The Story That Could Heal

Tisha B’Av, 5780 (2020)


1. I’m asked what story could heal my motherland

I have no motherland.
No native soil claimed my ancestors,
sang in their bones when they fled.

My mother tongue a mongrel mama-loshen
German syntax and vocabulary,
Hebrew’s throat-clearing ch and dancing alphabet,
a bissel of Slavic,
ptu ptu spitting to ward off the evil eye
from a time before speech.

Venetian gave us ghetto,
German, shtetl, though either
may come from Yiddish itself:
words for divorce and small town.
Pogrom is Russian: to wreak
havoc, demolish violently—
something in me ready to plunge
into the woods, press my hand
hard over my child’s mouth.


2. Wandering Jews

My mother’s mother, Dora, was born in transit,
the family delayed months on their journey
from Ukraine. The story was
no ships could leave port because of a plague.
The story was a sibling, the first-born, died.
Dora entered life in the town of Memel,
which means mute, silent.

In a photograph of the clan, newly
arrived in Milwaukee, she’s a lap baby.
Though it’s discreet—I saw the photo
for years before I noticed—her mother’s
belly, under a severe black dress, swells
with the next of four.

The story: Dora’s father, a junkman, died
of septicemia. Her mother turned their ground floor
into a store. Dora, the oldest at twelve,
left school to work there.

She married well
though not happily
raged at her children
made my mother timid, tongue-tied.


3. Tisha B’Av

Dora died at 75 on Tisha B’Av
a day of grief for the time millennia ago
when, the story says, the temple in Jerusalem
was destroyed and our people
became refugees

This Tisha B’Av
I light a yahrzeit

candle for her
and listen over Zoom to Lamentations,
in Hebrew, Eicha—how?
How could these misfortunes happen?


4. Kedushah

All that remains to me
of my family’s life in Ukraine,
a life whose misery I know in my kishkes
from history and Dora’s harshness,
are four silver kiddush cups.

Last week I made an imaginative journey
toward my ancestors. I picked up a kiddush
cup — a hand-sized goblet, the silver etched
with blossoms. Closing my eyes

I was astonished
by joy.

I pictured a room, simple but inviting,
the good white cloth on the table
freshly baked challah
soft light of Shabbos candles
the kiddush cup filled with wine,
raised for blessing.

On Tisha B’Av, the only light
Dora’s yahrzeit candle, I wonder,
is this the story that could heal
if not the motherland then
the mother-wound?

A story of sweet wine in the kiddush cup
of making kedushah —holiness
making whole.

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