“At last you’re tired of this elderly world:” Towards a New Judaism through Poetry

Rosebud Ben-Oni
February 25, 2018
Comments 6


Photo of author as a young girl


We harness ourselves over and over
wherever hope is a yellow shore.

—“Nomad,” Robin Beth Schaer

Decades later, no, I still can’t let it go: that Rosh Hashanah my family and I were barred from going to temple.

My father, who is probably reading this and groaning, doesn’t want me to keep looking back. He himself doesn’t want to think about it anymore. He no longer dons his kippah daily or wears his talit beneath his clothes to show his adherence to the faith. He no longer has a temple that he regularly attends. On rare occasions my parents now visit a Reconstructionist service— the prayers, he laments, almost all rendered into English, with very little Hebrew— and its congregation moves around community centers and has no set edifice for worship. According to my mother, he spends quite a bit of time being silent these days, and she lets him be, she sits that silence with him.

I’ve noticed as well, this growing silence, during our weekly talks about the Zohar and the Minhat Yehuda, texts that deal with Jewish mysticism. He asks me more and more about the poems I’m writing, and I always try to bring the conversation back to the texts. He sighs. I sigh. The silence between us extends.

A few weeks ago during one of these discussions,  my father asked me, out of the blue, if I knew what he loved the most about Brian, my husband, his son-in-law. Taken back, as I was still immersed in a discussion on a certain passage, I said I wasn’t sure.

He said: Brian looks to the future for you and him. He’s always asking what’s next for both of you.

Before I could say anything, he added: When you talk about poetry, when I read your poems, I hear this in you. An awareness of the future. But I don’t know what good going back and going back again does for you. 

I sat with this, long after our phone call ended. I didn’t ask him to clarify “what” it was that I keep going back to.

Because I know it’s not one thing in particular, but a habit of spiritual tumult, an inherited and learned pattern woven deep into my psyche.

A series of gnarly knots in my heart I’ll never untie.

One thing about Judaism is how invested we as Jews have been in our past. It’s through traditions and Hebrew that we kept our culture alive and thriving through many a diaspora, many an expulsion from various countries. And many, many wars.

And I’ve often asked myself how I have chosen to keep Judaism alive.

Since I can remember, I’ve wrestled with my mixed heritage. How I’ve been questioned many times by fellow Jews over just which rabbi handled my mother’s conversion from Catholicism to Judaism. If it was done “right.” And what it meant that I was raised, in part, by my mother’s family and exposed to Mexican Catholic religious iconography like ex-votos and milagros. Not to mention my family lived on the wrong side of town and attended a different school, far from the neighborhoods where other members of my childhood synagogue lived.

I’ve thought about what it means to be a (mostly) secular-living woman who studies the Minhat Yehuda— the kind of text historically aimed toward patriarchal elders— and dreams she defeated a demon, and then writes her own qameot of sorts for others to ward off evil. And I’ve thought about what it means that I married outside of my faith.

Things like this, my father has told me over and over, are other people’s problems, and I’ve always retorted, Yes, but what if they are the problems of the people you belong to?

You want to be part of what keeps your culture alive and thriving. You don’t want to out your people on their own prejudices. But you can’t escape this truth either: how you as a Jew know all about Anti-Semitism, while also knowing how it can feel to be left out of your own community. Because you don’t quite fit.

I’ve felt this many, many times, over.

Which brings me back to that Rosh Hashanah day we were turned away, right at the door.

The reason: my father didn’t have the money one year for membership dues, so we couldn’t pay. Never would he have dreamt that someone would be at the door, checking that kind of list. But someone was. And someone did. And it happened.

And so many years later. And I can’t let it go.

Not because of anger. But because of what a mensch my father is. When my mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer, the doctors wanted to “watch” it rather than operate. My father insisted that my mother have the surgery and her uterus, completely removed. He is not a man who makes rash decisions, so my mother listened to him.

When they opened her up, the cancer was much further along than they suspected. In fact, had they waited, she wouldn’t be around today.

My father saved her life.

My mother exists.

Her bills were substantial.

And this had a residual effect on our lives.

This is why, not much later, we were late on our membership dues, something that my father otherwise made sure to pay on time.

When they barred us from temple, this had a residual effect on our lives.

It happened slowly. We changed temples. Became less observant. Certain rituals, of course, are associated with community, with the people to which you belong, and what happened to us, to my father, was a low blow. I don’t have enough lifetimes to fix what happened. And now my father doesn’t want to talk about the past anymore. He doesn’t want to join another temple.

It’s not until this year, during that fateful phone call, he told me that he felt he lost his people long, long ago. Long before we were turned away at the doors of the synagogue, long before he married my mother.

