My [Papa’s] watch

My eyes are always drawn to the cover graphic atop my blog. It’s a photo of my Papa, who died nearly three years ago, on vacation in Costa Rica the year before his death. Papa never went anywhere without that camera of his.

Previous to Papa’s death, I never thought much about mourning, but in the aftermath I certainly did.

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #47, June 23, 2019

It wasn’t only in my writing and my prayers that first year that I explored my reaction to the loss of my father; it was also in comparison to other mourners, including my Mama and my brother Eli. Before Papa’s death, it had never occurred to me that everybody mourns in their own way – because, simply, I’d never reflected upon it.


Mementos v. Remembrances

One of the way in which I found myself mourning was in wearing Papa’s watch, caps, yarmulke, and shirts. My sentimentality surprised me; Mama and Eli did not seem to desire to possess physical objects that had once belonged to Papa, but I did.

I wear my father’s cap; my father’s yarmulke; my father’s watch; his house shoes.

-Me, ‘Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #15, Nov. 11, 2018

In any case, previous to Papa’s death, I hadn’t worn a watch for years, as I could simply check my cell phone when necessary; but wearing a watch was something that I had always strongly associated with Papa. I remember him asking me why I did not have a watch and whether I might want to have one on multiple occasions throughout my childhood. He was never without his watch and was always nonplussed at my lack of desire to wear one.

Thus, when I flew home to the USA for his funeral, Papa’s watch was one of the first things that I appropriated for myself. I started wearing it all the time.

Unfortunately, the face of the watch became warped from an unexpected electric shock, and then it cracked when my then-4½-year-old accidentally dropped it. Despite the cost, this led me to order a new watch from the same series. However, when the lovely new watch arrived, I couldn’t bring myself to actually wear it because it wasn’t Papa’s, and I didn’t want the face to get scratched.

However, I also found myself wearing Papa’s watch less and less often. It had never felt entirely comfortable on my wrist, probably because Papa’s wrists were thicker than mine, and he had sized it for himself. Also, the blemished face of the watch annoyed me. While I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of the watch, I also gradually stopped wearing it.

My new watch also needed to be adjusted to my wrist size, but for a long time after it arrived in the mail, I didn’t want to bother with it. Surprised, I realized that I didn’t want to wear any watch other than Papa’s. So the brand new watch, which I had selected for myself, and which suited my taste, sat in its box on the bookshelf for many months.

And then – last week – I suddenly knew that I wanted to wear my watch. I can’t explain what changed in me, but something felt different. Something was different. I wanted to wear my new watch.

After many months of ambivalence and even attempting to put my new watch out of my mind at times, I had it resized for my wrist and put it on… and… it felt very, very right to me. The new watch was lighter than Papa’s watch, which felt better, and it fit my wrist, just as it was supposed to. I haven’t been wearing it all the time, but often enough, and I find that it does bring back memories of Papa, which comfort me. It’s not a memento… but it is a remembrance.

I don’t miss Papa more, and I don’t miss him less. I don’t even know if I miss him differently than I did one year ago or more. Honestly, I have no idea what is going on inside my heart. I don’t think Papa’s absence hurts me less than it once did… but… for reasons that I can’t comprehend, and for the very first time since Papa died in July 2018, I find myself wanting to wear a watch of my own – which never belonged to him.

Mourning my morning minyan

I would like to share an important aspect of my Jewish life with you, which is primarily (but not exclusively) representative of traditionally religious N. American Ashkenazi Jewish communities. This slice of my Jewish culture is known as the Shabbat morning kiddush.

Essentially, the Shabbat morning kiddush is a social phenomenon, which takes place at synagogues (usually) after morning prayer services on Saturdays (the Sabbath). Somebody at the kiddush sanctifies the Sabbath by reciting a blessing over a beverage (usually: wine, grape juice, whiskey) on behalf of those attending and then recites a second blessing over a baked good (usually: a cracker), which is representative of a Sabbath meal. Then everybody eats food together (usually: crackers, herring, fruits, cheeses, nuts, and various desserts) and socializes with friends and new acquaintances.

