From 101 Jewish Poems for The Third Millennium


Sweet Malida, 

 
a mix of water-softened 
flattened rice, sugar,
dried fruits and nuts, 
was a dish made for
Shabbath or for breaking
fasts. Cooling,
light on the palate, and 
to the body and the spirit,
it was welcome in the heat 
of day or night. We, like
our Muslim, Christian and Hindu
neighbors and friends, 
had many foods in common, 
and we often celebrated together
their festivals or ours. I relished 
particularly fresh coconut, 
the regional staple, its milk
or its flesh added to almost
every dish. But this was to me
the best way to eat it,
finely grated 
by my mother’s hands,
left unsweetened
and sprinkled haphazardly
on the malida, juicy threads 
with a fleck of stubborn
brown kernel here and there
that sometimes crunched 
in your teeth like sand, 
and you winced and swallowed it,
knowing that there was no 
simpler or purer 
or truer form than that.


Here is a brief history of the Bene Israel--mostly referred to as Indian Jews, and the community which I am from:


There are many theories about the origins of the Bene Israel (called “Shanwar Telis” or Saturday oil pressers) from the west coast of India. The three most well-known ones are (1) they arrived after the destruction of temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., (2) that they were the descendants of the Lost Tribes, who came around the time of King Solomon in the tenth century B.C.E., and probably the one most popular is that they were fleeing from Galilee and the rule of the Greek overlord Antiochus Epiphanes, in 175 B.C.E. Some scholars seem to think it was more likely that they came in the fifth or sixth century C.E. from Yemen or South Arabia or Persia. Sources: The Jews of India by Benjamin J. Israel (Mosaic Books), and The Bene Israel of India: Some Studies by Benjamin J. Israel (Orient Longman).


Exodus #2,  the right side panel which is on my book cover (above), is a painting by Siona Benjamin. Siona is a Bene Israel artist who lives in New Jersey. I was very drawn to her stunning work, her use of jewel colors, how she uses Mughal miniature styles, and incorporates her Indian and Bene Israel background and influences as well as her experience of displacement, homesickness and exile. I was deeply attracted to her work as I related to it on several levels. I am honored to have her artwork on my newest book In Our Beautiful Bones. Please check out her website, enjoy her gorgeous work, and contact her for talks and exhibitions. Siona Benjamin, Transcultural Art in a Multicultural World: https://artsiona.com


On this page I share some poems taken from my chapbook Sparrows and Dust, my books Sharp Blue Search of Flame (Wayne State University Press) and In My Beautiful Bones (forthcoming from Mayapple Press), and from the anthology called 101 Jewish Poems for The Third Millennium (The Ashland Poetry Press, edited by N.N. Carlson and M.E. Silverman). My poems reflect all the various influences (culture, religions, music, art, literature etc.) in my life in India and in the US, and some have references to Jewish and Biblical themes and/or are spiritual in nature.

Zilka Joseph

From  Sparrows and Dust



Our Cup Runneth Over

Sometimes on Fridays,
you return. 

We set the table, light 
candles, say Shabbat shalom, hug
and kiss, fill tiny cups with raisin 
sharbath till the burgundy liquid 
spills
into the saucers. 

We drink.
The cool sweetness slakes 
our thirst. And later, we sip
fine scotch together.
We argue 
and laugh loudly. 
Just like we used to.
Raise our voices, raise 
our glasses. 

Roar 
         L’chaim. 


Between Worlds,

and in worlds within worlds,
we live.

Your fingers ruffle my curly hair. Always 
wild. It is longer, more jagged. And has grey 
in it now. Like ashes. 

Junglee, you say, and mum
runs her fingers through its snarly
thickness as she tries to braid it. Which
ancestor blessed me with these gifts?

How could
these bonds 
break, this 
wildness ever 
leave us? 

Now cool winds stir the pond.
Swallows skim 
the surface
of the water. The crows I feed 
gather in yellowing
trees. In the dirt 
at the foot 
of a beech tree—
a chorus 
of chirps. Small clouds 

rise. A curly-haired child
lit by sunset fire 
watches
sparrows bathe
in shimmering dust.


