H. Leivick: "Gates, Open" (From Yiddish)

H. Leivick (the pen name of Leivick Halpern) was born in 1888 in Chervyn, in the Russian Empire. In 1905 he joined the revolutionary Jewish Bund. The next year, he was arrested by Russian Imperial authorities for distributing revolutionary literature. He refused any legal assistance during his trial and instead delivered a thunderous speech denouncing the tsarism and autocracy. He was sentenced to four years of hard labor (in Minsk, Moscow and St. Petersburg) followed by permanent exile in Siberia, to which he was forcibly marched, on foot, in 1912, over the course of four months. He was finally smuggled out of Siberia with aid of Jewish revolutionaries in the US, and sailed to the America in the summer of 1913. He returned in 1925 to what was by then the Soviet Union, where he was welcomed as a great denouncer of tsarism, and his works printed widely. The feeling, however, was not at all mutual. He returned to the US, quite un-enthusiastic about the Soviet Union, about Soviet life, and about the future of Soviet Jews.

The poem here is the first in his book Lider Fun Gan Eydn: 1932-1936 "Lyrics from Eden: 1932-1936" (downloadable in Yiddish here) a collection of poems written during his four-year stay in a tuberculosis Sanatorium in Colorado a few years after his return from the Soviet Union.
The steppes of Siberia and of Colorado are fused and confused in the poet's mind. Part of him is still in the snow of Siberian exile, even as his body is in the flames of tubercular fever in Colorado. The poem calls to mind the ninth part of his long cycle אין שניי In Snow about his Siberian experience. In that poem, he comes to a gate and asks to be allowed in, to warm himself from the freezing cold, but is denied after people ask who he is and why he is on the road. Here, after having door on door shut to him, as a Russian Jew, as a political prisoner, then again as a Jew rejected while freezing his way through Siberia, he finds the gates and doors open to him in America — a country which he came to love probably more deeply and gratefully than any non-immigrant ever could. But what do these gates and doors in "The Land Colorado" lead to? Life or death? Unknown. As he survived the snow of Siberia, can he survive the tubercular fire here in Colorado? America is also where in the end he is to lay down his burden, his זאַק מיט געשריי, the sack of ache and screams he has born on his proverbial shoulders.
The first line also calls to mind the Nileh, the prayer recited on Yom Kippur, which reads פתח לנו שער בעת נעילת שער כי פנה יום psakh lonu shaar b'eys nilas shaar ki fono yoym "open to us the gates at the time of closing gates wherefore the day has turned." The referent is the gates of heaven, which are about to be closed, but the supplicant asks that they be open for just a bit longer to receive the final prayers. Here, however, he asks the gates themselves to open, not God (as in the prayer) or any corporeal resident (as in In Snow) to open them for him. The celestial is supplanted by, transformed into, the terrestrial.
There is also the matter of the שוועל shvel — the threshold. The liminal place where worlds meet. The poet does not know whether he will leave the sanatorium dead or alive. That shvel is — as we find out in later poems in the collection — a meeting-place of death and life, and of God and Man (or would be if God could ever meet with Man.) This becomes important in later poems in the book which deal with Spinoza and Spinoza's God.
That an avowed unreligious secularist who loathed the chains of tradition should allude to Jewish prayer and mysticism in this fashion, and even demonstrate a mystical yearning, is not in the least surprising. He would also have had every reason to expect his secular readers, many of them, to "get it."

Gates, Open
By H. Leivick
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Yiddish

Gates, open! Draw closer, 
Threshold! You'll tell. 
I come once again
To my snug little cell.

My body — fire,
My head — snow;
And on my shoulders
A sack of woe. 

Goodbye. Goodbye.
Hands. Eyes. That day.  
Farewell on the lips
Burnt out — burned away.

Farewell to whom?
Fled whom? What past?
The eternal questions...
This time do not ask. 

In fire, in flames
The steppeland spreads,
And snow in the flames
On the mountains' heads. 

Look: gate and door
Are open to me!1
Hospital or prison?   
Or a monastery?  

I lay down at your feet
My sack of woe,
Land Colorado
Of fire and snow!

1 - Language-play here. In Yiddish, בײַ אים איז אָפֿן טיר און טויער ba im iz ofn tir un toyer "door and gate are open to him" is a way of saying "he's doing well in life, he's made it."


The Original:


עפֿן זיך טויער
ה. לייוויק

עפֿן זיך, טויער,
נעענטער זיך, שוועל, –
איך קום צו דיר ווידער,
צימערל–צעל. 

מײַן לײַב – פֿײַער,
מײַן קאָפּ – שנײ;
און אויף מײַנע אַקסלען
אַ זאַק מיט געשריי.

אָפּשייד. אָפּשייד. 
אויגן. הענט.
אַדיע אויף די ליפּן 
דערברענט – פֿאַרברענט. 

מיט וועמען צעשיידט זיך? 
פֿון וועמען אַוועק? – 
דאָס אייביקע פֿרעגן
דאָס מאָל ניט פֿרעג. 

אין פֿײַער. אין פֿלאַקער
אַרומיקער סטעפּ. 
און שניי אינעם פֿלאַקער
אויף בערגיקע קעפּ. 

זע, ס׳איז שוין אָפֿן
טויער און טיר; – 
שפּיטאָל ווידער תּפֿיסה? 
צי גאָר מאָנאַסטיר?

איך לייג צו די פיס דיר
מײַן זאַק מיט געשריי,
לאַנד קאָלאָראַדאָ,
פֿון פֿײַער און שניי.

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