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Bessie and Green in Greenwich Village

An excerpt from “You Have to Yell” by Joseph Opatoshu

Translated by Shulamith Berger

Introduction

The Yiddish novel Hibru, by Joseph Opatoshu (1886–1954) portrays the professional and personal lives of teachers, young immigrant men from Eastern Europe. It is set on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1910s. The title refers to Hebrew schools, supplementary schools boys attended on Sundays and on weekday afternoons after public school was finished for the day. The Hebrew schools provided students with a Jewish education and prepared them for their bar mitzvahs. This excerpt, chapter 6 of the novel, focuses on the budding romance between Green, one of the teachers, and Bessie, the daughter of the President of the Hebrew School where Green teaches. The setting is the bohemian milieu frequented by the Jewish intelligentsia of the time.

Translated from Yiddish by Shulamith Z. Berger.
Chapter title supplied by the translator.
Thank you to Dan Opatoshu for granting permission to publish the translation.

The scene in the “Green Paw” was rollicking. From a distance, the narrow two-story building resembled a peasant’s hut. The small low-ceilinged rooms were jam-packed with people. An unpainted wooden ladder-like stairway with a handrail led to the restaurant. It swayed and groaned under the slightest weight as if it was about to snap in two. Kerosene and candle lanterns cast a dim light in the corridor. The doors in the hallway were painted with images of green animal paws and bird claws; they might have been a sorcerer’s magical handiwork. The small rooms were crowded with people seldom seen on the streets of New York. The men were dressed carelessly, with faces which betrayed worry even while they laughed. The women wore mannish clothing; at first glance, their bobbed hair and the cigarettes in their mouths made them appear to be boys dressed up. They gave the impression of people who sleep by day, and at night, when the rule of law and its obedient children slumber, they creep out of their tiny bedrooms, slink unnoticed along the tenement walls, and scurry to the Village.

Young men and women sat at tables painted green, drank, smoked, and the uproar seemed to hover over their heads like steam; it irritated their throats. Unglazed pottery, long-necked pitchers, and clay jugs hung on the walls. They looked like antiquities excavated from the depths of the earth.

The owner of the place was short and broad-shouldered. He was dressed, God alone knows why, in a capotelike Hungarian national coat with a wide green sash wrapped around his stomach, tied in a knot at the right side. The bowl of a smoking pipe, a half-circle decorated with colored beads and claws, peeked out through the fringes. As he ran from table to table with a small pipe carelessly dangling from the edge of his mouth, he took orders and chatted with each patron in that person’s native tongue.

His wife was older than he; a brunette who wore loose, loud clothing and sported strands of coins awkwardly wound around her neck and bare arms. She looked like a Spanish street singer. A black velvet band wove through her trimmed dark hair which fell over her cheeks, creating a more youthful appearance. She sat down at different tables, drank with the customers, collected money, and put it in the folds of her dress, fashioning it into a pocket.

A group of young men and women sat at a long table singing, “The Yanks are coming” to the melody of the Yiddish song – the lament of the poor yeshiva student — “Mai ka mashma lan der regn; What is the rain here to explain?” A few people sitting nearby – who weren’t Jewish – joined in.

Across from the group sat a young non-Jewish man with a woman at a small table. Both had bloodshot eyes. The man sketched the woman’s portrait on the wall. She was so thrilled she grasped his hand and kissed it. The man jumped up with a start even though he could hardly keep his balance. But no matter what the circumstances were, he couldn’t let a woman kiss his hand. He pressed his lips to hers and stammered, “You, mustn’t, a lady mustn’t…”

Ah,” the woman lifted her hand from her heart with a grand gesture, kissed him again, and proclaimed, “it’s an honor to kiss such a hand!”

The man fell to the woman’s feet, hid his hands so she wouldn’t find them, and kissed her dress. She searched for his hands, struggled with him; they landed in each other’s arms and stayed there.

The neighboring crowd didn’t even notice.

The editor of the Getsen Diner, the Pagan, sat in a corner on a mattress proofreading, surrounded by his colleagues.

