January 1, 2021

Three Prose Poems and a Nigun

By Anthony Russell


I have an affinity with a unicorn. Horned and white, it presents two features equally beyond my reach. Imprisoned for no discernable reason, it eventually meets a violent end while the rest of the world calmly goes about its business, two fates perpetually within my reach.

Its expression in the most iconic chapter of its life (“The Unicorn in Captivity,” the last in the tapestry series at the Met Cloisters) is oddly insipid: the friendly, unsuspecting eye, the curl of contentment about the mouth, the face of a naïf framed by the beauty of its confinement, a low pen in a field of flowers synchronized in bloom.

Closer inspection reveals what appear to be wounds on various parts of the unicorn’s body. Scholars have posited that these are merely the seeds and nectar of pomegranates, splitting with ripeness in the tree above the unicorn.

As a prelude to tragedy, I know they signify something else.

I have an affinity with another unicorn on another wall in a mural in a shul that no longer exists, in Gwoździec, a corner of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a country that no longer exists.

With intent in its eye, the Gwoździec unicorn deals a death-blow directly into the mouth of a rampant, ravening wolf—only to be destroyed as well, along with the shul and the greater part of Polish Jewry as the rest of world calmly went about its business.

I once read that the storytellers of the Akan people of West Africa begin their stories with a version of this statement: We do not really mean what we are about to say is true; a story, a story—let it come, let it go.

Between shul walls and medieval tapestries, temporary triumph and historically inevitable destruction, innocence and cunning, one eye pointed towards the deadly foe, another rolled towards heaven—between these affinities is a story, a story I am reluctant to tell; let it come, let it go.


The descriptor foreign, to me, is an inducement, an overture to desire and consumption.

What sort of Israelite would I have made, reluctantly casting off foreign idols, wives, customs and anything else my fathers had never known; paternal ignorance, a luxury brand of its own?

Our old religion consisted of so many elements now lost to us—the utterance of an unutterable name, animals, altars, smokes, smells—sensory fascinations of an undeniably foreign kind.

Perhaps being a Jew is always having a part of one’s self remain foreign, unfamiliar, a melody  in the range of easy hummability veering off into other more complicated modes, abruptly switching to another language.

Perhaps in every Jew there is a holy of holies, a private precinct for raw mingled glory and dread. More likely, it’s a crowded complex of ruins vaguely near that sacred place.

If we are strangers in a strange land, perhaps it’s because the strange land we’re strangers in is ourselves.


yiddish? he said. I will never forget how it sounded, as if I had just proffered something I found while rooting through the trash, the trash of his mind, of his history; even though he had thrown it away, it was his trash and he wanted to know what I was doing rooting through it, it wasn’t even Trash Day, Trash Day was on Tuesday and here I was rooting through his trash on a Saturday.

yiddish? he said why would you want to mess around with that? Pulling a face like someone made a rude smell, he waited for an answer or gave the appearance of waiting, though it looked like he had already made up his mind, the answer would be something funny or quaint, something impractical or ridiculous, suitably humorous for the purposes of small talk, the look in his eye, which said sure one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but this person hasn’t been a jew long enough to know how truly useless it is, listen, Hebrew-speaking children on kibbutzim in Eretz Yisrael built forts out of trash and useless things and then they became adults and then they built a Nation and then they built our Future, what are you going to build with yiddish a place no one ever wants to return to except in a musical good luck with that

I had nothing to say. What should I have said? It was true that I hadn’t been a Jew for very long, and that I had no country to show for my efforts; I looked down at my hands, the smutty fingertips and the nails of which had begun to get Yiddish underneath them and I sighed and I said

[a melody transcending words sung in a mysterious manner]

In additon to his career as a Yiddish vocalist, Anthony Russell has contributed to the Forward, Tablet Magazine, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, PROTOCOLS, Full Stop Magazine, In Geveb and Moment Magazine, covering topics as varied as diasporic identity, intersections of Blackness and Jewishness, and the exploration/projection of queer desire in works of the Western cultural canon. He lives with his husband Rabbi Michael Rothbaum in Acton, Massachusetts.