Avot Yeshurun: A Day Shall Come (From Hebrew)

Three years ago Arul Francis made an extremely generous donation, and asked for a poem dealing with a man who is trying to hold on to memories of a mother who has passed, who did not know her as he wishes he could have. I had not been able to find the right poem until today, when I hit on the perfect one. Well, perfect in Hebrew anyway. It's an extremely Israeli poem, and at the same time extremely un-Israeli. My translation at the end is quite free. You might even call it interventionist. I have included a literal translation with a commentary in the vein of "The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself." Because why not.

The poem is about Yeshurun's mother Rikl. About her world. Her lost world. And the language (Yiddish) of that world.

A Day Shall Come
By Avot Yeshurun
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Requested by Arul Francis (thank you for your support)

A day shall come when nobody will read my mother's letters.
There is a pack of them that I have stored.  
None whose they are.
Not one word. 

A day shall come when nobody will take them by the hand.
There is a bundle of them and more galore.   
They'll say: paper, scrap,
And nothing more. 

That day I'll bring them to the Bar Kokhba caves, set them back
Home in strange dust. The old world is too young
To re-search there
A mother tongue.

Audio of me reciting this poem in Hebrew

The Original:

אבות ישורון
יום יבוא
יוֹם יָבוֹא וְאִישׁ לֹא יִקְרָא מִכְתָּבִים שֶׁל אִמִּי.
יֵשׁ לִי מֵהֶם חֲבִילָה.
לֹא שֶׁל מִי
וְלֹא מִלָּה.
יוֹם יָבוֹא וְאִישׁ לֹא יִקַּח אוֹתָם לַיָּד.
יֵשׁ מֵהֶם צְרוֹר וְהוֹתֵר.
יֹאמְרוּ: נְיָר פִּסַּת
וְלֹא יוֹתֵר.
בַּיוֹם הַהוּא אֲבִיאֵם אֶל מְעָרַת בַּר כּוֹכְבָא
לְהַעֲלוֹתָם בָּאָבָק. הָעוֹלָם הַקּוֹדֵם
לֹא יַחְקֹר בָּהּ
שְׁפַת אֵם.


Yom yavo ve'iš lo yiqra mixtavim šel imi
yeš li mehem ḥavila
lo šel mi
velo mila.

A day shall come when no one (lit. not a man) shall read my mother's letters / I have (lit. there is to me) a (whole) box of them / not (one) whose they were (or: nobody's) / and not a word.

The echoes of šel imi (of my mother) and šel mi (whose, the one of whom) and of mila (word) help to weave the opening into a closely connected unit. The speaker does not have his mother. He has her letters, and yet that is not enough for even "a word" of hers to be preserved.

Yom yavo ve'iš lo yiqaḥ otam layad
Yeš mehem tsror vehoter
Yomru: neyar pisat
Velo yoter.

A day shall come when no one (lit. not a man) shall take them in hand/ there is of them a bundle and then some / they will say paper scrap / and no more. 

Bayom hahu avi'em el meˁarat bar koxva
Lehaˁalotam ba'avaq. Haˁolam haqodem
Lo yaḥqor ba
sefat em.

On that day I will take them to the Bar Kokhba cave / to set them up in dust. The world of old / will not search (also: study, research) in it (the cave) / mother tongue.

It is not merely the letters, but symbolically his mother herself, which the speaker will inter in the Bar Kokhva caves. (The clitic -em "them" of avi'em "I will bring them" is pronounced identically in Israeli Hebrew to אם em the more formal word for "mother.")

The verb lehaˁalot is loaded. One of its idiomatic senses is "pile with dust, grow covered with dust (or mould)." In that sense it fits with the motif of burial of the dead, or lost, world.

The semantic core of lehaˁalot is actually "raising up" in various ways: elevating, regurgitating, bringing to maturity, bringing something into focus (as in "bringing to light" a matter) so that it may be better understood. It is also the word used to describe the in-gathering of diasporic Jews, helping them make their "ascent" (ˁaliya) to Israel. The ascent to Israel and the interment of the world represented by the Yiddish letters from Yeshurun's mother become inextricable from each other.

The past and present become confounded as we come to haˁolam haqodem, which in the context of burial and loss seems like a back-projected counterpart to the traditional Jewish terms for this life and the next. If haˁolam haba "the world to come" is the afterlife, and and haˁolam haze "this world" is the current life, what then is the ˁolam qodem? Is it the "world of yore" — the autochthonously Hebraic world newly revivified, like the rediscovered ancient letters in the Bar Kokhba caves? Or is it the "former world" of the diasporic Jew, newly forsaken and awaiting interment? The answer to that question is indeterminate, and so too therefore is the referent of the "mother tongue." Does it refer to Yiddish? The ancestral mameloshn, the language of Yeshurun's mother, which is being lost? Or to Hebrew, the ancestral language now renativized to be a mother tongue once again?

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