This is not a poet

More than two decades ago when I was applying to universities, I intentionally sought out strong programs in biomedical engineering. My thought at the time was that a degree in BME would serve me as a stepping stone for medical school.

That turned out to be a terrible, foolish mistake on my part, which led to me being extremely bored, unfulfilled, uninspired, and rudderless for four years; receiving poor grades; and losing my scholarship. There’s much I could write about that fateful decision and its consequences… about my motivations; about my experiences; about what my subsequent academic failure led to… but this is not that post.


Papa’s take

Papa advised me against biomedical engineering and against the hard sciences in general; he suggested instead that I pursue the humanities. Of course, I was too stubborn to listen to him. In truth, I was a capable student and was taking the very highest level math and science classes in high school… but, today, I still can’t help feeling that Papa’s intuition was correct.

I know these sorts of recollections, benefitting as they do from hindsight, are actually impossible to judge. When I shared this very memory with my brother who is now a successful software engineer, he told me that Papa had counseled him similarly, discouraging him too from pursuing the hard sciences and engineering. In that case, Papa was wrong. Still, having personally failed myself as an undergraduate, I can’t help but perceive Papa’s warnings back then as prescient.

I also remember that during my high school years, Papa once recruited me to write an educational children’s book, based upon his approach to mathematics education. This memory is fairly hazy for me, but I distinctly remember not wanting to take this project on. Papa was hoping for me to write an entire series of children’s books following the first one, but my negligible interest expired very quickly. Still, I remember his confidence: you are good at writing; why don’t you put your talents to use?


Penning my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ series

After Papa died, just 2.5 years ago, it took me a month of grieving before I found myself taking to the keyboard. Since then, I’ve hashed, rehashed, and continued rehashing my sundry intertwining motivations for pursuing that particular project during my year of mourning, but this is not that post.

Over the course of that year, as I pumped out my reflections and research on kaddish and Jewish beliefs and traditions on a weekly basis, I experienced an unexpected personal transformation. In addition to the religious, spiritual, intellectual, and familial facets to my project, I gradually came to see it as an outlet for my creativity. I wasn’t simply expressing my thoughts on death, love, and tradition in a dry fashion… I was playing with word sounds and placements… and I was enjoying the more artistic aspects of blogging.

In my broad research on kaddish, I inevitably came across beatnik Allen Ginsberg’s famed poem ‘Kaddish’, and I spent that whole year thinking about writing a kaddish poem of my own in honor of Papa, which I never got around to doing. Original poetry didn’t quite seem to fit into any of my content heavy blog posts, and I hadn’t written any poems for some two decades or more.


‘Natural English, or: Sidespin’

When I moved all of my ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog posts to this new personal website from the Times of Israel, back in April of 2020, I found myself moved to pen a poem, inspired as I’d been by Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Kaddish’.

Even after making ‘Natural English, or: Sidespin’ public, I found myself tweaking it repeatedly until I was finally satisfied with how it read and sounded to me. That somehow natural process of writing and rewriting kindled a flame, and I felt my soul warming. Then, at a certain, unexpected point, the poem came to completion.

Mama wondered if I intended to continue writing only about Papa, kaddish, and mourning on my new website, and I told her that I did not. I would, of course, write about Papa when I needed to, but my intention was to build a platform here for my creative juices to spill out upon, creative juices which had been continuously steaming and bubbling up in those eight months since I’d written my final ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ blog post.


What is poetry?

I have no idea what poetry actually is. I have no idea how much of what I’ve written and posted on this website’s poetry page qualifies as poetry by historic and global standards – and to the extent that I believe that what I’ve written is, indeed, poetry, I’m deeply uncertain about its quality and worth to others.

I’m not writing this from a place of false humility, nor even from a place of any humility at all. I remain truly unconvinced that splashing words across a page (or screen) qualifies as poetry. That’s not to say that poets aren’t poets or that poetry isn’t poetry… but I simply do not know how to judge. Certainly, I am not one who is remotely qualified to make such a judgment.

But I also don’t care.

I don’t care whether my “poetry” is poetry at all, or whether it is “poetry” of any recognizable quality. What I primarily care about are two things:

  1. I intend my splashes of words as poetry; and
  2. Regardless, I love producing them

The pudding

Of late, I often catch myself walking around, mumbling words to myself, attempting to describe my body’s various sensations, as well as playing in my mind with rhymes and rhythms that resonate with me.

