the same words as does the Israeli woman to her son. The Palestinian
woman would never consider these words as having anything to do with a young
Israeli. The Israeli mother would be horrified to think of speaking the words
to a Palestinian. They use these words only for their own sons, and only
to hide and calm their own fears. The Palestinian woman fears her son
could be harmed, killed perhaps, by a young Israeli. The Israeli mother fears
her son could be another victim in the Intefada. The young Israeli kisses
his mother and picks up his helmet and Uzi. The young Palestinian heads off
to the bakery where he works, always looking nervously at the border fence.
This Israeli and this Palestinian will never meet. Their mothers will never meet.
Only the words of parents will ever unite them.
“And God said, “Let there be light,”
and there was light.
And God saw the light that it was good.” — B’Reshit (Genesis) 1:3-4
I mean God is omnipotent and omniscient,
so why create it if God had even
the slightest doubt that it was good,
and is God even capable of doubt.
But that isn’t really the point,
for now I sit knowing that I could,
one day, sooner or later, lose my vision,
that a darkness would descend upon me
and I don’t know for sure what God
would think of it, but I would
not find it the least bit good.
A rabbi might say that I should
not blame God, that God giveth
and taketh away, but I have a long
list of things I would gladly
have God take away without a whimper
from me, but light and sight
are nowhere on that list though faith
may end up somewhere in the middles.
We’ll just see how things go.
His is six and deeply confused,
and asks questions to end that state.
He wants to know if Adam and Eve
had two sons, and one killed the other,
where did all of the people come from?
Ask your father seems and easy answer,
but one he cannot accept, too easy
for a mind that needs timely response.
I stumble around, try to deflect,
and finally admit I don’t know but
that some stories cannot be taken literally.
He knows what that word means, and it
is a sufficient explanation for now.
In a week we’ll have the conversation
once again, this time not Adam, not Eve,
but Shem, Ham and Japheth, and how
the three sons of Noah repopulated
the entire planet, and I will once again
admit to my sad lack of knowledge,
and silently curse the Religious School
for creating the abyss into which
my grandson is all to pleased to lead me.
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.
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.
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.