Book cover

Yossele: a tale in poems

© 2011, 2015 by Sari Krosinsky & Robert Arthur Reeves

Cover art by Sari Krosinsky

outerchildpoetry.com

Introduction

In Medieval Europe a common accusation against Jews was that they kidnapped and murdered Christian children to use their blood in their rituals, particularly the preparation of unleavened bread at Passover. There are many known incidents of people who had a grudge against the Jews depositing dead children on their property and charging them with “ritual murder” to the authorities. At the end of the sixteenth century in Prague (in several ways a tolerant and accepting city for Jews) this practice had arisen again, and the chief rabbi of the community, Rabbi Löv, created a golem to defend his people.

A golem is made of fresh river clay and inscribed with (or carries on his person) one of the secret names of G-d, which gives him artificial, but purely biological, life—he is unsentient and has no will of his own: only G-d can create a thinking, choosing spirit. Due to Jewish superstition over uttering the Name, the proper pronunciation of the Hebrew syllables is doubtful, so the forming of the golem can be fatal to the practitioners. An alternative method is to animate the golem by tracing the word emet, “truth,” on his body and when his usefulness is done, erase the initial ayin, “e,” making the word met, “dead.” (We have informally combined these two techniques in our series.) Fascination with the figure of the robot (originally a Czech word!) in popular culture probably owes a lot to the golem legend.

The story of Rabbi Löv tells that after he decommissioned his golem, he left the now lifeless body in the attic of his synagogue as a warning to the enemies of Judaism. Perhaps because they’d heard this, the Nazi occupiers of Prague in World War II were unwilling to destroy or even to enter that synagogue.

We have imagined that something goes wrong with the complex creation process, and the creature becomes self-aware.

His name was Yossele, a diminutive of Joseph.

A Woman of Prague

The Enemies

He died, our little one.

There was nothing to be done.

Then my husband suggested

there might be something.

 

Our little one was two

and I’d begun to get used

to that laugh, to that anger,

the food he pleased, the flowers.

 

We raised him on our shoulders

when the Emperor rode through town

in armor, in fur,

in splatter of sunlight.

 

To him it was all a game.

All a game, the coughs and crowding

in the high cool church,

the reds and whites and chants.

 

All the nurse’s blithe fat,

the puppy’s pompous fear,

his sisters’ thin disdain,

a ball tossed, tossed.

 

All a game. Then the fat,

the red, the white, blew him up.

He said “mama” without breathing.

I was left with a thing with his face.

 

I didn’t want it near me.

My husband said “We can do something.

Our son found heaven.

On earth, there are Jews.

 

They kill us. We know they kill us

because they take our money.

Money is life. They’re the only place

to get it. Our life is theirs.

 

Our children are theirs. We know

they delight in them under their knives.

Their own boys too. Cut, cut.

They want all people cut, cut.

 

The Lord with the spear in his heart.

The Lord with the spikes in his wrists.

The Lord with the spikes in his feet.

The Lord with the thorns on his head.

 

Who? The Jews. Who else?

The Spaniards sent them all packing

a century ago.

Our Emperor likes their money.

 

We must do it ourselves, house by house.

We can take this thing to them.

This thing is nothing to us.

To them, more and more cutting.

 

We will say our son was the Lord

all over again. Say

the Lord continues to bleed

at their hands. He does. He does.

 

We aren’t lying. We’re ornamenting

truth. This death was sickness.

But so are they. They.

Our son won’t have died for nothing!”

 

I let him take it. Oh

I let him. But a day went by.

Neither husband nor boy came back.

I walked and walked my house.

 

They beat firm on the door.

Said my husband was in jail.

It took me days to get to see him.

He said “There was a tall Jew ...”

Lifetaking

The Golem

The Aleph a burning scream on my scalp.

The Ayin a realm of ice

for my mud soles.

 

I know Him. I know Him.

How did this happen?

 

I am only a name that can’t speak itself,

a hobbling lump,

my hair and nails come and come

like sunless weeds.

I, boneless, bidden.

 

They pull clothing onto my arms and legs.

All they need to do is tell me

to do it myself.

