Oct 2, 2020

Today’s poem is “Succoth” by Roberta Chester. She’s the author of the book Light Years and taught English and Technical writing at the University of Maine, College of the Atlantic and at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Succoth is a biblical religious holiday, a harvest festival that also commemorates the 40 years the Israelites spent in the wilderness on their journey from Egypt to Israel.

She writes, “’Succoth’ was written years ago when a swastika appeared on the wall of the shul, the orthodox synagogue in Bangor. That event inspired the memory of my grandfather who was attacked for being a Jew on the Lower East side of Manhattan which in turn inspired the sense of being an immigrant people always on the move in search of safety. …as Jews we had a brief respite after the Holocaust, but now, given recent incidents of hatred of Jews, we are conscious of our vulnerability.”

by Roberta Chester

(Bangor, 1982)

After the last blast of the shofar
and the hard fast, the promises
and prayers for a good year,
it takes us by surprise
when we are in the season
of apples and honey cakes
and wine, when we eat in huts
open as birds to the stars,

it takes us by surprise
to see a swastika
drawn on the wall of the shul,
painted red and razor sharp
the women whisper,
there can be no mistake.
They know the sign.

It makes me think
we have been found out
although we’ve been here
for years, our candles shining
at the windows, the smell of challah,
the bittersweet sounds of Shabbos songs
escaping from out the windows and doors
and into the streets between the bridge
and the old brick church.

It takes us by surprise
and yet the trouble is so old
it echoes in my blood
with the sound of my grandfather
climbing the stairs of a building
on the lower east side
and pressed against the wall
by someone with a knife
who held the blade
against his neck and said,
“Swear, swear you are not a Jew,
and I will let you free!”
And from my grandfather who refused
just as they were both surprised
by an angel in disguise who opened a door
in that long, dark hall,
I learned never to be too much in love
with a roof over my head,
that houses are made of sticks and glass,
that they break like the works of our hands,
and that we should be ready to fly
up into the night with parcels and children
and scrolls under our arms
on the back of the wind.

from Light Years (Puckerbrush Press 1982) and included in Maine Speaks

Copyright 1983 Roberta Chester