June 2015

you bought us and loved us
like pieces of scared veiny porcelain or vintage barbie dolls.
your collectibles
found in somebody else’s yard
but yours—
for good measure and safe-keeping
(if the social worker approved).

I will bury myself beneath the paper-thin sheets of your choices
and live with your consequences.


Parochial School, 2016

It’s simple, really.

Hold your breath underwater.

Ten seconds for you,

ten seconds for God.

careful not to mix up

their, they’re, there.

Careful not to confuse you

or you’re or your.

We wore knee-socks high

to the hinges in our pelvises

to cover would be bends and leaks, split-open tangerines

and hid sticky collar bones beneath starchy

primary fabrics.

The sacred was lost to the profanity of our bodies,

And like Nietzsche, to us, God was probably dead.


Read this poem in the Journal of Applied Poetics

Mr. Zapata Serves Lunch

Every week, a note came in through the slot in the door — that, being the mailbox — from our neighbor, Mr. Zapata. The note was short, and reminded us that we were invited to the man’s house for lunch on Saturday afternoon. We never objected to these invitations, but were confused and partial to the predictability of the crossword, and the cerebral boredom of our children’s weekend phone calls.

We hoped that our weekly lunches would bring us closer together, closer to finding out who he was, and why we mattered to him. But they didn’t. 

Mr. Zapata lived alone, in a small dusty house to our right. The house was trailed by a big backyard that was overgrown and mostly dead. Tangled weeds kissed the brick-bottom belly of the old, tired home, and slowly attached themselves to its foundation. The earth made love to this home; the earth tried to save this home. There had once been life in that yard, but it seemed to have fallen away, like many other things in Mr. Zapata’s life. His wife had died several years earlier, and he never remarried. His three children — two girls and one boy — lived in California, and rarely made it back to Chicago, leaving nearly everything they had once known behind to the crumbling currents of the Windy City.

Because he lived alone, Mr. Zapata was a mystery to us, and felt far away. We hoped that our weekly lunches would bring us closer together, closer to finding out who he was, and why we mattered to him. But they didn’t. He never asked about our life or our children (we have three), nor did we bother to ask about his. There was something missing. Something that felt wrong about these unsolicited and empty lunch invitations. We talked about the weather, local politics, the price of milk. Whatever may have challenged us, distanced us, or made us better, was carefully avoided. No effort was made by our host to understand us, nor we him. All the same, we were invited back each week.

We came to the conclusion that kindness was what compelled Mr. Zapata to invite us, perhaps in addition to loneliness. This explanation was uncomplicated and demanded little attention. This was perhaps a naive judgment, however. We knew nothing about this odd old man, but we had convinced ourselves that Mr. Zapata was decent, with simple intentions, and that made our decision to share lunch with him easy.

We sat through lunch, week after week, and expected little. Mr. Zapata was kind, and always served us first before helping himself. Although it was lunchtime, the deep pockets of midday, Mr. Zapata always served dinner — a large roast, roasted root vegetables, several desserts, and scotch. This was strange, but unusually comforting. We ate dinner-lunch on paper plates around his beige formica kitchen counter. It was nice. It was easy.

The table was set with service for twelve. However, it remained just the three of us, and nobody else ever showed up. The conversation was the only thing that was the same.

Last week, however, Mr. Zapata served us lighter fare. Instead of his usual roast, the old man served finger sandwiches and summer salad. Instead of scotch, he poured three large drip-drop glasses of lemonade from an expensive looking crystal pitcher. This time, we ate at a large dining room table, set with what we later decided was Mr. Zapata’s best china. The table was set with service for twelve. However, it remained just the three of us, and nobody else ever showed up. The conversation was the only thing that was the same. Simple, structured, and awkward. We pedaled our way through the unbearable noise of small talk and the tiny clanking sounds of cutlery on porcelain plates. We finally resigned ourselves to the absurdity of it all.

This week, no invitation came through the slot in the door — that, being the mailbox. No request swept the entryway floor, inviting us to join a curious old man for a curious Saturday meal. Instead, we cleaned our home and finished the crossword puzzle. We did what we used to do before we met Mr. Z., before we had the joy of eating his strange lunches. We called our children, walked our dog. Left that space empty.

We received a call the next day from Harold Anders, Mr. Zapata’s lawyer. Before I could ask any questions, I was prompted to come next door. “And bring your husband,” he shouted before hanging up.

We didn’t say anything, just looked at each other, and then at the phone. My husband let us out through the side door — it was faster that way.

I knocked on the big oak door. Mr. Anders, who was irritatingly young, pulled back the door before I could remove my wrinkled, arthritic knuckles from its smooth finish.

We were invited by the young lawyer into a house we had never seen. It wasn’t at all like the house we ate lunch in every Saturday afternoon. With little introduction, the lawyer began a guided tour through the house. “How long have you two know Mr. Zapata?” The lawyer asked.