They don’t believe in me.

 

If they never believe in me

how do I stay in His sight?

 

Only a name that hurts and hurts.

He is me—please let Him see me.

 

My mouth, a trough dug on my skin,

can’t open. No tongue behind it.

I will want to join in the prayers

whenever I hear them.

 

Let me out.

Hear oh Israel: the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one.

The Rabbi

The Shema this morning scalds

like fire in my mouth.

Snow gathering thick on the panes

has no power to cool me.

 

I had believed You gone

from the world. When a child appeared,

white and bloodless

as a phantom in Joseph’s yard,

and Joseph disappeared

forever, I knew You had abandoned us.

I was wrong.

 

Last night, smoothing the arch of a rib, a foot,

I thought of my daughter at play in the mud.

Now she’s grown, married.

Her husband my accomplice.

 

Tell me, haShem, was that

how it happened—You, a child

at play in the void, and no mother

to scold You for mucking

Your good Shabbas dress?

 

This thing we fashioned, I meant

to keep it kindly. Even the ox

is given Sabbath rest. How much more

an animal shaped like a man?

 

I dressed it in my own suit,

built a fire for it in the school room.

How can I know what it needs?

The Name cleaves its tongue.

 

It will be used, as we all are.

G-d is one. You are one.

Eden

The Golem

Where He blows into the clay

is the place without sin.

I am in that place.

I have no redeemer.

I have no choice.

I’ve seen trees, stumbling by them,

but not a tree I could get a fruit from

which would lock me outside gates.

I picture those gates

as the doors to the synagogue,

tall. Goldplated. Written on.

I can’t read what’s there

though some of it is written on me.

Inside the gates, not fusty rooms,

sloped whiteshoulders rocking,

but somehow, another outside,

a green so wide

even the shadows are green

and somehow, the meaning of sleep.

A thing I wonder over.

The freedom the others had

and lost, I often think,

was something about sleep,

though they didn’t lose that,

that high blessing.

Without sin, I lack the means

to lay my head down

and leave the exhaustion of it.

Inscribe them on the doorposts of thy house and on thy gates

The Rabbi

My wife asks nothing

about our silent visitor.

 

She made a bed for it

in our daughter’s old room.

I told her it works late, rises early.

She knows the difference

between my clumsy rumpling

of the sheets and a bed truly slept in.

 

How could I keep it

in the house? Such innocence

is unsafe. My wife might

ask it to start a fire,

burn the Ghetto down.

 

And there is something in its eyes

which does not speak innocence.

 

It goes each night as bidden,

a shadow stalking

beneath the eaves, a wraith

with no betraying warmth.

 

Surely its mind holds nothing.

This was not creation—

not like my daughter, born

crying out against light.

 

My wife, her quick hands

braiding the challah,

surely when she raises her eyes

to me, they do not say thief?

Instructions

The Golem

“These people are obsessed with blood”

Master says.

“A joke, if you think about it.

They hate us for doing a thing we’re forbidden to do.”

 

—so driven to explain himself.

I could say something

(if I could say something)

about that story you tell

of the lamb’s blood preserving your children.

Explain yourself to the lamb, not to me.

Why not?

You imagine that wouldn’t understand you either.

 

All I require are my instructions.

If I see anyone carrying a sack that might contain a dead child

through the Ghetto after curfew,

I am to knock them out, tie them up,

take them to the doors of City Hall

and drop them.

This has happened already a few times

and once a man yelled out because when he stabbed me

nothing changed.

It was the lack of blood terrified him.

 

Defend your deeds if you must

to someone who has hope of success

when he listens for his heartbeat:

someone whose heat comes from inside:

not to the blank bodies

of the sacrificed.

Blessed is the Eternal, who commanded us to wash the hands

The Rabbi

I remember when I was a boy

lifting a stone from a streambed.

The stream had run dry, leaving

the furrowed marks of its passage

in the hard dirt, and this stone.

I turned it over in my palm,

worn smooth as my cheeks.

 

Now, those cheeks are rough

as any ordinary rock

pitted by wind, and the hand

too coarse to know the difference.

