Sunday, June 28, 2015

From the Notebook of J Michel

Old World, New World

On the train. Finally, suddenly and again it’s Friday, and I’m filled with that particular mix of longing, joy, and impatient expectation. I’m on my way back to Brooklyn in search of the source of my breath, though I hadn’t realized I was home until I’d arrived –months ago. Cold, frightened, the precious skin protecting my heart raw from the blistering loneliness of the desert.

From the window I spot the giantess of the Island, torch held aloft as she stares dispassionately at the people so far below. I think I want to cry, but not in front of rush hour witnesses. I am caught between the pain of gratitude and the sudden, pressing rush of grief as I think of all the bodies and faces given shelter here, and the ones (far out numbering them) that remained trapped in the rows of cinder blocks and cement. Desperately trying to force their way out of train cars.

I think of you, on your way back to the Father Land, stepping through time forward and back into our history. My heart aches. Suddenly ten stops to Flatbush is too long.

I see you standing beside the old barracks where they put you to sleep, reading the sign that explains with rational detachment that we were put to death in their gas chambers. My heart aches. Never again, never again, please God –never again!

My love, you don’t remember that we there. I am going to Brooklyn, and you are in Europe, but soon we will both step into sacred time to stand outside the world. I tremble as I ache in concert with suppressed grief.

You have no idea, and I can’t even tell you, how you took a piece of my heart with you when you went back to Germany. I thought I was going to die of grief, watching you unknowingly walk right back to the place that betrayed you, and I held my tongue out of respect for the dead.

I tell myself to breath, to hold on until I can light candles amidst the loving eyes of family and banish the mundane with a single name. For this span of sunset to star rise, you will be looking for refuge from the onslaught of disconnected emotions and I will be looking for God in silent streets and in the tiny synagogue where the men will gather to sing, praying that somewhere in the eddies of this day we will find each other, clasp hands tightly, and leave the wilderness together. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

From the Notebook of J Michel


She asked me to come over, and I was secretly afraid. Not of her, you understand, but of my emotions. Eventually though, sudden free-time left me no recourse, and so I found myself sitting in her living room, surrounded by pictures of the dead. I rested cautiously on the cushions of her sofa, not knowing quite what to say, listening to her talk until I found my voice.

Then again, she was generous in that peculiar way of the elderly; they are more than happy to tell you about their lives. And I was happy to listen. Listen as she conjured forth images of boats, handsome doctors, the Dominican Republic in nineteen thirty-nine. The places she left behind.

Slowly, I realized that she and I were both casualties of the War, and though age separates us in this life, she’s always felt like an old friend to me. (After all, we lived through the same hell, it’s just that God chose her to live while I had other paths to follow).

Suddenly, overwrought with homesickness, I couldn’t help myself. I asked about her husband, about her childhood, about Berlin –as though her memories could knit back together the heart that had broken when they forced us to leave the place we’d always called home. With each word, sweet and terrible, we became closer and my heart shattered again as we recounted the night of broken glass, she speaking –I listening.

Three hours later, I sat in my car, sobbing as though the tears could drain the grief that inhabited my body out through my puffy eyes.

You see, the terrible irony is this: after the War there were so many dead. And how I wish I could be one of those who bravely stand to pray for strangers (because there’s no one else). But the prayer just turns to ash in my mouth and I choke every time. How, how can I praise God when I’m still looking for myself amongst that six million of names?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

From the Notebook of J Michel


I know that I will have to walk
through the darkness, alone.
But I don’t know if I can.

The still, small voice,
(shudder and awe –
displacement, discontent,
revelation. Acceptance)
has been calling.
I know that God is somewhere
In the out-there of in-here
and I’m so afraid that my feet won’t carry me.

"It’s like I’m holding
a lantern in my hands
and I’m trying to light it but
I can't.
I need someone to help me."

I was sobbing into the phone as if
she was standing in front of me.
Crying, again, I realized.

I know that, ultimately,
I will have to walk alone
through darkness,
but first
I need to kindle flame.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

From the Notebook of J Michel

Do you remember Sinai? 

Do you remember, my love,
when God called us by name?
I often do, the memory and the feeling:
Standing at the foot of Sinai, your hand
clutched tightly in mine,
unfathomable as the joy and the fear,
weeping as the rejoicing, deep and fierce,
and the wind that filled us with breath;
the lightning as the name of creation
kissed our lips.
Yisrael, God called us, b’nei yisrael.
My children. Ami.
We were called, called again,
and again.
The more that love grew
was the more that God called us by name.

I like your name –it tastes like memory
and finding in my mouth.
It has one syllable,
like birth or death,
like love –or God.
Like joy, like breath.
And suddenly it’s as though I can
utter the whole of creation when I call out your name
at night, in the shelter of darkness

as I wait for the new day to begin.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

From the Notebook of J Michel


In a world where we are constantly waiting
for a messiah
(that morning coffee, that next paycheck,
that apology, that one smile),
how tragic that we feel we have
to bargain for our hearts quietest,
fiercest, and most cherished dreams.
The old and tired blood sacrifice
as the only key to unlocking the universe
makes us feel so unworthy
of breathing in our own happiness.
And people spend entire lifetimes waiting.
Waiting until death to turn and say to God,
“There has never been anyone else but you.

I’m ready to listen now.”

From the Notebook of J Michel

The name I had
Before the War I had a name.
Katrine, or something with the same sort of rhythm.
It was a name that had notes of music in it –
like that familiar tune the public radio played
every Saturday afternoon in the salons and coffee houses.
It had notes of a sigh,
breathed in the quiet hours of aloneness
from the one who uttered it
with total devotion.
My name had bright and cheerful notes like the wildflowers
that visited our garden every spring.
I could never bring myself to pluck them up –
it seemed rude.
The name I was born with
was the name that love gave me –
a symphony of all those notes swirling together
every time he spoke it.

I have the name you gave me;
You named me mama
And it bears notes of loneliness, fear, adoration
And a kind of love I could not have fathomed.
Though you were not mine, I gave you a name in return;
Little Bird, I called you, my Little Dove.

I don’t know what he might have called you.
If the War had not shattered us
like glass jars (gluing together unlikely pieces)
you would have remained in Poland,
we in Berlin.  
He could never have been your father,
but I was your mother.

Here I have no name, only a number.
Here I must hide the names I had inside me,
remembering them late at night when you
are curled against me in desperate sleep.
I weep, filled with the unsettling notion
that the mystery of God is perhaps

hidden in many good-byes.