• Robert L. Giron

Issue 148

Updated: May 29

In this issue, work by

Nancy Naomi Carlson & Matthew Silverman

Interview - 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium

Robert L. Giron (RLG) Interviews Nancy Naomi Carlson (NNC) and Matthew Silverman (MS) about the recent anthology 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium


Whose idea was it to create the anthology?


I have been interested in putting together anthologies of Jewish poems for almost a decade and after working on one for Bloomsbury of contemporary Jewish poets born after World War II, I thought we needed one for just this century—the third millennium. But I didn’t want to limit it to just Jewish writers and broadened its scope to all writers writing about Jewish themes, including international writers. I knew Nancy Naomi from when we both edited Blue Lyra Review together and knew she was the perfect partner for this endeavor.


How did you choose the poems?


That’s a great question. How does any editor choose any poem? We had over 800 entries and had to whittle it down to 100. (We somehow miscalculated and ended up with 101!) This was a tough process, of course, and it helped to have two sets of eyes with two different opinions. In truth, we were astounded at the number of entries, ranging from emerging to internationally-acclaimed poets, and sometimes our decisions haunted us—especially in those cases where the quality of the submission was excellent, but we had too many poems on a particular theme. We wanted to offer our readers a representative sampling of the Jewish experience, including not only traditional Jewish holidays, celebrations, Orthodox life, and the Holocaust, but also themes impacting Jews today, such as same-sex marriage, disease-producing genes carried by Ashkenazi Jews, agnosticism, and atheism. We also made a conscious decision not to veer into politically-charged themes.

“Excellence” was our criteria, as well as not wanting to give any one theme more weight in the anthology. We were also looking for “fresh takes” on Judaism, such as Ellen Bass’s “Pines at Ponary,” whose trees bore witness to Jews who were shot near pits into which they fell, Linda Blachman’s “Sarah Unbound,” sprawling over six pages, Ilya Kaminksy’s “Dancing in Odessa,” mentioning his suitcase full of Brodsky’s poems, and Michael Salcman’s “Sitting Shmira,” describing how teams of young yeshiva girls watched over the dead in four-hour shifts after the 9/11 attacks in New York City. These are just a few of the wonderful poems in this anthology. We also were searching for poems with a sense of humor and/or irony in order to provide some kind of balance with some of the darker, more tragic themes. We were particularly drawn to Joanna Fuhrman’s “I Have a Secret Crush on Everyone in the World,” Roger Greenwald’s “Why I Am Not an Indian,” Ed Hirsch’s “A Small Tribe,” Jane Hirshfield’s “My Confession,” and Jeffrey Levine’s “Aymat Zibur.” We were especially eager to include translations to increase the diversity of voices in this anthology, including poems originally written in Hebrew, Russian, and Spanish—an approach not considered in most other Jewish anthologies. We also wanted to showcase the translators (Alex Cigale, Barbara Goldberg, Marilyn Hacker, Andrew Janco, Olga Livsin, Alison Ridley, Scott Spanbauer, Marcela Sulak, Mary Jane White)—these unsung heroes—as we are grateful for their having worked their magic to render these poems accessible to an English-speaking audience.


How diverse is the scope of the poets included?


We have included both Jewish and non-Jewish poets from across the pond and American. We have included secular, spiritual, emerging, high-flying, young, and older voices.


About how long did the process take from concept to finished product?


Our first email correspondence about this anthology is dated May 27, 2018, and the anthology was officially released on January 1, 2021. The original title was The Breath of Jewish Poetry Today, but that quickly changed, though we weren’t necessarily thinking of 100 poems from 100 poets at the start. We wanted to be guided by the work that came in. The call for submissions went out August 30, 2018, and below is how we described our needs:

Jewish Poetry in the Third Millennium is a forthcoming anthology looking for unpublished poems on matters related to being Jewish in today’s world with a focus on issues that affect Jewish people and have occurred since year 2000 in both America and abroad.

We are looking for both English and non-English poems (with translations) from Jewish poets and non-Jewish poets. If submitting a translation, you must have already secured all needed permissions.

Note: we may make an exception and consider a previously published poem but please let us know in the cover letter that you have obtained the rights to reprint and why that poem should be an exception. Poems are due to Nancy Naomi Carlson & Matthew E. Silverman by Nov 01 to jewpoemillenniumATgmailDOTcom

It was very helpful to have an account set up to receive all submissions, and Drop Box was extremely useful in keeping us organized and helping us keep track of our individual voting and subsequent final decisions — not to mention the author contracts with permissions to publish. By early 2019 we started looking for a publisher and were surprised and pleased to get several encouraging and prompt responses. Three publishers proposed a “go fund me“ kind of arrangement where we’d be responsible for obtaining the funds to publish the anthology. Others made very generous offers. However, in the end, we couldn’t resist the very enthusiastic phone call we received from Jen Rathbun, associate editor at Ashland Poetry Press. From the start, she was our champion, believing in the project and us. We signed the final contract on June 20, 2019 and agreed to get the first draft of the anthology to Ashland by the end of the year. They agreed to publish the anthology by February 1, 2021.

