Workbooked: The Role of Smoking Cigarettes in the Education of a Young Jew, Jody Cohen
Prompts for Further Writing and Thinking, Alice Lesnick
Writing to Read
As you re-read Cohen’s poem, make two lists – one of elements (things, ideas, experiences, terms) in it that break or are broken, and one of elements in it that don’t break, that continue. Don’t try too hard to get it right – just see where the lists go.
Do some process writing about what you notice about each list and how the two are alike and different.
Choose one element from each list. Write a focused freewriting in which you discuss how these two elements help make Cohen’s poem about learning. How do people learn, according to this poem? What is an education?
Prompts for Collaborative Learning
What does a game of Solitaire have to do with the education of a young Jew?
How do people breathe in this poem?
Who is the “we” in the last stanza?
(To be done directly after you hear everyone’s writings, before you discuss): What stands out to you in what you heard? Has/how has your thinking about the poem changed in relation to pooling responses with others?
Cohen’s poem is in four sections, each set in a different scene of her life: a childhood swim club, Hebrew school, a family Seder, and a Rosh Hashanah observance. Threaded through the poem are certain continuities and discontinuities: boys, cigarettes, elders.
Write a poem of your own in which you use a structure parallel to Cohen’s: four sections, each with a different setting, with certain images or motifs threaded through, but not without breaks.
Cohen shares stories, images, and fragments of the education, formal and informal, through which she came by important elements of her identity.
Write an essay in which you explore and help others think more about what her poem suggests is the role of breaking in the creation and composition of identity.
Write a letter in which you test your ideas by trying to apply them to a story from your own identity development.
Imagine that you are an illustrator tasked with creating an illustrated version of Cohen’s poem. The constraint you must work within is that you can only use images of smoke in your illustration. How would you do it and what would it look like?
Read the poem alert to the presence/use of numbers in it. Now, create an image, drawing or collage that highlights and explores the way numbers and numbering work in the poem.
A dime and a quarter in the slot and out
slides a pack of Lucky Strikes.
It fits perfectly in her palm.
She walks past the kiddie pool, where diapers hang to the chubby backs of knees,
past women in white swinging invisible rackets that make green balls sing.
Up past the pool with diving boards at two levels and
decks of seasonal rooms laid out in verticals like a game of solitaire.
Until finally she climbs the last hill and there is
She opens the Lucky Strikes and lights one, then another and another,
experimenting with how to do it until suddenly she’s
swaying in the buzzing morning heat.
She lands on her back. The grass is soft, the air stale.
Last night she’d flirted with Kurt, a big-headed blond boy who
wore a cross around his neck and planned to be a minister.
She would kiss him three times.
Rikki is tall, broad-shouldered, with hair falling over
a sardonic twist to her mouth.
She is a year ahead of me in school, but
on Wednesday nights we meet
in the girls’ bathroom
during Hebrew School.
“6 million Jews…”
The teacher’s accented voice, her
high-waisted flowery dress, her
tongue distended with her passion—
grate on me.
The sinks are low
enough for us to elbow lean
like corner girls,
letting smoke curl from
tight commas at the sides of our
“6 million died. 6 million of our people.
We must never forget, the world must remember.”
Always the same lesson.
She goes with a boy who is Greek but not Jewish.
He can really kiss.
our tongues in the mirror,
breaking into hysterical laughter.
my father reclines and intones
as we dip parsley in
spread bitter herbs liberally on
I am always the
our mothers snicker behind their
breaths furtive with
the joke is
I have dropped out of
to shovel dog shit in Virginia,
when it comes out:
dad shoveling a tunnel,
seeking light, seeking air,
as he would all his life (he smoked parliaments).
an American soldier,
a jew in world war two,
in a camp.
my father reclines.
seeking breath as I sit
cross-legged before a
flowering branch in
there is no boy here,
seeking breath in the
pale lump of a
in the sun-filled courtyard,
standing amongst fly-by-night chairs,
holding your smooth-knuckled hand in mine,
the music of rosh hashana
I’ve quit, almost quit.
later, a cigarette filched anyway.
we break away