Holding On

The things I believe in:

reason and faith

love and pity

gratitude and generosity

truth and patience

The things I have:

family and love

words and pictures

food and wine

prayers and lights

The things I’ll miss:

family and light

sound and sight

meals and snacks

the sky and the sea

Things which will last:

the sun and moon

art and science

boxes of photos

DNA and love.

Al Khet

For the sin we committed before you without knowing

For the pain we inflicted without looking back

For the offence we gave by inattention

For the offence we gave half-attentively

And for the sin we committed which we thought was a mitzvah

V’al kulam, Hashem selikhot, selakh lanu, makhal lanu, kapper lanu.

For the sin which we have forgotten

For being too absent and for being too present

For being too silent and for being too loud

For being insistent and for being inert

And for the sin of tweeting sarcastically

For all these sins, Hashem selikhot, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.

Continental Drift

A sharp word, offence taken

House red and galettes noirs

Another day, a branch snaps

Offence returns, the tide is in

Whipping the twilight sillons

A cold bed, hibernal dawn

Turns autumnal towards noon

A full carafe and gold Lambig

The frosted amity, the road, the sea

Dulce domum, the cold has reached

Ear, nose, throat, balsam tissues

In the Chinese restaurant

The phony peace, my throat

Constricted, resisting spring rolls

And Pinot too chilled to swallow

Our last supper a late lunch.

An email strikes, my faults named

Mea maxima, maxima culpa

Through a glass darkly but still

Puissant, force nine on Beaufort,

The continental drift is glacial

Ice sheets are cold as bed sheets

Thus a man and a woman

May cleave Europe in twain.

All My Decades

I was an infant, three months at the century’s half.

Never a time I didn’t know the word war,

The doll’s house wardrobe was my Dad’s ship

The doll’s house phone was Dad, in the ship,

He was a gunner. The phone was black

Like my Dad’s black hair.

My childhood was in the fifties. The books by Enid Blyton,

Malory Towers, St Clare’s, Famous Five, Secret Seven,

The Find-outers; also Frances Hodgson Burnett,

Louisa Alcott & Kenneth Grahame. I was Mole.

He was the most childlike, the least worldly,

Alone in the Wild Wood.

On the wireless they spoke of Suez and Anthony Eden

Dad got a car and a cine camera. We had a Highland holiday:

Lochs and pipers and my sister rode a horse

When we got back there was a new Prime Minister

And he had a Scottish name. Winds of change

Were sweeping here and there.

School was massive, Edwardian brick, and it took three years

For that fierce playground to be my safe domain;

I became an impresario and produced plays

Actors, songs, comedy in the classroom;

A bit of status before the sadness of puberty

In the new decade.

In the sixties, there was Coronation Street and the bomb,

Every day, I dreaded a nuclear war. My sister marched,

Aldermaston to London; then she was engaged,

Then away at college and I at my new school,

Twelve and overweight in a brown blazer,

Girls’ grammar, finicky rules.

At home I was like a lonely only child, Mum, Dad and me,

My grandmother and uncle died. Now there was death,

Besides the worry of the bomb and the new school

With homework to skimp, the inkwell and pen nibs;

I wanted to watch Dr Finlay’s Casebook

Across a hypotenuse.

Thirteen, fourteen, up to town with best friends

Followed by men old enough to know better

Wanting a boyfriend with intellectual heft

But at dances they were all hands and tongues.

The good news was a Labour government,

Wilson, the North, the Beatles.

Sixteen, seventeen, love, left wing activism,

Sex but not for enjoyment, more for politics,

Vietnam, Grosvenor Square, too much drink,

Antidepressants, psychiatrist, such nonsense,

Sergeant Pepper, No Satisfaction, Tambourine Man,

No place I’m going to.

I walked under the redbrick arch of the Arts Faculty,

1970, the fragrance of library books

Met my husband, conceived, graduated, married

Had a baby girl with a round little head and brown hair

Slowly she outgrew her delicate babygros, her cot,

Her Humperdinck musical bird.

Pregnant again, another baby, the girls play together

Toy koalas, Puffin married Gertrude the Hamster,

My own marriage hit the buffers and, apart,

We parented amicably to this very day;

Years and the Atlantic roll between us; the world shrinks,

The years fly fast as moths.

I had a lover who let his dog sleep on the bed;

In the wake of the Munich massacre and the Yom Kippur War

The Left parted company with Israel. Blasts of terror

Were heard in England and Northern Ireland;

On hearing a bat kol in Hampden Square

I forswore pig meat for ever.

