Dedicated to Ariella, who loves Yehuda Amichai in the original Hebrew,
and my forthcoming great grandchild whom she carries in her swelling belly
At Torah study this past Saturday, Rabbi Mark Shapiro, visiting from Springfield, Massachusetts, where he had been rabbi at Sinai Temple, reintroduced me to the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, whom I had not read for years. Yehuda was reborn when he arrived in Palestine at the age of twelve, the same year my older brother, Al, was born. Like my brother, Yehuda died seventeen years ago.
As it turned out, Mark Shapiro was from Toronto, had once been an associate rabbi at my synagogue (1977-1982) when I was not a member, had studied intellectual history at York University when I taught there, and, most surprising of all to me, his father was Dr. Bernie Shapiro, head of Mount Sinai Hospital’s radiology (now called “Imaging”) Department where I worked when I lived in the hospital as a medical student.
One of the stanzas we read was the following third one from the poem, “My Parents’ Motel”:
My mother was a prophet and didn’t know it,
Not like Miriam the Prophetess dancing with
cymbals and tambourines,
not like Deborah who sat under the palm tree
and judged the people,
not like Hulda who foretold the future,
but my own private prophet, silent and stubborn,
I am obliged to fulfill everything she said
and I’m running out of lifetime.
My mother was a prophet when she taught me
the do’s and don’ts of everyday, paper verses
for one use only: You’ll be sorry,
you‘ll be exhausted, that will do you good,
like a new person, you’ll really love it, you
won’t be able to, you won’t like that,
you‘ll never manage
to close It, I knew you wouldn’t remember,
forget give take rest, yes you can you can.
And when my mother died, all her little
predictions came together
In one big prophecy that will last
until the Vision of the End of Days.
(translation from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld)
What kind of prophet did Amichai envisage his mother to be? He contrasted her with Miriam, Deborah and Hulda. I begin by comparing her to Mary Ball Washington, the mother of George Washington, the first president of the United States. In the Saturday Washington Post, Gregory Schneider wrote an article entitled, “The mother who made George Washington – and made him miserable.” (12 May 2017) The article begins with a tale as good as can be found anywhere in the Mishna about a visit George made to his mother when she was eighty years old. In just a few lines, we grasp the core of their relationship that makes it sound like one taken out of a Seinfeld episode.
George: Guess what? They want me to be president.
Mom: I’m dying.
George, flustered: Well, as soon as I get settled in New York, I’ll come back and …
Mom: This is the last time you’ll ever see me. But go, do your job. That’s more important.
Schneider described the relationship of George and Mary. George was very attached to his mother who hectored him as her son rolled his eyes at what she said. Evidently, when George was elected president and when he and Martha went to give her the news in Fredericksburg, Mary informed her eldest son that she was deathly ill. George knew his mother; he called her bluff and insisted that, in light of her announced impending death, he could not accept the position of president. Mary reputedly responded: “Go and fulfill the high destiny which Heaven has foreordained you to fill. Go, knowing that you go with a Mother’s and Heaven’s blessings!” Mary was not a prophet like Yehuda Amichai’s mother; God was. She, Mary, would suffer just so her son could serve out heaven’s promise.
When George was away in 1755 fighting alongside the French, and the battle was going poorly, his mother sent him a letter asking her son to send a servant – and some butter. George wrote her back stating that he was in no position to do either. Mary was subsequently portrayed by historians as a controlling shrew who tried to use George’s status to get money for herself from the government. George, in contrast to Donald Trump, was appalled. He intervened to inform the government that his mother had been very well provided for – he had bought her a house and helped administer her estate.
His mother was formidable and sent shafts of fear into the souls of his cousins. But she also worked hard and long to secure the well-being of her four boys and her daughter, but especially her eldest son. Some insist that she was truly kind. If Yehuda Amichai’s mother was a prophet who did not know it, a private prophet, silent and stubborn, Mary denied any abilities at prophecy while executing strong control over her son’s destiny. She had once predicted that George would suffer grievously if he became a soldier. She was wrong. He did not. He thrived as a military officer. Mary was also much more of a public figure, much more vocal in her claims on her son, but eventually bent “graciously” to a higher power.
While Yehuda Amichai felt “obliged to fulfill everything” his mother said, George only nominally accepted the obligation to do so. His form of acceptance undermined his mother’s ability to control him and his need to submit to her wishes. Amichai never developed or mustered the skills to escape his mother’s tight embrace and her haunting presence. Was this because she was a petty prophet but knew it not, while Mary Washington claimed no powers of prophecy, but always credited a higher power to predict great things? If Mary feared her son’s death, Yehuda’s mother feared that her son would become exhausted. Her cautions were all small, even petty. Mary’s were always grand and melodramatic.
But Yehuda would write, as George did not and could not, “when my mother died, all her little predictions came together in one big prophecy that will last until the vision of the end of days.” For God’s hand imitated that of his mother, “God’s hand in the world/ like my mother’s hand in the guts of the slaughtered chicken/ on Sabbath eve.”