When they entered Bessie stood and gaped. She looked all around, taking everything in. Anyone who saw her could tell she was here for the first time.

Someone recognized Green. Everyone at the table rose, applauded, and sang “the Yanks are coming, coming, coming…” to the Yiddish tune.

A forty-something year old man with hollow cheeks, a twinkle in his eye, and a small round saucer-like bald spot, spotted Bessie, got up to make room, and offered his hand to Green. He looked at Bessie again, and said, “Hello, Green! Why don’t you introduce me to your lady?”

If you’d give me a chance…” Green retorted, defending himself as he turned to Bessie, “Shlomo Mandel, this is Miss Schultz!”

Mandel held Bessie’s hand in his for a while. He sized her up, trying to gauge what kind of impression his name made on her, and if not for a bunch of wise guys who seated themselves at the table he would have told the young woman, who had just heard his name for the first time, that she had just been introduced to the greatest Yiddish novelist.

The crowd at the table quieted down for a while. Mandel was cheerful because a girl was sitting next to him. He exchanged glances with the others at the table and nudged Green, “Why don’t you introduce her to everyone else?” And before Green had time to answer him, Mandel took Bessie’s arm and started imitating an emcee, “This is none other than our great humorist, Moshe Hozek the Mocker; now I will introduce the so-called great Yiddish novelist, Zalkind.“

Why not the greatest?” someone called out.

Because I’m the greatest!” Mandel answered, bursting out laughing at his own witticism, and continued, “Big. Big is a painter, his paintings grace the walls of the ‘Green Paw;’ and Weiss is the greatest Yiddish critic.”

If Weiss is the greatest, then what am I?” asked a young man with blonde hair.

When I become a fan of yours, you’ll be the greatest!” Mandel laughed so hard, he fell onto his chair.

The crowd joined in the laughter. It was the first time Bessie had spent time with a group like this. She felt lucky and took every opportunity to show Green how grateful she was. She looked at the few women at the table, examined their clothing, their bearing, and was sure she could rival them all.

Mandel jingled the change in his pockets. “Guys, let’s order some wine!”

Silver coins began to fly. A pale young man with a black beard, made-up like an actor, collected the money and Mandel called loudly to the owner,

Uncle, come over here!”

The proprietor pretended not to hear, as though it was beneath his dignity to be addressed in Yiddish, and he went to other tables. Mandel gestured at the proprietress to beckon her to come over. “You speak Yiddish, don’t you?”

Yes, I learned it here.”

“Where, in the ‘Village’?”

She laughed.

But you do speak Yiddish?” Mandel stroked her hand and his eyes widened.

Yes.”

What’s your name?”

Regina.”

I mean in Yiddish?”

Regina!” She tossed her shoulders and the strands of coins clinked.

In Yiddish your name isn’t Regina, in Yiddish you’re probably Reyzel, aren’t you?” he put his arm around her, “Nu, Reyzele, how about a glass of wine?”

She twisted out of Mandel’s arms and ran off to another table where a group was about to leave.

The proprietor brought over a few pitchers of wine and some glasses. The crowd started to drink and grew even more high-spirited. While they were singing the chairs moved — seemingly of their own accord — and the men revolved around the radiant women, like flies surrounding a flame. Bessie’s fingers intertwined with Green’s; she bent over and whispered in his ear, “Is this a Jewish place?”

What else?”

But who’s that sitting on the mattress?”

That’s the editor of the Pagan.”

Of what?”

It’s a monthly journal, it’s called the Pagan.”

What is he, an Indian?”

What gave you that idea?” Green laughed.

I don’t know, Indians are idol worshippers,” Bessie was flustered.

No, he’s Jewish, we Jews deal with everything!” he squeezed her hand harder.

An almost completely gray-haired older man sat with a Jew with long hair, a born bohemian, at a small table behind Green. No one knew where he was from or what language he spoke. Green noticed that the proprietor sat down and listened to the gray-haired man talk about Edward, the English king, as if he knew him personally. When he took out a gold watch and said it was a present from the king, the proprietor hitched up his capotelike Hungarian national coat, winked at the long-haired Jew and interjected in Yiddish, “He thinks he met an idiot who believes him!”

