This month’s Oculus artist is Ann Hurwitz, one of two writers recently invited to join the shul’s Judaism and Art group that now includes “spoken word” submissions. “My poems are often about works of art that have moved me,” Ann Hurwitz said. “This poem is the woman’s story. She is the speaker. The key fact is that she is childless.”
It starts at the doorsill and stretches
back to the trees behind the village.
There is nothing green. There is nothing
but mud, a slippery brown sea
that sucks the feet of other women’s
children, scabs their legs and arms,
cakes my cracked boots. At night
with a few twigs of tied straw
I brush my skin clean
until it shines. Tomorrow the count
is complete. You will come home,
forty-nine days from Exodus
to Revelation. There is only a pale sun
to celebrate the gift of law,
what thou shalt not.
With my knife and a pair
of old scissors here on the scarred
table where I have split
chickens and roots dug from rock-
hard fields I will make
the new season. Old newspapers saved
from your journeys to Warsaw, twelve
sheets, each sheet into four and folded
in half, I shape a half circle. The square-
cornered holes drop to my lap. Even I
with my bound head and red-knuckled
hands have an art more than soup.
Cut grain after grain falls to the floor,
gleanings for you at my feet,
and black and white flowers to cover the walls.
You step through the door
splattered with mud. I will show you
it is Spring.
Commentary On The Poem
Papermaking is said to have been invented in China around 105 AD, with papercut art appearing in the Han Dynasty in the 4th century. Not until the 13th century did papermaking reach Europe, where it has been a common Jewish art form, often used to create ketubot and also mizrahs that were placed on the Eastern walls of synagogues to show the direction of Jerusalem. By the 17th century, papercut art had become a popular form for Shavuot decorations, largely among the Jews of Poland and Russia.
This poem, which was published in Midstream in 1989, came about because of several experiences which, though separated by a number of years, connected to each other. I had seen Jewish papercuts in the Jewish Museum in New York and was fascinated by their delicate intricacy and the way they were used to tell about Jewish life. On a trip to Israel, Marshall and I wandered into a bookstore in Jerusalem, where I discovered a book of papercuts by Yehudit Shadur. I can’t now remember how Marshall knew her, but the connection was such that we were emboldened to go and simply knock on her door. This was, perhaps, 40 years ago. Seeing more examples of her work made me want to further explore the art form. Some years later, I attended a session about Shavuot at Beth Sholem, the synagogue in New Jersey to which we then belonged. I learned that it was common to decorate the windows of one’s house with papercuts, specifically reyzalech (little roses) for the holiday. At that point, the poem was written.