Once their plane landed in Israel, Lisa Grunberger’s mother took out a pink and green journal with a small lock and handed it to her.
At 9 years old, this was Grunberger’s first trip to Israel, her mother’s homeland and where her parents met. Her father was born in Vienna, Austria, and raised in Berlin. Fleeing World War II, he arrived in British-occupied Palestine in 1940 on the Naomi Julia, one of the last illegal boats from Europe.
“She looked at me and said, ‘You’re a writer, Lisa,’” said Grunberger, an English professor. “‘I want you to write about everything you see, hear, taste, touch and smell. Use all your senses. Whatever it is, a falafel sandwich, a new building, a museum, I want you to write it all down every night.’”
In September, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof announced on his blog that he was holding a “Trump is Inspirational … for Poetry” contest and the winners’ stanzas about the president would be featured in one of his columns.
Grunberger entered the contest and her poem was one of six chosen out of 2,750 submissions to run in the New York Times on Oct. 21.
Grunberger, who has written two books and a play, often writes about the various intersections of her identity.
“A lot of my poetry explores what it means to be a first-generation American, a first-generation Jewish-American and a first generation Jewish-American woman,” she said.
Grunberger grew up in East Rockaway, a small, provincial town in Long Island. While Long Island was predominantly Jewish when she lived there, East Rockaway wasn’t. Bullying and anti-Semitism were prevalent, she said.
“I spoke English, German and Hebrew,” she said. “Teachers complained to my mother that I was speaking too many languages, and they’d never heard Hebrew before. My mother acquiesced and stopped speaking Hebrew with me, and I’ve since lost it.”
Grunberger used the poetry contest as an opportunity to revisit an incident of anti-Semitic vandalism that her family experienced earlier this year through poetry.
In June, she came home and found a handwritten note from her neighbor. It explained that her neighbor witnessed someone spray-painting a “J” on the side of her house, in Passyunk. He tried to chase after the perpetrator and then called the police to report what happened.
Nothing came of the report, and Grunberger called the city to remove the graffiti. Efforts to cover it up failed, and the “J” is still somewhat visible on her home, she said.
“There’s something interesting about it still being there, maybe subconsciously as a reminder,” she said. “It’s become a thing since it happened. I do eventually have to look into erasing it myself.”
Grunberger reported the incident to the Anti-Defamation League, a global organization trying to fight anti-Semitism.
Jeremy Bannett, the assistant regional director of the ADL in Philadelphia, said there has been a 71 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in Pennsylvania in the first three-quarters of 2017 compared to the same time period last year.
Pennsylvania is on track to see 77 reported incidents by the end of the year, making 2017 the year with the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in the state in a decade, according to the ADL.
“We believe that the increase is partly because far-right extremists are more energized today than they’ve ever been before because they saw the 2016 election as validation of their beliefs,” Bannett said.
“Incidents like that are deeply disturbing,” Bannett added. “They affect not just the victim, but anyone who shares that person’s character traits. Their impacts reverberate throughout entire communities.”
Grunberger played around with different concepts for the poem. She contemplated writing an obituary for Trump, but decided to write about the vandalism, taking creative license in adding fictional details to the incident.
After she sent the poem in, the reviewing committee asked her if it was based on a true event.
“I told them that it was based on a true event, but we have to understand that people who create art aren’t always producing a photographic representation of reality,” she said. “People take poetic license, and while the piece captures the emotional truth of what happened and how it impacted me and others, it’s an aesthetic object now, it’s just a poem.”
Grunberger said she was thrilled when she found out that she’d been selected as one of the winners.
Now, she wonders how much impact the winning poems could actually have.
“It is noble of Kristof to devote his column to poets, but I wonder how much poetry, my poem or any poem, or novel or play, can change anything,” she said.
She ends the poem with a scene with her 4-year-old daughter interacting with the vandalism.
“She traces the letter with her small finger.
She’s just learning about how letters
Make words, and words make sentences.
Doesn’t yet know sentences can kill:
Arbeit macht frei. Sentences can lie:
Make America Great Again. Sentences
Can heal: I have a dream. She’s fished
A pen from my bag and draws a ‘K’ beside the ‘J.’”
“In looking ahead to a post-Trump era, I think the poetic riff with my daughter playing with the ‘J,’ completely unaware of its anti-Semitism, may portend a better future for the next generation in America,” Grunberger said.