The Arty Semite

Poems of a Decaying Shul

By Jake Marmer

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“In the ruin, history has physically merged into the setting. And in this guise history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible decay.”

Courtesy of Ontario Jewish Archives

So in “Allegory and Trauerspiel” Walter Benjamin explained the complex, romantic appeal ruins hold for us. New York poet Pinny Bulman, dreaming and reminiscing in a decaying shul he’s known since childhood, finds himself in nothing other than a temple of imagination and prayer. Only more spiritual and beautiful in its decline, the shul sheds its concrete features, merging its history with that of its inhabitants, as it too becomes somehow human.

Pinny Bulman has published a poems in Mimaamakim and co-edited “a man in a room with a tallis on: selected poems” by Aaron Bulman (Flannel Press). Pinny works at a nonprofit mental health agency and lives with his wife, two children, and memories of growing up in pre-gentrified Washington Heights.


old shul: leaking

water leaking
from
a roof
onto mold-covered holy books
their prayers for rain
misunderstood

aluminum pan bailing buckets
placed over spreading carpet stains
become mini-mikvahs
for small pieces of ceiling plaster
the occasional dead roach
our Tashlich sins

as the upper waters
return to the lower
in a sort of de-creation
no one here is saved

this water does not split
or spring fresh from parched desert rock

but as the sharp
ratatattat
of water slapping aluminum
becomes
the soft sound
of rain to puddle
there is no need for prayer

only to listen.


old shul: sign

shaky lettering on
a cardboard
hung on the rusty gate
by the side entrance:

please do not go
to the bathroom here.


old shul: hanging on

light coming reluctantly through
the taped up colored windows in
their rusting metal cages
obscuring the scratched empty benches
the undercarpet places where the floor
breaks like tired voices
reciting worn prayers
later thrown over streetlamps
like old sneakers
fraying holed
maybe a little dangerous
but hanging on.


old shul: minyan

our hope became habit
waiting for the tenth
like a tired love fading slow

our lives less certain
with each prayer
whispered like a secret
no one wants to hear anymore.


old shul: shadows

as the evening prayers cast
shadows on stained plastic windows
we godspeak to the rhythm
of backfiring buses
and the strains of merengue
from the neighboring building
to which half the empty room
is subconsciously swaying

on leaving we
steady ourselves
by the side fence
voices mute with exile
as the rats find shelter
stuffing themselves into cracks
like prayer notes

and a little girl
hoists herself
up onto the fence bars
pointing to
the color topped needles
scattered like toys
suddenly left.


old shul: pacing

as i pace the benches
i search out
the taped-over BB hole in the window
the constellation-like pattern of rug spots
the rusting fire extinguisher mount

these are the landmarks
that have kept me steady

i reach
out to touch
the small metal plates
identifying each bench by letter
A through Q
the back wall
bringing the alphabet to a sudden
end

sometimes i imagine
benches R through Z
all polished and plush
in some suburban synagogue
where so many moved
escaped

either that or
broken splintered dead
with all the others

when growing up
we used to sit on P
and i felt a certain
pride of ownership
P being my first initial

until my brother and
i were respectively banished
by my dad
to rows O and
Q
after a particularly noisy
argument

and i stayed on Q
long after
my brother fled
until the day my dad
stopped pacing
could not be counted

and i left Q
moved up to D
because there
was nowhere
further back
to go.


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