I wrote this poem after being invited to participate in a Jewish Poetry Reading. I had hoped to write about a discovered Jewish familial connection. Or, I had hoped I might capture the imagery of Jewish art or possessions, or play with a bit of Yiddish. I searched and researched, yet nothing came to fruition. My mother often spoke with a bit of east-coast Yiddish, enjoyed a sip of Mogen David during holidays, and spoke fondly of her favorite Jewish celebrities. A Jewish friend explained it to me, “Everyone is a bit Jewish in Newark.”
I then hoped to discover if there was anything to the rumors that my grandfather was Jewish but changed his identity when he emigrated from Germany. My maiden name, “Brunner,” both German and Jewish (Ashkenazic), is a topographic name for someone who lived beside a spring or well, Middle High German brun(ne) ‘spring’, or habitational name for someone from a place named with this word. But I could find nothing conclusive.
Finally, with the event fast approaching, I realized this event has nothing to do with me. I asked myself what people might want to hear from me, and I realized I’m best known for much of my historical poetry. This poem is speculative history. Like many of my poems, it is brief, and only hints at many historical events that all play a part in the story of a young Jewish man from Germany. Instead of “info-dumping” into the poem, I have included endnotes for anyone interested in learning more. I have a poem titled “1820” about a government expedition up the Missouri River. It was prompted by a historic cemetery marker. On the marker are a couple of very sounding Jewish names. I’ve not yet discovered their stories, but I speculated that it was possible a Jewish immigrant from a troubled Germany could have found his way to the far western frontier of early 1800’s America. This poem is the “prequel” to 1820.
In 1816, the year without a summer,
a year after Napoleon’s promises
turned just as cold and fruitless,
a year when a great hunger gripped Germany,
he’d become a man.
It had been just two years since
a woman named Mary
travelled through his town along the River Rhine
and stopped just outside Frankenstein Castle.
“A second son. No wife. No profession.
This is no place for a young Jew,” his Papa told him.
“Take your dreams to America.”
In 1818, adopting an American frontier faith,
he joined a rifle regiment. Nights along the river’s
course, he told of how he once kissed a girl
who created a golem.
His lieutenant asked if he feared
women who make monsters.
“My Mama told me I would forget her, “he answered.
“I have nothing to fear but the cold.
That winter of 1819, he knew nothing of the pitchforks
brandished, torches inflamed. “Hep Hep!” they cried.
Rioting. Looting. Monster hunting.
[i] The year 1816 is known as the Year Without a Summer (also the Poverty Year, the Summer that Never Was, Year There Was No Summer, and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death) because of severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7 °C (0.7–1.3 °F). This resulted in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere. Evidence suggests that the anomaly was predominantly a volcanic winter event caused by the massive 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (the largest eruption in at least 1,300 years after the extreme weather events of 535–536), perhaps plus the 1814 eruption of Mayon in the Philippines. The Earth had already been in a centuries-long period of global cooling that started in the 14th century. Known today as the Little Ice Age, it had already caused considerable agricultural distress in Europe. The Little Ice Age’s existing cooling was aggravated by the eruption of Tambora, which occurred during its concluding decades. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_Without_a_Summer, n.d.)
[ii] Napoleon Bonaparte first enacted emancipation for Jews in France and in neighboring countries he conquered during the Napoleonic Wars. In Italy, the Netherlands, and the German states, the Jews were emancipated and able to act as free men for the first time in those nations. After the British defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, a counter-revolution in many of these countries resulted in the restoration of discriminatory measures against Jews. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hep-Hep_riots, n.d.)
[iii] In 1814, prior to writing her famous novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley took a journey on the river Rhine. She spent a few hours in the town of Gernsheim, which is located about ten miles away from [Frankenstein] castle. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Shelley, n.d.)
[iv] A Jewish man who wanted to marry in Germany at this time had to purchase a registration certificate, known as a matrikel, proving he was in a “respectable” trade or profession. Matrikels, which could cost up to 1,000 gulden, were usually restricted to firstborn sons. As a result, most Jewish men were unable to legally marry. (http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/berlin/Jews_in_Germany.html, n.d.)
[v] The Hep-Hep riots from August to October 1819 were pogroms against Ashkenazi Jews, beginning in the Kingdom of Bavaria, during the period of Jewish emancipation in the German Confederation. The antisemitic communal violence began on August 2, 1819 in Würzburg and soon reached the outer regions of the German Confederation. Many Jews were killed and much Jewish property was destroyed. The riots took place in a period of heightened political and social tension, shortly following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 and the great famine of 1816-17. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hep-Hep_riots, n.d.)