Then came the hard work of communicating with 101 authors, getting final versions of the poems and bios, securing any needed permissions, writing a comprehensive glossary, formatting the book, and proofing the book, not to mention deciding on a cover (thank you, Jody Sachs and Claire Zoghb), lining up blurbs (thank you, Denise Duhamel, Luke Hankins, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, and Marguerite Feitlowitz), someone to write the foreword (thank you, Yehoshua November), and writing an editors’ introduction. More proofing came, with lots of back-and-forths with our editor, until the final final version was deemed ready for prime time in the midst of a pandemic, at the end of the summer of 2020.

Three months before publication, we began sending Advance Review Copies to possible reviewers, and started thinking about possible reading venues. Our first virtual reading was hosted by Bookstore1 in Sarasota, Florida. Subsequent readings were hosted by the JCC in Buffalo and the Bethesda Writer’s Center. We’ve got upcoming virtual readings in Pittsburgh, hosted by the Moonstone Arts Center, and one in the Bay area, hosted by the Blue Light at the Gallery series. The reviews are starting to come in (thank you, Cameron Morse at Harbor Review) with others forthcoming in North American Review (thank you, Nettie Farris) and Green Mountains Review (thank you, Elizabeth Rees), and we are grateful to Tikkun for reprinting Yehoshua November’s wonderful foreword.


Nancy Naomi, during the March reading, you mentioned that this is the first anthology that you have worked on. Would you work on another anthology? Perhaps after a break?


A really good question! I guess if you’d asked me that question while knee-deep in editing and proofing, I probably would have answered with a resounding “Nooooooooo,” but now, buoyed by having helped see this project to a successful conclusion (successful in that we have a book — it was an “SPD Bestseller” for the month of November and December — the reviews have been great), I’d have to say “YES,” I’m game.

While this is my first anthology, this is actually Matthew’s third. He co-edited Bloomsbury’s Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry with Deborah Ager and New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust with Howard Debs.


What advice do you have to share for anyone who is thinking of editing an anthology?


Editing an anthology is incredibly time-consuming and detailed work, but if you’re passionate about the project and have a co-editor with different strengths than your own, both the process and the end result can be wonderful. We’ve made many new friends along the way, including so many contributors whose work we hadn’t been familiar with. I guess you know it’s a worthwhile project when you care enough about the success of an anthology as if it were a book you’d written yourself.

Thank you, Robert, for giving us the opportunity to talk about our anthology, and more importantly, for sending us “Like the Mediterranean Tide,” a haunting and evocative poem.


Thank you both, Nancy and Matthew, I have a strong feeling that this anthology will be around for quite a time since it is full of high-quality work that, as you say, crosses over so many elements of the Jewish experience. I’m truly honored to have been included in this important and memorable anthology.

I found the depth of voices and variety of focus in the poems quite remarkable. Here are some that caught my attention, but there are so many more that are of equal caliber.

Nancy Naomi Carlson is a poet, translator, essayist, and editor, and has authored 11 titles (7 translated). An Infusion of Violets, her second full-length poetry collection, was published by Seagull Books (2019), and named a “New & Noteworthy” title by the New York Times Book Review. A recipient of grants from the NEA, Maryland Council for the Arts, and Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County, her work has appeared in such journals as APR, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry. She recently was decorated by the French government with the French Academic Palms and is a professor of graduate counseling at Walden University.

Matthew E. Silverman teaches at Gordon State College and he is editor of Blue Lyra Press. His books include: The Floating Door (Glass Lyre Press) and The Breath before Birds Fly (ELJ Press). His poems have appeared in over 70 journals, including: Crab Orchard Review, 32 Poems, December, Chicago Quarterly Review, North Chicago Review, Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Southern Poetry Anthology, The Los Angeles Review, Mizmor L’David Anthology: The Shoah, Many Mountains Moving, Pacific Review, and other magazines. He co-edited Bloomsbury’s Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry with Deborah Ager, and the forthcoming anthology: New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust with Howard Debs.

Marjorie Agosín

The following poem is from the aforementioned anthology 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium.

Entwined in Your Silence

Your room with the scent of sandalwood,

With a round table atop which sat the two silver candelabras

You would light for the Sabbath.

In that room

I learned to pray in another language,

Not to question the vast silences,

To allow the clear night wind

To play with the light of those candles

And emit their faint aroma.

Everything in you seemed far away.

You harbored within you impenetrable stories.

Entwined in your silence,

I learned not to question,

Only to understand.

We already knew the answers.

Copyright © 2021 by Marjorie Agosín. Translated from the Spanish by Alison Ridley. Published in ArLiJo by permission of the publisher, Ashland Poetry Press, the author and the translator.

