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The Sinner’s Dialogue with God

by Alexander Nemser

A group of rabbis convened in Lvov to pore over dreams of illumination, with which they struggled, as with a trapdoor their ancestors had been trying to open for centuries, rejoicing to get the hold of even a single finger. A fool had once jammed his fingers in the trapdoor, and it had taken the sayings of ten wise men to pry him loose. One rabbi, wearing a new coat with a beaver collar, lisped a commentary on the story of Abraham and Isaac.

At the top of Mt Moriah, the rabbi proposed, Abraham and Isaac encountered a giant idol in the form of a Coca Cola machine, which they mistook for the tabernacle of the Lord. And the Lord, as we read, the rabbi continued, said, Put a coin in the slot. And Abraham put a quarter-dollar into the machine, and received a bottle made of bright green glass.

When he had drunketh thereof, he passed it to his son Isaac, who drank of it and spat on the ground when his father turned his back to prepare the sacrifice. Years later, Jacob, Isaac’s son, stumbled on the same bottle as he was trolling in a landfill with his brother Esau during a weekend in the country.

This same incident, the rabbi noted, appears in distorted form in the visions of the prophet Jeremiah, who preferred to appear in a black leather jacket with silver studs and braided tassles, which he inherited from the wonder rabbi Cuahutemoc. Cuahutemoc, the wonder rabbi, adorned his jacket with symbols drawn from the lunar calendar, beasts composed of fish fins and human limbs, and charms to ward off the evil eye. On the sleeves he wrote inscriptions of such power describing the aircraft carrier where Isis reconstructed the dismembered body of her lover and brother Osiris as it pulled into port at Alexandria, that they caused those who heard them, whispered over the ashes of a fire, to cover their faces and cry out their sins to God.

O Lord, the sinner calls out, I trip in my haste to the Temple. And God responds, the true form of the Temple remains even to be built. You provided me with a garden, the sinner continues, and I planted it with trash, and parceled it out to usurpers for nothing. I chipped my teeth on their hollow coins. My soul withers; my voice hesitates. So shall you learn on a path of pain, God responds. My birth hurt, the sinner protests. It hurt me, too, God responds.


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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