By RUTH KNAFO SETTON
Ruth Knafo Setton, a
first-generation American who was born in Safi, Morocco, brings a new voice to Jewish-American
poetry. Until recently, most Jewish-American poetry and literature has focused
on an Ashkenazi experience. Knafo Setton’s work provides a glimpse into the
world of Mizrahi Jews, the experiences of Jewish women of Arab lands, and a
secular Jewish identity.
For this JBooks issue on Jewish-American poetry, Secular Culture & Ideas brings you three of Knafo Setton’s poems, "The Loss of
Certainty," "When God Yelled at Me," and "Queen of the
Air." These poems reflect the act of female rebellion, the power of women,
the rebuke of tradition, and the blending of cultures.
The Loss of
Come with me, Ruth.
No, said I, for I am a Moabite.
And how do you know me?
My sister whispered, His eyes are like caves
you enter and cannot leave. He comes from over there,
that strange tribe of men with desert hands and feet,
women whose teeth slice flesh, and worse—
I saw you in my dream, he
My mother saw you too.
—worse, their god makes them want
what they cannot hold.
You, I want. He opened his
a furrowed sun.
His mother watched, eyes pale
yet dark, and said, Go home, girl.
But the walls cracked,
wind blew, sand gritted
my throat, blinded my sister,
toppled my gods. Whirling, falling,
I cleaved to him.
God Yelled at Me
When God yelled at me
shaking his fist from the bima
up to the women’s gallery,
where I leaned forward,
over the railing
that marked sacred
from profane, man from woman,
Chagall’s floating city
from our earthbound
snotty kids, screaming babies,
Nana Mazal weeping, girls giggling,
when God glared at me,
my laughter coiled
like a snake,
hurtled through the air
and bit him
on the tongue.
The women gasped,
pulled me back. I tore away:
had to see. His tongue was swelling,
like a bee sting—vast, filling
the shul. The men bobbed
and swayed, muttered prayers—
didn’t see his tongue
bread dough left too long,
rising and foaming.
The women watched
the men sink and drown
in a sea of dough.
God’s tongue billowed
towards us, but Nana Mazal took
her sewing scissors
and cut. We watched it sag,
with a burp.
The men rose,
still praying and mumbling.
They didn’t look back at us.
And with a jerk
of his shoulders,
God left the room—
without a word.
His mother should have
taught him better.
September is mine:
he stands at the edge of the cornfield
in maroon fez and dripping brocade.
Sunlit and weary, he holds up
his palm in greeting. I shudder
my bike to a stop, almost tumble
over old books stacked in the wire basket:
Greatheart, Under Two Flags, Lady
Lover and Nana. I bought The Way of an Eagle
because it was inscribed: To Doris from Harry,
I love you more each day, Merry Christmas
sweetheart, 1919. A tiny black Toto runs
around him, nips his ankle. He stands firm
against singing corn.
and red sun—falling fast.
the Indians came to England
for their killer jewel, crossed
their arms and blocked
the center of the road:
a shadow-wall of the East.
His seamed palm too
holds back the traffic
of curious eyes, the curse
of the yellow stone. I ride, no hands,
through a typhoon
of immense proportions.
white butterfly (another strange friend)
rings my little finger, birds scissor the air,
quicksilver glance my handlebars,
and laugh away. At night I'll read
by flashlight, squander my sight.
Wind blows my bike over desert and sea.
Blue motes of dust sneeze
from broken pages, crack bindings:
red heels tapped together. Gold letters halo me
like fireflies, crown me Queen
of the Indian Gentlemen
and White Butterflies.
I squint in the moonstone glare:
his fez whirls before me,
streams leaves that glow
like yellow tears.