When I was a kid in Yeshiva we wrote the letters Bet-Samech-Daled on the upper right hand corner of all our papers, like a postage stamp. It means “with the help of heaven.” Some of us wrote Bet-Hey which means B‘ezrat Hashem, which means with the help of god but I stuck to heaven because Hey meant god and if you wrote Hey then you could never crumple the paper up because it would be like crumpling up god and throwing god out. So from the very beginning, the word was alive.
According to Jewish law any damaged book or paper with God’s Name, Torah laws, or 3 consecutive words of Torah must be properly buried as one must properly bury a human body.
And when you close a prayer book you kiss its spine.
Once, in a Biblical Hebrew translation class the question as to who wrote this part of the bible or that part of the bible came up, and I said so the whole thing about God having written the bible is off the table? I was dead serious. I was 30. There was laughter. The laughs were nervous. I probably laughed too. But my laughter had little pebbles in it that fell to the bottom of my stomach and stayed there.
In “Domestic Mysticism” Lucie Brock-Broido writes: “I draw a bath, enter the water as a god enters water: / Fertile, knowing, kind, surrounded by glass objects / Which could break easily if mishandled or ill-touched." Poetry is prayer’s extraordinary cousin. I believe it’s possible they share the same bathwater.
Here’s my poem, “A Kaddish.” I wrote it for my grandfather, Eugene Mark:
When the doctor found the black spot inside my husband, the word faith knocked around the house like a trapped bird, an old bird, like a bad omen, and I realized for the first time in my life – at 41 – that I didn’t really know what faith was, and that I probably wouldn’t recognize it even if it snuck up behind me, smelling like salt, and going boo. I knew what gumption was. I knew what terror was. But faith seemed like a luxury I couldn’t afford. We got to work instead. We spoke to many doctors. We scheduled surgeries. We divided and conquered. I steamed cleaned my whole entire house. I got a flash of our whole family going up in smoke. My oldest son stopped sleeping. Our community gathered around us like one gigantic mother. My father came to help.
When I am lost I don’t go to god, instead I think what would Lucie Brock-Broido do, or what would Donald Barthelme do, or what would Samuel Beckett do, or Bruno Schulz, or Jorie Graham, or Charlie Chaplin, or what would Patti Smith do. I call my mother. I call my father. My brothers. I go to my husband. I go to my friends. I once asked my four year old son for advice after a fallout with an old friend. He put three fingers up. Three? I asked. Three, he said. And as illogical as it was, I knew “three” was the best advice I’d ever get.
But on the night we had to call the ambulance, I did pray to God (to something vast) not because faith meant surrender, but because faith meant the opposite of surrender. Something like being possessed, but also possessing. I was holding onto dear life. I was under a spell, and also I took hold. Maybe this is why we knock on wood, and not on air. And not on shadows. We knock on something sound even when we know damn well the door will never open because there is no door. Knock, Knock. Who’s there? God. God who? I have tried for a long time to find a punchline to that joke, but I think the punchline might be that there is no punchline. Knock, Knock. Who’s there? God. God who? Knock, Knock. Who’s there? God. God who? Knock, Knock. Who’s there? God. God who? Knock, Knock. Who’s there? God. God who?
The Hebrew word for faith is emunah. In Exodus the Jews are complaining to Moses. Why did he bring us out of Egypt? “To kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” And so Moses goes to God and he says what am I supposed to do with these people? They are ready to stone me. So God tells him to use the same rod he used to part the dead sea to hit a rock and water will come out of it and the Jews will drink. And he did. And the Jews drank. And then the story goes that Moses’ hands were heavy, which is I guess another way of saying that he had had it. And so Aaron and Hur held up his hands and so his hands were emunah, which means steady, which means faith:
וִידֵי מֹשֶׁה כְּבֵדִים, וַיִּקְחוּ-אֶבֶן וַיָּשִׂימוּ תַחְתָּיו וַיֵּשֶׁב עָלֶיהָ; וְאַהֲרֹן וְחוּר תָּמְכוּ בְיָדָיו, מִזֶּה אֶחָד וּמִזֶּה אֶחָד, וַיְהִי יָדָיו אֱמוּנָה, עַד-בֹּא הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.
"But Moses' hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun."
But then in Numbers when the Jews are complaining again that they are hungry, remembering the fish and the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions that they had in Egypt, and they are sick of the manna, and Moses says why did you leave me with these people, to carry them against my chest like a nursing father. The word emunah appears again but as eman, which means a nursing father. And it is in the book of Ruth again when Naomi takes Ruth’s baby and “becomes nurse to it.” And the word there is oh-meh-net (from emunah):
.וַתִּקַּח נָעֳמִי אֶת-הַיֶּלֶד וַתְּשִׁתֵהוּ בְחֵיקָהּ, וַתְּהִי-לוֹ לְאֹמֶנֶת
"And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it."
Or in the book of Esther, emunah appears again as emun (as the one who raises a child):
"And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle's daughter; for she had neither father nor mother, and the maiden was of beautiful form and fair to look on; and when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter."
וַיְהִי אֹמֵן אֶת-הֲדַסָּה, הִיא אֶסְתֵּר בַּת-דֹּדוֹ--כִּי אֵין לָהּ, אָב וָאֵם; וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה, וּבְמוֹת אָבִיהָ וְאִמָּהּ, לְקָחָהּ מָרְדֳּכַי לוֹ לְבַת
I love this translation of emunah as one who holds a nation or a baby to its breast. As one who raises a child. As one who nurses. And it is here where I locate the exact point where faith and my writing overlap. Faith is a kind of empathy. It’s a surrender inside or around an unknown skin. In my first collection of poems, The Babies, a collection of poems haunted by the Holocaust, people kneel inside each other, are pulled onto each other’s laps, are lifted up and swung around by the hips, an army of babies gather the speaker into their tiny arms, children are held in mouths, scars are fingered, there is a lot of touching, a lot of reaching inside each other and pulling things out, a handful of blouses are unbuttoned, a speaker rummages around inside a father to pull a story out sticky with blood and bones. In my second collection of poems Tsim Tsum and my forthcoming collection of stories, Wild Milk, there is so much hand holding going on you’d think hand holding was a religion. It really should be. I wish it was. I really do.
Today at a march in Athens, Georgia to protest family separation, to protest the horror of taking children from their parents for no reason other than their desire to find for themselves and their children the basic freedom to LIVE and THRIVE, today at the march, at the very end, we were asked to circle five women, to make a chain of hands from their hands to all our hands, to say we will protect you, to say no one will take you away, or your children away, because we are all connected. We are all holding you. We are holding your hands. Emunah, emunah, emunah.