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The Schmooze

Hearing News From the Temple Mount in Salt Lake City

Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week, Rodger Kamenetz introduces “Hearing News From the Temple Mount in Salt Lake City” by Jacqueline Osherow. This piece originally appeared on June 1, 2001, as part of the Forward’s Psalm 151 series. It is being published here online for the first time.

Image by Jacqueline Osherow

Jacqueline Osherow, an English professor at the University of Utah, is part of the strange Diaspora of American Jewish poets in recent times, a by-product of the reality that many poets earn their bread through college teaching. On the other hand, the scattering produces fresh glints of light — as here the poet, perhaps hearing the news of Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount and the events that followed, reflects and refracts in Mormon country, where Jews are “Gentiles.” Ms. Osherow’s mordant humor and casual diction gives her work a relaxed feel but underlying the humor is a shrewd drash on Jacob’s character — and on our own.

Ms. Osherow is the author of four books of poetry, including “Dead Men’s Praise” (Grove, 1999). She has received numerous grants and prizes, including a Guggenheim, an NEA, an Ingram Merrill Foundation Grant and the Witter Bynner Prize from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

Hearing News From the Temple Mount in Salt Lake City

You know that conversation
in the elevator in the Catskills:
how one woman says, Oy,
the food here is so terrible
and the other and the portions
are so small? It’s a variant
on Jacob’s line to Pharaoh
when he gets to Egypt — few
and evil have been the days
of my life. Naturally, he’s our
chosen namesake: this Israel
the Torah keeps forgetting and
calling Jacob, as if it doesn’t
trust his cleaned-up name….

Obviously he’s the perfect
guy for us — we’re always
willing to take something
over nothing — hence
our lunatic attachment
to that miserable pinpoint
in the desert, where now,
whether it’s Ishmael
or Isaac on the altar,
there’s an earsplitting
crowd working to drown
out every angel until
Abraham fulfills his sacrifice.

It’s none of my Diaspora-
befuddled business, but
I’m not in the mood
to celebrate. Call me
thin-skinned, but I can’t
get used to the idea that
all these hordes of people
wish me dead. You have
to remember: I’m Jacob’s
offspring; I want as many
evil days as I can lay my
hands on…. Thank God
I live in Salt Lake City. Who’s
going to come looking for me
here? In this calm Zion,
where a bunch of blonde
meshugeners think they’re
the chosen people of God.
Good luck to them is all
I have to say; let them
get the joy from it that I do.

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