Green pointed out the gray-haired man to Bessie,

You see the old man at the table, he’s the “gentleman” Oscar Wilde wrote about in his De Profundis. When Wilde was led to jail in shackles and the crowd jeered and spit at him, the old man was the only one who tipped his top hat and greeted him.”

A man stood in the doorway looking around. His eyes rested on the young non-Jewish man with the woman, who were sitting arm in arm. The young man, sensing someone looking at him, turned his head, his face the color of putty, and extricated himself from the woman’s arms. The man walked a few steps, stopped, and addressed the woman, “Lucy, I beg you, go home, the baby’s crying!” She didn’t answer him. With one animal-like move, he leaped at the young man, grabbed him by the throat and hit him so hard that his head jerked back, as though it was made of rubber. Then he hissed through his teeth,

You skunk! What are you doing with my wife?”

Green saw the gray-haired man take them aside and convince the woman to go home. He comforted the young man who sat and whimpered, either because he’d been beaten or because the woman was gone, and Green reminded himself of Wilde’s words, “Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that.”

An unshaven young man entered from the kitchen. Everyone had a smile ready for him, they all tried to catch his eye in order to greet him. But he didn’t look at anyone; he made his way through the crowd, went directly to Mandel and sat down. The group around the table became livelier. Now everyone knew they could now order whatever their hearts desired on the young man’s account. The proprietor and his wife stood near him taking orders and kept complimenting him effusively. The weary young man didn’t pay attention to anyone. He shooed the proprietors away and complained to Mandel, who could hardly understand him, “It’s not good to be the son of a great man! Not good!”

Go invent a telephone yourself!” Mandel suggested to him, speaking partly in Yiddish.

It won’t help!” the young man whispered into his ear, “People still won’t call me by my name, no matter what, I’ll always be known as my father’s son!”

You want to become famous?” Mandel took his hand, “I have a plan for you!”

What sort of plan?”

The theater,” Mandel began, “won’t make you famous. That’s nothing new in America. I have something else for you. Listen to me and publish a weekly Yiddish newspaper. Why are you smiling?”

They’ll all say I’m wasting my father’s money!” He planted his fists on the table and rested his chin on them.

People were dancing on the second floor, waltzing right over everyone’s heads. The thin ceiling swayed under the dancers’ feet. One hearty jump might send the boards crashing down. The crowd couldn’t stay still. People rose to the rhythm and every man searched for a woman to dance with.

Green put his arm around Bessie’s waist. Glowing, she cuddled up to him. She didn’t ask where he was leading her; she ran up to the second floor with him.

On the shining floor in a large, semi-darkened hall, a few couples danced to the beat of a waltz. A tall, thin man sat playing the piano, he looked like he was playing with his entire body.

Green flew with Bessie. She seemed so light he didn’t even feel her in his hands. He circled around, flitted with her from corner to corner; whenever he spotted an empty bench, he danced towards it, but each time a couple materialized and took the bench, so he kept whirling around.

They remained standing, looked at each other, grinned, and sat down happily. They each felt they ought to say something even though they understood each other at a glance; and Green, putting his hand on hers, asked a run-of-the-mill question, “Nu, how do I dance?”

Fine, very fine!”

A young man with a feminine waist entered with a woman.

Hello, Green!

Hello, Lifschitz!”

Lifschitz and the woman approached a bit closer; Lifschitz motioned to Green,

I’d like to introduce you: Mr. Green, a Yiddish poet, and this is Miss Mayer.”

A pleasure,” Miss Mayer repeated several times and sat next to Green, “This is the first time I’m actually meeting a Yiddish poet.”

Green was angry at himself for being flustered when he heard the woman’s name even though he wasn’t sure if she was really the millionaire Mayer’s daughter or not. He introduced Bessie, noticed that she also seemed taken aback; he was tempted to say something to offend Miss Mayer, but remained silent.

I see you’re here for the first time,” Lifschitz said. He brushed his knee with a silk glove and looked pleased with himself.

Why are you so sure?” Bessie looked at him and felt herself blush.

