Reyzel Żychlińsky: Biblical Night (From Yiddish)


Rajzla Żychlińsky (or, as she would have preferred to be called, Reyzel Zhykhlinska) was born in 1910 in Ga̧bin (Gombin) Poland, and is another really, really lucky (in a sense) escapee from the Europe of Hitler and Stalin. Though her father settled in the US early on, her mother, suffering from what would prove to be a terminal case of pointless piety, refused to emigrate (fearing that the secularism of the US would corrupt the young'uns. They should have been so lucky.) When Hitler invaded Poland, however, Reyzel and her friends hired a (presumably quite expensive) cab to drive them over to the Bug River and from there they took a boat into (temporarily) safe Soviet territory. Her mother and siblings, however, would not leave, determined to stand on pious principle to the end, an end which saw every last one of them gassed to death in the nightmare-chambers of Chełmno. (O God of Mercies, is it not high time to choose another people? These have endured Thy blessings long enough!) Reyzel, after the war, hightailed it out of the Soviets' reach (again just in time) to Paris, and thence to the US in 1951 eventually settling in Brooklyn before trying out retirement in Florida (insert joke here) and eventually moving to Concord California, where she died in 2001 at the tender age of 90. Yes, I refer to Reyzel by her first name.
The poem included in today's selection is an early one. It gives an inkling of how the partially secularized members of Yiddish culture engaged creatively with their religious tradition (before that culture was crushed under the weight of 20th century history, anyway.) It employs a technique used to great effect in much of 19th and 20th century Jewish literature (Hebrew and Yiddish) by taking a story from Hebrew scripture and flipping the viewpoint around to examine the event from the perspective of the one who's getting the raw deal (and somebody nearly always is in any Biblical story) as opposed to the ultimately triumphant one whom you're "supposed" to care about. (There's something rather ennobling in finding ways to give the victim the literary voice they were denied.) 
In this particular case, the subject the rather messed-up story of Jacob, Leah, and her younger sister Rachel. Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, but her father Laban couldn't stand to violate decorum by letting his youngest daughter marry before his oldest. So, on the night Jacob was to enjoy the copious carnalities of being married to Rachel, Laban pulled a bait and switch on him, tricking Jacob into marrying (and penetrating) Leah unawares. Jacob realized and was pissed. Once he'd got himself together, Jacob, asked if he couldn't just have Rachel *as well* as Leah in exchange for a few more years of indentured service. Anyway, being a well-adjusted and reasonable guy, Jacob ended up punishing Leah for this by resenting her, leading to their firstborn son Reuben being disinherited from primogeniture, and that privilege being transferred to Joseph, Jacob's son by Rachel. (Well, the Torah actually suggests that it also had something to do with Reuben's having had sex with Bilhah, Rachel's maid- which apparently constituted incest because "Prince Charming" Jacob had had sex with her as well. Yes, really. ) In any case, this poem takes a slightly more interesting perspective on things than the Torah. 

Biblical Night
By Reyzel Zhychlinska
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

The night was deep and dark,
The night was out of stars. 
The wind was rifling
Amidst the trees.
The wind was looking for Leah.
Jacob buried his face in Leah's flesh as he sighed.
My Rachel, dear Rachel, my Bride!
Seven years I've waited for you
Long were the days
And longer still the nights.
So many a moon of freezing white
Enfolded my flesh as I cried.
My Rachel, dear Rachel, My Bride!
Leah lay in silence.
With thinned and bittered lips
She welcomed her son Reuben,
Jacob's firstborn child.
The night was already filled
With the fragrance of the flowers
That awaited Reuben away in the field
In the wild.

The Original:

ביבלישע נאַכט
רייזל זשיכלינסקי

די נאַכט איז געווען טיף און שוואַרץ,
די נאַכט איז געווען אָן שטערן.
דער ווינט האָט גערוישט
צווישן די ביימער,
דער ווינט האָט געזוכט לאהן.
יעקבֿ האָט אײַנגעגראָבן דאָס פּנים
אין לאהס לײַב:
רחל, רחלע מײַן ווײַב,
זיבן יאָר האָב איך אויף דיר געוואַרט!
לאַנג זענען געווען די טעג,
לענגער נאָך די נעכט.
אַזויפֿיל קאַלטע לבֿנות
האָבן אַרומגענומען מײַן לײַב,
רחל, רחלע מײַן ווײַב!
שטיל איז לאה געלעגן.
מיט דינע ביטערע ליפּן
איז זי אַקעגנגעגאַנגען
איר זון ראובֿנען,
דעם בכור פון יעקבֿן.
די נאַכט איז שוין פול געווען
מיטן ריח פון יענע בלומען,
וואָס האָבן געוואַרט אויף ראובֿנען אין פעלד.

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