Two Prose Poems From ‘The Sacrifice of Abraham’

The Rabbis


As the purple light of evening descended, women sang blessings over silver candelabra, and a group of rabbis gathered in the shul to discuss the story of Abraham and Isaac.

One rabbi, who owned only a single shirt with a blackened collar, began a commentary: As Abraham led Isaac up to Mt Moriah for the sacrifice, the rabbi contended, the two of them suddenly heard a sound. Neither could identify the sound or its source, if it were high or low, soft or shrill, coming from beneath the ground, or up in the sky.

Isaac asked his father, What is this sound? And Abraham replied, That is the sound of God’s justice unfolding across the earth. Lo, the Lord himself infuses it with His blessing as he sits beneath a pomegranate tree.

Isaac disagreed, but kept silent. Later, the rabbi continued, he spoke of his own interpretation of the sound, founded on an alternative view of God’s judgment as the proliferation of chaos, as an animal howl, as a disturbance beneath the street, and as the grinding of the spheres, rattling past on unequal tracks. And in fact, as Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk suggested, the rabbi continued, it is not the Lord, but the mortal King Saul, Israel’s first king, who sits beneath the pomegranate tree, weeping into his hands for the kingdom he ruled so briefly and jealously, and with so much confusion.

In Isaac’s old age, the rabbi concluded, King David came to him to sing the psalms, which he had just composed. Isaac had gone blind, but when David sang, he saw suddenly an image of his own son Jacob wrestling an angel in a parking lot. Isaac had had, in his lifetime, dozens of wives, and had fathered hundreds of children, but he dreamed of only one woman, and behind his eyes he swam again between her thighs like a fluorescent eel weaving between the pink coral, breathing in again the smell of seaweed, the emanation of life.

It is true I am heartbroken, Rabbi Isaac of Tarnopol used to say, and my consciousness is more than anyone can bear.




The Peacock

A group of rabbis sat in the vacant room behind a store specialising in previously-owned camera equipment and imported ladders of infinite height from Addis Ababa, which the rabbis called ‘The Mother Country’. The rabbis were allowed, at the minimum of rent, to gather in the room on Wednesday afternoons following the ritual slaughter of a peacock on the steps of the synagogue.

As the rabbis argued over God’s command to Abraham, the slaughterer spread newspaper beneath the peacock and slit its throat with a jackknife, whispering, in a tune known only to him and his predecessors, a prayer of thanksgiving which travelled in a spiral on a current of air up to the ears of the gods who, shipwrecked on a celestial island and living in the rusted hull of a cruise liner, were boiling honey over the embers of the Great Bonfire, set by the Yoruba hero Polyphemos from a mound of sacred grasses. The fire, it was contended, burned the entire time it took for the world to be created from the graveyard of solar systems, where Mohammed Ali once buried the sun.

The ritual slaughterer, observed the prophet Elisha from a fire escape, passed the bird to a group of old women dressed in coarse brown cloth to pluck its feathers and roast it over a fire burning in an oil-drum. The old women leaned over the drum in the alley-way between the synagogue and a store selling memorabilia to the religious pilgrims who had come to see the famous graffiti Madonna, which each year cried a different colour, the tears appearing without warning to the inhabitants of the city who passed it every day.

The first thigh of the bird was set aside for the false messiah, hungering in his error for centuries. The second thigh was set aside for the first-born-son on the eve of the birth of his first child. The rest was distributed among the needy, the hysterical women who heard ominous double meanings in each of God’s commands, and the one-eyed or one-armed exiles from the community, sitting in disgrace in the park in ratty overcoats, cursing the laws by which they themselves had forfeited their places at the banquet. The exiles lurched back and forth and talked over a plan to kidnap the rabbi’s sister and hold her for ransom in a warehouse in the middle of the desert, laughing until they coughed up blood and became silent watching dusk fall softly on the city, where each is an exile unto himself.

At that time, Cain and Abel became involved in an argument which, although it began as a disagreement over a minor point of scholarship, somehow escalated into an irreparable rift in the entire congregation, half of which sided with the bewildered Abel, and half with the furious and embittered Cain, who, although he was not a man of great personal charm, nonetheless attracted the skeptics and the bereaved to himself, giving speeches composed of warped proverbs in an out-dated vernacular, and displaying a tattoo showing a baby being born out of the center of a Star of David, which, it was implied, was King David himself, author of a version of the bible in which all the animals in God’s creation sing the Psalms in unforgettable melodies, and the tyrannical god Saturn attempts to devour his own children but is tricked by his wife into swallowing a hydrogen bomb, and an atomic bomb, and a roadside bomb, and an improvised explosive device, and a rocket-propelled grenade, and a cluster bomb, and a heat-seeking missile, and a Mayan soccer ball which experts identified as a human head.

Alexander Nemser has two prose poems from the same series published in the first issue of The White Review. Click here to buy.


’s poems have been published in The New York TimesThe Atlantic Monthly and The Paris Review. His book reviews appear frequently in The New Republic. He lives in Boston.



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