Abraham Schwartz: Among the Sick (From Hebrew)

Abraham Samuel Schwartz (1876-1957) spent the majority of his life as a medical doctor with a busy practice in the Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn, until retiring at the age of 77. He was the elder brother of Israel Jacob Schwartz, the Yiddish modernist poet and translator (author, incidentally, of קענטאָקי Kentucky, a Yiddish epic about the adaptation of Lithuanian Jews to life in rural America. You can download it in Yiddish here.)

He was born outside Vilnius, in Lithuania. His father was a learned Hebrew scholar, and Schwartz himself quickly excelled in Talmudic studies. He broke with tradition when he discovered secular literature, first in Yiddish and Hebrew, then in Russian. He arrived in New York at the age of 24 (followed by his brother four years later) with the hope of making his living with literary work, but soon found this impossible. He obtained a medical degree, and thereafter began his practice. He continued to write poetry during spare moments of respite from tending the ill.

His style, however, was out of step with the dominant trends of Hebrew verse outside the US. The fact that, like most American Hebrew poets of the period, he never abandoned his Ashkenazi Hebrew dialect in verse, was a major strike against him. The fact that he stood quite apart from dominant trends of Hebrew modernism also sealed the fate of his reception.

Schwartz's work, rejected by publishers never saw the light of day in his lifetime. Two years after his death, it took the combined sympathies and effort of Zalman Shazar and Simon Halkin to see a single (and thus far the only) volume of his work to publication in Israel.

Aspects of sound-play relying on Ashkenazic Hebrew can be found in the poem translated here. For example, חולים sick and חולם dreaming may sound somewhat similar in Israeli Hebrew but they are more so in Ashkenazic, and in some registers and dialects of Ashkenazic they are identical. Schwartz himself may have pronounced both identically.

Among the Sick
By Abraham Samuel Schwartz
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

I walk among the sick as I have ever done: in pain
Lies Susie silent, thin and delicate.
And her emaciated face exudes her childhood grace
And charm. But her white blood cells seal her fate. 

It gladdens me to see a wakeful smile on Leah's lips. 
She's been asleep in fever all week long.  
Although her heart disease is chronic, and there is no cure,
If she takes better care, she might live long.

I'm satisfied with seventy-year-old Spiegel. He has stopped
Vomiting blood. His appetite is back. 
His stomach growths have turned out to be non-malignant ulcers
Which medicine can easily combat.  

I pause with Schur, a young man with deep eyes. He dreams of light,
For all the blood occlusion in his heart.
He asks "Doc, isn't it my time already to get up"
I lie "A little while and then you'll start."

Sometimes I stop and suddenly hear a repressed thought
That taunts me in my heart and whispers: "this
Whole world of yours is hanging by a hair above
The screaming depths of an abyss. 

You're like a man who plays the seer with fate of hidden worlds,
Hovering between great hope and dread.
You weigh with a physician's balance: will he live or die? 
You're day-full, tired of lives being swept off to the dead. 

You're pleased that with your mighty effort you can paste together
Some scattered shards of the frail human urn,
So that it can contain a few more stolen drops of life
Before fate's mysteries shatter it in turn? 

What of the pain in your own heart, what of your tear for that
Dreamer of light when light departs his eye,
And for the charming girl who soon will be the food of worms,
If all of humankind were soon to die?"

The Original:

בֵּין חוֹלִים

בֵּין חוֹלִים בְּהִתְהַלְּכִי כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם: כּוֹאֵב
עַל סוּזִי הַשַּׁתְקָנִית הָעֲדִינָה,
שֶׁמִּתּוֹךְ רְזוֹן פָּנֶיהָ חֵן יַלְדוּתִי רוֹעֵף,
אַךְ לֹבֶן־דָּמָהּ חָתַם אֶת גְּזַר־דִּינָהּ;

שָׂמֵחַ מְאֹד בְּבַת הַצְּחוֹק עַל שִׂפְתֵי לֵאָה
שֶׁנִּרְדְּמָה מֵחֹם שָׁבוּעַ תָּמִים,
וְאִם מַחֲלַת לִבָּהּ מַחֲלַת־תָּמִיד וְאֵין גֵּהָה,
אִם רַק תִּזָּהֵר אוּלַי תַּאֲרִיךְ יָמִים;

שְׂבַע רָצוֹן, כִּי כְבָר חָדַל שְׁפִּיגְל בֶּן הַשִּׁבְעִים
מֵהָקִיא דָם וְתַאֲבוֹן־אֹכֶל שָׁב לוֹ,
כִּי אֵין כָּל גִּדּוּל בִּישׁ בַּקֵּבָה לוֹ, רַק כִּיבִים,
שֶׁלְּהַגְלִידָם כֹּחַ רוֹפֵא רַב לוֹ;

מִתְעַכֵּב אֵצֶל שְׁנוּר, הַבָּחוּר עֲמֹק הָעַיִן,
חַחוֹלֵם אוֹר, אַךְ נִרְפַּשׁ דַּם לְבָבוֹ,
הַשּׁוֹאֵל: ״דַּק׳, הֲלָקוּם לִי לֹא בָּא עֲדַיִן
הַתּוֹר?״ אֲנִי מְשַׁקֵּר: ״עוֹד מְעַט וְיָבוֹא!״ — 

יֵשׁ פִּתְאֹם אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱמֹד אֶשְׁמַע הִרְהוּר כָּלוּא,
הַלּוֹחֵשׁ לִי בַּלֵּב וְכֻלּוֹ לוֹעֵג:
״בְּחוּט הַשַּׂעֲרָה כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ תָּלוּי
עַל עֶבְרֵי תְּהוֹם אֲבַדּוֹן שׁוֹאֵג —

וְאַתָּה פֹּה כִּמְנַחֵשׁ גּוֹרַל שַׁ״י עוֹלָמוֹת,
בֵּין פַּחַד וּבֵין תִּקְוָה רַבָּה מְרַחֵף,
בְּמֹאזְנֵי רוֹפְאִים תִּשְׁקֹל: הַיְחִי אוֹ יָמוּת
שְׂבַע יָמִים, עֲיֵף חַיִּים שֶׁנִּסְתַּחֵף.

וְתִשְׂמַח מְאֹד אִם חַרְסֵי־אָדָם הָעֲזוּבִים
תְּאַחֶה בְּרֹב עָמָל עוֹד לְכֶלִי,
הַטּוֹב לְהָכִיל מִסְפַּר נִטְפֵי חַיִּים גְּנוּבִים
בְּטֶרֶם יְנַפְּצֵהוּ גוֹרָל פֶּלִאי,

 וּמַה לְּמַכְאוֹב לִבְּךָ פְּנִימָה, מַה לַּדִּמְעָה
עַל חוֹלֵם אוֹר שֶׁעוֹד מְעַט וְנָדָם,
עַל יַלְדַּת חֵן שֶׁעוֹד מְעַט תֹּאכְלֶנָּה רִמָּה,
אִם עוֹד מְעַט וְאָבַד כָּל הָאָדָם?

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