Published on January 14th, 2019 | by Carla Rachel Sameth


Why do good t-shirts have to die?

I read past my bedtime is what this t-shirt says, and the collar is beginning to tear. Over time, almost everything I get close to that has a comforting, tactile feel begins to fray.

In my hands.

I touch cotton and I can feel the layers of sinewy, caressing fibers. This is different from counting Egyptian thread counts. I can almost feel a soft hand that is in between comfort and sensuality or a morphed quality of the both. Like what was once on my online dating profile: sexy but maternal, wears high heels and can swing a machete. Another of my t-shirts worn to a thread with holes is a dancing calavera against a silhouette of Los Angeles; I love them both in their own enduring way.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

“Would you like me better if I were trans?” I ask my wife, who wishes perhaps that she was born in a different time, in a different country (except she wouldn’t barter her South African heart). She would like to chop her breasts off, but I won’t have it. Sometimes, when I see curvy women, I have trouble not staring at their breasts and for that moment, I feel a sliver of compassion for the men who so disturbed me growing up when they looked the younger me up and down. Perhaps I’m old now too, like they were, and repulsive to someone who is young and agile.

Remember my mom, only dead a year, but losing her mind to dementia for several, so corporeal in how she had come to experience life. She loved to run her hand over mine stopping at rough edges, always searching, tapping out rhythms with meaning only she understood. Her feet walking over leaves, stepping into their crunch, feeling the surfaces. Sitting at dinnertime, or listening to old dance tunes, her legs moved nonstop, finding the rhythm, as she glided her legs under a table driving her fellow travelers in assisted care madder than they already were.

“Hey you Mama, give me some of that kike love?” Do you ever wonder why this word doesn’t take on the easy banter Black people have when they use the “N” word? My Afro-Jewish son wonders that as he walks about, turning up the volume even as some around him might demand he whisper. He’s done it all his life and I used to fear when he pushed his dad or teacher looking for a boundary, and prayed for an adult that would hold him securely, firmly and say, Aqui no mas. Not let him go a centimeter further and say also, Te quiero mucho, para siempre. Secure in their love.

As the publishing date for my book approaches, I question how I’ve used capital letters when I write race. I capitalized Black besides lower case white. I begin a survey–an intellectual, political, and practical one–since I have to decide what to do with my book. The grammarians still makes a strong case for lower case black and white. It was easier when we said African American; then I could get away with my lower case white. Upper case makes me nervous, I tell my son who is “Black, White and Jewish,” like Rebecca Walker and her book by that name.

When is white and Jewish together an oxymoron? When you are David Duke, former grand wizard of the KKK, who tweets “Of Course they aren’t White,” referring to someone who raises the question from an essay, “Are Jews White?” David Duke knows that Jews ARE a race and they ARE NOT White. Note: he capitalizes white, which is why I find the word capitalized troubling. It is far too Aryan.

“I understand, mom,” my son tells me, but goes on to say, “let’s take a step to not be like them, to get beyond it all,” give everyone upper case. My son is nothing if not fair-minded, and inclined to be post-racial.

Photo by Julie Johnson on Unsplash

I consult with Kelly J. Madison, a racism expert and professor of Cultural Politics at California State University Los Angeles, who says that “’race’ is a political construct, and whiteness is just an idea that arose with Euro-colonialism in order to rationalize a global system of violence against people for profit.”

In a world of social constructs, then what are Jews, since most whites don’t see us as white and we hail from all different parts of the world and come in all colors? We know that out Jewish identity is a focal point for people wanting to kill us, white supremacists like the one that recently murdered eleven Jews in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue.

My wife is clear in her self-awareness, white and South African and thus also hated and misunderstood by many. She’s also from a struggling working class family, her dad the overseer in the mines; they barely had enough to eat or clothes to wear sometimes.

I had enough to believe that owning a house and having children was a given, being someone who could make a difference was the end game. That is making “real social change,” but in the end, I was far too absorbed in navigating the changes in my life.

I’m on the lookout throughout my life for that comfort of luscious, sensual cotton, that kind you can sense a breeze running over, and be naked, sleeping peacefully, with sun reflecting off your body, a lover’s touch not far from your full night’s sleep. The color is soft but the heat is vibrant and cools while it warms.

I look for this bed and when I find this sleep, I never want to awaken. I look for the sheets and the shirt that doesn’t tear over time, the love that doesn’t rip when you most come to rely upon it. But I haven’t found it yet. There is always a hole that eventually becomes beyond repair. Perhaps this is why, when someone dies, you tear your garment if you happen to be a religious Jew or one who believes in the tradition. We Jews also cover the mirrors. I know that there is a cultural explanation but I imagine this: My identity may fade away without your presence here on earth.

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About the Author

Carla Rachel Sameth is the Co-Poet Laureate for Altadena, CA 2022-2024.  Her chapbook, What Is Left was published December 2021 with dancing girl press. Carla’s debut memoir, One Day on the Gold Line, originally published in 2019was reissued by Golden Foothills Press in 2022.  Her full-length poetry collection will be published by Nymeria Press November 2023. Her writing on blended/unblended, queer, multiracial and single parent families appears in a variety of publications. Carla’s work has been selected three times as Notable Essays of the Year in Best American Essays. Her story “Graduation Day at Addiction High,” which originally appeared in Narratively, was also selected for Longread’s “Five Stories on Addiction.” A Pasadena Rose Poet, a West Hollywood Pride Poet, and a former PEN Teaching Artist, Carla teaches creative writing to high school and university students and has taught incarcerated youth.

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