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Over the Rooftops of Time

Jewish Stories, Essays, Poems

Myra Sklarew

Publication Year: 2003

Wide-ranging and poignant reflections on literature, art, science, and memory. In this collection of essays, stories, and poems, award-winning poet and fiction writer Myra Sklarew traces a journey across the latter half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Her point of view is Jewish, though her subjects include science, exile, the future, the Holocaust, the remaining Jewish community of Morocco, Yiddish poetry, the visual arts, and teaching. Many of these pieces deal with personal subjects—the search for a grandfather’s birthplace, the death of a mother, the profound effect of a teacher, the struggle of a woman to embrace Judaism. Whether writing about medicine, Messiah, or the first speech of an infant, Sklarew’s work finds its roots in Judaism, a Judaism fashioned in large part by the author’s own hands. Ultimately, the book is about access, about following one’s own curiosity despite the obstacles that might appear along the way. And it is about a kind of belief: that nothing will be wasted, that all that we can learn will have a place in our lives eventually, though we may not know its purpose at the time.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Series: SUNY series in Modern Jewish Literature and Culture

Title Page

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Grateful thanks to Marianna Volkov for use of her photograph of Joseph Brodsky; to Lithuanian artists Adomas Jacovskis for “Hesitating Bird,” his sister Aleksandra Jacovskaite for the cover art—consummate, unique talents; to my sister Janice Eanet who has since childhood helped me to live; ...

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pp. xi-xiii

It is said that the Jewish homeland is alive in time. That each of us is poured like the contents of a vessel from Sinai to here. That even those not yet born will bear the inscription of Sinai. Whether the subject in these essays is language or memory, the intent is to provide a trace of that homeland. ...

Learning the Language

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The Landscape of Dislocation

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pp. 3-7

There are no troops marching along our borders. I do not hear the sounds of German or Russian or Czech, of French, Italian, or Polish. Only the inexact rendering of the language into which I was born: English. The language my mother, the daughter of immigrants, so cherished. She would be dismayed to ...

From the Backyard of the Diaspora

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pp. 8-9

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Learning the Language

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pp. 10-17

For many years I have tried to learn Hebrew. I have studied conversational Hebrew (Habet Ushma), Hebrew for travelers, total immersion Hebrew, Hebrew for schoolchildren, Hebrew for beginners, Hebrew for beginning adults, painless Hebrew, painful Hebrew, prayer Hebrew, Hebrew in the marketplace, ...

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Who Has Not Dreamed of Flying?

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pp. 18-22

I was once in an elevator face-to-face with Isaac Bashevis Singer. He had just given a talk on why it was not necessary to create any more characters for our fiction. God the novelist, he told us, had made more than enough characters to go around! I overcame for once my difficulty in speaking and said to him: ...

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Yiddish Poetry

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pp. 23-26

The particular, so absorbing to the Yosemite climber, his hammock suspended from pitons over empty space, is reminiscent of Yiddish suspended between the dot under the letter Yud, the smallest vowel sign of the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, which nonetheless begins the tetragrammaton ...

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Morocco: Gauze Curtains, Round Tombs, Hidden Jews

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pp. 27-32

In Marrakesh—a great African trading center at the edge of the Sahara—I walk to the synagogue for Shabbat service. I think about the journeys of Jews through strange lands as I hear the biblical portion about Joseph in Egypt. In Casablanca—once a French colonial town—as we women sit in the ...

What Hasanin M’Barak Said

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pp. 33-34

Like a Field Riddled by Ants

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In the Afterlife Which Is a Library

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pp. 37-38

I think to myself, I knew it wasn’t good when my analyst told me to forget about guilt. But what, I had argued with him, should I do about the 613 good deeds I hadn’t yet performed? He leaned back in his Viennese chair among the figurines he was always collecting. Sometimes I couldn’t see his face for all ...

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The Messenger

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pp. 39-42

Sometimes I believe they are sent to me. God’s messengers. To test me. This one never smiled. He stood in the doorway of my office, solid as a tree trunk. The confusion of phones ringing, conversations of colleagues, urgent students, never fazed him. He was his grandmother’s emissary. ...