My husband and I turned to each other quickly, immediately recognizing the complete humor, and sadness of it all.

“Since we moved onto the block,” I said, hoping that would be enough.

“So, fifteen years?” asked Harold Anders.

“Yes,” I said softly, deeply hurt by the sudden realization that in all those years, I had learned nothing about Mr. Z.

“Why are we here?” I asked.

“Mr. Zapata died last night,” said the lawyer quickly, “you were the only people he wanted me to call.”

In this moment, there was nothing I could say, nothing I wanted to say. We didn’t ever really know him, didn’t ever know why we were invited to share a meal with him every week. This is what families were supposed to do, not strangers.

Before, the walls were bare and untouched. Now, these same walls were littered with photos of who we assumed were family and friends. 

Harold Anders continued his guided tour of the big, empty house. We discovered this new, open house with the same nerve and curiosity as fresh lovers. Unseen spaces and lumpy piles of old and new possessions begged for our attention. Craving perhaps what Mr. Zapata was never able to provide. We tiptoed through, afraid the sounds of the house would further complicate this unseemly arrangement. We hovered over the steps and up onto the second floor. This is apparently where Mr. Zapata slept, and to us that was sacred space. We were quiet for several minutes.

“Why are we here,” I asked again, “Isn’t there a family member or a friend you can call?”

“There’s nobody. You two are the only ones he indicated for me to call once this happened. Is there a problem?”

Before, the walls were bare and untouched. Now, these same walls were littered with photos of who we assumed were family and friends. We also noticed a couple degrees, framed in smooth wine-colored wood — studies in English literature, mathematics. We sat in the old man’s bedroom and tried to understand him, figure out who he had been without disturbing the now complete and quiet presence of his home. We began to dissect every moment of our weekly dinner-lunches. Tried to assign importance to what may have been irrelevant. Why did he insist we eat in the kitchen, on plastic plates and with plastic cutlery. These are details that maybe don’t matter in death. But it was all we had.

It was a deep loss. One so profound I could not see through it, or make it logical. We don’t ever understand loss, but in those careful moments of sweeping through Mr. Z’s house, I felt I had no right to mourn him. Where were his children, his siblings, if he had any?

The house seemed to hold so much life after Mr. Zapata died. As we finished our round through the home’s enormous spaces, Harold Anders pulled out a piece of paper and read seven easy words: ‘Everything. To my neighbors on the left.’

I can accept that I don’t know or understand everything, but this was exceptionally strange, and unexpectedly tragic.

“I don’t understand,” I said plainly.

“I don’t think there is anything to understand,” said the young lawyer. “Mr. Zapata wanted you two to have everything.”

We tried to understand our part in Mr. Z’s death. Why us? Why were we the only ones he wanted called? What did we ever offer him? Maybe it didn’t matter. I can accept that I don’t know or understand everything, but this was exceptionally strange, and unexpectedly tragic. I wanted to know why I was now made to be a part of Mr. Z’s death, and in some odd, and perverse way, his life. Maybe I didn’t need to know. We come and we go through people’s lives like sand through a sieve — it often does not matter, and we rarely notice. I was a stone on a sand dollar, stuck in the tiny holes of Mr. Z’s sieve. I could not find my way through to the other side.

We never found out why Mr. Zapata invited us over for lunch every Saturday. And we never found out why he served us dinner for lunch. We didn’t know the old man, yet found so much joy in his company, and unbearable emptiness in his loss. Things make sense in life because all the pieces are there, ordered and numbered with spaces to fit. In death, that myth unravels like a shriveled garden hose with nothing to water, and the tiny pieces scatter like ants to their mission hill. We find out nothing ever had a place at all.


Originally published in Lumen Magazine, Fall 2015

Questions on Writing

My collection of written and published poetry is growing and I am still struggling to find my voice. I worry that my work may sound redundant, monotonous, uninspired. When you write about yourself, the life and experiences that you alone hold, you begin to wonder if your writing is turning inward, perhaps even bad. I write short stories about strangers. I write stories based on lives I have created, lives that may or may not exist. As a writer, I think about what it means to represent a personality, a story, an experience in my work. How honest am I  with that portrayal? How can I know with certainty that my story does not do its characters a disservice? Is is ethical to tell somebody else’s story without their knowledge or consent? Writing about yourself is boring. Writing about writing is bad. What next?

Praxis 1

I have everything neatly lined up in several rows, all managing to quietly mock the chaos of my life. I think this sense of minimalism or neatness that I think i crave is all fake. I like clutter. Think better with clutter. Am more inspired by clutter. But, I try to pretend that clutter is not the way of my world. I try to pretend that I am neat and exist within the boundaries of sanity—not boring, but not too eccentric. I took out my nose ring and bought clogs. Traded my roughness for traditional working-girl comfort. Some might say that I have sold my soul to the man, that I am part of the establishment now. And I am. there are unchecked realities that are made comfortable by the establishment. like paying rent and taking the bus and scheduling dentist appointments.

