I believe there is a battle between/the kitchen table, bimah, and altar.
The kitchen table/that serves food to hungry strangers wins.
Stanley Moss, “The Table”
It’s old. It’s us. It’s everything, which is why
I cannot understand the current gastronomic
turning away. Braided challah lit by candle flame.
Yeast dough rising, breathing on the board.
Incarnations of bread, nuances, iterations.
And bread’s many noodle cousins!
These are my thoughts at a funeral mass
for the father of a student I taught twenty-five
years ago, and whom I may not recognize today
though we stayed in touch after he thanked me
by postal mail for ruining his chances for a lucrative career
by turning him on to writing. His father is a pathologist.
My son is a pathologist whose mother writes poems.
Life, you wag, you lover of irony.
From a pew at Saint Andrew’s, I am comparing
the synagogue’s Bimah whose Arc houses the Torah,
heavy bread for the soul, to something kindred here:
an altar with a cupboard holding a place setting
for the stupendously metaphorical small meal
served at Mass: cup, plate, tiny breads.
I watch the specifically baptized descend the slope
of the aisle to taste of it, some parting their lips
for the Priest to place the wafer on their tongues,
some taking it into their own hands first, thinking,
as they ascend—I’m speculating now—of daily bread,
of trespass and forgiveness, thorns, and the salt of tears,
even of ordinary things, like mass produced bread
that nevertheless infuses the distracted air
around the factory with its tantalizing aroma,
causing me to remember the boy I loved in second grade
mesmerizing our class with a tale of loaves,
his father a worker in the bread factory
who took this son to see how loaves are made,
then sent down chutes to be wrapped in paper.
My classmate’s arms are animated, his face lit as he shares
the wonder we hunger for, his friends, his strangers.
What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Rabbi Hillel, when asked to recite the Torah while standing on one foot.
They tell me my grandfather was arrested
for threatening a woman who was beating her child
on a street in Russia two century-turns ago.
He said if he saw her doing it again, he’d beat her.
Despite literary tradition there, the victim was not a horse.
In this way he launched the spanking prohibition in the family
that my mother, his daughter, carried on.
On yearly visits to her family in Winnipeg, mishpucha
called my sister and me the Katzenjammer kids.
My father, a confirmed non-spanker too, lost it
only once, taking off his belt to tenderize our bums,
but our mother stopped him, not unlike the way
my sister and I would thrust our little bodies between them
when they tried to dance. But that is another story.
They tell me my grandfather would sneak home
from the Russian army where he was a cook to sleep
with my grandmother, then creep back to his post,
the sun’s fingers tickling the sky pink. No wonder
she had thirteen pregnancies, nine live births. My grandfather
hated the Russian army that Jews had a long tradition
of walking away from, especially if they lacked talent
on the violin, the only known path to deferment.
Ultimately, he didn’t return to his post to stir the soup
but walked all the way to Winnipeg, secured a homestead,
sent for the wife and five extant kids. Quarantined in Liverpool
minus her still sea-faring trunk, my grandmother washed
their only clothes at night. One day she took them
sightseeing on a bus. That too is another story.
They tell me my grandfather, a religious Jew, “almost
a rabbi,” they say, gave Christmas presents to Aunt Jean,
the Italian girl from Cicero who married his son Meyer.
O.K., so my grandfather was a religious man who kept kosher,
went to shul, studied the Torah, the Talmud, and, I’m guessing,
the Kabballah too. More to the point, he was a scholar
of the human heart. He knew that in Winnipeg, far from Cicero,
Jean would feel homesick on Christmas. Having mastered
the art of reciting the Torah while standing on one foot,
he knew how to bend and sway. I like that my grandfather
gave Jean presents on Christmas. The God I believe inalso approves. And that is the story.