Poem of the Week / 'Lying Ready on the Table Are the Knives'

Eli Eliahu gets at the heart of Friday night dinner.

Vivian Eden

The Meal

Eli Eliahu

As on every Sabbath

we gather. The doorbell announces

the arrivals. There isn’t

more love here than anywhere else.

Sometimes strange things

are said. Lying ready

on the table are

the knives.

What is not said

has become sharper over time.

What the eye has not seen

is sliced by the glances.

The children sit down

on the chairs of the

dead.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden.

***

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Every Friday evening toward dinnertime, parents and children, on foot or in cars, head for the home of their reigning matriarch or patriarch. It is an affirmation, half beloved and half compulsory, of the importance and continuity of family. In this poem, Eli Eliahu talks about what happens when that destination is reached.

The ringing of the doorbell signifies a degree of separation; this is no longer home, where one can come and go without formal admission. This is no longer everyday life; it is a ritual, something out of the ordinary yet routine. Life goes on and the family goes on, but differently, as “the children sit in the chairs of the dead.”

The key line is this one: “There isn’t more love here than anywhere else.” This is the hardest lesson for parents to learn as their children grow up, discover the world outside and move away. As Genesis 2:24 puts it, “A man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife and they shall be one flesh.” This love is not soft and sentimental but rather a love with a hard, cold edge, like a knife.

Gali Eitan

The language of the poem is remarkable on several levels. The title is the Hebrew word for a festive meal, almost like a banquet – seuda – and yet there is no mention of food. There are no references to the religious texts recited in many homes at the Sabbath evening meal or to the challah bread and the wine associated with the occasion, even in non-religious homes. The only developed rhetorical device is “the knives.” Their sharpness characterize the slicing glances and the cutting things that are unsaid. As Dror Burstein has pointed out in a review of Eliahu's work, his poetry is “an overcoming of silence, of the danger of zero speech.”

There are no identifiable characters or speaker, only an unspecified we. The poem is an observation of a universal existential condition, so universal in fact that it applies not only to Jewish homes in other countries, but to all regular family gatherings.

Eliahu, whose family is of Iraqi origin, was born in 1969 and lives in Givatayim. He works at Haaretz as a copy editor and writer.

This poem is from “I and Not an Angel,” (Helicon, 2008), Eliahu’s first collection of poems, which was dedicated to the memory of his father and was awarded the Education and Culture Ministry Prize for debut books. His second book, "City and Fears," was published in 2011 (Am Oved).

Musings
* In an opinion piece (May 7, 2012) Eliahu argued that ultimately, as a result of the digital revolution, “People will not write books in order to make a living; the professional author will apparently disappear from the world. Only those who want to say something will write – and they will do so even if they do not get a penny for it.” Is this beneficial or detrimental to writers and writing?