Why My Brother Is a Whitewashed Synagogue: How an Unwritten Letter Became a Poem
The following is a guest post by StS contributor and poet, Rosebud Ben-Oni:
My brother and I have become so distant that when I write a letter addressing him—
—I find I can’t speak to him, but of him. As if the things I want to say must be said in third person. I try again. I begin again in Hebrew, but the voice carries the Spanish formal usted. To use tu is too familiar.
Achi Hoo Beit Midrash Mesooyad.
My brother is a whitewashed synagogue.
I mean whitewashed in a specific North American way, in terms of race and memory, both historical and personal. I mean the time my brother and I watched the popular Mexican melodrama Amarte Duele one summer I came to visit from Jerusalem, and I saw parts of a younger him in the protagonist, Ulises: the dignity in the face of inequality, loyalty to his family. The kind who never starts a fight but won’t back down when challenged. I saw the boy who raised me to have these values in the face of anti-Semitism and prejudice against us as biracial children.
A few days later, we saw the slur “naco” on the shirts of wealthy Mexican Nationals shopping at North Star Mall in San Antonio. While it made me angry, my brother simply shook his head. He had accepted such things long ago. Unlike Ulises, my brother would never graffiti a wall in protest. In 6th grade, he wrote 10 short couplets about a stone, which won a contest, and then he never wrote poetry again. It’s not realistic as a career, he’d said, unless you come from money, which we don’t. My brother focused on law. He was the practical one, wanting a home of his own, even as a child. A home much quieter than the one that grew us. He respects the laws even when they are unfair to us. Revolutionaries frighten him. Patience is rewarding, he says. Change that lasts is change that is slow. No one in charge takes you serious, he says, if you are too emotional. The most important thing: a home. Build walls even from dirt if you have to, and make them strong. Don’t be a burden on others. Don’t make promises you can’t keep; it’s better to give an occasional gift than to end up indebted to someone.
Let me try again.
Achi, my brother, we speak 6 times a year. We have not seen each other for over a year. Ach sheli, I call you in my head. I don’t mean this more casual greeting as a sign of disrespect. One can say achi sheli to the most beloved friends as well as strangers, and now you fall somewhere in between. Let me try again. Achi, I no longer know you. Ach sheli, what’s up, been a while since we spoke. Achi, I love talking to my niece, but I’d like to talk to you for a while, if you ever have the time. Ach sheli, can you believe Aviv Geffen turned 40 this past May?
But my brother never has the time. It is not his fault. We are no longer trying to understand each other. We don’t ask the hard questions. Watching a melodrama like Amarte Duele was as close as we ever got to discussing race and class and how we really felt. We are polite. When we do talk, it’s like meeting for the first time. We are not open.
When I say whitewashed, I mean one who forgets his home culture in favor of the dominate culture. I do not mean to be cruel. We have two heritages: Jewish and Mexican. I mean he has risen above the pains and conflicts of our families, while I delve deep into them, not to heal or resolve but to explore. This is a waste of time, he has said in the past; this is helplessness. He reminds me to trust Emerson’s self-reliance. He reminds me of the V’ahavta , a prayer that is not only oath to the Jewish faith but a reminder of what making a promise means. Nothing is more important than building a home, he said. Making a home is a mitzah. Making a home is key to self-reliance.
Brother, I don’t know if I want to build a home. My roots are retractable, exposed, wavering. Yesterday, the border of East and West Jerusalem, and now I live in New York, but my fiancé and I are planning to move to Hong Kong. I grew and grew into the unknown from which we came; I fed from the wilderness until it became inseparable from me. Now I am your unknown, your what-to-do-with. Not that you’d ever say that, ach sheli. It’s not so serious, you said to me in the mall that day; an offensive slur like naco used by wealthy Mexicans and then reappropriated by the wealthy as somehow cool? Well, that’s just hipster stuff, no? And who takes them seriously?
Brother, when I visit your home, I stay in a hotel. It is July 2012, and I spend that hot July day with my niece. I love her so. But at some point in those 5 hours together, I ask if you want to talk. You don’t answer as my niece hands me another crayon, and we go back to our drawings.
Just before I return to the hotel, you ask what I want to talk about. You sound defensive.
I say: I just want to catch up.
You nod, but offer nothing else. We say our goodbyes. You hold me, torso at a distance, patting me on the back.
You stand outside the front door, your daughter asleep in your arms, as I start the engine. You wave listlessly in the hot night as I pull away from your home, and I’m thinking how I see you less and less in my life, when once, Achi, you were a prayer and you are 17 and I am 13 and nothing is more important in this world than knowing the V’havta by heart: “…bind them as a sign upon your hand; let them be a symbol before your eyes; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” That was the first time you told me we have to work at faith. Faith in God and faith in each other. No love is unconditional, you had said; we need these reminders that all love is work. Don’t be fooled: no love in natural.
I am thinking of this moment when I stop the rental car at the end of the driveway. Your hand freezes in the air, and then you adjust your sleeping daughter in your arms. You wait at the door, but don’t approach me. I let the engine idle. I try to look at you, but the porch light is dim and obscures your face. Soon you begin to wave again, championing me on my way.
I am sitting there in a car not my own, thinking this is what happens when you lose faith. When did I break the promise? When did I become so impolite that I keep you standing in the doorway with your daughter in your arms? Yet I cannot move. I sit there, feeling like an unseen bird crying out in a forest, and he is taking one last photo in its direction, already over this encounter, already mapping out the fastest way home.
The following poem is currently featured in the Fall 2013, Issue 2 (print) of So to Speak:
If Esau the Younger Sister
My brother is a whitewashed synagogue.
His words are mud-bricked and windowless.
From desert frond and dust he builds a home.
A man of principle, my brother
Remembers the Alamo.
He tried to guide me
So I wouldn’t fall
For men like Crockett or Koresh.
He promised I was a complete
Mensch and mother’s family too,
Ofrenda of flower, skull and bread.
At ten he solved a dispute
By reciting Kaddish
On the Day of the Dead.
My brother would bury me if he had to.
My brother would build me a coffin
And nail it shut. To this day
He turns down the radio
Passing burial ground.
I never showed that kind of respect.
At sixteen I totaled his car
Looking for another city.
In the ER, mother screamed
And the nurse had no
Sympathy. I nearly
Killed a man.
I never confessed
I saw him coming
At full speed.
Will my brother sleep.
He locks the doors
And waits for me.
Every night tympanis
Buried in the vistas
Awaken me. I emerge from
An ark covered in marigolds,
A feather child leaving her ossuary.
I died in the Indian laurels of San Agustín.
Brother I’d like to have said brother
You are the fort and I am the death wish,
At last stand.
Brother, the blood
On my hands. Brother,
You are the home and I am the wilderness.
A Leopold Schepp Scholar at New York University, she won the Seth Barkas Prize for Best Short Story and The Thomas Wolfe/Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Best Poetry Collection. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned her MFA in Poetry, and was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A graduate of the 2010 Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater, her plays have been produced in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Bayou, B O D Y, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Lana Turner Journal and Puerto del Sol. She writes the series “On 7 Train Love” for the blog of Sundog Lit. Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, her debut book of poems SOLECISM was published by Virtual Artists Collective in March 2013. Rosebud is a co-editor for HER KIND at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org