Monday, March 22, 2010

Passover - Past and Present

The Talmud writes that the Temple of Jerusalem was whitewashed annually in preperation for Passover. It is recorded there that the Israelite families trekking on foot on one of the three annual pilgrimages would call out in excitement when they reached the foothills of the city of Jerusalem, "Look, the Temple is cresting the Temple Mount as brightly as the pure snow!"

When I first read this it amazed me as the solution to a riddle I had always wondered about. It is a racial memory-link to Jewish pre-Passover mad obsession with whitewashing our homes, more prominent among the Sephardic and Israeli Jews who did not wander as far as the cold exile of the European and Soviet continents when we were cast out of the Land of Israel.

At my home in Jerusalem the shlepping up and down ladders and getting rid of leavened products and kitchenware is at is most intense today. And although we grump through the ordeal and the feet hurt, I have taken a blog-break to express my feeling of joy and renewal.

We were enslaved, experienced exile from our homeland, suffered the Spanish Inquisition and countless pogroms and were almost wiped out in the unspeakable Holocaust. We were written off countless times, but here we are. Cleaning our houses, innovating and giving new life to a flowering and fruitful land that lay barren for centuries. And most important of all, raising beautiful and clever children.

For my graceful and slightly crazy cats, blue-eyed Kinneret, born on the shores of that northern sea, and his sister green-eyed Rachel, their 14th Passover cleaning is accompanied by lots of temporarily empty cartons lying about which as any cat knows are heavenly havens to scratch about and cuddle in while the world passes you by. For like children who do not live in great houses and have rooms for themselves, cat also have the ability to create a magical self-sufficient world under a table or inside a carton.

This is the translation of my poem about Passover at my father's table which appeared in the Israeli poetry journal "Mashiv HaRuach," [translated loosely as "Master of the Winds".]

Dad passed away when I was twenty-one and with each passing year I grow closer in memory to him.


At my father's Pesach table

the ten plagues burned into my living flesh,

the wine spilled to signify each plague.

No small drop from one finger

the wine flowed into each Pesach saucer

taken down from locked closets

and polished till it shone

then poured into a great crystal bowl.

For the wine becomes our own blood,

when we weep and recall the slavery,

the treachery of Egypt which betrayed Father Joseph,

and we remember the blood of the infants of our wombs

buried alive between the great slabs of pyramid stone

worked with our hands.

At the Pesach table of my father

I fled Pharaoh's legions to the burning light of Moses's eyes,

I danced to freedom with the Prophetess Miriam

on the shores of the parted sea.


*Pesach – Passover in Hebrew

© Shira Twersky-Cassel

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Childhood Memories

Cooking for Purim and hosting a house full of guests from all Israeli walks of life - from my son's Ethiopian students to our childhood friends -- return me to my early years when my parent's small railroad flat was the central homey meeting place of friends and family. And especially to thoughts of my mother.

Our flat was in the first elevator house in the Bronx, a once luxurious building that had been dissected into long narrow railroad flats. We were not well off but our refrigerator was always full of food. As a small child I would often wish that I could be allowed to sleep through the night without being constantly lifted and moved from chair to couch and on and on. My bed was in a room that opened up into the living-dining area where the many guests congregated.

My childhood was peopled with the faces and voices of the many friends and relatives who constantly visited our small apartment. There were my father's Chassidic Ultra-Orthodox family, my mother's Israeli relatives, her "landzleit" - those who had survived the concentration camps and managed to enter the US or Canada. My mother's family left their small Polish town, Ilje, for Palestine - the Land of Israel - after the First World War. My grandfather who was an active Zionist predicted that disaster was imminent for the Jews of Europe.

Our home was also frequented by the "Hebraists" working with Eliezer Ben Yehuda to create a modern spoken Hebrew, the Yiddish theatre crowd and chazanim [cantors] who were often well known opera singers.

My mother was constantly in the kitchen, preparing meals for the many guests and for the Sabbath and the sound and fragrance of fish being chopped in a great wooden bowl with a curved cleaver remains in my memory.
When I was five, my father bought home matching mother-daughter aprons and a low stepladder for me to stand at the sink and help Mama - a task I loved.

Mama was a "beautiful dreamer" who, although she deeply loved my father and her children, had been deprived of her childhood dream of joining the Yiddish stage. Hers was an immortal beauty or as my father recalled their young years, "Who could look directly into her eyes?" He forever loved and saw her in that way.

Her eyes were the key - their far-away gaze set her apart, seeking a vision beyond the horizon of her everyday life. Her night-dreams were filled with herself as a bird soaring. She taught me to love and care for her beloved birds and this defined my inspiration when I began writing poetry.

Her prophetic dreams predicted who of her childhood friends had survived the concentration camps and very soon after each dream that very man or woman rang us on the phone or shouted up from the corner of Valentine and Webster Avenue, "Pnina, Pinchas ! We are here !" My father ran down to bring them up in the creaky elevator to our flat which became their second homes.

Below is one of my poems about Mama which appeared in The Deronda Review published by Esther Camaroon.


TO MY MOTHER: Bird Yearning
by Shira Twersky-Cassel

"For a small moment have I forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I gather thee." [Isaiah 54, 7]

Above time's prism where waits the city's perfect soul

suspended and concealed,

at this moment, hearts and wing,

you and I will capture the autumn wind.

To fly with you Lark-Mother

living as a bird, wing to wing,

for one short moment to learn, to soar and together sing,

to hunger for our temporal bodies.

As the light lives within the light

the soul lives in our bones and blood,

the illuminated soul sent forth

to occupy the burning flesh.

And I will call this light "To Yearn"

and your name was "Bird Yearning."