He’s says that he’s finally had to let go.

Of what? I said.

But I already knew.

I’ve never asked him directly. And I probably never will. But I know.

My father and I— we have wrestled with the same angels.


I was given a city. The city got between me and God.

—“All You Do Is Perceive,” Joy Katz

My faith has always been very important to me, from being an observant girl who grew into a woman full of doubt and melancholy. I tried to find my place in Jewish life in the city I thought I loved most of all. I tried to make a life in Jerusalem— and failed. I’ve written about that failure here before.

Oh, I still love Jerusalem. I really do. I love her ancient stone, the four quarters of her old city, the many cultures and religions that made her who she is. I don’t love the blood shed in her name. I don’t love the wars. The war that has become standard procedure. I don’t love those who see her future as the tearing down of the Dome of the Rock. I don’t understand what any more destruction would bring. My feelings on the subject have raised eyebrows at dinner table discussion with family and friends who believe Jerusalem only belongs to the Jews. I’ve lost relationships over this, as there are those not even open to having a discussion. This is a Judaism that divides its people, both internally and externally. I shut down in such rigid spaces. I stop hearing the music.

I have prayed at The Kotel, at the Wailing Wall. I’ve prayed for forgiveness for my waywardness, for my inability to be a single thing for which I’m asked to be. I’ve walked backwards, in accordance with custom, never turning my back to the holy place, turning my back on God, no, nor this great City of Songs. I’ve also asked myself why I’ve come to pray at a wall. I’ve asked myself what will happen to the prayers I’ve written and stuck between her stones.

I’ve asked why, late at night, as I’m wrestling with angels in the darkness, why the music, why poetry, only came back to me when I left Jerusalem, beloved City of Songs.

Deep into the night I’ve prayed for forgiveness for leaving. For not sticking it out. For finding a life, love, happiness elsewhere.

Always my prayers are solitary and fall hard toward the ground. They do not ascend. They are heard only by me and the night and The Great Unknown.

In the morning, I awaken to the sound of my husband pouring me a cup of coffee and placing it on my desk, next to my mystical texts and my books of poems and letters I’m writing longhand to friends. He comes back to the bed, pulls stray hairs from my face. He kisses me. On weekends he calls his parents in Hong Kong to make sure they have everything they need. He emails my cousins to see how they are— that is, the ones from my mother’s side, as my father’s family still can’t accept I married outside my faith.

Think how many Jews were lost in the Shoah, an uncle once said to me, before we never spoke again. What were you thinking?

These are the choices, as a Jew, I’ve made in my life that resembles less and less the one they believe is the only way to live— even though my husband has all the qualities of someone they’d once wished for me. A real mensch.

Every morning Brian asks me if I’m okay, if I was dreaming of the angels again. Those strange, unrelenting angels.

Every morning I tell him they are never dreams, that I’m wide awake. I tell him everything, my man of light who does not believe in God and yet has come to believe such beings are real.


when i’m gone, make me again

from my hair. carry me with you

a small book in your pocket.

—“Bury,” sam sax

In March of last year, poet Robin Beth Schaer wrote to me that she was putting together an AWP panel on the idea of Tikkun Olam along with fellow poets Joy Katz and Erika Meitner, and invited me to join. Matthew Zapruder originally came on board, but due to schedule conflicts, could not attend the conference this year, so sam sax graciously stepped in. Our panel was accepted, and I’ve been since working on my talk about “how writers can, as Grace Paley exhorts, ‘Go forth with fear and courage and rage to save the world.’”

I’ve been thinking about how solitary my Judaism has been these last ten years. While I have shared certain holiday rituals with my family at times— and certainly had many discussions with my father— for the most part, I’ve studied texts in private, whether sitting at my desk before teaching a workshop or reading on the train to elsewhere.

For the last ten years, I’ve wrestled with numerous questions and numerous angels, in my sleep, wide-awake, in my head, alone, and I’ve believed that I had no real community of peers, no real Jewish connections to reach toward, no synagogue to call second home, nowhere to pray in that particular biting chill of Rosh Hashanah morning. And here I am on a Jewish panel, having exchanged numerous email and ideas with Jewish poets who are open and brilliant and giving.

And I’m so grateful to these poets for the conversation, for community.

For giving me a way back into something I’m always afraid of losing.




When the world spoke to you
it said stay. It said fragmentary.

It touched your face, your

beleaguered tender important face
and said this and this and this.

—“Swift Trucks,” Erika Meitner

Now I wonder if it was a blessing in disguise, when my family and I were barred from the synagogue. Or rather: a revealing. The congregation never really accepted us. And they probably never would have. And while I would go on to meet others who’d question my roots, my beliefs, my very place in our shared culture— which I’ve never gotten used to— this exile gave away to opening me up to a larger world, albeit slowly, about what Judaism could be, and what it could become.

