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Hide and Seek: A Poetic Interpretation of the Jonah Story on Yom Kippur Afternoon 5783/2022

October 6, 2022 | General News | Worship and High Holidays

During the High Holy Days, we turn our attention to a special section of our Hebrew bible from the book of Jonah that tells the story of the Hebrew prophet who is sent by God to prophesy the destruction of Nineveh, but tries to escape this divine mission. This is the haftarah portion for Yom Kippur afternoon. This year, in order to hear the message of Jonah's prophecy anew, we invited a poet to offer an interpretation on the themes of the story. We were thrilled to have acclaimed Japanese-American poet, writer, filmmaker, and the co-director of Project VOICE, Phil Kaye, write and perform his moving interpretation for our community which we share below:

Phil Kaye, Yom Kippur Yizkor 5783/2022
Performed/Written for Central Synagogue

Hide and Seek
by Phil Kaye

My grandfather and I used to play Hide-and-Seek when I was a kid
We’d play at the house, at the park, and sometimes even during 
the High Holy Days, when I was just old enough to see over the pews

My tiny legs would be swinging, bored, and my grandfather would lift 
up a prayer book over his eyes, his large face playfully 
peaking out from behind the pages. I’d laugh and point, and he’d say 

Here I am 
I couldn’t hide from you
You found me 

Nearly 50 years earlier, my grandfather returns from WWII and wants 
nothing more than to be a veterinarian. He applies to vet school
but gets rejected. Twice. Jewish quotas limiting the number of students 
like him to just 1% 
My grandfather’s large face peaking out from behind the pages
of his application

Here I am
I couldn’t hide from you 

When my Japanese mother moves to America she speaks 
English with no hint of a Japanese accent
a product of her time in international school,
years studying abroad. Everyone tells her
you speak so well
Years later, I am a child and move 
through the world with a protection I don’t understand
my accent-less English
my unoffending last name 
my face, not easily traceable to a point on a map
a protection I don’t even realize until it is gone
I am twelve years old, in middle school, and proudly 
announce to my classmates that I am Japanese and Jewish.
They squint and look at me and smile as if they suddenly 
understand something about me that I do not

Oh, that’s what you are
a boy says
I see it – your hair is kind of Asian, but your height is Jewish
the top half of your face is Asian, but the bottom half is Jewish

the other kids snicker. I suddenly realize
I had been hidden. And, here, hidden meant safe 

In the years after— the bittersweet realization of the sacrifice 
that went into my own hiding 

my grandfather, as a young man, finding time in between 
work shifts to visit the various county offices
to change his last name
to Kaye from Krenowitz
my mother’s long hours practicing
R’s and L’s in English
rubber, really, lover
rubber, really, lover
my great-grandparents
and the hidden prayer books
the secret attics
the packed bags
for a country they had never stepped foot in 
before calling it home

And still— in the height of the pandemic
people with the face of my mother 
get assaulted in the streets
a temple driving distance from my home 
wakes up shrouded in police tape and bullet holes
and I wear my facemask across half my face 
and try to remember what that boy said to me in middle school 
is it that the top of my face looks Asian
or is it Jewish?
Which one might be better?
I take a deep breath— remind myself that I am 
hidden. And hidden, here, means safe
And still, sometimes 
I go the Japanese market
and wish, even for a moment 
for someone to mistake me 
for their nephew
Dream of walking into a new temple 
on the High Holy Days 
and to look different, and not be a novelty
to be able to say it

Here I am
I couldn’t hide from you
And I’m glad I do not have to

Thank you
You found me 

You can learn more about Phil Kaye and his work at

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