Voyage
--The Upanisads explain how wisdom can be absorbed through sound,
 how the ear is a vessel –the receiver of divine messages

The lightning fell, and I only knew

that it entered my eyes, and thunder 
repeated words in my ears 
I could not understand

in the grey-blue light of evening.
A sheet of silver drew itself 
like a shroud over my car – 

its engine an animal thrashing
in the hold,  my heartbeat
like oars slamming hard

against every climbing wave,
my hands on the steering wheel 
clawing at it as if it were
 
a raft. At sixteen, my father sailed                                                                                          
the Bombay steamships, nearly 
deafened by their sound; 
 
gales, ice, St. Elmo’s fire striking 
on the high seas, then sailed diesel
vessels through squalls
 
when the sky was black and the water 
black, and the sailor’s hearts
shrunk from fear – 

all listening, on deck and on the bridge 
and in the bowels 
of the engine room, 

to what the thunder said. And turning
into a vacant lot on Opdyke 
near Pontiac, the storm 

washed me clean
off the road. Wipers swept leaves 
and yellow-black sky into sea 

foam. I watched the windshield bulge
like a goatskin. It strained,
but held. Then a dam of white 

light broke, the wall of water 
shattering it’s cargo, and me 
inside it like a seed 

giving itself up to water 
and to wind. In the west, 
the sunlight crashing 

in the broken branches 
of oaks, burned a tunnel
of sienna through 

which the bow 
of my ship rose 
to meet the horizon, 

and my father, the Chief,
roared to his engineers,
their faces streaked with oil 

and boiler suits sweat drenched; 
men whose torn lips 
bled as another peal shook


the flailing vessel, and we turned
our faces to the upper 
deck. Like our Jewish

ancestors wrecked on the
Konkan coast thousands 
of years ago, we waited 

but no calm came
until the wind suddenly
fell. My car almost shoved
 
on to its side, now only swayed,
a metal cradle
spat from the mouth
 
of thunder. I smelled its breath,
its teeth left bloodless marks
on my skin, my bones 

shook, and though it was gone
I felt its pull, a lift, 
a nameless terror,

and my deafened ears
received every word it said –
what it had said 

to my ancestors


what it had said
to my father
to his men 

as it had let the sailors go,

as it had let my father go 

and let us all go home.

From Sharp Blue Search of Flame


Bird in a Blizzard


this is when you know
you should have stayed home
 
this is when you know this is
not your element

when you know  
you have been blown way off course

that water changes its face every day 
and the faces you love blur 

in that churning
that the whispers in the thick flood of flakes

come from elsewhere
that the ones who gave you shelter  
are gone 

that the cracking of the spine of the frozen river 
will be the last sound you will hear

the thump thump thump you hear in your head
is someone trapped inside your heart

yes this is when you know
your ancestors are wanderers 
singing tunes you never knew you knew 

you remember
every word of the song 
that the wind rips apart and flings

but how quickly your throat fills with snow 
 

and when you turn again                     you shiver as if you are wingless

                                                            wingless
                                 
you can move 
in only one direction now

                                                            deeper

 

The Hands that Lit the Shabbat Lamps


My mother’s hands –what did they dream?


Tough and weathered they are,

heavy, thick, square-

nailed, strong; did a lifetime 

 

of labor

in a man’s world; bore the weight of all our needs, 

the brunt 

 

of a mother-in-law’s tongue, Dad’s quick temper. How hard

those pale hands slaved –

tinted with turmeric, smelling of garlic, cilantro, 

or cloves, cinnamon and butter on high holidays

and at night Ponds Cold Cream. For special


times she wore 

nail polish for silk sari evenings, or gold jewelry events 

dad’s official dinners, for weddings. The rougher 

 
her fingers grew, the more 

she slid into her shell,

hiding her true heart. Just as her mother’s  

 

had even before the fourth, 

the unwanted daughter –my mother,


was born. When did her palms 

 
turn to steel? Child given extra 

work, less education than her sisters, even less play? 

 

These hands so old now, so brave, 

what did they dream? These hands that taught us how 

 
to light our shabbat lamps? When did they have soft 

skin? How wise these hands 

webbed 

 
with cracks, and curling early 

to fit inside my father’s palms. Now arms weak, 

 
heads bowed, they both stand by the door, 

reach to touch the mezuzah, 

say Shema, kiss

each other on the lips… Holding 

 
hands when they leave 

the house, she leads him –

 
the half-blind head of the house,

and takes one shaky step at a time.



