This poem by Patty Seyburn was commissioned for the reopening of the newly renovated Temple Israel, in Long Beach, and will be read in fully by Seyburn at the temple on March 9. For information: click here.
LONG BEACH MISHKAN, 5773
Thus saith the Lord:
The heaven is My throne,
And the earth is My footstool;
Where is the house that ye may build unto me?
And where is the place that may be My resting-place?
by Patty Seyburn
A house, a home, a place to rest
Structure, altar, sanctuary
A holy, sacred edifice
to ground, surround, contain the blessed
To lodge, inhabit, fill or dwell
To tenant, settle and abide
To root or roost, to park, reside
To hear the call to worship swell
The God that – God is That, And This
And Who, And Where, And What, And When –
Everything within God’s ken
Created both despair and bliss
Fashioned dust and shaped a soul
To hold both certainty and doubt
The wilderness within, without
The high and low that make us whole
The burden/b’racha of free will
The Yetzer Ra and Yetzer Tov
at battle in that gorgeous grove
The voice of conscience small and still
And so we must construct a space
that holds and fits, that grows and yearns
that obviates our base concerns
where we can choose to stand and face
the immanence we seek. Our days
are short. Our time here all too brief
though elevated by belief
in love and justice, hope and praise.
To be a Jew in the 21st century….
is to inherit and cast-off, destroy and rebuild
to watch the wrecking ball and framing, the scaffold
and dry-wall far from Mount Moriah,
the liquid boundary and border.
A history of the self, and of the other.
Of dreams deferred and fulfilled.
To be a Jew in the 21st century
is to pursue and cede
to conduct our commerce and creative acts
among the other great peoples, while remaining
separate, to elect and divide.
Our history is personal, political.
We are citron and crocus, cinnamon and cedar.
On Yom Kippur we consume our flaws
On Chanukah, celebrate flame
On Passover we rage against our “distance” –
how remote we pretend, aspire to be
from suffering, the shtetl’s confines,
our gutteral accents, our slurs,
and our own unpronounceable names.
Our walls tell our story, our walls filled
with scrawled petition, inscription, the din,
the sweatshops where we stitched
our national garment, our theatres where Yiddish princes
played Shylock and golem.
And every now and then, a great hall, a gathering
where we forget how we have dwindled.
Let us have Amichai’s Arab shepherd and Jewish father.
Let us have Levertov’s tailor with his needle in the air.
Let us have the blessed match of Hannah Senesh.
Let us have Emma Lazarus musing upon this consecrated spot –
where the ocean’s plunge and roar can enter not.
Let us have Theodor Adorno: To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.
Let us be that poetry.
Let us read without rote. Be skilled in listening.
Let us translate ancient tefilah
into our slang, our argot, our art.
Let us reserve a pew, a folding chair
for the wandering Jew, as we, our parents,
theirs and theirs, found their passage
to this coast so far from our Eastern heart.
We must become the sages of Long Beach,
collect our debris, build our Genizah,
create our littoral home.
We must become messengers of hill and berm,
shore and sandbar, current,
tide, sediment, surf and seawall.
We are such fertile loam.
Call upon our Rambam, our Rashi, our Besht,
Our Herzl, Baeck and Heschel
to assuage our doubts, our fecklessness
for they all drank from Miriam’s well of healing,
they all knew the leper and the cure,
the healing nature of the psalm,
the anodyne, the balm. Let us be the balm.
How lovely are thy tabernacles, Lord of hosts.
How lovely are thy barnacles, Great Ship.
How lovely the invitation of light
that carves our space and days,
the stained-glass arcs and angles that shape
our narratives, our characters –
arguer, wrestler, dreamer. Shepherd, warrior, king.
We must embrace the legacy
of the Shamir worm, who ensured
we would carve stone with no weapon.
Embrace the hoopoe bird that shielded the worm.
Embrace the bird’s unpremeditated song
like the soul that animates the body
and the ocean’s eternal murmur:
the waves make their own aliyah.
It is possible to walk by and not
understand that something vital happens
within these walls, possible to pass by
and shrug, to allow one’s self to refrain,
the way a wind does not elect to touch
each leaf, and possible to say, these emblems,
symbols, gestures at transcendence are not
for me. This sort of experience is
not modern, and I am nothing if not that.
