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Alison Luterman: She for whom I am named

left Russia at fifteen to follow her betrothed.

Good-bye, skinny chickens and fly-bitten cows,

synagogue leaning on one side, as if to dodge blows

from a Cossack’s boot.

Hello, crowded, terrifying boat,

creaking over the vagrant waves.

Let’s draw a veil over her journey in steerage,

thick and homespun like the curtain

put up to separate men from unmarried girls.

We’ll catch up with her on arrival:

bewildered, homesick, excited, ashamed,

scanning the crowd for a face she won’t recognize.

He’s found a job, he drives trucks

for the sanitation department,

hoisting heavy buckets of stink on his shoulders

for the next forty years, for the rest of his life.

She hugs her shawl around herself,

trips on strange concrete in her heavy shoes,

and speaks only Yiddish.

So they begin their marriage.

She was young. She must have had hopes. 

Let’s not dwell on their wedding night

or the nights afterward when she wept

uselessly, until, as good girls were taught,

she settled into her fate, 

and sat all her life behind that same curtain

separating women from everything important.

She kept to her home in Brooklyn,

with her pockets always full

of candy for the children.

Sweet, she was, my father says,

and in the only photo I have of her, stout,

pleasant-looking, plain,

in her wire-rimmed glasses and flowered dress.

She’s holding a small book—a Bible?

in her hand, though she couldn’t read,

she’d never been to school. 

It must have been a prop,

a pretense, its own kind of prayer.

She wanted to be remembered

studying The Word, which in men’s mouths,

dark and terrible, could make or unmake the world.

In me now combine uneasily

her meekness and silence, his rage,

as I scrawl and type, click and tap

through thickets of English, ravishing the page

as she never could. And this is not

how she would have recounted her life,

were she given leave, had she even thought

such a thing possible.  But I’m the one

who’s here, now, so let me sing

the thready off-key melody

of Shayva, (which I’m told means “Cry For Help”),

Gittel, (“Good”),

who loved a glass of sweet wine

and a fierce game of cards,

and, God rest her, my uncle says,

never said an evil word.

As for her maiden name,

which no one remembers anymore,

let’s put an X.


Copyright 2020 Alison Luterman. From In the Time of Great Fires by Alison Luterman (Catamaran 2020).

Alison Luterman is a poet, essayist and playwright. She lives in Oakland, California.

The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz. This version of the photograph was published in 291 in 1915.

4 comments on “Alison Luterman: She for whom I am named

  1. Arcadia Woodcraft
    February 23, 2022

    The beauty and saving grace of life is that sometimes good can be born from evil.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alison Luterman
    February 23, 2022

    Thank you, Daniel! Yes, they were brave and their hearts were broken. And I believe they live on through us somehow…

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Daniel Burston
    February 23, 2022

    A beautiful, heart-breaking tribute to a generation of immigrant (Russian/Jewish) women.

    Liked by 3 people

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