Student Voices

Bitter Sweet

First Prize in the 2021–22 Writing Contest

by Jerusalem program participant

I wrote a poem called “Bitter Sweet.” The setting is a backyard in the Israel suburb Modi’in, where I visited my roommate’s family and family friends for Pesach. Her uncle showed me his garden, which he was so proud of, and it was filled with all kinds of fruits and vegetables. In my poem I aim to contrast sweet moments like these, with the bitter and constant back and forth in my head about the political situation here in Israel. I reference the Holocaust, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the 6 Day War as a way of including tragedies that affect/ed both sides of the conflict. In my time here I feel like I’ve come to empathize with both sides and I hope my poem reflects that. It’s meant to show the impossibility of the situation and the sweet and bitter moments that go on despite that.

Hardy grass and crunchy leaves press
Into my bare Chicagoan feet
As I tilt my head up towards a canopy of branches and evening light –
Lemons and grapefruits and avocados and
At least 3 types of oranges and
Jasmin and olives
Bob gently through this mosaic
Suspended above, rooted in
A Modi’in backyard – the highway on the other side of the fence
Might as well be in another suburb
This sanctuary is
Just that.

But in my head
Clashes with
1948 and 67
And words like nationalism, militarism, and
Zionism and realities like
Occupation, generations of exile and
Deep fear blur
The line between Arab and Jew and blur
The line between who was here first and
Leave me reeling in this Modi’in backyard and everywhere in Israel –
Grab a wall.

Before I left a friend told me
“Make sure you touch the walls in Jerusalem’s Old City.
You’ll feel the history.
Not like home.”

But even the rough golden limestone beneath my fingertips
Fills me with 41
And 48 and 67 despite all
The before, after, and in-between.
Yet the lemons and grapefruits and avocados and
At least 3 types of oranges and
Jasmin and olives
Continue to float in their mosaic.

And it doesn’t give me hope because
I think I’m beyond that here
But there is bitterness and sweetness
In the life that goes on.