Joseph Sherman (1945-2006)

Chaim the Slaughterer


One of the children is frightened of me
because his father permitted him
to stand and watch
last week’s ritual slaughter.

I will remember the face
I saw when I lifted my eyes from my work—
it was frozen in the sensation of knife
wet at the end of my arm.

And because I understood his desire
to come nearer, I smiled, for
I so rarely have a witness
of whom I am aware.

But the scab-pools of blood upon my hands
drove him away, as did that blood
yet to be fully drawn into the earth.
And perhaps my smile.

I interest him now
only through his fear. Thus
my tongue can but fail with this boy of seven,
though he has been taught
the necessity of koshering.

I might try and tell him
what I myself sometimes believe:
that the hands of this slaughterer and the hands of this rabbi
are not two and the same
—that in the eye of our God
They are as two and two—each pair
bound to their respective duties.
And that duty is all
they hold in common.

But I know these children—
when this one enters my home (as he must)
to study the aleph-bayz,
to mouth rigid prayers softly
with this teacher and the moist broad thumb that turns
he will not rest
until he has again found
my other hands.


I have just paid the Gentile boy
who enters our synagogue once each week
to kindle the fires for Sabbath morning

This costs the congregation 25 cents.

In Latvia
such a sum would have lasted months of the Pentateuch—
in fact
a pinch of Sabbath cake was often enough

But I have no heart for reminding the boy
how brief and simple his duties are;
nor do I wish him to feel that his job is not

So I pay him the 25 cents.


All this morning I have stood here,
bowing against the flatness of my feet,
slicing with my hands
under feather, through
fat and flesh and vein,
many necks.

The men force the odiferous mouths of chicken sacks
under my beard—I turn my face, dip
my arm to its shoulder to fill my hand
with noise and yellow claw.
All this morning.

And there is a sun which, heavy, seizes
and twists the blades of my shoulders
the blade in my hand
the blade in my head.

My hearing is rotten with complaint, my eyes
are filled with hot wax, and beard and dust
are in my mouth
tasting of what dances and splutters in the yard.
My sweat thins their blood
—salt to mix with salt.

I sway
into the east.

O Men (I think),
put away your sacks filled past their stinking brims!
You have more than enough to barter,
to eat—
have already feasted
far beyond my fill.


Late in the afternoon
I found our small Gentile boy
(who can be no more than twelve)
between the worn covers of a Sabbath prayer-book,
deep in the corner of the Synagogue basement.

He had been about his normal duties when I left;
and I returned, to stand mute and well away
from the court of sunlight and the student’s desk,
both of which he occupied
—neither of us alert to time.

Upon his finally discovering me
he released the Hebrew book
and arose quickly—his face tight and red
like an accomplished fist,
his freckles thus obscured.

I lifted up the Siddur myself and saw
that his eyes had been at the familiar
prayers of the morning service,
but this child had been holding them
upside down.

A smile refused to stay behind my nod of sanction,
and an alien explaining tongue babbled past my smile.

A solemn form
moved its shadow over mine and across the threshold
of the place—

it was then
I heard the boy laugh.


I have performed this act so many times
that my body is shaped to suit the knife

Each bird is the same in my head
whatever differences found in the yard

Held for events by an alien hand
each bird I hold is raggish
squirming only its heart under feathers and fat

Each bird stifles itself senseless
uneasy off the ground
where these wings could never carry it

Legs and breast are tucked in my left arm
while the other cradles the glinting refrain
of all such mornings

There is a noise which is shaped in its throat
and held in the throat as a weapon
and it is that throat I must find

One hand series a stuttering head
and free fingers draw the down
from its womanish neck

I fold my arms across pulse and breath
where a noise is soft
where nothing resists

I can believe
it is the chicken which slides into the knife


She is a rebbitzen:
wife of an orthodox rabbi
assistant to an orthodox teacher
companion to an orthodox slaughterer.

When she was a maiden
She was also a butterfly (and called so by her sister and
mother and

When she first became what she is
she had of necessity to shave her head
and wear a wig, to cover her arms and legs
with dark sleeves and skirts.