 

But the creature, it is smooth

as if it were tumbled to us complete

by the river whose silt gave it birth.

An infant should be protected

from harm, not pushed in its path.

 

Do I wrong him? Each night, it seems,

I boil him as a calf in its mother’s milk.

Beyond Flesh

The Golem

So simply they take to being in the body,

its thirsts and sweats,

fever and retching,

the sex that lives as a gloss on their eyeballs

and keeps them shaking with fear,

shaking with no fear.

Every day they fill the body and empty it

as if this were sunups and sundowns,

a matter of rocks circling.

They get the body drunk

so they can study the movements it would make

if it were dead.

Then they tell, some of them, of resurrection—

recovering something they’ve shed,

a garb.

I who am a body but not in one

can only see this as raving.

What and whether they might be

beyond flesh,

He knows, and they don’t, but they never ask Him,

they who can.

Chant unto the Eternal, with the harp and the voice of melody

The Rabbi

The boy chants low and lovely as a cello.

Hebrew syllables dance on his tongue

with a grace I haven’t heard

in the most celebrated cantors.

Someday he will outstrip them

all. Today, I can hardly listen.

 

Beyond the schoolroom window, ice drips

from branches dazzled with sunlight.

Soon, the trees will be naked, then budding.

Only G-d can create life that renews.

 

On Shabbas, this boy will be a man.

The way the creature eyes

the boys at each bar mitzvah, I think

he would like the same. I didn’t believe

I could offer him that. Only G-d can create.

 

I made him to be a thing, no more thinking

than the doves chirping along

with the chant. I have seen him touch

the pages of the prayer book

as if he would swallow them

if it could make the words his own.

 

When I blew life into his mouth,

my frame quaked

with G-d’s own thunder.

The Other Half

The Golem

I sit with the men

but since there’s no point

looking at the book I hold,

I watch the other half of the assembly

across the room.

 

They don’t see me watching.

Me they keep their eyes off:

those who don’t know

almost know.

 

I watch to find out why

I am on this side of the room.

 

I’m missing the organ

the men want revered,

scepter of rule,

serpent of wrong awareness.

I’m expected to take orders.

I make peace possible,

peace to drone over scrolls,

peace to argue.

I’m expected to be silent.

I obviously belong with the women.

 

But seeing them, I doubt it.

Many seem placid

their world is this way,

 

a couple stray in it lost,

threads in an alien fabric:

handle their bracelets,

shawls, children,

as if these all were questions.

 

The light and shadow that fall on them

both are shadow.

 

Their faces were cut by a hand

that didn’t plan them to have eyes.

 

They could even, the wretches,

wish to be me.

I am for something.

May He make peace for us and all Israel

The Rabbi

Slowly, the creature draws a dandelion

from the ground as if he feels the path

of each root to each tapered point.

My wife asked him to weed the garden. He weeds.

 

I tried to obey. You remember

the first time I fasted? My sixth Yom Kippur,

I stood in the back of the synagogue,

tried to fix my mind on Torah as the men did.

 

Not Joseph. My eyes strayed to the window,

and there he was, dangling from a tree limb,

his gaze fixed—I thought on me—

grey and steady as the Western Wall.

 

I didn’t see then how his form stretched

toes to fingers sewed earth to heaven

like Jacob’s ladder. I thought him wicked,

to look so peaceful as he tore my thoughts from Torah.

 

Bent in the dirt, the creature seems

peaceful as that. If You had given him

Your law, tethered him always

in Your service, I’d never see

 

how the lie of choice pecks

like a vulture in his gut. I’d never know

that anything went amiss, that he is more

than animal, capable of unbidden desire.

 

With my daughter no more than a hint

of softness in her belly, I caught my wife

alone with Joseph. He snatched

the laundry from her, swung his arm

 

over the river so she had to grasp his wrist

to save her dress. She ran down the bank

clutching the damp cloth to her breast,

a smile catching at her lips.

 

A week later he was gone,

vanished into rumor—tortured, killed,

accused of eating blood

as the Christians eat their messiah’s flesh.

 

Do not tell me it was punishment.

Even as he coaxed my wife

by the river, I could not anger.

