Culture, Identity, Religion

Yortsayt by Julie Sugar


The word came up with an acquaintance.
I told him it’s the Yiddish words for “year” and “time” 
combined: it’s that time of year, it’s the yortsayt.
He laughed — well this was over text, he laugh-emojied —
and said, “So it just means ‘year-time’?”

All of our words are just words.
Anniversary is “year” and “turn”. 
They sound inane when you break them down:
Stroller. Sweatshirt. Strawberry,
a red berry which does not come from straw.

I translate picture books to my daughter on the fly,
using my shitty Yiddish to describe a fox in socks
and what happens when you give a mouse a cookie.
We have Yiddish children’s books too 
and sometimes she asks her father to read them — 
when that happens he makes it up as he goes.

She won’t remember this past year. She’s two.
These days she’s with her friends at an Israeli gan,
comes home and plays with Magna Tiles, with dolls.
I count every minute with her, not in a good way,
still traumatized by the months without help, 
when we tossed her between us like hot potato
and learned every crack of the sidewalk on Rexford Drive.

The Yiddish word for pandemic is pandemye
and I never did look up the word for virus. 
I don’t talk about it with my daughter; honestly I’m sick
of talking about it with everyone else. (Though here I am.)
We gave her masks for Chanukah and pretended 
that she was a big girl now, that this was exciting,
and meanwhile I wanted to cry.

Yortsayt. This year the scales on Yom Kippur
were loaded unfairly for all of us to see.
I have been lucky, privileged. There’s no denying that.
I have a job, my health. I also had
my fourth miscarriage this summer,
my OB telling me the news over her mask.
But it’s a drop of suffering in the ocean of grief. 

Recently I learned I’ve been saying one of the words
for ocean wrong. It’s not otsean. It’s okean. My daughter,
protesting the change, prefers yam. 
“Neyn okean. Yam.”

Julie Sugar’s nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Lilith Magazine, Tablet Magazine, The Forward, My Jewish Learning, and elsewhere. She lives in Los Angeles and also writes fiction and plays.

Heshbon HaNefesh – A Poetic Accounting of a Pandemic Year is an independent group of poets and artists marking one year of the pandemic in North America. Click here for more about this project and how to join a live reading. 

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