Parable of the Jew without a Name
“With our despised immigrant clothing, we shed also our impossible Hebrew names.” —Mary Antin, The Promised Land (1912)
My great-uncle Vincent, son of the Milk Street tailor,
threw some fairy dust into the air and changed,
making it easy for me to go to the prom,
to grow up in Indiana and bite my tongue
when a hick would cuss at the bastard who tried
to Jew me down on the price for home-grown pot.
Like wool pants for blue jeans, Moshe, Shmuel and Lazar
traded in their names, and in exchange were changed
from cabbage-eaters into Americans, and why not?
“I never was a pumpkin!,” cries the carriage.
“I never was a pauper!,” shouts the prince.
In this fairy tale all the steins turn into stones, straw turns
to gold, stars warp into crosses, and the pauper trades up
and leaves the trades to the star-crossed Jews.
I’m a lousy Jew, ignorant of nearly everything
except that in another time the Klan would lynch me,
the Nazis flay me into yellow lampshades.
My white hide hides me, my baseball cap keeps greasy ash
out of my hair, and I’m glad for my nice name.
Who needs a life so grim? In the shtetl, the old Jews
would change their names so the Angel of Death
flying on black crape wings above the town,
fatal list in hand, would pass over them
—but not the ones who stayed behind
and kept their names, the Adelsteins, Eisensteins
or the one I’ll never know, some cousin twice removed
born in Poland, some Maurice Bernstein. No way to gather
smoke out of the sky and give him flesh again.
I imagine him, with eyes like mine, intent
and studious, staring at the rusted cattle-car wall
in the rattling stink of packed bodies, trying not to breathe.
He’ll get that wish soon enough.
Slender, bookish children aren’t good workers
and it’s too much trouble to take away their names
and write numbers in their skin.
They’re gassed like fleas.
I’m a lousy Jew, but I’d like to disturb the grass,
unearth him from the crowded grave, and let his damp fingers
write this story, while his eyes like clouded marble roll.
I’d like to roll the story back to the dead boy
swaying in the train, to see him there imagining the sky
he hasn’t seen for days, the white winter sky, like a page
he could write on again and again, practicing his name.
From Beast in the Apartment (Sheep Meadow Press, 2014) by Tony Barnstone. Copyright © 2014 by Tony Barnstone. Used with the permission of the author.