Marjorie Agosín, a Chilean-American poet, novelist, and human rights activist, has been recognized by the United Nations with the Human Rights Leadership Award, and by the Chilean government with the Gabriela Mistral Prize. She is also a poet laureate for the Harvard Refugee Trauma Program. She is the author of more than fifty books that include narrative poetry, theatre and memoirs. Her acclaimed young-adult novel I Lived on Butterfly Hill was the winner of the Pura Belpré Prize. Marjorie teaches Spanish at Wellesley College where she holds the Luella Lamer Slaner professorship in Latin American Studies.

Nancy Naomi Carlson

The following poem is from the aforementioned anthology 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium.

My Goyishe Ex-husband

For eighteen years he was one of the chosen

to help knead the challah dough:

yeast and sugar dissolved in a tepid bath,

oil mixed with eggs, flour sifted on top.

Flour dusted his hands like pollen,

like ash—what we might have buried

if given the chance, before our baby,

born blue but alive, was whisked away

and we, not knowing to question

Jewish law—halacha—our son deemed

“stillborn” for not having lived out a month.

A mishap of DNA was to blame,

though what were the odds

that our bloods—mine Ashkenazic, and his

from a Swedish coast, would carry

the same mutant gene?

We could not keep grief from our home

or from sticking to skin,

unlike the dough whose lumps we tried to best—

a pinch of flour one at a time—

so it could rise, become more than itself,

to be rolled into ropes of three or six,

then braided like hair of the Sabbath Queen

and left to rise again on a parchment tray,

before baked to a perfect gold.

Copyright © 2021 by Nancy Naomi Carlson. Published in ArLiJo by permission of the publisher, Ashland Poetry Press and the author.

Nancy Naomi Carlson is a poet, translator, essayist, and editor, and has authored 11 titles (7 translated). An Infusion of Violets, her second full-length poetry collection, was published by Seagull Books (2019), and named a “New & Noteworthy” title by the New York Times Book Review. A recipient of grants from the NEA, Maryland Council for the Arts, and Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County, her work has appeared in such journals as APR, The Georgia Review, The Paris Review, and Poetry. She recently was decorated by the French government with the French Academic Palms and is a professor of graduate counseling at Walden University.

Sharon Dolin

The following poem is from the aforementioned anthology 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium.

If I Told You

If I told you I am Roma, if I told you I am named

after my great-grandmother Sabina and that

Sabina is a gypsy name, if I told you

there is no DNA marker for Roma but I believe

my people are Jewish Roma. If I told you

I feel Roma in my blood when I watch flamenco

and I have a common Roma blood type,

if I know how to speak every Romance language

but Romanian and my Romanian-American grandmother

who knew no Yiddish knew how to say

Cum va place? How do you like it? in Romanian.

If I told you that proves nothing and everything.

If I told you I am related to a Hollywood gangster

on my Romanian side and you probably believe

gypsies are gangster thieves. If I told you I am a thief

and I am stealing my Roma identity, if I have never begged

for a coin never sat outside a subway or train station

though once, stranded in Boston, asked strangers

for a bed, ended up on a bench in the police station.

If I told you I slept in a tent or under the canopy

of stars like a wandering Jew or gypsy,

if the rhythms of my clapping are Roma

and my people are from Iasi

in Moldovia in eastern Romania, if I told you

Roma played at Jewish weddings and Jews

played at Roma weddings, and during

the Iasi pogrom of June, 1941, Romani were caught

laughing as they helped the Nazis. If this is when

I have my doubts about being Roma.

If I told you the Romani part of me believes

only in song and the Jewish part insists

on writing it down. If I told you

some Romani have light eyes and hair like mine.

If I told you the part of me that wanders is a gypsy Jew

and that part of me never feels at home. That being

an outcast once, why not be an outcast twice.

Copyright © 2021 by Sharon Dolin. Published in ArLiJo by permission of the publisher, Ashland Poetry Press and the author.

Sharon Dolin is the author of six poetry collections, most recently Manual for Living (Pittsburgh, 2016), Serious Pink (Marsh Hawk, 2015 reissue), Whirlwind (Pittsburgh, 2012), and Burn and Dodge (Pittsburgh, 2008), winner of the AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry, as well as a translation of Gemma Gorga’s Book of Minutes from Catalan (Field Translation Series: Oberlin, 2019). Her other awards include the Witter Bynner Fellowship, Fulbright Scholarship, Pushcart Prize, Drisha Arts Fellowship, and translation grants from PEN and Institut Ramon Llull. She is Associate Editor at Barrow Street Press and directs Writing About Art in Barcelona each June.

Moshe Dor

The following poem is from the aforementioned anthology 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium.


Stars are the eyes of God.

—Louise Erdrich

If stars are the eyes of God

He must have shifted His gaze

away from His unfortunate world

or shut His eyes in disgust; but I

prefer to believe that God is blind

and throughout this vast universe

stars merely reflect random light.

Copyright © 2021 by Moshe Dor. Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Goldberg. Published in ArLiJo by permission of the publisher, Ashland Poetry Press, the author, and the translator.