A butterfly.

A rabbi must show no interest
in a woman, even his wife.
It is forbidden.
His wife is functional
and has no reason to flaunt her body,
as her husband may not look at her with lust.
is the law and obedience—

For in those different years
in that different country
I obeyed fully
and my wife was always dutiful
as required.
on this
as on few other matters
she said nothing

The years and I have worn
against each other
and I take and allow to be taken
great leniencies
—many more than I should.
Many more.

This is a strange country and a trying one, though
I make no excuses.

So. Somewhere
my wife received my silent permission
to grow and care for her hair;
for some years now she has been wearing dresses with shorter sleeves,
dresses that reveal the backs of her knees
(On some of these are painted

She is nearly bald; one might count
the remaining wisps,
and while none are so white
as hairs in my beard, they are
at least grey.
She must wear a wig.
Her arms are unsightly with fat (and yellow
like old sour cream). She ought to wear sleeves.
Her legs are weathered pillars.
Sweat collects quickly
in the rills of her neck.

What can I tell her that she cannot tell herself?
I consider:
the cruelties of time
the ironies of mind
and place
and time… (flying and crawling backward)

But I do not complain.

On this
as on few other matters
she says nothing.


A moment ago I lowered my eyes
from the slashing of throats to the earth
—never before have I seen so much blood
atop the ground.

As a rule, the run of a single morning is small,
and the blood (save that which clings to the kaftan,
my blade and fingers) is swallowed by the earth
without question.

There is always a spotting from the chicken’s efforts, but
today a red pool has grown
from the earth’s refusal—at my feet.
I cannot understand it.

(So little from each one;
so many there must have been
passed between my hands.)


There are no children.
I have no son, no daughter

In 36 years
she and I have lived
as fellow travellers on a train might
share the same bench for a long journey,
who while never really knowing each
the other, will yet experience
a distinct feeling of loss
upon the inevitable hissing arrival
at journey’s end.
Any degree of familiarity carves
deeply into any relationship—
but the travellers are unable
to explain such strange needs
for one another.

I am never unaware
of the presence of my wife.

(How may a man be unique and still a mortal? Is a man who
accepts a life in the shadow of God’s books a man?)

There was a brief moment when seed
took root, took nourishment and grew—
there was a season.
And what has happened since
is decreed
no more. A piece of wood has no recollection
of its earlier life, of what
once fell from its branches.
Love, hatred, anger, passion—in what
does any of it ever result? A child
is either a moon’s revolution in the eyes of man,
or a creature unto itself.
I have observed children.

What can I say of mothers,
of their unassailable unctuous place
in the eye of God?
While to sire
is but to place a sweating unreasoning self
in the dry palm of a God at work.

Less and less often
does my oval mind reflect
upon its flesh reincarnate
over the bone carriage, created
through no art of mine.

My wife and I have no son,
no daughter.
There are no children.


Alone in the sweatbath
I am truly a naked bather

alone with all that is
in me on me and about me.

This shvitzbud with its water forms
has a hollow that wants filling

and surrounding the hollow
is the stone.

My naked arms strain at the iron lace
of the faucet’s red wheel

to set forth a torrent which is noise
and another wall.

Echoes of my movements intertwine in passing
to form a quilt for my senses

as I give myself up
to water and its mists.

I have prayers to tell to the stone
and dusts of book and yard to wash away

and the feather seeds need weeding
from my beard.

The stone and I are worn and yellow
yet standing

and naked
I am truly ageless.

My feet (of necessity) clutch
the very stone the rest of my body repels

but the innate coldness of that touch
is a purgative come early.

I sing songs of battle and children
to frighten away the spirits

who seek out any orifice I own
to enter.

I sing songs of children and praise
and I am an ancient army

passing through some ancient sea
that obeys me.

I am a child
with a child’s sensations

and the noise of God’s names
rebounds and redoubles.

