Philip Terman’s books of poetry include The Torah Garden, Rabbis of the Air, Book of the Unbroken Days, and The House of Sages. His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies including: Poetry, The Georgia Review, The Kenyon Review, The New England Review, The Sun Magazine, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, and The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, and The Allegheny River Poetry Anthology. He teaches creative writing and literature at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. Terman is co-director of the Chautauqua Writers Festival at the Chautauqua Institution and directs The Bridge Literary Arts Center and Performance Space in Franklin, Pennsylvania. He is Contributing Editor for Poetry for the journal Chautauqua. Occasionally, Terman performs his poetry with the jazz band Catro.
Teaching My Daughter the Mourner’s Kaddish
Forget about the original Aramaic,
or Ezekiel’s vision that served
as inspiration, I just hope for the Hebrew,
but she prefers the transliteration—
which, no matter the alphabet, translates
into magnification and sanctification—
thinking of the story about the rabbi
building a fire in the woods,
and reciting a prayer and who the rabbi was
and where the woods were located
and how the fire was built were all forgotten
but not the prayer, never the prayer—child,
this is the one sad song I do not wish you to sing,
elegy of sorrow, gate of grief I would forbid you
to enter, this the same syllables mourners
have pronounced for millennium and for which I rise
to chant, according to their anniversary,
for my father, my mother, my brother,
the rhythms you will enrich
with each repetition and, soon enough, over
me, so I call your name and instruct:
chant it again, from the beginning, more slowly.
It happens I’m tired of being a Jew.
It happens that I go into synagogues shriveled up.
I stroll around the Jewish Community Center
singing “Hava Nagila” in falsetto.
the smell of my mother’s challa makes me sob out loud.
I want nothing but the repose of either barbequed pork or shellfish,
I want to see no more maps of Israel, nor mezuzot,
nor Stars of David, nor fancy kabalistic necklaces.
It happens that I’m tired of my facial hair and sideburns.
It happens I’m tired of being a Jew.
Just the same it would be delicious
to scare a Wasp with a Yarmulka
or knock a nun dead with one slap of my t’fillin.
It would be beautiful
to run naked through the streets with a kosher knife
kibitzing until they crucify me.
I do not want to go on being a Talmudic nudnic,
kvetching, atoning, davening in the sanctuary,
standing and sitting, repeating the same words every day.
I don’t want to be the inheritor of so much guilt,
as the last denier, as a stiff-necked corpse.
For this reason Leviticus infects us all,
with its strictures and its restrictions,
howling its Jehovah.
I want to visit the houses of the gentiles,
certain bakeries smelling of lard,
streets full of shiksas begging for my attention.
There are Jewish mothers beckoning from doors
of the houses which I hate,
statues of their adored sons on the suburban lawns,
stuffed ancestors displayed above the couch,
and holy chockies from Jerusalem all over the place.
It happens that I’m tired of being a Jew.
Hava Nagila – Jewish traditional folk song, often sung at times of celebrations
Mezuzot – plural for Mezuzah, a sacred prayer in a decorative case placed on doorways
Yarmulka – or kippa is a cap worn to cover the heads as a sign of respect to God
t’fillin – are a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah and worn during prayers
kosher – or kashrut is a set of Jewish dietary laws
kibitzing – look on and offer unwanted, usually meddlesome advice to others
kvetching – to complain in a nagging manner
davening – to recite Jewish liturgical prayers, usually swaying is involved
shiksas – a Gentile girl or woman, especially one who has attracted a Jewish man. The term derives from the Hebrew