Semitic Semantics

by Gelia Dolcimascolo (Atlanta, GA)

On the day before Rosh Hashanah
I do nothing
to commemorate
the start of the New Year.

The Orthodox Jewish teenager
from across the cul-de-sac
greets me with her laptop, some papers,
and a question mark on her face.

We sit side-by-side in my dining room,
like two candles, backs to the cabinet
which holds my parents’ menorah
and the book I am reading, Unorthodox.

We work out rhyme schemes
for odes and ballads,
discuss the rhythm of heartbeats.
A smile replaces the question mark.

On Rosh Hashanah
I celebrate
by dancing
at the ballet studio.

That night my Episcopalian neighbor
joins us for dinner at our house.
With a wink of his eye, he says I’m not a Jew
simply because I don’t “practice the faith.”

We wrestle over that one.
My fists clench in faux anger;
I straighten him out,
defend my right to the tribe.

Gelia Dolcimascolo, an award-winning poet, is a writing tutor at Georgia State University Perimeter College. Her poems have been published in journals, anthologies, and books, including Heart by Heart: Mothers and Daughters Listening to Each Other; Through a Distant Lens; The Art of Music; and Haiku Pix Review. Her novella, Aurelia and the Library of the Soul, a nominee for the Georgia Author of the Year Award (GAYA), was published in 2016. Born in South Africa, she grew up in Queens, New York, and lived with her husband and daughter in California. She considers herself a “nostalgic” (secular) Jew and enjoys her cultural heritage at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. Her website is www.geliawrites.com

About her poem, “Semitic Semantics,” she writes that it “reflects my views as a non-religious Jew. I sometimes find myself defending my cultural heritage while isolated from mainstream Judaism – an existential dilemma. The poem takes place in Atlanta, roughly a decade ago.”

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A Proper Home

by Sheldon P. Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

While growing up in a Yiddish speaking home, I was often witness to the respect and adoration given to the Yiddish books that once graced our small bookcase. It goes without saying that prayer books, bibles and other holy texts were held in high esteem, but books written in Yiddish, the mameloshen (mother tongue), came in a close second. Like many Eastern European Jews, my parents had a particularly strong attachment to books written in Yiddish. Whatever the theme or intended message, these books were often afforded special status not only because they were written in Yiddish but because Yiddish utilizes Hebrew script, the very same letters found in all of our sacred texts.

More often than not, many of these Yiddish books were passed on to my parents by either aged or sickly friends and neighbors who simply wanted their treasured books to take up residence in a proper home. Yiddish books, after all, were like beloved relatives who detailed our long and often difficult history. I remember how we always removed and replaced these books with the utmost care so as not to injure their often spindly, dilapidated spines and worn bodies. In our home, we read these books primarily on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays when there was ample opportunity to lay on the couch, close one’s eyes and perhaps take a solemn journey back in time.

History has a way of repeating itself and perhaps is meant to do so. A short while back, I was approached by a few acquaintances and patients asking if I would be willing to take possession of their Yiddish books. Some followed my advice and sent their books to the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts while others would not hear of it. This latter group wanted their books to reside in a warm loving home rather than in an “orphanage for Yiddish books”.

I remember an elderly gentleman who, only recently, was seated in my examination room. He began speaking as soon as I entered. “I have to talk to you about my Yiddish books,” he began. “I know you speak and read Yiddish. So, doesn’t it make sense for them to be with you? They mean so much to me. I can’t just throw them out. Please, come to my home. The books will be waiting for you.”

His pleas were repeated with ever increasing urgency. How could I possibly refuse this clearly distraught gentleman? He was concerned about the fate of his beloved Yiddish books now that he had sold his house and was about to move to a small apartment where there was simply no room for his books. Aware of how much this request meant to him, I agreed to come by that very night and take possession of the box of Yiddish books that, I was told, was silently awaiting my arrival. As I left his home carrying the box, I heard a long tremulous sigh follow me to the door. It was an unmistakable declaration of sadness at seeing his beloved friends leave, accompanied by a sense of relief that they would at least have a proper home.

