I Have Always Been Afraid

It was only recently that I realized
That I’ve always been afraid,
Or anyway I can’t remember when it started,
when I first asked “why do they hate us”, “or why did we come here”, or “when will it happen again?”
And so I can only assume that I have always been afraid,
Or at least since I was old enough that fear meant more than crying out
For my mother’s breast.
 
I remember the first time I asked what the old Torah in glass case near the entry to the temple was, and why we didn’t take it out all the time like the others.
Why only the Rabbi carried it, ever so carefully, when he and the old woman rounded the sanctuary
Once a year.
I remember asking, and I remember my father answering
And I remember that I must have been very small, because I cannot remember how old I was.
And I remember that when he said it was from the Holocaust, I knew what he was talking about.
 
I remember what must have been the first time I ever sat through a lesson on the Holocaust in public school,
Fourth grade, surrounded by goyim.
I don’t remember when I learned the word goyim. If it was before then, or after.
But I remember that in that moment, in that hour, on that day,
I understood what that word meant.
I understood then better than I had before:
There were us and them,
And the them would never understand what it was like to be us,
And they didn’t care to.
That between the way that I saw the world
And the way that they did
Was an ocean of tears,
And far more than six million dead ancestors.
 
(I would realize later that it was more complicated
Than us and them
But all the goyim I knew then were white.)
 
I remember learning what happened here,
In America,
Not a decade after the Shoah was done.
I remember learning what happened before, and I remember talking
About what happened now.
I remember hearing my rabbi’s stories
Of when he was a child.
But I also remember
That I already knew.
 
When did I first realize why my grandmother came here?
There’s a film on our shelf that tells the story
With mice instead of people, to make for more palatable consumption.
But what was on that tape was never a lesson.
Never really history, either.
Just life.
 
I remember finding out what year we left,
And which part of Russia we had been in.
I remember finding out how close I came
To never
Existing
At all.
But by then I had known for all my life
Why we came here.
 
When did I first wonder when it would happen again?
When did I first know that I was hated?
Not the understanding
That still comes everyday in waves and stabs,
Every time that I am reminded how lucky I am
To have gotten off light.
How lucky I am
That I was never searched for horns,
Or locked in a bathroom,
That coins were never thrown at me in the hallways.
How lucky I am
That I am alive.
When did I first know that I was hated?
When did I first know
The sky was blue?
Before I had words or names for it,
When all I had was the color
And the sky.
 
It was only recently I realized
That I have always been afraid.
Another step in realizing that I am Other
From the people I grew up with.
And only recently I realized what that fear means to me,
And how frightened I am
Of losing it.
 
Sometimes the doctors give me drugs
They say that they will make me sleep
Or take my fear away
And I am afraid to take them.
If I am dead to the world on a regemine of sleeping pills
Then what will I do
If they come in the night?
And if they take my fear away
Than what will be left
To keep me safe?

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