God’s names are thrown from stone to stone
stone to water

but though they eat their own intensity
the sound does not leave this place.

joins me in this chairless room

that is barely large enough
for me.

When I leave my cavern
I am weak with loss and gain

and far from naked
and prepared to topple.


I wonder at the secret qualities of my blade
that cause it to withstand the stain of its work.

Would that there were something in me
that could help me to withstand the stains of my own life.

or something or someone that might wash for all time such
stains from this shaft my person.

Would that there were no blade
to cleanse.


I wind the phylacteries close about me
—a bandage
—a ribbon
—a vine

And it shall be unto thee for a sign
upon thy hand

My left arm is one foundation
upon which is wound this reminder of our God
whose leather temple rides my sinews
rides nearest the seat of my faith
The road from this temple is spiral wonder
which helix coils as black bone seven times
my arm to my wrist
and its welt likewise marks my palm
God is bound to my median finger
wound thrice
and extended
at the wordless marrow of my devotions

And for a memorial
between thy eyes

The twin black temple rests upon the foundation of my
is looped and knotted
Exodus and Deuteronomy are tossed thus by prayer
prayer which

rids and replaces
the passion that is the corruption
the corruption that enslaves
heart and mind

In order that the law of the Lord may be
in thy mouth

Had I only my right arm
I would of necessity use it
wound tight through another’s
Had I suddenly
no arms
the covenant would remain
spoken and unspoken
with the ghost of my arm
to the fact of the pressure
upon it

For with a strong hand
hath the Lord brought thee forth out of Egypt.


Blood flows like water from a nurturing fountain

Solemn but godly beauty flows through the necessity
of the flow

Amidst such
on this poor and sticky morning
creatures (having no more respect or knowledge
of their lives than God gave them)
make not even
the necessary


a child of my congregation asked me
why my back is bent when I walk.

I am afraid to know that she is right,
for I was not aware that I had become stooped.
It does not surprise me.

The ground seems as close to me as it has always been.


I am told that some of the names I am called
are terrible—as terrible as any I have ever heard
and understood.

These people
are difficult to comprehend.

They will also insist on shouting at me
“Jew! Jew!”
and I answer them in Yiddish
“Of course I am, idiots—
and what might this slaughterer’s knife
(which I carry in its black case) have to say to you,
were I not
a Jew?”


yell at me
“Santa Clause give us a present!”
“Santa Clause where are your reindeer?”
“Santa Clause why is your nose so red?”

They laugh and gesticulate and dance about as if possessed
of dybbuks.

My Yiddish goes no farther with them
than my beard.
What I say is
“I am sorry.
You must have confused me with someone


When an unclean chicken dies
its worms and lice die
soon after.

This seems neither good nor bad
before I can expel the damned carcass
the vermin light upon my arms
and (against the wish of God) I feel
that I must crush their hardness with my nail
—I must be convinced in the silences between my fingers

that they might not doom me too
as their host.


This knife
which must be prepared,
which must be clean to cut clean,
to take and give without waste
in that guttural rite with any selected animal
(save the unclean 42)

can be wielded by no other,
exercised for purpose

none other than this.

if this knife
were made ready
and proffered
for any other act of will
(to some incredible blasphemer)

who could take it
and use it


As an artless young student
I often dreamt shapeless dreams
about conducting forth my people
to Eretz Yisroel, our Promised Land.

Now upon these ritualized legs
I lead a congregation of strangers
around the long floor of the synagogue;

while familiar voices, shouting
from out a brilliant doorway,
own to the youngest having left
(for some nearer wayside) even this
reminder of tribes.


