Brown as a boat, bottom up on a mud bank,
starred with seeds, the rye bread of my childhood
transports me to the past. When I take a bite,
I’m walking down Castor Avenue, past the post office
and deli, where spitted chickens spin in the window.
In the bakery, I ask the clerk to slice it thin as paper,
just barely warm. Glazed Danish, shimmering
with yolk-orange apricot, rivals the sun
for brightness, but I prefer the taste of rye bread
spread with shmaltz, a melting golden pool,
with gribenes, crispy onion cracklings,
caraway seeds snapping under my teeth.
In winter, at the table with my steaming bowl
of soup, I’d dip a slice of rye bread in the broth.
In summer, I’d trade pennies, counted out
along the counter, for a taste of cold cuts
on fresh rye, fat lime-green pickle out of the barrel.
After dinner, I would ride my bike for hours
past the library, around the block till fireflies
lit up the lawns with green-gold fire.
A wall of words stands between the old world
and my own. No one in my family spoke Yiddish,
or at least not in my proximity. My parents
spoke the tongue when they were children,
but they’d forgotten how by the time
I came along. Even my paternal grandmother,
born in the Ukraine, seldom used a Yiddish word,
pretending to be someone other than she was.
I took the ruse for truth. My mother’s father
came from England. That’s why I didn’t
recognize the insults or the praise my friends'
grandparents would parley as they pinched
my cheeks, praising my shayna punim,
calling me a yenta to my smiling face.
They took me for a shiksa. In truth,
I was another kind of Jew, a new variety,
to whom the shtetls and the Second War
were only pictures in a history book, the Old
World far away and foreign, the old tongue
incomprehensible, grating to my ear.
Robbi Nester is a Jewish poet who frequently gets mail mistakenly addressed to "Rabbi Nester." She is the author of four books of poetry, the most recent being Narrow Bridge (Main Street Rag, 2019). She has also edited three anthologies of poetry. The most recent is The Plague Papers, which may be read for free at http://www.Poemeleon.me/peruse-the-mall. Her poems, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared widely, most recently at Book of Matches, Verse Virtual, Sheila Na Gig, Inflectionist Review, MacQueen's Quinterly, and Live Encounters. Forthcoming work will appear at Gargoyle, Spillway, and SWWIM.