Miriam Bird Greenberg /
January 16, 2019
Of Humankind

About The Author

Miriam Bird Greenberg

Miriam Bird Greenberg is a poet with a fieldwork-derived practice. The author of In the Volcano’s Mouth, winner of the 2015 Agnes Starrett Lynch Prize, and the recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Poetry Foundation, she’s at work on a book about the economic migrants and asylum seekers of Hong Kong’s Chungking Mansions.

Though I grew up observant, Judaism is as much culture as religious practice. Thus, in the backwoods of northeast Texas where my parents (leftists, Jews of sorts, contrarian intellectuals) had settled, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories of Chelm were, for some inexplicable reason, what I fixed upon as I searched for a window into Jewish life in the broader world. In translation from the original Yiddish, these stories are layered with the accretions of meaning and loss translation offers, producing a pearl out of unlikely irritants: untranslatable idiom rendered in and faceted by another tongue, viewed through the lens of a half-feral tween outcast. Chelm, a village of bumbling Hassidic Torah scholars somewhere in the forests of Poland, teetered obviously on the edge of unreality despite the small dot my atlas offered up. In rural Texas, my whole family was similarly misplaced. It was as if we’d gotten the wrong bus out of Ellis Island and ended up at an industrial snake farm that contracted with the Pentecostal Church: we didn’t belong, though the house we lived in had been in my mother’s protestant-descended family since Texas was an independent republic. There, we raised our own goats and butchered them in rough accordance to the laws of kashrut, and my parents taught themselves auto mechanics on a succession of broke-down trucks, to fix tractors, to prime the pump, my father’s Bronx accent still audible after forty years. If Judaism is inherently diasporic, then perhaps it was fitting to spend my childhood in the company of peers constantly putting their hands in my hair to feel for horns: heaven in a grain of sand, but the sand itself obscured by the pearly sheen of the world.