David appeared in my life, carrying his little daughter,

His son close by; my girls eating heart shaped choc ices

The children played while we dated and loved

On New Year’s Eve his friends held a party

At the midnight hour, David said to me

‘The Eighties will be great.’

In 1980 we married, in a shul which is now a house,

I was pregnant and afraid of the bomb again;

In an Edmonton sports’ centre on Yom Kippur

An IRA bomb scare sent us all out of doors, swimmers in towels

Mingling where men held Sifrei Torah;

Fecund-nervous, I was first out.

Another baby girl, born that year and then,

In our third summer, a boy.  David worked and earned;

Beautiful and charismatic,

He sang like a chazan, mellifluous,

Insecure sometimes, later depressed,

Fearing middle age, a great irony.

On a weekday summer night, he got us all in the car,

Drove us to Waggon Road, a vantage point,

Spelled Wagon at the other end,

To view a stupendous sunset where he said

‘M’lo chol haaretz cavodo,’

‘The whole earth is full of His glory.’

1990 he had cancer, wore an implanted syringe,

Traveled with it on the plane to Tel Aviv,

Amused our children in Jerusalem

Skipping along with the night time shadows,

A man sang Birchat ha Mazon at a shabbat lunch,

David joined in, v’imru amen.

On a Galilee tourist boat, his pain returned;

Back to London and more chemo,

My parents’ golden wedding party,

Hospital, home, diamorphine, summer,

World Cup, hospital, morphine, saline drip

Doctor, nurses, the end.

The nineties were still ahead of me.

The older children were adults

The younger ones fatherless,

The house full of their friends every day

While the grown up girls had boyfriends

And, serially, I had partners too.

I worked with salt of the earth colleagues;

We had microfiche in those days,

Biography of Diana selling hand over fist

The People’s Princess all around us

The dawn of Tony Blair, a fast car in Paris

Tunnel, crash, death, aftermath.

Eve of the Millennium, at a sedate party,

The  guests played Who Wants to be a Millionaire

For chocolate prizes; the Eiffel Tower

Scintillated on TV,  our hostess who sparkled

With lively, benevolent charm

Is gone now, gone too soon.

Some friends made an introduction

And a tall, moustached lawyer appeared,

He knew the Köchel numbers for Mozart

The names of Beethoven sonatas

Played the children’s untuned piano

Could speak Russian and French.

Lived with him ten years, married for eight,

Loved him for seven years, then things happened,

The solicitor’s office, even the Christmas lights

Which lighten the mood in the darkest days

At Enfield’s Palace Gardens mall

Could not lighten my eyes.

In the first decade of the third millennium

My parents lost their health. They moved

Into a residential home, house and contents sold

Except for old school reports, exercise books,

Receipts from simchas of long ago

And paper headed LCC.

Nine eleven, in Seville far from the news

My firstborn in London pregnant

The girls dialing New York and dialing again

The phones down, the stupor, the rolling dust

Their father in lower Manhattan,

Deo gratias, he phones from a safe place.

2010, the decree absolute

The new flat, my son’s wedding

The Maghrebi ululation

As bride and groom were lifted on chairs

Caught in the photographer’s flash

Above the dancers’ crush.

Mum and Dad’s seventieth anniversary

The carers made dinner for two,

Rose petals on the table linen

An interviewer from Radio4 asked

‘What is the secret of your long marriage?’

‘Love,’ said Dad, ‘Love, love love.’

The next year he died, ninety-four,

Righteous to the end. Unexpectedly

Mum strengthened herself and carried on.

I dreamed of babies and babies came

Two more grandsons and a baby girl

Renewed my days as of old.

Next week would have been Mum’s century

But she made it to ninety-eight

And I turn threescore years and ten;

Already I have longevity.  Housman’s trees,

The sea, the sunset, the coloured lights,

I will miss them when I’m gone.

Populists and bigots now hold sway

But the divine sparks are all around

The sparks fly upward as seen by Job

‘Man is born unto trouble.’ Thus it was

From Patriarchal times until the present day

And still we reach toward the sparks.

Another Tashlich

Such golden days we had on all the Tashlichs

So rarely did the clouds cast a shadow

Over the autumnal East Walk with its sluggish brook

Where generations tossed bread, as if for ducks;

The young became adult and the adults old,

Different dogs over the years romped and sniffed

While we congregated on the bridge

And never thought to be afraid.