Why should You?

 

Tonight, the creature will go again

into shadow. He will save

what he can. He cannot bring Joseph back.

You sent Your dream to me too late.

 

I tried to obey. I bathed seven times

in the river as You commanded.

One by one, my sins bobbed

down the current. As the last was swallowed

 

by distance, one thing I could not let go.

I saw Joseph on the bank, his feet plunged

in wet sand like a blessing.

I could not let go his face.

Rabbi Löv’s Daughter

The Jews

Soap wrinkling my palms,

I scrub my husband’s shirt

down the washboard. A woman’s way

of doing G-d’s work.

 

Women circle the tubs to gossip:

A handsome stranger, they say,

with a voice clear as a harp, strong as a cannon,

blows the Christians to their knees

as G-d bent Pharaoh’s will.

 

Next, I suppose, they’ll say

outside the Ghetto Prague falls

to the ten plagues. I take

what I can get—women’s fantasies caked

about a speck of fact

their husbands told them. Mine

hardly speaks, not since the night

he and father brought Yossele.

 

It is right, to welcome the stranger.

But such a queer kind

of welcome is unlike them.

 

Last night, mom searched

the schoolroom for a lost ring.

Instead, she found Yossele.

He sat hidden in a corner, wide awake.

 

He will sleep in my old room

tonight. Father could not refuse,

though he would not explain.

So strange, to think this man silent as a babe

will share my infant bed.

 

Ruth leans back, pushes her belly

forward. Half a dozen hands

leap to caress it. Deborah, who thinks

her name makes her a prophet,

chatters on about signs of early spring.

I expect it’s only a sign

of Ruth’s taste for cream.

 

My body will yield no harvest

for Deborah’s soothsaying. These nights

when I reach for my husband,

my hand closes on empty sheets.

 

The Lord said, “Be a river.”

We trickled from His breast,

gathered the tributaries of His sweat

’til we ran wide as the sea.

He threw down mountains

in our path—Babylon, Rome.

We bent. We lived.

 

How did my father, my husband bend?

Shabbat

The Golem

On Shabbat

I don’t go out on patrol.

Master’s conscience couldn’t push

even a dead thing in his home

that far outside his ways.

I am, then, observant.

No, I can’t share the meal,

recite the benedictions,

know what it is

to be gathered in family

like a quilt against the chill.

The chill is my dwelling.

Master’s children are grown

and helped him bring me,

so from them I don’t sense the dread

small ones would feel

when the angels are asked to the table

and instead this, this,

comes to sit.

Then after the house is abed

I sit alone

on the end of my cot

in my room

alone with Him.

And my room is the world.

And the world is His room

where He sits on the end of His cot.

And neither of us has a name

those hours

and those hours don’t stop for us.

No lights are lit

by any mother’s hand.

On the six days

He made all the others.

On the seventh day

He knew He was still alone.

Blessed is the Eternal, who created the fruit of the vine

The Rabbi

Waving her hands in slow circles,

my wife gathers candlelight

to herself, to our family. After the blessing,

I tip a whole glass in one gulp

to life, l’chaim. I cannot receive light.

 

My daughter watches me fill a second cup,

turns her pitying eyes to the creature, as if I

have done evil. She doesn’t see how blessed

he is, to know his maker

as we can never know ours.

 

Still, it is You he craves, You he seeks

in the warm glow flaming across her cheeks.

 

Wine dims the edge of sight, blurs faces

beyond recognition. Only now can I grasp

how they have fallen from me,

how a moment in Your blinding light

has made the love of wife or daughter

too weak a flame.

 

I drink darkness. I know what it is

to bear the void before creation,

alone in Your unflinching gaze.

Fulfillment

The Golem

I heard Master telling a child

about the nations and us,

how the nations are desperate and in endless war

because they’re free of the Teaching

“but our joy is in keeping His commands” he said.

 

I don’t know what joy may be:

I like to be next the stove,

to hear girls’ song and laughter,

to watch the sun drop below the earth

like a cracked egg into a red-glowing pan.

 

I watch Master too, but with stress.

