August 30, 2002



A Jew is like cloth dyed in tea
Soaked and steeped until the essence
Will never leave her pores.
When you prick her,
She bleeds mama-loshen
In the backs of her ears
She hears the voices of old women
A hundred generations of them behind her
Brewing their tea and their talk, as old women do,
Their words, in Yiddish and still older tongues
Prickling the edges of her understanding.
It pigments her corneas, to color her vision.
She may choose what sort of a Jew to be
As she can choose what sort of a woman to be
But like her brown eyes,
No mask can change the essence
Of a people's ancient memories
That dance, for this daughter,
In her irrevocable soul.

Harold Kushner has had a lot of good things to say, things that made sense for me. One of the best is from his book, "To Life!". Paraphrasing from memory, "When you ask, 'What do Jews think about such-and-such a thing, the answer will alway be, 'Well, some think this, some think that, and some think something else entirely.' " This is how being Jewish is for me. I am sure it is different, and maybe a more vibrant thing, for Pigtails and DrunkTina, who are more observant Jews; different again for my mother, whose Judaism is also her social life, or for my friend S who I think identifies more with Israeli culture than the older Ashkenazi ways. And Judaism may hold a different flavor still for Egret, a quarter Jewish by blood but raised in another religion, or for Mechaieh who is not Jewish at all but for whom the teachings and language resonate deeply.

I'm being a bit presumptuous here, in describing other people's experiences in one line, so I ask pardon and hope they will let it slide by just for the sake of the argument.

It is coincidental that I started work on this yesterday, thinking about the coming High Holidays, Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur. Today I read Mechaieh's latest entry and was struck again by the difference in associations. For me, "Oleinu" invokes not the literal meaning of the prayer, but a chanted tune and the ending of a Shabbat service, with the procession out of the sanctuary and into a recption room for cakes and tea (on Friday evenings) or tiny cups of schapps (after Saturday morning services. And that brings back the voice of the rabbi with his odd careful accent, the memory of the time my brother got drunk on a dozen of those tiny cupfuls, memories of making small talk with my mother's friends. Then I begin remembering old dresses I wore, Hebrew school classmates I haven't seen in two decades, holidays, and the ensuing holiday family dinners, which of course reminds me of my grandparents, who are the key to a host of memories in themselves. Memories do chain like that, and we are, more than anything else, a people who remember. ETA, May 2, 2019: This poem used to say "Like her female chromosomes / no surgery can remove the essence". That passed without comment back in 2002 when I first wrote and shared these words. In 2019, I got called out for them; the world has changed - or rather, it hasn't, but our perceptions have, and our understandings of ourselves. XX chromosomes are not the determining factor of a female identity, so I have edited accordingly. Posted by dichroic at August 30, 2002 09:23 AM

I just discovered this wonderful poem. Are you the author? May I use it somehow for an art exhibition which I am creating for a synagogue museum in Philadelphia? I might use it as a background for some images in a collage. I am a professional artist and would of course attribute the poem to you if you would want that. If so please give me your name and when I complete the work I will send you an email with the image of the final piece. The title of my exhibition will probably be "Yiddishkeit." It is not for several months and I am in the beginning stages of collecting material.

Posted by: Joan Myerson Shrager at March 31, 2005 02:52 PM

Please send me an email with your full name so I can attribute the poem to you. I apologize but I lost your email in that vast email wasteland. I just love the poem.

Posted by: Joan Myerson Shrager at April 17, 2005 11:26 AM
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