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Friday, February 1, 2013

Ghosts of Identity


Faith, Place and Cultural Memory

En Jeista

The Jewish Cemetery at Penang

And these sepulchral stones, so old and brown,
That pave with level flags their burial place,
Seem like the tablets of the law, thrown down,
And broken by Moses at the mountain’s base.
    The Jewish Cemetery at Newport” – Longfellow

In a patch of flattened weeds in front of the graves
where a Kohane’s stone-carved fingers part to bless
the remains of Penang’s departed congregation,
barefoot Malaysian boys were playing badminton,
a sagging string strung pole to pole their net.
Our Chinese trishaw driver, too old to read
the map without his glasses, with five hairs long
as my five gingers growing from a mole,
waited for us.  He’d found the street although
the tourist map was wrong:  the name no longer
Yahudi Road, but Zaimal Abidin.

A rusted lock hung open on a chain
slung loosely round the stone and iron gate.
From a tin-roofed shanty, a makeshift squat
just inside the walls, a woman watched us
unbuckle the chain and let it hang, the gate
creaking open enough for us to pass.

We walked past the boys, into headstone-high grass.
Lizards scuttled loudly to get away.
It looked decades since they’d been disturbed,
the newest markers twenty-odd years old;
no plastic wreaths; the only pebbles rubble
from the path, unpicked, unpolished, unplaced.
Dozens of graves, from the eighteen-thirties on.
Wolf Horn, Aboody Nahoom, Flora Barooth,
Semali Lazarus, Jacob Ephraim –
who but us had read these names this year?
Who alive could tell me who they were?

Pedaling us away, our spindly driver
had breath to spare, shouting against the traffic
what he’d found out while we were shooting roll
after roll of the cylindrical stone mounds:
there’d been a temple once, the Malaysian woman
had said, but nothing, no cornerstone, was left
of it, nor any living Georgetown Jews.
He himself was fifth-generation Malay,
and had no ties to China.

                Later, walking
along the arcaded five-foot ways, stopping
every few steps to gawk – at rows of shutters,
peeling plaster the color of robins’ eggs,
cats with open sores, and Indian man
reading a Chinese woman’s palm – you point
across the street to a small neighborhood mosque,
its minaret’s crescent moon spiked
with crows.  They scatter at the meuzzin’s call,
regather on a red-tile temple roof,
where Kuan Yin in her mercy guards her flock
and the air inside is smoky from our prayers.
A can of joss sticks rattles in my hand.
I fan the smoke toward her.  What’s one less temple
in a city of temples, a city of worship and trade?
What’s one less altar?  Over on Queen Street, when
the lime rind flares, lit with an oiled wick,
I place it in front of a jet-black Hindu goddess
whose bosom heaves for me as I make my rounds.

Sitting here in a courtyard of our hotel,
on a stone stool, at a stone table, writing
the day’s impressions down, I miss my God,
his featureless face imposing itself
among the more expressive others,
whom he himself has banished, but whom
I also love.  Remember the beggar this morning,
in front of the Krishna Café, where we ate
using only our right hands, how he grabbed
your wrist in thanks, kissed the back of your hand
and wouldn’t let go until I began to tug
at you from the other side?  I saw the look
that swept your face and also –
he might have picked your pocket.

Last night, drinking at the E & O, I said
I’d spend all our money on one perfect
ruby, if only I knew where to find it,
how to recognize it and its true worth.
After I scraped my knee in the monsoon gutter,
I thought of those cats, the open sores on their sides.
One bruise starts before the last one’s healed.
To calm myself, I lit a stick of incense,
but now, though far from home, and despite myself,
I find I’m reciting what I know of the Sh’ma.

Carol Moldaw, Chalkmarks on Stone,
La Alameda Press, Albuquerque, NM, 1998, p 73-75.

A reading from Frances Swyripa ~

… The importance of place and the psychological grounding it provides, always acute among emigrants, is exaggerated in the case of those whose uprooting has been involuntary and violent. For both Ukrainian and Mennonite refugees arriving in western Canada after 1945, the profusion of familiar place names would have been disorienting because it was so out of context, yet it would also have been welcoming and a comfort.[8]
The pioneer generation's sense of rootlessness and detachment from place was highlighted by death, for although the soul went heavenward the body remained in this earth. What Mennonite and Ukrainian immigrants put on their tombstones, whether they marked their graves at all, and how they incorporated their dead and the sites of their dead into their daily lives reflected both individual preferences and a collective sense of community. Countless settler graves -- some on private land, some on land officially designated as a burial ground -- were unmarked, or marked with wooden crosses or posts vulnerable to prairie fires and which in any case rotted and disappeared with time. Today such graves represent memory lost. Even area residents can drive down their local road without realizing that the fenced off rectangle, overgrown with brush, in the adjacent pasture holds a long-forgotten grave.[9] Conservative Mennonites traditionally did not mark their graves, so that their immigrant dead made no visible stamp on the prairie landscape. Ukrainian markers ranged from wood and simple cement moulds to wrought iron and carved stone; if someone had a camera, the 'highlight' would be an inset picture of the deceased, sometimes already in the open coffin. Initially, tombstone inscriptions were invariably written in German or Ukrainian, which reinforced Mennonite and Ukrainian cemeteries as places apart from the dominant Anglo prairie culture. It also made their personal stories inaccessible to outsiders, especially when even the names appeared in an unfamiliar script or alphabet. The words themselves could be scratched with a nail and soon barely legible, handpainted (awkward letters and ungrammatical texts a sign of limited literacy among Ukrainian peasants), or, as individuals and communities became more prosperous, exquisitely engraved. Some epitaphs provided no more than name and year of death, the barest of information divorcing the deceased from the social and physical environments in which she or he lived. Other epitaphs looked backward and outside the immediate prairie setting, linking the dead for eternity with 'home'. Putting a birthplace on a tombstone could express alienation from the present and attachment to a faraway past; it could also be a way for individuals in unfamiliar surroundings or a crystallizing new community to identify themselves for themselves and for each other. Immigration and settlement patterns, however, made this exercise much less urgent among the more homogeneous Mennonites than among the more mixed Ukrainians. Because the survivors usually chose the wording, pioneer tombstones also reflect how the second generation mentally situated itself with respect to its old-world origins as much as they comment on the attitudes of its immigrant parents. In actual fact, only a minority of Mennonite and Ukrainian immigrants had their place of birth recorded on their tombstones. Their children, born or raised on the prairies, buried where they had always lived, felt even less need to reaffirm their connection to place in this way. … In Ukrainian tradition, the relationship between the living and the dead matters greatly…

-         From Frances Swyripa, University of Alberta, Journal of Mennonite Studies, “Ancestors, the Land, and Ethno-religious Identity on the Canadian Prairies,” v 21, 2003,

Check out the wonder photographic essay of historic peace symbols in ancient Pennsylvania graveyards at: "On a Wing and a Prayer"

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