sidebarback

 

Joan Seliger Sidney

 

 

HELLO, GOOD-BYE

 

As a child in Flatbush, shalom

meant hello. “Hello, Mr. Soniker,”

who Tuesdays after school taught me

to read Hebrew. I still hear him

 

scraping his throat. Six of us hid—

five boys and I—behind our siddurim,

prayer books, taking turns sounding

out the words, one syllable at a time.

 

To get to that basement classroom

in Temple Ahavath Achim—Love

of Brothers (why not Sisters, too?)—

I walked around my block: East Second

 

to Avenue P, past Katz’s Appetizer,

where every week Mom sent me

to buy chub white fish, smoked

in their gold scaly skins or nova lox.

 

For hours I could’ve watched Mr. Katz

sharpen his two steel knives, squealing

blade against blade, then slice smoked

salmon thin as strudel dough. A quarter

 

pound for four. Bagels I bought at Streit’s

next door, onion my favorite, smothered

top to bottom in shiny slivers. Intoxicated

by the smell, I’d chew my way

 

to Jerry’s Market. In summer, a green awning

like a beach umbrella protected peaches

and plums. In winter, sawdust on wood

floors kept customers from slipping on slush.

 

Below Jerry’s cash register, rows of apples

and pears. Once I saw a twenty perched on

a red delicious as if it were a butterfly and gave

it to Jerry. “You’re an honest girl.” But

 

when I got home, instead of praising, Mom’s

blue eyes turned black. “Twenty dollars! So

much money! Jerry put it in his pocket.”

I didn’t know whether to shrink or grow.

 

*            *            *            *            *            *

 

Years later, shalom became good-bye

to my favorite uncle. At fifty-six, Uncle

Abie died. A cutter, the fur blackened

his lungs. “As if he’d smoked three packs

 

a day,” his doctor said. Blue eyes and smiling

mouth, Uncle Abie paid me a nickel

each time I pulled Uncle Yorgie’s tie.

Mom said when I was a baby, on Sundays

 

Uncle Abie walked me miles in my hand-me-

down carriage. “Once his hands slipped,

the carriage almost ran away.” At the cemetery,

Aunt Lilly tried to jump into his grave, but

 

Cousin Howie held her tight against his chest.

In my only black jacket and skirt and by not

wearing lipstick, I said Shalom, Uncle Abie.

My father passed at eighty. For two years

 

after his heart attack, triple by-pass,

kidney failure, Mom couldn’t say shalom.

“No matter what, it’s better here

than in the dirt.”

 

 

Joan Seliger Sidney’s poems have appeared in Connecticut Review, Caduceus, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Louisville Review, and many other magazines and anthologies. Body of Diminishing Motion: Poems and a Memoir was published by CavanKerry Press. She’s Writer-in-Residence at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life.