Promote and aid charities providing clean water to Gaza cities

This summer, Israel and Gaza experienced another tragic war. Once again, residents of the region lived in constant fear of rocket fire or air strikes. Many fled their homes, some found refuge in bomb shelters, and the lives of all were changed. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 69 Israelis and over 2,100 Gazans, mostly civilians, were killed.

But the cessation of rockets and airstrikes has not undone the consequences of war. Within Gaza, in addition to an overwhelming death toll, Israeli air strikes effectively destroyed the area’s entire agricultural infrastructure and any possibility of immediate economic growth. For Gazans, though the airstrikes and rockets have stopped, many of the long term effects of the war are only now being felt. One of the most alarming consequences has been the destruction of the Gazan water system, rendering hundreds of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians virtually incapable of accessing safe, clean water.

At the onset of the fighting, Gaza’s water infrastructure was already critically overextended. According to Haaretz, even in quiet times, more than 90 percent of Gaza’s water is unfit for drinking, and over-pumping has resulted in seawater and sewage contamination of the groundwater.  During the most recent escalation, 11 wells and two purification plants in Gaza were completely destroyed, and an additional 15 wells and four purification plants were partially destroyed. Eighteen miles of pipeline were also impaired, and close to eleven miles more were damaged, according to the Palestinian Water Authority.  The Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene Group reports only half of the Gaza water system is currently functional, and the functional parts only get water once every five days.  The destruction of the purification plants and pipelines has made it increasingly difficult for Gazans to access clean, potable water.

Additionally, Gaza’s only power plant was destroyed in the latest round of fighting between Israel and Hamas. This has worsened the already severe problems with Gaza’s water supply, sewage treatment and power supplied to medical facilities. Since the fighting this summer, Gazans have had barely enough electricity to power their homes for a few hours a day, making it virtually impossible to power intensive sewage treatment and pumping facilities as well. Following the destruction of the Strip’s power plant, Gaza residents were immediately urged to begin rationing their water.

The water crisis in Gaza is untenable and requires immediate, meaningful action. Human rights are in everybody’s best interest: A commitment to peace must include a commitment to those with whom we share the land. Say what you will about who started this war or who is to be blamed for how it was pursued, we all bear responsibility for cleaning up the devastation brought on by months of violence. This summer, Israel fought a war against Hamas, yet thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians were devastatingly affected. Our ability to differentiate between the two, as well as our effort to help rebuild the Gazan infrastructure, will provide Gazans with hope for their future and also reaffirm our own commitment to peace. As the American Jewish community continues to assert its commitment to peace in the region, we must ensure that basic rights are not overlooked in the process.

To move forward on this issue, we must begin at the ground level. Abasan Al-Kabireh, a Fatah-run city in Gaza, located to the east of Khan Younis—a densely populated Gaza city that was nearly destroyed in the war—has sustained some of the worst damage in the Strip. The damage has left the 21,000 residents of the city without access to clean drinking water. The mayor of Abasan Al-Kabireh has called upon the international community to help provide the residents of his city with clean drinking water.

This call has not gone unheard. Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) is an environmental advocacy organization, that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists to work towards advancing the sustainable ecological development of the region. FoEME has identified the Gaza water shortage as a key environmental challenge that stifles the development of strong, sustainable communities and ultimately peace in the region.

Meanwhile, Other Voice is a grassroots initiative that empowers volunteers from cities along the Gaza border to shed light on the physical and psychological tolls that ongoing violence and conflict have on Israelis and Palestinians. Other Voice also advocates for a non-violent political solution to the Conflict, endorses coexistence, works to strengthen support for peace in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and organizes donation campaigns for Gazans in need of humanitarian assistance. Both charities are working toward the common goal of providing water for the residents of Abasan Al-Kabireh and deserve our support.

J Street U Brandeis is answering the call by organizing a campus-wide fundraiser for the residents of Abasan Al-Kabireh with FoEME and Other Voice. As American Jews, and as individuals who care deeply about the future of Israel, it is crucial that we remember our responsibility to act. If we are serious about affirming our commitment to peace—as students, Americans, Jews and individuals who maintain a genuine interest in human rights and social justice—we must take steps to empower individuals and projects on the ground, as each hold the power to shift the complicated reality away from human rights injustice and toward a viable peace for both Israelis and Palestinians.

We must remain committed to the advancement of human rights wherever there is a need. Our commitment to peace in the Middle East should be mirrored by nothing less than an equal commitment to the human rights of the citizens of Israel and Palestine.


—Shani Abramowitz ’14 is the media coordinator for J Street U Brandeis

Originally published in the Justice, the independent, student newspaper of Brandeis University

Follow Shani on Twitter @grownup_blogger