Thursday, October 13, 2005

Poem for Yom Kippur

The best Jewish poem I know for Yom Kippur--the one that stays with me, anyway, the most richly and beautifully, year after year--is actually two prose paragraphs from Mike Heller's memoir Living Root. Read it and be well this year, all of you out there:
My mother who did not believe in God, who told me this fact when I was only nine as we lolled in the shallow waves off the beach at Lummis Park. My mother who said "I am an atheist" under the clearest of blue skies, when not the merest wisp of haze or cumulus lay in the way between heaven and earth: My mother, who suffered numerous illnesses, a series of different cancers, a bad heart, and finally a death‑dealing stroke, my mother, who yet outlived three of her doctors and led an active and social life, who had closets of dresses, who walked with dignity up steps, taking ten seconds to rest at each landing, this mother was immensely proud of her teeth. In the morning and in the evening, she spent many minutes in the bathroom flossing and brushing; at night, while we children lay in bed, we could hear her gargling. My mother pestered the butcher for soup bones which she would boil up, not for soup, but to chew on. My mother, who was very conscious of her appearance and so dressed smartly and even elegantly on most occasions, would sit by herself at the diningroom table in the late afternoons with a large billowing napkin tucked into the neck of her housedress and gnaw like a dog on those cooked bones. When out having lunch with a friend or with us, she always excused herself at the end of a meal and retired to the ladies' room to brush her teeth. How astonishing her pride in those teeth while the rest of her body was failing her.

On the Day of Atonement, when the litany of Jewish suffering is recited in the synagogue and as a young child, just after the Second World War aware of the Holocaust, and feeling the entire world massed against Jews, feeling my own vulnerability, when the rest of the family engaged in the ritual fasting, in bringing neither liquid nor food to one's lips and mouth, my mother, because of her health, was required to eat, and so, required herself to brush her teeth. In the temple, surrounded by all the fasting relatives and family friends, in a cloud of bad breath, only my mother's mouth as she kissed me had any sweetness.

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