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Once I had a Father

Ralia Chadwick celebrates the consoling power of Hebrew poetry

Ralia Chadwick  |  Winter 2004  -  Number 196


Once I had a father, a sad, silenced father . . .

This line, from a Hebrew poem by David Fogel, echoes in mind as my brother and I weep on each other’s shoulders in the darkened chill of the hospital room.

Mama is still clasping Papa’s cold and stiffened hands, tears spilling onto the hospital sheets, as we turn to enfold her in our arms. A clock ticks on the nearby pale lemon wall; a nurse’s shoes shuffle along the corridor. It is 4 am and quiet except for faint, hospital sounds revealing a world which rolls inexorably on, God’s world.

Who can replace the papa?

We all come to experience this loss, at some time or other. I do not speak of something unknown. It is a fact of existence, of life.

In David Fogel’s poem the imagery is spinning to and fro, through this veil of grieving:

I lie down and my heart hurts

Hurts . . .

I seem to draw, from the poem, the emotional and spiritual support of his words so that, in the very moment of remembering the lines, I intuitively touch upon a familiarity deeply and intimately rooted in daily life. It offers comfort, a fellowship with one who knew about the pain of the heart. David Fogel, Russian-born and much-travelled, perished in the

Holocaust in 1944. It is a strange thing, the thoughts that flitter through the mind, in grief.

Papa had loved poetry, too, particularly biblical poetry, the Psalms – the Tehillim – the Book of Job, for their exquisite, metrical beauty and haunting rhythms and sound with its rich layering of Aramaic, Caananite and other Semitic dialects. Such a rich tradition to convey many themes, as Yair Maezor points out in Pain, Pining & Pine Trees, from Abraham about 1800 BCE to the return from Babylonian exile with Ezra the Scribe in about 458 BCE – prophecy, law, ethics, faith, liturgy, wisdom.

Even as I now stroke Mama’s head, an inadequate attempt at solace, I can hear, in mind, Papa’s warm and rich voice as he sings to us from the depths of a large, leather armchair while my brother and I, as children, sit cross-legged at his feet, lulled into heavenly delight by the sound . . .

Adonaynoo moh shimcho bechal ho’oretz . . .

(Our Lord, how mighty is Thy name throughout the earth . . .)

Those who enjoy Hebrew poetry discover an enchanted land. So we owe to the poet a debt that can barely be repaid for communicating with us, offering strength and warm friendship in life’s significant moments, inspiring us by expressing the inexpressible.

All meaningful poetry can do this, of course. But to me, the daughter of an Orthodox British Jew, Hebrew poetry will always be special, perhaps because it is my inheritance. In it one can hear the voice of Jewish history, throughout the ages, a deeply haunting refrain. What the contemporary Welsh poet, Dannie Abse, calls ‘the raw, Jewish cry’, a cry arising, perhaps, from what editor Peter Lawson describes in his anthology Passionate Renewal (Nottingham: Five Leaves, 2001) as the ‘archetypal Wandering Jew’, ever seeking an ‘elusive, adoptive Homeland’, with no secure belonging. Psalm 137 expresses it all:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion . . .

a cry which resurfaces in Ruth Fainlight’s contemporary poem, ‘The Fall’:

Wherever your home was, having left it

There can be no other . . .

Yet papa and I had our disagreements, from time to time, like when I asked for a pair of gold, high-heeled shoes with deliciously thin, spaghetti straps curling around the ankle. I had spotted them in a Manchester shop. He was aghast. He quoted Isaiah, who warns about girlish vanity (3: 16-26): ‘Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, and walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and making a tinkling with their feet . . .’ Yes, well, that’s Isaiah for you. Never one to mince his words.  And that was that. I had felt like the ‘first-born daughter’ in Dalia Rabikovitz’s poem from her collection, The Love of the Orange (1964), a daughter unloved and misunderstood. But how I loved him.

Papa had been taken ill only two weeks before he was admitted to hospital. Yet he must have known, for some time, that something was wrong. The surgeon shook his head and said, quietly, out of Papa’s hearing, ‘So sorry . . . there’s nothing we can do. It’s too late.’

How will I remember that beauty and I will not weep

Days will pass through my life like shivers through my body . . .

the words from Yona Wollach’s lovely poem, ‘I’ll never hear the sweet voice of God’.

Visiting Papa in the hospital ward brings me much joy, surprisingly, for he reminds me of his unshakable faith in God, his love and thankfulness to be a Jew. His tephillin and tallis and a few, much loved siddurim have come with him. Twice a day he has the nurses pull the curtains around his bed to pray, in private, to God.

‘He is a fine specimen of his race,’ the surgeon says, but there is respect in his voice and manner and a tinge of awe. Sometimes, when I arrive, Papa is sitting in a chair at the end of the ward, his tallis wrapped tightly over a faded dressing gown, with a group of ‘walking wounded’, other male patients, gathered around him. I do not know what religion or culture or faith each belonged to, if any, but transported in delight they remain perfectly still and silent as he sings to them – perhaps a Psalm or a special prayer. Even the nursing staff move more quietly, pausing to listen as and when they can. When he finishes, tired but very happy, someone brings him a drink of water and helps him back into bed.

Now he is gone and grown men weep for him.

As the inevitable draws near, Papa is moved into a side ward. Here, he is alone with us, his family. He asks for his tephillin.

‘You are as shadows.’ His words are soft, eyelids flickering. ‘Come closer.’

We do, crowding round him, longing to be with him, touching, kissing him, his hands, his face. He has a beautiful face, soft and gentle, with a smile that lights from within - and lights us, too.

Papa, papa . . . please God, let him stay . . . we need him. The world needs his faith, his cheerfulness, his love for the Almighty.

His last breaths come in small droplets as they leave the body, through the mouth, like tiny hiccups.

Slowly, an illuminating smile spreads across his face. His head lifts as if he is greeting, or is being greeted by, a well-beloved friend.

Papa will never know the perfect glory of this memorable legacy, a last act of faith.

Then he is gone.

Yair Horwitz’s lines, in a poem called ‘For My love, As She Rises Early’, return, again and again, as if they are written for him . . .

Return to your enchantment my love, return

Anointed with angels’ faces . . .

It is an appeal to some inner yearning for something lost, for something finer than that which we already have and are, for something of the Divine, glimpsed momentarily.

Quotations from Hebrew poetry in translation are taken from Yair Maezor’s Pain, Pining & Pine Trees (Tel Aviv: Papyrus, 2000).

Raylia Chadwick has a Masters degree in English literature and runs courses in creative and memoir writing. She is the author of an autobiographical work entitled Lovest Thou Me and writes for many publications, including the Daily Telegraph and the Lady. She lives in Manchester with her husband.
  © 2006 Jewish Quarterly | All rights reserved