I am Jerusalem, or: Nothing

‘Beyond Meaning or The Resolution of Opposites’

– a d’Verse poetics prompt

Epigraph:

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

-Wallace Stevens, ‘The Snow Man’
Harkened through the snows of New Jersey,
Heeded through the storms of Cleveland,
Purest nothing, on nothing, absorbed me,

Sheerest nothing, on nothing, I am
Upon nothing, nothing I, one/dering
About nothing, not touched much by snow,

Where nothings, together, not nothing,
Where something within ached to go,
Nothing, listened, through blustery blizzards,

Whispering, nothing, nothing, here I am
Through cold nothing, I heard, I shivered,
Something, mine, called [from] Jerusalem.

The prompt

The above poem is my take on d’Verse’s ‘Beyond Meaning or The Resolution of Opposites’ prompt.

The writing challenge: We were to focus on the theme of ‘paradox’ and select one of the following to build poems around, of which I selected #2:

1. Here are some lines from Paul Dunbar’s The Paradox:  – select ONE and build your poem around it.

  • I am thy fool in the morning, thou art my slave in the night.
  • I am the mother of sorrows; I am the ender of grief;
  • I am the bud and the blossom, I am the late-falling leaf

OR

2. Take the last lines of Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man and write a poem that is imbued with the existential paradox implied there. [the meaning of which is the ridding of our usual human observation and viewing winter as a ‘man of snow’ not a snowman! (more HERE)]

  • For the listener, who listens in the snow, And, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Eagle, or: Hoopoe

A haibun

My response to d’Verse’s prompt for Haibun Monday: ‘Eagle’

As an adult, I left the United States of America. but the United States of America never left me. I have a graduate degree in US public policy; and I lived and worked in Washington, DC for three years. To this day, I continue to follow current events in the United States of America closely from my faraway home in Jerusalem, Israel.

Only a fragment of my soul remains in the United States of America, but I can navigate its society more readily than any other. I remain intimately familiar with the history, culture, and symbols of the United States of America in a way that transcends my mind. I know the names of the faces that appear on US currency. I know the meaning behind the stars and stripes of the flag. I know the dates of the American national holidays. I know the national anthem. I know the national motto. I know the national tree and the national mammal… and, of course, I know the national bird and the national seal that it graces.

America, for all its many challenges, remains the world’s superpower; and the [bald] eagle, its national bird, is considered to be the leader of the avian world, symbolizing strength, courage, immortality, and far-sightedness. This mighty bird of prey also enjoys connections with the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter; and it flies higher than any other bird – alone – never in a flock.

Accipitridae -
More than 200 species.
Upupidae? One.

The haibun above is my response to the d’Verse Haibun Monday prompt.

Poets were directed to write haibuns that reference the Eagle, in whatever context they conceive. For those new to haibun, the form consists of one to a few paragraphs of prose (usually written in the present tense), which evoke an experience and are often non-fictional and/or autobiographical. They may be preceded or followed by one or more haiku—nature-based, using a seasonal image— that complement without directly repeating what the prose stated.

I did not strictly follow the prompt because I did not include a seasonal image. My mind meandered elsewhere.

Holiday thoughts, part II: Jewish v. Not

Tonight is New Year’s Eve so before I get into the substance of this post, I would like to wish all of you a Happy and Healthy New Year! 🥳


So… New Year’s…

Growing up in America, this was not a holiday that I marked in any way, shape or form. Truly, I did not understand what all the fuss was about. Why was the transition between December 31st and January 1st any more significant than that between any two other calendar days?

The funny thing is that New Year’s Eve had once been a very big deal to both of my parents. You see, my mother had grown up in Lithuania, and my father had grown up in Russia, both under Soviet reign, both celebrating Novy God (Новый Год), which designates the Russian New Year’s celebration. Today, this holiday remains extremely popular in countries that were formerly part of the USSR, as well as in Soviet emigrant communities worldwide.

The elimination of religion was an objective of the USSR’s official ideology, with the goal of establishing state atheism. Therefore, most of the traditions that were originally associated with Christmas in Russia (Grandfather Frost, a decorated fir-tree) were moved to New Year’s Eve after the Revolution and remain associated with Novy God to this day.

For my parents, Novy God belonged to the regime they had escaped from in the mid-70’s, the regime, which had nearly succeeded at obliterating their Jewish heritage. While they both considered themselves secular, they strongly embraced their Jewish and Israeli identities, shedding themselves of Soviet culture and traditions.


I was eight or nine years old when I first met my father’s parents.

My father had been lucky enough to get out of the USSR in the mid-70’s, but his sister and his parents were only permitted to leave in the late 80’s, just before the Soviet Union’s final collapse. Developing a relationship with my formerly non-existent (from my perspective) grandparents at that age left me with some very vivid memories, including a seemingly insignificant moment that I only came to appreciate many, many years later.

