Winter 2017 — THE POTOMAC
Our mostly Jewish apartment house
filled with aromas Friday nights:
pungent chulent stews, pot roasts,
chickens boiled with vegetables or roasted;
I'd breathe as deeply in as I would
a few years later, at weed bouquets.
But the best odor, Sunday morning,
when Mrs. Diamond skillet–crisped
forbidden bacon for her husband
and my buddy Jay. Nothing was close
to that pungency of sweet sin;
the rabbi in my head commanding me
to keep walking. But I stood for minutes,
hoping Jay's mother would sense me
at the door and ask if I'd like a rasher
or two or twelve. Or maybe Jay'd hear me
breathing in the aromas, and shout,
"Come on in, Coops, there's plenty."
Neither ever did, happily oblivious
to the boy dying to break a taboo,
like Odysseus roped to a mast and feasting
on the Sirens' gorgeous, deadly songs.
A few years later I tasted bacon;
as delicious as I'd imagined; it snapped
like a wolf's marrow–filled caribou bone.
But a year or so after that Mom confided
Mr. Diamond had been leaping out
from behind corners to attack his wife,
the poor woman sobbing when they took him
away, Jay soothing her shoulders—
the only odors from their apartment:
a lifetime of rage no one ever knew about.
Rivka Breslau in Steerage: Liverpool to New York City, 1905
Someone has to watch the food we've hidden
from rats and thieves, with the children wild
to explore the ship, until they're caught
and sent down to my leaking Sheol,
where they fidget and fight until I tell them
to go play, but to be good, which they manage
for maybe a half hour, before they're chased
back down again by crewmen grumbling
they've better things to do than keep watch over,
"Your Yid brats," so I want to curse those goys,
but too afraid we'll be shipped back to England
worse, Russia, for the least shipboard infraction.
Then there's Simon, my husband, insisting on
his morning constitutionals, which turn into
an afternoon if he meets some pretty, unattached,
thing and flirts as if a Yiddish matinee idol.
God forbid he'll desert us once we dock
in that wilderness they call Manhattan.
When the children are finally settled, I'll hiss,
"How dare you leave everything to me?"
knowing he's taking his revenge for my brother
making him feel a poor relation in London,
New York beckoning to him, like the Temple's
lamps burning for eight miracle nights.
Then he'll take me in his arms and work his magic,
though I shudder another child might be the rabbit
that pops out: after he's made me soar to Sinai's summit.
Sarah Malkowitz, Aboard The Messenger: Liverpool to New York City, 1905
A greasy cockroach, that Simon Breslau,
licking his lips like I'm a creamy Linzer torte,
while his poor wife's stuck below, guarding
their provisions from rats and thieves.
He's as vile as the spider that crept across
my breast like a tiny rapist the other night.
I flicked that vermin away, then splattered it
against the wall; I'd do the same to Breslau.
But his son Moshe is a smiling little rapscallion,
a mischievous gleam in his eyes; a pity he's not
ten years older, though I'd wager the little gonif
knows exactly what his putz is for when it's not
watering the flowers; oy, and such wavy black hair!
But beauty's more fragile and precious than crystal,
and I've so little time to make the most of my looks
and figure; lucky I've got a letter of introduction
to a big macher in the garment trade. Even better
if he's got a well–mannered, marriage–age son,
to make up for my being given the bum's rush—
as I've heard that the Americans call it—
from Russia, by the parents of a rich young man:
"Be gone," his imperious mother stabbed
a bejeweled finger at me, "you orphan strumpet."
Lucky the good looking lay—about bestowed
no gift on me to slow me down, and his parents
paid for my passage to New York, their "generosity"
extending to a private cabin, to spare me
from the crowding and aromas of steerage.