Abraham Shlonsky: Toil (From Hebrew)

Abraham Shlonsky, born in Poltava (then in Russia) in 1900, came to Palestine at the age of 13 to study at the first secondary Hebrew school in the then-new suburb of Jaffa called Tel Aviv. Unlike many other Hebrew poets of his and earlier generations, Shlonsky learned spoken Hebrew in childhood. When WWI broke out, he was forced to return to Russia, where he completed his highschool education and lived through the turbulence of the Russian Revolution. In 1922, sensing that life for European Jews would only get more unpleasant, he emigrated to Israel as a Zionist pioneer and worked as a road-builder.

The poem translated here (inspired by his work as a road-builder) is, unlike the overwhelming majority of Shlonsky's verse, not in the language or rhythm of spoken Israeli Hebrew but in that of the Jewish prayer-book, and its rhythms those of Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation (and I have read it as such my recording). When Shlonsky uses Ashkenazi Hebrew it is often, as is the case here, to evoke a prayerful ambiance. In this poem, the new Palestinian earth is presented in an ecstatic religious light. The building of a homeland and the working of its soil are transmuted into acts of worship. The speaker addresses not his own but the generic "mother" common to Yiddish folk-poetry, which takes on a symbolic resonance.

By Abraham Shlonsky
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original in Ashkenazi Hebrew

Clothe me, goodly mother, in a splendrous coat of many colors,1
And with dawn lead me unto my toil.

My land wraps itself in light as in a tallit2
Houses stand like tefillin,
And like tefillin-straps the palm-paved highways all glide down.3

Thus a beautiful new township prays at dawn to her creator,
And among creators,
Your son Abraham
Is the hymnal poet-paver
Of the roads of Israel.

And at evening in the sunset Father shall return from labors
And like prayer whisper gladly:
Dearest son, my Abraham4
Skin and bones and veins and sinews:

Clothe me, goodly mother in a splendrous coat of many colors,
And with dawn lead me
Unto my toil.

1- See Genesis 37:3 where "Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours."
2- See Psalm 104:2 where God is "enwrapped in light as in a cloak"
3- A tallit is a prayer shawl, and tefillin are small boxes attached to the head in worship. The square houses perched on the hills are compared to the square tefillin, and the roads to the valley like the straps holding it. The land is a worshipper standing at morning prayer.
4- see Jeremiah 13:19 where God refers to Ephraim as "my darling son"
5- Halelujah means "Praise ye God"

The Original:

אברהם שלונסקי

הלבישיני, אמא כשרה, כתונת–פסים לתפארת
ועם שחרית הוביליני אלי עמל.

אוטפה ארצי אור כטלית.
בתים נצבו כטוטפות.
וכרצועות–תפילין גולשים כבישים, סללו כפיים.

תפילת שחרית פוה תתפלל קיריה נאה אלי בוראה.
בנך אברהם,
פייטן סולל בישראל.

ובערב בין השמשות ישוב אבא מסיבלותיו
וכתפילה ילחש נהת:
הבן יקיר לי אברהם,
עור וגידים ועצמות.

הלבישיני, אמא כשרה, כתונת–פסים לטפארת
ועם שחרית הוביליני
אלי עמל.

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