Three Poems by Yudit Shahar

Translated by Aviya Kushner


This was twenty-something years ago:
They lived in a house of Jerusalem stone with multiple bedrooms
and I finished up the matriculation exam in a prep center
for low-income students;
she was a doctor, her husband a well-known professor,
their son, thin and pale, liked to sneak in back of me and breathe
she used to bend over the piano in the practice room
the shadows of the trees in the garden 
would pour and sway with the sounds 
in the soft Jerusalem light.
I knew that not for this light was I headed.
She always used to buy cheesecakes
and apple cakes for her family and guests
in the same bakery.
She taught me to operate the dishwasher
and the vacuum cleaner.
She was delighted and full of praise
when she discovered that her housecleaner 
had arranged the canned food
in a useful order.
I wanted to say that I had already published
a poem in a journal
but I shut up. 
She complained about how hard it is
to find a good maid now that Arab women
don’t come to work now because of the tensions.

She wore British lace panties
that were always yellow in the crack.
Once every two weeks exactly
the old seamstress would arrive from Bak’a
for “small repairs” and receive old clothes
and canned food in exchange.
When I announced that I was getting married and leaving
I felt that I was a thief.
She had the expression of someone who smelled something bad
and she examined my belly carefully;
I wanted to say that I wasn’t pregnant but I shut up.

And still, I didn’t realize 
that it was my duty
to give her husband 
the right of the first night.


Can someone rescue me
I am located fourteen kilometers
By sea line from Tel Aviv on land that is called 
Petach Tikva, can someone rescue kilometers
And more uncountable kilometers of sanity, of plates I have washed,
Schnitzels I have fried, shirts I have folded,
Papers I have organized
And paid for or forgotten but
Always in the end I remembered to cover myself (my own costs, that is)
And especially others
Can someone save me from all the things I said,
The smiles I smiled, and those I added
From the dreams I conquered,
Squashed, choked, and those I made happen,
Can he save me from all the mistakes
Which I prevented myself from making
Empty corpses silent on 
What I won’t be able to learn
Will he rescue me from the show
That I am about to be? 


Customer service, hello, it’s me speaking
Yes, how can I help you?
Sorry ma’am I know you waited a long time 
No I can’t transfer you to the shift supervisor
Ma’am, here the system speaks—labor agreements, progress reports,
bonuses to outstanding human tools
and at the first of the month a salary
that doesn’t even cover the cost
of covering the roots of white hair.
(Ma’am, don’t you hear your baby crying?)

It’s me the human representative speaking to you
Twenty-four hours a day seven days a week
We are here, shackled arm to arm, under the earth
from sunrise to soul departure
in a place called open space, neon light
without windows, bathrooms in the corner
and a supervisor listening
and docking me when I impolitely wrap the pack of lies
that applies to every being.
Ma’am it doesn’t matter what you say
(your baby doesn’t stop crying)
Each person has a price tag 
and lies that shine and illuminate 
her path from above.
How can I help?

Yudit Shahar
 was born on the outskirts of the HaTikva neighborhood in Tel Aviv, and she often says that “tikva” (“hope”) is “a significant word in her life story”. She studied history at Tel Aviv University and Special Education at the Kibbutz Teachers’ Seminary. Since the age of seven, Shahar has been writing poetry. Shahar’s first book, It’s Me Speaking (2009) received support from the Casset Foundation and was awarded the Teva Prize and the David Levitan Prize. Her second book, Every Street Has Its Own Mad Woman (2013), won the prestigious Prime Minister’s Prize in Hebrew Literature. Her third collection, Holy Illusion, was published in January 2021. She teaches special education and works with marginalized populations in Israeli society.

Aviya Kushner grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home in New York. She is the author of WOLF LAMB BOMB, a poetry collection deeply engaged with the Book of Isaiah that was named a New & Noteworthy title by The New York Times and won The Chicago Review of Books Award in Poetry, as well as The Grammar of God, a National Jewish Book Award Finalist and Sami Rohr Prize Finalist, about the experience of reading the Bible in English after a lifetime of reading it in Hebrew. She is The Forward’s language columnist and an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago, where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. 

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