Since then, in addition to a few books that once belonged to my parents, I have accumulated a fair number of Yiddish books as I found it difficult to refuse those pleading on behalf of their loved ones. And so, just about every Sabbath and Jewish holiday, I’ve gotten into the habit of carefully taking one of these aged volumes in hand to reacquaint myself with many of the words and phrases that no longer see the light of day.

Much like aged relatives, these books speak volumes of survival and adaptation and give voice, as well, to immense pride and joy. Each time I’m done and get ready to close one of these books, I start to wonder who will be next in line? Who will be willing to accept books that are written in a strange language dealing with topics that have little or no relevance to most people? I’ll ask around when the time comes, but, apart from the praiseworthy mission of the Yiddish Book Center, I fear there will be no takers.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

 

 

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Prayer, Anyone?

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

When the fate of the world
lies not in our own hands,
when chaos is loosed upon the land,
can the power of prayer
move mountains and men?

Can appeal to the heavens
restrain madmen from their fury?

Would that the weight of all prayers,
Jewish and otherwise,
tip the scales in favor of sanity.

When bombs rained down in WWII,
when people were herded into camps,
when others in charge carve our destinies,
when disasters, man-made or natural, strike now,
the only recourse in our own hands comes
when those hands clasp together in prayer.

I may be the paragon of doubt,
a stranger to formal ritual,
but when catastrophe throws its thunderbolt,
I am the first to utter, “Oh, my God!”
and proceed to direct my prayers skyward.

Do you not do the same?

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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Forefathers

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

I tell my father that I’m working on a new poem.
I got into the poem, but can’t seem to find a way out.
“Kind of like a fart in your pants,” he says.
And I realize that my poetic forefathers were probably not
William Shakespeare and Robert Frost, but more likely
Milton Berle and Henny Youngman.

I ask him if there were any poets in our family, and he tells me
Tante Channele was a poet but nobody liked her, which doesn’t
make me feel any better.

A hairy woodpecker, with the red mark of a male on its neck,
comes to our birdfeeder today.
“Look at how bright, how clean his colors are,” my father says.
“He looks like he’s just been painted.”
And I know exactly who my poetic forefather is.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us, poems about her family and the Holocaust.  Her recent work has appeared in The Poet’s Quest for God and is forthcoming in Forgotten Women.  Janet is currently producing AFTER, a cinematic film about Holocaust poetry.  https://www.facebook.com/AfterAPoetryFilm/

This poem is reprinted from Mima’amakim with the kind permission of the author.

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The Nature of Things

by Janet R. Kirchheimer (New York, NY)

I was eleven the spring my father singed his eyebrows off
while burning down pear trees.

Anne Carson says dirt is a minor thing.
This is not true.
Perhaps she has not seen a string bean pushing
its way up through the dirt.

The Rabbis say that Adam gave names to all the animals,
but do not say who named the trees.

These are some of the plant names I love:
Joseph’s coat, Persian shield, Silver shrub, African mallow.

Once in January, my father woke me at four o’clock in the morning
to help cover the parsley in our garden with blankets.
Frost was on the ground.
Stars, so bright at that time of the year, lit the garden.

In June, I call home to ask my father about the gladiolas.
He says some are coming, some are going.

The Talmud says occasionally rain falls because of the merit
of one man, the merit of one blade of grass, of one field.

Janet R. Kirchheimer is the author of How to Spot One of Us, poems about her family and the Holocaust.  Her recent work has appeared in The Poet’s Quest for God and is forthcoming in Forgotten Women.  Janet is currently producing AFTER, a cinematic film about Holocaust poetry.  https://www.facebook.com/AfterAPoetryFilm/

This poem is reprinted from Mima’amakim with the kind permission of the author.

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Please, Stop Staring at My Stomach!

by Rachel Cohen (Philadelphia, PA)

Recently, a woman in our community gave me a gift of esrog jelly. She felt that this gift would be a catalyst for me to become pregnant and have a child. She also offered frequent Shabbos invitations to my husband and me, perhaps because she felt bad for us that we were alone.

I was very hurt and frustrated by this as I felt that she had crossed personal boundaries and made an assumption that I was having difficulty conceiving. Based on this assumption, she gave us a gift that we did not want. I felt that she was treating us as a charity.

