Grandfather Clause

For David Kamenetz, z”l

If only you’d done what you’d been told to do.
If only you’d not been lifted by a chance wind
west above the wheat tips of the Ukraine,
the thunder of knouts, the Cossacks shouting.
If you had stayed instead to be murdered,
the Einzatsgruppen, old men like you,
fingers palsied on the trigger, bellies shaking at the recoil,
would have shot you the dead edge of a pit,
slaughtered you on the outskirts of a town
Jews could not enter after sundown.

There is a clause that refers to you
in the inner lining of a foreign language
where Jew is the dirtiest word ever.
This clause prepared in advance of your name
is the secret history of your death
decreed in a grammar strange to your Yiddish
as the language I speak is still inflected
by the death that might have been.

Yet you entered America like a pilgrim or a germ.
Which was it? Or both, as America decided,
with your Jewish heart and lungs, and your Jewish disease,
and two strong fingers and a needle.
Why should I tell that old story again?
I’m still immigrating into this moment, learning
that the words applied to you apply to me.
Even after all this time, I will not allow anyone
to annihilate your name and mine.
I am grandfathered in.


Rodger Kamenetz
from his book the lowercase jew
Triquarterly Books, 2003
Used by permission of the poet.


For a History Class

Lesson Plan for Rodger Kamenetz’s “Grandfather Clause”
by Laurie Williams

Pass out the poem and have students read it over silently, making note of any words or phrases that reference time and setting.

The epigraph at the beginning of the poem is “For David Kamenetz, z”l”

What can be learned or conjectured from the epigraph?
What does the z”l” mean?

Going through the poem line by line, create an approximate timeline for the events. You will not be able to pinpoint the exact dates, but you will be able to set up a plausible timeline.

To create the timeline, you will need to research historical newspapers, documents, texts to see what actual events occurred in the places the poem references.

Each point on the timeline will need to correspond to an actual and verifiable event. Be sure to cite where you found that information.

Include an illustration at least half of your points.

After doing this assignment, find a family story (it can be recent or go back generations) and create a rough time lime of the events. In your research, look for words and phrases that will help your readers be able to locate the time period you are referencing. After creating a rough timeline, write a poem about that family event. You can use Mr. Kamenentz’s poem as a model.

Lesson Plan for Rodger Kamenetz’s “Grandfather Clause”
by Laurie Williams

This poem would work well in a unit on the Holocaust.

Read the poem aloud in class.

After reading the poem aloud, ask students to read the poem silently and circle unfamiliar words and look for places in the poem where they need a little more information about the events.

Have students look up the words and phrases with which they are unfamiliar.

Have them make a list of what they know about the poem.

Then have them create a list of the sections of the poem where they need more information for clarification.

Working from both lists, have students come up with possible places to look for information, possible keywords, etc.

Break the students into small groups and have them work on searching for information and answers to questions they have about the poem.

After they have gained a better understanding of the poem, still in small groups, have students work backward from the end of WWII detailing the events that led up to the Holocaust and events in the Ukraine at that time. It might work well to assign each group an area or time period.

As a writing project, have students choose an event or person from their research and write a poem about that person detailing time, place, and events.

For an English Classroom

Lesson Plan for Rodger Kamenetz’s “Grandfather Clause”
by Laurie Williams

Before reading the poem, discuss with the class what a clause is, in its grammatical sense (independent and subordinate) and in its legal sense (a contract clause).

Discuss the terms independent and subordinate and then discuss the term contract.
What does it mean to be independent?
What does it mean to be subordinate?
What is a contract? What does it do?

Pass out the poem and read it aloud in class.
After reading it, have students use a pencil to underline the subordinate clauses in the poem and circle the words that are unfamiliar to them.
Have them box the words that give time, setting, and situation.

Look up the unfamiliar words. How do those words affect the meaning of the poem?

Discuss what the first strophe is talking about, then the second, and then the third. After discussing the poem, then look to the grammatical elements.

How many sentences does this poem have?
How many of those sentences have subordinate clause?
How many subordinate clauses does the first strophe have? the second? the third?
What effect does the subordinate clause have on the main clause?
If the subordinate clause were to be removed, how much meaning would be lost?
Does the grammar in the poem support the meaning of the poem or work against it?

The second strophe begins with the like “There is a clause that refers to you.”
Is that referring to a subordinate clause or a contract clause?
What is a grandfather clause in the legal sense?

This is a great poem to use to show how to explicate a poem. After following the above steps, students can explicate this poem alone or in pairs or small groups.

As an alternative, they could write a poem using the grammatical structures in the poem to either underscore or work against meaning.

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