The Anna Davidson Rosenberg Prize for Poetry on the Jewish Experience has been awarded since 1987, first by the Magnes Museum in Berkeley, and then by the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. In 2011, the Prize was administered by the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, the Magnes Collection for Jewish Life and Culture, Paul Hamburg—Judaica Librarian at the Bancroft Library and UC Berkeley, and Zeek. We are pleased to publish the winning poems here.
These poems tell “the Jewish Experience,” but tell it slant. The birth of Israel is overheard in the tropics, with parrots and tortillas. The Rabbis confess to each other that instead of praying they have been counting chickens, or falling asleep. “Lenin? Vas not so bad,” says the speaker’s neighbor, and thus we enter into history through an “old Bronx nextdoornik.” As we read through stacks of manuscripts I noticed a reticence, a refraining from stridency – as Jewish-American-Israeli politics grow louder, many of the poets we read seemed to whisper, scatter and echo across the page, and we had to lean over to hear them better. Maybe because each poet’s Jewish Experience has become refracted, singular, strange to the party-line of kiddush and kaddish. — Eds.
Poems by Jehanne Dubrow (first prize)
Rules for Passover in the Tropics
Your matzoh won’t arrive. Convene a kaffeeklatsch. Debate the leavening of corn when mashed to meal. Wine will break in transit. Invent a substitute for the crate of shards and purple stains. Forget apples. Forget there ever was a fruit called apple in the world. Bone is easy to acquire: from the chicken’s neck or goat behind the lean-to. No shortage of water mixed with salt. And bitter herb grows wild in these larger valleys. Expect Elijah. Expect Elijah never shows. Decide: next year in Jerusalem. Or better yet: in Brooklyn, where every fish is stuffed inside itself, and family, a thing so large it won’t fit around one table. Tell stories of the mango tree, the tin-roof sound of rain on the tiny synagogue. Name tribes of birds that settle where you stay. Yellow-naped. White-throated. Brown. Olive. And last, because you’re faithful to the narrative, hide from the angel of this place, vermilion wings you watched the other night, a flight of red above an open door.
Land of Milk and Honey
It’s May 14, 1948. My mother is two and cannot name the things that fill this room. Tío Willy smokes cigars. Tante Anna slices strudel into small terrains of sweetness. On the radio, someone says the name of a new country, another continent away. A national anthem plays. Now the grownups are speaking many languages at once, spooning cherry jam into their tea, kissing tears from one another’s cheeks. They kiss my mother too. Salud. L’chaim. Na zdrowie. Everyone is hugging, as if this happiness must be detained with both hands. For once, no one complains about the heat. Oma cuts pickles for the table. Onkel Max pulls out the playing cards. Bottles of schnapps and slivovitz. There is some talk about the soul, how deeply it wants to find itself a home. My mother’s stomach hurts from so much sugar. When is it bedtime? How long the laughing? The grownups are chewing now on history, the acquired taste of it like salted carp in aspic. They eat tortillas and cake soaked in three kinds of milk: evaporated, condensed, and cream. It’s May 15. My mother falls asleep. Outside, a parrot starts its recitation of the daily news.
The days of awe were needles on her neck. My mother sat behind netting and learned to pray by swatting wings. She prayed by calamine, green fingers of aloe. Her books perspired. Her lamp exhausted all its light. Honey softened to a stream. Who could eat in such weather? Only a little nosh the night before or a sip of nectar from a metal cup. School stopped. Math and grammar went to sleep, boys and girls kept separate as linen and wool. The heat was a veil over everything. My mother stayed awake. Each day was an itch she couldn’t reach, a patch of skin. Around her, bodies curled in hammocks, the radio gone still, only the buzzing of dead air.
by Dan Bellm (second prize)
were only prayer,
not a thought or word
of one, nor even an
intention; sunlight on grass,
nothing of itself but what it
shows, or a bird that has called out, filled
with purest hearing; well, I have the prayers
in the book, and once again I have lost my
place, dreaming even past the prayer that calls on me
to listen up; must I start it all over, and where
would I begin; how far into the past would I unwind,
how far would a self have to cast itself out before it flew
beyond its reaches, to live, instead of being only lived in;
oh it’s like asking to stop breathing; in the time I’ve spent worrying
the sun turned all to shadow, it began to rain, the scent of the mown grass
lifted into the trees, and now the light and shade have returned to their places
a little further on, in accordance with the number of moments that have passed.
Rabbi Hiyyah, called the Great, once said, I have never in my life prayed with intention.