Yehuda’s mother died on Shavuot, the last day of counting the Omer, forty-nine days or seven weeks after the second night of Passover. Shavuot commemorates the harvest as well as the giving of the law in the Torah as commanded in this past week’s portion – Leviticus 23:15-16. Yehuda has lived his life in anticipation of the revelation of the legal code, only to confront his mother’s death. He has spent a lifetime rolling the rock back uphill, a Jewish Sisyphus who must constantly give witness both to the effort and the disappointment just as he was reaching the pinnacle. For Yehuda, his mother’s death always signified the lost battles for the future.
What then was that big prophecy that he inherited? Yehuda wrote, “My Mother on Her Sickbed,”
My mother on her sickbed with the lightness
and hollowness of a person
Who has already said goodbye at an airport
In the beautiful and quiet area
Between parting and takeoff.
My mother on her sickbed.
All she had in her life is now
Like empty bottles in front of the door
That will show once more with colored labels
What filled them with joy and sadness.
Her last words, Take the flowers out of the room,
She said seven days before her death,
Then she closed herself for seven days,
Like the seven days of mourning.
But even her death created in her room
A warm hominess
With her sleeping face and the cup with its teaspoon
And the towel and the book and the glasses,
And her hand on the blanket, the same
hand that felt my forehead, in childhood.
Even in the end, there were the small instructions, but the directions had a much larger meaning. Mary Washington would use her allegedly coming death to try to blackmail her son, and, ironically, teach him the diplomatic skills of an artful dodger. Yehuda’s mother continued her retreat from the world to leave a warm and cozy space for her son. As a result, Yehuda always held his mother close, though she had none of the enormous stature of Mary Washington. He wrote another poem called, “My Mother Once Told Me.”
MY MOTHER ONCE TOLD ME
Not to sleep with flowers in the room..
Since then I have not slept with flowers.
I sleep alone, without them.
There were many flowers.
But I’ve never had enough time.
And persons I love are already pushing themselves
Away from my life, like boats
Away from the shore.
My mother said
Not to sleep with flowers.
You won’t sleep.
You won’t sleep, mother of my childhood.
The bannister I clung to.
When they dragged me off to school
Is long since burnt.
But my hands, clinging
(translated by Assia Gutmann)
If Mary thought she was a prophet, but was not, Yehuda’s mother was a prophet but knew not. She focused on the small things, the small matters, including the belief that flowers left in the room of a sick patient would kill that patient by sucking all the oxygen out of the room. Yehuda’s mother always wanted to ensure her son had lots of oxygen. Mary Washington demanded that her son bring back oxygen to fill her room.
We all have different mothers. We may go somewhere they did not foresee or somewhere they feared and where they did not want you to go. Some worry and fret for their sons. Others worry and fret about their own loss. The latter are divas; the former are tiny song birds.
My mother was not a prophet and knew she was not. She dedicated her life to her three sons and taught us petty dos and don’ts, almost all of which we did not and did. When she was young before she married, she danced with cymbals and tambourines, but unlike Miriam, she was not a prophet. She judged others, but she never sat under a palm tree to dispense her judgments like Deborah. And she never could foretell the future. But she bathed in it and joined her grandchildren in the bathtub. My mother was not a baker like my Aunt Gladys or Yehuda’s mother who “baked the whole world” for him “in little sweet cakes.”
My mother was stubborn in voice but easy in manner. And I escaped the obligation to fulfill her dream and become a doctor. I never learned, and never wanted to learn, whether I broke her heart when I left medical school. Like Yehuda’s mother, my mother worried and fretted the small things, but comfortably ignored any of my larger accomplishments. She never once heard me give a lecture or speech. She was too embarrassed to attend my play, Root Out of Dry Ground.
If George used subterfuge to escape the tight reins of his mother and if Yehuda was always left clinging, even when he became a star in the heavens of poetry, my mother, in spite of her fears, in spite of her dread, in spite of her disappointments, always left space for me and counted on me, as Mary Washington counted on George, but with credit rather than with demands, with loving kindness rather than any meanness of spirit.
Yehuda turned out to be direct and simple, I indirect and dialectical. Yehuda’s poetry is open and hospitable; I sometimes write to drive people away. Yehuda is both passionate and tender; I am passionate but tough. And unlike myself, Yehuda is witty and wry. He translates what he finds into poetry; I find poetry to discover meaning. Yehuda had a father who was his God and against whom he rebelled. My father was a rebel against whom I had no need to revolt so full was I of revulsion. Neither of us are artificers who have learned the arts of the necromancer and the alchemist.
Do we blame or credit our mothers? Where Yehuda Amichai clung to a bannister when they dragged him off to school, my mother clung to me in her arms as she leaned against the bannister on the first floor of her parent’s home where we lived; she cried and wailed at the death of her mother upstairs when I was a year old. I lived “to walk through/the deep ravines between her sobs.” My mother’s eyes danced on their own in spite of her sorrows. Yehuda’s mother’s eyes were sad, “the only ones that could compete” with his father’s eyes “in the ancient Jewish game of heavy eyes sliding into hollows beneath.”
I supported my mother then, when I was one year old. She supported her three sons ever since. And her grandchildren and great grandchildren all know what a great woman their little bubby was.