Kishkes is a Yiddish—originally Russian—word for guts or intestines. My immigrant grandparents considered kishkes in a sausage-like form to be a delicacy that I never dared to taste. My father, who grew up speaking Yiddish to his parents and who taught me the few words and expressions that I know, often used kishkes in this phrase:
“You have to feel it in your kishkes!”
This was a kind of mantra from my childhood, a parental encouragement to try something new, to be deeply committed to goals and to work hard to accomplish them. If you want to succeed at something, you must be passionate about it and about your success.
In my late thirties, I decided to try something new. I had a desire, emanating from deep inside, to express myself creatively. I had survived high school art classes, ashamed of my drawings which lacked perspective, knowing that visual-spatial perception was not my forté. Still, I had always wanted to try ceramics and found myself drawn to the pottery studio. I believed that getting dirt under my fingernails and hunkering down over a lump of clay could sooth the unarticulated stress burning in my kishkes.
My years at the wheel have taught me patience and humility, and have confirmed for me some things I already knew about myself and about life itself. Achieving change, with regard to shaping the clay and determining one’s path, requires firm but gentle pressure. I use my whole body, channeling not just the strength in my hands and arms, but also my upper back and shoulders, lower back, legs, even my jaw, when I work at the potter’s wheel. It’s called “throwing,” and it demands all of me. To center the clay on the wheel, I extend my left arm to the clay, anchoring my elbow to my abdomen, grasping my left thumb with my right hand, applying steady pressure as I externalize the strength at my core, my center, my kishkes.
To test whether I have succeeded, I must close my eyes and steady my breathing. Then I touch the outer edge of the clay as it spins, barely skimming it with the tips of my fingers. In a moment of utter silence and stillness, I listen by touching, I see by feeling. It is a spiritual moment, as an earnest prayer inhabits my heart. The clay is centered, and I am ready to create a beautiful vessel from a lump of dirt. Like God created humanity, breathing a passionate soul into the dust of the earth. I am the beautiful vessel; creativity spreads through my body and I feel it at the core.
I feel it in my kishkes.
An earlier version of this essay first appeared in Found in Translation: Common Words of Uncommon Wisdom.
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