Yet Jews kept faith with crabbed rites,
wrote Updike, close to death, recalling
the words the poet David writes,
which are to dying men enthralling.
Surely–how he loved this word! –
goodness and mercy both will follow
me all my life. Although absurd,
the crabbed rites that seemed as hollow
as prayers expressed without belief,
sustained all Jews like me throughout
the ages when they sought relief
from travails that included doubt,
which they like John, believing not
what he’d been taught, must also surely
have felt. Although the Psalmist’s words were what,
when they were troubled insecurely,
brought light to them when in their darkest moments,
it was, and is, their rites–though crabbed,
arousing mockery and comments
distasteful always, sometimes rabid–
that kept them going as a nation.
The Psalm without the rites could never
have helped a people to survive
as Jews have done, and will forever,
with God’s help, sitting at a table
at which they still are cruelly mocked.
This understanding, John was able
to share not rites, but chagrin, shocked
to learn that, dying, and in need
for consolation and support,
there can’t be “surely” in the creed,
for death “forever” will abort.

Inspired by a poem by John Updike published in The New Yorker, March 16,2009, and written on December 22,2008:


Why go to Sunday school, though surlily,
and not believe a bit of what one’s taught?
The desert shepherds in their scratchy robes
undoubtedly existed, and Israel’s defeats–
the Temple in its sacredness destroyed
by Babylon and Rome. Yet Jews kept faith
and passed the prayers, the crabbed rites,
from table to table as Christians mocked.

We mocked, but took. The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
Saying, Surely–magnificent, that “surely” –
Goodness and mercy shall follow me
The days of my life, my life, forever.


by gershon hepner

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