Ersatz cantor, self-taught kabbalist,
retired tobacconist to Havana’s Ashkenazim,
Zvi Mendel smokes one last corona
before the Sabbath, exhaling toward heaven,
strokes a tabby tom nipping green leaves
from Vuelta Abajo. Pigtails of maduro
festoon a sunny window; kewpie dolls wear
cigar-band crowns, & atop the cedar humidor
a wind-up gramophone wobbles Für Elise.
It’s 1952, & though he’s lived thirty years
on Calle Monte, his dead wife a pale goy,
a convert, from a cow town in Cienfuegos,
one son who married the maid, a cute
& salty girl, but—oy vey—black as coal tar,
another who turned communist & calls
the synagogue a pen of goats, Old Zvi won’t
go completely native, mangling Spanish,
singing Torah on the tram, wearing wool
instead of linen, assailing the neighbors
in Yiddish when they party to guarachas.
Old Zvi eats only food canned in the U.S.—
kashrut beets, sauerkraut, corned beef—
says that Cuban meat is traif, the fish get
ciguatera from red tide, hens peck the swill,
even plantains ripen to a deathly funk.
But tobacco’s the exception, Zvi argues,
if first grade, no mosaic, worms, or rust,
the drying done in barns clean of hogs.
Soaked in Seder wine, a plug becomes
incense, pipe’s dottle is mourning ash,
& to prevent the evil eye, an amulet
of picadura strung around the neck.
Whether one inhales doesn’t matter
because smoke, weightless, indigestible,
cannot be a defamation to YWHW.
How contemplation is not brought on
by knowing but by sucking a breva
or a panatela on a day when puffs
dance in the stale air of a sunlit room,
one cloud turning like a chariot wheel,
& Old Zvi in awe as the sparks of dust
arc into a tremulous rainbow, shekinah.
Orlando Ricardo Menes
University of Nebraska Press