This post is an exercise in reading poetry bilingually. The chosen poem is biting, but anyone who has ever had high ideals, or still has them, only to see them compromised by the vagaries of history, should be able to read it sympathetically. Yehuda Amichai describes those who live within a horizon of hope in a place to which unrealized hopes are attached. The place is Jerusalem; the theme is religious Zionism. If you are a Christian and you think the theme does not regard you, think again. The apostle Paul was a Zionist, as I will show in an upcoming post. The poem’s language recalls many passages from the Bible and tradition.
Amichai’s vocabulary is not exclusively classical, but with the help of milon.morfix, it is conquerable by a second or third year student of biblical Hebrew. Personally, I am unsatisfied with the way biblical Hebrew is taught today. The Hebrew of Ben Sira, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud and Midrashim and piyyutim, not to mention exegetes like Rashi, ibn Ezra, and Samuele Davide Luzzatto, and poets like Dunash ben Labrat, Bialik, and Amichai, remains terra incognita, a vast unknown territory, to almost all non-Jewish students of biblical Hebrew. Is it any wonder that most Christian Hebraists’ sense of what words and expressions mean depends almost exclusively on gleanings from among the glosses provided in their biblical Hebrew lexicon of choice?
It cannot be assumed, of course, that the usage and range of meanings of Hebrew words remained constant throughout the centuries. The opposite is clearly the case, but one’s mastery of the language is improved by getting enough Hebrew into one’s bones from different periods to be able to sense those differences, and also, the immense commonalities.
The following poem by Amichai is more than
language. It describes a religion and an eschatology with tonal perfection. Get
ready to feel miserable, to cry, and to yearn all over again for תקון עולם tikkun olam, a
mending of the world. The translation is my own; Chana Bloch’s translation, to
be sure, is excellent, and I have not hesitated to incorporate a felicitous
rendering of hers here and there.
יְרוּשָׁלַיִם מְלֵאָה יְהוּדִים מְשֻׁמָּשִׁים
Jerusalem brims with worn-out Jews
יְרוּשָׁלַיִם מְלֵאָה יְהוּדִים מְשֻׁמָּשִׁים בְּהִסְטוֹרְיָה
יְהוּדִים יָד שְׁנִיָּה, עִם פְּגִימוֹת קַלּוֹת, זוֹלִים יוֹתֵר.
וְהָעַיִן לְצִיּוֹן צוֹפִיָּה כָּל הַזְּמַן. וְכָל הָעֵינַיִם
שֶׁל חַיִּים וְשֶׁל מֵתִים נִשְׁבָּרוֹת כְּמוֹ בֵּיצִים
עַל שְׂפַת הַקְּעָרָה לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת הָעִיר
עֲשִׂירָה וּשְׁמֵנָה וְתוֹפַחַת
brims with Jews consumed by history,
pre-owned Jews, discolored here and there, great values.
And the eye is directed toward Zion all the time. And all the eyes
of the living and the dead are cracked like eggs
on the lip of the bowl, to make the city
rich and fat and fluffy.
יְרוּשָׁלַיִם מְלֵאָה יְהוּדִים עֲיֵפִים
וְהֵם מֻצְלָפִים תָּמִיד מֵחָדָשׁ לִימֵי זִכָּרוֹן וְחַג
כְּמוֹ דֻּבִּים מְרַקְּדִים בִּכְאֵב רַגְלַיִם.
and they are whipped incessantly for days of remembrance and recurrence
like dancing bears on aching legs.
מַה יְרוּשָׁלַיִם צְרִיכָה? הִיא לֹא צְרִיכָה רֹאשׁ עִיר.
הִיא צְרִיכָה מְנַהֵל קִרְקָס, עִם שׁוֹט בַּיָּד
לְאַלֵּף נְבוּאוֹת וּלְאַמֵּן נְבִיאִים לִדְהֹר
סָבִיב סָבִיב בַּמַּעְגָּל, וּלְלַמֵּד אֶת אֲבָנֶיהָ לְהִסְתַּדֵּר
בְּמִבְנֶה נוֹעָז וּמְסֻכָּן בְּקֶטַע הַסִּיּוּם
does Jerusalem require? She doesn’t need a mayor,
she needs a ringmaster, with whip in hand,
to tame prophecies, to train prophets to gallop
around and around in a circle, to teach her stones to arrange themselves
in a bold, audacious pattern for the grand finale.