And to be perfectly honest, I’m still wrestling with the angels, with figuring this out. I do know that if it weren’t for poetry, I don’t know how I’d be alive. And I don’t mean not poetry solely written by Jews or poems that deal with Judaism.

When I was twenty, I took a poetry workshop with the poet Mark Rudman at NYU; on the first day he read Apollinaire’s “Zone.” I remember hearing that glorious opening line— albeit in translation— “At last you’re tired of this elderly world,” and then completely losing myself in the poem.

Shepherdess O Eiffel Tower this morning the bridges are bleating

You’re fed up living with antiquity

Even the automobiles are antiques
Religion alone remains entirely new religion
Remains as simple as an airport hangar

Shivers ran through out my body, and my mouth went dry. I felt both light-headed and electrified. As if I’d been fasting. And I remember thinking: I’ve had this experience before.

And I had.

While Apollinaire might have been invoking “O Christiandom” in early 20th century on-the-brink-of-war France, the entire poem moved me the same way the Janoswi’s rendition of “Avinu Malkeinu” had moved me. (Listen to a fantastic recording here.) At first I didn’t understand how a poem in the voice of another faith, another nation, spoke to me so similarly as a prayer I’d long held as the most moving prayer in Judaism. “Zone” struck me as a poem of deep doubt, in which symbols of the future— airplanes, railroads, etc— were regarded as relics while childhood memory and religious iconography burned brightly off the page as they were read, particularly these lines:

You’re very pious and with your oldest friend Rene Dalize Nothing is more fun than Masses and Litanies

It’s nine o’clock the gaslight is low you leave your bed
You pray all night in the school chapel
Meanwhile an eternal adorable amethyst depth
Christ’s flamboyant halo spins forever
Behold the beautiful lily of worship
Behold the red-haired torch inextinguishable
Behold the pale son and scarlet of the dolorous Mother
Behold the tree forever tufted with prayer
Behold the double gallows honor and eternity
Behold the six-pointed star
Behold the God who dies on Friday and rises on Sunday
Behold the Christ who flies higher than aviators
He holds the world’s record for altitude

It didn’t matter that this poem was rooted in Christianity. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know at the time just what “Masses and Litanies” were exactly. What mattered was that this poem moved my own spiritual within me, which was comprised of doubt as much as longing for such language to express it. Such means and handling of The Eternal Question. Such revealing of things as through the eyes of one who cannot but trespass, who bleeds (present tense) on the page, who captures despair so clearly while creating something new— the kind of new that strikes you in the facefrom a dark, dreadful place.

Later, I’d read other poems, such as Nazim Hikmet’s “On Living,” in which I’d have similar experiences of feeling my faith shaken— and revived.


I’m only beginning to understand what it means when my father tells me he wishes that I would look forward not only as a poet but as a person. It doesn’t mean I will stop reading the Minhat Yehuda or spending time in solitude writing poems and prose as much as qameots. It doesn’t mean that the angels will heed this new revelation and leave me alone to sleep through the night. Because I know they won’t.

It’s just the crack of light beneath the door, my understanding of how poetry moves us forward while also placing us directly in the tangled knots of the past where it’s still present. How poetry brings us together in places where traditions alone would not let us gather. How the idea of a people itself is fluid and ever-changing.

I know for some my kind of Jewishness will remain unacceptable. And I know they will probably keep their doors tightly shut.

But that’s the thing about poetry.

Within its realm, that kind of door doesn’t exist in the first place.


6 thoughts on ““At last you’re tired of this elderly world:” Towards a New Judaism through Poetry

  1. Because Amy Sayre posted, I read. I read each word, carefully and I would have continued reading. It’s very dear. I found you someone I’d pour a coffe for, pull a strand from your cheek and endear in conversation. I enjoy your Father-Daughter banter, your angel wrestle and the ease of emotion that permits this reader the ability to understand. Perhaps, one of my favorite passages: “One thing about Judaism is how invested we as Jews have been in our past.” Does that not become the core?

  2. Very beautiful. I really identify with a lot of what you wrote, especially as a non traditional Jew and a poet. Thank you!

  3. a brilliant essay about inclusion, exclusion, the past and the future– all seen through the same poetic lens, an awakening, a reawakening, a coming together of sorts, but not an excuse or a justification, but a celebration, quietly, completely.

  4. This was so beautiful, and I thank you for sharing this reflection with the world. It touched me in a way I didn’t know I needed today, and I am so happy that I decided to read this.

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