The Rabbi Poems




In his youth, the rabbi had conducted

memorable new year services. He retold &

reinterpreted the old story of Abraham &

Isaac in light of the Arabs, the Blacks,

Israel, the Republican Party, Hitler & the

Exodus. The cantors came & went, the

shofar blew. Lands were traded. Hostages

taken. The years passed like rocks & bullets

& the blossoming olives & poppies across

the desert hills. The story of the father’s

near-killing of his son only brought painful

memories––my poor mad father pulling his

knife on me as a boy––sacrificed to his own

mad god. So frail now, the rabbi’d become,

barely able to life the scrolls over his head,

losing his place, the sermon incoherent,

the congregants talking, pointing at him.





“I shouldn’t have to do this,” says the rabbi

at the graveside, bending down to kiss the casket

in his red skullcap. “Even though he was old &

sick, even though it was his time to go and I have

conducted funeral after funeral, even though I have

led the mourner’s prayer for his wife, for my own––

this is no small task . . . so very few of us remain &

I’d always assumed it would be him where now I

stand, saying these words over me . . . But now

you’re dead, my oldest friend & with you the

world I know lies now beneath these feet . . .





The rabbi went to the dry cleaners. He dropped off

six shirts. A week past. Then another. The fighting

between the Israelis and Palestinians was so intense

that he’d forgotten all about them. Finally, he went

into the dry cleaners with his receipt and gave it to

the woman at the counter. “I’m sorry rabbi,” said the

woman, “We had a fire and all your shirts were

burned up. We lost everything.” The woman gave

the rabbi forty dollars for each shirt lost in the fire.

He had never spent forty dollars on a shirt in his life.

He took the money and went over to the house of

his friend. “I am trying to remember which shirts I

lost,” said the rabbi, “so I know which ones to replace.”

“My wife will get a good laugh over this,” said the

rabbi’s friend. The rabbi smiled. His old friend’s wife

had been dead for some time. 





One day, the rabbi drove a long way from town.

Seeing only bare trees, the rabbi was filled with a

regret––some day soon my end will come and all

my wisdom will be scattered and lost. Arriving at

a shopping mall, the rabbi went to the Haines

outlet store to buy new underwear for herself.

There behind the counter, she saw a young woman,

who, as with most youth, had, upon attaining

adulthood, left her mother’s home and run far away

from the town of her birth to begin a new life.


As looks are deceiving and every fate has its twin,

unknown to sales clerk, the elderly woman she was

helping to choose the very finest undergarments

for the coming High Holy Days was her own mother––

a rabbi considered by all to be a visionary without

compare. The rabbi’s daughter assumed that she was

simply getting a day’s pay for her efforts to rejoice in

her lot of low desires & inferior things. But when the

rabbi and the young woman were alone in the fitting room,

it was there the mother placed a hand upon the girl’s

shoulder and said, “None shall gain the complete,

natural & masterless by taking pleasure only in minor

matters, yet even without hope or expectation, you

will give rest to all, without distinction.”





The rabbi got a black eye from a recent sparring

in a karate class he attended. He put on his glasses,

changed back into his suit & picked up his sister

who was pregnant and a sergeant in the army.

Why should I expect anything less than disaster

he thought to himself. Disaster is the story of life.


The rabbi went into his study and closed the door.

The Israeli military had surrounded the Palestinian

leader’s compound with tanks, troops, & snipers.

A Palestinian woman had blown herself up at a wedding.

An artist held a can of diet Coke in a doctored photo

of death camp Jews gazing emaciated at the lens.


Opening the Old Book, the rabbi ran a crooked finger

absently through a long curled blue dyed forelock.

He thought about the labyrinths of intelligence &

Plots of destruction––of blood & dreams. When the warm

weather comes, each will suddenly look into the

Other’s eyes, knowing there is nothing to go back to.





After it had been discovered that the cantor was a fake,

that the cantor not only couldn’t sing, but did not know

the holy blessings, the rabbi took a vow of silence. Some

in the congregation believed the rabbi had overdone it,

that he was calling them fools when what they needed

was his tenderness & wisdom & signs that goodness would

prevail. But each day brought the rabbi only the saddest

recollections with greater vividness of all that he had

cherished & extolled & hallowed & mourned & lost.

Soon he remembered it was not his intention to stop at

any finite, given form or station, but rather to walk the

Path of Names––the less understandable the better––until

he gained the activity of a force completely outside his

control & all his mental & sense images were effaced.

Those were the days when the rabbi would stand trembling

at the alter, delivering his weekly sermon without a sound.





When young, the rabbi had gotten kicked out of school

for snorting cans of whip cream at the convenient store.

Later, he’d dealt dope while his father thought he

was studying at Yeshiva––perfecting the art of God’s

argument––but the young man wasn’t too good at thinking

through his actions & paid dearly for his wrongdoings

& lack of common sense. Shuffling from town to town,

the rabbi became estranged from all those he met. By

middle age, he could no longer be touched by friendship,

so detached from ordinary bonds had he become, save a

poor tailor he had met before all his troubles started.


How the tailor and the rabbi found each other after 

parting ways was its own testimony to the mysterious.

Consider one blistering summer day. They met at a

roadhouse visited by biker gangs. There were gaping

tears along many of the seams of the outlawed rabbi’s

garments, for over the years thin he had not grown.

In short, he’d so outgrown his frame not even his own

mother would recognize him. Stumbling upon his only

true friend, the poor weather beaten tailor looked up

from a pair of leather chaps as if continuing a conversation

begun an hour, not decades, ago, and said, “It is not the

sewing of the torn garment that’s a tailor’s joy, but the

entering of the orchard of emptiness that is the tear itself.”