It so happened that upon one of our visits to my grandparents in Rockville, Maryland, I was flummoxed to find that my grandmother had purchased place mats with Christmas trees for their little apartment. As an Israeli-born and American-raised Jewish boy, I was truly flabbergasted. “We’re… Jewish. Why would you buy these?”

That’s when my parents somewhat casually explained the holiday of Novy God and its symbols to me. My grandmother hadn’t intended to purchase Christmas place mats – she’d intended to purchase them for Novy God. Still, even then, upon my first exposure to the concept of Novy God, the significance and complete pervasiveness of this secular Soviet national holiday was not made clear to me; and I didn’t reflect upon the fact that my parents had never, ever mentioned this tradition to me before.


For many years, I continued to regard Novy God with suspicion as a non-Jewish holiday that had incorporated Christian symbols. To me, it represented assimilation, which was the ultimate threat to the Jewish people. However, having moved [back] to Israel as an adult changed my perspective and attitude dramatically for several reasons.

First of all, in today’s Israel I encountered many Jews who had repatriated to the Jewish State after the USSR fell apart. Whereas my parents had been among the lucky few to be granted permission to leave the USSR in the 70’s, and whereas their citizenships had been revoked due to their betrayals of the Motherland, those who emigrated after the fall of the Soviet Union were no longer considered traitors. These new immigrants retained their ties to Russia, Ukraine, etc., wherever their families lived; and they could visit them freely.

Also, whereas during the late 1960s and the 1970s, only ~163,000 Soviet Jews were allowed to emigrate to Israel, immigrants and descendants of immigrants from formerly Soviet Jewish communities residing within the State of Israel today number around 900,000. In fact, Russian-speaking Jews in Israel include an enlarged population of 1,200,000, including non-Jewish members of Jewish households, which represents ~15% of Israel’s total population. By virtue of sheer numbers, elements of Russian culture have become mainstream here.

Of course, many Jews in Israel continue to look askance at Novy God as a non-Jewish phenomenon, but a sizable percentage of the population continues to celebrate it. My secular Babushka (my mother’s mother) who moved to Israel in the seventies stopped celebrating Novy God because of the Israeli culture of those years, but she confided in me on more than one occasion that Novy God remained her favorite holiday. I’m certain that had she emigrated later, in the nineties, she would have continued marking this secular holiday.


Now, on a very personal level, Novy God has entered my life through my wife of nine years. Her extended family, including her mother and her grandparents, still reside in Russia, and they continue to celebrate Novy God, as do all Russians.

My wife was raised celebrating this holiday, and she loves it. Every year, she prepares various traditional Russian dishes in advance of December 31st; every year, she chats long-distance with her family members in Russia, as they celebrate Novy God together; and every year my wife and daughter visit my mother-in-law in January who leaves presents for her granddaughter underneath her Novy God tree.

This year, for the first time, my wife will be putting up a little tree for Novy God here in our home in Jerusalem, which she brought back from her last visit to Russia… and I am totally unbothered by it. In fact, I’m happy to support her and to participate. I’m happy that this makes her happy.

You see, living in Israel has removed the threat of assimilation from my personal calculus. It has become a non-issue for me. Furthermore, my wife and I are both Torah observant Jews by choice. We not only live in Israel, but we also keep the Sabbath and maintain a kosher kitchen. By personal choice, we have become the religious Jews in an extended family of secular Jews and gentiles, and we live this way because this is how we choose to express our Jewishness.

Today, secure in our family’s religious, cultural, and national Jewishness and Israeliness, I can comfortably embrace other facets of our family’s collective identity. And, so, I’m happy to wish all of you a Happy New Year! 🍾

Holiday thoughts: Jewish v. Not

Chanukah ended, and though I haven’t written a word about it yet, I have been mulling something over quite a bit.

Traditionally, there’s a song that Jews sing after reciting the blessings and lighting the candles of the chanukiah 🕎. This song is called Ma’oz Tzur (“Strong Rock”), and there exists a popular, non-literal English translation called “Rock of Ages”.

Here is the full song in Hebrew. There are six stanzas:

This is a tune that I find myself humming throughout the year, even when it isn’t Chanukah; I just love it. Unfortunately, I don’t know the words to all of the stanzas by heart so I can only sing it with a prayer book in front of me.

While I speak Hebrew passably, it is not my mother tongue, and memorizing multi-stanza songs in Hebrew takes me some effort. On the other hand, as I observe my daughter, born and bred in the Jewish homeland, I delight in her Hebrew fluency. Also, traditional Jewish songs like Ma’oz Tzur have infused every moment of her comprehensively Jewish life in Israel. She hears Jewish songs at home; at school; at the mall; in taxis; pretty much everywhere.


Growing up in the USA, Christmas carols on the radio and Halloween songs at school were the norm for me, and while I never thought twice about my diaspora reality, these were not my family’s holidays.