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Getting There

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pp. 43-47

There was a ritual uncertainty about getting to the cemetery. Charts and maps were prepared beforehand. Bridges were accounted for; alternate routes studied and rehearsed. But even as they drove, the road stretched out before them, increasing itself to the horizon; their small green car appeared to be ...

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Like a Field Riddled by Ants

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pp. 48-53

At first, the interruptions were of no consequence. Like the locket of air contained in a keyhole. Later, they widened, like a doorway. Gradually the number of interruptions increased like the number of days that pass in a year until I felt in myself a constant yearning I could not name. As I moved through the ...

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My Companion the Aleph-Bet

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pp. 54-58

I once made a pact with myself: I would buy the first volume of the Babylonian Talmud, make poems of it, and read it, not so much as a scholar or religionist, but in the manner of the poet, grazing here and there, attracted by one passage, skipping the next, remembering days later a phrase or a word, trying always ..

The World Is a Parchment Scrawled with Words

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pp. 61-64

This exile lends to the poet’s voice the anguish of dislocation, resignation, longing, and irony. He looks in from the outside, though he exists in the center of the fire. Like the dreamer who is both observing and observed, the poet is the central actor and audience at the same instant. He negotiates the ...

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A Journal for John Holmes

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pp. 69-75

AUGUST 12, 1996: The word was that if your poem was good it was a one-grunt poem. And if it was very good, it was a two-grunt poem. And if superb, it rated three grunts from John Holmes. The truth was, as articulate as he was through his writing, as alive in his words, so he was reticent in person. ...

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Night Watch

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pp. 65-68

“The Holocaust,” poet Barbara Goldberg writes, “was the uninvited guest. Greedy and sly, it gobbled up everything.” She is the daughter of survivors, the granddaughter of those who could not imagine another life long enough to escape in time. Though more than thirty years old when she ...

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From Alexandria to American Via Amtrak

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pp. 76-78

I was once on a train heading north along the Hudson River when the conductor sent out a clarion call over the loudspeaker: “Who knows the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? A prize for the winner!” For a split second I couldn’t imagine where I was. It was the kind of question I had dreamed of being asked. ...

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Interview with Joseph Brodsky February 28, 1979

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pp. 79-88

In 1964 Joseph Brodsky was charged with social parasitism and convicted of idleness, a legitimate crime in the Soviet Union. He was sentenced to five years’ hard labor in the Arkhangelsk region of Northern Russia. He speaks of this time in his life as a “previous incarnation.” After pressure from many fronts, ...

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The Howard Poets in Perspective

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pp. 89-92

Samuel Allen (the poet Paul Vesey) said once that an entire generation of poets had been passed over in terms of public recognition largely because it had come into its own before the Civil Rights movement had gathered sufficient momentum. Publishing was essentially closed to the African American poet ...

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pp. 93-98

The student always begins, “Agosto, contraponientes de melocoton y azucar . . .” (August, the opposing of peach and sugar), and that is where the difficulty begins and seems to end. It is not hard to imagine what Federico Garcia Lorca had intended when he said “The sun inside of the afternoon like ...

Life, The Unfinished Experiment

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The Selfish Gene (or, Cortazar’s Watch)

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pp. 101-102

In the world according to Argentine writer Julio Cortazar, when we are presented with a watch we are being gifted with “a tiny flowering hell, a wreath of roses, a dungeon of air.” It is not simply a “good brand, Swiss, seventeen rubies,” not a “minute stonecutter which will bind you by the wrist and walk ...

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The Knockout Mouse on the Doorstep of Neurobiology (or, the Mind/Body Problem Revisited)

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pp. 103-105

These days, neuroscience is beginning to resemble philosophy. The age-old questions about the nature and location of consciousness, the relationship of mind to body and self to physical world, are being asked once again, but this time in more concrete terms by neuroscientists. ...

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AIDS: Latency and HIV Reservoirs: In the Dark Backward and Abysm of Time

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pp. 106-108

Prospero, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, inquires of his daughter Miranda what she remembers of her hidden past: “What seest thou else/ In the dark backward and abysm of time?” Thus does Prospero proceed to fill in the silence, telling how they came to reside on an island, of twelve years lived in an ...

