The old man peers at the yellowing book
then places it on the arm of the chair.
He gives the walker a sad, angry look,
and still struggling, looks up in mocking prayer.
Clutching the book, he limps to the table
and sinks onto the chair, risking a fall
that could reshatter his hip. Unable
to hear, he shouts to his wife, down the hall,
who brings the hearing aid and his glasses.
His eyes glow as the ancient words bring fire
to his voice, arms dance as though his class is
full of young minds that are his to inspire.
He settles into the chair, bent by age
and curses his body, now more a cage.
First published in The Right to Depart, Plain View Press (2008)
June 13, 1896, Prague a warm day, old stone schul you stood before the minyon wearing the skullcap repeating ancient words that lay on paper, rehearsed sounding false on a tongue swollen in anxiety. Your tallit, white woven with blue threads hung at your knees fringe fingered, rolled and unrolled, twisted until touched to skin words inscribed, etched into collective memory. Seventeen years later sitting with Buber did words come back and stick on your tongue and later still when you studied under Bentovim, did words take form, shape, dredging up a past kept suppressed walking in desert heat knowing salvation was down a hill, entry forbidden. Lying in your bed in Hoffman’s Sanitorium, the trees of Kierling blooming did you recite Kaddish as endless night engulfed you.
First published in The Right to Depart, Plain View Press (2008) and reprinted in Legal Studies Forum Vol. 32, No. 1 (2008)
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Hell is a place where what you least desire becomes eternally yours, or so we were told as children, well not us, not the Jewish kids, for us Hell was our mothers’ finding that copy of Playboy we stole from our father’s stash our mother didn’t know about, and which he would deny, throwing us under the bus or any large vehicle she found
If we buy into Hell, and given that ours is an aging population, many of whom have landed in Florida and Arizona to avoid the winters that are hell on the ubiquitous arthritis, and all those who have joyously consumed the evangelical Kool-Aid, when the final bell rings, they may be surprised to discover there is far, far more of a chance of a snowball in Hell.
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)
When I die, my friend Larry said one morning in the third inning of a double header of stoop ball, I want to be burned, not that I intend it to happen any time soon, but when it does. They burned my grandfather I think it was Dachau, but unlike him, I want to kick some ass before it happens. Just let them call me Jew boy I’d like to hear the sound of their balls imploding up into their bladder. They burned my grandmother too, years later, until all that was left was the cancer eating her stomach, but I want to be burned in an oven set up properly for the job, my ashes cast into the wind or maybe in the infield of Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium if Luke Easter is still playing first base for the Bisons. It was only two days later that Larry tripped on the curb outside the variety store on the way home from school and later that day they took his kidney and laid it, all bloody within, on the steel tray. When he came home his mother said he had to be careful when you have only one kidney you can’t fool around and you certainly want to avoid the strain that comes from kicking any ass.
First Appeared in Afterthoughts (Canada), Vol. 2, No. 4, Autumn, 1995.
It is almost Pesach, early this year so I will get a birthday cake not the rubbery sponge cake of matzoh meal, eggs and ginger ale, covered in fruit. We are peeling the applies and chopping them for the charoset for the communal seder most to be thrown away along with the paper plates and chicken bones, and shards of matzoh, dry as the winds of the desert, the memory we drag out each year as the last snow fades slowly from the streets and trees. My friend enters the church as he does each holy week and stops at each station of the cross, imagining what it must have been like to carry the great cross up the hill, knowing that atop the centurions stood with spikes in hand waiting to pierce his wrists and ankles, ready to watch him droop against the wood as the heat licked between his toes. I imagine what it was like pushing the stones up the ramp the taste of sand and the whip burning my tongue. In ten days we can again eat sweet and sour pork and shrimp in lobster sauce and wait another year for the bits of horseradish, and he will imagine the fires of hell as he slips the five into the waistband of her G-string.
First Appeared in Kimera, Vol. 3, No.2, Winter, 1998. Reprinted in Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2005
Faith, or is it hope, seems directly proportional to the need we have to believe in what some would call a miracle. In Hebrew the word for charity can also be translated justice. Faith, he says, is hope with a Godly intervention for hopes can easily go unfulfilled, but faith lingers, and isn’t given up willingly, for even when hope is gone, faith in a miracle remains for those most in need. No one seeks charity, everyone seeks justice, and most hope and have faith that there is in the final analysis no real distinction.
“Trying to explain the Old Testament is like trying to untie a series of Gordian Knots.” He said that often, and few argued with him. Whether they did not argue because they agreed, or simply wanted to avoid his unwillingness to cease pushing until the other or others conceded whatever point he was making hardly mattered. He knew nothing about the New Testament. He wasn’t even sure to what it was a Testament, though he could say that of the Old as well. It was just that one set of Gordian knots was enough, unless and until he could find his philosophical scissors, and God only knew where they had gone.
It was inside Nara that it finally slipped away. Its tether had grown ever weaker, the first slip was decades before, a book, brief meetings an answerless question. It stretched further in Tokyo, basin incense under the watchful third eye and hung perilously by fewer and fewer threads until, with the monks’ gentle bow, it broke and I found home.