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Half A Shekel: Poems in Praise of God and Men

Half A Shekel is a collection of poems I wrote in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I still lived in Montreal, taught sociology and told Bible stories to Jewish audiences of all ages. These are poems that record the longing of a gay man and his embrace of the Jewish tradition rooted in the Hebrew Bible. They are poems that reflect on the enduring message of that Book for a world become resolutely modern, secular and yet indifferent to the Jews and the Jewish state which a liberal stance should champion. And so these are poems that reflect on chance encounters between men and the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, on Jewish holidays from Yom Kippur to Shavuot, on the running argument about the good life that stretches from the Ethics of the Fathers to a hotel room in New York City. They are poems that weave together states and feelings that would appear at odds on the face of it, but which, in the light of poetic truth, rediscover the enduring lessons we have to learn over and over as we remember what it is to be decent human beings. A few poems from this collection give you a flavour of what lies between its pages.

Yesterday I Told Some Bible Stories


Yesterday I told some Bible stories:

how it was that Isaac went blind

even though the Bible says

his aged eyes were only dimmed,

and how he trembled his fear and trembling

not on the alter at Moriah

but in the comfort of his tent

when Esau came in from the hunt,

the savoury meal in the bowl between his hands

which he laid on his father’s lap

that his father might lay his hands on his head,

and Isaac in a blinding flash saw

he should have paid more attention to the voice

that told him though the hands were the hands of Esau

the voice was the voice of Jacob,

and so Isaac rightly trembled

at the cry that rose from his son’s throat

the way Abel’s blood cried to God from the ground

and the children of Israel’s groans

rose from the base of the pyramid,

because it is not the fear of the son

that causes a man to flinch before God

but only the wretched sin of the father

whose soul went so awry that all his five senses

were not arms enough for him to know his own son.

Thus it was, I told the people,

that the blessing was also a curse,

but if they read the Bible long enough

they would see that the Five Books of Moses

ends with a blessing that is not a curse

but a choice, just as the Preacher ends

his tale of vanity fair.


Today I woke up and thought about the stories

that yesterday I told the people,

and the voice in my head told my heart

that he who tells such stories

sees the world from the vantage point

of the Bible’s unsung heroes,

and instead of trembling I smiled

when I thought of what that meant:

I am the serpent in the garden

and I am the stone that Cain raised

to crush Abel’s skull,

I am the mortar in the bricks

men made to build the tower of Babel,

I am the ram at Moriah

and the coat of many colours,

and I am the feet that Jacob

drew beneath the bedclothes

when he turned to the wall and died.

And because I am all that, I saw,

I cling to the Bible by telling those stories

whose telling quickens my soul,

as it is said:

it shall be a tree of life

for those who hold fast to it

and those who uphold it shall be happy,

for the ways of the Bible are the path of peace

though the stories take us through fear and trembling.

Thus does God return and restore us

as we restore and return to Him,

and thus do we pray that He may renew our days –

our days all our days,

yea, even the days to come –

as it was long ago

east of Eden                                                  

and even in Eden itself.

Half A Shekel


Half a shekel, Moses said,

half a shekel for the sanctuary,

and my rabbi said we are all half shekels

looking for our mates.

This is why, my rabbi said,

marriage is a sanctuary,

and I say this goes to show

even God needs someone warm

with whom to bed down at night.

I take the rabbi’s words to heart

and even more my own,

and tell my rabbi I am looking for a man

to make my life one whole piece of silver.


My rabbi, I know from speaking to him,

holds fast to Leviticus where it says

for a man to lie with another man

as he does with a woman

is nothing short of abomination.

My rabbi knows, as I know,

that abomination is a word reserved

for high treason against God,

and whatever else goes down between the sheets

lèse-majesté against the Almighty

is not on the list of possible crimes.

But my rabbi, I am almost certain,

is worried about the sanctuary.

Every morning he thanks the Lord

for not having made him woman,

a prayer that also sounds worse than it is,

for every morning the rabbi gets up,

being the man he is,

and cries for the half shekel he can never be.

But I can assure him that after a night

of sticking it to another man

I too wake up crying

for the half shekel I never can be,

and turn my longing into prayer

that makes me grateful for the half shekel

I am and I have

and the half shekel I get to donate

again and again.


It is hard to be a man,

I want to tell my rabbi,

especially a man who loves other men

as Adam loved Eve and Abraham, Sarah,

as Isaac laughed with Rebecca

and as Jacob wrestled with his Rachel.

It is hard but it is getting easier

as I listen to my rabbi

tell me how we are all half shekels

seeking a sanctuary,

what a mitzvah it is

to make a contribution,

and I think how happy God would be

to know there was a man in my bed

to keep me warm at night.

Maybe, I think, the glow of love

would make Him feel at home enough

to lower His cloud into my bedroom.

Maybe even my rabbi honed desire

will prove enough to bring

the pillar of cloud and fire

to lead me through my wilderness.


As my rabbi kept on talking

about the half shekel and the sanctuary

I remembered the story

about Ben Attar’s second wife,

how when drilled by the cantor of a judge

about the deficiencies of dual matrimony

she answered she found nothing wrong

but for the fact that her husband

kept it only for himself,

and when the staggered judge asked her

whom she would take for a second husband

she turned upon his disbelief

as great as God's mercy for which he prayed

her unveiled smiling eyes and lips

and said as I would say to my rabbi:

“A man, like you, my lord, a man like you.”

I smiled as I remembered

and smiled again as I understood

what the second wife really meant:

not you but a man like you,

whom I would not feel shamed

to bring into the sanctuary;

with him to laugh when we make love,

over him to cry my morning prayer.

And if my rabbi asks I would be glad

to tell him how we do it:

how with a little less skin and a few more limbs

and the haunches that fall from the waist as do a man’s

we also bring our half shekels

to build a sanctuary for the Lord.

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