The title for this post is taken from a song written by the man in black, Johnny Cash. It’s a powerful song. The blood of scripture courses through its veins. For all the lyrics to “When the Man Comes Around,” go here. The music, which is fabulous, is a click or two away in more than one place.
This post is the first in a two-part introduction to a forthcoming post on Psalm 137. My goal is to prepare the reader to hear the psalm in a new way. My other goal, as always, is to teach the Hebrew of the Bible. Poetry is an excellent means to that end.
Psalm 137 is incomprehensible to the extent that we are not cognizant of the trauma out of which it was born. The disaster and the effect it had on its victims is expressed in words of great bitterness in Lamentations. For a small but insufficient taste, go here.
Another, more bracing path into the viscera of Psalm 137 is by way of the poetry of Hayyim Nahman Bialik. As a young man, Bialik wrote two poems in reaction to the pogrom of 1903 that took the lives of 47 Jews in Kishinev, Moldovia, and displaced over two thousand Jewish families.
For another take on the progrom, I recommend the reflections of Jack Saul. Saul is a psychologist on the faculty of New York University's School of Medicine and director of its International Trauma Studies Program. He lectures around the world on mental health and human rights, treatment of survivors of political violence, and community approaches to trauma.
One poem, the less famous, is entitled על השחיטה “On the Slaughter.” It will be reproduced and translated in the second part of this series. The other, much longer poem, is entitled, בעיר ההרגה, “In the City of Slaughter.” One of my teachers, Menahem Mansoor, stated without exaggeration: “Never before has a poem had such an enormous effect on a whole people.” It spurred Jews in eastern Europe to form self-defense groups against their would-be executioners. Many more left eastern Europe for the West or for Palestine. Bialik went to Palestine. He was widely recognized as the greatest poet of his generation. He died at age 61 in 1934.
It is sometimes said that the Kishinev progrom changed the course of Jewish history. This is false. It was Bialik’s evocation of it that changed history.
Never underestimate the power of poetry. Poetry, as Ben Jonson remarked, is “the most prevailing eloquence.”
Mansoor introduced and described the contents of “In the City of Slaughter” as follows:
Bialik was sent by the Jewish community of Odessa to report on the pogrom. After his return he wrote [בעיר ההרגה], one of the most bitter and vehement poems ever written in Jewish literature.
(1) The first part of the poem is a chilling description of the gruesome scenes at the aftermath of the progrom: Spattered blood and dried brains, piles of bodies and limbs, a babe clinging to the cold breast of its dead mother, a Jew and his dog – both beheaded – are but a few scenes of the horror. The description is a tearless one, yet full of rage.
(2) The second and longer part of the poem is a bitter chastisement of the Jews who “fled like mice and died like dogs.” Bialik lashes out as the “sons of the Maccabees” who lay hidden as they watched their wives, daughters, and lovers being defiled by the murderers.
If you wish, you are welcome to read Psalm 137 at this point. Instead of “Babylon” and “Edom” in the conclusion, substitute the names, lost to us, of those who perpetrated the pogrom.
Bialik in his other poem reacts to the progrom through the categories
of justice and vengeance. This is like Psalm 137. He also taps into the
biblical tradition of protest against divine failure to intervene at the right
time. Bialik’s poem is more shocking than Psalm 137, and deliberately so. I
discuss the details in my next post.