A Decoction of Lime-Flowers

Recette pour la Madeleine. Photo by MairieSY, 19 September 2003. Wikimedia Commons.

Aaron Berkowitz is Editor-in-Chief of the Jewish Literary Journal. The Journal publishes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, comics, art, and photography that is “Jewish in nature.” Aaron leaves what is meant by “Jewish in nature” undefined. He does this purposefully to allow the broadest extent possible in materials submitted for publication. You do not need to be Jewish to submit work to the JLJ.

In his August 2020 issue, I am pleased to say that Aaron has published a poem of mine, “Ketoret” (Incense). The poem is about ritual incense and prayer. Here is the poem’s first stanza:

A hint, a faint scent only—like the
perfume of a woman that lingers
in the air of a room, or rests on
her pillow, long after she has gone—
hides in the fringes of my tallit.

Gershon Ben-Avraham, Ketoret (excerpt), JLJ, August, 2020.

If you like, you can read the entire poem here.

If you are an author or artist and create works that may be considered, broadly, “Jewish in nature,” keep the Jewish Literary Journal in mind.

From time to time, the face of a woman I knew in my early twenties comes to mind. Invariably, the rich scent of patchouli oil and the woodsy smell of burning sandalwood incense accompany the image. Many times, they are the stimulus of its evocation. The woman came the closest to being a flower child of any person I knew in Mississippi. In the South, the garden of flower children was not as abundant as elsewhere in the States. It is one year short of a half-century since the last time I saw my friend. I use the term “half-century” deliberately to emphasize the long-lasting impression that scents can make on our consciousness. Taste, sister to the sense of smell, has a similarly strong effect, as Proust beautifully reminds us.

And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.

Proust, Marcel. Swann’s Way (Remembrance of Things Past, Volume One): 1 (pp. 70-71). Neeland Media LLC. Kindle Edition.

Proust’s madeleine has nothing on my patchouli oil and sandalwood.

Historically, incense has played a prominent role in the sacred rituals of many different religions. It continues to do so. In China, many people use it to honor ancestors, burning it daily on a small altar in their homes dedicated to the memory of their deceased relatives. In India, incense is often burned before performing a religious ritual. It fills the room with a pleasant smell and has a calming effect on the minds of participants.

The use of incense, ketoret in Hebrew, has an ancient history in Judaism. In the Bible, in the Book of Exodus, we find the following at the beginning of Chapter 30:

And you shall make an altar for burning incense, acacia wood you shall make it… And Aaron shall burn upon it the aromatic incense morning after morning, when he tends the lamps he shall burn it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the LORD for your generations.

Alter, Robert. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.

Here, the text refers to the use of incense in the Tabernacle, God’s portable earthly dwelling place used by the Hebrews in their desert wandering before entering Canaan.

In the prayer custom I follow (Nusach Ha-Arizal) a section of the Morning Prayer called Ketoret – Incense is read daily. We also recite it before the afternoon prayer service. The Rabbis remind us of the sanctity of the incense. In Ketoret, they list eleven ingredients and the amounts required to make incense properly. They also warn us that “if one left out any one of the ingredients, he was liable to the penalty of death.” Well, that certainly puts a damper on things.

Whether incense reminds us of someone we once knew or focusses our mind on the sacredness of prayer, it is always a delight, much like a madeleine shared with a beloved aunt.

All the best, Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

One thought

  1. Excellent post, very interesting. I enjoyed reading your beautiful poem too.

    Scents are so evocative!

    I used to use incense a lot, but recently have found it irritates my eyes so use it a lot less and have replaced it with scented candles.

    Liked by 1 person

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