Relearning Jewishness in the Poems of Ron Charach

Many years ago, when I moved to Fort Wayne, “City of Churches,” Indiana, I began to discover what it meant to live in the Christian mainstream. I’d spent a lifetime in Jewish enclaves of one sort or another and this was my first experience encountering a city where local markets don’t sell Hanukkah candles. I looked in vain for Passover delicacies in the food columns of the local paper, and when I went shopping for horseradish, the teenage clerks at the supermarket had no idea what I was talking about. 

More significantly, this is a community where Christian proselytizing is seen by many as a duty: at the university where I teach, more than one student has opened a conference by asking me if I accept Jesus as my personal saviour, and one pastor visiting the campus admonished me to “Follow the star of Jesus, and not the star of David.” I was speechless.

Darwin, of course, is a red flag, but to my surprise so are Prometheus and the corn-king folklore. In a classical mythology class students responded with horror to my delineation of ancient stories of sacrifice and rebirth that long antedated the historical Jesus; one of them frankly told me that she would not do the reading, lest it “damage her innocence as a child of God.” 

Religious instruction is part of the curriculum in the public schools here. In a neat accommodation of the First Amendment, some local elementary schools have temporary classrooms set up in trailers just off the school property. Classes are taken there for Bible study—New Testament only, of course—and after a few years, students arrive at the university prepared to fight the battles of bygone generations with blithe assurance. 

In a community like this one, the issues of compromise and assimilation stretch far beyond the familiar debates over the “December dilemma” (coinciding winter Holidays from different faiths) or even the Purim bunny (a costume on Purim that attempts to bring Easter into the mix).

Even with two daughters to raise, we found it easy enough to continue the tradition of lighting Shabbat candles and holding Passover Seders to keep our home a Jewish home. It was harder to voice and command a Jewish presence outside of our home without becoming a provocation to fruitless debates.

I fully realized my deep sense of unease about our place in the community when my daughter, Clara, found out she had a rehearsal for a school performance on the first night of Passover. Rehearsals were mandatory and there were penalties for non-attendance. When I spoke to the teacher she grudgingly noted that since Clara’s attendance had been perfect up until then she “might” be excused. The “might” bothered me; Clara “might” attend a family Seder? Yet I could hardly object to scheduling that created problems for only one child out of forty. In the end we compromised by starting the Seder later. By hurrying home after rehearsal, Clara was able to make it in time to ask the four questions. But she would miss making the charoset with us. It was the first time since she was three years old that she hadn’t mixed in the brown sugar and cinnamon.  

In my perplexity I turned to my brother-in-law Ron Charach, a Canadian poet and my long-time guide into the strange and thorny world of Jewish accommodation. Ron, like me, married into a thorny, contentious family, with a Jewish patriarch and a Protestant matriarch, and has kept the peace there for decades. Clearly he had wisdom to impart.

I first turned to “Visitations,” a poem that explores the ongoing challenge of being an assimilated Jewish family in a predominantly Christian world. When a rabbi visits, the speaker asks: 


I asked him to set down his book, 

But he gave me a look of piety,

his eyes grown heavy-lidded

as he became The Old Rabbi in a greatcoat.

I stammered, Come in, Rebbe, for a glayzeleh tay?

I sensed he might be the prophet Elijah in disguise

or some other Messianic geist.


But “There isn’t any ‘rebbe’ lurking in my subconscious,” I objected. “I didn’t just arrive here from some shtetl.” I shared this reaction to Ron who politely agreed.

“Why should there be a conflict between Jewishness and the rest of our lives? Why can’t it all dovetail, like . . . like . . .”

“Like a well-mitered corner?” Ron suggested. He had been remodelling the kitchen recently, and had cabinetry on his mind.


And I still had finding solace, about my precarious situation, on mine. Once again, I turned to Ron’s words. Specifically, those found in “Renovation”:


At the Temple during Days of Awe,

the senior rabbi jostled pillars of the community

by condemning the diversion of funds

from good-works to kitchen cabinetry.

In today’s Globe, a man recounts

how he renovated his face:

eyelids trimmed, chin-angle adjusted,

fat harvested from his thighs

to realign his cheeks,

an ear pinned.

“He should have tried some nice glasses,

maybe a beard.”


“Is renovation really such a bad notion?” I thought, worriedly. “There has to be a way to reconfigure our relations with the mainstream culture–our culture too, after all. It ought to be possible to participate fully in both worlds, to be Jewish and assimilated.”

On every side we read about Jews lost to assimilation, but rarely about those who have returned to the faith, after a generation sojourning in a strange land. 

Ron wrote of the daughter of a Christian mother and Jewish father, who had done so. In the poem “Immersion” he explored that transformation, that return: 


To impress the learned man,

the poet dusts off his Yiddish:

Ess dacht zich mir az der sheytl gehert zum shtetl.

(It seems to me the ritual wig belongs in the shtetl.)

The rabbi shakes his greying head,

re-immersing them all:

Der shtetl iz umatum.

The shtetl is everywhere.


