Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "As One of Your Countrymen"

This poem came out of the February 4, 2014 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by prompts from janetmiles and lb_lee.  It also fills the "storytelling" square in my 2-1-14 card for the Cotton Candy Bingo fest.  This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette.  It belongs to the series Clay of Life, which you can read via the Serial Poetry page.

As One of Your Countrymen

Menachem the blacksmith
took the Torah seriously.
He chatted with rabbis when he could,
and loved debating fine points of interpretation.

He recited sections of the Torah from memory,
and told stories from Jewish culture
along with others learned from people
in the countries through which he traveled.

Yossele the golem learned far more
from Menachem than he ever had
from the Rabbi Judah who made him.

רע  (Raya,  friendship)

The first thing that Yossele learned
from Menachem was friendship.

Yossele never had any friends before,
only people he was bound to protect
in the ghetto of Prague.

Menachem was different,
gentle and cheerful even in adversity,
and he liked  Yossele.

One evening as they went to camp
by the side of the road, Yossele found
a nest of baby rabbits in the fire circle.

Menachem laughed at the cute bits of fluff
and declared that they should set up
on the far side of the road, in the bush.

It pleased Yossele that Menachem
cared about something he pointed out.

הבהא  (Ahava,  commitment)

The next thing that Yossele learned
was that Menachem harbored a fierce loyalty.

When they came to a village that banned magic,
the gatekeeper would not let Yossele inside.
"Very well," said Menachem.  "It is your choice."
With that, he turned the wagon around
and headed back up the road away from town.

Some of the townspeople ran after them.
"You cannot just leave!" they shouted.
"We have not had a blacksmith in half a year."

"Where I go, my apprentice goes," said Menachem.
"Where my apprentice does not go, I do not go."

"We could make you," said the townspeople.
"Nu,  that would be very unwise of you to try,"
Menachem said, hefting a twenty-pound hammer
as if it weighed no more than a dinner spoon.

The townspeople grumbled at that,
but let them resume their journey.

חסד  (Chesed,  lovingkindness)

It was not just Yossele whom
Menachem treated with compassion.

The blacksmith always made time
to tell stories to the little children
who ran after his wagon as it drove
through a village to the square.

On cold days, he would make hot mash
for the horse who pulled their wagon,
and he never failed to check the blanket
so that it was not wrinkled or likely to come loose.

For all his power, Menachem used it lightly;
and from this Yossele learned that
gentleness comes from strength, not weakness.

צדקה‎  (Tzedakah,  charity)

Charity was a thing that Yossele recognized
when he saw Menachem doing it.

Whenever either of them saw someone
who needed help, they stopped to help.
They shared their food if people were hungry,
and let footsore travelers ride in the wagon.

To Menachem it never seemed to matter
if those in need were Jews or gentiles,
humans or animals or created beings.

One afternoon as they were working,
a Moor came to them with a broken knife.
It had been quite a fine knife once,
but the horn pieces of the handle
had broken away from the tang.

It was also clear that the poor fellow
had no way to pay them for the work,
and he knew only a handful of words
in any of the languages that Menachem spoke.

So the blacksmith waved for him to sit down
and wait until the end of the day.
Then Menachem repaired the knife
with fresh slats of wood on the handle.

"It is like leaving grain in the corners of a field,"
Menachem explained. "I will do for free
the first and the last job of the day, so that
those in need do not want for repairs."

Next Menachem brought out
the heavy pot of Marha Pörkölt
that had been cooking by the forge,
and they sat down to eat beef stew
seasoned with paprika and garlic,
poured over slices of bread that
the Moor cut with his repaired knife.

Over supper the Moor told jokes
in what must be his own language,
acting them out in pantomime
for the amusement of his friends.

Then Menachem told the story of the Exodus
in Hebrew and signs, concluding with,
"That's why we treat strangers with kindness,
and love them as we love our own countrymen,
for once we were strangers ourselves,
and should know better than to be so cruel
as the Egyptians were to our people."

Yes, golem knew was it was like
to be a stranger and ignored,
and the Moor was nodding too --
he must have gotten the gist of it
from Menachem's clever gestures.

They would take their cue from the blacksmith,
and do their best to love one another.

* * *


"And if a man from another country is living in your land with you, do not make life hard for him; Let him be to you as one of your countrymen and have love for him as for yourself; for you were living in a strange land, in the land of Egypt: I am the YHVH your God."
Torah,  Leviticus, 19:33-34

There are seven Hebrew words for love. Raya  and ahava  are two of them.  Raya  means friendship, the love for a friend or companion.  Ahava  means commitment: a ferocious, unconditional, covenential love that anchors you down to the one you love. Chesed  means loving-kindness, a steadfast affection and compassion.

Judaism also includes looking after the poor.  The main word for this is tzedakah, or charity.  It includes various levels of giving and their effects, with the most desirable being to help someone become more self-sufficient.  A related concept is peah, the corners of the field which were to be left for the poor to harvest.  This refers not just to literal corners of a field, but the wider idea of giving a portion of one's goods or services to those who have less; for example, the first and last task of a service day going to the poor who cannot pay for a craftsman's work.

The Moors in Europe have a long trail of conflict and oppression.  Moors and Jews have been associated in history and literature.

Marha Pörkölt  is a Hungarian stew made with beef and parprika, which appears in Hungarian Jewish cuisine.  Historically Jews had no country of their own, so they lived in other people's lands and picked up cultural material such as recipes and languages from many different sources.

Here's a map of central Europe so you can see some of the territory where Menachem and Yossele are traveling.  They get around.

Tags: community, cyberfunded creativity, ethnic studies, family skills, fantasy, fishbowl, linguistics, poem, poetry, reading, spirituality, vocabulary, weblit, writing

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