I could have told her that there are many reasons why couples do not have children for extended periods of time, and that these reasons are exclusively the concern of the husband and wife and only the husband and wife.  But I didn’t feel comfortable confronting her. It isn’t this woman’s place to pry into our personal life, even if she thinks she has noble intentions.

I’m not the only one in our community who feels that some people pry too far. Once an expecting mother remarked to me: “Last year I miscarried a child. My husband was in a bakery when I was giving birth to the miscarriage. A person in the bakery would not stop questioning my husband about my pregnancy. My husband refused to answer but the man kept nagging. Eventually, my husband explained that I was having a miscarriage in the hospital. The man in the bakery gasped.”

The question that I’d like to pose to my community is this: why are people so insensitive to the feelings of others and feel a need to pry into a sensitive part of other people’s lives that is not for them to know about? Does a person have to experience such an embarrassing moment like the man in the bakery to realize that he is crossing boundaries?

I’m sure there are many people who are simply not thinking when they pry. Some of my peers tell me, “I mean it for the best,” or “I thought it was acceptable to ask,” or the best one, “Because we are all one nation and have to watch out for each other.”

But, truth be told, I feel there are very few reasons to rationalize crossing such private and personal boundaries and embarrassing a person. So again I ask: why do people do this? And more importantly, why should people stop crossing personal boundaries?

The answer, I believe, is rooted in one of Judaism’s most significant attributes, which sets the Jewish people apart from all other nations.

The Jewish people received the Torah as a guide for how to live and how to treat other people. The great Talmudic Sage Hillel tells us how we should treat others. When summarizing the entire Torah to a prospective convert, he says, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah…the rest is the explanation of this – go and study it!”

Perhaps if others took a moment to think about how they would feel if the situation was reversed and they themselves were being asked about their most private, personal matters, they would think twice before prying.

In the Torah we also received laws about modesty. Tznius is more than just what one wears. Rabbi Maurice Lamm, z”l, writes, “Tznius means discreet habits, quiet speech, and affections privately expressed…This is not merely a series of behavioral niceties, a sort of Bible’s guide to etiquette, but a philosophy of life.”

Questioning someone’s pregnancy status, then, is not acting in a tznius manner. Taking time before speaking or even averting one’s gaze from a woman’s swelling belly could save someone potential harm and hurt feelings.

I know that, personally, I don’t want to be that person who questions everything about others. I don’t want to be the person who embarrasses others in order to get a juicy detail about their private life because I believe that asking is so called “caring.”

Please keep your esrog jelly (and your assumptions) to yourself. Pray, please pray for others. But, please, don’t tell the person who you may hurt that you are praying for them. My stomach is my stomach. I may have gained some weight, but please stop staring.

Rachel Cohen is a cardiac Intensive Care nurse who loves Philadelphia, PA. When she is not at work, she enjoys freelance writing and poetry. She is currently in graduate school and working on a memoir.   

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Pidyon Haben

by Gerard Sarnat (Portola Valley CA)

“Every first-born male among your children, you must redeem.”

— Exodus 13:13

Redemption’s a primitive mitzvah commanded in

the Old Testament to occur on my grandkid’s 30th day

when a Kohen from the priestly patrilineal tree of

Aaron is handed 5 silver shekels by the boy’s father.

While our alternating amused and distraught daughter

nurses off in a dark corner, ultra-orthodox little girls

clothed from head to toe wrap garlic + sugar cubes

in gold lamé lace bags that their subjugated mother

hangs for kenahorah-poo-poo-poo knock on wood

good luck to shoo away devils — after which she checks

that the fancy sheitel covers her wifely shaved skull.

Compared to the newborn’s bris with the mohel

hacking off the infant’s foreskin, this ain’t nothin’.

But having successfully bit my tongue, all said & done

till the next one, these rituals reinforce why I’m an atheist.

Gerard Sarnat has spent time as a physician and social justice protestor in jails,  built and staffed clinics for the marginalized, and spent decades working for Middle East peace. His work, which has appeared in over seventy magazines, including Gargoyle, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The American Journal of Poetry, has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

For more information about Gerard Sarnat, visit his website: GerardSarnat.com.

 

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