 

We had our honey cake and ate it

At the nearby house of Roz and Steve,

Where trays of tea never stopped coming

As wearing yontef clothes is thirsty work.

We could don kippot in the street,

We could display a Star of David

Small gold pendant, oblique modern silver.

Or a white and blue youth club T shirt.

 

Someone spat at Rose in Asda last week.

Her Star of David was visible, she said.

In 2018, you don’t wear a Magen David,

Not in Asda, by the Walkers multipacks.

There are online narratives full of old stories

Jewish usury, Rothschilds, Soros,

New World Order, David Icke,

They penetrate the mainstream

 

They reach unexpected places: Labour, the Trade Unions

The Uni,  Asda as we heard and West End pubs:

Dr D was set on in The Red Lion;

It was the t-shirt, but he got away.

Our postwar generation in fair Albion

Came in and went out in peace

Still do but many of us are nervous,

Jittery with a little inherited PTSD

 

For which they hate us, some of them.

Our elders went out weeping, not us;

We came back joyfully

Carrying our sheaves in Asda bags.

My uncle worked in remnants, textiles,

Selling rolls of cloth in the markets

It was the nineteen sixties.

I thought remnant was a funny word.

 

I did not know that we were the remnant.

‘Guardian of Israel guard the remnant of Israel

And suffer not Israel to perish

Who say Hear O Israel.’

Years later I went to Tashlich,

Still high after the uncanny tekiah

And the Avinu Malkenu.‘Save us,’ we said.

We say it still but with a different  cadence.

 

 

Gillian Lazarus  Elul 5778

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Days of December

The life of our love is drawing to a close

With the very slightest of death rattles,

Affection, desire, companionship,

Disappointment, resentment, a few battles,

They are sailing over the horizon,

They are wandering in no man’s land.

A quiet, exhausting sorrow attends me;

Five years we walked hand in hand,

Full of words, stories, jokes, meals,

Favourite films and special places,

Love dies but leaves an estate

Of associations and vegistial traces.

We avoided the L word; at least, you did,

I spoke it sometimes, fyi,

Having nothing to lose by it,

Love being a condition, not a battle cry.

I used a metaphor of glass baubles,

Intense, luminous colour, so brittle

They can shatter at a touch;

Wrap them now in a white kittel,

Handling with tensed, careful fingers.

Put them away out of sight.

They were lovely in their season,

Inappropriate beyond twelfth night.

A person can learn how to forget,

And only then, select something to remember,

But the big ship has sailed on the alley alley-O

In the last days of December.

 

21 December 2017

 

 

 

The Last Poem of Michal Bat Shaul

Four years have passed since the death of of the king,

I mean David my husband whose son reigns;

May the king live for ever, Solomon,

The child of one of David’s other wives.

 

I was a year or two younger than David,

But now I’m a little older. Time is short.

I have this mischief in my blood

And various other related symptoms

 

I don’t want to cause boredom or offence

So, like Forrest Gump, ‘That’s all I’ll say about that.’

I’m in bed as I write this on an ostracon

My wrist isn’t strong so my mems look like tets.

 

I’ve survived all my nieces and nephews

And I never had children of my own.

A couple of maidservants should ease my end

With supplies of mandrake and olive leaves.

 

But I’ve had a most unexpected visit!

You’ll never guess. Go on, give it a go.

I’ll give you a clue, ‘High and mighty,’

Yes, it was Solomon the king.

 

He wasn’t at all what I expected.

He was so friendly and unassuming.

I’d last seen him at his coronation,

Where his mother, Bathsheba, was queening it.

 

I tried to stand up but that didn’t work out,

Solomon said, ‘Can I sit on the bed?

I’ll try not to squash you.’ I just nodded.

I think the surprise took my breath away.

 

Then I said, ‘The King does me a great honour.’

‘Not at all,’ he replied, ‘You were my father’s wife,

You helped him escape, he owed his life to you,

Which means that, indirectly, so do I.’

 

I very much wanted to be sitting up

And gestured to my servant for a pillow.

She put one behind my back which helped a bit

But I still wasn’t perpendicular.

 

I spoke self-deprecatingly,

‘Oh, that time when he got out through the window –

All I had to do was open a casement

Which I’m sure he could have managed himself.’

 

I was staggered that he even knew of it

Because David was always furious

When I reminded him how I’d helped,

Deceiving my father’s men while he fled.

