I have owned so many identities – or had them given to me since day 1 on this planet: child, girl, girlchild, schoolgirl, daughter, Jew, niece, adolescent, woman, female, administrator, wife, mother, writer, poet, storyteller, sister, oldie, second generation survivor. What did I survive – I who have never been nearer to a concentration camp than peering at piles of hair and spectacles at Yad Vashem?
To be Jewish was something to be feared, the cause of the perpetration of nameless horrors upon my father and his family members most of whom were not around to explain and the ones that were, didn’t. I was subscribed automatically upon birth to this club of suffering which could never be left, for to leave it would mean profoundly disrespecting the lives (and more importantly the deaths) of uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents. A disease of belonging for which there is no cure even beyond the grave.
The poet Norbert Hirschhorn writes in the preface to his latest collection Stone. Bread. Salt. (Holland Park Press, 2018):
“In Judaism, the Hebrew word tshuva is a vital concept. It means return but also repentance. It is said that God first created repentance, then the universe. Over the past decade I have made my own return, a journey to rediscover my Jewishness.”
Thus when I first picked up this volume of poems, when I shared a reading with Hirschorn at the Poetry Café in London, I thought I would have no vocabulary with which to offer a review; reviewing after all requires context. In the end that was only partially true. The book has made me think about my own relationship with an impossible status.
Some stages from my list of life’s identities were here: ‘layette, baby clothes, bike, treadmill, bloodpressure cuff, wheelchair, shroud …’ . (Life Course Department Store)
My parents prayed I’d learn what it meant to be Jewish
The Rabbi discerned I lacked the mien to be Jewish
I hated shul, longed for pork
This I understood. No Rabbi ever discerned that I lacked the mien to be Jewish because I was a female and so that was the be all and end all of my mien. I wasn’t required to do much during any service except sit on a balcony and stare down at my patriarchal elders and betters. I think I was about 8 years old when the Jewish faith and I parted company and the rest is, if not history, a history of guilt. Whether or not I subscribe to the tenets of the Jewish faith – and I don’t – the essence of Jewishness was scorched into my psyche, so much so, that newly married I recall bursting into floods of tears at the sight of a printed row of numbers on the cork of a winebottle my poor bewildered husband had opened. Although I realise now that I confused being Jewish with being tormented for being Jewish. In my own mind, and probably in the minds of many others, the two have become inseparable.
I was in my 50s when a Rabbi refused to shake my hand at my mother’s funeral. I should have known of course, should never have proffered the offending hand. But I had forgotten so much during the intervening years, had forgotten my place.
A Rebbe and his young disciple were on pilgrimage … when they came across a stream in spate. Near them was a young woman in long dress and head scarf afraid to cross. The Rebbe lifted her gently onto his back, strode into the stream and crossed …. The men walked silently for a while on the other side. Thenthe disciple said Master pardon me but you shouldn’t have touched that woman. The Rebbe thought a moment and replied, I put her down some time ago. Why are you still carrying her?
Stone, Bread, Salt, p.76
If I am Jewish, have always been Jewish, what need is there to go looking for the substance of that Jewishness? And if I am not Jewish, what would be the point? The very fact of my existence – I who was never intended to live – and the existence of my children who were never intended to be born – this is the victory.
In Hirschhorn’s poem ‘Self-Portrait’ the narrator goes to a wise woman to ask what does it mean to be Jewish. We’re a people with history. We’re your passport to the past.
Where to unlock a people’s history, other than through its cultural soul and where else to find that soul except in language, stories, poetry, songs, music. In Hirschorn’s last collection To Sing Away the Darkest Days he returned to Yiddish folksongs, the language of his grandparents and great grandparents. Ah, the passport to the past. And yet …
The past is not necessarily any kind of a passport. Even if we could arrive there- at that other country where they do things differently – what would it avail us? Being Jewish raises questions that our very history, condition, status, ideology – call it what you will – renders unanswerable; being Jewish is a condition impossible to describe without reference to shattered glass and yellow stars, ergo it is impossible to describe. I once wrote a poem (or tried to) about the Golem of Old Prague which had holocaust references in it. I was gently reproved by a learned academic friend who read my piece – the holocaust was neither born nor thought of in 16th century Prague. Maybe. The golem was a creation metaphor, another insoluble problem.
Although I believe completely in holocaust education in the interests of it never happening again, I also believe too many of us are still wearing our yellow stars. It is time to lay them down. As Hirschorn says:
‘I trace my own ancestors to the earliest time of life on earth, and before that to the stars. For this I stand in awe.’
That sense of shared humanity is a good starting point. A good point of return. So although this has not strictly been a book review, it is a statement of gratitude for making me think. Perhaps that is the best review of all.