Polish Jew Israel Emiot was born in 1909 in Ostrów Mazowiecka, Poland, and died in Rochester, New York, in 1978. He came to Rochester in 1958 as a frail refugee who had survived dire years in Poland in the Medem Sanitorium in Warsaw, as well as in Kazakhstan, Moscow, Birobidzhan, and the gulag, but he never stopped writing.
“My Father” was written in Emiot’s youth, after his enlightened father left his devout family in Poland and emigrated to New York City to become a doctor, but died one year later while working as a presser. By contrast, “Our Mothers Will Not Be at Our Deaths” was written shortly after Emiot, by then an adult, arrived in the United States.
Each poem deals with the trauma of abandonment—first by Emiot’s father crossing the ocean and later when Emiot had to abandon his mother by crossing the same ocean. Thus the poems are not just about change but also about how emigration creates orphans of us all.
Such an odd sadness this wind
on the eighth night of Passover—
electrically charged as if it were already autumn
so that grandmother greets it with sighs and laments.
A wind that races through the seasons of the year
as tho’ it were flapping pages in the Book of Life—
until my heart claws at the blackness of night
like a mole burrowing blindly into the earth . . .
O lonely father of mine this road comes
strangely close to wherever your grave may be—
a small quicksand mound with a vanishing inscription
lost these fourteen years . . .
My head would collapse over your grave
and shout into it—Father, Father!
This night like the bloodied Megillah of Esther
barely discernable words radiate until they reveal your
suffering like stars from afar in the rabbi’s courtyard where
some still claim your genius, and their torrential tears
saturate the sacred pages with bubbles . . .
Someone speaks of your interpretations of a difficult section
about the attempted sacrifice of Isaac and Abraham.
A second extols your profound grasp and explanations by heart.
The third believes you even had a hand in the mystical Kabbalah.
A fourth can’t stop praising your kindness, how you’d share your last zloty . . .
But surely your stature arises not from these heights
but from underneath the low walls of your despair
for not all people are cut from sheaves of joy
some go against the grain . . . I was a child when you left
who barely knew you when you fled to press pants in a shop . . .
Perhaps you yearned for your family, had a sad life, and a sadder death,
but I only know what is official about your life: Mt. Sinai Hospital.
The official stamp on a standard Death Certificate—#16.345. Trade: Presser
And so to the Megillah is affixed
a deadly glow as if to say that all of America can’t
substitute for a small glass of ceremonial wine.
Our Mothers Will Not Be at Our Deaths
There waits a wall
for our last grimace
and our mothers are so far from us;
there is an ocean
and they cannot cross over.
Our mothers would lift
a steel bridge
to hurl at death
as it devours us,
and we call out
foolish last words
that no one will understand.
Leah Zazulyer is an independent translator of two annotated bilingual poetry books by Israel Emiot. She has also published five books of her own poetry. She is a retired educator, school psychologist, and hearing officer. She lives in Rochester, New York, but grew up as essentially a first-generation American in a Yiddish-speaking family in California.