On the 150th Anniversary of the Publication, in Warsaw, of my Great-Grandfather’s 13-Volume Edition of the Bible

One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes is the one where George, caught in a lie that he’s a marine biologist, plunges into the ocean and retrieves a golf ball that Kramer has hit into the blowhole of a whale. Whatever drugs the writers of that episode were taking when they wrote that script, I want some. Here’s the clip from the show:

And with that contrived introduction, we segue into my next parsha poem. It’s inspired by Yom Kippur, on which we read The Book of Jonah, in its entirety, at the afternoon service. The story includes, famously, a whale that swallows Jonah; a whale whose name, transliterated from the Hebrew, is Leviathan.

The title of my parsha poem is On the 150th Anniversary of the Publication, in Warsaw, of My Great-Grandfather’s 13-Volume Edition of the Bible, and while there is a leviathan in the poem, it has nothing to do with marine biology. The poem’s about how we’re connected to those who came before us. It’s about the ephemeral nature of man. It’s about the things that frighten us the most; that is to say, our personal leviathans, before whom we feel small and powerless. It’s also about the things we cherish, ephemeral though they may be.

 

On the 150th Anniversary of the Publication, in Warsaw,
of My Great-Grandfather’s 13-Volume Edition of the Bible

The books bind us, though I know little about him. Not his height
or weight, not his profession. Was he honest in his dealings? Would
he drop a coin in the beggar’s cup? Did he like his wife’s cooking?
On Friday nights, would he bless his children, in the ancient tradition?

All I know is he was the kind of man who carried a big box of books
into the bowels of a ship. I imagine the treacherous voyage, the heaving
sea. On restless nights, he strains to decipher the tiny text by candlelight.
He likes the feel of the pebbled leather cover in his hands.

And some nights, he studies the Book of Jonah. Trapped in the belly
of his own terrifying beast. Into what strange land will the Leviathan
retch him out? Without money, without language, how will he feed
his family? Maybe someone will buy his big box of books.

He finds no answers, he is no scholar. His eyes hurt. His brain hurts.
He yells at his children for no reason, he slaps his wife. He picks up
one of the books and hurls it against a wall. For you are dust and
to dust shall you return. Yes, he thinks. Books. Men. Everything.

And, now, after 150 years, his books live on a shelf in my house.
Sometimes, I remove a volume and, though they are too fragile to use,
I like to open to a random spot and study a passage or two.
When I turn the pages, they crumble, like the last leaves of fall.

 

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