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Sperling, Julia, Self Portrait of Cherub


Julia Sperling
Age: 16, Grade: 11

School Name: The Bronx High School Of Science, Bronx, NY
Educator: Alexander Thorp

Category: Poetry

Self Portrait of Cherub

“He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.”

—The Book of Genesis, 4:24       

I am standing at the edge of all things holy.

In front of me, whispers of playground love
and childhood pets that I thought would never die.

The cherub guards the oak in the center of the garden.
Her hair is not yet darkened, hovering around that sandy color, still curly. 
She has sprouted wings. 

Tell me, with her pink berry stained lips and swallowing eyes,
Does she think she can fly?

She doesn’t know. 
She just knows what she was told
on Monday nights and Sunday mornings at Hebrew School: 
That Jews eat bagels with cream cheese and lox like God told them to.
Everyone seems to abide,
Though she thinks she’ll stick to butter. 

She knows she only cared to learn enough Hebrew to spell her name:

Yafa, she’s called Beautiful 

at birth already
twisted into the branches of the Tree and blessed into hours of chag sameachs.

I still like the idea of being Yafa. Of being intrinsically beautiful and holy. 
But my eyes see farther than this name.
Now, how the hand that fills the oceans also drains
the cups of the thirsty.

At Yad Vashem in Israel a plaque read
“In memorial of Rosa”
Whose name carried my family’s blood through the death march.

Rosa smuggled rouge between her fingers into camps that almost killed us.
Red between red, 
the blush blending in with skin tinted from blood that surfaced.

Red means life.
Both cheeks flushed
With youth and powerful love that seems to have no end.
Watch the cherub’s lips pucker at the ripest fruit,
the one that’s just a little too sweet. 

Her eyes were lighter then,
Bearing clear open skies.
The ocean in mine is far more polluted. 
She is draped in fabric made from clouds,
And holds a sword in her chubby fingers. 

At some point she will drop this sword: surrender.

Maybe at her grandma’s funeral,
Or her first school lesson on the Holocaust.

She will shed her wings the way a snake sheds its skin and grows into itself.
She will grow into herself: into me. She watches that oak tree with an intense care that I’ve lost over the years.
I wish I could tell her
that tree she is guarding will die someday,
as all living things do,
And that she will have to find something new to protect:

Perhaps herself. 

The day after,
We had three more guards than usual in front of our building
As I settled in to teach the V’ahavta. 

Our very own cherubim
To guard our tree of life.