Also, my daughter’s instinctive request of me upon the occasion of her losing two teeth in one day was for me to write a poem about her and her missing teeth, which took me quite by surprise. Curious, I later checked with my wife, wondering if she had suggested the idea to our six-year-old… but no, she hadn’t. Apparently, our little daughter knows that her Abba’chka makes regular attempts at writing something he intends as “poetry”.

Anyway, it’s gotten to the point that I have taken to posting daily “micropoems” on my newly-created Twitter account, and usually at least several longer “poems” every week on this blog… and…

Well, I suppose the proof is in pudding.


Natural English, or: Sidespin

My Papa once explained to me the genius of Poe’s poetry
In making language lyrical that was much inert;
Some tongues like French and Russian flow;
But English breaks upon the teeth
Unless we pull chords deep
Beneath; deep beneath
The surface

Struggling (mired in A,B,C), remembering he who sired me;
Limited to words, my own, chop\py though they be;
These fingers English keyboards know,
Grasp flailingly at fleeting dreams
Although it’s then I truly
See; truly see him
Seeing me

With talk he wouldn’t be impressed; I’d rather offer something else –
Reality itself undressed; bereft, I’ve naught but language left,
Now feeling I have naught to show…

Here’s peddling clever stanzas cheap
While Papa lies there deep
Beneath; deep beneath

The surface

Object, or: Subject

‘This is not a blog’

A triolet by David ben Alexander

My soulful kaddish glowing bright
My damaged heart behind a screen
Herein, words set my nights alight
My soulful kaddish glowing bright
Reliving love, compelled to write
Heart torn at death so unforeseen
My soulful kaddish glowing bright
My damaged heart behind a screen

The above poem is my take on d’Verse’s ‘Object Poems’ prompt.

d’Verse prompted us to write an ‘Object Poem’, which describes an inanimate object in detail. These poems can center around an every day object, such as a door, a jar, a spoon or something of sentimental value.

Ultimately, object poems will also create a different perspective of the subject, exposing a deeper representation to the reader. The d’Verse prompt encouraged us to focus more on the abstract, as well as to title or begin our poems with “THIS IS NOT A _________”

We were instructed to choose an object, look past the obvious characteristics and uses of this object, and spare our readers the details. Instead, we were prompted to take our audiences to the connections that our selected objects have made with us or what they represent.

As I’ve recently been exploring various forms of poetry, I decided to try my hand at a writing a triolet for this assignment.

Orphaned, or: Reborn

In the summer of 2018 I was unexpectedly reborn as an orphan. Shabbat ended with the setting of the Jerusalem sun on July 7th, and after a brief closing ceremony at home I turned on my computer to learn that my Papa was lying intubated at a hospital in America. Shortly afterwards, his heart stopped.

Jewish tradition holds that we are to recite a special doxology called the mourner’s kaddish upon a parent’s death every single day for the duration of one year on the Hebrew calendar. For other loved ones, we are to recite the mourner’s kaddish for only 30 days. Much ink has been spilled over why our parents receive the greatest honor.

Part of an answer can be found in the original Hebrew, as the term “mourner’s kaddish” is actually a mistranslation. The correct translation of “kaddish yatom” (קדיש יתום) is “orphan’s kaddish”. You see, this version of the doxology was originally intended to be recited in honor of either of one’s parents after they died. It was only a later development that mourners were also permitted to recite it for their spouses, siblings, and children, and even then only for a duration of 30 days. According to Jewish tradition, therefore, one takes the status of an orphan upon the death of either parent, even if the other is still alive.

Rainbow veiled by night
Arching across creation;
Painting soul anew

The above haibun is my take on d’Verse’s ‘Happy New Year!’ prompt. We were to write about some new beginning that we’ve experienced. Obviously, I took this in an unexpected direction, but, well… it’s real, and I was thinking about Papa because yesterday was his birthday.