So we must accept the whole and broken,
the broken who claim to be whole, and those
who, in their entirety, secretly fracture.
The high window, clerestory, lures the eye
upward, and the corporeal yearns,
in tandem with the spirit, which always
wanders off, even on a walk down a street
of lime trees and bougainvillea, succulents,
and those Birds – reminders – of Paradise.
IV. Rowing in Eden
Praise the magrefah, all ten holes, each producing ten pitches –
or some say, 100 pitches each. Praise the hyperbole
of Solomon’s sanctuary, its marvelous abundance.
Praise buckwheat, sagebrush, poppy, live oak, fan palm – indigenes –
and those brought here – yellow mustard, eucalyptus, tumbleweed,
wild radish – who, like us, took root.
Praise the feral parrots of Belmont Heights – Yellow-chevroned, Rose-ringed,
Peach-faced lovebird, Red-masked Parakeet, Blue-and-gold Macaw, Spectacled Amazon – make a joyful noise unto the Lord.
Praise Manuel Nieto, Rancho Los Cerritos and Los Alamitos, land grants,
the Bixby Brothers, oil, more oil, the No. 1 gusher at Signal Hill where Puva
Indians ascended to contact tribes on Catalina Island. Praise their vision.
Praise the Pacific cooled by Aleutian tides, the municipal pier,
wooden boardwalk – “The Pike” – grand bath house – “The Plunge,” the rides:
Red Car, Dual Ferris Wheel and Cyclone Racer. Praise pleasure.
Praise the earthquake that reminds us of fragility,
the pollution of ship and refinery, reminding us of stewardship.
Praise the current that delivers us to and from the heart in port.
V. Jacob’s Ladder
Sand and sun. My pillow, a stone.
I dreamed of a ladder. Not alone.
Angels ascended. Angels descended.
God top-rung: heaven’s throne.
I watched them climb. My body still.
I could not speak, or move, until
One malach asked: what of your soul?
Have you no vision of free will?
I was surprised that they would need
such stairs in order to proceed.
They said, even the soul must move
in steps and stages to succeed.
I could not gaze at God, but did.
Perhaps, Adam, I should have hid.
Though God pronounced us very good,
such intimacy was forbid.
But as I lie there with my thought,
the motion around me fraught
with all the vagaries of life,
the ups and downs that God had wrought,
I knew I had some purpose there
though I was wholly unaware
of all that would be asked of me
and given me. Beyond compare.
If your ambition is to make
a holy house, do not forsake
your ladder. How else can you raise
the roof-beam high, if not awake?
Of course, we want Her here.
The dome, a tallit, encircles
the firmament’s shoulders in fringes of light.
Its weave the way the sun divides
itself among the particles
with parity, and order.
A building dwells
For Her, we look everywhere.
And there is much imploring.
Petitions. Promises. There is no shame
in wanting mightily, contact
with The Eternal,
wanting our assembly blessed.
The body – the vessel –
intercedes between this material
world and the next.
We are shards. Gather us up.
Our temple contains no shortage
of abstractions acting as nouns:
solace, hope, wisdom, forgiveness.
Some, though, are concrete: ark, siddur,
altar, tabernacle, holy
texts, names and dates, records and rooms.
And at least one in-between: prayer,
which owns its own category,
its fine grammar that of the soul,
its syntax of supplication,
though it occupies eloquent,
inadequate speech and music
that helps us reach what mere presence
denies us. Conduit prayer, we
do not believe The Unnamable
lives here and here Alone. Just to say
“lives” gives us pause, as what lives, dies.
Confounded, we must not forget
to be grateful for the unknown.
VIII. Ma Tovu Midrash
Like most, it can be spoken, chanted, sung.
The melody inside my head may be
the one you know – of course, a minor key,
it lingers and repeats – a “round” – a form
of music we did not invent. That’s
in keeping with its secret – Ma Tovu
our only prayer in common use not penned
entirely by a Jew – its first line of praise –
“how lovely are your tents” – that is Balaam.
The rest are borrowed lines from different Psalms.
They go together well, I think, and give
me leave to borrow words of praise I love:
Let Him move as the sunlight moves on the floor.
Have a glass of blessing standing by.
A serious house on serious earth it is.
They need not be inscribed above the door
in order to be holy or inspire us
to consider what we came here for.