journalism in verse

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After the Desecration of Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery, Where My Gollub Grandparents Are Buried

in Breaking/Identity by

An intelligent decision for a young Jewish man
who found himself in the Tsar’s army
was to desert, which Grandpop did
when a sergeant boxed his ears and made him deaf.
Grandpop fled to his older brother in St. Louis
and set up a small business
but also became a Debsian Socialist.
When his men wanted a union, he said
“Go ahead, it’s a good idea.”
He voted for Henry Wallace in 1948
when my dad voted for Truman.
He still wore a thick hearing aid in his glasses
at 86, when I would visit him at home,
chat with him some, sit with him, and read his books.
He died, and his sons buried him next to their mother
Grandma Pearl, who died in 1939,
in Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery in University City, Missouri.

Dad was the youngest, and lived nearest.
So it was a short trip for him to bring Roger and me
to visit their graves in that wooded lot
surrounded by tract housing and strip malls.
Dad warned us not to pay anything, not even attention,
to the swarm of old beggars who hung out among the graves
and offered to say Kaddish for dead relatives.
I think the mining of grief for money
in that sacred space offended him
though it, too, was a tradition.
We stood silent by the graves
while the schnorrers buzzed about.  Then we went home.

Now Dad and Roger are dead too;
Dad gave his body to a medical school,
Roger’s body was autopsied and cremated,
so neither has a grave I can visit.
Meanwhile an organized group has invaded Chesed Shel Emeth
and knocked over more than a hundred headstones.
The schnorrers are fled temporarily, I presume,
while workers put the stones back upright.
We don’t know about Grandpop and Grandma Pearl’s stone,
but the whole family is upset.
I called my cousin Lisanne in Fremont
who had posted about it on Facebook;
she has emailed our cousin Judy in St. Louis
to see if Judy can find out more.

What would he make of the blow that tumbled stones all around his broken, buried ears?

We could shrug the whole thing off as an attack on the dead
by a gang of local bullies, but at the same time
there have been bomb threats phoned in
to Jewish Community Centers all around the country.
The Russian sergeant’s blows to Grandpop’s ears
reminded him sharply that, as a Jew,
he was not safe in the old empire.
He escaped to this country, another sort of empire,
but at least we Jews thought we would be safe here.
What would he make of the blow that tumbled stones
all around his broken, buried ears?
What would he say about capitalism now?

It took America to make Jews white,
said q. r. hand, and he was right.
He might have added, white privilege is revocable.
How long before we get lynched and bombed
and gunned down by cops like Black people?
Or labeled rapists like Mexicans, or terrorists like Muslims,
and deported without a hearing?
I hope we come awake and fight first
alongside all our natural allies.
Like the Muslims who raised over one hundred fifty thousand dollars
to restore the stones of Chesed Shel Emeth
They, like Grandpop, know what’s at stake.

 

Footnote: Jews traditionally call a kindness to the dead a chesed shel emeth, Hebrew for “true kindness”, because it is done without expectation.


Read More:
Muslim activists raise over $70,000 to aid vandalized Jewish cemetery [ABC]
Support pours in for damaged Jewish cemetery near St. Louis [Chicago Tribune]

David P. Gollub is the author of Special Effects and You, Of Course, available from Zeitgeist Press (zeitgeist-press.com). During the late ‘80s and ‘90s, he was a host of the Cafe Babar poetry readings in San Francisco, and published the poetry zine Bull Horn. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

Image via Dennis Jarvis on Flickr.

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