 

I probably mentioned it too often

But repetition must have done the trick

As here was his son, recounting my version,

My essential role in the making of a king.

 

Who had told him? Was it Bathsheba

Or, as I preferred to think, David himself?

‘How do you know about that?’ I asked,

Essaying a laugh, just to seem casual.

 

‘It was Zadok the priest as I recall,’

He answered, ‘but he got it off of Nathan.

Nathan knew absolutely everything.

He was the annals of King David on legs.’

 

I was perking up at the scent of gossip.

‘Wasn’t Nathan very discreet?’ I asked.

‘I don’t do lashon ha-ra,’[1] said the king,

Then, with a small sigh, ‘but, since you ask, no.’

 

His eyes brightened and he leaned towards me,

‘But I’ll tell you who does do lashon ha-ra,’

And then laughed, so I realized it was a joke,

Solomon sitting on my bed cracking jokes.

 

In my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have believed it.

The next thing, I was waking up and he was gone.

‘Was King Solomon here? I asked my maid.

‘Yes ma’am,’ she said. ‘He sat just here, on your bed.’

 

‘Where is he now?’ I asked, a bit fretfully.

‘He left ma’am, after you fell asleep.’

Then it seemed David was sitting on my bed,

So, even unconscious, I knew it was a dream.

 

I speak first. ‘Solomon was here,’ I say.

David: ‘I know, I sent him. To comfort you.’

Me: ‘But you didn’t even like me.’

David: ‘You were the bride of my youth

 

And I know you loved me to the end.’

Me: ‘That’s a no-brainer. Everyone loved you.’

I find my servant is feeding me olive leaves

And something else so I know I’m awake.

 

She gives me water but there’s a bitter taste,

I think it’s my tongue. David used to say

I had a bitter tongue when I criticized.

He said that was why he didn’t… Must sleep.

 

I’m looking through a window and David’s there.

He’s a bowshot away but he sees me,

Then he’s entering through the window

But it’s confusing because now it’s me

 

They – who? – are putting me through a window,

It must be on the floor because I’m lowered…

Here’s my servant with something for me to drink

From a spoon. ‘You gave me already,’ I say.

 

She says, ‘That was at noon. Look, the sun has set.’

My eyes follow her pointing finger: the window.

David – or Solomon – climbs out through the window.

‘Gird up your skirts so that they don’t trip you.’

 

Who said that? Maybe it was me. That makes sense.

There’s a wall, our high stone wall and he’s there,

Behind the wall, Solomon, no, David,

Gazing through the window, peering through…what?

 

Harakh.[2] It’s scorched. No, peering through the lattice.

My beloved spoke thus to me, ‘Arise my love,

My fair one, come away. For lo, the winter…’

The winter, the window, for lo the window.

 

Below the window. And he looks up at me.

I look down, but now I go through the window.

Now the window is past. Strange word, winter.

Solomon’s word. They say he’s wise, wiser,

 

He’ll build the Temple in Jerusalem.

David couldn’t, you know. I sought him,

I sought but I found him not. I must rise

And roam the town. I must rise. I must.

 

[1] Malicious speech

[2] Lattice or scorch

November 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Malicious speech

Poem for Balfour 100

I thought the historian wept,

At least, his voice cracked,

As well it might: his words for the past hour

Had exceeded the speed limit

The lecture hall was his fast lane.

Now, in his closing remarks, he spoke of tears –

Not specifying who shed them,

Nor did he need to, our tears and his,

And the tears of our enemies

And of our fathers and mothers,

Of martyrs among us and of victims we made,

Of top hatted politicians

And the indigent Eastend Jews

Who gathered in Fieldgate Street

Outside the synagogue (established 1899)

And sang Hatikvah, ‘The Hope.’

November 1917, the Balfour letter

Spoke with favour of a homeland

On excessively holy ground

Overflowing with history

And conflicting rights from time immemorial,

So this, after the  rootlessness,

The pogroms and the libels,

Rekindled the dormant spark.

A century passes and hope mutates;

Hope of reconciliation

Hope of affirmation

Hope for the abiding nation.

‘Notwithstanding all the tsures,’

The historian said and halted,

I thought he was overcome,

But he picked up his burden

Like the prophets of ancient times:

‘Notwithstanding all the tsures

It seems right to celebrate

The Balfour Declaration.’

The audience rose up and applauded.

