“An American Jew Fails to Make Sense of the Carnage in Gaza” by Dick Westheimer

Dick Westheimer


Four-year-old Sarah of Gaza can’t feel her legs. Her brother
can’t forget the roof falling. Their father, Zahir
can’t find a way to help either of them and I can’t stop
crying—anymore than I can stop being a Jew, anymore
than I can forget the hunger that claws at my gut on a fast day,
anymore than I can stop a building from collapsing
on a child in Gaza.

Out my window, I see a red-winged blackbird harrying
a vulture who can’t stop being a vulture set upon by a blackbird
who can’t help being a blackbird harassing a vulture
who can’t stop eying the mamma-bird’s
gape-mouthed nestlings.

I am neither vulture nor red-wing. Nor am I a Jew
at least according to Genesis 1:26 which says on the sixth day
G-d created humans—nothing about Palestinians and Jews—
and line 21 didn’t say on the fifth day G-d created
blackbirds and buzzards—just nonspecific winged things.
Yet I see in the trees outside my window–
one Biblically unspecified species that can’t resist
tormenting another.

Making sense of the never-ending contest among
our tribes by counting dead Gazans and Israelis
is like trying to understand the Bible
by counting its words then dividing
by the pieces of shrapnel lodged in little Sarah’s spine
or the tally of rockets that rained on Israel last week
or the count of families fearing eviction from Sheikh Jarrah
or the sum of all Arabs driven from their homes
or Jews from theirs or the two fingers, blackened and scarred,
Sarah raises, smiling as she says to the reporter,
“I am strong.”

But here we are, smile and shrapnel, blackbird and buzzard,
the fifth day and the sixth—and then the seventh when G-d said:
fuck it, you guys figure it out.
We didn’t.

Which is ironic because my tribe worked out a lot of shit—like
“welcome the stranger” and “love thy neighbor” and don’t covet
or murder or lie about anyone. We did just fine except
for the times it felt like every goddamn person in the world
wanted to burn us or drive us away. Yet,
as soon as we found refuge in a land already inhabited,
built that place in our own image, we turned into
a covetous sort.

Tonight at Shabbat, my four-year-old grandson Jude, dressed in lavender,
twirls and tumbles about the room, sparks like stars in the candlelight.
I recall a video of Sarah from the day before the bombs fell.
She shows off her pink Eid dress, her eyes smile deep chocolate brown
like Jude’s. I turn away and dream of a future:
At a feast, I am arm-in-arm with Zahir
as our two dancers swirl in a blur of scarves,
purple and pink.

from Poets Respond
June 1, 2021


Dick Westheimer: “I am shocked, again, by the news from the Middle East—from the pending evictions of Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah to the raids on the al-Aqsa mosque to the Hamas rockets cascading indiscriminately on Israeli cities to the massive reprisals—resulting in incalculable suffering—launched against Gaza. Like many American Jews I am torn between my desire to see a secure Israeli/Jewish state and the horror of seeing my fellow Jews forsake fundamentally Jewish values. Writing this poem was a less-than-successful attempt to reconcile these conflicting principles.”

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