Learning To Swim

The sound of Shabbat pulls me into the sea

of Sh'ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu --

I float on the chanting, but sink and retreat

to the translated side of the siddur. Then like salt

on the tongue it comes: my father davens

while I wait on the women's side, stranded in English,

moving my mouth and pretending to speak.

Where's the one shape I know -- the long arm of the lamed:

the handle on a funnel where Bubbe put fish,

turned that handle to grind them. When did she go to shul?

Can't stop for her now, must look for new lameds,

lost in the roll and the drone of the sea.

An ocean of ink. I can't swim! But then

Hasia hands me the aleph's two prongs --

I climb to the raft of the bet's base and jump,

Kick as if I had a gimel's leg. An undersea door

-- dalet! -- swings on its hinge ... The waters part.

Tsadee waves both its arms, and I know that I'm welcome:

the moment in shul when they lift up the scroll.

Now I leave shallow water. The floor of the sea

drops, but I keep on swimming and ride the black letters

for wave after wave. Far out in the ocean,

I touch something old -- my father's siddur,

its edge ravelled like fringe.

Shelby Allen
(previously published in in Hebrew College Today)