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Poem: Dybbuk in the Cafeteria


Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Dybbuk and Horn & Hardart

I first heard of a dybbuk while I was reading a short story by the great writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. A dybbuk is a Jewish term meaning a malicious possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person. Some of Singer's stories were based on the Kabbalah, the Jewish book of mysticism, that included supernatural beings such as dybbuks. I was intrigued and a bit frightened by the way the dybbuk would terrorize a village or a group of people so effortlessly.

As a young man growing up in Philadelphia during the 70s, I often ate at a cafeteria called Horn and Hardart. It was cheap, and the food was tasty, plus it was a great place to listen to other people's conversations and imagine writing a poem about a demon one day entering that establishment.

Hm, I think I'll call it Dybbuk in the Cafeteria.

Dybbuk in the Cafeteria

I jotted down notes,

thought that’s what successful writers do

on white cafeteria napkins,

hoping that my mystical experiences

could transform scribble into prose.

On a squeaky wooden chair,

hovered over a small round table,

I picked up a piece of Salisbury steak

with my shiny silverware.

Dining on steak and creamed spinach,

I listened to four wise men talk

with thick Yiddish accents

at the big round table

in the center of the cafeteria.

Mendel told Marty, Hershel, and Leo

that a malicious spirit with bright red hair

had just entered through the revolving door

and took a seat, howling by the window.

Gorging on Shepherds pie and rice pudding

with his hands and feet

while swirling in madness

and still not getting enough to eat.


“Just ignore the demon,” said Mendel.

“It’s one off those bewildered dybbuks.

He’s a lost soul that keeps coming back

trying to correct past wrongs,

making the same mistakes twice.”

Hershel turned to Leo and laughed:

“This dybbuk must be my investment broker

coming to give me some more bad tips.

Mischievous souls, like shady brokers,

take what they can get and then go.”

Mendel got serious and said, “Let God handle

the ugly dybbuk. He knows what’s best;

He'll exorcise that troubled pest,”

Then Mendel leaned forward

and took a bite of a chicken salad on rye.

I finished writing in my composition book,

swallowed down the last piece

of boysenberry pie, took a sip of Coke

and bid Horn & Hardart

and the wailing dybbuk goodbye.

I got the story I came for and much more

I hurried out of the haunted cafeteria

with notes in my marble bound book,

past Mendel, Marty, Hershel, and Leo,

past the demonic spirit, stuck in the revolving door.

Dybbuk in the Cafeteria

© 2018 Mark Tulin

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