Moshe Dor (1932-2016), born in Tel Aviv, Israel, authored 40 books of poetry,

essays, interviews and children’s books. A recipient of the Bialik Prize, Israel’s top literary award, he also served as Counselor for Cultural Affairs in London, and Distinguished Writer in Residence at American University, Washington, DC. In addition to being a journalist and radio personality, he was also a prolific translator with his own poems translated into 30+ languages as well as translating/editing into English numerous anthologies of contemporary Israeli poetry. He also wrote the lyrics of Erev Shel Shoshanim (Evening of Roses), performed worldwide as a wedding song.

David Ebenbach

The following poem is from the aforementioned anthology 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium.

While They Choose a New Pope, I Eat a Bagel

These are old occupations. In Vatican City there is no

wi-fi, not until after they’ve sent their white smoke

rising. Black smoke means they’re still at it. Here

it would mean the bagel’s burning. There’s no white kind.

They used to carry them around on sticks, which is why

the hole in the middle, and we keep it even though

sometimes the butter ends up pooling right in the center

of the plate. We keep things the way they are.

The Cardinals—do they sit around a table, a dark table

older than America? They may have bagels of their own,

though it’s hard to imagine them licking cream cheese

off their thumbs. But things do change. They used to

lock the bishops in the chapel until they got it done, and now

there are hotels and buses. They wake up to a coffee maker,

maybe a continental breakfast. And I’ve got a toaster,

and a food processor to make the hummus, everything

I need. There may be windows high up in the wall,

shuttered. Nobody’s allowed to see things in process.

The Cardinals crowd around, one of them almost a Pope. Me,

I’m already eating the bagel.

Copyright © 2021 by David Ebenbach. Published in ArLiJo by permission of the publisher, Ashland Poetry Press and the author.

David Ebenbach is the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including the poetry collections Some Unimaginable Animal, (Orison Books) and We Were the People Who Moved (Tebot Bach), as well as The Artist’s Torah. (Wipf & Stock), a non-fiction guide to creativity. He lives with his family in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University. You can find out more, if you like, at davidebenbach.com.

Jeffrey Friedman

The following poem is from the aforementioned anthology 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium.

Dream in the Garden

Satan came to him in his dream. He handed him a large shiny apple. “Take a bite, and you’ll know everything.” “I’m not Adam,” he answered. ”You’ve got the wrong dream.” He threw the apple into the next garden, but as soon as it left his hand another apple appeared, just as red and shiny. “We’re in a garden,“ Satan said. “There’s the tree of knowledge, and there’s a woman with lovely breasts following you, calling you Adam. I think I have the right dream.” “I’m not the only guy,” he replied, “with a naked woman with lovely breasts in his dreams. And we’re not in a garden. We’re in a dream of a garden.” “This is my dream,” Satan said. Now the woman held the apple, and she was hungry. Though the man ordered her to drop the apple, she ate it vigorously and tossed the core into a bush. “Delicious,” she said. ”I’ll have another.”

Copyright © 2021 by Jeffrey Friedman. Published in ArLiJo by permission of the publisher, Ashland Poetry Press and the author.

Jeff Friedman’s newest book, The Marksman, will be published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in fall 2020. He is the author of seven previous poetry collections, including Floating Tales and Pretenders. Friedman’s poems, mini stories and translations have appeared in American Poetry Review, Poetry, New England Review, Poetry International, Hotel Amerika, The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish Poetry, Flash Fiction Funny, Flash Nonfiction Funny, Fiction International, New World Writing, Imagining the Jewish God, The New Republic and numerous other literary magazines. He has received numerous awards and prizes including a National Endowment Literature Translation Fellowship in 2016 and two individual Artist Grants from the New Hampshire Arts Council.

Jane Hirshfield

The following poem is from the aforementioned anthology 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium.

My Confession

Immortal soul, I did not believe in you.

Against the age’s preference,

I wanted for your markings and history

the markings and history of, say, a small zebra—

slightly implausible, far from unique,

one visible pelt meant to disappear into the crowded many,

one dark stripe alive among the crowded many.

You seemed to want to go on separately.

You seemed to want elsewhere, and more.

I wanted less. One moment to pause

while setting kibble out in a dish for the calico cat

who might or might not

be inside the box when it finally opens.

One goldfinch holding the whole Mesozoic discovery,

hunting for seeds and hungry,

escaping, a few moments longer, the cat also hungry.

This dilemma cannot be solved,

and will be.

My immortal soul, perhaps you went into an Archelon ischyros,

swimming with its sea-turtle nose above water,

then diving.

Immortal soul, had you existed,

what more than that cold water could we have wanted?

Copyright © 2021 by Jane Hirshfield. Published in ArLiJo by permission of the publisher, Ashland Poetry Press and the author.

Jane Hirshfield’s ninth poetry collection is Ledger (Knopf, 2020). She is author as well of two now-classic books of essays, Nine Gates and Ten Windows, and four books collecting world poets from the past. Honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller foundations, NEA, and Academy of American Poets, and the Poetry Center and California Book Awards. A chancellor emerita of The Academy of American Poets and member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, Hirshfield’s work appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The TLS, The Paris Review, Poetry, and ten volumes of The Best American Poetry.

