751: Behaving Like a Jew

751: Behaving Like a Jew

751: Behaving Like a Jew


I’m Shira Erlichman and this is The Slowdown.

I’ll admit it here. We weren’t supposed to bury our cat in that private park. Even if it was, for all intents and purposes, just the woods. Even if we were entirely careful, very hygienic. But grief makes you do weird things. I don’t think Cory, or my girlfriend, or I were thinking with the utmost clarity.

Though the cat belonged to my girlfriend and me, the box stayed in our friend Cory’s hands. Our earthy, compassionate, and nature-extraordinaire Cory was there for moral support. It had been only days since our cat, Motek, got sick suddenly, went through a round of various expensive surgeries, then died. We’d only had him for two months, but what does the heart know of time when it comes to love? He would sleep wrapped around my head like a slipped halo. He would bat my hands away from the keyboard when I was answering emails, fully conscious that I could be paying attention to him, and letting me know so.

As we walked deeper into the woods, there were five of us beating the grief-trail. Cory, Motek, my girlfriend, me, and silence itself. Silence was a palpable body, our fifth companion. When we reached the right patch of earth according to Cory, the ceremony began. My girlfriend’s mom being a cantor, they conjured an old Jewish prayer from memory and sang it. The two of us turned away from Cory and she lifted the cat’s body from the box. I turned around.We had said we didn’t want to see. But I couldn't help myself.

What I saw startled me into love.

Before settling the body deep into the earth, Cory was petting the dead. Petting the dead cat like he was alive, like he deserved tenderness, even now. Especially now. She didn’t know that I saw her. She did it because the wellspring of her own heart, in its own privacy, understood something sacred.

Today’s poem invites us to pause, understand, and offer our blessing––not conceptually, not at a distance––but with our hands.

Behaving Like a Jew
by Gerald Stern

When I got there the dead opossum looked like
an enormous baby sleeping on the road.
It took me only a few seconds — just 
seeing him there — with the hole in his back
and the wind blowing through his hair
to get back again into my animal sorrow.
I am sick of the country, the bloodstained
bumpers, the stiff hairs sticking out of the grilles,
the slimy highways, the heavy birds
refusing to move;
I am sick of the spirit of Lindbergh over everything,
that joy in death, that philosophical
understanding of carnage, that
concentration on the species.
— I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death.
I am going to behave like a Jew
and touch his face, and stare into his eyes,
and pull him off the road.
I am not going to stand in a wet ditch
with the Toyotas and the Chevies passing over me
at sixty miles an hour
and praise the beauty and the balance
and lose myself in the immortal lifestream
when my hands are still a little shaky
from his stiffness and his bulk
and my eyes are still weak and misty
from his round belly and his curved fingers
and his black whiskers and his little dancing feet.

“Behaving Like a Jew” published by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. in This Time: New and Selected Poems © 1978 by Gerald Stern. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.