'America' by Amichai Chasson
Until the cable guy came, my grandfather made do with belated reports.
The New York Times was sent over the ocean and the sports section strained
To describe the ineffable scenario on the baseball diamond. A string of hits
Was converted to letters, digits were facts in the American League stats:
- Poem of the Week / Our Sinatra, our Cleese, our Seeger, our Jew
- You're too dead for me to annoy you
- Poem of the Week / Israel, the brokedown palace
The Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees had traded losses
And wins at a time when my grandfather on Hagilgal Street, Ramat Gan, watched
Golda Meir sweat black and white on television after Yom Kippur ended.
A few days later Nixon sent an airlift over the ocean,
Tanks and fighter planes to the front in the Golan and Sinai. My grandfather
Had been a navigator in the Pacific Fleet.
By the time the cable guy came my grandfather had already retired
In front of a colored screen. The pitcher threw a ball to the batter
Straight to him in his living room armchair.
I sat beside him in a baseball cap but I couldn’t catch on
To the rules of the game (not even when we went down to the yard, bat in his hand
Mitt in mine, to toss the white ball from a child’s bowshot length).
The final game of the World Series was broadcast on television
And the boy who I was wanted to watch Michal Yanai
On the Kids’ Channel. My grandfather was an indulgent man.
I admit that I laughed aloud in front of the screen yesterday in my parents’ home
When the Israel national baseball team (a lineup of young Americans
With Stars of David embroidered on their skullcaps) made the quarterfinals
Of the World Baseball Classic. My grandmother sat in the corner,
Spreading a thick layer of peanut butter
On a thin cracker and dribbling strawberry jam like Uncle Sam’s flag,
Make America great again.
From “Bli Ma,” Kvar Series, Bialik Institute, 2018. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden
Three moments in front of a television span 44 years of Israeli-American relations, on both national and personal levels. Let’s assume the narrator is the poet (and filmmaker and curator) Amichai Chasson, who was born in Ramat Gan in 1987 to a father from Tripoli, Libya, and a mother from New York.
On October 6, 1973, way before his birth and shortly after the conclusion of the Yom Kippur fast – which in Israel entails a total blackout of radio and television broadcasts – then-Prime Minister Golda Meir (also an immigrant from the United States) spoke about the war that had broken out, literally in black and white. Most of the Western world already had color television, but the sole (state-run) Israeli channel at the time transmitted only in black and white, aided by a device called the Mehikon (or color eraser, from the Hebrew word for eraser), because the government felt color television was costly and decadent. (Some proto-high-tech Israelis invented an anti-Mehikon to override it.)
The moment was also figuratively black and white: There were not even gray areas in the country’s absolute shock. Retrospectively, the poet is grateful for the American airlift, which must have sounded absolutely astounding in his grandfather’s stories – the phrase for airlift in Hebrew depicts a train in the sky.
Stanza 2 is set some time after 1989, when Michal Yanai starred on children’s television. Yom Kippur does not figure explicitly but the World Series does, and the conjunction of the baseball championship and the fast day is emblematic: Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg in 1934 and 1938, and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax in 1965, both refused to play on Yom Kippur and have been held up as paragons of how to be American Jews.
The grandfather fails to teach the boy the rudiments of America’s national pastime but he, like America at least until now, was “indulgent.”
The scene then shifts to March 2017. The grandfather doesn’t appear. Is the poem elegiac? Chasson – a graduate of the Otniel Hesder Yeshiva for combined military service and religious studies in the West Bank as well as of the Sam Spiegel Film & Television School in Jerusalem – laughs aloud at the Israeli team’s baseball achievement by the “lineup of young Americans” with Stars of David on their skullcaps.
Does he enjoy that other American staple, peanut butter? He doesn’t say. The disassociation from the sport and the uncertainty hint at how to read “Make America great again.”
The Edison recording of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” , with music composed in 1908 by Albert Von Tilzer – the Jewish Tin Pan Alley pioneer who took his mother’s maiden name (his father’s was Gumbinsky, changed to Gumm) and added “Von” to it to make himself sound classier.