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At a dockyard in Hamburg
5,000 bells stolen
from the churches of Europe
5,000 bells like brushed-steel
lamp-shades or ladies' coppery
bonnets like kings' golden crowns
and bronze-age tribal headdresses
5,000 bells jauntily balanced
in hundreds of murmuring columns
5,000 bells from Prague Arles
and Amsterdam battered numbered
and cold but patient and cheery still in the crisp
German sunlight 5,000 bells stalled
on their journey home to Budapest Innsbruck
Salonika 5,000 bells held in the steerage
of Hamburg yet quietly ringing.
The coldest December night, a billion stars frozen
in the sky, and we two together for this journey unto death . . .
No, it was not the cemetery of short lives we were visiting
nor the morgue of aborted dreams. We were gliding
toward the end of our marriage—such a cold ride!
Where did we arrive if not at the place of execution?
Had not a priest in white robes invited us? And his assistants
in the murder—were they not attentive and obedient?
And did the ceiling not open then, so that the white sky
I saw you tremble as you neared, saw the tears well up—
your eyes were streaming. You were unsaying our wedding vows,
and I was your gifted partner. I saw that your breast had been pierced
by a small, fresh-hewn gravestone. You were beautiful again
in your broken body and you held the world in your arms.
You held the world, and it was the record of your wounds.
Yes, I recall it now, my darling, how the sky shut down
and the stars vanished like wraiths. Then the rabbi pronounced us
dead: we were strangers on the planet, and the field we walked on
How cold it was! How unyielding the blackness!
Yet we returned to the train together, our lips shut
as if with a seal of fire, and there was a deep snow falling
inside us. Who were we now, as you leaned once again
toward me, as I held you tight?
From Jerusalem to the World
—after Eliezer Ben Yisrael (1969)
Yes, I'm from Jerusalem. Like yourselves,
I'm made of flesh and blood. When Moscow,
London, Paris, Berlin were dark forests
and dense miasmal swamps, Jews lived here.
That community of goatherds and scholars,
dreamers and ex-slaves, gave to the world
a humane code to live with, which the world
has rejected ever since.
For two millennia, we were your unwelcome
guests, yet three times each day, we petitioned
the Almighty: Gather us from the four corners
of the earth; bring us upright into our land;
return in mercy to Jerusalem. . . .
In 1948, I, Eliezer, witnessed the sacking
of the Old City. You never said a word.
Not a murmur came from you when legionnaires
in their spiked helmets casually opened fire.
You did not send one ounce of food when Jews
starved in Jerusalem. The age-old prejudices
seep out with every word.