On the New Jersey transit train
I pulled my particularity
out of a brown paper bag:
one of four broken pieces of
I proceeded with my dinner.
The young man across the aisle
in his dark business suit
pale skin, wavy black hair
looked to me Italian
but I admit I'm not good at that.
He seemed uncomfortable,
not so much with the chremzel
I carefully dipped into
a little puddle of sour cream,
nor even with my public
consumption of food--
probably I was brought up
to know better, but I was brought up
so long ago I've misplaced
some of my mother's niceties--
No, I think it was the matzah
that did it, it was the matzah
that singled me out,
the unmistakable display
of my particularity:
four broken pieces of buttered matzah.
Or maybe he didn't care at all
maybe his breathing didn't
become slightly irregular
maybe it was all
or my breathing
becoming slightly irregular.
How like my mother I am, after all,
who trained us in our largely
Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood
not to wear our old playclothes
outside on Sundays
so as not to offend our Christian
neighbors on their way home from church.
In those days I took her at her word;
now I wonder as the train
pulls into Penn Station
if Marie Brady who lived across the street
ever noticed us in our Sunday finery,
ever thought it curious
that we dressed up on her Sabbath,
ever questioned our carefully guarded
particularity, ever saw close up
a buttered piece of matzah.
© Merle Feld, A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition, SUNY Press, revised edition 2007
Why – and how – does this poem seem appropriate for Passover?
Are you easily identifiable as a Jew? When? How? How do you feel about that visibility?
What’s the significance here of breathing? ”irregular breathing”?
What is it the mother communicates in the poem through various subtle, spoken and unspoken cues? What might you imagine her growing up was like as a Jewish child?
What signals did you receive as a child about “safety” and anti-Semitism?