Simply because I’m seeing you here for the first time,” he laughed, and his full cheeks became rosy, like a girl wearing make-up.

“So you know everyone here?” Bessie forced herself to smile.

Just about everyone,” he glanced at his watch which was buckled around his wrist with a leather band, “I’ve come here three times a day for the past ten years. It’s been through five owners during that time and the crowd, you understand, is a select one, so a new face stands out! I’ll show you, I just walked around with Miss Mayer,” he leaned towards Bessie as he spoke, cupped his hand over his mouth and lowered his voice, “she’s the youngest daughter of Mayer the millionaire. Everyone looked at us. They recognized immediately that she’s not from the ‘Village.’ Yes, I know everyone here. Most of them don’t know that my name is Lifschitz, they all call me Beethoven.”

So you’re a composer?” Bessie asked him.

No,” he made a face and looked like an embarrassed girl, “I’m a critic. If you’re interested in music and read Di Tsayt, The Time, you should know my name. I write twice a week under the name ‘Leo.’”

Bessie felt guilty since she’d never heard his name, reddened, was uncomfortable that she had blushed and stammered, “Read it, of course I’ve read it! That’s you? I’m pleased to meet you!”

Lifschitz melted with pride, started to get up, and playfully held his hand out to Bessie. He looked like a young woman who had just received her first compliment. His thoughts were confused. He couldn’t sort them out; they started in the middle, like the elusive origin of a string hidden in the midst of a ball of twine. He realized the silence was lasting a trifle too long; it might interfere with Miss Mayer’s conversation with Green. He started saying whatever entered his head, “Yes, Green and I are old friends! I was also a Hebrew teacher years ago, but it’s good I’m through with that. I don’t understand how I managed then. Now I spend more on cigarettes than I earned as a teacher! I argue with Green – what do you need it for? Green is a very talented person. I know a lot of people and if he weren’t so stubborn, I would have already found something for him! Let’s not kid ourselves, if I hadn’t torn myself out of the East Side at the right time, what would’ve become of me? A comrade! The same fate as thousands of others, who throw away their best years, ruin their careers, so a few demagogues, their leaders, can live like noblemen!”

According to you, Mr. Lifschitz,” Bessie interrupted, “there are no honest people!”

There are, but not among leaders of political parties, every leader, almost without exception, is a demagogue! I’m convinced that the most genuine, interesting people are tramps and millionaires. They both don’t need to flatter anyone, they don’t need favors from anyone… Yes, what was I getting at?” Lifschitz wrinkled his forehead, “Yes, last week I was invited to Hildheim for dinner. He’s the youngest brother of the copper magnates. During the meal he read poems by a young Serbian poet, interesting poems – I happened to have Green’s most recent cycle of poems with me and read it to him. What should I tell you? He couldn’t believe someone could write poems like that in Yiddish and pleaded with me to bring Green to him. You’d think that’s good, eh? Is there a better opportunity? Green claims that if Hildheim wants to see him, let Hildheim go to him, he also has an address. I tell you it’s crazy! Me, for one reader like Hildheim I’d give away a few hundred readers from the East-Side! But never mind,” Lifschitz smiled, “You’ve got to forgive Green! You know he’s a great poet?”

Of course I know!” Bessie answered proudly as she blushed.

I also write poetry,” Lifschitz threw in nonchalantly, as though he wasn’t hinting at anything. “It’s only for myself, I don’t publish. By the way, do you have time tomorrow?”

Why, what’s happening?”

Tomorrow evening Caruso is singing La Bohème.”

I know. He’s performing in the stadium at City College. But I couldn’t get tickets anymore.”

If you don’t have anything against it,” Lifschitz got up and bowed, “you can join me in my box.”

On the contrary,” Bessie thanked him, though she really wanted him to leave her alone. She was angry with Green for talking to the millionaire’s daughter for so long and forgetting all about her. She planned to hint to him that she’d like to go home.

So where should I meet you tomorrow?” Lifschitz asked her.

What?” Bessie was startled, “Where should we meet? Call for me at 7 o’clock. Good, come right at seven, will you come?”

