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Marina Zilbergerts

“Rabbi Ishmael taught:
If you encounter the wicked one, drag him to the study house.”

I wish I could drag him to the gym.
He hates exercise and feeds me chocolate for breakfast and lunch,
or take him on a walk around the neighborhood,
tell him that I recognized that the coyote
and the burnt garbage can in the park
are all his shenanigans. 

If he refuses to go to the study house,
(since we are both not exactly welcome there),
fill the pail with warm water and soap,
seat him on the broom and drag him
back and forth and side to side
to burn the demons,
(like my mother says:
“you need to ek-sor-size”)
until the tiles shine your reflection.

Try sorting the laundry together, if he lets,
or open a book of fiction,
maybe The Master and Margarita,
maybe Lolita
and read to each other.
“I, too, create beauty;” he’ll insist, and “you need me!”
And you’ll say: “Go to hell!
and spend the rest of the evening playing for him
on your guitar.

The next morning, you are both very hungry.
And since he distracted you last night,
no one bothered to buy milk for breakfast.
Your husband is frustrated with you,
and he… is more than happy to rub it in:
“that’s what you get for being my pet.”

Urgently, throw him in the car,
(I think he is responsible for the Toronto suburbs,
because he hates walking),
and drive him to Sobeys Kosher Supermarket.
Put on sunglasses,
against the evil eye.
Put on a mask,
to avoid scandal.
In line for the checkout, I suddenly think of hell.
I begin to regret ever coming here,
I think of how dangerously expensive everything is,
there are too many dybbuks hustling in line,
“At least we know who we truly are.” I whisper in his ear. 

He likes to crash the holiest moments,
when lighting candles,
in the eighteen minutes of confusion,
during Shalom Aleichem,
during Kiddush,
a voyeur in the bedroom,
during the Neilah prayer on Yom Kippur,
in the holiest part of the service,
he hovers overhead the sweating, swaying, hungry Jews
and yells to me:
“all this suffering, for what?” 

He hides my keys and loses all my pens,
mismatches the socks in the house,
which, relatively speaking,
is a minor nuisance.
He tickles me during the national anthem,
pushes me to touch things in public spaces,
(I never go to museums anymore),
visits my dreams. 

Recently, we have started to get along,
become friends, almost.
“Wicked,” I tell him, “you know what I like about you?”
he’s smiling already,
“that you are not lying to me by pretending to be good.” 

He starts up again: “Did you see all those people in the supermarket?”
“Some of these women really let themselves go…”
“Shut up! They are good pious mothers; I don’t hold a candle to them.”
“And, the new guy at the shul” he goes off again, “defrauded twenty people in the community,
and instead of warning everyone about him, the Rabbi gave him an Aliyah—”
I walk off abruptly to grab a Maimonides from the shelf.
“You don’t actually enjoy reading that…
love, for him, was an intellectual pleasure, what did he understand?”
“Wicked, do you want me to retract everything good that I said about you?”
“Go to hell!”
“Go to the devil’s mother!”
“That would be you!!”
“I’m not your mother! Oh God!!!”
I give up.
It’s like that with him every day now. 

I was intrigued by the mothers in the supermarket.
Recently, I started watching videos on YouTube
about how to be a better woman, a better mother and wife.
I started going to a weekly Torah class,
found a brilliant learning partner for tractate Sanhedrin,
started working harder around the house,
keeping the kids organized,
making good lunches,
going for walks.
Even my husband was becoming proud of me.

He looked at me smugly when I was getting ready for the class,
“You know you’ll be back here soon enough,” he said.
What didn’t he try to throw at me that week:
lectures by Richard Dawkins,
a seminar on Lucretius,
a close friend who tried to prove to me that God is actually evil,
opportunities to temp colleagues,
make friends’ wives jealous,
a surprise shopping spree,
illusions of grandeur,
vanity of vanities.
When nothing worked,
he lay there like a sick devil on the couch,
coughing and waiting for me to come. 

“Wicked, you’re right.” I coaxed him,
“I know that you will never leave me alone,
but aren’t you the one who always encouraged me to do what makes me feel most alive?’”
“But aren’t I what make you feel most alive?”
“But Wicked,” I continued, “What if I am no longer attracted to you?”
“I can look like anyone you want.”
“That’s not the thing; it’s the feeling I get when…
I want to experience what it’s like to feel holy, pure.”
“Then let’s go to the study-house together!
You will not have to sneak in, disguised, like Yentel,
you will enter as a woman, as Helen of Troy:
your flaming hair, your eyes, your wit, will dazzle
in the dark sea of men –”
“Fine, how about couples’ counseling then?” He joked, defeated. 
My heart was filled with remorse.
“Wicked, you are so sweet, thank you.” I said, and gently kissed his burning forehead,
on my way out.

This poem appears in You Were Adam, published in 2022.


Marina Zilbergerts is a scholar of Jewish literature and thought. She received her Ph.D. from Stanford University, and from 2016 to 2022 taught as the Lipton Assistant Professor of Eastern European Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of The Yeshiva and the Rise of Modern Hebrew Literature (Indiana University Press), a work of scholarship, and of the poetry book You Were Adam (Wipf & Stock, 2022). She teaches and publishes on Jewish ideas, culture, music, and literature for Tradition, Lehrhaus, and Prooftexts.