The Book of Jewish Blessings

My mother reads by torchlight
under the covers at the Church
boarding school in Southport.
The book of Jewish blessings
a secret trail back to her culture.
My mother knows the prayers by heart.
It’s the book she loves. So worn
it is held together with a piece
of cloth tape—a gift from her grandfather.
I imagine her tracing the ink drawings
in the book: a moon hugged by clouds
over a sea filled with hundreds of minnow
brushstrokes. On the previous page:
a child’s bed and the same full moon—
as she mouths the Shema.

Was this after the day the girls poked
my mother in the backs of her calves
for not kneeling during church?
Or after the evening meal
where the cook tried to shame her
by serving her roast beef on a silver platter
because she couldn’t eat pork?
Everyone turned to look at my mother
as the silver tray was placed in front of her.
She cut up the beef and shared it around. 

Now, as she reads the blessing book
the sheets are ripped from her head.
‘Please don’t confiscate it—my grandfather
gave it to me.’ The housemistress snatches
the book, scowls at prayers she cannot
translate. Tells her: ‘Don’t do it again or I’ll take it
for good.’

My mother still looks at the book—kept close
by her bedside. When she brings it out
to show me, I photograph its yellowed pages, read
the Shema, drink in the drawings, revel
in her school-girl defiance.


First published in Peril Magazine, Issue 31: ‘I Can’t Speak to You’ QPF Edition, 2017