The Arty Semite

POEM: 'The Necessary Killings'

By Rodger Kamenetz

We have to kill them the President said because they are killing us before we can kill them.

In that case said the other president, why don’t we kill them yesterday, in which case their children won’t have a chance to grow up.

We tried that before said the President, but their children were carrying jelly beans which spilled on the floor and made a mess difficult to clean up. They trampled them so.

What color were the jelly beans asked the reporter.

You know — the President said, his head turning bright red with rage. It is the color of stop signs.

Then why didn’t you stop said the other president.

There you have it, said the President, the jelly beans were delicious!

That’s probably against the law said the giant media head. Her television was full of eyes and ears.

There were many people underfoot clamoring to be heard but their voices added up to a whisper so they could hardly be seen.

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POEM: From 'Portable Folia'

By Carole Birkan Berz

Israel greet me once a month
let every being with a soul praise god
& his spouse
Your wives are your securities
a fuselage to die for
Open air relentless inventive
elation the measure of measure
400 OVERNIGHT
You can have free ovaries
but it’ll cost ya
Can you plan on pleasure or pain?
Earn a degree under happy duress
THE BEST DISH EVER
don’t check too often or not often enough
& don’t multitask in meetings
with the Almighty
Call her as soon as possible
communicating calamitously
alter not your task
i could text you (thy byron or thy goethe)
unfurl the scroll
DISPELL after use

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POEM: It's Summer

in the south where we are busy
slaughtering each other.
There’s no time for flowers amid
burnt bodies and ruins.
Scalding summer will pass, autumn

will arrive unnoticed. If only an early winter
rain would come, send us all indoors, there
to stand at shattered thresholds and watch
the yellow sky weep and weep
for all our dead.

By Rachel Tzvia Back

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POEM: 'Photograph of a Talmudist'

By Kenneth Sherman

(Taken in Warsaw, 1936)


I will not infer from your black suit
and stiff blanched collar an absolutist’s stance
since moot distinctions were your passion,
nor read prophecy into your ashen beard
though your forehead, pale as a candle, burned,
as did the bald dome beneath your silk skullcap.
Your terse lips questioned transcendence,
your magnified eyes pondered the invisible
from behind the flash of spectacles.
Man of substance, you were suspicious
of these captured appearances on paper —
you who inhabited thought and lived stateless.

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POEM: 'Assimilation'

By Joy Ladin

For Irving Ladin, died October 2007


It’s different
in the house of death.
There’s family here too

but no one crowds around the bed.
They hang back in the shadows
waiting for you to come to them.

The mother and father you left
marinating in their accents
whisper their Russian version

of the local dialect.
You can’t quite hear them
but completely understand.

Your mother seems younger
the wisp of a girl
whose waist was as thin as the rail of a ship

then thicker the woman
you knew better than to contradict
then too frail to stand.

She isn’t angry now.
Merely curious.
You must be changing to her too

swelling and shrinking
through the boys and men
she knew you as.

Your father is looking down
embarrassed or disappointed
to find you here on the shore of death

like a message in a bottle he sent
washed up decades later
at his feet

unread.

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POEM: 'Letter to God'

By Joy Ladin

You say because I’m always about to die,
I am truly alive. My shadow stretches
over fallen branches, my skin smiles
under fingers of light, grass smiles along the path

You say is mine.
When You look at me, you see a child.
When I look at You, I see
a woman under a tree, a dog, a sign,

libraries of books I neither read nor write.
Life for You is easy as death, You do both all the time.
Try it You say. Be dead. Now be alive.
Now be everything you desire. Now let desire lie.

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POEM: 'Carlisle Street (The Last Ghetto)'

By Matthue Roth

You and me on Carlisle Street
feels so illegitimate, holding hands
strolling along stands of Tasmanian fruits and music stores
two bars, more urbane than urban
where the Jewish kids meet. flirt. buy each other drinks.
but always go home alone.

A rabbi once told us
always have guests for Shabbos dinner.
It’s a segulah for shalom bayis.

What that means in English is,
you fight less
with other people around.

On Carlisle Street
we are never alone
every five steps is
another long-lost friend
or the cousin of one.
To move a block
Takes hours.
We are the opposite Of a marathon.