One time I tried to intend, but only wondered in my heart whether I would be received
before the king, or sent into exile. How was I to know? This, of course, started the other
rabbis talking; Rabbi Samuel admitted, with a shrug, I have been counting chickens; Rabbi
Bun the son of Hiyyah said, I have been counting the layers of stone in the wall, and his eyes lit up
with this woeful confession; Rabbi Mattaniah sighed, since there is always one who feels responsible
for the prayers of all the rest, Then let there be blessings on our heads, for I have noticed that whenever we come
to the last of the benedictions, at which we are commanded to bow down, our heads are bowed of their own accord.
But look, I must have nodded off again, enumerating, losing track of what I meant to praise, drool on my shirt, or
else have had a dream, with none to interpret it; will You not look away from me awhile, as Job cried out, and let me be,
whilst I swallow my own spit? The rain has started falling again, even in the path of the sun, as if there’s no reason to
decide which will be first or last, and a great round of song is circling among the uppermost branches of the spruces. Return to
me, O God, and I’ll return, letting the day begin again even if it’s halfway gone, extolling the One who removes the sleep from
my eyes, the slumber from my eyelids, and gives the rooster discernment to tell day from night; let me count the threads of You that I might tug at,
complicated by being many, simple by being one, and if not to arrive at wanting nothing, which is another desire, then to
yearn for what is given, including the dust and the ash, and the last moment You have counted up for me, wherefore I clap my hand unto my mouth.
Queen Sonia of Coney Island
hair piled high
her eyebrows, even
elegant in silhouette.
from each oyerlepl swings
a small golden ferris wheel ear-hoop.
for her I ride two hours of subway line
and stand finally shore-side on Breytn Beach:
a lute-bellied Russian galleon is pulling in to shore
with steamship dignity
bearing its language
held in cargo
and its alphabets
blockprinted on red sails
soon the proud longshoremen of the Lokal Brooklyn Yunyon
descend into the hold.
their accents curl their mustaches,
unloading crate by crate:
vowels and violins,
microfiche and blini. O
great galleon of consonants! bearing
fresh orthography of the East
the day the SS Sonechka drops anchor
Coney Island cigarette girls issue
commemorative red handkerchiefs
to wave from roller coasters
at their highest point
a marching orchestra
is tuning up invincible
all salty on the boardwalk
we stand shoulder to shoulder on the shore
and mama diaspora grins as she squeezes
milk and honey from her akordyon
into our wordy waiting mouths.
where does the voice go
how can it get away //
when we’re still sitting here heavy?
iz kol kuzine fun di hent, bruder fun di oyern?
If: [as taught]
each word in the sh’ma
finds itself an equivalent in human bone
then: it must be voice
that webs our organs
from the moment of first speech
and from this we learn:
voice is a map in the air of the body it leaves and the body it enters changing the body changes the voice hearing the changed voice changes the body of the listener
his voice fulfills my spiral ear
dark hair erect at the root
the foghorn bellows
and the ship floats on.
He’s singing on the Rhode Island highway driving me to the airport.
Sally Jane, big strides
Sally my folk - - song in girl form walking cross railroad tracks bindlestiff banjo case pigtailed kin she works the night shift making home for hundreds she shifts the night
we believe o we believe with all our bellowing breath
in the sisterhood of all mankind
please toss your two braids and teach me another song
let me place my feet near yours in handmade dance
heel > toe > palm > stitched steps
She takes care of me:
counts out subway tokens when I’m going home
meets me downtown then we go back uptown together
pays attention to, and is concerned about,
my protein intake
her consonants // compassion
her vowels // concern
her gestures // tent-spikes
her sigh // the ground she sinks them into
her pause // her sigh // her gesture —
in the midst of pain already grateful for the easing of pain
My Bronx nextdoornik, for ten years
she cracked small stones into smaller stones
with a hammer in Siberia.
For this, she blamed herself:
as a girl, she lit a match on saturday
and dared god to punish her
and to all appearances, he did.
Here she married a tailor.
She and he drink tea from handled glass cups
in the socialist living experiment of their living room
explaining through sugar cubes
clenched between their teeth
Lenin? vas not so bad.
Through supermarket aisles,
among the American varieties of dog food
and empty bread,
a concave woman,
shoes like black potatoes.
Her hair she always kept simple.
Then last August
night duty at the mikveh fell to me.
We speak through the white sheet
I, examining her toes
beside that incorruptible water.
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