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First Cousins — A Visit to Israel in Verse

January 1, 2015

by Marc Kaminsky

From the Autumn, 2014 issue of Jewish Currents

late — you’re nearly seventy —
what took you so long?

And you think you know something
about us? You crossed the great
distance between your own life

and ours on a direct flight
in a pressure-controlled cabin, without
incident. Here we live moments

away from wailing
sirens, debris and body parts
pile up at our doorstep.

And you come wheeling in your baggage
of opinions, stuffed with unearned
compassion for victims of the Nakba.

You’ve never held your boyhood
friend in your arms, helpless, watching
his blood run out on the sands of Ashdod.

What is your empathy worth
if it was never tested by destruction?
Why should I give your words weight?

BECAUSE I’m a broken man and a poet,
I have no definite shape,
I may not be without bias, but
before speaking, I try to empty myself
of everything I thought I knew,
because I’m receptive to you, and listen
hard, and give your words weight.

You won’t like what I have to say.
We Jews can’t learn to bear reality
in the safe houses of the disaspora.
You’re like the evil son at the seder.

You’re turning your first trip to Israel
into a pilgrimage to Lifta,
which sight unseen, you view
as a monument to Palestinian claims.

Every time I pass those ruins by
on the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem highway, I think:
If the war had gone the other
way, that would be us.

But you haven’t lived day-to-day
in the history of our people, dreading
the return of the moment when
we’ll be blindsided again.

Here, you live surrounded by the idea
that the construction of facts
on the ground enhances your security.

But the idea burns up perception
of the real — Israeli land grabs
stoke the fire of retaliatory violence.

Anyone who comes in from the outside
sees metaphors taken as facts, and facts
taken as signs and wonders, and confusion

of metaphor and fact pile up in the word
Zion. The great cubes of stone at Lifta
are shells of Arab homes and metaphors

of a realm of facts that you want to expel
from the hills of Jerusalem
through a monumental real estate project.

In Jerusalem, the destruction
of the Second Temple is here and now,
but that Jews come safely from all over
the world to pray at our holiest
ruin will continue only if we go on
fighting for the State of Israel.
Why can’t you see that?

It seems we are each one-eyed
men in each other’s country.

To drink your fill of the Sea of Galilee
you’re forced to dissociate the water

that flows through your faucets and irrigates
your front yards from the Occupied Territories.

No matter how far you push them out
of awareness, they return as your security

nightmare: behind your Separation Barrier,
you remain vigilant as you face

the archaeology of survival and destruction
that embeds our own day in Biblical time.

Aren’t you just another
self-hating Jew?

The canard ideologues use
to ostracize critics.

Would it offend you
if I point out
that I haven’t heard much
of the hard
listening you assert
is part of your make-up?

Speaking with you
is a trial.
Try me again.

When you go to
Lifta, imagine
what that village

would look like
if you also
carried a coffin

on your shoulders
and had to
climb those slopes


I’d fall
back onto the site
of my own loss,

the ground would
resume its wild
monologue, echoes

of shock
would aggrieve and
numb me.

Are you OK? You have this weird
look on your face.

When I enter the terrain
where you found refuge, I’m bowed
down by the dead that ride
toward total triumph on my back,

I can’t lift my eyes
from every crack in the soil
where I thread my progress
among land mines planted by both sides

in disputed fields, on these green
slopes it’s difficult to build modern
houses without shearing off hilltops
and carting the earth away,

and in deserts that don’t yield
fruit unless exceptional measures
are taken, I feel the wind
that carried ash of the Shoah

to the Promised Land
and drove new Jews into battle —
you’re not alone in hearing
screams of our dying

kin amplified
in the ears of the Jewish
fighters of 1948, deafening them
to any other cry.

Walking with you on streets
named after the kings of ancient Israel
and the authors of the Zionist state,
I can see myself acting as they did.

I’m beginning to feel we
are on common ground.

I see Ashkenazi boys from the ghettos
of Europe bursting through the door of the coffee house
at Lifta, surrendering to the sensation that pours
from the machine guns in their arms
through their bodies in one long wave
of ecstatic violence, washing away a certain phantom
pain — a stinging heaviness — a pressure
a hollowness in the chest
in which they carried centuries of our exclusion from history,
and one of them is me, I’m there
with them, spraying the room with bullets.

You’ve turned
the key in the door I kept locked
against you, and uttered the one
thing I needed to hear
from you: you identify
with the IDF, the essential Jew
in you flashed up — you
honor Israel’s right to exist and defend herself
against all threats to annihilate us.

No, my meaning falls out of the words
I speak to you in mid-air, you erase
my thought by forcing it
into absolute identity with your own idea
or brandishing it anti-Semitic.

I asked the rabbi with whom I learn Torah,
How is it possible to honor a brutal father,
a crushing mother? Koved, he said,
the Hebrew for honor, comes from the root
meaning weight. If you reach beyond
your own trauma and feel the weight of
their lives, you recognize the source
of their actions, and fulfill the commandment.
By following this practice, it’s possible for me
to honor the founders of the Zionist state.

As a Jew, I’ve long identified with the Palestinian
diaspora. Now, walking with you, I
feel you carrying the weight of the eternal Jew —
hatred you believe nothing
can change, and you call this reality,
and it fuels the state of war you call Israel.
And I see Lifta is the only gate
through which I could have come to Jerusalem
to face the rage and perplexity of contending with you
and the horror of encountering the murderous tribesman in myself.

Marc Kaminsky is a poet, writer, psychotherapist, and gerontologist whose most recent book is Shadow Traffic, a 2008 collection of essays, poems, and short stories dealing with the aftermath of the Holocaust. His long poem, “The Road from Hiroshima,” was produced as a radio play for National Public Radio and was the inspiration for other works, including a musical requiem. While working for the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged in the 1970s, he organized and conducted the country’s first writing and reminiscing groups for older adults, developing a model for what has become a standard in gerontological settings. He was founder and co-director of the Institute on the Humanities, Arts and Aging at the Brookdale Center on Aging of Hunter College and, along with Deena Metzger, co-founding director of the Myerhoff Center, named after the late, renowned anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff. Kaminsky has published seven books of poems and six books on aging in the culture of Yiddishkayt, including What’s Inside You It Shines Out of You and The Uses of Reminiscence. In 2009, Kaminsky was inducted into the Hunter (College) Hall of Fame for contributions to the fields of gerontology and literature.