We were directed to write a classic haibun, including a traditional haiku, which entails the following:

  • A haibun includes 1 to 3 prose paragraphs that must be a true accounting, not fiction,
    followed by a traditional haiku which MUST:
    • be nature based
    • be three lines (5 – 7 – 5 syllables OR short-long-short)
    • have a direct or subtle relationship to your prose paragraphs: enrich the prose without condensing or summarizing it
    • include a KIGO (word or phrase associated with a particular season).
    • although only 3 lines in length, it must have two parts including a shift, an added insight. Japanese poets include a KIREJI (cutting word).
      • BUT there’s no linguistic equivalent in the English language therefore punctuation creates the cut: we can use a dash, comma, an ellipsis, an exclamation point. Sometimes it’s simply felt in the pacing or reading.

Today Papa did not turn 73

Today is Papa’s birthday.

In Jewish tradition, we tend to commemorate the dates (on the Hebrew calendar) of our loved ones’ deaths, rather than their birthdays. Same goes for historic figures like our Jewish sages of the many centuries.

Generally, as somebody who deeply appreciates and respects his people’s traditions, I tend to think of them as frameworks for expression of human experiences. I don’t believe that they were designed by or mandated by God, but I do believe that they reflect and are the culmination of many, many centuries of Jewish wisdom.

That’s how I approached my year of mourning, following Papa’s death.

But the truth is that I often find our traditions to be… lacking? No, not quite lacking… insufficient? At least – insufficient for me. The practice of reciting the mourner’s kaddish on a daily basis during the first year of mourning for a parent was – not enough for me. It was not enough to get me through that year.

To be sure, there are other traditions associated with that year of mourning. There’s the common tradition of giving charity in memory of the deceased, and of studying Torah in their honor; but as much as I think of my traditions as my framework, it remains for me to fill in the frame. I found myself regularly confronted by the same niggling challenge that year, over, and over, and over again: where am I in this process? Where is Papa?

That, in large part, is why I started reflecting upon it and writing about it. I wanted to own it – to make that year a truly personal one.

Similarly, albeit in much less intensive way, I took to lighting a 24-hour memorial candle every Friday evening, just before Shabbat comes over us. The Jewish tradition is to light such a candle once a year on the anniversary of a loved one’s death and perhaps to light one on special festivals… but I find some small comfort in those flickering flames… in the physical reminder of Papa’s presence. Spontaneously, instinctively, I took this particular Jewish tradition and changed it up a bit.

And -so- I feel I must mark Papa’s birthday somehow, even though that’s not the Jewish tradition. Mama does so by sharing tender memories and Papa’s beautiful photography, as well as by eating some of his favorite foods; but I am found here, in written words. In fact, this morning, as I was contemplating what to write, I realized that it would be unnatural for me not to write something about Papa. After all, I write almost every single day – how could I let January 4th go by as just another day for prose and poetry?


It seems not a day goes by that I don’t think about Papa.

When my Dedushka (mother’s father) died, I remember my mother and her sisters weeping and eulogizing him. I remember one of my aunts crying, “I wish I could be like you.”

With a sloth in Costa Rica (2017)

At the time, I remember being taken aback by this sentiment. Mama and her sisters are all unique individuals, each with her unique strengths and flaws; and all are quite different than Dedushka was. Why should any of them want to be more like him? He was no more special than any of his daughters, and he was no less flawed than any of them either.

As much as I think about Papa every day, I recall his flaws no less than his strengths; and he was no less flawed than any of us. I have countless warm and loving memories, and I also have memories that leave me with frustrated pulses of energy shooting throughout my torso from somewhere between my lungs. I was never like him, and I could never be like him; and, just like him, I have my own human strengths and weaknesses.

But the funny thing is that I have been catching myself on that very same thought often enough recently: “I wish I could be like you, Papa.”

There were so many wonderful things about Papa. I loved his humility, his integrity, his brilliance, his wonderment, his unselfishness, his honor, his self-confidence, his capability, his worldliness, his innate moral compass… and… so… so… so… many… things…

He was a truly beautiful soul, was my Papa, and I know that I say so objectively because I could also, if I wanted to, list all of the things about him that disappointed or even angered me. He was far from perfect; and I know so as well as anyone else possibly could… but… still… I find myself wishing that I could be like him.

And obviously, I don’t wish to be like him because of his flaws, but rather despite them, for Papa was an absolutely extraordinary human being of the highest quality, and I continue to love him so incredibly dearly.