“Everywhere?” Not for me, of course, or at least, not here, not in the Christian heartland, the “City of Churches.” My children and I are sojourning here, amid the not-so-alien corn of Indiana. But the obligation to teach them the lessons of Judaism is, I suspect, compromised not so much by the gentiles around us, as by the lack of conviction and the lukewarmness that all too often has diluted my own sense of belonging to a Jewish tradition. I could so easily have kept Clara home to chop apples and walnuts instead of sending her off to her rehearsal. It was I who had compromised. In the tradition of assimilation—a tradition with far too much power over me—I had chosen adjustment, accommodation. But what kind of compromise had it been? It was the Seder, not the school rehearsal, that had been compromised. It was the ritual of preparation, an essential part of Passover, that we had dismissed as insignificant, or at least, as less significant than Clara’s obligations to her secular life.

Clara’s dance troupe had rehearsed with seamless exactitude, no performer missing: the missing child, the empty place, had been in our house, where we had burned bread crusts, polished silver, roasted an egg and unpacked our haggadot without her.


Delve into more of Ron Charach’s poems featured in Glazer’s essay below, along with an additional poem.


Last night I awakened to pounding at my door

and a menace of infectious laughter.

It was The Coach, with eight strapping kids,

and my son the group was after.

All had hazel eyes and sandy hair

and wore uniforms with a Gothic “D”

on the back, a corporate logo.

I tried to feign no surprise.

“It’d be a shame,” he said,

“if an athletic kid like yours

missed out on a chance to play.

We practice Friday nights. Games are on Saturdays.

If he trains real hard, one day it just might pay.”


When they left, I fell back into dreaming

only to wake to a ballet troupe

come to spirit away my daughter.

There were willowy girls with graceful necks and long limbs

costumed in black Danskins and pink pointe shoes.

“Ze dance,” said the Artistic Director, “is a Tree of Life.

It would be a shame if an elegant girl like yours

forfeited the pirouette and le grand jété.

If she’s devoted, she’ll one day hold the stage.

We rehearse in the Church daycare up the street

on Friday nights. Performance is on Saturdays.”


In a sweat I lurched from light sleep

to still more knocking at my door.

This time it was an earnest young Rabbi

carrying an enormous book.

He too had come for my children.

“It would be a shame,” he said, “if bright children like yours

missed out on learning how to pray.

Our services are on Friday nights,

and we start at ten on the Sabbath Day.”



I asked him to set down his book, 

But he gave me a look of pity,

his eyes grown heavy-lidded

as he became The Old Rabbi in a greatcoat.

I stammered, Come in, Rebbe, for a glayzeleh tay?

I sensed he might be the prophet Elijah in disguise

or some other Messianic geist.


But as I backed into the house

my mind gave in to uneasy sleep,

and I was fading fast in the eyes

of zealots who know 

where my family lives,

and who always come to play.


From “Immersion”



A middle-aged poet waits with two rabbis

behind a screen of painted concrete block

while his young wife-to-be recited the blessings

for ritual immersion, mikveh,

a second baptism to re-form her

from Christian to Jew.

She is slow to emerge,

keeps the next two converts waiting.

Fearing emotion has caused the delay,

the poet tries to make light with his age-mate, the Senior Rabbi”

“If my partner were now Orthodox,

she could just slip a wig

over all that damp hair . . .”

The rabbi smiles,

“she’s not planning to wear a sheytl?”

To impress the learned man,

the poet dusts off his Yiddish:

Ess dacht zich mir az der sheytl gehert zum shtetl.

(It seems to me the ritual wig belongs in the shtetl.)

The rabbi shakes his greying head,

re-immersing them all:

Der shtetl iz umatum.

The shtetl is everywhere.


Fancy Wedding

When so many out-of-towners RSVP’d “Yes”

the guest list underwent a generational divide

and only one small child made the final cut.

But don’t children make or break a marriage?


Grown up, how many fewer might choose

to marry outside the faith

if granted the chance to marvel at

the magic of the chupah canopy,

the hand-painted ketubah contract,

the orbiting ritual, and the groom

smashing a glass underfoot

to remember the great ruined Temple?

At what price, the seamless video

interrupted by the crying

of only a solitary bridesmaid?


In the ballroom

there awaits a sumptuous meal

and heartfelt speeches from soulmates

from the early years.

A dance floor features a seven-player, four-figure band.

As they strike up the hora,

the bride and groom are beckoned onto chairs

then hoisted aloft by cherished friends,

soaring within inches of the hotel’s

bulbous modern chandelier,

far out of reach of the one small child.

The poems in this article are from Ron Charach’s collection Dungenessque, winner of the 2003 Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry. Dr. Charach is one of the leading physician/poets writing in English. His latest book, Prosopagnosia was published in 2018.

Header image design by Orly Zebak.

1 Comment
  1. Wonderful poems, truths of living in the community where he chose to move. I wonder why. Did Ron know what would surround him? Did he think he and his family would be accepted? And now, does he see room for a change? If not, what will he do? He knows already what he’s unfortunately up against. Can he stay and “teach” these people that Jesus would put their Christian values to shame by His undoubted acceptance of “the stranger among us.”

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