Yvette Neisser

The following poem is from the aforementioned anthology 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium.

The Whole Imperfect Lot of Us

Yom Kippur, 2010

You must change your life,

say the rabbis of old.

Shine a mirror inside yourselves,

examine your flaws.

Scrub the soul clean.

As we sit in silence,

one boy cannot control his voice.

Now and then he lets out a howl,

shaking us out of contemplation.

Bless him for digging deep.

Bless us all, the whole imperfect lot of us—

the ones with hair combed neatly

and those with unruly hair

the ones who stand still in prayer

and those who shuffle from foot to foot

the ones who pray aloud

and those who pray silently

the ones who barely mutter the words

and those who simply hum the tune

the ones with eyes fixed on the prayer book

and those whose eyes wander the room.

Bless the one whose voice awakens us

and those who look away.

Copyright © 2021 by Yvette Neisser. Published in ArLiJo by permission of the publisher, Ashland Poetry Press and the author.

Yvette Neisser is the author of Grip, winner of the 2011 Gival Press Poetry Award. Her translations from Spanish include South Pole by María Teresa Ogliastri and Difficult Beauty: Selected Poems by Luis Alberto Ambroggio. Her poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared in such publications as Foreign Policy in Focus, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry. She is founder and co-director of the DC-Area Literary Translators Network (DC-ALT) and has taught writing at George Washington University and The Writer’s Center. By day, she is a writer for an international development firm.

Jean Nordhaus

The following poem is from the aforementioned anthology 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium.


We made our pact. We would celebrate

all holidays, though we believed in none—

the more the merrier: Santa Claus and

Chanukah gelt, Easter eggs and matzoh balls,

bonfires at the Pueblo on Christmas eve as the men

in their blankets, the guards in their uniforms

lifted the solemn virgin in her painted Sukkot

to their shoulders and danced her, precarious,

around the plaza, guns going off, the fires

crackling, bullet casings in the sand.

It was all, all a wonder, a glorious jumble

of old and new, a panoply, a shopping spree.

Why limit ourselves to one God, one tribe,

when we could have it all? We believed in life.

In celebration—and kept a bottle of champagne

tucked on its side in the fridge, in case.

Now that you’re gone, and I’m alone

I’ve joined the synagogue of skeptics,

where I belong, where I’m at last at home.

Copyright © 2021 by Jean Nordhaus. Published in ArLiJo by permission of the publisher, Ashland Poetry Press and the author.

Jean Nordhaus’ volumes of poetry include Memos from the Broken World, My Life in Hiding, Innocence, and The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn. She has published work in American Poetry Review, the New Republic, Poetry and Best American Poetry 2000 and 2007. Her work was featured in Innisfree Poetry Journal’s “A Closer Look,” and on the poetrymagazine.com website. She previously served as poetry coordinator at the Folger Shakespeare Library, President of Washington Writers’ Publishing House, and Review Editor of Poet Lore, the oldest continuously published poetry magazine in the U.S. She lives on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Jane Yolen

The following poem is from the aforementioned anthology 101 Jewish Poems for the Third Millennium.

Shoes: Holocaust Museum, Washington, D.C.

I walk with foreknowledge into the museum,

sure it has nothing to teach me.

I’ve read the biographies, watched the movies,

sat through Shoah three times, Schindler’s List.

I’ve touched a weeping stone in Heidelberg

for a synagogue set alight by hate;

interviewed Survivors; dated a survivor’s child;

did the research; listened to a friend retell his childhood

in a Polish labor camp, forced to dive into the midden,

whenever the commandant’s car drove by.

So why now, standing by a pyramid of shoes,

from a liberated camp,

am I stunned, undone, incapable of moving on?

Is it the sheer number of shoes in the pile

or the one on the top exactly the size

of my granddaughter’s foot?

Copyright © 2021 by Jane Yolen. Published in ArLiJo by permission of the publisher, Ashland Poetry Press and the author.

Jane Yolen is the author of almost 400 published books, including 10 books of adult poetry. Her career spans children’s books, Young Adult, adult publishing. Six colleges and universities have given her honorary doctorates for her body of work. She was the first writer to receive the New England Public Radio’s Arts & Humanities Award, and the first woman to give the Andrew Lang lecture at St Andrews University in Scotland since the series began in 1927. She has three Holocaust novels out and a memoir in verse of her father’s family’s immigration from a shtetl in the Ukraine to America (1912-1914).

Vivian Jeanette Kaplan

Birth of the Prophet

Birth of the Prophet is from the manuscript Women of Abraham, which is in search of a publisher.


Omens and portents! White-hot fireballs score the fathomless night skies. Chaotic bursts of star-showers, darting and careening in reckless abandon, streak silvery trails across the firmament. We are bedazzled and terrified. What devastation will follow? People clutch their heads, scattering and shrieking in panic. Our peaceful world has been overturned, swirling in disarray.