What gives him joy is the extra nod of the chin

everyone affords him:

being obeyed, not obeying.

Commandments, if I see truly,

slow him down (for he would be a quick person

if he were anyone else),

smear webs on his forehead like thin ice.

He has to think whether every movement is correct.

Can joy be this kind of pain?

 

Obedience is the easiest thing

to one designed for it, like me.

I have to ask,

were humans so designed?

Blessed is the Eternal, who wreaks punishment on all our enemies

The Rabbi

The children weave crowns

of bright leaves for the Purim festival.

Sitting in the doorway,

Yossele watches them, silent as You.

 

He has changed—even the children

can see it. Little Hannah runs to him,

blows a fistful of petals

in his hair, laughs as if she is free.

 

Tonight, she will play Esther.

Esther, who prayed

for deliverance. Esther, who sacrificed herself

to fetters of silk and gold. Esther—not You—

who delivered us from bondage.

 

Already, Hannah plays the queen,

stooping to inspect the girls’ progress,

making the boys stand straighter

with the regal tilt of her chin.

 

What has she done,

what have any of us done,

that You let the Christians

hunt us house by house?

 

We did not rebel.

We have eaten Your Word

and it tasted like honey.

We have eaten Your Word

and choked.

 

Tonight, we will drown

Haman’s name in a roar

of noise and wine. It is not enough.

 

Hannah spins in a haze

of pollen. You will not save her.

 

I am done waiting. You send nothing

but dreams. I act. I made Yossele more

than You ever meant him to be.

 

He picks a petal

from his shoulder, brushes it

against his lips.

His breath is my breath.

 

The night I gave him life, I stole wind

from heaven. In my need for You,

I became You.

Early This Evening

The Golem

As soon as the day’s work was done

the men came thronging into the shul,

all smiling, some through tears.

A couple had bottles with them.

When they hugged each other

their feet broke into dances.

In my life of less than a year

I’d never seen this mood on them,

not at weddings: never.

Per my orders when in friendly crowds,

I slumped my shoulders in a corner,

bent my head as if in hidden communion,

thanksgiving in this case

(though I could think of nothing

to give thanks for, and indeed

I was on the right track).

Waving a halfdrunk bottle, someone called

“Read it again, Rebbe!”

and I heard the words of the edict

that said from tonight on,

no one who accused a Jew of taking blood

would be believed.

I lifted my eyes. The things I saw

were two: that no one looked at me, and

that Master had already memorized the edict

because his eyes were shut,

he looked only in himself,

his lips moved impossibly on a crippled face

like the face of a graven image

no one prays to anymore.

Blessed is the Eternal, who created

The Rabbi

My son-in-law fills our cups again

to the brim. A drop slips from the bottle,

bleeds purple into the white cloth.

 

“We are safe now,” he says,

already urging me to take back

the breath from Yossele’s mouth.

 

This, his reward for saving us. “Its work

is done,” my son-in-law says. “It would be glad

to be released, now it has no purpose.”

 

Yossele paces the empty street

without orders, his movements cramped

like a man walking to his doom.

 

Purpose does not make a life.

When we stole the fruit of good and evil,

that was the beginning.

 

I push my glass away, splattering wine

over my hand. “No.” The candles shudder

in the blast of my whisper.

 

The moon traces Yossele’s silhouette

in a soft fur of light. His lips hang open

as if he would gulp the world.

 

I have the world to give him. I will not

keep him locked away in Eden.

Earth

The Golem

I know it will be soon.

 

I would like to go for a walk in the whistling air.

 

I would like to hear the boys sounding out the funny Hebrew

that isn’t so funny to me.

 

I would like to run my finger over petals again.

 

I would like to lean on a tree

as I have done,

two still living things, unprotected.

 

I would like to clap my shoes on cobbles.

No clap like it.

 

Cloud shows and hides, shows and hides the moon.

I think it is a brilliant eye that tries to see us

but the night is too black

and after a month of trying it dozes off.

 

I think the houses are shells for the breaths of children.

 

I think the roads are one road plotted by rain

which is the dream of the ocean.

 

I would like to have seen the ocean.

