The Arty Semite

POEM: 'Untitled, Jerusalem, 2002'

By Rachel Berghash

You are captives of illusion,
experts in eluding truth, you party, drink wine,
pick anemone in spring.

Occasionally you are reminded that life is transient as grass,
that death lies in ambush among green meadows.

Though the wrath of the suicide bomber is daily at your door,
your children bask in your warmth,
and this old earth, this biblical earth
blooming with camouflaged memories, quivers
with gratitude, that such people as you
inhabit it.

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POEM: 'Backseat Mama'

By Shoshana Olidort

my son consigns me
to a knife-less table-setting
he explains: “mama doesn’t get a knife,
she sat in the backseat” — in the car —
it’s true: my husband at the wheel, his mother,
visiting from revolution-ravaged Ukraine at his side
I’m the only one small enough (even post-birth)
to fit between two carseats
surprisingly there’s ample leg room
and my hips aren’t too constricted —
only my arms poke out uncomfortably —
but I feel shut out
of a conversation happening between two adults
in the front seat
in a foreign tongue

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POEM: 'Gaza'

By Rachel Berghash

Scrawny goats limp on heaps of rubble,
the sea — under weights of sorrow.
Nowhere to go, she says, escaping
the bombs with her wounded child.
And the child guarded
by ten silent angels who weep.

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POEM: 'Paste-Up'

By Ivan Klein

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POEM: 'The Great Dying'

By Rachel Berghash

He gathered his friend’s dead flesh,
walked back and sat in a field reciting a psalm.
Kneeling, he signaled the signs of courage
and defeat with his bloody fingers,
each sign for each heart beat before the great dying.
An instinctive act, he ruminates.
He sounds the psalm like a warning bell,
befuddled by what he had done, unexpectedly,
chasing death in an everlasting tunnel,
an unending struggle to choose between
life and death, the blessing and the curse,
bonded like separate and one twin mountains.

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A Delirious Interpretation of the Binding of Isaac for Yom Kippur

By Jake Marmer

Writing of Kafka’s tales, Walter Benjamin pointed out that Kafka’s tangled meanings “do not modestly lie at the feet of the doctrine, as the Haggadah lies at the feet of Halakah… they raise a mighty paw against it.” Benjamin, ultimately, juxtaposed the Jewish law (halachah) with mythic storytelling (aggadah), envisioning the rise of the latter from the downfall of the former. One can only imagine how pleased Benjamin would be reading Alexander Nemser’s poetry collection “The Sacrifice of Abraham,” released earlier this month from Bookieman.

It is hard to name a genre that would encompass Nemser’s work: these are prose poems with an aphoristic scent, reminiscent of Borges, Kafka, Calvino and Jabes, among others. Each prose poem imagines an aggadah-like talmudic conversation between rabbis, who are struggling to interpret the Akeida, that is, the story of the binding of Isaac. Though framed in traditional Jewish rhetoric, Nemser’s tales are surreal, disturbing, funny, smart and anything but pious. The prominence of the transgressive element of Nemser’s writing is in perfect accord with his spiritual vision and concern for Judaism’s formative and perhaps most inexplicable myth.

“The rabbis floated down the river in an ark containing two copies of each dream their masters had dreamt on the story of Abraham and Isaac,” opens one of the tales. Another starts with: “A group of rabbis gathered at the wedding feast as fiddles and trumpets played faster and faster, until they spiraled into delirium, and guests spilled dark wine across the lace tablecloths. The cantor began chanting the story of Abraham and Isaac.” Both openers set a stage for the speakers to create their interpretations in altered, visionary states, through dream and delirium.

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POEM: 'You Think This May Be How It Happens'

By Janet Kirchheimer

You’re sitting in an armchair,
it’s your favorite, though
beat up from years of use,
and there is a tear in the fabric
covering the seat cushion, and
it’s after noon, and you’re taking
your nap, and you

wake up and ask your daughter
if anyone is there, you feel as if
someone has been pulling
at your arm, and she tells you
no one is there, to go back to sleep,
and you begin to wonder
if someone was there,

perhaps the Angel of Death who comes
to distract you for the slightest moment
so he can take you, and if you concentrate
on something, studying, praying, or
performing a commandment, the Angel must pass you by
but he is cunning, and will do everything

in his power to distract you, and you are
tired these days and are having
trouble concentrating and remembering things,
and you know the Angel will not stop trying, and
your daughter tells you, again, to go back
to sleep, but you can’t, you keep wondering
if this may be how it will happen.