News from the royal palace does nothing to placate our fears. King Nimrod has read, in the restless constellations, that a child will be born, destined to usurp his power and defame his gods. Who can tell what catastrophic effects this prediction will have? Nimrod is not a man of reason and benevolent temperament, but a mercurial ruler who is easily angered, clinging to his reins of authority with merciless tenacity and we, his subjects, dare not question his wisdom. He abides no opposition and metes out cruel punishment without hesitation. Legends surround him. Nimrod, they say, has inherited a talisman to keep with him always, as protection from evil, the cast-off skin of the very Serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden. His mind tosses in turbulence and constant terror of losing control of his throne. His ire is a lion that rages against any who oppose him.

Joy has soured to sorrow in our home in Ur of the Chaldees, holding the renowned reputation as heart of the civilized kingdom for its array of impressive human accomplishments in arts and sciences. We are situated in a fertile green valley, rich in earthly treasures and envied by those inhabiting lesser towns. I, Emtelai, am Terah’s devoted wife. My husband is an esteemed advisor to the monarch. Both King Nimrod and Terah are astrologers, learned and gifted in the mystifying art of deciphering the perplexing configurations glittering above us. Such vast splendor, we are taught by wise elders, is surely meant to foretell the future and to guide our daily lives.

Besides his position at court, occupying him for several days each week, Terah has established a business in a building adjacent to our home. He maintains a workshop for the manufacture of idols in clay, wood, silver and gold, where he employs skilled craftsmen, working under his supervision, to mold and carve deities of various sizes and appearance.

Depending on the purpose of each one, they are fashioned to fit the requirements. Large hulking male figures with clenched fists wearing helmets and carrying shields, are house guards to ward off evil, purchased to stand at the entrance. Smaller ones with more delicate features, some dipped in precious metals, are meant to sit in places of honor in the home, to bring prosperity to the inhabitants. Female statutes with round bellies suggest fertility.

This has become a flourishing enterprise. I run the daily commerce whenever Terah is away or occupied. Customers flock to our display room because they admire Terah for his spiritual gifts and his work for the King. They browse through the shelves to choose from our impressive array of idols that everyone needs to protect from evil and provide bounty to the family. In every household, figures stand in haughty silence, awaiting incense offerings and daily prayers. Some are even buried under the threshold to protect from evil spirits below. Citizens flock to us for guidance and reassurance, clamoring in our shop for new, more powerful gods.

In such days of dark happenings, fear lurks among us and dire predictions spring. Overcome by doom and dread, the monarch is determined to circumvent the fruition of this prophecy and I worry that the inhabitants of Chaldees will suffer as a result. My husband has confided in me about the nature of Nimrod’s quandaries, the menacing ideas brewing in his brain; that he is consumed with anxiety for the preservation of his absolute dominance. He has cursed the stars for their meaning and vowed to circumvent the currents of destiny. No one may defy him in law, no matter the extremity or injustice of any decree.

We are aghast and perplexed by the sudden whirlwind of new activity. By royal proclamation, but without explanation, architects and builders have been summoned and ordered to construct a massive edifice for the King’s purposes. Block by block the colossal structure climbs, swarming with hundreds of slaves. Beneath the sun’s relentless heat, radiating in unyielding intensity, heaps of bricks are layered with mortar and stacked row upon row for back-breaking hours. No artistry graces the hulking fortress, looming before us like a stone ogre.

Taskmasters, clasping leather whips, saunter among the workers, striking with a swift snap against the backs of any who shirk the drudgery or slow the pace. Nimrod has demanded speed in this puzzling project and already the ugly monstrosity obstructs daylight while we, like furtive little animals, scurry along, necks craned upwards, pointing at the colossus. Laborers toil from early morning till the sun’s light dips beneath the horizon, as the ominous structure grows. Blanketed within dark shadows, mothers rush past its soaring towers, heavy doors and iron gates, instinctively drawing children close to their sides.

A ring of fierce soldiers, under the command of General Chedorlaomer, one of the most staunch and loyal of the King’s men, guard the stronghold constantly. He is a tall, brawny officer with dusky skin, a face etched with the scars of many battles, steely black eyes, thick hair and coarse beard, and always dressed in the same pitch-dark hue. A black turban is wrapped around his head and at his waist a heavy sword hangs from a wide belt. The General, renowned for his iron will, and insistence on implacable obedience, shows no trace of lenience and forbids any departure from the unflinching adherence to given orders. He rules the militia, who heed him without hesitation, for his retribution is swift and lethal. This battalion of grim-faced men, helmeted and heavily armed with daggers, swords and shields, surrounds the perimeter, allowing neither entry nor exit without official clearance, enforced in the strictest degree.

The heinous building has been erected with obsessive haste and upon its completion a second proclamation is decreed. All pregnant women are ordered to be taken there, accompanied by midwives, to remain in isolation until they have their babies.