Chana, 22 years old
and still single, anxiously
trades names of old flames
pairing up, kids flying out
as fast as photocopies

She’s the last in her class
to get married. She is an advertisement
for herself,
dressed in nostalgic black & white
getting more severe every year
like a bottle of wine
she poses with a picture of her husband
propped against her heart.
Now all she has to do
Is find him.

John lives alone with the ghosts
of his grandparents
in their old apartment. He is the wildest
kid we know, visiting exorcists and
death-rock shows, throwing footballs over
international borders, but at home
he is tender. At sunset
the three of them have tea
making dirty jokes that offend
none of their sensibilities.

My cousin Karl
80 years old next month and never married,
I’m his closest relative
and I’m never here
drinks coffee and talks
to waitresses 60 years younger than he is
tells them he’s the president of the USA

They never doubt it.
He’s earned this retirement
a conductor on Melbourne trains for 30 years
and 5 years in Nazi slave camps
now he sits in his old barrack-mate’s café
Glick’s Bakery and bagels that don’t taste like bagels,
they taste like bread
He’ll sit there for hours like a fishing net,
waiting for people
to trickle in.

I know where he is. I’ll bite.
I like stories,
and it’s nice to be legitimate
for a change.

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POEM: 'Hebrew, My Love'

By Tuvia Ruebner

Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

It’s been a lifetime together.
Fifty years? Sixty? How many?

We were never like that coiled knot
only the slash of the sword could undo.
I turned my back on you.
You turned your back on me
though still we pulled toward each other like magnets to the pole
like the moon and the tides.

I conjugated at your will, I accepted your grammared sentences
I queried your roots,
I stuttered, became silent, I begged and whispered,
and you, turning inward, saw nothing.
Until suddenly, you opened up wide like a field in the wind
and your voice burst forth from my throat.

From “In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner” translated by Rachel Tzvia Back (Hebrew Union College Press, in collaboration with University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).

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POEM: 'Voices'

By Tuvia Ruebner

I am walking. I am always walking. Where
am I walking? I am not here.

From where is this kindling in my arms?
This fire? They are not mine. I am not mine. In vain

– I am in your footsteps, in vain…

I know, my son, I am the father.
I lead you, the two of us walk together.

– I am not asleep. I am not awake.

I am asleep. My heart is awake
a ram bound by its black ribs.

A still stutter falls silent among the boughs
of time entangled in its day and night…

– Yes, I am here.

No!

From “In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner” translated by Rachel Tzvia Back (Hebrew Union College Press, in collaboration with University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014).

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POEM: 'Dialogue Babel 2013: interpretation suspended'

By Raphaël Sigal

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POEM: 'September 1, 1946'

By Erika Dreifus

Seven years after Auden sat
uncertain and afraid
in one of the dives on 52nd Street,
my great-grandmother arrives, finally, in New York.
She was lucky, everyone will say,
to have left Germany in time,
and to have waited out the war
with her husband in Brazil.

But on September 1, 1946,
she does not feel so lucky.
The endless voyage over, yes,
but she is detained on Ellis Island
while her husband, too weak, too tired,
breathes his difficult last in the Marine Hospital.
Yet again the unmentionable odor of death
offends the September night.

On what would have been their fortieth anniversary
She is admitted, alone, to the United States.
For the first time since 1938
she can see and hear and touch her daughter.
They depart South Ferry and make their way
to West 139th Street, where wait
the son-in-law the woman has yet to meet
and the baby grandson.

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POEM: 'Mount Zion'

By Erika Dreifus

My mom can tell you stories
about all her mother’s sisters.
Except for two. One was stillborn.
Nameless. The other was Shirley.
Shirley, the second to arrive once the family
reunited in New York, my great-grandfather
having immigrated first. Shirley, who died,
the certificate says, on May 7, 1924.
Aged thirteen months. Cause of death:
intestinal toxemia, with “contributory”
cerebral convulsions.
It’s hard to think of any baby dying,
and hard, too, to imagine Shirley,
buried at once in Mount Zion Cemetery
when her parents and sisters and even
an aunt would be laid to rest together
at Old Montefiore. We visit the graves
at Old Montefiore. We stand gathered
beside them for interments and unveilings.
We recite Kaddish there, and pluck pebbles
from its dirt. We pay for Perpetual Care.
But never—not a single time—
have we visited Mount Zion.
Questioned once, my grandmother,
who was eleven when Shirley died,
recalled the baby’s beauty, the frenzy
that surrounded her illness,
my great-grandmother’s grief.
But of the cemetery, Grandma said nothing.
Who went there, and when, all the eighty-five years
before I looked up and ordered, for a few dollars,
a copy of the death certificate?
Is it too late, even now,
to move Great-aunt Shirley to Old Montefiore?
But that might require a visit to Mount Zion,
and I, at least, am too afraid of what I’ll find there:
the baby buried, alone,
abandoned, with the weeds.

