Poem: Dad, 23 Years After His Death, Arrives in the Shul

It was the last day of the high holidays. It was the first day I wore
my late husband’s prayer shawl—the one from his teen years, found
in a box among my books. In the high skylights, leaves trembled
as small birds landed on twigs, and light flowed golden.

My dead, I noticed, sat with me. Not just Dave with an arm across
my covered shoulders. But also Lore, my mother’s friend, who sent me
a sewing box after my house burned: thread, needles, wooden knob
for darning socks, tiny vial of perfume. She told me:

“Go ahead, marry that Jewish man. Your father was a Jewish refugee.
He didn’t do so badly.” No, no, my father was a cultured man, head
of his family, leader of a school committee, manager – that word, refugee?
This man who sailed away from Europe. Away from G-d.

He told me: “The G-d who let the Holocaust happen, he’s not good,
or not powerful. I refuse him.” Though when I was a child I saw him
in a synagogue, for the sake of someone’s teenaged son, walk to the front
(to the bimah) and say the prayers. I recall his return to his seat:

“I remembered every word,” he said happily. I bounced next to him,
hoping the service wouldn’t go much longer, lost in a sea of Hebrew
and of lives that I didn’t, couldn’t, understand. Now I wonder: Where
did he study those prayers? In a Hebrew school in Germany? (Oh!)

Or under the blankets in the British boarding school? Never asked him
half the things I’d like to know today. But I was the oldest child, the one
who remembers him slim and eager, before his hair grew sparse,
before arthritis, before the affairs and quarrels—and last week

I swear I saw him, young again, walk from the back of that golden room
toward the Torah at the front. His clean-shaven face gleamed (I recall
his shaving brush, the scented foam); he smiled, wide and happy, and he read
from the page without having to look at those last words of Moses. Then

he came to sit at my other side. As the congregation rustled and chanted,
my dad turned toward me, bent his head, his wide fingers brushing against
my husband’s tallis, the light on all of us. My dad whispered, once again:
“I remembered every word.”

Poetry Editor Alicia Ostriker comments:
This is one of the most warm-hearted poems I have seen in a long time,
full of ongoing affection for a father who was a non-believer yet remained
attached and proud as a Jew to “say the prayers.” A quiet miracle.