I still remember the messaging that was directed at me in the eighties and the nineties when I was a child, attending Hebrew school (an afterschool program) at my synagogue. We were discouraged from trick-or-treating on Halloween; from marrying non-Jews; from falling for the wiles of Christian missionaries; etc.

This messaging was born of the Jewish establishment’s fear of Jewish assimilation, which was heightening, along with the rate of intermarriage (i.e., Jews marrying gentiles) in the USA. (As the years rolled on, the Jewish establishment gradually lost this messaging battle and had to find new strategies. Assimilation proved itself unstoppable.)

By the way, there is nothing new under the sun. You see, the Jewish community’s concern over the threat of assimilation is millennia old. The Chanukah story, which took place in the 2nd century BCE, was no less than one of a vicious and bloody Jewish civil war over Hellenization. In other words, Jewish traditionalists were pitted against Jewish Hellenizers who wanted to adopt many elements of Greek life and culture. You can guess who won.

It’s important, I think, to put this historic Jewish concern over assimilation into perspective. As of 2015, there are some 2.168 billion Christians, 1.599 billion Muslims, and less than 15 million Jews worldwide.


I honestly don’t quite know why I care so passionately about my people; but I do, and I have cared for as long as I can remember.

As a modern, I support and can respect people’s personal choices, as long as they do not cause harm to others; and, believe me, I well understand the appeal of assimilation for all minority groups. In all honesty, I was once very judgmental of more assimilated Jews, but my judgmentalism has profoundly dissipated over the last decade or so, as I’ve increasingly begun to appreciate and seek to understand the contexts of people’s decisions. You do you; I do me. Let’s aim to understand one another.

On the other hand, as a Jew, I am deeply invested in my people’s continued existence, for the Jewish people is my extended family. So what can I do to maximize the odds that my child(ren) will not assimilate?

One of the best answers I have found to this question is quite simple: I can raise my child(ren) in the Jewish state of Israel, in a society which is mostly Jewish, which celebrates Jewish holidays, which speaks a Jewish language…

I am certain, thankful and proud that my daughter will not need to read the stanzas from a prayer book when she sings Ma’oz Tzur with her children during Chanukah.

The heartwarming house sale

Home alone

For Mama, everything changed dramatically [following Papa’s death]. Where would she live? What would she do with the rest of her life? Whom would she do it with? Clearly, she still had to sell her too large house, but then– what?

-Me, ‘When the rabbi’s wife died’, Nov. 27th, 2020

Following my Papa’s death ~2.5 years ago, Mama went through a long process of selling the house. She put it on the market; took it off the market; put it on; took it off… Finally, as of this week, the house has acquired new ownership.

Now, this would have been a relief under any circumstances for all of us. The house, after twenty-one years, had to go. It was entirely too big for one woman, and nearly every corner of it reminded her of Papa. From my perspective, it had become for her an enormous prison cell. The phrase that would constantly come to my mind was: Mom is rattling around inside that big house all by herself.

I remember Babushka (my mother’s mother) also worrying regularly about this after my Papa died. How can she live alone in that huge house? She would say. She simply cannot stay there by herself. Poor Svetachka. She tells me she’s okay… but I know my daughters.

Anyway, we all knew the house had to be sold, and we were all worried for Mama.


The lovely, lovely family

The new owners are a family of church-going, Zionistic Christians, originally from India, and they have simply exuded kindness towards Mama.

In one of their exchanges, they wrote to her the following [edited for grammar]:

… Yes, definitely, your beautiful home will be in good hands… [We’re from] a Christian home with values and ethics… from India… Almost everyone… [has] visited Israel from [our] family… so we do have tons of respect for Jewish families; and we are so glad that we are buying from you…

For Mama, who had found herself and her family free from the USSR in the mid-70’s to begin life anew in their Jewish State of Israel, this was profoundly moving. She mentioned that she would love to some day give this delightful Indian Christian family a personal tour of Jerusalem, where I live now.

And:

Whenever you miss your home, please stop by. [We] completely understand it’s very emotional; plus you stayed for 21 years, so you are part of the house.

All of this was obviously far above and beyond what one might expect from the people who purchase one’s house, but what made us cry was the following: The new owners purchased Papa’s book and vowed to keep it forever in his office where he had written it.

Wow, right?


Moving [on]

Mama is now living in a lovely apartment in Princeton, NJ, which both of my parents had always loved visiting for its museums, theaters, parks, etc.

Of course, unpacking all of the many boxes is a tremendous project for her, but things are gradually coming together, and she seems to me genuinely happy in her new space.

When we ordered a bouquet of flowers for her, we did so, in part, as a gesture of support to help her through a challenging transitionary period, but it actually seems that she’s doing quite well, thank goodness!

From my perspective as a son, the sale of my younger brother’s childhood home could not possibly have gone any better. My mother and father had lived in that house for longer than they had ever lived anywhere else, but the time had definitely come to move on…

And my Mama is doing well, which was my only real concern.


P.S. America, or: Jerusalem

I wrote a poem shortly after completing this post. Click here to read it.