- Way Beyond the Girl-Nots
Hi Betti! I welcome our conversation. There are similarities in our poems, so I wonder if our backgrounds are similar also. Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I grew up in Philadelphia, PA. My neighborhood was an ethnic mix. For a time I was the only Jewish kid on the block. Not especially easy post WWII. But during school years a wonderful sense of community grew among my friends. Later I became a teacher and then a speech therapist, and loved both. The children I taught lived in a mostly poor, white neighborhood. I was a therapist in an all Afro-American school. This is a poem about my childhood.
The Space Between
the wall and the wallpaperthe glue of belongingto family, neighborhood
being Jewish, differentways of seeing, beingin a tight spot—airless.
As a child, she asked What does unity mean? [End Page 162]
To a pasty sort of hangman she said,You don't know me. You chose thewrong person. You thought
I was someone else.
Your turn now. How about you, Elaine?
I also taught! Inner city kids, a real United Nations. And I grew up in Toronto, in a Jewish corner of the city. Of the 45 or so kids in my classroom (post-war baby boom! large classes in those days) maybe 1 or 2 kids were not Jewish, so they had to fit in with us. The Japanese family would serve kosher hotdogs at birthday parties. We weren't at all deprived, but we were nonetheless affected by the war. We were hellions, but easy to teach because we had to do well in school. Our parents were in a sense survivors, or people with survivor's guilt. In my mother's case, there was a sister-in-law and three children who never made it to Canada because "none was too many." Mom's brother waited just a bit too long to send for his wife and kids. By then Canada was closed to Jews. My paternal Bubby kept cigar boxes full of old photos, and every now and then she'd take them out and show me the people who died in the war—friends and relations whom "Hitler murdered" (her expression). Things you learn early never leave you, so in a sense, I am the woman in my poem Fitness, the woman with "race memory."
Lonely figure late at nightThinly dressed hollow facedMoves quickly through the streets;Born to comfort after the warShe is back in Warsaw GhettoPursued by death; There is memoryin the race She is running.
Haunting, Elaine. That's what I perceived in your poem: that you are the woman. A lot to think about: running from, to what exactly?
Back to the 2006 Resistance issue of Bridges in which our poems appeared, and yours was the connector for me: you spoke of your grandmother and father who escaped pogroms in Russia, and of their socially progressive ideals. Our backgrounds are similar, though there's a bit of a time warp in my family, so it was my father, a conscripted Jew who escaped from the Czar's Army. He [End Page 163] came here a strong Socialist, Unionist. The Workmen's Circle, also a part of my life; where I learned Yiddish, great folksongs, cultural history. My parents both worked in the garment industry. I and my children inherited many of their liberal values. The following is an homage to my father.
A train to the Lithuanian border almost skittles my fatherwho'd just deserted the Czar's army, conscript, eighteen,Jew hidden under the floor-length full skirt of a passenger.No tall tale this, his escape from soldiers who checked
for runaways like him, terror sewn to his cap's visor. A stoicwoman beckoned as shield. Breath held and heartbeat skipped.
Beneath the woman's skirt, he recalled in fast-reversehis comrade napping on duty. My father seized that gift, fledthe camp through the back of...