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Israel through Poetry

Today's blogpost was written by Kayla Schneider-Smith, a Yahel Social Change fellow living, learning and volunteering for 9-months in the city of Rishon LeZion.

If you know I’ll be attending an MFA Creative Writing program next year, you may have heard me complain I’ve felt blocked in my ability to write poetry in Israel. Whether it’s too much culture shock at once, a geo-socio-political situation too complex to sort into words, feeling torn between the Jewish and democratic aspects of the country, or fear of offending an imaginary audience, I’ve struggled to put pen to paper this year.

But, as the end of my time in the Yahel Social Change Fellowship approaches, I’ve decided that none of the above are good enough excuses to suffocate my craft, to hold back my voice. For my final blogpost, I’ve managed to pull together six poems I’ve written throughout the year, highlighting themes of encountering ultra-orthodox relatives, uncovering family history, evaluating Israeli society and politics, travelling around the country, and meeting wonderful and frustrating people daily. I hope this is only the beginning of digesting and reflecting upon my time in Israel through poetry, and I hope you can find something here that resonates with you, too!

Holy Ground

Bubby holds up a fist and makes a

zero with her fingers

This is how “Jewish”

Reform Jews are to me,

she shuffles me through crowded markets where

boiling men wear summer coats and study

their feet as we pass them

step to the side, step to the side,

Bubby goads, but all I hear is

make yourself smaller,

make yourself zero

Bubby buys me a white shirt

and a white skirt for Yom Kippur

the way she thumbs through the racks and lights up when

she finds something right

makes me feel like she loves me

so that each time the hot familiar anger rises

I remember how she bought me a Yom Kippur outfit and

walked me through the city with her rolling shopping bag and

poured me iced coffee slushies and

paid for taxi rides home and told me

i’m waiting for you to wake up

Wake up to what, Bubby?

to your God who

invalidates my God?

to my God who challenges yours?


The Soldiers

The soldiers board the bus

just like that: as soldiers,

guns slung across slight arms

Why did you kiss me?

They exit the bus as boys,

mere teenagers, white under-

shirts clinging to skin

I know you once carried a gun,

too, what has it done to you?

Many people enter the bus, many

get off. Besides the soldiers there’s

the Chassid in the long black coat.

I sometimes wonder why any of this

exists anymore, in a country that has

steered the startup to the moon.

Perhaps none of this is real.

Perhaps the Chassid is just a man.

Perhaps the soldiers are simply boys.

Perhaps your kiss was just that,

just a kiss.


At the Bedouin Senior Center

How many times in life can we say that?

That we can die happy,

having fulfilled the most important thing in the world,

which comes down to a few things, really:

a colorful room, elaborate cushions,

an orange foam soccer ball passed from shoe to shoe,

laughter, a kiss on the cheek,

all the things that don’t need translation


All I Can Do

all i can do is be sad today,

and hear about the rockets flying from

one fence to the other

regardless of what mother and her baby

are strolling on the other side,

which man is rolling a cigarette

in the front seat of his truck,

wondering what he’ll bring home his

wife for the weekend

all i can do is not choose a side today,

for sides have already been chosen,

and secured, and posted on doorposts

and upon gates, clung to for life,

the indentation of angry hands meant

to hold instruments, to hold one another,

grasping pocketknives grasping guns

grasping flag poles waving colors in the wind,

blues and whites and greens and blacks and reds

that claim sovereignty claim territory claim God

claim blood

all i can do is keep walking today,

walking to work walking to class

walking to busses

trying to memorize the shape of shelters

the shape of my heart how long it’ll

take me to run when i should duck for cover

when it’ll be too late

all human loss is our loss,

all mess on our fingers is ours,

the brokenness of other bodies is

our bodies’ brokenness,

brothers and sisters refusing to let go

tearing out each other’s spines

pouring all this frustrating summer heat into the gutter,

to dirty the world instead of making it better,

to hurt instead of heal


A Letter to My Great Aunts and Uncle:

Auschwitz-Birkenau, 1942

for Miri, Rosa & Benny

Rosa (top l), Miri (top r), my Grandmother Faiygle (bottom l), Gitta (bottom r)

When you left your homes not knowing where you were going

I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you

turn around jump off the train don’t stop running

out of Poland out of Germany out of Holland

far until you reach the West or East

anywhere but here

when your cattle-car pulled through the arch

when you stumbled off the train without understanding

I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you

say you are 16 say you are a brick mason

don’t let them take you beyond the gate

to the tall trees where you cannot return

when they led you to the showers

and shaved your undressed bodies

I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you

stand close to the ventilation stand straight under the gas

if it hits you first it’ll be quick

it’ll be over in a second like a band aid like a blur

you won’t have to suffer long or

hear the wailing mothers and children or

climb the pyramid of suffocating bodies

gasping for air

when they shoveled you into the crematorium

in bursts of smoke and ash

I’m sorry I wasn’t there to tell you

I love you

to kiss you goodbye to say kaddish

to tear my clothes to get angry to start a revolution

I’m sorry I came too late.

Now, 77 years later

in this inhuman slaughterhouse

unthinkable bright green forest

in front of the lake in front of the puddle

where they took your lives and dumped your ashes

I only can tell you

I am alive

your nieces and nephews

and great nieces and nephews

and great-great nieces and nephews

are alive and thriving

Miri Rosa Benny

I carry, cherish, remember you always

I speak you back to life

I say your names aloud


Evening in Rishon

In a war, are there ever two sides?

Or are there only hundreds of thousands of

stories, voices, prejudices,

struggling to burst through?

Is this conflict really the facts and figures and

diagrams of lands possessed, lands granted, or is

it the amalgamation of difference

that neither you nor I can solve single-handedly,

the internal raging conflict of every human heart?

On your front porch in the sticky summer evening,

your eyes dark and foreboding

and having seen too much,

you try to convince me that everything I have witnessed thus far is a lie,

I try to convince you that everything you have witnessed thus far is a lie,

you call me what I am not,

I call you what you are not,

and the settlers keep settling

the rockets keep firing

the soldiers keep soldiering, and

you and I refuse to move.

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