Liberation in poetry: Who Knows One

Honoring the many different voices of Jewish poets.

It should be easy to speak praise at a time of liberation. It is not.

Even as shackles fall from our wrists, we are faced with the quandry of recognizing freedom when we see it and knowing how that freedom can be used.

Over the many years I spent writing the poetry cycle that became my first book, Who Knows One, I took on the daunting task of entering into the story of the Exodus and the structure of the Passover seder to truly look on myself as if I had personally come forth from the Land of Egypt. The Mishnah was not misspeaking when it posed this demand to us as individuals. Our freedom is collective, but each person undergoes that transformation alone.

The storybook Passover of my childhood⎯the bricks made of mud, the lash, Pharoah’s doomed horses⎯is reflected in these poems, but those images exist alongside frozen New England ponds, raccoons, and the explanatory frames of the scientific method. In the meditation that was the writing of this book, I recognized liberation spirals from despondency to elation, from terror to security, and then makes the turn again into the hard human labor of freedom.

I have written liturgy and am proud that my non-theistic “Mourners’ Kaddish for Everyday,” originally included in Anita Diamant’s book Saying Kaddish, has been included by major American denominations in their handbooks for Houses of Mourning. But this “Grace After Meals” was not written with that all-purpose intention. Instead, it marks a particular moment, when the forks are put down and we loosen our napkins, conversation dwindles, and we re-orient ourselves to the final tasks of the Passover seder, the return to prayer and contemplation of our net of relationships, from the vulnerable baby animal to the Holiness that annuls Death.  

Grace After the Meal

With your permission, friends:

The seed corn of our sorrow
was allowed to germinate
bear tassels and kernels in its season;
the long harvest season stole our youth
and ground it into powder.

Let us accept this meal
in every cell strengthening.

Praise the table and praise the host
praise the merchant and praise the farmer

After that work we could not rest
for another meal was coming;

Our choices were death at the hands of familiar oppressors
or death in a wilderness of our own.

It is always too late
and as early as possible;

Build for us a home that is not slavery
even if it is not redemption.

© 2010 Debra Cash

Who Knows One (Hand Over Hand Press, 2010) is available in the Boston area at Kolbo and at the Grolier Book Shop. It can be ordered, with discounts for ten copies or more, from

Topics: Passover, Poetry
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A wonderful addition to our seder. With blessings and gratitude for your creativity. Chag sameach!

How to cite this page

Cash, Debra. "Liberation in poetry: Who Knows One." 5 April 2012. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 9, 2023) <>.

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