The Jews That We Are

By Richard Michelson

. . . you have inherited its burden without its mystery.
—Elie Wiesel

I. March 1979 and I am watching Nazis
march through Chicago. The bold type
of the Sun-Times describes a small band
of hoodlums, undereducated boy scouts, the better
to be ignored. My grandfather, back hunched
over his Bible, agrees. Jews like myself
should stay home, should lay down our stones
and pray like the Jews that we are.

II. Grandfather, you are easy to love
with your long beard and the way you sway
like a palm branch in the storm. It is easy
to romanticize your spiritual search,
worldly naiveté and wise rabbinical words.
You belong in the books I read
by Singer, Peretz, Sholom Aleichem.
But their characters are ignorant
of the chapters to come. You know
where their prayers will lead.

III. A circle. Six Nazis. Your wife in the middle.
One soldier says all Jewesses are wh*res
and the others agree. You say nothing.
Years later you’ll decide to speak:
“Do we not serve Hitler’s purpose, we
who would sooner renounce our beliefs
than assume our burdens?”

IV. A generation after the Holocaust
and I know no Hebrew. No Yiddish. No Torah.
I fast only on the Day of Atonement
and even then I’ve been known to cheat.
A generation after the Holocaust
and I apologize for my grandfather’s
bent back and wild gestures.
I used to tremble to the rhythm
of his prayers. I feared the mysterious
words that kept us from the devil.
Now, from my window I watch Nazis march.
Their feet strike the pavement
like the ticking of a clock. I am a Jew
a generation after the Holocaust.
Poorer, my grandfather says, without a past
than he, who has no future.

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