Advice for Jewish Adulthood

Regarding the shower knob in hotels, whichever way you turn it is wrong.
A half a bagel is like half a dream.
If you want a cookie, and eat it fast, you will see the glimmer of the heavenly vault out of the corner of your eye.
There is only one right way to write Hanukkah.
Stand up for what you believe in and get along with everyone. Isn’t that easy? Haha! Now you understand why there are no cookies in the house.
Princess Leia wore her hair that way so to have two Danish available for breakfast at all times.
Do whatever makes you happy, but let’s talk about the definition of “happy” through weekly phone calls and frequent texts, okay?
Nothing’s funny about Yiddish. Except your father.

משנה מסכת בידחות אבא

זאָגט די משנה. דער פֿאָטער מאַכט אַ שלעכטן וויץ. וואָס איז דער דין? זאָגט ר’ מיכל, גיב אַ קרעכץ. זאָגט ביילקע, פֿאַרקײַקל די אויגן און שאָקל מיטן קאָפּ אויף ניין. די חכמים זאָגן, אַז ביידע זײַנען גערעכט. וואָס איז אָבער דער דין אַז דער פֿאָטער זאָגט א קאָמישן וויץ? זאָגט אסתּרל, אַפֿילו איך ווייס אַז דאָס איז נישט מעגלעך. זאָגט ביילקע, כ’בין שוין גענוג אַלט צו מאַכן אַליין גוטע וויצן. היתּכן? זאָגט דער פאָטער. נישט מעגלעך. תּיקו.

את תהי לאלפי רבבה
או לבת 13
תהי מה שאת רוצה
בכל העולם לגמרי

בכל סיפור שלא כותבת
בכל שפה בעולם
ה’ דרכיך תשכיל. זאת אומרת:
תעלי לעילא בסולם.


When I think about her bat mitzvah, I think of it — as I do any major event — on many levels. In one sense the ceremony is mainly about her as an individual, her transformation (slowly and imperceptibly, in the moment, but retrospectively surprising and sudden) into a Jewish adult, navigating between choice and obligation. This is her gift now, to do with as she pleases, to open or abandon — what a horrifying and freeing thought all at once!

But we wouldn’t be doing this ceremony at all if it was just a thing-for-her. There are many Jewish worlds, histories, and dramas in parallel, and she can participate in many of them at once. There is the drama of relationship with God, spiritual creativity, and the perfection of compassion through the high art of halacha, liturgy, and Torah study. There is the meaning-making, innovation, and searching for the usable past which is modern Jewish culture — freeing oneself from past bonds while discovering for oneself what is to be a Jew. That search is made much more difficult without Hebrew and Yiddish, languages she knows and has a connection to. Finally, there is the life of a Jew in the world, supporting a democratic, Jewish Israel which does not oppress Palestinians, and being a citizen in these free, democratic United States. As I told her after Election Day, “It’s up to your generation to fix our mistakes.” And we said together: “No pressure!”

She is compassionate, sensitive, artistic, intelligent, and (sometimes!) focused. She has all the talents and skills she needs to ask the question, “What does it mean to make the world better for both Jews and non-Jews?”, and then do it. The manner of her doing so remains to be seen. I can hardly wait.

My post here.

I come to this book as an outsider. I am a white guy, a Jew, reviewing a volume of African American poetry for black people in Baltimore. I do this because I live in Baltimore, I feel a kinship with African Americans due to our shared history; and I want to know how poetry of different communities works.

This is all the more true because Tariq Touré’s poetry, in this black-and-white volume called “Black Seeds,” is aimed at his community. These are short poems about the state of black Baltimore, about life and death and striving, murder and failure and desperation. Each poem is accompanied on the facing page by an image, often a photo of an African American looking into the camera. The portraits are unadorned, beautiful.

This is 31rwu9z9dl-_sx322_bo1204203200_more than a community – it is an audience before whom the poet is performing. This is a multimedia presentation. It is based on the slam esthetic: each poem ends with a boldfaced title, the performer naming what he has just delivered with a flourish.

