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Atheist With a Poet’s Heart

Atheist With a Poet’s Heart

—for Leo Kanner, MD


Years before he became our first child

psychiatrist and penned his classic paper on autism,

Kanner was Chaskel Leib, an aspiring teenaged poet

rejected by the Yiddish publishers in Minsk.

Like generations of Jewish boys, he gave up

hope for a literary life and learned medicine,

studying in my great-great-great grandfather’s Berlin.

Then he fled to Yankton, South Dakota,

birthplace of my apple trees, changed

his name to Leo Kanner, and made his last

move to Johns Hopkins where, years later,

my wife sat on his old black leather couch

and learned child psychiatry. They say he loved

to settle on the supple skin, writing papers

with the fountain pen he had used for verse, lucky

to have been a failed poet instead of an artist

slaughtered in Terezin. And after re-reading

his autism paper this morning, I’m dazzled

by our parallels—my teenaged Jewish life saved

from Vietnam by a med school deferment,

my orchard from Yankton, connections

to Berlin, Hopkins and his couch, harmonies

between Chaskel, Leo and Richard that might

make a man believe in God. But old colleagues said

the holocaust made him an atheist with a poet’s heart,

a Jew who loved to stand and chant David’s psalms

at Shabbat dinner, eyes closed, as if the ancient rhyme

and meter were his own, as if God might be listening.

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