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The Hotel Zion

by Alexander Nemser

The rabbis of the Rabbinical Council met inside the stained walls of the synagogue in Vilnius. A rabbi began by lamenting that horses pulling carts filled with radios kept passing beneath his window, distracting him from his progress on his pornographic illustrations of the Talmud. Another rabbi, with eyes red from weeping, offered a commentary on the story of Abraham and Isaac.

God commanded Abraham, remembered the rabbi, Sacrifice your son Isaac on the shores of Paradise, and leave his body to soak for a month in a tidal pool ringed with red sea anemones, guarded by the yellow panthers who grow, only here, to the size of calves.

Abraham, the rabbi continued, tied a blindfold around his son’s eyes and brought his knife to Isaac’s throat, when an angel descended and said, Listen: Better to lie on the ground and feel the sun on your skin, the grass between your toes, and to dream of love until an untraceable music wafts over you, Abraham, and you are transported to the lost city of Zion, where kings in scarlet velvet armchairs play chess on marble tabletops on the patio of the Hotel Jerusalem, where, as every revolution happens concurrently, the fountain of time endlessly drinks itself, and barges colored bright green with algae float down the river carrying men in rags who offer you nets full of flapping silver fish, and invite you to join in an assassination attempt.

Women with light summer dresses cut according to the very latest styles, the angel continued, move with a languorous elegance which you, as a man, know only from the edge of sleep. They pass by as if gliding over the stones, whispering undefeatable openings to the kings, who laugh holding their stomachs, and claim to have been inspired at the very moment when defeat seemed unavoidable. And at every moment hundreds of chained convicts pass by in one long, desolate train, marching, driven by the pharaoh’s Hussars mounted on black chargers, from the construction of one glass pyramid to the next.

The pharaoh, the rabbi concluded, was an intermittent morphine addict, and had two black mistresses who draped themselves in capes of gold and platinum, and went each week for a bikini wax given by a hideous witch who scratched the grooves in phonograph records with her fingernails, and pronounced incomprehensible chants about Aphrodite’s blind love for a man who had been abandoned at birth in a city park, who never learned human language, bathed in a public restroom, and fed himself on worms. For her attraction, the witch chanted, she was made a laughingstock among the gods; and yet, in spite of everything, the witch sang, she remained devoted to the man.


Alexander Nemser’s poems have been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review. He is working on his first book, from which the above selection is drawn. (1/2011)

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