Your Frei Reflection

I saw you on the street this morning
Sturdy jeans, hiking boots, a vest packed tight
with fishing twine, pens, whatever else you’d need
for this life that wasn’t yours. Gone the tichel
that framed your face like an eagle, the flowing skirt
to fade your form. You weren’t you. The same face
with different eyes. I checked a second later.
It wasn’t you at all. I let you pass, watching the air
for your remains.

My grandmother-in-law set me up with a man.
She was a fabulous intellectual. So, she said, was he.
A professor of philosophy–
he’d started school at thirty-three
and didn’t stop till he got his Ph.D.

Now he speaks about Nietzsche with a short white mustache,
a perfect rectangle over his upper lip,
and as we kibbitz about Kierkegaard
and which of his alternate identities
did he believe in (if any)
I flash back to this man’s childhood,
the one my grandmother-in-law warned me not to mention:

Growing up the eldest son of a rebbe
groomed for the position from birth
absconding instead to secular school
still frum, just now
instead of leading a shul of his own
he stands in back, the candy man
dispensing lollipops to the faithful
and questions to those who can handle them.

I feel him. I’m a stranger, not a leader
equally uncomfortable in every world but my own
I sit at his side, served drinks instead of shiurayim
looking for traces of another life
the wisdom in his wrinkles
and in the jowls of his cheeks
the ghost of a beard.

We pass the afternoon
and in it I don’t find
the solace I expected
but there too, perhaps, is a lesson.

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I used to have a face.
Now it’s mostly hair–
surrounded by encroaching armies
of payos, beard, and a hairline, thank G-d,
that is not thinning yet –
There’s less of myself than there used to be
on the outside, at least.

My frei reflection, all the lives I could’ve had
and the people I might be
if I put on different clothes in the morning,
if I ditched the spirituality for something different,
or if I shaved.

I squint into the mirror
until all I can see
is a narrow wedge of eyes
surrounded by nothing else but skin
trying to find some truth, or maybe
just trying to see
what’s there.


for Baila O.