Bialik: On The Slaughter (From Hebrew)

In the spring of 1903, Kishinev was the site of a massive Pogrom which made all previous Russian Jew-hunts look like petty exercises. Bialik himself was sent on behalf of the Jewish Historical Commission in Odessa, to interview survivors and prepare a report.

This poem was written shortly thereafter. Using language drawn from, and rhythms suggestive of, Biblical poetry (albeit somewhat more complex, adjusted for Ashkenazi Hebrew stresses, and with rhymes appended), this poem is in the tradition of Biblical lamentation, even as it subverts and debases that tradition to ask the question: "How could a just God let this happen?" and the answer "There must not be a God" - whence follows the question "so how, in a world without God, can murderers be found guilty?"

The Book of Judges serves as a not-so-subtle (to the Hebrew reader anyway) textual anchor throughout the poem. In Judges: 6, Israel lies in the hands of the Midianites, suffering under the cruelty of foreign oppressors. The same notion lies at the heart of Bialik's view of the Czarist regime- the foreigners who are slaughtering Jews. In Judges: 6, the Israelite judge Gideon contemplates the plight of his people and sinks into doubt and faithlessness. Eventually, Gideon, after asking over and over for a sign from God, finally receives such an answer in the form of two miracles. Bialik, by contrast, cries out but but receives no answer.

I have made the recording using the Ashkenazi Eastern European Hebrew pronunciation Bialik himself used which, with a radically different sound system and stress pattern from modern Hebrew, is both (a) unintelligible to most modern Israelis and (b) necessary in order to preserve the essentials of meter (and often rhyme.)


On The Slaughter1
By Chaim Nachman Bialik
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original in Ashkenazi Hebrew

O heavens above, beg mercy for me!
If a god be in you2, with a path in your round,
A path that I have not found
Pray unto him for me!
My heart is dead, prayer drained from my tongue.
The hands are limp, and hope has gone.
How long shall we suffer? How long?3

Executioner! Here is a neck for you

To ax with your arm. Butcher me like a dog.
All the world is my slaughtering-block.
And we are but a weak few.
My blood's fair game.4  Strike the skull and spray

Murder's blood; blood of babes and old men on your garb
Will never be washed away.

If Justice there be, let it now come round.
But if I'm killed off from under the sky

Ere it comes, let Justice die  
And its throne for all time be cast down,
And heaven rot with eternal wrong.
Then, ye wicked, go forth in this your brute force,5
And live on your blood6, a cleansed throng.

And cursed be he that shall say: avenge this
!
Fit revenge for blood of small children on earth
The Devil has yet to bring forth.7
Let blood's spurt pierce the abyss8
Let blood pierce to the deep of all creation
And there in the dark eat away and corrode
The low Earth's rotting foundation!


Notes:

1- The Hebrew word used title of this poem שחיטה ("shchíto" in Ashkenazi, "Shchitá" in Sephardic) is the word for the ritual slaughter of mammals and birds according to Judaic law. The title itself is a phrase taken from the blessing by recited by the shochet or ritual slaughterer upon the slaughter of an animal
ברוך אתה אדוני אלוהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על השחיטה
boruch ato adoynoy eloyheynu melech hooylom asher kidshonu bemitzvoysov vetzivonu al hashchito
"Blessed are you Lord our God, King of the World, who has sanctified us with His Commandments and commanded us as to the slaughter"

2- c.f. Judges 6:13 If God is with us, why has all this happened to us
3- The original reads "how long, till what time, how long?" for which c.f. Psalm 94:3 How long shall the wicked, O God, how long shall the wicked triumph?, and Psalm 13:1 Until when shall you forsake me, O God, forever? Until when will you hide your face from me?
4- The original reads domi mutor "my blood is permitted", a legal formula used to specify when capitol punishment may be applied.
5- A rhetorical subversion of Judges 6:14 And God looked upon him and said "Go thou forth in this thy strength and save Israel"
6- A rhetorical subversion of Ezekiel 16:6 I said unto thee "live in thy blood;" I said unto thee "live in thy blood" where God affirms the life and deliverance of Israel
7Originally my translation of this line read "Such vengeance for blood of babe and maiden/ hath yet to be wrought by Satan" and was quoted in this form in sundry places. I have since revised it, upon realization that my original version made a complete botch of it.
8- A rhetorical subversion and echo of the talmudic phrase ויקוב הדין את ההר "let Justice pierce the mountainsides" (i.e. Justice is all-powerful)


The Original

עַל הַשְּׁחִיטָה
חיים נחמן ביאליק

שָׁמַיִם, בַּקְּשׁוּ רַחֲמִים עָלָי!
אִם-יֵשׁ בָּכֶם אֵל וְלָאֵל בָּכֶם נָתִיב –
וַ אֲ נִ י לֹא מְצָאתִיו –
הִתְפַּלְּלוּ אַתֶּם עָלָי!
אֲ נִ י – לִבִּי מֵת וְאֵין עוֹד תְּפִלָּה בִּשְׂפָתָי,
וּכְבָר אָזְלַת יָד אַף-אֵין תִּקְוָה עוֹד –
עַד-מָתַי, עַד-אָנָה, עַד-מָתָי?

הַתַּלְיָן! הֵא צַוָּאר – קוּם שְׁחָט!
עָרְפֵנִי כַּכֶּלֶב, לְךָ זְרֹעַ עִם-קַרְדֹּם,
וְכָל-הָאָרֶץ לִי גַרְדֹּם –
וַאֲנַחְנוּ – אֲנַחְנוּ הַמְעָט!
דָּמִי מֻתָּר – הַךְ קָדְקֹד, וִיזַנֵּק דַּם רֶצַח,
דַּם יוֹנֵק וָשָׂב עַל-כֻּתָּנְתְּךָ –
וְלֹא יִמַּח לָנֶצַח, לָנֶצַח.

וְאִם יֶשׁ-צֶדֶק – יוֹפַע מִיָּד!
אַךְ אִם-אַחֲרֵי הִשָּׁמְדִי מִתַּחַת רָקִיעַ
הַצֶּדֶק יוֹפִיעַ –
יְמֻגַּר-נָא כִסְאוֹ לָעַד!
וּבְרֶשַׁע עוֹלָמִים שָׁמַיִם יִמָּקּוּ;
אַף-אַתֶּם לְכוּ, זֵדִים, בַּחֲמַסְכֶם זֶה
וּבְדִמְכֶם חֲיוּ וְהִנָּקוּ.

וְאָרוּר הָאוֹמֵר: נְקֹם!
נְקָמָה כָזֹאת, נִקְמַת דַּם יֶלֶד קָטָן
עוֹד לֹא-בָרָא הַשָּׂטָן –
וְיִקֹּב הַדָּם אֶת-הַתְּהוֹם!
יִקֹּב הַדָּם עַד תְּהֹמוֹת מַחֲשַׁכִּים,
וְאָכַל בַּחֹשֶׁךְ וְחָתַר שָׁם
כָּל-מוֹסְדוֹת הָאָרֶץ הַנְּמַקִּים.

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