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POEM: 'Neighbors'

By Rachel Berghash

If only I’d climb over the fence
and step into my neighbor’s
grove of almonds, stealthily put
my ear against his window
listening closely to Farid
and his oud, and think
of his ancestors as mine, and
remember him coming
from Mecca with his green flag
for my son’s birth, if only
we’d sit together under
the garden’s broad-leaved tree,
unknowing religion and race,
and worship a nameless God,
crouch, humble like grass,
a seraph on fire, we’d wash
each other’s feet, letting
the hamsin pass over,
and breaking bread without a claim.

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POEM: 'BRUJA'

By Adeena Karasick

From “Salome Libretto”

Through the fercockte gawk-stalkin’ hack stackers
of antiquity trickery lexically-licked sticky flickering

Salomé, you are bringing in the big guns
Opening the sluice gates
with your hyper dramatic excess
Flexed with swishy riffs, pithy spiff grifters
Like a shattered chatter box schadenshow

like a discordant accordion
like manna from mayhem

you are ebullient as you blow
like a feisty
zeitgeist, a forever riviera

and i say hula lily hillbilly, billiard bombast
ho-hum hum de lilah bruja hoo-ha slap trap
of schizmatic revisionism

And take your slinky hijinx, pixie
fixity of prurient lure of twirly whirlers
a contretemp tempestuous extempora & lay me down in
an elixir mixer of lexically robust postulates
which say ce soir bette noir,
of gnarly parlors
in a coughing scoffed cacophony of
acrostic biscuits

a miscued skew of super cinder cendre
slippery ceiling singing
in the flotsam frayed refrain. stay

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POEM: 'I Fought the Law and the Law Won (A study in pronouns)'

By Alicia Ostriker

He defied his dad and got beat up
He worked for the gang and got shot
They wished for war and the war came

She sassed her mom and got the ice treatment
We murdered the whales and our mother is furious
They wished for war and the war came

You falsified the data and the drug killed
She bribed the inspector and the building fell
They wished for war and the war came

We spent beyond our means and went broke
We pissed on Muslims and now they hate us
They wished for war and the war came
I wished for peace and the war came

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POEM: 'Under the Olive Tree'

By Asher Reich

Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

The light of the olive in this tree
is thick and dark — 
lost blood flows in it.

When I sat under its leaves
time killed itself in the tree’s shade.
Through all the afternoon hours
a figure on the hill

watched me, her face covered in a veil —
and the sun, like me, searched for her eyes
all the long afternoon,
the flute of silence singing in the rocks
as I gnawed nervously on the heavy air.

Years passed between us in fire —
an abundance of blood did not extinguish it.
With straight-necked weariness
we raised dust in our bodies —
but what connects us
may yet be stitched back together
and heal.

From “With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry,” translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

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POEM: 'All This Suffering'

By Tuvia Ruebner

Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

All this suffering
all the sorrow
all this suffering and sorrow
in vain
all the fear-clenched
mothers
their eyes disheveled
all this sane madness
in vain in vain
the fathers, all these fathers
hiding their hearts
pretending
in vain
all this blood-crazy
land
in vain, in vain
the young faces a newspaper-grey
oh the colorful faces of youth
oh their faded colors
their photographed laughter, the girls and the young women
the kisses and hugs
in vain, in vain
blood drinking blood
these withering blossoming lives
oh the burnt bodies
in vain
all this destruction
all this blind ruin
Oh, oh

From “In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner.” Translated by Rachel Tzvia Back

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POEM: 'Visit'

By Michael Heller

The descendant kings rule over rock-strewn littoral,
banked clouds, hyssop hills of Jordan, a shimmer
that concedes hope, which is bound unto the other,
to the sheer indecipherability of landscape.

Believe — some god behind the edged shrubs, the pebbles,
and near flat glassiness of sea. Human need contracts,
matters little. Curls of viscous foam at shoreline,
tour bus inching between wary-eyed soldiers.

Concede they grew from this hardened land, clad in khaki.
Pre-taped voice is provender: even this body of water excludes.
After the mudbaths of Ein Gedi — here David took refuge
from murderous Saul — conqueror trinkets on sale in the shop.

Martyrdom of Masada, of Herod’s palace further along this road.
Marker: 300 feet below sea-level. Around this lowest point, earth
is mere bowl. Bottom of the world, bottom of language.
Inscriptions in rock, echolalia in the caves of the Scrolls.

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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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