Through the perilous gates, hundreds are herded like flocks of bleating sheep, day after day, confined until the moment of delivery. The entire population is gripped by terror. No resistance is tolerated, under penalty of death. Dissenters are slaughtered in public view as a warning to others. Guards stand at the entrance at all times, barring escape.

Within those mute walls the vicious commandment is carried out in numerous dank chambers. After months of carrying growing babes within their bodies, then racked with the pain of labor, mothers are forced to witness the murder of newborn sons. Henchmen stand nearby, daggers drawn, and as soon as the sex is determined, each male child emerging from the womb, scarcely gasping its first breath, is slain, stabbed brutishly into its tiny heart.

Souls punctured, wild-eyed with madness, mothers screech in shock and anger, mumble incoherently or moan like wounded beasts. After a further brief incarceration, bereft women are released from the sinister fortress to return to their homes and stagger about in the streets, wailing in misery. We inhale their eerie laments in the air we breathe for their cries are everywhere; their pain overflowing like molten lava, running hot through the town. Chaldees has become a place of unspeakable horror.

Those who have delivered girls meet a different fate. Rewarded with gifts, swathed in fine garments and bedecked with garlands of flowers, they are sent home with their newborns. Cherished pink-cheeked baby daughters are cuddled tightly in their mothers’ arms, but tearful joy is clouded by the fear of retribution from neighbors who have lost their own infants. In desperation they cling to the little girls in obsessive protection but the hollow eyes of hapless victims whose sons were butchered, stalk and haunt them. Their vigilance is not unfounded. The wanton carnage has turned peaceful women into demented tools of wickedness.

Some distraught mothers, overcome by anguish, have in turn become thieves and murderers. Minds are lost in irrational chaos as they turn to acts of madness: snatching infants from cribs, smothering or drowning them or trying to steal them away, planning to make them their own, so overwhelming has been the effect of their ordeals. Children are injured daily in this frenzied struggle, and we all are affected by the onslaught of horrors.

“Why?” we question, horrified. “Why?” we implore looking to the heavens and to the wisest among us. “Why?” we ask of our gods. “Why?” we beg, in tear-streaming grief.

No answers are forthcoming, but one.

“Only to safeguard Nimrod’s cherished throne. His pride and greed are tantamount,” we confide to one another in finger-cupped whispers.

We dare not speak these words aloud for our prisons are filling with any who complain and the hangman has tightened his noose to choke out voices of dissent. There is no end to the deluge of bloodlust.

Over years past, Terah and I have been twice blessed with the birth of two healthy children, our boys: Haran meaning mountain, because Terah reveres the god of high places, and Nahor, the younger, named after Terah’s father. We have watched them grow and thrive to our great joy, but this nightmare has shocked every parent. Such cruelty overpowers reason. To what depths of depravity and mindless violence can humanity sink?

In the midst of this catastrophe, when the prospect of heinous infanticide engulfs us and we are immersed in despair, I have become aware of the upcoming arrival of another child of our own. My monthly bleeding has stopped and I know I am going to have a baby. How can I rejoice? I will not conceal my state for much longer. I can confide in no one, not even Terah, who remains a loyal subject of the King and would not disobey the law. If he knew of my condition, I could not escape the end that has already befallen so many.

I fantasize about the face and voice of the life blossoming within my body, convinced that he is the child that Nimrod fears. Many thousands have already been killed, an unfathomable toll of innocent lives. Chaldees has become infamous throughout the land, a city of constant human slaughter and suffering, streets running red and rank with fresh blood from the slaughter of babies and dissenters. I am terrified that my child will be destroyed, though protecting him seems impossible. I quake in dread at the consequences of such violation. My very thoughts are treasonous, so I keep them hidden, even from my beloved husband.

My appetite has gone. I recoil at the sight or smell of food. When dead animals are brought to our home to be skinned, butchered, and cooked, I react as never before and dash outside, sickened and weak. My stomach roils and twists till I clasp my side, fall to my knees to vomit into the bushes, then rush to wash my face and hands in clean water from our well. I fear Terah will notice that I am ill with the pregnancy though the fate awaiting causes further fluttering of my heart. I bustle about, feigning normalcy and keep myself hidden, but it is not a successful ruse. Despite my attempts, Terah detects my altered condition.

“Em, you’re pale and drawn. Surely you are ill,” he remarks, holding me firmly by the upper arms and staring with suspicion into my contorted face. “Or, could it be that you are with child?”

“No, Terah,” I respond too quickly, alarmed by his observation, erratic thoughts darting in my head in aimless search of a way out of my trap. “Please believe me. There’s nothing inside me, nothing. This is just a passing thing, a simple stomach malady.”

Unconvinced, he speaks more severely. “Emtelai, let me examine your belly for I will not attract my Lord Nimrod’s wrath towards this household and if you are really carrying a child you will have to go to the King’s fortress to give birth. I am one of his closest advisors and my loyalty must remain unblemished. We will not disobey his edict, no matter the cost. We can have other children when this danger has passed. This one may have to be sacrificed.”

