United Jewish Appeal

- 1949-
My grandmother was eighty-nine and blind
and I was a young boy hungry for quarters,
so, in the waning light
of Sunday afternoons, my parents gone,
I would ring the doorbell
(my friend Raymond smirking
from behind the stairwell) and listen
for the slow shuffle of slippers
in the hall, the soft thump
of her body against the closet.

She would come to the door,
my parakeet Jerry trapped in her hairnet,
stammering a "Who's there?" in minimal English,
between the chain and the doorjamb,
and, without hesitancy or shame,
in a cracked, mock-Hassidic voice,
I'd answer: "United Jewish Appeal,"
swaying my hand, like a small plane
moving over an airstrip, toward her.

She would open the door—tentative,
timid, charity having won out over terror—
and reach a palm out into the hallway,
the way she reached out under the candles
to bless me on Sabbath. "My daughter . . ."
she would stammer, "she is not home now,"
poking her eyes like Borges into the vastness.
A better heart than mine was
might have stopped there, but I was a boy
ravenous for malteds and baseball cards,
so I repeated the words of my small litany,
"United Jewish Appeal," and reached my hand out again
until it almost touched the blue print of her smock.

All the while my parakeet sat there,
dropping small coils of bird shit onto her hair
until she retreated again down the long yellow hallway,
reading the braille of the walls
with her hands. And I would wink
at my good friend Raymond behind the stairwell
when the rattle of change clanged out
from my parents' bedroom, and we heard again
the slow sweep of her feet, and, at last,
the shiny fruits of cleverness and hunger
fell into my palm, and my grandmother Johanna,
the parakeet still flapping like a crazed duck
in her hairnet, closed the door behind her,
leaving me and my friend Raymond
to frolic off into the sun-licked,
agnostic streets of Washington Heights,
full of the love of grandmothers
and of change, forever singing the praises
of the United Jewish Appeal.

More by Michael Blumenthal

Be Kind

Not merely because Henry James said
there were but four rules of life—
be kind be kind be kind be kind—but
because it's good for the soul, and, 
what's more, for others, it may be
that kindness is our best audition
for a worthier world, and, despite
the vagueness  and uncertainty of
its recompense, a bird may yet  wander
into a bush before our very houses, 
gratitude may not manifest itself in deeds
entirely equal to our own, still there's
weather arriving from every direction,
the feasts of famine and feasts of plenty
may yet prove to be one,  so why not
allow the little sacrificial squinches and 
squigulas to prevail? Why not inundate
the particular world with minute particulars?
Dust's certainly all our fate, so why not 
make it the happiest possible dust, 
a detritus of blessedness? Surely
the hedgehog, furling and unfurling
into its spiked little ball, knows something
that, with gentle touch and unthreatening
tone, can inure to our benefit, surely the wicked 
witches of our childhood have died and, 
from where they are buried, a great kindness 
has eclipsed their misdeeds. Yes, of course, 
in the end so much comes down to privilege 
and its various penumbras, but too much 
of our unruly animus has already been 
wasted on reprisals, too much of the
unblessed air is filled with smoke from 
undignified fires. Oh friends, take
whatever kindness you can find
and be profligate in its expenditure: 
It will not drain your limited resources, 
I assure you, it will not leave you vulnerable 
and unfurled, with only your sweet little claws 
to defend yourselves, and your wet little noses, 
and your eyes to the ground, and your little feet.

Stones

A man in terror of impotence
or infertility, not knowing the difference . . . . 
                                             Adrienne Rich


We live in dread of something:

Need, perhaps. Tears,
the air inside a woman's dress,
the deep breath of non-ambition.

In a valley of stone,
men had to carry stones.
In a sea of fertility,
women could drown
in the wake of conceptions.

We no longer build in stone—
houses of rice paper, beds
of feather. Manhood
is the one stone we still
insist on, lifting it

From abandoned quarries,
carrying it on our backs
even when we make love,
until the woman beneath us
calls passion a kind of

Suffocation, surfaces for air
like a young child whose head
has been pushed beneath the water,
a way to learn swimming.

Did you come? we ask,
her head bobbing above the brine
that pours from us. Applause
is what we want now,

Her wet hands
clapping in the last wind
before she sinks again,
before she holds us again
so tight we both plunge
like a cry for help
into the water,

Before we fall to the bottom—

Stones
not even the fish
will pause to tell apart.

Jew

for Isaac Bashevis Singer


The melancholy of Chopin and cruel breathing
folds back your sheets,
and you rise like lightly leavened bread,
like all the old, arthritic Jews left in the world,
from your Sabbatical sleep.

You rise and wipe the crusted blood
from your doorpost, kiss the angled mezuzah,
and are grateful you have again been spared
the pestilence and the lice,
the hailstones and the fissuring earth,
the ambiguous knife of Abraham.

You go to the window, and through the Jew-eyes
of this life you watch children stomp
their booted feet against the sidewalk,
grandmothers and grandfathers sew yellow stars
onto their lapels and wrap their hungry bones
in the long phylacteries.

It is 1979, you know it, but you have slept
like a Jew. And dreamt like a Jew. And the dreams
of all the persecuted Jews (the Jews chased
by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Jews
converted by the Egyptians and the Romans and
the Hari Krishnas, the Jews baked like strudel
and refined into lampshades by the resourceful Germans)
swim like fresh sperm into the ovaries of your sleep,
and you wake, pregnant and nauseous with Jew
and with history
and with your ambivalent God.

And then you go to the table,
and (though you never believed
God could enter through your mouth)
you eat like a Jew,
you feel the milk that does not want to sleep
with the meat, and the meat that does not want
to sleep with the milk, and you feel
the stones of some vague guilt, the stones
of immer Morgen, Morgen
of the anxious bridegroom, Doom,
and the reluctant bride, Joy,
turn in your stomach like the ballast of some
Hassidic boat that refuses to sail on the Sabbath.
And it is always the Sabbath.

And then you go to your bed,
and you make love to your wife like a Jew,
with your desperate tongue and your mutilated penis
and your envy of womanhood grown so large
you are the best lover in the world, better
than Robert Redford and all the goyische skiers,
better than the Black athletes with their beautiful,
round buttocks that turn like greased bearings
in your wife's Jew-hating dreams.