I was never like Papa, and I could never be like Papa; but, unlike him, I can paint this lovely birthday portrait… because I feel that I love him more than he loved himself.

My most disturbing dream

I’ve had a recurring dream, in which Papa somehow comes back to life some months after dying, only to die again permanently several months later. For some unclear reason, his temporary resurrection is not made public to everyone; and we are all aware and certain that it is, indeed, temporary. The details are very hazy to me, but my dream-self experiences this scenario as having been true. In other words, my dream-self perceives this as an actual memory, rather than as a fantasy.

In this dream, I try to explain to Papa and to myself why I am continuing to mourn him during that interim period between his two deaths. In other words, why did I continue reciting kaddish during the traditional Jewish year of mourning that began with his original death, and why did I continue writing every week about my mourning, while knowing that he wasn’t really dead, even though his reprieve from death was temporary?

My dream-self offers several related answers.

  1. First of all, my dream-self explains, Papa was in the USA, and I was in Israel so even though Papa magically came back to life, I never actually saw him in the flesh after his resurrection so he was still dead from my dream perspective.
  2. Secondly, since I knew that Papa’s days were numbered anyway, and since I’d already commenced with my traditional year of mourning, I had to continue going through the motions because his resurrection was supernatural anyway, and our tradition doesn’t account for such surreal circumstances.
  3. Thirdly, Papa really was dead, sort of. In my dream-memory he was somewhat ghostlike, hanging out at home all day and avoiding the outside world.
  4. Fourthly, the situation was too strange to explain to everybody who was reading about my mourning experience on a weekly basis. My dream-self reasons that it wouldn’t have made sense to my readership that Papa wasn’t dead during my year of mourning for him. My dream-self further reasons that I will tie up the loose ends later by writing an additional blog post at some point after my year of mourning has ended to explain the unusual circumstances of Papa’s supernatural resurrection and second death.
  5. Fifthly, what my dream-self doesn’t want to admit to my resurrected Papa is that my identity has become too wrapped up in my response to his death. I’d invested so much mental and emotional energy and time in writing my Skeptic’s Kaddish series that I had become the “Skeptic’s Kaddish”, and if I had publicly revealed to the world that Papa had been resurrected, it would have unraveled my entire sense of self.
  6. Lastly, my dream-self doesn’t even want to tell Papa about my Skeptic’s Kaddish series because he fears Papa’s disapproval. Papa was a very private person and probably wouldn’t have liked me writing about him, and what if he would have felt that I was just using his death to gain attention?

Whenever I wake up after having this dream, I feel that I need to write something about Papa to further expound upon my experience of losing him.

In the real world, I know that this dream is imagined, supernatural, impossible nonsense; I know that it’s nothing more than the concoction of my subconscious mind; but I’m constantly left wondering who David ben Alexander would be if Alexander had not died that day.

Short story: Comfort (III)

Wait for it… wait for…

The tall blonde’s thin cotton skirt swished as she walked by the loquat trees not far from the edge of the sidewalk. Behind her the sun continued its descent towards the distant Mediterranean, its beams piercing through the branches. The Star of David hanging from the her tanned neck sparkled.

Osnat trained her lens upon the Star of David, noting the small beads of sweat glistening on the young woman’s bronze skin. She seemed a wistful beauty, a perfect subject for Osnat’s new sunset photo series. Zooming in and out as the blonde glided around the corner, the older woman let her camera do the work, capturing the pinks and purples of the sky behind the young lady as she made her way to the nearby Jerusalem bus stop. Yosef would have so appreciated the girl’s air of pensiveness…

The middle aged woman traced the camera’s edges with her fingers, remembering how her husband had once held his beloved instrument, one hand under the lens, the other steadily gripping it along the side. In the years before his death, Yosef had taken such pride and pleasure in his hobby, presenting his work at local fairs and framing his favorites for friends and family. In those later years, he was hardly ever without his camera, always looking for graceful birds in flight or unsuspecting children at play. His photography still remained, lining the walls of their house.

After Yosef’s abrupt death, Osnat had taken to emptying out his bedroom and office, unable to gaze at his bookshelves and assorted tchotchkes without sobbing. It was thus she came upon his camera equipment in the office closet. At first, she couldn’t bear look at it, but as the weeks had gradually turned into months, Osnat eventually found herself laying Yosef’s many camera lenses, tripods, flashes and more out on her husband’s bare desk. The bird photographs on the walls looked at her.