What kind of question is that?” Lifschitz took out a notebook, “Where do you live?”

Give me the book, I’ll write it down.”

In the meantime, Miss Mayer got up, said goodbye to Green and offered her hand to Bessie, “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. ‘Auf wiedersehen’!”

After Miss Mayer and Lifschitz left, Bessie sat looking strained, her eyes downcast. Green didn’t know what it meant and inched closer to her.

What is it, Bessie? Are you angry?”

Of course I’m angry!”

With me?”

With you!”

Why?”

For… you know…”

That’s forbidden,” he cradled her chin.

You left me sitting so long!”

But weren’t you sitting with Lifschitz?”

He’s a fool!”

Are you really angry?”

Of course I’m angry! She leaned her head on him.

I don’t understand why you had so much to say to Miss Mayer? After all, she’s a total stranger.”

Because she’s a stranger — that’s exactly why there’s something to say,” Green smiled.

If she weren’t a millionaire’s daughter…”

What?” Green interrupted her.

Nothing…”

You should be ashamed of yourself, Bessie!” He waved his hand dismissively and turned away from her.

Suddenly he felt hemmed in. He wanted to uproot everything, spare nothing, if only he could stay free. Bessie propped up her head with her hand, puckered her upper lip and bit her lower lip. Her eyes were wet, and tears rolled down her cheeks. Green couldn’t bear to see her cry, felt his anger cooling, and turned to her.

Nu, Bessie, calm down!”

But I love you!”

Don’t say that, my child!”

Why?”

Because your father won’t have a teacher for a son-in-law!”

He will!”

He won’t!”

So I’ll come visit you, okay?”

Good!”

My big boy! You know, Lifschitz invited me to go with him to the stadium tomorrow. Caruso is singing. Should I go?”

Go, why not?”

And it won’t bother you?”

Why should it bother me?”

I want it to bother you!”

You’re being silly.”

So why would it bother me if you went with someone else?”

Because you’re being silly!”

My dear boy! You know, I really always believed that a poet is a different kind of person, free of all the ugly things we do, isn’t that so? Listen, what is Lifschitz? A critic?”

He’s a nothing!”

What do you mean?”

I mean,” Green regretted his words and wanted to take them back, “He’s a very capable young man… writes about music… also writes poetry, what more do you want?”

No,” she snuggled up to Green, “I won’t go with him.”

If you don’t go, I’ll be angry with you!” Green said as he draped his arm around her.

No way am I going!” she protested coyly.

He laughed, hugged her, and covered her with kisses. They sat happily in the half-empty hall near an open window, didn’t pay attention as couples occasionally danced by, didn’t notice the night spinning and turning or how the black web of daybreak had started to unravel here and there and transform into light stripes.

The sleepy proprietor, clad in a loose robe, poked his head in every once in a while to see if he could finally close up, and said something to himself.

At dawn they went out into the street. It was still. They walked arm in arm with their heads held high. A middle-aged Italian man collecting barrels of garbage stopped the wagon, looked at them, nodded his head as though it brought back a memory, emptied a garbage barrel into the wagon, urged the horse on, and whistled.

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A Song for Gratitude

by Herbert Levine

What does it take to treasure each day, 
to give thanks for the gifts not earned, 
to savor the taste of every first fruit 
and know that enough is as good as a feast? 

It takes a lifetime to learn how to live, 
to sort through the stuff that fills up our days, 
to weigh and measure just what to claim 
and know that enough is as good as a feast.  

So sit at nightfall with those you love 
and light a candle to greet the dark, 
clasp hands as you bless the bread 
and know that enough is as good as a feast.  

Open your heart to the joy and the pain, 
the bitter and sweet of the knowledge you’ve gained  
and sweetly surrender to what you can’t change  
and know that enough is as good as a feast…

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APOLOGIA A poem for Parshat Yitro by Sue Swartz

The people stood at the foot of the mountain—

We were unbound then // awakened from watery sleep
when the earth cracked open & sound poured out like lava.

