Monday, April 10, 2017

Three for Pesach

Detail from The Four Questions as in Arthur Szyk's The Szyk Haggadah

Tonight is the first night of Passover, which celebrates that ancient and foundational tale of the Jewish people as related in the stark and brutal poetry of Exodus.  It is the holy day of the Diaspora.  Oh, surely the events were commemorated in some way when theirs was a religion of the Temple with its priests, altar, and sacrifices.  But when the Temple was destroyed, the priests killed or scattered and the People doomed to wander in a hostile world, the People had to take their faith with them, rolled up in household rugs and maintained behind closed doors away from hostile eyes. 
And so the Passover Seder is a home ritual requiring no priests in which the traditions of the People are transmitted in the oldest way—by a kind of storytelling.  As it developed over centuries, it became a lesson a child asking and a family patriarch answering.
By retelling the tale of a people in bondage who, with the aid of their great God, left slavery behind them and after many trials, found that Promised Land of milk and honey, Jews gave themselves hope.  This had helped them endure through countless persecutions in every land.  During and after the greatest and most awful of all the persecutions, the Holocaust, the ritual of the Seder took on even greater, more urgent meaning.  After all did it not always end with the promise Next year in Jerusalem? 
So Passover became the special inspiration of those otherwise worldly Zionists, those Ashkenazi socialists and idealists.
But the story also is one of liberation and has inspired many struggles for freedom, especially Blacks in bondage of their own and under the yoke of tyranny when actual shackles were replaced by those of law and custom.  The Haggadah, the ritual book from which the Seder service is read, had been recast many times to reflect many struggles.

Rosé Cohen at an art instillation he curated. 

Our first poet, Rosé Cohen, lays out the story in the style of a beatnik coffee house.  You can almost hear the slap of the bongos and almost breathe through the dense cloud of smoke from Chesterfields and Gauloises.
Cohen was born in the Bronx in 1934 and came of age as a restless young man in the ‘50’s.  He floated in and out of various colleges and drifted from quirky job to quirky joblifeguard, masseur,  and astrology writer among them before finally settling in for the semi-respectability and steady pay of a high school teacher.  All the while, he wrote poetry.  He could have been a walk-on in an On the Road crowd scene.
He always had a quirky, inquisitive, and artistic bent that often led in unexpected directions.  He published a book of drawings and launched skin diving trips throughout the Yucatan and the Florida Keys. His School of the Night specialized in occult classes and his Liquid Wedge Gallery made media history with sculptor Tony Price’s first Atomic Art Show in New York City in 1969.  Cohen even appeared briefly in 1997’s Alaskan wilderness survival thriller The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin.
For some years Cohn has lived and worked in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife.  He continues to write poetry and often performs live and curates art instillations.  His most recent collection,  The Pearl Upon the Crown, was published in March of 2012 by Synergetic Press.  

Cohen's recent collection The Pearl Upon the Crown.   
Passover Service

While traveling in foreign parts
Avoiding arrows dodging darts
And guided by some ancient charts
I bought from an Arab
I came across a manuscript
Half buried in a dusty crypt
Called exodus from old Egypt
Inscribed on a scarab

As I remember it the Jews
Built pyramids and sang the blues
So Pharaohs could forever snooze
Above the baking sand
Egyptian lords embalmed in spice
Lay in eternal Paradise
While Jews their lives a living sacrifice
Slaved in a foreign land

And one was born named tongue-tied Moses
One chosen by the God of the long noses
To free his people from the rubber hoses
The Pharaoh's men would wield.
By trick of fate he chanced to be
Raised in Egyptian luxury
Brought up within the Pharaoh's family
And one day God revealed…

But let's all drink a toast to Moses
To the God of the long noses

And one day God revealed his plan
To free His people from the Man
And thus to Moses he began:
“Early tomorrow morn
Rise up and go to Pharaoh's door
Take brother Aaron as your orator
Say let my people go we slave no more”
And deep as a French horn

God's mighty voice in anger boomed
God who appeared that day costumed
As bush that would not be consumed
Although it burned in flame
So Moses eighty years of age
Stepped up upon the Pharaoh's stage
To free his people from their prison cage
He called upon God's name

And gave his staff a little shake
And hurled it down as it would break
And lo it turned into a snake
Then Pharaoh gave a sign
And his magicians threw their rods
Which turned to snakes in writhing squads
But Moses' snake ate all the other bods
On each one did it dine

Let's drink to slavery's abolition
To Pharaoh's mummy's slow decomposition

But Pharaoh would not let them go
And thus the Lord spake unto Mo:
“Stretch out thine hand you and your bro
And wherever waters flow
They will be turned to blood” and lo
It came to pass exactly so
Before the peoples' eyes, before Pharaoh
And still his word was No

And so the Lord sent frogs, then lice
Then flies, then cattle paid the price
All of them dead to be precise
Then boils on everyone
Then hail, then locusts filled the air
But still the Pharaoh didn't care
He'd say “Go free” caught up in his despair
Then when a plague was done

He'd change his mind insist they stay
Then God sent darkness every day
So thick Egyptians felt it weigh
Upon their every breath
Until the Pharaoh cried: “Go free
But leave your herds right here with me”
“We need our herds” “Then stay in slavery
And it will be your death…”

Let's drink to innocent Egyptians
To God who caused Pharaoh conniptions

“If once again you see my face
On that day shall your death take place
You'll disappear without a trace”
And then the Lord dealt out
Of all His punishments the worst
The land of Egypt was accursed
It came to pass that night he killed the first
Born and a tremendous shout

A shout throughout the land a cry
Went up from every mouth unto the sky
Because in every house at least one did die
Except among the Jews
For God had given strict instruction
On how they could avoid destruction
And more important than mere reproduction
He said they must forever fuse

