...In-between sets from poet Cynthia Schwartzberg Edlow

November 8, 2012

The Dry Cleaner's Daughter

I have always felt, on my own blog, I would never present my own work in full. Until today.  Because of a confluence of emotions today regarding my life and heritage and ancestry, I want to present a poem I wrote, for those who grace this page with their time and attention.  I am very thankful for very much.  I always say that, and it is always true.  Today I am thinking about my parents.  I am also thinking about the unspeakable events that began their atrocious unraveling on the day after today, 74 years ago in foreign lands.  I am thinking about why it is that the human race edges always towards divisiveness, instead of the wonder of union. 

This poem is about my father, my family, my heritage, and I present it, today, on the anniversary of my mother's passing, in 2008. In memory of Isadore and Angela Schwartzberg. 


The dry cleaning business had its own mythologies. My Jewish
father, unceremoniously, called his Viking Cleaners.
Perhaps he forged himself the plundering marauder
of Devon Avenue, where stood Selma’s delicatessen,
Mlodinoff’s photography studios, and the pastry-luring
Gitel’s bakery; all quaked from the reverberating wake
of his landship station wagon, its suspension sprung, wheezing
and harrumphing along the potholed road, its interior stuffed
with bundles of the kehilla’s soiled ensembles of finery.
Great care readied the clothes for cleaning. Buttons,
shrouded with satiny cloth, zippers zipped and waxed, hooks
detached to safeguard gossamer fabrics from vicious snags.
Next, the pockets, reviewed — and there, from the sundry folds
of faceless pockets, sometimes my father extracted intricate filigreed gold
mezzuzot, and forthright silver Stars of David, and one exceptional piece,
brushed brass, in the shape of the holy tablets, encrusted
with striking Judaic stones signifying commandments.
He reserved them in a cigar box a year or more.
No one remarked on or claimed their vanished valuables.
These he brought home to me, as offerings.
A brooding girl: where were people arriving at
or returning from that a sea engulfed them, seafoam
prickly in their lungs, and the choice was made not
to display their mezzuzot the entirety of the evening?
No one removes gold cuff links midway into an event.
No pearl cluster earrings wantonly set aside.
Anyone would inquire as to their whereabouts.
What coerced fine Jews to shed these symbols, place them
in outerwear’s abundant depths and go on, blithely,
about their occasion? What amplified quality of
an evening had they? Did the company they kept, who
professed to care for them, care for them any more or less?
Was the wine spectacularly replenished, the dance
simply one degree more rousing?
The Christian does not remove the cross and stealth it away
in trouser or skirt pockets. A likeness of
the young Jewish journeyman is proudly displayed
around the neck. The crosses are large.
I now know my father drove that wagon
for his family’s sake. From out its windows wafted
premonitions and resignations in brocades of gray
cigar smoke. I was seven when I discovered Jesus Christ
and his mother were Jews. I confess I
was confused. I surmised he’d grown up the same
old way, the kids he’d hung out with, cousins, siblings, the
whole citizen block, families squabbling, embracing. He knew,
but any Jewish child knows the riotous arousal
they simply walked in on. Options were afforded him.
Would he, elocutionistic, peripatetic, charged and emitting,
with his Jewish buddies in tow, have removed all vestiges
of Jewish ornamentation, as he wound
his way up and over, on the road to Capernaum?
And in his travels, if he stooped
at the dusty roadside to hand a darkhaired
girl some cloth from his family tree, she
would have needed nothing of instruction, less
of intervention, and deliverance but an anathema.
It was a given, a corolla of nimbus,
a thing to be held onto in its immoderate beauty.

The Dry Cleaner’s Daughter is published in “The Day Judge Spencer Learned the Power of Metaphor.”  It first appeared in Jewish Women’s Literary Annual - New York, 2003, Volume 5, and was reprinted in Tempe Poetry in April Chapbook – City of Tempe, 2005, Volume 5.  It was also published in Scribblers on the Roof, an online journal, in 2009.

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