We were undecided then // bathed in sulfur and smoke
when thunder split the mountain // when lightening

scorched our heels. Poised on the edge of desire // enveloped
by rumbling flashes, the words entered our consciousness

like a tornado—
In the bleached-blind wilderness we stood // amid
fire clouds and roaring triumph // amid searing trumpets

& our endless endless wanting // and we were afraid.
Ruthless present tense // Mobius arc of time—

We were joined to each other then // to the blistering
mountain // the vertiginous moment // every noun and verb

exploded through the wilderness. Chosen agnostics,
we declaimed yes to deliverance // yes to unspecified

constraint. To the shattering of silence // to the shattering
of stone. For you not yet able to speak, we said yes

From we who desire by Sue Swartz

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Praise the contrary and its defenders A poem for Korach by Sue Swartz

Now Korach rose up before Moses together with 250 Israelites—

For the chief musician, on common instrument:
A song of rebellion.

Praise rising up. Praise unlawful assembly. Praise the road of excess
and the palace of wisdom. Praise glass houses & the hand
that cradles the stone.

Praise Galileo. Praise acceleration.
Praise the medium and the message.

Praise en masse and the pull of a straight line.
Praise outside agitators
and inside jobs. Praise Red Emma. Praise Joan of Arc.

Praise wayward daughters and praise, praise their wayward sons.

Praise the power of indulgence. Praise Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.
Praise the nail and the printing press. Praise free verse.
Praise the First Amendment.
Praise illicit beauty, yellow sunflowers and red wheelbarrows.
Praise the poets of Guantanamo.

Praise the noisy midnight streets.
Praise the crazy birds at dawn and praise their woven nests.
Praise Isaac Newton. Praise the apple.

Praise Letters from Prison. Praise the bound notebook and what
is found within. Praise Legal Aid attorneys. Praise kitchen-table
conspiracies. Praise our hunger and the days we are the bread.

Praise farmers’ markets. Praise heirloom tomatoes,
Al Gore and quantum physics. Praise Schrödinger and praise his cat.
Praise talking snakes. Praise run-on sentences.

Praise the best minds of any generation. Praise other people’s poems,
especially the fickle and freckled. Praise Norma Jean. Praise standing
on the table. Praise John Brown and all that trouble in river city.

Praise Walt Whitman & Jimi Hendrix. Praise the body’s
wild intelligence. Praise the giraffe and the porcupine.
Praise getting satisfaction. Praise cross-dressing. Praise untouchables,
undesirables, partisans and riffraff. Praise slackers.

Praise those who talk back. Praise sympathy for the devil.
Praise mothers of the disappeared. Praise mothers of the found.
Praise Planned Parenthood and the siren song.

Praise singers and psalm-makers, Freud and Sinatra.
Praise Gertrude Stein and all thirteen ways of looking at that blackbird.

Praise nude beaches. Praise the terrible twos. Praise hitting
your head against the wall. Praise giving peace a chance.
Praise Selma, Alabama. Praise the Abraham Lincoln Brigades.
Praise Sacco and Vanzetti. Praise Jobs
& Curie. Praise Einstein and his bad posture.

Praise Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Praise crossing party lines.
Praise playing footsy under the table. Praise street puppets and LSD
and stealing this poem. Praise backyard whiskey.

Praise Priscilla the Monkey Girl. Praise her admirers.
Praise Earhart and those who remember what they are told
to forget. Praise agnostics.

Praise what we are not supposed to praise. Praise the electrical storm
and the still small voice. Praise all the proverbs of hell.
Praise this feeling of trying to write about the truth.

Praise those who see it coming. Praise those who do it
anyway. Praise what swallows us whole.

Praise what happens next.

From we who desire: Poems and Torah Riffs

we who desire

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local time – a poem by Sue Swartz

(local time)

That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you—

we who desireUndoing, unbecoming—
Giving it all back.

Consider the simple green bud of self
and within, all our restless fertility.

Consider our short-lived tenancy as its tiller
and tender. How things fall through.

How rest is not loss, still is not fallow.
How to stop without sacrifice.