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POEM: 'Lilith’s Quilt'

By Lynn Levin

Older, moonswept no more
Lilith saw bed as a place to sleep
but sleep abandoned her
like the millions of guys she’d had.
Every night she tossed and turned
with memories of her God-awful sex life—

the lovers who woke up terrified
dumped her out of the sack
mocked her desire.
Did a man ever live who could mix
with her body and soul?

To court slumber Lilith began to stitch
a quilt, a gift for her bed.
Each morning she gathered
scraps of colorful fabric
appliquéd scenes of the good life—
families at supper, workers at work,
weddings, births, kisses in the park.

By afternoon squares of human happiness spread
before her like the funnies in the newspaper.
Her scenes itched for a little disappointment.
But how much disappointment
did the good life allow—
a setback once a season,
a letdown once a week, once a day?

Lilith drove herself nuts with self-doubt.
Just before bed, she would take
a seam ripper to her beautiful squares
then collapse on her sheets.

Every morning, same story.
Lilith got up craving sleep like caffeine,
purple purses under her eyes.
She would gather her scraps
of colorful cloth and pat her bed.
“Old friend,” she would say, “this time
I will finish the quilt
and then we will sleep like lambs.”

From “Miss Plastique” (Ragged Sky Press, 2013)

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POEM: 'Lilith at the Cosmetics Counter'

By Lynn Levin

Lilith’s face made a face at her
in the lighted mirror at the cosmetics counter.
Craggy, ravined, parched,
that thing above her neck looked like the Sinai Desert.
Yesterday militants high on toxic rumors
baby killer! man raper!
had run her out of town. Again.
She needed some ego first aid.
New address, new name, plastic surgery—
all that in good time.

“You look as one who has returned
from a long journey. This makeup will help,”
said the saleslady. She tilted her head
toward Lilith as if to say
we’re all in this together
then tried to sign her up for a store credit card:
20% off all first-day purchases
including cosmetics!
The lady also happened to be
missing a front tooth.
Her false eyelashes were so thick
she gave everyone the hairy eyeball.

She began to fuss with her brushes
(probably not clean)
and pots of color
(no doubt contaminated by frequent double dipping).
Lilith was about to put herself
under the other woman’s power
when she detected a whiff of sabotage
in the jasmine of her perfume.
Advice from an old lover tapped Lilith on the shoulder:
never buy makeup from someone
who’s not as good looking as you.

Lilith glanced at the high-def mirror.
The wilderness of her face looked back at her
with weird familiarity. Haggard
is good enough for me, she decided,
thanked her saboteur and slid from the chair.
She knew her fate was a bitch
but it was her bitch.
And that was the beauty of it.

From “Miss Plastique” (Ragged Sky Press, 2013)

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POEM: 'Framework'

By Baruch November

Old pictures of us
on white staircase walls,
lined diagonally upward
in little wood frames,
lecture us on choices
we have made since
they were taken —

we cannot never argue
with former selves
who weigh less,
have more hair,
and the gift of youth’s
optimism. We can
only cover them,
as one does mirrors
in houses of mourning,
hoping the best of
our spirits are not
stuck there, too,
in the past behind
the glass.

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Jewish War Poet Finally Getting His Due

By Liam Hoare

It was the slain generation of warrior-poets who, more than any others, captured the brutality and inhumanity of the First World War and cemented in the English imagination a perception of that conflict as pointless and futile.