Incidentally, the Hebrew root of the word ‘kiddush’ is Q-D-Š, meaning “holy” or “separate”. In the summer of 2019, when I sponsored (i.e. provided the food for) my community’s kiddush in my Papa’s memory, I had the following thought:

In theory, the purpose of the kiddush is to sanctify Shabbat, by reciting a blessing over a cup of wine, but on that early morning of Papa’s yahrzeit I saw this communal ritual in a different light.

While the words of kiddush are of lofty, holy intent, perhaps it is the gathering together in community and the sharing of simple, human pleasures that truly sanctifies the Sabbath and sanctifies our loved ones’ yahrzeits. For me, on that morning, and perhaps on every single day that I had recited kaddish throughout the year, it was my community that warmly embraced me.

– Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #50, Aug. 5, 2019

My early morning Sabbath minyan (prayer quorum)

During the year that I was reciting the mourner’s kaddish for my deceased father, I attended morning services every single day at shul (synagogue), as is traditional, but it was the Shabbat (Saturday) morning services that I most loved – because of the kiddush that followed.

I must emphasize that I am not a morning person. If I had my druthers, I would go to bed some time after midnight (after reading the news, writing some poetry, drinking an Irish coffee, etc.) and wake up after 9:00 AM, at the earliest. This is significant to know because my beloved Saturday morning prayer quorum, which I am about to describe to you, meets at 6:45 AM on Saturday mornings; and I would usually be there by no later than 7:00 AM every week. (The kiddush following services would generally begin at 8:30 AM.)

Precisely because morning people are uncommon, my 6:45 AM Shabbat morning minyan (prayer quorum) was an intimate affair. There were, according to my estimate, some thirty regulars, and we had twenty to forty people in attendance weekly at shacharit (morning prayer services). More than half of us would remain for the kiddush after services, but not all of us.

Those of us who regularly partook of the kiddush were of all ages and social classes, and most of us would sponsor the kiddush at least once annually in memory of a departed parent or to celebrate a happy lifecycle event with the community. It was cozy and comforting to see the same small group of familiar faces every week and very socially egalitarian. Men and women of all ages would have friendly, meaningful conversations over whiskey, and while many of us only saw one another for several hours once weekly, we felt ourselves friends. There was a lovely atmosphere of warm camaraderie and community. It was our space.

My Shabbat morning kiddush at shul (synagogue) was a major part of my life.


Kiddush vis-à-vis my religiosity

In many Jewish communities, there is a phenomenon known as ‘JFK’, which stands for ‘Just For Kiddush’. There are a good number of community members who are don’t attend prayer services on Saturday mornings; instead they show up ‘Just For Kiddush’. Some people look down upon this; others don’t mind it; and some embrace any form of community participation.

I have never been a ‘JFK’ Jew; I always felt it incumbent upon myself to attend services before kiddush, largely because the Orthodox Jewish prayer quorum requires ten adult males to be considered a full quorum for the purposes of prayers and rituals. Without ten Jewish adult males, a prayer group cannot, for example, read from the Torah Scroll, which is so very central to Jewish communal life. I have always been the community-oriented sort to take communal responsibility seriously, and I would have felt very self-conscious partaking of the kiddush without having participated in minyan beforehand.

In fact, looking back at it, I was motivated to attend morning services even during weekdays largely because I wanted to help my community form a daily minyan; the community provided me with something very important and special in my life, and I wanted to give back. In all honestly, this feeling of responsibility has always far outweighed my personal desire to pray, but it’s having this sense of community in my life that has been so very, very important to me.

Also, largely because our Saturday morning minyan was so early, and because our intimate little kiddush was privately sponsored by individuals every week (rather than by the entire community), almost nobody came to our early morning kiddush without having first attended the prayer services (even if some people would arrive later than others). In this context, I was not the only one who took communal responsibility seriously – almost everyone did.