I submit obediently to his examination and lie on our bed while he runs his fingers over my stomach and pelvis, straightening my back, inhaling deeply in preparation of his verdict. Although I previously felt a slight mound rising, all such signs have miraculously dissipated. Appraising me with a sigh, his frown relaxes as he concludes that I have been truthful.

“Yes, my dear, you must be right for there is no swelling to indicate the presence of a child,” he proclaims. “Then I hope your illness will soon pass. These are difficult days, but we must anticipate that easier times will follow.”

Surprised and enormously relieved by his words, I stare wide-eyed as he kisses my forehead with tenderness, but say nothing to reveal my confusion. For all the months to come, no visible sign of my condition appears, but I stay shut inside our home as much as possible, keeping my secret, aware that something strange is happening. A new life is certainly sprouting within me though my belly has not swollen as it should, and I am perplexed.

Our many gods sit mutely gazing down from their shelves as I kneel before them morning and night, beseeching each in turn for help. Can they shelter my infant, unnoticed deep within me? Which of them is powerful enough to soften the heart of Nimrod to save my unborn from his hateful decree? I look up to the sky in wonderment. How has this bizarre event occurred?

I am alone. My usual contented disposition has become nothing but endless hours of panic and morose reverie. I count the passing days by the rising of the sun and mark them on a tree in the hills where I often go when Terah is away at the palace. Though I am not full and rounded as other women who are carrying a child, I know in my heart that he is there.

I feel the heaviness of imminent birth pressing from inside against the walls of my womb and spine. When the camp is hushed, with hands pressed to my aching abdomen, I amble out of our home like the animals I have observed preparing to deliver a calf. Instinctively, I too am forced to wander. I utter groans of shallow whimpering, and stumble into the hills to await the birth in uneasy solitude. Sheltered in a familiar cave, I crouch in discomfort and anxiety. Perspiration drips from my forehead as the pain digs into my back and ribs, like straps of wet leather being pulled tightly around my frame. My body heaves with pressure from within.

“Gods,” I call in agony. “Save my child, I beg of you. Give him breath. Allow him to live.”

Steeling myself against the throbbing, I remember my husband who is unaware of this moment and of my deception. My cries echo in the hollow stillness as I call out, “Terah! Why are you so far away when I need you? Love us, and forgive me although I disobeyed.”

Back arched, awash in the sweat of my labor, I push with all my might, thinking of my child forcing his way out into a barbarous world where death already awaits him and fear devours me. The gods have heeded my prayers, and just as the sun rises, the infant emerges from my body. As I had imagined, it is a male child and when he wails, I bundle his warm little body in my shawl and hold him to my breast. Tears of joy streak my cheeks and drip down onto his closed eyelids. Exhausted, I ease into sleep, the baby warm and dear, suckling eagerly at my breast as I hold him close, his fingers clenched into tight little fists.

When I awaken I examine him with wonder. He is healthy and strong and I am filled with love and pride. Then suddenly I am gripped with waves of alarm. A flood of terrifying thoughts pours into my head. Terah will notice that I am away and hunt for me. If he finds the child, I will never rescue him. He might attack us both in rage or immediately take us to the King who will command our deaths in any case. Holding the baby firmly I give him all I can and he feeds hungrily, but it will not be enough nourishment to last long and I pray, “If this is truly a blessed child, the one foretold by the stars, there must be a deity to protect him. Please, listen, look down from the heavens, gods of sun and moon, gods of flood, earth and fire, both gentle and savage, and save my boy for I can do nothing more for him.”

Distraught and weeping, I swaddle the infant in my robes. I kiss his tiny forehead. My throbbing heart pounds against his body as I clutch him while he sleeps in my arms. Thoughts of despair choke my brain and I can barely breathe. What options remain for me? He will face certain death if I take him home. Should I stay here with him until we are found? I fear for the safety of my other children whose lives will be in jeopardy. Surely Nimrod’s wrath will fall on everyone in our household if I am discovered shielding a forbidden baby. I place him on a soft bed I have formed of grass and leaves.

Wild thoughts race madly through my brain. I will never recover from this agony. How can I abandon my precious babe? My sobbing is uncontrollable until I am completely exhausted. My limbs freeze and I cannot move. Knees buckle beneath me and I prostrate myself, face down in the dirt. I am nothing. Outside, wails of nocturnal predators fill the air. The eerie howl of wolves causes bumps to form on my arms and up the back of my neck. Rustles, screeches and growls pass by the cave. My dread is absolute. I call out into the darkness, and my words reverberate in the dank cave.

“Gods, listen to me, if you truly exist in the vast unknown expanse of stars, take pity. I am a simple woman. I have no power, no means to fight the dictator’s edict. How can I protect this precious life? I give you my soul and all that I am. Hear me as I wallow in this forsaken wilderness. I implore you to safeguard him. How many more tears can I cry before my heart splits in two? What more can I do to soften the resolve of the heavens? Help us!”