Mizmor L'David Anthology 


Poetica Magazine
                                           Contemporary Jewish Writing

Philadelphia poet Carole Bernstein has published two collections with Hanging Loose Press: Buried Alive: A To-Do List and Familiar, as well as a chapbook, And Stepped Away From the Circle (Sow’s Ear Press). Her work has appeared in Apiary, Poetry, Yale Review, and other magazines.

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What is the Meaning of Your Last Name?
Carole Bernstein

What is the Meaning of Your Last Name?”  —Clickbait ad for genealogy services

When Napoleon Bonaparte overran all of Europe including Germany and Poland, he decreed that all Jews must adopt modern European names… If a Jew did not, then the state chose a name for him. This led to such names as Goldstein and Rubenstein and Silverstein, all connoting precious stones which, according to anti-Jewish sentiment, were hidden in every Jewish home because ‘the Jews had all the money.’”

                                —Origins of Jewish Names, jbuff.com

The meaning of my last name is I am nothing.

The meaning of my last name is I am a Jew,

a slave from slaves, a disposable person, beside the point,

Tainted and taunted with surnames like Silver and Gold, Mountain, Stone, and other indomitable things,

While being slandered and ensnared like little unnamable sidewalk birds, a long time ago yet not long 

ago, mowed down like grass.

The meaning of my last name is not these fur-coated, ambiguous European figures promenading sternly

In a city dripping with architecture in this enticingly black-and-white ad,

Nor the photos of people’s athletic-looking forebears on Facebook,

Posed rakishly against a rustic fence in a groomed countryside, grinning, taking their ease, white tennis shoes, someone’s young aunt in boxy high-heeled sandals, legs neatly crossed at the ankle below the spotless summer dress.

How embarrassing to be a Jew without means, and without a good profession; a hack, a disgrace.

If I am going to be assumed to be filthy rich, I better at least have money.

But everyone was just trying to live, spinning and drowning in the wash cycle of the Holocaust, people 

were trying to clean Jews, clean themselves of Jews, as some still do now, purging, seeking the whitest 


washed the gold out of our teeth, the bones out of our bodies.

I’m sorry we killed your stupid god, yes I know it was the Romans but I’m sorry, and I’m sorry I just 

called him stupid,

But otherwise you wouldn’t have a religion and you might have to live for this world instead of the next 


Really I’m jealous because we don’t have anyone storied as Christ, no colorful arrays of saints, nothing interesting to stare at in synagogue, only the white-covered humps of old men’s backs, sweat-stained 

wool yarmulkes stuck to their bald spots, muttering, singing hoarse and off-key in stubborn aversion to beauty.

Do I need to spit in a tube to get my ancient blood tested,

To unearth the magnificent nobles from whom I descended?

Matzo-makers, shmata-traders, screaming Socialists, piss-poor fishmongers, daveners, head-coverers, people who ate bread and butter by holding a hard small loaf in one hand and a hunk of butter in the other and chomping them in turn.

My grandpa Lou a tailor who fixed my coat and pants pockets but couldn’t fill them with cash,

My grandpa Duddy a watchmaker, heart stopped at thirty-three, leaving odd ends of timepieces

Tumbled down to me through decades, that were handled by him, part of his day when he was about his business, before I entered the world.

Art Deco chunky or delicate as lily-of-the-valley, stray greenish-turning faces, rusty thin hands or a hole where the hands would be, unintelligible scratched and faded numbers, inscriptions made for strangers in spidery fonts,

Some with exposed gears, impossible tiny teeth grinding in a tiny wheel forever to pretend to move Time forward or back,

And one little gold watch, perfect in its fraying, stained pouch.

Base metals mostly, that made my fingers smell faintly like blood, clinking like a pile of pennies, 

toys that didn’t do much.

I could not figure out what to make of them, but could not stop touching, arranging, turning them over 

and over.

They are lost, and they are exactly where I left them.