Perhaps many thought as I did

Of the remnant of Israel

And the Guardian of that remnant,

Of beachside hotels, milk and honey,

Venality of power, Iron Dome,

The dispossessed neighbour

The blood lust of enmity

Digital innovation, medical progress,

The borders, the strictures, the wall,

The West Bank Barrier, sprayed

By Banksy’s mandatory enlightenment.

And the other wall, where we pray,

‘Suffer not Israel to perish,’

Tangled and tenacious flora persist,

Obtruding between the bricks.

Visitors pressing their hands against the wall,

Feel the heat of  accumulated prayer,

Some wail aloud but some are silent

Always weeping, always hoping.

2 November 2017

The Beginning of Saul’s Troubles

Rembrandt

What do you do when a judge is unpunctual,

When your valued mentor shows up late?

When a battle’s outcome hangs in the balance?

Do you just sit on your hands and wait?

If you’re me, suburban grandmother,

You can spare ten minutes or half an hour,

But it’s not like that if you’re a king,

General of an army, a man of power.

So you’ve guessed where I’m going with this,

I always come back to this biblical drama:

Saul’s wishful eyes scanning the horizon

For the tardy prophet from Ramah.

The Philistines assembled in Michmas;

They had chariot, horse and sword,

They outnumbered the Israelites

Who saw them as a fighting horde.

No wonder some men of Israel slipped away,

Saul could see his meagre army dwindling.

What do you do when your troops lose courage?

When their élan vital needs rekindling?

A battle had to be consecrated;

An animal, likely a ram or a calf

Was sacrificed; usually Samuel’s job.

In his absence, Saul did it on his behalf.

And wouldn’t you know it, the very moment

When Saul’s eyes were smarting from the smoke

Which rose from the altar, along came the judge,

Seer, prophet, wearing his signature cloak.

Whenever Samuel looked censorious,

Saul, based on experience, was fearful.

Sure enough, Samuel said ‘You should have waited,’

And proceeded to give Saul an earful.

‘If only you’d waited, like I told you,’

He said, ‘your reign could have been dynastic,

But now, God isn’t pleased, not pleased at all,

I know He’s planning something drastic,

Lining up another king.’  ‘But,’ said Saul,

‘I’m the king –  it was you who appointed me;

I was just looking for my father’s asses,

When you got a vial of oil and anointed me.’

‘Well it was a mistake,’ Samuel answered.

‘You’re the one they call seer,’ Saul protested,

‘What’s the point if you never see?’

’The point is, I did what God requested,

It’s called obedience, you should try it.’

He’d given instructions which Saul didn’t heed,

Now disappointment made him speak harshly,

Truly, Samuel had wanted Saul to succeed.

Samuel had a way of leaving abruptly.

As for valedictory niceties,

They were unknown to him; he went on his way,

Parting from Saul without benedicites.

Saul’s men, lacking state-of-the-art weapons,

Beat back the Philistines, against all odds,

The most valiant being Jonathan,

Who said ‘The glory isn’t ours but God’s.’

These words appear in one of the later psalms,

‘Non nobis domine.’ The battle was won,

But, for Saul, the kingdom was already lost.

The story of his successor had begun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stars and Constellations

Jericho

The children of Israel may not touch

The arts of occult divination

Which other nations practised much

By means of star and constellation.

But Joseph could interpret dreams

And Daniel too possessed that skill,

And miracles occur, it seems,

The waters part; the sun stands still.

In Babylon, an almanac

Explained the changes in the sky

With symbols of the zodiac

Which last a month and then pass by.

The water signs, the fish and crab

The bigger beasts, the ram and bull,

The lion in the month of Ab,

Yields to the virgin of Elul.

But we are not allowed to plunder

The seductive wisdom of the mages,

Though scientists suppose with wonder

Infinities of  monkey cages.

A synagogue in Jericho

Displays a Zodiac mosaic

From fifteen hundred years ago,

Both enigmatic and archaic.

Unleavened bread and paschal lamb

Remind us we were Pharaoh’s slaves,

Went free beneath the Aries ram

And walked dry shod between the waves,

Received twin tablets of the Law

When the sign of Gemini prevails

Our deeds judged in the Days of Awe

The season of the Libra scales.

We read of Noah and his ark

When winter’s near and clouds hang low,

The afternoons are growing dark

The astral archer draws his bow.

The necromancer’s eerie art

Is banned, for that way madness lies,

But astrophysicists may chart

The restless motion in the skies.

Elul 5777