An old Jewish tradition, dating back to the Talmud, records that the world is sustained by the presence of at least thirty-six tzaddikim. These people do their good deeds quietly: their neighbors do not know who they are. If, however, that minimum of truly saintly people does not exist, then the world itself will perish.
—Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Note: A tzaddekes is a female tzaddik.
All the world depends on the three strands
of red hair braided each morning by the first tzaddekes.
All the world depends on the owner of a white-pawed cat:
how gently the second tzaddik strokes his animal.
All the world depends on the hairs going down the drain
as the third tzaddik trims his moustache over the sink.
All the world depends on how deliberately a spinster circles in red
the corrections of her pupils’ term papers: she is the fourth tzaddekes.
All the world depends on the girl in the madhouse who sings
Knick-knack Paddywhack, for she is the fifth tzaddekes.
All the world depends on the five-year-old boy whose sad eyes
watch a tiger behind bars at the zoo; he is the sixth tzaddik.
All the world whirls on the foot of the seventh tzaddik as he kicks
his potter’s wheel and shapes the clay’s walls between muddy fingers.
All the world depends on the faint cinnamon scent
of the perfumed ear of the eighth tzaddekes.
All the world depends on the pedals of the piano as the ninth
tzaddik plays Schubert’s Sonata in E Major.
All the world waits with the widow at the corner of State
and Pleasant Streets for the noon bus: she is the tenth tzaddekes.
How is it that the eleventh tzaddik is conceived
for the love of the world from the depths of the moans
of a man and a woman who do not love each other?
All the world depends on the three moles on the cheek of the twelfth tzaddekes.
All the world is caught in trembling wedding laces
of the jilted bride who is the thirteenth tzaddekes.
All the world depends on the careful polishing
of the worn leather shoes of the fourteenth tzaddik.
All the world sleeps as the fifteenth tzaddik sleeps.
All the world wakes as the sixteenth tzaddik wakes.
All the world depends on the prisoner and the prisoner’s guard,
who are the seventeenth and the eighteenth tzaddikim.
All the world is lost with the nineteenth tzaddik
as he wanders an ancient garden’s maze of boxwoods.
All the world depends on the color red, for this is the color
of the lipstick that lines the lips of the twentieth tzaddekes.
All the world depends on the mouse in the attic
that the twenty-first tzaddik refuses to kill.
All the world listens as the twenty-second tzaddekes sings
a lullaby to let the child at her breast sleep easier.
All the world depends on the blind man collecting his coins outside the museum
steps—the Tennessee-mined marble pillars he leans against!
All the world depends on the anonymous philanthropist
who makes out his will to the school of deaf-mutes.
All the world is without a single noise in the ear
of the tzaddik who lives in the school of deaf-mutes.
All the world is far from the recluse who makes
for himself a reed pen to write his poetry with.
All the world depends on the threads that go in and out of the ribcage
as the surgeon stitches up the heart of the twenty-seventh tzaddik.
All the world depends on the floured hands of the wife
who kneads and braids the challah on the night of the Sabbath.
All the world depends on the hands of the mother who combs
the lice out of her daughter’s hair, gently, gently.
All the world is astride the shoulders
where the thirtieth tzaddik carries high his little son.
All the world mourns the thirty-first tzaddekes’
miscarriage, for the world too is only bartered blood.
All the world rejoices at the menarche of the thirty-second tzaddekes,
for all is only the building up and the letting go of blood.
All the world depends on the first gray hair of the thirty-third tzaddekes.
All the world depends on the bald pate of the thirty-fourth tzaddik.
All the world depends on scissors never touching
the knee-length hair of the thirty-fifth tzaddekes.
All the bundled blood of the world turns, stirs, gathers, and echoes
the womb’s beginnings of the thirty-sixth tzaddik,
for always, like the Messiah, the last tzaddik is yet to come.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.