Friday, September 16, 2016

"Name Change," a poem from my book of poems, Dwelling

This is the plaque in entry of my grandfather's, Robert Barnstone's, jewelry
and watch store in Lewiston, Maine.
Because in this election, a religious group is being demonized, I offer this family history from my new book of poems, Dwelling. Our family name was changed in 1912, one year before the Leo Frank case. Maine's nativists evolved into the KKK, which in this northern state directed its hate and violence toward Catholics and Jews (because they were regarded as recent immigrants), as well as its few African-American residents. I thought when I was growing up that my grandfather wanted to change the family name because he was ambitious and wanted to be respectable—and I'm sure those considerations figured into his reasoning—yet there was also a back-history of dangerous anti-Semitism. You can read more about anti-Semitism in Maine here, at Documenting Maine Jewry.

Name Change

It was my grandfather’s idea to change
the family name from Bornstein,
meaning amber
          or burning stone in German,
to Barnstone, also meaning amber.

In 1912, he, his father, step-mother,
and all his siblings stood before a judge
in Auburn, Maine,
              and Anglicized the vowels
within their name’s consonants to conceal
being Jews within their souls and behind the walls
of home
(shades drawn to hide Shabbat candlelight.)    
The gems’s classical name was electron,
“beaming sun,” yet the Heliades grief
made them poplars and their tears golden amber. 
Two centuries before, the Emperor
Joseph the Second decreed that all Jews
immediately abandon
                                  Hebrew names
and adopt a constant German surname.
Tax them and keep track of them like the rest
of Christendom,
                          except keep the Jews humble.
No Jew may take the surname of a noble
or renowned family.
                                No Jew may keep
a name if someone complains it was his.

All circumcision books and all birth books
will be in German forever and ever.

The Jews will be registered, just as Jesus
was born in Bethlehem,
                        city of David,
where Joseph and Mary traveled to sign
the census decreed by Caesar Augustus.
Did the ancestors know the parallel—
register to be taxed (and rounded up later)—
when they chose lovely names: apple or pear
tree, rose, gold leaf, green field, or blooming valley.

My jeweler Zaide was a great magician
with diamonds, so I am told.
                                 What if
in 1788, our ancestors
had been able to afford Diamond—
the hardest stone, dispersing spectral color—
would my grandfather have heard the brilliant name
as Jewish?
   and would he have chosen for us
Davies, Day, or even plain Smith instead?

Every time I look down at my left hand,
I behold
  the ring he gave my grandmother:
a platinum setting shaping a sun.
The diamond conceals
                                    fire within
until, awakened by rays, it bursts
into rainbows and stars scattered on the walls
all around me:
           the covenant with Noah:

God will never annihilate us again.

My grandmother, Dora Lempert Barnstone, and my grandfather, Robert Carl Barnstone

My uncle, Howard Barnstone, grandmother, Dora Lempert Barnstone, my
aunt, Beatrice Barnstone Kammerman, and the litte one in front
is my father, Willis Barnstone.
My grandmother, Dora Lempert Barnstone, and her sister, my great Aunt Jane, Jennie Lempert Lichter.

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