Chag sameach! To celebrate the festival of lights, every day we are posting an excerpt from one of our books with the theme of light. There will be poetry, prose, nonfiction from multiple Jewish movements, Kabbalah, and more. Please see the previous entries:
Today we are going to feature a segment from R.B. Lemberg’s upcoming poetry memoir Everything Thaws. This book discusses the author’s childhood in the Soviet Union, migration, climate change (the title is very literal), and Jewishness. There is also an ice dragon!
Quite a few of you were asking about this book, and we have great news – the manuscript just came back from editing yesterday, the text has been finalized, so now we are able to show you excerpts! Preorders are also already open. (We’ve seen the cover already and it’s going to be breathtaking!) Make sure to check out our earlier Twitter thread too.
This part is about the northern lights, and as such quite fitting for the occasion – even though it deals with difficult topics like violent antisemitism.
The excerpt is from Chapter 1 (not directly from the beginning):
When I came back to Ukraine
after a year in Vorkuta
I drew the northern lights to show my classmates. I drew myself
dragging a little sleigh, head up to the vast shimmering road in the sky.
It was my road
that showed me the way when I was six –
white, wide, stretching across the black winter sky
in complete silence, under the immovable permanence of the cold.
“You’re lying,” my classmates yelled, and later
the whole class trapped me in the school attic
and beat me, screaming that I was a Jew
who believed in G-d (remember, these were Soviet times
and believing in G-d was forbidden)
and that I was lying
about the northern lights I saw in Vorkuta.
They had never seen the Northern lights, but they knew
what a Jew looked like.
A Jew looks like me.
looks like this person with too much curly hair and an eating disorder
and too many academic degrees and too much
change, less than a model immigrant
from too many places
to too many places,
never believing that I will be heard
because people have trouble believing
that things exist that they have never seen.
Every time I open my mouth or flex my fingers to write
I am putting a brave face upon the thawing permafrost.
I am not lying. I am just
constantly changing languages, idioms, continents, genders, homes, and I am
not even sure how to mourn from this vantage,
let alone perform any other human activity
let alone be a good
a good child, a good immigrant, a good parent, a good spouse, a good
(only if I’m silent)
(squeezing my lips shut so tightly)
(clenching my fingers)
(trying to fit)
(always trying to fit)
(remembering that where I’m from, a Jew
cannot be good by definition, a Jew
must become a person instead, become a Jewperson and then simply
a good Soviet citizen
but secretly a rootless cosmopolitan
who never speaks anything but the purest Russian
who eats no herring or raw garlic under any circumstances
before going out,
because everybody knows that Jews stink of those two things.
This is the one permanent axis of my identity,
that I am a Jew: that is
a rootless cosmopolitan
at home nowhere
in no language, in no country, not even among other Jews, eating
herring and garlic with a sense of deep satisfaction
that comes with the hope that, living in the Midwest,
nobody’s going to surreptitiously sniff me for that
telltale stench of a Jew which
cannot be spoken of in polite society,
cannot be uprooted,
cannot be forgotten
Thank you for reading! Tomorrow we’ll follow with the Kabbalistic mysteries of light…