Reading Against Anti-Semitism

On Sunday 2.18.24 A Poetry Reading in Response to Antisemitism” was held at The Museum of Jewish Heritage here in New York. Cultural critic and keynote speaker Ruth Ben-Ghiat, author of Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall, provided historical context for today’s worldwide uptick in antisemitism. Curators Martine Bellen, Ruth Danon, and Andrew Levy brought together poets Rosebud Ben-Oni, Jordan Davis, Sharon Dolin, Joanna Fuhrman, Nada Gordon, Patricia Spears Jones, Pierre Joris, Adeena Karasick, Vincent Katz, Burt Kimmelman, Basil King, Stephen Massimilla, Sharon Mesmer, Uche Nduka, Mercedes Roffe, Sean Singer, Yerra Sugarman, Anne Tardos,and Edwin Torres to share works, reflecting on this current moment. During these difficult times, poetry is a place to turn, a way of expressing our common humanity. In this event, we unite in strength to share our experiences and envision a better world.

Below, my contribution to the afternoon’s proceedings:

As witness to these dark times, let me open with a poem by Paul Celan (in my translation), addressing that vengeful godhead common to our three monotheistic disaster modes:

TENEBRAE

We are near, Lord,
near and graspable.

Grasped already, Lord,
clawed into each other, as if
each of our bodies was
your body, Lord.

Pray, Lord,
pray to us,
we are near.

Windbent we went there,
we went there to bend down
over crater and maar.

To the trough we went, Lord.

It was blood, it was
what you spilled, Lord.

It shone.

It cast your image into our eyes, Lord.
Eyes and mouths gape, so open and empty, Lord.
We have drunk, Lord.
The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.

Pray, Lord.
We are near.

In January 1934, two months after his Bar Mitzvah, the 14-year-old Paul Celan wrote to his Aunt Minna who had recently emigrated to Palestine. He explained why he had been ranked second in class and not first, by citing his “belonging to the Jewish branch of the Semitic race.” The other branch is of course the Arab branch, which makes the accusations of anti-semitism all the way to today more complex than both extremist simplifications thereof.

The killing has to stop. On both sides.

Let me close with a poem by poet Hiba Abu Nada, translated by Huda Fakhreddine. Hiba Abu Nada was killed at age 32 in her home in the Gaza Strip by an Israeli airstrike on October 20, 2023.

Not Just Passing

Yesterday, a star said

to the little light in my heart,

We are not just transients

passing.

 

Do not die. Beneath this glow

some wanderers go on

walking.

 

You were first created out of love,

 so carry nothing but love

 to those who are trembling.

 

One day, all gardens sprouted

from our names, from what remained

of hearts yearning.

 

And since it came of age, this ancient language

has taught us how to heal others

with our longing,

 

how to be a heavenly scent

to relax their tightening lungs: a welcome sigh,

 a gasp of oxygen.

 

Softly, we pass over wounds,

like purposeful gauze, a hint of relief,

an aspirin.

 

O little light in me, don’t die,

even if all the galaxies of the world

close in.

 

O little light in me, say:

Enter my heart in peace.

All of you, come in!

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