Apples and Oranges


There never were any apples in Eden.

Only oranges –vibrant suns shining,

fruit of dust and heat that warmed to her pulse– 

beating stronger and brighter, 

fruit of earth itself. She was ripe like the sun 

before she even thirsted, reached and opened 

 
her petals to the radiance fragrant in her palm, 

before the lush fire licked her tongue 

 
and before the coiled serpent of Creation

threw her into subterranean shadow. 


She knew she would always be the sun

even when the gates closed behind her

 
and though History would try new tricks,

twist orange to apple,

the men with missing bones,

the snakes, would stay the same.

 

Where Sparrows Nest


above ceiling fans

and in the cement ventilators mynahs 


sing and screech all afternoon 

like children practicing

 
scales, here within these sun-filled 

walls, my parents live. This red 

 
brick building was young once,

banyan saplings now thrive in its cracks,  


and inside, large rooms and high ceilings 

offer spiders a home. The mice 

find ways into the three refrigerator- 

turned- cupboards and the oven 

 
stuffed with plastic bags and string. Bulbuls,

sometimes a golden oriole still visit 

the small medley of trees in the afternoon.



Crows are the kings 

of the breezy verandah, conquering 

more territory every day, hiding

 
their bloody treasures even under cushions,

behind old books, the photo 

 
of Robert Redford, the tiger cub 

poster in my room. My parents keep

 
those doors closed. They are Adam and Eve,

aged now, amid a forest 

 
they can’t let go. A ragged Eden

I never left. Where teak 

furniture made long ago to order 

is strong, though the upholstery 

wore away and cotton 

sheets cover it now. It gets a fresh

 
skin of soot every day. The walls 

have grown darker, but it's always bright 


in the late day sun. Frailer 

than the dust motes, my parents. 

 
I am already thinking of my next flight,

over the Atlantic, the Caspian Sea,

the Arabian desert, the Hindu Kush

mountains, the holy Ganga,

 
the rush up two flights of stairs,

mumble a quick Shema –


will I see their faces? Feel their thin  

arms, sweet embraces?  Or find 

empty shells, a handful 

of dusty feathers?

 

Night Watchmen

 
On the landing

shifty angels huddle

 

lovers of cocaine

 

these half-wraiths hunched 

outside our Kolkata apartment 

on the landing dark

 

as a young girl I chanted 

 

when I ran up the never-ending steps 

and before I slept and when I visit now 

 

Now I lay me down to sleep

 

they never raise their heads 

or look us in the eye

 

near the walls in smoky air they melt 

when I ring the bell 

I hold my breath till

mum or dad slowed by age 

will open the door

 

to sleep to sleep

how I prayed then with folded hands 

the prayer 

my grandma learnt in school

 

breathe in breathe out

the men shield a flaring match, hold their breath

 

Now I lay me down to sleep

 

when the stairs are bright with evening sun

thick vapor fogs the panes

breathe in breathe out

 

stifling heat 

their candles cast pale waves 

I pray I pray thee Lord

 

this slender teak door is a veil 

pulled over our small lives our eyes

 

our trembling in the shadow of our door posts

our trembling like the fingers of these men

 

starless night Thy love

the match flickers and dies

I pray thee Lord thy child to keep

 

the light the hallway light we turn off at night

the light replaced a hundred times

O keep dear Lord keep

our mezuzah stolen

the lamp ripped out every night

 

the broken bulb

swinging on its bare red wire

 

we bar the door and prepare to sleep 

but the men with slanted faces 

never go never go

Thy love go with

 

these men who have blackened the walls

with sooty fingers Thy love thy love

made murals of spit and handprints

 

these shadows of men

hold handfuls of blue flames

 

Thy love go with me all the night

foil-crackle and white dust

whispers echo in the throat of the stairs

                                                Wake me Lord Wake me 

 

some men fall at sunrise as if dead

some half-waking stir Thy love

some do not wake do not

Wake me O Lord, with the morning light

 

and the eyes who watch our helpless door

never sleep never sleep never sleep

 

The Eye of the Poppy 

(A long poem, in sections)

 
knows where the valley of shadow lies.

It is the valley 

of mothers searching

for their children.