COVID-19 maimed my minyan

If you were to ask me what I miss most from before the COVID-19 era, it would undoubtedly be my Shabbat early morning community.

When the pandemic first hit, the prayer services were moved outside, and attendance was limited to a small number of people. Also, one had to sign up in advance in order to attend. In Israel, the summers are hot, and there are plenty of flies buzzing around outside; sitting in the heat with a face mask on was hardly comfortable, but this was something I could have lived with.

What did the most damage to the minyan was the dissolution of our kiddush. At first, there was no kiddush at all. Eventually, a small group of attendees did start holding small kiddushes in the park outside, next to the synagogue, but this was hardly the same. Many of the regulars had stopped coming for services entirely, and even among those who signed up and attended, many were fearful of socializing and sharing food and drink with others. The sense of community I’d had and loved so dearly was gone.

The second anniversary of my Papa’s death was in July 2020, and I decided to send out personal emails to members of my Shabbat kiddush community with an invitation to join me after services at the park for a nice kiddush in memory of my father. I deliberately purchased disposable plastic containers and prepackaged all of the crackers, herring, cheese, etc. in individual servings so that nobody would be worried about COVID. I even made alcoholic hand sanitizer available.

On the whole, the event was successful, and I felt fulfilled. Back then, I naively assumed that COVID-19 would blow over and that my Shabbat community would regroup. For me, last year, hosting my guerrilla kiddush in the park was merely a temporary measure because I never expected the restrictions imposed upon Israeli society to become so protracted.

Even now, with so many Israelis having been vaccinated and ‘green passes’ being made available to those who have received the vaccine or tested negative for COVID-19, and even with infection rates in Israel decreasing, our little early morning Sabbath community has not been allowed back within the walls of our synagogue.

Now, I’m not upset at anyone for this because I get it – the pandemic has killed more than six thousand Israelis, and people are still dying… but the absence of my Shabbat community has left a major hole in my life, and I mourn its absence weekly.

This year, if minyan and kiddush aren’t reconstituted at my shul (synagogue) before Papa’s third yahrzeit (anniversary of death) in July… well… I don’t think I’ll bother with a kiddush.

My community doesn’t actually exist any more. 😞

David, or: ben Alexander

In memory of Papa

My first ghazal

I remember his toolboxes, table vice, hand sander
Still remember foul humor, impatience, frank candor

I remember clever math tricks and right-wing politics
And sultry actresses at whom he would gander

I remember him sitting, reading, problem solving
Frustrated, resigned, when his mind would meander

I remember long summers he nannied my daughter
Love all-consuming, warmed bottles he'd hand her

I remember brilliance; I remember his strength, God
Deep in principles anchored; and not one to pander

I remember no bullshit and deep disappointments
Because and regardless no one ever stood grander

I remember young David who worshipped his Papa
None could ever replace him, not one ben Alexander

Beast, or: “Memoir”

Every day he ponders writing; demons, seraphs jostling, fighting
O'er memories alighting, dreams and images of Papa.
  Late at night he sees him living, gentle-hearted and forgiving;
Daily, nightly, he is grieving- for Papa, forever gone.
  As the earth turns, he considers that he'll be forever gone
Naught is left of mind nor brawn.

As the earth's been spinning, turning, one dream has been oft recurring-
Deep in darkness there lies stirring a vile, shifty chimera.
  It's but wishful thinking really, very foolish, rather silly,
Still, through dreamscapes rugged, hilly, slinks that taunting chimera.
  She's unbidden, uninvited, is his taunting chimera-
Forward, forward she is gliding, fed on memories of Papa.

