Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) is a series of aphoristic sayings about how to live a good life. It was written around 200 CE but passed down orally by the ancient rabbis for centuries, and you can feel it in the words, like stones that have been washed clean by centuries of river water.
I first encountered Pirkei Avot in college. I’d left my secular Jewish family for New York City, where I met my first Orthodox Jews. I immediately began pestering them with questions until someone finally said, “You know, you should go to Wednesday Night Learning and study some Torah.”
When I arrived, I was assigned a partner: a whip-smart young woman, Modern Orthodox, as curious about my secular world as I was about her religious one. She taught me Pirkei Avot, and I answered her questions about how dates worked and what shrimp tasted like.
I expected to be bored, at least at first — after all, this book was 2,000 years old. Instead, I was instantly captivated. As a creative writing major, I delighted in the language, but even more than that, I felt a strange and surprising sense of relief.
As we read on, I realized that all my life, I’d been trying to figure out what it meant to live well, to be a good person. Here, for the first time, I found counsel, wisdom, direction. I wasn’t about to stop thinking critically, but it sure was nice to have something to think critically about, instead of starting from scratch.
Reading Pirkei Avot for the first time felt like opening a treasure chest marked with my name. It had always belonged to me, but I never knew it existed. Now, I knew I had to learn more.
Ida Fink, the Polish-born writer who escaped deportation and immigrated to Israel after the war, was an author of such extraordinary beauty, gifted with a poetic and visual style of storytelling, that it stirred me to write my own poetry as an ode to her book, A Scrap of Time. Her genre was literature of the Holocaust, yet she steered clear of writing about cattle cars, selections, lampshades, and medical “curiosities.” Rather, her 23 short stories, one growing upon the next, become a collage of surrealistic prose paintings, visions of discreet horrors only her characters and the imagination of her readers can suppose. Short moments between individuals caught at the crossroads of their lives seek survival within a hypnotic world of no exit. Scary reality, like our recent tragedy, drawn in quiet whispers of unimaginable scraps of time.
Oh! My Poland,
Childhood home of apple orchards,
Scented summer gardens of sunflowers
Dancing on warm breezes
Children hiding and seeking
Along the banks of crystal rivers,
While lovers lay naked in a symphony of passion
The cool moon calls and cradles us all to sleep.
Summer is gone and with it my youth.
“Gather up the colors and smells of the world”
Winter falls, the drum of distant trucks
Barking with beasts wake my dreams
Into hypnotic nightmares
And my Poland floats away in the fog.
Day brings black locusts that stain the light,
A hurry of opening and closing doors,
“If only we had a hiding place”
“But I look too Jewish”
“They took the Goldmans.”
Night of the Old Men
My Father gone
Shots in the forest, birds fly, snow bathed in crimson wine.
How did we not see it coming…..
“We overslept our lives.”
Don’t be afraid, I said to my child
Take my hand
And I, and my Poland
In a scrap of time