אַחַר כָּךְ הֵן קוֹצְפִים לְמַטָּה עַל הָאָרֶץ
לְקוֹל תְּשׁוּאוֹת וּמִלְחָמוֹת.
they spring down on the ground
to the sound of applause and wars.
וְהָעַיִן לְצִיּוֹן צוֹפִיָּה וּבוֹכִיָּה.
And the eye turns toward Zion, and weeps.
The translation I offer “over-translates” and “under-translates” particular words and expressions with a view to bringing to the surface metaphorical sequences that otherwise might be missed. In the process, other metaphors and allusions are neglected. That is why a traduttore ‘translator’ is always a traditore ‘traitor.’
For example, how is one to translate משמשים, picked up by עיפים and מצלפים? Note the title given to this drawing by the Dutch Communist painter Henri Pieck (1895-1972), who was an inmate at Buchenwald: יהודים משמשים כסוסי עבודה ‘Jews being forced to labor like workhorses;’ by analogy, one might translate here ‘being forced to labor by history.’ But an expression like ספורים משמשים ‘dilapidated books’ seems closer to hand, especially in light of the following line. One might just as well render: “Jerusalem brims with Jews dilapidated by history.”
Still, other expressions come to mind, such as שַׁמָּשׁ, ‘beadle,’ but also, the foremost Hannukah candle; שֶׁמֶשׁ, ‘sun;’ בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת, ‘twilight.’ It is easy to take an expression like משמשים and treat it like a multi-carated diamond to examine in the light. Chana Bloch translates:
is full of used Jews, worn out by history,
Jews second-hand, slightly damaged, at bargain prices.<
מלאה is a participle of a stative verb which simply means ‘is filled with,’ but in anticipation of הקערה ‘the bowl’ of a few lines later, I translate “brims with.’ It is an over-translation, but it serves a purpose. The image of the eyes cracked on the rim of the bowl of Jerusalem like so many egg yolks that are then stiffly beaten together to form a fluffy meringue – okay, I’m over-reading slightly, but not by much – has got to be one of the most amazing images in all of poetry.
צופיה ל, on the other hand, is under-translated by ‘is directed toward’ and ‘turns toward.’ A צופה is more than that. It is a technical term for someone who keeps vigil with prayers in anticipation of what Jerusalem will become (cf. Isa 52:8; Hab 2:1; more on that in a subsequent post). The under-translation, however, serves to keep the physicality of the action front and center.
This poem by Amichai is marvelous because, if you are a Jew or a Christian, after reading it, you still want to be a dancing bear on aching legs. You still want to add your eyes to those cracked on the rim of the bowl. A massive achievement by a poet who did not believe, but who prayed in the midst of his unbelief:
אֲנִי זוֹכֵר אֶת אָבִי שֶׁעוֹרֵר אוֹתִי לִסְלִיחוֹת.
בִּלְטִיפַת מִצְחִי עָשָׂה כָּךְ,
לֹא בִּקְרִיעַת הַשְּׂמִיכָה מֵעָלַי.
I remember my father waking me
up for prayers.
He did it caressing my forehead,
not tearing the blanket away.
וּמֵאָז אֲנִי אוֹהֵב אוֹתוֹ עוֹד יוֹתֵר.
וּבִזְכוּת זֹאת יָעִירוּ אוֹתוֹ
בְּיוֹם תְּחִיַּת הַמֵּתִים.
Since then I love him even
and because of this let him be awakened
with gentleness and love
on the day life is given back to the dead.
Yehuda Amichai, Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems: A Bilingual Edition (tr. Ted Hughes, Chana Bloch, Stephen Mitchell, et al; Riverdale-on-Hudson: Sheep Meadow Press, 1988)