It was then that Osnat had decided to teach herself photography. Their son Ephie’s daily kaddish recitation for his father at shul brought her great comfort, knowing that Yosef would have expected and wanted that traditional honor, but she, as a woman, felt out of place among the stern, bearded prayer-goers. Osnat would honor Yosef’s memory through the lens of his own camera.

* * *

Mincha, the afternoon prayer, ended with the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish, which Ephie always stood for. Even after he’d completed his year of kaddish, the young man had continued coming to shul, just as his father had done before him. Ephraim wasn’t much of a believer, but he respected those who somehow managed to find and hold on to faith, including his Abba who had continued attending services long after he’d completed his year of mourning for his father.

He glanced out the window at the sky as its pinks and oranges darkened to purples. Eema was probably out with her camera somewhere, looking for new subjects to capture for her new Jerusalem Sunset series. He knew that she didn’t feel entirely comfortable at shul because of its male-centeredness, which bothered him also. That’s why she’d been so glad that he’d been the one to recite kaddish for Abba.

Of course, some ladies did occasionally come to services to recite kaddish for their parents from the women’s section in the back, but they were hard to see, seated behind the deliberately tall latticed mechitza that separated them from the men’s section. Also, many were self-conscious about their secondary role in the gendered public prayer space and didn’t recite their kaddishes loudly enough for the men to hear them and respond. They were largely unheard and invisible.

Since completing his own year of kaddish, Ephie had come to feel very strongly, as Yosef had before him, about supporting other mourners in the community with a firm, resounding response to their kaddishes; and his seat happened to be in the back, just in front of the women’s section.

Conscientiously, the young man always made sure to time his response with the female mourners behind him: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya!”

* * *

Osnat stood and stretched her legs as the young woman’s bus drove off.

Ephie would soon be praying ma’ariv, the evening prayer service. His Abba’s shul had practically become a second home to him, ever since Yosef died. It pained her to see that the young man was still grieving so deeply, but he had to know that no amount of kaddishes would ever bring Abba back. “At some point, she sighed, “we all have to start living again. The old men at shul were undoubtedly kind souls, but how would Ephie ever meet a young lady if he couldn’t leave the past behind him?

Quietly, Osnat turned in the direction of the Old City, seeing the Western Wall in her mind. Hashem, I’m not a religious woman, but surely You know my heart. Please – help my Ephie heal… it’s already been four years since his Abba died. Please – help my baby move on from his Abba’s death. Please. Please, my Lord. Help him.”

* * *

The young man completed his prayers and glanced around the sanctuary. Were there any mourners present to recite the kaddish? No, it seemed not, he thought sadly. Ephie always felt a sense of incompleteness when no mourners were available to recite the kaddish after services. Somehow, he felt that tradition had actually intended people’s personal kaddishes for the entire community, including the souls of Abba and Saba.

Suddenly, the sound of a door swinging at the back of the women’s section caught his attention, and Ephie made out the sound of somebody walking quickly, nearly running, towards the mechitza. Through the latticework, he could barely make out a female worshipper and heard her clear her throat nervously. Softly, she began reciting the kaddish, muffled through her tears.

None of the other men had noticed the woman’s entrance, and they were too far away to hear her… the necessary prayer quorum was already dispersing!

Ephie stood in place, seriously, deliberately, and intoned his response loudly for all the rest to hear: “Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh leʻalam ulʻalme ʻalmaya!” The elderly petitioners stopped and looked around the room, trying to figure out whom Ephie was responding to. Through the stillness, they finally heard the woman’s kaddish and crying. Collectively, the men moved closer towards the mechitza to better hear her kaddish.

B’rich hu, they responded together, and then: Amen; Amen!

The mourner completed her recitation, and the men smiled at Ephie as they threw on their jackets and headed for the exit. The sexton patted Ephie on his shoulder; “Tzaddik,” he whispered.

Ephraim shrugged shyly and returned his siddur to the bookshelf, before reaching for the light switch. As he made his way down the corridor, he heard a woman’s voice behind him: “Excuse me? Were you the one standing next to the mechitza?