 

Here, red petals stream 

in the wind and catch 

in the hair of the women 

who wander this place 

of silence. Look, here they come, 

the mothers searching 

for their children. Shh! Do not

startle them. They walk slowly

beside the still waters,

gather red petals, hold them

in their palms. These are the last

gifts from their children.  

Children who crave

the touch of a vanished 

hand. Red spills like wine 

through their fingers. They leave 

behind them at trail of petals 

that the children will find. 

The mothers have not slept 

since they were lifted 

from their bodies, have walked 

for miles in the night, 

been afraid but their blood-stained feet

never stop moving. Nor their torn

hands. Do not disturb

these mothers! Their eyes are

lanterns lighting their way

through fields of darkness.

 

*

 

break break break      the gray day is just begun

 

the sun                       is broken

in the valley of shattered hearts 

there is only shadow

 

no table laid out       for grieving mothers

soft are the fragments 

of poppies and silken 

are their strewn bodies. 

 

petals land on the still waters      sail like little boats

 

rest like ruby drops of holy oil    upon the head of every mother

when she walks through              her shadow 

                                                    into endless shadow 

and where

is the shepherd the staff the psalm

only petal rain                             grey shadow upon shadow

 

*

 

Here, where the petals flow like red rivers, my mother roams

She who was surprised by sudden darkness, sudden pain of light

She whose last breath flew up like a dove

 

I remember her eyes

There are petals that were her eyes her dance eyes

 

The poppy I hold closes its eye 

and will not show me the way

I will rip apart 

these blood-red veils these silken lies

 

*

 

O my mother. Gone from my sight forever.

She slipped too quickly through the black-lashed eye of the poppy. 

 

Who killed her? “I” said cock robin. With my bow and arrow.

“I” said the fly.  “I saw her die. With my little eye.  “I saw her die.”

 

The sand and bone wilderness has consumed her.

The heat shimmers up from the dunes.

Still she searches. Look, here she comes. 

She holds the petals I scattered over her fallen

body, her frail bamboo bier. Who saw her die?

Was there any peace for her in that wretched hall 

filled with so many dead and so many mourning? 

Could she see the black billows of smoke, 

the hissing furnaces? We paid the men 

what they wanted. We could not bargain 

for her bones. We brought home 

ashes. Our throats were filled

with thorns. Wilderness of sand and bone.

Ashes in a clay jar meant for water.

 

*

 

After the flames, 

did she cross the river? Who rowed her? Took her hand then? Where the shepherd? Psalmist? Psalm? Where the piper at the gates of dawn?  

 

O for the touch of a vanished hand

picking petals like pearls from the sea, her voice singing high and sweet,

her cotton robe red with flaring poppies and cabbage-green leaves as she wraps

her arms around me and sings you are my sunshine

 

 

*

 

Sunshine. It is a hot humid afternoon. Was I just four? 

A sunbeam streams through the window. It is a bridge of light and fine dust touching us both. I try to catch the dust motes. Then I turn open my palms to show her, but the room spins. Her hair is silver fire and her skin is the rippled sea and the wind begins to howl 

the grey day has just begun

 

*

 

the vanished

I will say Kaddish for you for a hundred years, mother. Yes, I a woman –and yes, alone. What minyan can stop me? What God, man or beast?

 

*

 

O cruel psalmist, do not disturb her!

It was you who stole

her voice from me. You 

who tore her into a thousand 

petals and scattered her flesh

across the dunes. Sing all you want, 

deceitful psalmist! I have ears only for her song. 

 

*

 

the red petals break break break

how hard the waves smash upon our separate shores

 

I will reach her 

in spite of the valley 

which opens 

like a black-lashed eye 

she will find me 

in spite of your veils

your vale of faces your honeyed lies

your song your lyre your seductive eyes

we will meet

where petals

become whole again

 

*

 

Move on, singer with lips like wine,

promises like heady poppies 

 

full of dew. Look behind you.  

The mothers have learned 

 

your secret. They are not afraid 

 

of your vales of nothingness. Your shallow promises. Your shadow heaven.  Your paper hell.  Your hollow lions and cotton-wool lambs. Your mighty deserts and sandstorms. They will walk through your thorns and find us. Look, 

 

her hands are petals of fire! Flowers 

I scattered over her 

like tears. 

 

She walks toward me now 

singing

you are my sunshine, my only sunshine

 

I see the lamps that are her eyes