To Jewishness

By Kenneth Koch

Published January 31, 2003, issue of January 31, 2003.
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As you were contained in

Or embodied by

Louise Schlossman

When she was a sophomore

At Walnut Hills

High School

In Cincinnati, Ohio,

I salute you

And thank you

For the fact

That she received

My kisses with tolerance

On New Year’s Eve

And was not taken aback

As she well might have been

Had she not had you

And had I not, too.

Ah, you!

Dark, complicated you!

Jewishness, you are the tray —

On it painted

Moses, David and the Ten

Commandments, the handwriting

On the Wall, Daniel

In the lions’ den —

On which my childhood

Was served

By a mother

And father

Who took you

To Michigan —

Oh the soft smell

Of the pine

Trees of Michigan

And the gentle roar

Of the Lake! Michigan

Or sent you

To Wisconsin —

I went to camp there —

On vacation, with me

Every year!

My counselors had you

My fellow campers

Had you and “Doc

Ehrenreich” who

Ran the camp had you

We got up in the

Mornings you were there

You were in the canoes

And on the baseball

Diamond, everywhere around.

At home, growing

Taller, you

Thrived, too. Louise had you

And Charles had you

And Jean had you

And her sister Mary

Had you

We all had you

And your Bible

Full of stories

That didn’t apply

Or didn’t seem to apply

In the soft spring air

Or dancing, or sitting in the cars

To anything we did.

In “religious school”

At the Isaac M. Wise

Synagogue (called “temple”)

We studied not you

But Judaism, the one who goes with you

And is your guide, supposedly,

Oddly separated

From you, though there

In the same building, you

In us children, and it

On the blackboards

And in the books — Bibles

And books simplified

From the Bible. How

Like a Bible with shoulders

Rabbi Seligmann is!

You kept my parents and me

Out of hotels near Crystal Lake

In Michigan and you resulted, for me,

In insults,

At which I felt

Chagrined but

Was energized by you.

You went with me

Into the army, where

One night in a foxhole

On Leyte a fellow soldier

Said Where are the fuckin’ Jews?

Back in the PX. I’d like to

See one of those bastards

Out here. I d kill him!

I decided to conceal

You, my you, anyway, for a while.

Forgive me for that.

At Harvard you

Landed me in a room

In Kirkland House

With two other students

Who had you. You

Kept me out of the Harvard Clubs

And by this time (I

Was twenty-one) I found

I preferred

Kissing girls who didn’t

Have you. Blonde

Hair, blue eyes,

And Christianity (oddly enough) had an

Aphrodisiac effect on me.

And everything that opened

Up to me, of poetry, of painting, of music,

Of architecture in old cities

Didn’t have you

I was

Distressed

Though I knew

Those who had you

Had hardly had the chance

To build cathedrals

Write secular epics

(Like Orlando Furioso)

Or paint Annunciations — “Well

I had David

in the wings.” David

Was a Jew, even a Hebrew.

He wasn’t Jewish.

You’re quite

Something else. I had Mahler,

Einstein, and Freud. I didn’t

Want those three (then). I wanted

Shelley, Byron, Keats, Shakespeare,

Mozart, Monet. I wanted

Botticelli and Fra Angelico.

“There you’ve

Chosen some hard ones

For me to connect to. But

Why not admit that I

Gave you the life

Of the mind as a thing

To aspire to? And

Where did you go

To find your ‘freedom’? to

New York, which was

Full of me.” I do know

Your good qualities, at least

Good things you did

For me — when I was ten

Years old, how you brought

Judaism in, to give ceremony

To everyday things, surprise and

Symbolism and things beyond

Understanding in the

Synagogue then I

Was excited by you, a rescuer

Of me from the flatness of my life.

But then the flatness got you

And I let it keep you

And, perhaps, of all things known,

That was most ignorant. “You

Sound like Yeats, but

You’re not. Well, happy

Voyage home, Kenneth, to

The parking lot

Of understood experience. I’ll be

Here if you need me and here

After you don’t

Need anything else. HERE is a quality

I have, and have had

For you, and for a lot of others,

Just by being it, since you were born.”

Excerpted from “New Addresses” by Kenneth Koch.

© 2000 Kenneth Koch. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.






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