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Human Gene Therapy

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pp. 109-113

Scientists, like Talmudic scholars, work along a continuum—some researching the minute particulars of an issue, others looking at whole structures. The Talmudist might ask: How shall we know which prayers to recite during the three watches of the night? By what signals shall we determine when ...

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The Puzzle People

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pp. 114-116

At a meeting in Capri not long ago,” Thomas Starzl writes in his Memoirs, “I was asked by an Italian journalist, ‘Do you think that in the next decade a puzzle man with a heart, liver and pancreas taken from other human beings might be feasible?’” Starzl, an international pioneer in the controversial field ...

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Genes, Blood, and Courage: A Boy Called Immortal Sword

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pp. 117-120

The question arises in these decades of radical change in science and medicine: Who shall tell the stories of medical quests and scientific discoveries? More often now the stories are being told by the researchers and physicians at the center of discovery. Some are told as memoirs—as with François Jacob’s ...

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Root Causes: Stem Cells and the Tower of Babel

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pp. 121-125

Like Babel, a “lunatic tower launched at the stars,” the dream of finding the hematopoietic stem cell, progenitor of all other blood cells, has haunted researchers for years. To recover the source. As in language, to discover the single primal alphabet that lies behind our present discord, “behind the tumult of ...

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The Statue Within

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pp. 126-130

S igmund Freud wrote: “Every night human beings lay aside the wrappings in which they have enveloped their skin, as well as anything which they may use as a supplement to their bodily organs, for instance, their spectacles, their false hair and teeth. When they go to sleep they carry out an entirely ...

A Place Called Gehinom

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Writing the Holocaust: auch ohne/Sprache

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pp. 133-148

Norma Rosen, in her collected essays, Accidents of Influence, writes in “Notes Toward a Holocaust Fiction”: “Whether or not we’re crazy with the weight and grief of it . . . we are astonishingly sane. Only sanity remembers. Sanity makes a home for the dead.” And in her essay “The Second Life of Holocaust Imagery,” ...


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pp. 149

On Muranowska Street

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pp. 150-151


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pp. 152-153


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pp. 154-155

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The Roots of Resistance

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pp. 156-158

What is missing at Le Chambon are the Jews. One sees the place well enough, the steep streets of a village and the police who have come to arrest Pastor Trocme seated at the dinner table because the pastor’s wife insisted that the evening meal be taken. One sees the townspeople coming to bring gifts to him, ...

Instructions for the Messiah

Crossing Over

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pp. 161-162

Instructions for the Messiah

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pp. 163-164

What is a Jewish Poem?

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pp. 165-166

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pp. 167-169

I have begun to forget the meaning of words. Arieh writes to me from his settlement in the south to say that the khamsin has come early. In autumn. I look at the word for a long time: autumn. Does it come before summer? Before spring? Autumn: dusk? Autumn. I have lost it. Its certainty. The way it once had ...

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Crossing into the New Millennium: American University Convocation, August 1998

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pp. 170-175

As we walk up the steep incline of the final years of this millennium, we have witnessed the staccato light from the tracers and antiaircraft fire above the ancient riverbeds that were our mothers and fathers ten thousand years ago—Iraq, the birthplace of the legal code of Hammurabi, the city of Nineveh. ...

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Grandfather: Lost and Found

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pp. 176-181

On June 23, 1998, I found my grandfather. It wasn’t that I had lost him. He died before I was born. 1932. I was given his name. As an old woman in Lithuania told me, the name means shining light. “Like your face,” she said. But I did not know where my grandfather was born. Nor where he grew up. ...

Ode to the Czar’s Assassin

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pp. 182-186

The Messiah Reconsidered

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pp. 187-190


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pp. 191-194

Index of Names

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pp. 195-198

E-ISBN-13: 9780791487662
E-ISBN-10: 0791487660
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791455753
Print-ISBN-10: 0791455750

Page Count: 212
Illustrations: 3 b/w photographs
Publication Year: 2003

Series Title: SUNY series in Modern Jewish Literature and Culture

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Subject Headings

  • Judaism -- Literary collections.
  • Jews -- Literary collections.
  • Judaism.
  • Jews.
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