Excerpts > Fall 2002

Philip Terman
With the Survivors

With the Survivors

At the service in the Remuh Synagogue,
the last one left in Krakow, Poland
not a museum, across from kosher-
style cafes and trained Klezmers,

the dozen ancient men don't rise
at the appropriate passage in the liturgy,
they don't read responsively with the rabbi
or follow along in the prayer book.

They kibitz, as if their gossip
and news were more significant
than whatever God is telling them.
In the back pew I attempt to follow

the Hebrew above the Polish-Yiddish
murmuring of these men in stained
sweaters, untucked shirts, ties
barely knotted as if they had no one

to dress them. Suddenly, the Schema:
The Lord is our God, the Lord is One
the prayer you must remember after
you have forgotten everything else.

The Ark opens, as if from a wind.
All at once each worshipper grips
their seat's edge, forearms quivering,
struggling to lift their body's weight

of resistance to confront the Holy Book.
No one hoists it out of the sanctum
and heaves it above their shoulders,
no one bears it around the sanctuary

for the congregation to touch it
with their tallises or caress its scroll
with their kissed prayer books.
Who was it closed the curtain?

We retire to a back table set
with cake and vodka, shot glasses
filled to the brim, recite in cracked
voices the blessing for the fruit

of the vine, throw back the clear fire.
Over our thin slice, we chant words
for the earth, the morning liquor
lightening my head, the dusty air swirling

the table a few inches above the ground,
the room tilting, spinning, these faces
floating on the air's surface--flat, as if
what they witnessed froze their expressions.

One beside me--hair tussled, skin rough
like course paper, speaks, half Yiddish,
half English, shrugs his right arm: East.
To Ruskie. Vork.
The vodka goes around.

Someone mutters: Shabbat shalom.

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