The Arty Semite

Of Cats and Men

By Jake Marmer

  • Print
  • Share Share

Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Jake Marmer introduces the work of Karen Alkalay-Gut, whose first poem appeared in the Forverts when she was 10 years old.

Courtesy Karen Alkalay-Gut

A remarkable Israeli poet and professor at Tel Aviv University, Karen Alkalay-Gut is the author of numerous poetry collections, including “So Far, So Good” (2004). She writes almost exclusively in English, though her writing career began in Yiddish. When she was just 10, her poem “Mein Koter” was published here – in the Forverts.

Born on the last night of the Blitz in England to a Yiddish speaking family, Karen immigrated to the United States and grew up in Rochester, NY, before moving to Israel in 1972. As she facetiously claims, her style has not changed much since “Mein Koter,” which we’re happy to feature here, in the original as well as in the author’s own translation.

Following is a more recent poem about a mystical encounter with Koter’s Israeli cousins, Tel Aviv cats, from “So Far, So Far Good,” as well as “Bathsheva” from the collection “In My Skin” (1999), and two poems that are previous unpublished. What has remained consistent in Alkalay-Gut’s writing is the depth of Jewish experience and the defiance thereof, a sense of irony, and pertinent questions about gender, which appear extensively in Alkalay-Gut’s later poems. Her air of casualness and speech-like cadences, which one may think to attribute to the influence of Williams Carlos Williams or the Beat writers, actually has its roots in this charming, talkative childhood poem.

Mein Koter (My Cat)

By Haya Keile Rosenstein (Karen Alkalay-Gut)
10 years old
Fifth grade, Y.L. Peretz Folk Shule, Rochester, NY

I have a very smart cat, but he isn’t observant. He eats on Yom Kippur, he catches a mouse on the Sabbath, and he never goes to synagogue. Even on Yom Kippur. Nevertheless he is a very intelligent and beautiful cat.

Once, in the winter, I wouldn’t let him out of the house. I told Haim Pumpernickel (my cat) to go down in the cellar, but he opened the cellar window and escaped outside.

And once he ate too much, so he fasted for two days after that.

He has a white face and a white stomach, and green eyes, and a black body and a black neck. He has a wife. She does as she likes, and she makes Haim do as she likes as well. She’s a typical female.

He has many enemies.The name of his enemy is DOG. All dogs are his enemy.

But he loves little kittens, because he too was once a little kitten.

The Cats of Tel Aviv

You look in their face and you believe in reincarnation.
Their eyes have suffered through so many lives

Even their love quarrels that screech with pain
have a trace of boredom at the imperative of it all,

As if they know they are stuck in their roles
and are ready to die for it.

Friday Afternoon – Dizengoff Street

A holy man
On roller skates
(with new-fangled brakes)
His earlocks streaming behind
My mind
Makes meaning
Of a trivial incident
The rush of the coming
Sabbath queen


I married Uriah for his glory in battle,
bathed on the roof
because he was
never far from war.

I bathed on the roof
so that only a man higher than me
would see

Only a man higher than mine
would be able to replace him
only a man higher than mine
would see who I was

I bathed on the roof, made
love to the air, the jasmine
filling the dusk, the water
cooling my dusty skin,
the night descending
on my opening flesh

I married Uriah for his glory—
On the roof, that night, I woke
to what I had not known of love.

A man higher than mine
saw me on the roof, watched
my waking, brought me
to the towers of Jerusalem

The Character’s Complaint

Shylock sends regards from his Jacuzzi
He bubbles something about having given up
Exacting a pound of flesh – all he wants is a certain quality
Of life – now that he’s out of the ghetto he doesn’t expect to
Need all those threats to protect the little he’s managed to hoard.
In fact he’s releasing the portable treasures he kept to a museum
And is spending his free time in posh, anonymous spas.
He sees his grandchildren now and then, although he still can’t bear
His son in law’s betrayal. But only holds a little grudge
For the man who placed his private pain in the public eye.
Those writers, he complains, never leave you with any dignity.
Ah, Shylock. Ah, humanity.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Y.L. Peretz Folk Shule, Tel Aviv University, Poetry, Karen Alkalay-Gut, Forverts

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach!
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.