A Home With Dignity
A poem about belonging
I want six million Jews back to their homes
To their hat shops, their loved ones, and their bright mornings,
To awake in their beds with soft sheets and warm slippers
To put their feet into, and cross the threshold to kitchens
Smelling warm with the baking of Challah bread.
I want sisters to whisper to each other from bunk beds
Scurrying up and down the ladder to exchange places
Laughing without fear of being muffled,
Like we did many nights with sleeping parents who
Unaware of our sibling shenanigans, dreamed in peace.
I want six million Jews to watch the butterflies
Flitting across a kind sun that warmed their hearts
With promises of hope, of births, graduations, weddings
Dressed in satin gowns with silver stars, the yellow ones
Out of stock, discontinued, banned forever.
I want six million Jews to look out at the fields with cattle grazing
From train windows, with the fresh air blowing on their faces
Going on a family holiday to the beach with free minds
Surfing the waves, swimming with the dolphins,
Returning to their homes to wash off the sand from their happy feet.
*Challah is a special bread in Jewish cuisine, usually braided and typically eaten on ceremonial occasions such as Shabbat and major Jewish holidays. Ritually-acceptable challah is made of dough from which a small portion has been set aside as an offering. The word is Biblical in origin.
Give me Oil in my Lamp
Grandmother took me to the old synagogue
Walking down the pot-holed sidewalks
Of a noisy Bombay street, close to her home,
Every square inch populated with humanity.
The oil lamp in the very old synagogue
hung high from the ceiling
For a few rupees we could keep the light burning.
She was afraid to climb the ladder
provided by the caretaker
In case she missed a step,
I was afraid for her too.
So he took the donation and lit the lamp.
I must cover my head with a handkerchief
she would pray to the prophet Elijah
for the oil never to run out,
The lamp must never die out.
Wanting to know in whose name he could make the receipt
(I did not have a Jewish name)
‘Change it for the receipt’, she said, matter of factly
‘Or the caretaker will get confused’.
So I went from being called Kavita to Elizabeth
For the sake of a two rupee receipt
I really did not want, or need it.
Mother did want to name me Elizabeth, I recall.
“It’s ok. When you get home
You can go back to your real name
Or your father will be upset”, the grandmother said calmly.
There are places I’ll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone and some remain
(All My Life…The Beatles)
It was a village then
A ferry the only means to get across,
I went there often, even defiant of the Indian monsoons.
My uncle owned a grain mill
He was a jovial man with a rich laugh
The grain poured out of the ancient machines
Like his patient and unselfish love for us.
My aunt was kind, like all my other aunts
She raised chickens, and cooked spicy food
Put ten chillies in the curry when I visited
Her usual was twenty,
She was an older sister to my mother.
She knew we liked the food less spicy
Father had lived in England
And we were accustomed to blander fare.
At evenfall we talked in soft voices
The hens were asleep.
Disturbing them meant risking
Breakfast without eggs
Once I watched a cackling hen lay an egg,
In the fields were cows and barking dogs
My cousin wove in and out of them
With me and my screams, on the bicycle,
He teased me because I was afraid.
The ocean lapped at the gates of the cottage
We walked barefoot on the sand
I skipped, he held my hand tightly
So I wouldn’t skip away.
My cousin caught the Puffer fish
That looked like pregnant women,
We must cook before nightfall
The lantern light was the only electricity then
A rat bit my cousin’s toe once
Paraffin was the cure, as I remember it.
But we got there defiant of the rains
It was home and very sweet.
Holding umbrellas over our heads
Willing the rocking boat
To land us safely ashore.
I had heard of Jesus in school
Of how He walked on water
And His command to still the storm,
I remember praying to have that kind of faith
The kind that stills the storm
I cannot swim, though,
I want to walk the earth with grace.
Alibaug is a village no more
My uncle has passed and the grain mill
Has passed on to new owners
I guess technology has replaced
Those ancient machines.
I read of the great developments there
Of hotels, rich residences, and tall buildings
You can get there by car or luxury bus.
I miss Alibaug
The flickering lanterns, sleeping on mats, eating from thalis
I miss Alibaug
The hushed whispers between cousins
I don’t know when I can return
To the land of my ancestors
The land of the Shanwartelis, the Oil pressers,
I yearn for the unsullied rustic scenes,
The dotted fields of cows and the music of their bells
The hush of the chickens settling down for the night,
And I don’t know where the fish sleep
In the folds of the waves
Or in the folds of my memory.
Alibaug is a coastal town and municipal council in Raigad district of Maharashtra. Alibaug and its surrounding villages are the historic hinterland of Bene Israeli Jews.
The wise man built his house upon a rock (From the Children’s Bible song). Based upon the legend of the origins of the Bene-Israel Jewish community in India.
The ship struck a rock
The rock did not break apart
God’s rock it was
It stood firm
A foundation stone for a museum
Will be laid in commemoration
Testament to the broken arrival
Of a band of lifeless strangers
A rock solid memory.
The local villagers
And set the bodies on these
A final farewell to the seeming dead.
They stirred on the funeral pyre
Did not all perish
Seven men, they say
And some women
Of an unknown number survived.
A quick return to life followed.
Light-skinned and curly haired
Their prayers were different
Their faith like all people
Who put their trust in God.
Settling in nearby villages
Blending into the landscape
They pressed the oil
They became oil pressers
Of the local seed
Saturday oil pressers
Built homes, married, had children
Multiplied like the grains of sand
As promised to Abraham
I am from the same seed
Descendant of those shipwrecked wanderers
God’s Rock recurs in dreams
‘My ship’ breaks ever so often
On life’s rocks
But I survive
Like my ancestors,
Pressing seeds into verse
Not just on Saturdays,
To preserve a story of survival.
(Kavita Ezekiel Mendonca has been a teacher of English, French and Spanish for over four decades in colleges in India, and private schools overseas. Her debut collection, Family Sunday and other Poems, was published in 1989. Her chapbook, Light of the Sabbath, was published in 2021. )