As wave after wave of men were sent to their deaths at the Somme and comrades drowned in the mud at Passchendaele, English poetry from the front abandoned themes of patriotism, glory and valour for the pain and misery of trench warfare. Verse became soaked in blood as nearly 900,000 British troops fell in the fields of France and Belgium. “But the old man who not so, but slew his own,” Wilfred Owen wrote in his twisted retelling of the binding of Isaac, “and half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

The Great War’s centennial has brought about a re-examination not only of the war itself but how it is remembered, what is emphasised and what is forgotten. In that spirit, the Jewish East End Celebration Society — whose aim is to raise awareness of the history and culture of London’s Jewish East End — is fundraising to erect a statue of the war poet Isaac Rosenberg at Torrington Square in Bloomsbury. To be unveiled on April 1, 2018 – the hundredth anniversary of his passing – it would make Rosenberg the only Jewish literary figure other than Benjamin Disraeli to be afforded a monument.

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POEM: 'Eve and Lilith Go to Macy’s'

By Lynn Levin

In the fitting room at Macy’s
Eve shimmies into a pair of leopard-print leggings
then mocks a dance pose.
“OMG! You’re hotter than a habanero in those pants,”
gasps Lilith. She slides her finger
down Eve’s shapely hip
as though striking a match
then blows out her finger.

Eve can’t believe how good that feels
through the cotton-polyester-spandex blend.
Lilith always went for men in a big way
but maybe the oversexed act
was overcompensation, a put-on.
Maybe Lilith is gay.
Maybe I’m gay, thinks Eve
wishing her friend would touch her again.

In the Macy’s fitting room
with the triple-paneled mirror
the women’s figures mingle and multiply.
Looking at one of her selves
Eve moves her right arm
but in the mirror it looks like her left arm.
She can’t be sure which image
reflects the real Eve.

In the champagne of the moment
she turns to Lilith, the real one, the warm one
intending to bestow upon her
an air kiss of gratitude
at most a smooch on the cheek,

but Lilith catches Eve’s mouth,
draws her to her other self.
Eve can’t remember
when she’s ever had a kiss like that.
Maybe she never has, never will again
so what is the point in stopping?

The women linger in each other’s arms
as the hidden security camera
looks on with its mysterious eye.
And the women are okay with that.
They know that eye sees all things.
Sees all. Says nothing.

From “Miss Plastique” (Ragged Sky Press, 2013)

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POEM: 'On the Machine'

By Baruch November

my grandmother did not change
my grandfather’s greeting,
so his voice ripened my sadness
before the tone.

I considered how he might find
contentment knowing we were
checking on the short woman
he had left to the heavy warmth
of lower Florida,

how for the children of Israel,
it is customary to leave
desperate notes
over tombs of the righteous,

how a measure of the soul
might remain in the sound
of a voice uncontained
by the body,

completing the circuit
between the dead and
their grandchildren.

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POEM: 'Eve and Lilith Back at the Garden'

By Lynn Levin

Eve and Lilith peered through
the padlocked gates of the garden,
now a restricted community.

Eve glared at Lilith,
“You told me it was easier to beg
forgiveness than ask permission. Now look.”

“That’s what I always do,” Lilith replied,
aware that under the circumstances
she sounded pretty lame.

“Plus,” said Eve, “I think I’m pregnant.”
“I told you to use protection,” said Lilith.
“But Adam promised…” Lilith rolled her eyes.

“Him and his teaspoon of joy,” said Eve.
A fault line threatened her brow.
“Girlfriend,” counseled Lilith,

“either change your life or accept your life
but don’t go around mad.
Let that anger go,” said Lilith. “Just let it go.”

Eve hated it when her friend got preachy.
Anyhow when it came to holding onto anger
Eve was an Olympian, a gold medalist.

She clung to a grudge
like a shipwrecked sailor to a scrap of wood.
It had something to do

with her excellent memory.
As Eve sucked on the red lollipop of her hurt
the two women trudged back to Nod.

All of a sudden something dark
waved in the grass.
“Eek!” shrieked Lilith. “A snake!”

She high-stepped in panic.
Oh, woman-up, thought Eve
as she grabbed a Y-shaped stick,

immobilized the critter’s head,
stared straight into its eyes.
The snake looked back at her with a who me? look.

“This one’s harmless.
It’s only a dumb animal,” said Eve.
“Kill it! Kill it!” pleaded Lilith.

“Sorry,” said her friend. “No can do.”
Eve let the snake go.
She just let it go.

From “Miss Plastique” (Ragged Sky Press, 2013)

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POEM: 'The Robe: Improvisation on a Theme'

By Jake Marmer

This poem’s “head” (first three lines) are attributed to Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski of Chernobyl (1730-1798).

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