 

I would like to have had a bird in my hands for a moment

so my hands could be ears.

 

I would like to understand why it’s a matter for laughter

when a man chases his hat.

 

Why real laughter dwells in the eyes unheard.

 

Why ten men don’t gather around the small dog smashed under a cartwheel

to say Kaddish.

 

Why the new smell of bread makes me shake and shake.

 

Why no one has ever addressed a question to me.

I would like to be unable to answer.

Blessed is the Eternal, who preserved us alive

The Rabbi

My wife sleeps, her bare arm

glowing with dawn.

I trace the lines marking the corners

of her mouth. She wears them well.

 

I miss her peace, how her chest

rose and fell easy

as water in moonlight.

 

Now, her breath jars, muscles strain

across her back like cords

stretched to breaking.

 

She wants me what I was

before Yossele came.

 

I feel his open eyes behind the wall.

He knew before I

he will sleep soon enough.

 

I remember how the silt clung

under my nails for days. My hands

will never be clean again.

Lifetaking

The Golem

I thought it would be undone

where it was done,

the riverbank

 

but they summon me to an upper room

I’ve never visited—

 

brokenback benches,

candlesticks of black silver,

cobweb fat as bellropes,

skewed trails of mouse pellet.

My gaze spins.

One thing they never planned this room to be

was a home.

 

One of the men clears his throat.

Another imitates.

One stands behind me

and I glimpse a cloth produced

for rubbing out

a mark

a mission

a mind.

 

As always

I am calm as fond light

of no more mornings.

 

Per my orders when in a friendly crowd

I bend my head.

Begin.

 

This has been

all I have been able to do.

Begin.

 

ear

h

srael

he

ord

ur

od

he

ord

s

ne

A Man of Nuremberg

The Enemies

As they wait in line for the next boxcar

the ones who can read our writing

sometimes ask me what the two S’s on my arm stand for.

I tell them “Shabbat Shalom.”

It’s true they are going to peace, to where they can rest.

The ones who can’t read it interpret them as lightning strikes.

This is appropriate too: their god

burnt cities from on high without warning

as do we. They must see that we’ve taken his place.

We’re courteous, more often than not:

it’s beneath the exterminator

to have strong feelings towards vermin.

One can respect them in a way.

They are clever animals, clever at surviving.

They’ll probably outlive us.

But you have to watch respect

and keep cowardice out of it.

Even my colonel, a man of decent blood,

whose hair still shows fair through the grizzle

at the shaved, freshscented nape,

forbids us to touch some rotten shack of theirs

because of some legend.

I’d happily sear it off the earth myself

but orders are orders.

Orders are all that separate man

from the aimless beasts.

About the poets

Robert Arthur Reeves was born in Urbana, Illinois and grew up (so to speak) in the Boston area. As a baby he sat on Carl Sandburg’s lap. Allen Ginsberg recommended his teenage poetry to Gregory Corso. He lives in Albuquerque, N.M., where he has taught philosophy, religion and humanities at the University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico Community College. His poems have appeared in Fulcrum, Skidrow Penthouse, The Blind Man’s Rainbow, Arsenic Lobster, The Homestead Review, Adobe Walls and many other journals. He has published 16 poetry collections.

Sari Krosinsky writes about the mundane in mythology and the sublime (and sublimely awful) in the ordinary. Zir first book, “god-chaser,” was published by CW Books. Ze is the founding editor of Fickle Muses, an online journal of mythic poetry and fiction. Ze received a B.A. in religious studies and M.A. in creative writing from the University of New Mexico. Ze lives in Albuquerque, N.M., with zir partner, Reeves, and their cat, Emma.

outerchildpoetry.com

Sari and Bob

Sari and Bob at the Mountainair Poets & Writers Picnic Reunion, August 23, 2014. Photo by Dee Cohen Bruno.

More books by the poets

Robert Arthur Reeves

Tisha B'av: a diptych

Wings of the Gray Moon: New and Selected Poems 1972-2012

Because: Meditations on the Beatles Songbook

Sari Krosinsky

god-chaser

Complications (CD)

Find these and more at outerchildpoetry.com/books