"Are You Jewish?" and Danse Macabre
“Are You Jewish?”
Three Lubavitcher kids stop me on
Lincoln Rd. Are you Jewish, they ask.
I smile politely, keep moving and
Say, Not now.
You’re Jewish all the time,
One replies. Lubavitcher kids get
All the best lines.
I’ve never put on
Phylacteries in my life, and I
Don’t go to shul, keep the sabbath, light
Candles, or turn down a Maine lobster.
Clearly, I’m not observant. I can
Say the quick version of the kiddish
Before the wine, the motzi over
Bread. Otherwise, I’m short on blessings.
I’m exactly the kind of bad Jew
The kids want to take to their Mitzvah-
Mobile and teach how to recite some
Prayers in Hebrew. Still, I don’t think
That would make me Jewish. I’m too far
From the God I talk to when I shave,
The one who made the world so broken.
I read about a woman tortured
In Syria, an artist. I see
Her drawings of other women who
Were in prison with her and tortured
As she was. Her drawings have strong lines
And remind me of Kathe Kollwitz.
The pain doesn’t radiate out as
Much as it collapses into the
Figure, a black hole strong enough to
Pull all the stars inside.
The rabbis say you’re Jewish if your
Mother was Jewish, going all the
Way back to Eve, I guess. To me, it’s
Different. You’re Jewish if you look
For God in the world and can’t find him,
If you look at portraits by a young
Woman who was tortured and you want
To go into a bathroom somewhere
And cry, if you know the angelic
Cavalry always arrives too late.
Next week, the Lubavitcher kids will
Stand at the same spot on Lincoln Rd.,
Blocking the sidewalk, believing that the
World will be redeemed and Moshiac
Will come if just one more bad Jew like
Me puts on phylacteries and prays.
Much as I’d like to join them, I won’t.
When you write the word death, nothing happens.
No one dies. The sky doesn’t darken.
A fountain pen hovers above a notebook. The nib
Touches the paper. It leaves a blue spot where
The page begins. The spot becomes a word and the
Word a sentence. The notebook yawns in its
Leather case. Your dry hand strokes the page and tells
It to behave, brushes away crumbs of brioche,
Dabs at a red spot of jam, awkwardly touches the pink
Stain. Each time the pen speaks, the paper replies.
A stray dog crawls closer to one of the tables.
A cloud hangs like an awning over the afternoon,
The noise of traffic, a mathematical equation.
When there are too many letters, the words clump
Together, automobile exhaust hangs in the air.
You find it hard to breathe.
When you write the word death, no one cares.
You’re not writing anyone’s death in particular.
You’re not the governor at a polished oak desk,
Signing a death warrant, then checking his watch.
When you write the word death, you imagine
A hedge of roses, large thorns, twisted stems and
Blooms, splashing white, red, and pink into
Your eyes. They burn for a moment at the thought.
You turn your face toward the black soil and the
Roots. You think finally you’ve arrived at something,
But the soil is full of seedlings, purposeful insects,
The droppings of a cat.
When you write the word
Death, you think it’s a sacrament. You hold it
On your tongue. The page has wrapped itself into
A church spire, the arches of a cathedral, pews
Filled with worshippers. When did you last sit in
Such a place? Old women lighting candles, frowning
Saints—they all would stare at you, know that you
Don’t belong. So, you write death a little off to
The side, almost at the margin, the fountain pen
Moving too slowly on the page, the letters turning
Thick the way a child would write or an invalid,
Falling asleep in a chair.
Perhaps, you are beginning
What will be a fairy tale. Death is a princess locked
In a tower. The pen curls like the tail of a dragon or
Steam from a teapot. In the story, death will have its
Portrait painted by a great artist. It will wear robes made
Of fur and velvet, and its hands will be extraordinarily
White, its fingers narrow. The artist will put much effort
Into the lips and eyes, the forehead that wrinkles a
Little with all that it’s observed. The thought gives
You confidence. You touch the pen once more to the page,
Writing death over and over again. But, no matter
How many times you write it, nothing happens.