In this collaborative poem, each
poet bases his or her writing on
the talmudic verse, “Know before
whom you stand,” and the final
line of the previous stanza.
Knowing before whom you stand, face
to face, at the checkpoint, if you are on this side,
may save life and clarify where the line is drawn
beyond which you are unwilling to know.
“Know Before Whom You Stand”
RICHARD CHESS, DAVID LEHMAN, ERIKA MEITNER, YAKOV AZRIEL
Knowing, if you are on that side, before
whom you stand at the checkpoint, may not diminish
the shame of submitting the small document
of your life to a cold eye.
Richard Chess is the author of
three books of poetry, Third
Temple, Chair in the Desert,
and Tekiah. A professor of
literature and language at the
University of North Carolina, he
directs its Center for Jewish
I heed. I heard. Cast a cold eye
and drive by. If you arrive before
the one I do not know, but need to know,
you will hear the sound of the number four
in German. For I know the fear
that is the beginning of all wisdom.
There is a silent “no” in the fall of the snow.
My car skids, but I turn the wheel
David Lehman’s most recent
books are Yeshiva Boys
(Scribner), a poetry collection,
and A Fine Romance: Jewish
Songwriters, American Songs
(Nextbook/Shocken). He is the
editor of The Oxford Book of
American Poetry and the series
editor of The Best American
Poetry. He teaches in the New
School’s graduate writing
program in New York City.
in the direction of the skid, and we stop
on a strip of land, safe, and I know no harm
can befall me, for I am filled with the glory
of the Lord, whom I fear but do not know.
And the choir sang the prayer for when
you return the Torah to the ark.
Erika Meitner is the author of
Inventory at the All-night
Drugstore (Anhinga Press)
and, most recently, Ideal Cities
(HarperCollins), which was a
2009 National Poetry Series
winner. An assistant professor
of English at Virginia Tech, she
is completing her doctorate in
religious studies at the
University of Virginia.
When I was a child I used to count men’s
hats in the Yiddish synagogue when everyone
rose up eins tsvey dray fir but not the ladies
who wore latticed doilies pinned to their wigs
like folded wings about to take flight or
flattened outstretched hands. Before whom
did we stand? Finf zeks zibn akht the male
rabbi, the male cantor and his oyoyoys.
The ark shuts in a flash of white, a curtain’s
pull, an arm crossing the heart the chest
nayn tsen elf tsvelf. A house for the body is closed.
Yakov Azriel has published
three books of poetry: Threads
From a Coat of Many Colors:
Poems on Genesis (2005), In
The Shadow of a Burning
Bush: Poems on Exodus
(2008) and Beads for the
Messiah's Bride: Poems on
Leviticus (2009). His poems
have won twelve international
poetry awards and he has
been awarded two fellowships
from the Memorial Foundation
for Jewish Culture.
The play will soon begin — eleven, ten,
Nine, eight, seven, six — soon the chatter dies,
In hope you won’t forget its wording when
The spotlight shines — five, four — it is unwise
A shofar blows. The curtains rise. Within
The confines of a narrow stage, you go
To say your lines the best you can. The sun
And moon, the day, the night, are actors in
The drama of your life — three, two — you know
You stand before an Audience of One.