From we who desire by Sue Swartz

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When does money become holy? A poem for Parashat B'har by Abe Mezrich

When does money become holy?

i

The House at the Center of the World (cover)

God says: When you come to the land, every seventh year

you must renounce ownership of the land

and share that year’s produce with your servant of every kind

and with your animals that labor with you

and with the animals of nature.

*

And God says: If you follow My Laws…

I will grant your rains in their season;

and the Land shall give forth its yield.

*

Then God tells the Laws

of how a person may donate money

value

to God’s Temple.

ii

We think of our wealth

as our own.

But if you share your wealth

with the community around you,

and if you know your wealth comes

only through God’s rain—

then your wealth can truly hold value,

then your money can be made holy to God.

Leviticus 25:2,6; 26:3-4; 27:3

From The House at the Center of the World

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LIVE YOUR WAY INTO THE ANSWER An Exodus poem by Sue Swartz

we who desire
Because against this, that
Because the angels of our better nature
And the angle of days to come
Because as we said goodbye            As we say goodbye

Because this is the book of bursting through
And the book of coming undone
Because bricks without straw
Because bruise without respite

And the compulsion to be heard
Because the crack in everything
And because the darkening

Because the darkness
And the daughter of Pharaoh in every generation
Because the distance between
And the dog,
               chained in some fool’s backyard: barking and barking—
Because the dream of crossing

Because the ego that dreamt         (its elliptical nature)
And the events of the night—

Because the faceless god of frogs & thunder
And the faithful god of time
Because the fear             And the fire            And the fissure
Because glimpses of—

And Heisenberg’s uncertainty

Because I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread
Because I-will-be sent me to you
Because if this, then that              And imagine all the people

And in the interstices, hidden

Because joining one thing to another
Because knee deep in muddy water
Because the light of a candle
in the heart of the sun

Because locusts & lice            And the long strange trip
Because love supreme                  And the luminous underneath

Because mantles marked             Because metaphoric
Meteoric             And the middle that will not hold
     
Because naked ambition And nothing as it was
And the one who takes off her shoes

And the one and the one and the one—
 
Because of this permeable world

And the photo that spreads beyond the frame
Because the point of no return        And the portable palace
Because the protests in Tahrir Square
     (All that purposeful unbecoming)

Because the quotidian
Because the radical
 
Because the sea filled with baskets
And seeing an angel in the marble, he carved
Because starry, starry night              And a steel bar can be bent
 
Because suitcases filled with suffering
Because the touchable—
 
Because the unleavened—         And the vertical drop.
     
Because what is in your hand
And what I am is what I am       And when you drew the map
And where we’re going, there’s no—

Because who will live in our house
And who will memorize our story
And why we’re whispering          Why we’re whispering
          as we say goodbye

Because xenophobia
Because you and you and you
Because zealotry and zeitgeist

And the Zen koan: one drop reveals the ocean
Because zero & zilch & zip
Because the zany zookeeper
          unlocked the cage—

from we who desire: Poems and Torah riffs by Sue Swartz

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On the Eighth Day a poem by Sue Swartz

Aaron’s sons Nadav & Avihu… offered before God
strange fire that had not been commanded—

On the eighth day, Alessandro Volta
put metal coins on his tongue
and prophesied sulfurous electricity.

On the eighth day, Leucippus
considered the true nature of the void,
Teller the true capacity of the sun.

Curie was entranced by radium,
and Maxwell by luminous radiations.

On the eighth day, there were isotopes,
cloud chambers, alpha rays.

Life was vaporized in a simple test of hydrogen.

On that day outside planned creation,
God peered into the universe and was afraid for us—

Noisy children snapping berries
off a poisonous bush, racing down the street
with pointy twigs—

Didn’t I tell you to knock that off?

And burned to the nub two sons of priestly
inheritance. Before the whole assembly
were they offered up, a soothing savor.

Object lesson: this may you burn
in your copper pan, of this sinew and thigh
may you eat.

But this intoxicating notion, this 4-legged
swarming-thing—
It is polluted meat. Strange fire.

Your blowtorch future.

 

From we who desire: Poems and Torah riffs

we who desire