A Literary Magazine in Support of the Jewish Community

Back to Issue Eleven


"Tomatoes" by Henry Israeli




When the Red Army liberated Poland, my father and his father could finally come out of the forest after years of hiding, scavenging for anything to eat, chewing leaves, melting snow to drink. A kind farmer, seeing my father, bones poking through his tattered shirt, handed him a perfectly ripe red globe. At just fifteen, he brought that brightness to his nose, holding it there like a blessing, taking in its earthy aroma before piercing its skin, sucking the sweet tart juice, savoring it like a supplicant afraid this miracle would be his last. After he devoured every part of it, even the green stem, and licked the pink nectar off his fingers, he must have felt surprised, shocked even, when his father asked, “why didn’t you share it with me?” “But you don’t like tomatoes,” my father replied. “When you’re starving,” my grandfather said, “it doesn’t matter what you like or don’t like.” After hanging whatever Nazis and collaborators they could find, the Soviet army sent all adult males to the front or to labor camps deep in the motherland. My grandfather ended up in one of those remote gulags and soon died of “malnutrition,” a quaint word for starvation, leaving my young father alone.




My father told me this story when I was six,

when I, like my grandfather, hated the sour fruit,


and now, nearly fifty years later, cutting into

a tomato from my garden, long after his death,


eating it with the sanctity of an animist,

tasting a godliness held fast by their thin skin,


acids and sugars unfolding in a kaleidoscope,

filling me with the mystery of soil, water, and fire,


I’m still struggling to understand the lesson of

the tomato, trying to read its translucent seeds


floating on olive oil toward the edge of the plate,

trying to understand my hunger to understand


his hunger and, like Adam, his eternal guilt

for eating that which was offered him.

Henry Israeli

Henry Israeli’s most recent poetry collections are Our Age of Anxiety (White Pine Poetry Prize, 2019), god’s breath hovering across the waters (Four Way Books, 2016), and as editor, Lords of Misrule: 20 Years of Saturnalia Books (Saturnalia, 2022). He is also the translator of three critically acclaimed books by Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals including American Poetry Review, Boston Review, Plume, and The Harvard Review, as well as several anthologies. Henry Israeli is also the founder and editor of Saturnalia Books, and teaches in the English & Philosophy Department of Drexel University where he runs the annual Drexel Writing Festival and the Jewish Studies program.



Henry Israeli