Poem of the Week |

Poverty and 'Jammed' Sandwiches in Philadelphia

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Nissan Back (Photo: Tifferet Yisrael)  Synagogue, ca. 1900.
Nissan Back (Photo: Tifferet Yisrael) Synagogue, ca. 1900.Credit: Wikipedia

My Father Dines with the Captain

Rachel Tzvia Back

My father dines with the Captain tonight.
For the occasion he dons his own captain’s cap.

In jacket and tie, he climbs to the bridge
there to meet the Captain before they dine.

In the day’s last light, the instruments shine bright,
the wheel holds steady, and my father, youngest child

of a poor south Philly family, is heartily ready
to dine with the Captain tonight. Dolphins

are leaping in open-sea glory as my father
tells the story of his own father, ill

and unemployed all that year: So
for months we ate my mother’s

specialty, jam sandwiches –
two pieces of bread jammed together!

Laughter rolls through the rolling cabin, the world
he kept aloft in the joyous retelling. Our father

who started with nothing, gone seven year now,
hears the stars bless him May his tribe increase –

smiles for that, and smiles for this, that tonight,
on his 90th – he dines with the Captain!

for Nathan (Nissan) Back, z”l

Nathan (Nissan) Back and Rachel Tzvia Back. Credit: Ephraim Back, Stephane Chaumet

Israelis mark special occasions, from memorial days to festive events, with poems. Relatives and friends might write verse about a bridegroom or the bat mitzvah girl. Either satire or an encomium (praise poem), this maqama form originates in Arabic and medieval Hebrew poetry.

Poet and translator, Rachel Tzvia Back employs loving humor in this encomium for her late father’s birthday, which would have fallen this week, seven years after his death.

Corresponding with the maqama tradition, this is also a “poets’ poem:” She notes it was inspired by American Jewish poet Norman Finkelstein’s poem of the same title, which tells a quite a different story.

“May his tribe increase” is another link in the poetry chain, to Leigh Hunt’s “Abou Ben Adhem.”

Mass immigration around the turn of the 20th century brought impoverished Eastern European Jews to the Philadelphia harbor. Many remained in “South Philly,” a teeming, vibrant community like New York’s Lower East Side,  where life followed the usual immigrant trajectory: hardscrabble lives (just "jam sandwiches" every day), but good educations for the children, a rise to relative affluence (cruising and dining at the captain’s table) and moving away.

There is Israeli history too: There are many streets called Nissan Bak (or Back) and there is the splendid Chasidic synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City near the Western Wall, Tifferet Yisrael, also known as the Nissan Bak Shul, after the poet’s great-grandfather. The synagogue served as a Haganah base and was destroyed in 1948. Islamists claim the plan to rebuild it is part of the plot to destroy the Al Aqsa Mosque compound.

The first Nissan Back (1815-1889) was an enterprising public figure in the Old Yishuv (the ultra-Orthodox pre-Zionist settlement in Palestine). He was a son of Rabbi Yisrael Beck of Berdichev, who came to Safed in 1831 and began printing Hebrew books there. One of the first Nissan Back’s grandsons immigrated from Jerusalem to Philadelphia in the 1920s; his American son, the poet’s father, also called Nissan in Hebrew, studied pharmacology and at the State University of New York, made significant contributions to cancer studies. After a sabbatical at Hebrew University, he immigrated to Jerusalem at the age of 73.

“My father,” writes Back, “always wore hats, both because he was a kippa-wearer in a secular/Christian world and because he knew he looked great in hats. In his 80th year, he joined Rabbis for Human Rights on one of their trips to the West Bank to help Palestinians pick their own olives (despite the settlers’ harassment).”

*Bonus: Eddie Fisher, also from a large and poor South Philly Jewish family, sings “O My Pa-Pa

Eddie Fisher - Oh! My PaPa 1954