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.