The young man turned to see a beautiful blonde with tear stained cheeks standing before him. I’m Nechama, she told him, “And I just wanted to say ‘thank you.’”

Blemished mourning

Through the cracks

After Papa died in the summer of 2018, I was intent on chronicling my year of mourning as thoroughly as possible; but, unavoidably, many of my kaddish experiences fell through the cracks between my blog posts… I had neither the bandwidth nor the time necessary to cover every significant moment.

Each kaddish blog post of mine took on a life of its own. I would begin by recording some preliminary thoughts and then allow my reflections on the Jewish texts I’d been exploring to guide my hands across the keyboard. Usually, I would reach “the end” of every blog post upon realizing that it was complete… but there was always, always more to be written.

That’s part of why I’m blogging to this day.

Week after week I remember telling myself that I would include those inevitably omitted moments in future blog posts… but I could never quite keep up with life, and my project was, naturally, limited to my one year of mourning.

Admittedly, there were certain things that I was uncomfortable sharing publicly during that painful period, such as my decision not to recite kaddish for Babushka, my mother’s mother, who died several months after my Papa did… And some of those reflections, perhaps, I will never share.

There was one particular incident, however, that I very much did want to reflect upon in my Skeptic’s Kaddish series, which I never got around to because of timing.


Jewish tradition

The traditional Jewish mourning period for a parent is twelve Hebrew months, unlike the mourning period for other immediate family members, which lasts for only thirty days.

The first seven days after the funeral are known as the shiva, and these are the most restrictive days. Mourners stay at home during that period, seated on low stools and accepting visitors who come to comfort them. Following is the remainder of the first 30 days, called shloshim (literally: thirty), during which many restrictions remain, including not shaving and not getting a haircut.

After the shloshim, those mourning a parent continue reciting the mourner’s kaddish daily in a prayer quorum, usually for a total of eleven months, and several restrictions remain. These include not purchasing new clothing; not attending celebratory events; and not listening to live music.


The blemish

I had no difficulty in avoiding the purchase of new clothing, and I was mindful to avoid attending celebratory events. For example, my friend Arielle’s son Lavie was born during my kaddish year, and while I was excited to attend his ritual circumcision, I dutifully departed before the celebratory meal that followed.

Throughout the course of that year, I thought through potential challenges to my mourning practices in advance, and I conscientiously avoided missteps. The family outing that led to my mistake had been entirely unplanned.

Israel Independence Day, a Spring holiday, was several days before my flight to America for the unveiling of Papa’s tombstone in May 2019. We’d had no particular plans to celebrate, beyond watching the fireworks from afar and enjoying a family dinner at home, but my wife spontaneously suggested that we take our then 4¼-year-old daughter to watch the fireworks up close.

We were concerned because of the late hour but somehow managed to coax her into taking an afternoon nap so that she wouldn’t be overtired at night; then we were off, with her perched upon my shoulders.

My Jerusalem stone

At the time, I was also very preoccupied with the upcoming unveiling. In fact, when we arrived at Papa’s beloved Promenade for the fireworks, I took that opportunity to search for a Jerusalem stone, thinking about how I might place it atop his tombstone in a few days time.

This took place during my eleventh and final month of daily kaddish recitations, and I was emotionally and physically worn out. When the renowned Shalva Band, a group of disabled musicians, started playing beneath the fireworks, I was pleased to see them live, for I’d read so much about them in the press; and when the lead singer, a blind woman, joked that we would have to describe the fireworks display to her, I recall being very amused.


My realization

Days later, at home with my brother and my mother in New Jersey, it hit me. I had accidentally listened to live music during my year of mourning.

My brother and I were downstairs in the basement, discussing Jewish mourning traditions, when it dawned on me; I actually needed a minute to process this realization. “Oh…. shit.” In truth, I didn’t have any feelings of guilt because my error had been inadvertent; and I knew that I had been trying my best. Still, I did experience a pang of regret over having blemished my year of mourning… after having invested so much of myself in prayer, study, and tradition.


Today

Today, I find myself thankful for this memory… It has become one of many that I continue to reflect upon; and in retrospect, I’m actually pleased that my year of mourning for Papa was imperfect – because that is a reflection of myself.