Asleep? Awake? He's kaddish speaking, praying, swaying, then- a creaking-
'Tis the floorboards creaking, squeaking; and behind him stands Papa.
  How, he stammers, have you come here, I've been mourning you all year, Dear
Papa, tell me, can you hear me- can you hear me, Dear Papa?
  Reading, thinking, writing, praying, I've been mourning, Dear Papa...
Aren't you... aren't you... actually... aren't you actually gone?

No, no... you must have forgotten (though you are my first-begotten),
That hospital was naught but rotten; the doctors said I didn't have long...
  But we dismissed their dire prognosis; HaShem reversed the diagnosis-
He gave me life that I'd find gnosis- bid me wear my black kippah.
  So here I am, and you're done praying. May I have back my black kippah?
Please give it here; I'm your Papa.

Dawn break; awake; dripping; sweating. And- then- he knows what's most upsetting- 
All this time he's been forgetting... to lift his phone and call Papa.
  Rising from his restless slumber, lifts his phone and dials the number-
Has he been somewhat unencumbered? ... but Papa's cellphone isn't on.
  The earth's still spinnin' n'a-turnin', but Papa's cellphone isn't on-
Naught's ever left of love forgone.

Today, for d’Verse’s “Open Link Night”, I’d like to share a poem that I wrote about ½-a-year ago, about one month after creating this blog.

Homunculus of death

Disconcertingly out of sync, perceptions jumbled, receptors misfiring, I remain immediately near but never fully within the self I’d always known, receiving on an unfamiliar, piercing wavelength.

Slowly, slowly, I have come to understand
this: My pulse has been attuned to loss.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’ #47, June 23, 2019

I thought of my above words (which I wrote towards the end of my year of mourning for Papa) just recently because I’d noticed an unexpected degree of darkness and morbidity increasingly manifesting itself through my Twitter poetry.

Inspired by Ingrid, a fellow poet-blogger, I created this Twitter account and began writing daily Twitter poems at the turn of the year. At first, it seemed a light, creative exercise for me – a way to get my juices flowing. Now, having written more than two weeks of Twitter poems, I am glad I took the challenge – for reasons unforeseen.

Obviously, Twitter poetry is short. From a technical perspective, this requires that poets consider every word; every syllable; every letter. I knew this, and I do, expectedly, savor the difficulty of producing snippets of lines and verses that resonate. It’s not so easy, and it’s often frustrating to have my poetry limited by length, but it’s been very, very rewarding.

However, as I mentioned, there is something much deeper that I’ve been noticing. The terseness of these poems is actually – liberating. You see, this medium encourages me to spit out ideas without expounding upon them, very much unlike this blog post, in which I want to explore a new idea of mine with you in some depth. Twitter’s restrictions, I am finding, have been freeing me – from myself.

Unlike some other mourners that I’ve known, I would not say that something died in me when Papa passed away. Rather, I would say that something new took root – something was born within me that day – an unrelenting and unsparing dreadful little homunculus. Ever since, this somber fellow has colored all of my thoughts in shades of death, but whenever I have attempted to express these morbid thoughts in verse or prose my mind has quickly taken over from the gloomy creature in an attempt to beautify, contextualize, or rationalize them…


But Twitter won’t allow this

Twitter simply doesn’t permit my mind the space it needs to blunt the heartache caused me by the homunculus. The creature eagerly spits out its ceaseless death and fatalism, and, finding purchase in the Twitterverse, its words sit there, raw and unanswerable.

Now, I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, an unhappy person; I am blessed in many, many ways, and I love being alive. Still, my perception of the world ever since Papa died bears a deep, flapping, shadowy gash, which the homunculus of death is constantly drawn towards. It simply won’t let me ignore the wound. The gash cannot be unseen, and the homunculus will not be subdued.

And… so… it seems a healthy thing to me to allow my homunculus free rein over my Twitter account, whenever it so desires. I cannot deny the horrid little beast’s existence, nor should I, for it is a part of me.

Perhaps, by reading its Twitter poetry, I will be better able to understand its mind – and my own.

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.