The birthday of the world begins
The Ten Days of Penitence

The Days of Awe
when the rabbis lead the multitude
past the Heavenly Throne and the eye of God

with our hearts opened
to Him
who needs no opening:

We are the contents
of the Book of Life
the Book of the Dead
and between

We feast throughout our joyous solemnity
and give thanks for our being sustained
to this day
An apple dipped in honey is the year to come

The Days of Awe
are the days of flooding sins
against Man
against God

Each asks forgiveness of each
Each grants forgiveness to each
until God alone is left
the Day of Atonement

Washed clean of earthly transgressions
we in our bathwater
now ask forgiveness
for those who have reached out to sin

In pious white we take no food
but prayers
We chew on prayers to the fifty-sixth genus of sins
and spit them out

We cry and atone
even for those sins
which are not meant
to be sins

My knees fail
and my tears fall
as my prayers touch
the Ineffable Name

When the sun gives way
to little suns
loud voices
proclaim the Oneness—

It is the wail of the ram’s horn
that calls us away
from our whiteness

and chills the demon bones
of Satan and his hosts
who await our coming forth—

At length
when the doors of the synagogue
are locked behind me

I do not wonder
at the black winds
that scratch at my old clothes

or the leering faces
that beg my reacquaintance.


I have need of a new stylus
a pointer—
the one I now use and have been using for years
is broken.
A shaped stick of insignificant metal
looking like no man’s arm
it ends in a tiny hand balled
but for one finger cast in the act of pointing;
but this finger is severed at the knuckle
and lost.
My pointer for our Law is and has for some years now been jagged.

The other ageing elders and I unravel the Torah each Sabbath,
rolling the scroll past each glued pane of parchment, to find the
place and to continue the story from the week before.

(Only these voices could ever have been new)

These men know their job well:
one pulls
one pushes
and the hand-lettered Five Books
of Moses roll like newsprint.
Hands and handles
beat the table
with an atavistic rhythm—
my large brown hand
and the small grey fist
hover in wait—
upon the line spun from lost finger to line of Law rests
the eye—
each hand nearly full
both hands fall like breath
upon the face of Moses.

At the hinder end of my stylus
which is not silver, is a hole
bored for a single chain or a rich thong—
I have neither.

In affluent synagogues
functional ornaments gleam
rich, and nothing is broken
that is not repaired or soon
What matter here?
When Yontiff’s Torah is being read, the children
and many men rush to the vestibule to build
upon muffled laughter, fat black cigars,
and the languid dropping
globs of their spit
into the brightest green brass pot.

I conduct the Reading of the Law
to a chorus of distant rumbling,
conjuring up no new emotion in myself,
but with only stale anger weeping over
those poor prayers of habit, rung from memory.

I conduct the Reading of the Law
with a broken and lost finger,
and a wash of my bile covering
all such prayers.

I chant all
and they rejoice
and trustingly celebrate
all that I chant.

It is no small part of my vocation
to sing from dried skins
lines that are recorded
between the lines
that have gone and continue to go


I am stale.
My beard is stale.
My breath is stale.
My odour (as after sickness) is withering.

Even my wife
shrinks from me.

My congregation
allows itself
to be led
by a dying man.
A sick man
shakes hands and (like an ant) leaves a sour smell.

My prying is stale.

I stink of sacrifice.

Give me a new synagogue
new books
new scrolls
new vestments
a new home with a new bed that does not bow lower than its
What do I say? What could I possibly want?
Pummel me into some new shape
and I will remain stale
worn evenly
by indifference.
The God of the Jews in my care
is stale to them.
They are fools
who have no patience
no ability to withstand
—children who have not
the excuse of innocence.

I am tired
I know that my God is tired.

You are stale.

His patience is sorely tried.
My hands are helpless. My prayers…?

The road back
is the road
beneath your feet
and you claim not to know it.

I am sick from your infection!
But you?
Worse than dead
if only you were dead!
Will God’s worms deign
to swallow your eyes?
What have you done to your God
that has fallen on me?


How merciful O Lord
that thou hast given these of your creatures
such a quick and painless death
as thou canst afford through my presence

Is it just then that I
thy manifold servant and one of thy Chosen
must suffer in this my illness
when even the lowliest of thy creatures
is given a death with no dying?

If it is true
that the Angel of Death wields a knife
why does he not use it at once?

I can only conclude
that thou in thine infinite wisdom
hast made me a more efficient slaughterer
than thine other appointed

Reproduced by permission of Oberon Press

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