Trees do not speak of the angels washing their

lips with fire & no one in the rabbi’s office ever

spoke of his desk––overflowing as if it were the

heaven of heavens––with Talmud editions &

old manuscripts, clippings from newspapers,

letters from scholars & tractates of mystics.

On one scrap of paper the rabbi had written a

dream he’d had last night. It was a dream the

rabbi had had since he was a child. It was a

dreadful dream of walking terrified through 

fields overrun with snakes. He knew this snake

dream well. It meant “fog over Jerusalem.” It

meant “pine needles in pools of mountainside

gullies.” It meant “the middle of the whirlwind.”

It meant “small dust-shrouded soul.” It meant

“Our dead mothers looking down for us children.”

It meant “the end of the dead” & “nothing to know.”





The rabbi followed a flock of crows headed

toward the horizon. He asked himself, “Am

I supposed to photograph In-Charge-Of-Life

the way photographs are taken of the dead

in the streets of Gaza? When he arrived, he found

a gathering of people weeping where the bodies

had washed upon the land. He told them “Those

were the people with whom you used to live.”

Not far away, some birds were singing in a bush

covered with yellow blossoms. Content watching

the birds, the rabbi forgot he was hungry. Then

he thought, “Can it really be that no one is

alive?” & “Even so, I will enlighten you.”





An infant dressed in bright pink pointed up to the evening

star. The rabbi had married a go-go dancer. They met at

the dogtrack. It was love at first sight. The thought of her

boots made him remember the lonesomest Sabbath & people

who had no idea where they were from, who needed to wipe

out their memories. Perhaps they had been accountants for

Unity Mitford before she had fallen in love with Hitler,

or someone had said to them, “Listen to me, forget about me.”

“Everyone has their marching orders,” thought the rabbi,

sitting on his doorstep listening to the frogs as if he was

Frankenstein at the Dead Sea picking flowers with a little girl.

The rabbi wondered, “How long since forgiveness gave up hope

of those whom within  it dwell?” Then strangely, to no one,

he said, “That you are all standing here in front of me

makes me feel no simple passion, not even the excess

of passion, but the passion to bring sanctity to everything.





“Every word has a perfect shape all its own, yet

how many had come to the zaddik as one whom

his own heart had cast out? The world is exactly

as it happens to be & if you ask me how I know

this, since I am neither a prophet myself nor the

son of a prophet, let me tell you––if words from

the heart find no heart to receive them, then

these words do not err in space, but return

to the heart that spoke them. That is what

happened to me.” “But zaddik,” said the rabbi,

“Don’t you know, you are no longer among the

Living?” When the zaddik refused to believe him,

the rabbi unbuttoned the zaddik’s coat & showed 

the zaddik he was dressed in bones.





Fiery serpents coil through every generation

& because of them, anguish multiplies like

locusts, for it is said all God does is mercy––

it is only the world cannot bear the naked fill. 

This is why it is written in Tales of the Hasadim

it is the rabbis that delay redemption, for they

bring about the separation of hearts & groundless

hatreds that further nothing. In the hour at the

Tree of Knowledge, the hour of the golden calf,

& the hour of the destruction of Jerusalem, how

many rabbis had the sign upon their foreheads

of the image in which God creates the people?


Giving, regardless to whom, the rabbi concentrated

all his strength against the throngs of renegades 

slipping through the nets of law, the nets of mind,

the nets of heaven, but he had reached a place

in life where his prayers were those of a blind

man typing a masterpiece on a typewriter with

no ribbon. The rabbi noticed his toe sticking out

of his sock. “What shall I do with my little

wisdom when I have said all there is to say?”





When the stars rose on the second night of the

rabbi’s labor, her husband said, “I know what is

in your heart. You have passed through the 50

gates of reason.” Having stared at the question

whose answer no woman has ever found, a little

girl was then born to the rabbi, and as the wheel

of fortune rolls on its innermost point, one night

years later the daughter & her mother were

watching Tombstone. At the end of the movie, the

young girl asked her mother if the Shekhina

wears a great bowling pin headdress atop her

radiant body sheathed in white light because

she’s from Arizona. The next Friday, the rabbi

gave a sermon on the failure of military resolve.

She told a story about the ashes of a poor man

that were gathered into a rusty tin can. When

his friends scattered the dead man’s remains

into a river, a strong wind came up & blew the

ashes back in their faces. “That’s how it is for

any person, any people, any government. Any

Truth without peace is only a false truth.” 





The rabbi washed two sweaters––one was drying

on the bed & the other on the bathroom floor. The

day was filled with sunlight and warmth. He

packed quickly, silently, all the while thinking

of people whose stomachs were filled with grass.

Back from another funeral––they had played

“The Days Of Wine And Roses” as the beloved

was lowered into the earth––the rabbi felt the

ache of separation. He felt it on the subway beneath

the city on his way to address religious leaders

about the hideous beheading of a journalist whose

throat was slit while confessing himself a Jew.

The rabbi arrived at the meeting, black bags 

under his eyes, pushing away the microphones

shoved zealously into his face. Once seated, he

said only this: “The God these murderers do not

believe in,” he told the gathering of leaders from

all faiths and creeds around the world, “is the

God I too do not believe in.”



25 September 1995 (“New Year’s Sermon”)

24 February 1997 (“Shouldn’t Have To Do This”)

Fall 2001-Spring 2002



[Published in Quien Sabe Mountain:

Poems 1998-2004. © 2004 by Jim Cohn.]




Quien Sabe Mountain
(MAP Publications, 2004)