Roberta Chester


                                                December 15, 2000


The trees are heavy with citrus, oranges bright as neon,

a constellation suspended in depths of green.

It is their season. For the olives clustering

on the boughs above the terraced hills, their time is done.

Only shake the branches, and they will rain down

till you stand knee-deep in them. Groves of avocados are again

ripening, and the oleander and jasmine spice the air

over the concrete. And each fruit-bearing tree waits for its place

in the sun to come around  and with the goodness

that was once proclaimed, fills our arms after its kind

and though we give it away, the land continues to give and give to us.


Even now, this land that our father Abraham surveyed,

and to which our souls are bound, gives to us still, in spite of

everything. Today, after weeks of longing,

the gun-metal sky gave way to an old promise

and we had rain in the cup of each leaf and palm,

ending weeks of speculation that we hadn’t prayed enough

or in the right way. Here, where all things take that direction

the dust is thick with enough recollection to haunt us.


But we are the only ones, it seems, who have no memory

though the evidence is all around

the numbers on my neighbor’s arm,

the picture in the paper of the girl next door, who is no more,

the grave of our brother Joseph, he whom we carried from Egypt

has been painted over and we are barred from entering.

and each day, the rumor first, then more and more.

Other guards claiming the precious places that were ours before.

Hebron, Rachel’s Tomb, Joseph in Shechem, and Jericho.


The old, persistent calumny surfaces by rote, this urge to hate

so easily learned, this legacy of generations,

programmed to extinguish us, comes tripping, unrestrained,

off the tongue and onto the page, a point of reference, a centering, a

self-sustaining energy within their cells, moving their hands to rage.


But we who have no memory, we have forgotten even thee

O Jerusalem, we have forgotten thee.

For two thousand years we dreamed of touching this wall,

inhaling the ancient incense still locked in the heart of these stones.

We will have forgotten thee as we have forgotten Jericho

where trumpets still sound in the wind. But wasn’t it only yesterday

that we landed here on a blood-rimmed tide with our tattered remains?

To what family, what species, to what genus do we belong,

driven by what strange, unnatural chemistry, that we could forget the blood stains

we wiped from the side of the bus, the street light, and the café,

and history of ours written with the chalk of our bones.


It is a struggle to remind, though we had a temple here,

and here it was that David wrote his psalms

Even the wind which retains an echo of incense and song

and rocks, and pottery, and coins engraved with our history

constantly surface reminding us this land was ours.

Time and again we stray and are returned

in the all-forgiving crook of a shepherd’s staff

from the ocean of tears we have wept

in the interim in distant lands.


But, I ask you, as I wonder what stuff we are

that we could abandon this oh so precious earth,

the golden dust in the shafts of sunlight that angels climb,

the desecrated graves of those souls

On whose coattails we have flown here.


How can we be so easily deceived, locked into

not what is, but what seems, the fantasy

that flourishes in the absence of memory.

If only the prophets of old would rail at us

from every street corner, prodding us awake

from this deep and deadly sleep!

It did not happen then, and now

their voices will drown in the city sounds,

the protestations we will hold fast to what is ours,

are promises our leaders do not keep.


And anyway, is it possible that we could be so strange

so aberrant as to feel more at home with dreams

singing the old sad songs, more comfortable with crying,

in foreign lands over what we have lost—

that misery, so lovely in retrospect—

when we cowered, abject and cringing,

eulogizing those shtetles, running to the kevers,

where we are grateful to pray

in the presence of our smiling enemies?


What a strange people we are, so mired in forgetfulness

that we would give up one inch of this land,

for which we have yearned

and to which we have been mercifully returned.