The children press their noses
to our bumpy, flawless etrog.
They hold it tightly, inhale its zesty scent,
pass it on to apparitions over their shoulders.
Winged angels – my ancestors – reunite, mingle and drift
like holy ushpizin visiting during Sukkot.
Their ghostliness imitates the seven patriarchs
of our people – uprooted, wounded,
the slash of evil in their bodies
hidden like a tattoo.
Their strength is a long story,
a wandering secret they died with.
The sky blackens, and if we weren’t in Chicago,
stars would peek through the slats
of the sukkah’s bamboo roof. They nod, pleased
with my children’s names, their manners,
the colorful paper chains. We tell the children:
Memory is inherited.
Ash is in your bones.
We try to understand the symbolism
between Egypt and Israel and Russia and Chicago,
how migration can be read on the face of a phantom.
We dwell for hours, curl into the warmth of my ancestors
like layered parentheses.
I intertwine my fingers with a ghostly grandmother,
start braiding my hair into her breath, her rhythm.
She speaks oceans, the beating drum of the Diaspora,
and I am silent, fragmented, unfamiliar
like the cracks of a new mother’s body.
Babushka, the children
wear your necklaces, pocket your faith.
We face east, and the lulav’s spine bends in our hands:
north south east west up down
toward the past and into the present
as our ushpizin, translucent, translate home, and grab hold.
Like everyone else, Meyer Pretcovtiz never talked
about Russia. He focused on the weight
of circumstance, of pushing his cart, fixing its wooden wheels.
At the Maxwell Street open-air market, his legs slowed.
Out of his cart, Meyer sold clothing, fabrics, spools of thread.
The ghetto market, they called it, the Ellis Island of Chicago –
rainbow rows of vegetables and fruit, bedding and towels,
clothing and Yiddish newspapers, tools and used appliances.
Peddlers shouted fair prices from peregrine pushcarts.
Meyer whistled, leaning an elbow into his lot.
Women in headscarves bought collared dress shirts with spare buttons,
pulled coins from their aprons for down-payments.
All day, children ran through the market, weaving between
dresses and suits, under make-shift tables and awnings.
Meyer’s dinnertime stories were of the people he sold to –
what they looked like, what they bought and didn’t buy or tried to steal,
the way they laughed, open-mouthed, at the Maxwell jugglers and magicians
of the free world, their talk of this dirtied new century of opportunity.
In 1922, peddling money slowed, a wintertime shadow,
and then the car accident, a slap from his Russian nightmares.
His wife Minnie’s ghost hovered over his cart
despite these promised streets paved with gold. What lies.
Everything became perilous.
Gangsters negotiating, politicians preaching.
Meyer’s fingers felt tainted from the strange green
smell of an American dollar. The neighborhood was changing.
He felt his Jewishness like an impending yellow star.