There are calls to nationalism:

“I see empires in your furrowed eyebrows” — Nubia

… and prayerful meditations on the self:

“Man is given seconds, yet begs for minutes”–The curious attention span

This is hip-hop on the page, and as such strikes a balance. On the one hand there is rhyme aplenty and anaphora, familiar in any oral tradition; on the other these are verses with plenty of space, cascading down the page, and capital letters to give emphasis. There is a poem Balance about this tension between the weight of history (and literacy) and the present-day of orality (and popular culture):

I have friends
Who sit and Pontificate
Musing over Plans
To leave
More than
A biological imprint
7 generations
Down the stream
Apple headed children
Trip over
Their forefathers & foremothers
On the way to school


I have friends
That have only
For Saturday night

The entire slim volume is balanced on the razor’s edge of this conflict: duties to the self versus duties to one’s people; honoring past martyrs and building bridges to the future impervious to flame.

Indeed, this book is surrounded by flame, fire out of the gunbarrels of police and the torches of protest in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death. One would expect there to be more hate. I don’t read that here, though there is sorrow and rage:

Jim crow’s skeleton
fell out of
a police van
crashed onto the ashen pavement
paraded down Pennsylvania avenue
brutalized the metal cavalry
of pigs
announcing a 100% off sale
the city glowed
as Watts glowed
as Harlem glowed
as Ferguson glowed
for Freddie

Baltimore Power Keg

“Glowing” as candles glow, not burning or flaming as an explosion. The skeleton, zombified, brings multiple sites of tragedy and brutality into redemptive communion.

In the wake of my move to Baltiimore seven years ago, and even more so in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, I have read more and more (though still not enough) contemporary poetry by African Americans. These poets inhabit a diverse space. Toure’s is not the academic poetry of Terrence Hayes or the pop-culture fueled confessional wit of Saeed Jones. His gifts are in the shared world of oral and written, of street, school, protest, home, and quiet self. I look forward to reading more of him, as he sheds his glow.

I have been translating the prose poetry/symbolic fiction pieces of Avrom Sutzkever, and a new translation of mine, “The Cleaver’s Daughter,” appears today on the Yiddish Book Center’s website. Here’s a taste. Enjoy!

She was my first love, the pockmarked redhead with cute freckles on her pert nose, like a poppy seed topping. I even allowed myself to imagine that she had as many freckles as she was years old, a freckle every year for good luck.

When I made her acquaintance, I counted nine of those presents on her nose. The street where we both grew up panted its way uphill, starting from the Green Bridge over the clay banks of the Vilia, ascending as far as the Sheskin Mountains, where the street became a trail going all the way to Vilkomir. Most kids from my street and even a number of adults called the girl the Cleaver’s Daughter.

Why did she get that name? Why was an orphan labeled that way?

21st Century Cures Act will distort the meaning of ‘FDA approved’

The term “FDA approved” means a lot to those of us working in health care and the patients we treat. But if the 21st Century Cures Act becomes law – the House of Representatives approved it Wednesday and the Senate will vote on it next week – this mark of trustworthy stewardship will become a shadow… Read the rest of this entry »

The saga continues, thanks to an intriguing letter from the Baltimore Police. Or, perhaps, the whole thing never happened at all.

Check out my latest bit of medical advice. There’s a happy ending! Or at least an elastic one.


Thanks Charles Rammelkamp for including three poems of mine in the latest issue of The Potomac — one original work, and two translations from Avrom Sutzkever’s Diary Poems. (And don’t forget to check out Carol Berkower‘s lovely verse in the same issue!)

Here’s one of those translations of Sutzkever’s Yiddish:


Explain it? Explain it how?
The sun didn’t turn colder,
but she won’t melt tears
and only childhood gets no older.

Youth, her brother, was trampled
like red grapes in the cellar.
The shadow’s hair turns silver
and only childhood gets no older.

Her snows and her violets
are not to be had for gold.
Her king grows old, as does his kingdom
and only childhood gets no older.

From Diary Poems by Avrom Sutzkever,
translated from the Yiddish