The image of this holy day
Upon their souls and never stray
In the least detail from this holy way
For God said: “Kill a lamb
And smear its blood upon the door
Tonight when I do what I swore
And smite Egyptian first born by the score
I God of Abraham…”

We must drink up for Abraham
To the blood of the sacrificial lamb
To the God of those who eat no ham

“I shall Passover the marks of red
While filling Egyptian homes with dead
This night eat ye unleavened bread
And ye must eat in haste
There is no time for dough to rise
Eat bitter herbs to symbolize
The pain of bondage and to memorize
Forever slavery's taste”

And Pharaoh called for Moses in the middle of the night
“Begone with all your people thou accursed Israelite”
And so six hundred thousand folk on foot began their flight
And then the manuscript
Went on: “And this day shall be unto you for a memorial”
Spake God unto His children God the incorporeal
“And ye shall keep it as a feast for time immemorial
How I brought you out of Egypt

And went before to lead the way
By night a flaming pillar, a ray
In a pillar of cloud I led by day
I led you in my glory
Remember how I divided the sea
Gave you water from stone, from the sky toast and tea
Gave you a commandment on adultery
But all that's another story”

Now eat we this unleavened bread
With bitter herbs as the Lord said
And drink to God the fountainhead

That's why we celebrate the miracle
Of Passover it's just empirical
And sometimes the Lord likes to hear it told lyrical

So remember
The Lord of Hosts lays down some heavy shit
And He insists that all ye mortals hearken unto it.

Rosé Cohen
© Rosé Cohen 1995, 2012

Marge Piercy.

Marge Piercy, born in gritty Detroit in 1936 to a working class Jewish family struggling to stay afloat in Depression Era America, is Cohen’s generational peer.  But her journey led her to the radical activism of the ‘60’s as a Northwestern University graduate student.  She was active in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Chicago Civil Rights struggles, the anti-war movement, and was in the forefront of the transition from traditional feminism to radical Women’s Liberation.  She was also there for the foundational years of the ecological movement.
She grew into a dual career as an activist and a prolific writer whose work has been  by 17 volumes of poetry and 17 novels plus a memoir, essay collection, a play co-authored with her third husband Ira Wood, and So You Want to Write: How to Master the Craft of Writing Fiction and Memoir also with her husband.
The Moon is Always Female, published in 1989, is a revered classic of Feminist literature.
Her later work incorporated Jewish themes, the cycle of the Jewish year and its ritual observances, and the notion of tikkun olam, the repair of the world.  She has served as poetry editor for the radical Jewish Tikkun Magazine.
Piercy’s personal life was intense and unstable.  After two failed marriages she married Ira Wood, a fellow writer with whom she has now had a long and fruitful personal and professional partnership.  Since 1971 she has lived in Wellfleet, Massachusetts on Cape Cod with Ira and her beloved cats.
In this poem she takes the abandonment of an Egyptian Jewish home and views it as the first step in millennia of leavings.

The courage to let go of the door, the handle.
The courage to shed the familiar walls whose very
stains and leaks are comfortable as the little moles
of the upper arm; stains that recall a feast,
a child’s naughtiness, a loud blattering storm
that slapped the roof hard, pouring through.

The courage to abandon the graves dug into the hill,
the small bones of children and the brittle bones
of the old whose marrow hunger had stolen;
the courage to desert the tree planted and only
begun to bear; the riverside where promises were
shaped; the street where their empty pots were broken.

The courage to leave the place whose language you learned
as early as your own, whose customs however dangerous
or demeaning, bind you like a halter
you have learned to pull inside, to move your load;
the land fertile with the blood spilled on it;
the roads mapped and annotated for survival.

The courage to walk out of the pain that is known
into the pain that cannot be imagined,
mapless, walking into the wilderness, going
barefoot with a canteen into the desert;
stuffed in the stinking hold of a rotting ship
sailing off the map into dragons’ mouths,

Cathay, India, Siberia, goldeneh medina
leaving bodies by the way like abandoned treasure.
So they walked out of Egypt. So they bribed their way
out of Russia under loads of straw; so they steamed
out of the bloody smoking charnelhouse of Europe
on overloaded freighters forbidden all ports—

out of pain into death or freedom or a different
painful dignity, into squalor and politics.
We Jews are all born of wanderers, with shoes
under our pillows and a memory of blood that is ours
raining down. We honor only those Jews who changed
tonight, those who chose the desert over bondage,

who walked into the strange and became strangers
and gave birth to children who could look down
on them standing on their shoulders for having
been slaves. We honor those who let go of every-
thing but freedom, who ran, who revolted, who fought,
who became other by saving themselves.

—Marge Piercy
© Marge Piercy  1999 

Bracha Meschaninov.
Finally we have the more domestic reflection of Bracha Meschaninov.  Born in South Africa Meschaninov now lives in Monsey, New York with her husband Ilya and their six children. She is a religious Othodox Jew, unlike our first two poets, and was the founder of the Women’s Torah Learning Circle. Tender Skin and Other Poems was published in 2001.  These poems were reprinted in 2011 by The Forward, the English language weekly that grew out of the Yiddish Jewish Daily Forward with deep roots in the American Jewish communities.

House cleaned
more or less
kitchen surfaces covered
more or less
food ready
more or less
an experience of redemption
more or less.

—Bracha Meschaninov

The Seder

We chewed the hand-made bread
of redemption
and wine specially made
children primed for performance… performed
and wonderful guests came and prayed
yet his eyes were sad and her skin showed strain
We left Mitzraim
but in pain we stayed.

—Bracha Meschaninov

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