About Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

Murder in the Synagogue

20141119-JERUSALEM-slide-6X2A-superJumboWhen I see him, I don’t see Israeli. I see Jew.

Like the other men in the crowd at the police barrier on the sunny day when this photograph was taken, he’s wearing a long black coat, black slacks, and white shirt: the standard attire of an ultra-Orthodox Jew.

A traditional tallis (prayer shawl)—white with black stripes—is draped over his shoulder. The commandment (Numbers 15:38): “The children of Israel…shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments.” One of his long, tightly coiled peyot (earlocks)—”You should not shave the corners of your head,” (Leviticus 19:27)—tapers down the right side of his chest. The other seems to be tossed behind his shoulder. Someone more knowledgeable than I could identify, based on the length and style of his peyot, the ultra-Orthodox sect to which he belongs.

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Trouble Called Again Last Night

Carphone useTrouble called again last Thursday night. The number illuminated in the landline phone’s small window. Mother. She’s eighty-four now. Father’s eighty-seven. They sold their house—where we lived when I was in in high school—about twenty-five years ago. Moved into a condo. They’re still living in the condo, independently.

A few nights earlier, during one of my routine every-other-day-or-so phone calls with her, Mom told me that Dad had a cold. He’d spent most of the day sleeping.

Dad’s a big guy, height and girth, though his impressive belly has deflated considerably over the last few years: a few hospitalizations, a diminished appetite. Though he doesn’t complain about it, he suffers from painful arthritis. With a cane, which he uses reluctantly, he shuffles around the condo, and inches his way from condo to car to restaurant to cardiologist to condo to couch for TV. He hardly has the strength to push himself up from the sofa. Gravity is calling him home.

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The Trouble with Time

father_time.jpg2They talk. They talk to. They talk about. God. Please, God. Dear God. Thank you, God. Comfort, heal, save us, God our God dear God. They should talk. That’s what they’ve been told.

I don’t know. I don’t know from God.

They say God is the One who shaped the ear. I’ve said it, too. God, the One who gave life listening: Ishmael, God listens, God hears. They say God is near, near to all. I’ve said it, too. Near to all who call upon God in Truth. Where is that, Truth? Near here?

They have names for God: Rock, Redeemer. What shall I call you? And if I call, will you listen, respond?

You are near. I know you are here.

I’m exhausted. You: inexhaustible.

I swoon, wobble. You’re steady.

Are you everything they say God is?

Time, Your most precious gift, they say, talking to God about you.

And here you are: a few moments of silent prayer as the organ softly plays. It’s my favorite moment of the service at Temple Emanuel, the temple of my youth. But the Temple has moved on; it has followed the Jews of Cherry Hill east. You moved with it. I, too, have moved away, and you’ve stayed with me wherever I’ve roamed, settled. I can’t get away from you.

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Who Lives? A Meditation for the Days of Awe 5775

unetanah_tokef_083013_620“And who by fire, who by water, / Who in the sunshine, who in the nighttime,” sings Leonard Cohen, picking up on a thousand year old poem that is one of the touchstones of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

The poem that Leonard Cohen sings is known by its first two words, Unetaneh Tokef¸ meaning let us cede power. Its vision is disarmingly clear: during the year to come, some will die, some will live. While we can disagree about fate and free choice, we know that a year from now, some of our people will be with us again in prayer, and some will be gone.

The question, writes Helen Plotkin in her meaningful reflection on Unetaneh Tokef, is not whether some will suffer and die. Rather it’s how we will live the gift of the days of our lives. Will we, as the poem encourages us, practice teshuvah (repentance, return), tefilah (prayer, gratitude, lovingkindness), and tzedakah (charity, righteousness, working for social justice, environmental justice, economic justice, etc.)? As Plotkin says, we have no control over whether we will die. We can only change the way we live until then. [Read more...]

Slogans in Ruins: Land for Peace, Two State Solution

candlesml1

“Hope lost and fear won,” said Udi Segal, the diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Channel 2 News. Referring to Secretary of State John Kerry’s nine-month negotiations whose collapse in April contributed to the escalation, Mr. Segal added, “I don’t think the people in Palestine or in Israel feel more confidence in those Western, American Kerry-like ambitions to solve our problem with those peace slogans.”

New York Times, 8/29/14

This week, again, the news fills me with despair. But on Shabbat I recover hope. Is this a two-state solution to the problem of being human: six days, despair; on the Sabbath, hope?

This summer I flew in turbulent weather. I gripped the armrest, squeezed my eyes shut, and visualized: land, land, let me stand, once more, on solid ground for peace.

At night, when I’d prefer to be sleeping, my perseverating mind goes to war with my worn body. I need a two-state solution: one that will allow me to sleep when I sleep, one that will allow me to work when I work.

I am not a gardener. I am not a weeder. I am not a pruner. I am not a fertilizer. I am not a tender of soil. I do not turn to land for peace.

My problems are real. My problems are white and American and Jewish and middle class and academic and male. My problems are nothing compared to the problems of others. Reading and watching and thinking about theirs, the problems of those who are walking targets, those who are working poor: could this be the one- state solution to my problems? [Read more...]


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