Yiddish Poems from Evgeny Kissin’s Concert

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Poems of Haim Nachman Bialik

Poems of Isaac Leybush Peretz

Poem of Yankev Glatshteyn

Poems of Haim Nachman Bialik

Oyf dem hoykhn barg (High on a Mountain)
Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger

High on a mountain, on green grass,
as a child I dreamed of happiness.
I don’t even know what I wanted then.
I only know – it’s never come back.

Maybe the wind knows, or the ray of sun
which infused my eyes with gold.
Or the deep valley, the pure well
which my child’s heart yearned for.

High on a mountain, outside the city,
On the green grass, I felt something:
God and I met quietly
and angels played with me.

A summer Friday. I could hardly wait!
Freed from cheder. Barely enough air.
Rabbis Maharam Schiff. Maharsha. Who cares?
Running away. High up – to the mountain!

A new world open there.
Everything bathed in a sea of light.
The sun looking out from clouds and beams,
Seeing the grass grow, the worm crawl.

Every quiet gust, every ray of sun
filling my spirit with whole worlds.
Gulping mouthfuls of air and shine.
A well opening in my heart.

The wish to get away, far away.
Silent yearning of my child’s heart.
Where did I long for? Far away
In what direction? I didn’t know.

The swallows knew, though,
And in their bird-language, flying by,
Greeted me quickly from up there
Freely, happily soaring past.

High on a mountain, on green grass
as a child, I dreamed of happiness.
I don’t even know what I wanted then.
I only know – it’s never come back.

Erev friling (Just Before Spring) *
Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger
* Written soon after the political “spring” in Russia in 1905

It’s as if the air is pregnant
And, apparently, with twins:
When it’s frosty – it feels like winter.
When it’s windy – it seems like spring.

I get up early. Roof covered in silver.
A film on the windowpanes.
But the white doves outside
Fly higher, to the sky.

And the icicles, like candles,
lit by some bright ray,
melt and start to drip.
Are they crying, or overjoyed?

Get the calendar. What – it’s spring?
Come on. What nonsense!
Might as well say that goats
were jumping in the rebbe’s garden!

You might say, It’s not yet spring,
It’s still just before the season.
So stay buttoned up a while.
You can still catch cold!

But me – I don’t listen to anyone.
I unbutton my cloak
run free as a bird
to dance with a sunbeam in the mud.

I love just before spring
Exactly as it is,
dressed in its cloud-rags
tricked out with a golden sunbeam.

I like the cold wind
how it slaps the back of my neck
while sweet little breezes before me
kiss and caress my cheeks.

This little piece of sky excites me
when it bares itself all fresh and delicate
like the young pious body
of a kosher Jewish girl.

I melt, I am delighted. Rapturous.
A liberated ray of sun, aflame,
Is dancing, playing with a shadow.
The shadow’s playing with fire.

Yes, I love its gentle play
Of the finest, purest sort
Light and shadow – charm
and delight, thousand-fold.

The air sparkles in its way
like a bride when she’s first taken –
begins to shine, and then, ashamed,
radiant, lowers her eyes…

It’s light, and then dark,
now light and shadow merge,
Such charm and delight
Multiplied thousand-fold…

And the river? Hear its groaning
and creaking from a distance?
Something’s about to explode. To spray.
To burst out from the sides.

Something’s churning under the surface.
Soon that suppressed strength will appear
Just as something’s lack
Can break both ice and iron.

All the streams of quiet water,
as if with one idea, one plan,
will get together. “Do it now!”
And give a mighty shove.

“Do it now!” The thick layer of ice
Will shatter immediately.
That coat of ice, which kept from them
Sky, sun, moon, and stars.

Then huge free-living waves
will sweep armies of ice chunks
across the bridges, en masse,
exiling them to the Black Sea:

“Go to the black seas. Go to hell.”
And, shattered into pieces,
they’ll be slapped on their way
and get whipped too, heatedly.

Slapped by the strict waves.
Whipped by the riding rays.
Fish in the water will sing,
Mute stones will ring.

And the river, free and happy,
will pour out in all its breadth
greeting the beautiful, dear spring
with a smile.

Es hot mikh farplontet (I Was Entangled)
Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger

I was entangled by greenery and flowers
where butterflies tremble in nets of sunshine
where the air quivers with buzzing and humming –
and fell enchanted to the ground.

It’s hot and beautiful – so wonderful! Even
those half strangled feelings
want to reach the sun,
trembling softly, green and quietly
sticking their heads out, like snakes
slithering up higher and higher, their whole bodies
sticking out of dark holes.
It’s God’s gentle sun
looking at me.

It’s hot, and wonderful. God’s world is radiant,
trilling in the deep grass. The steppes
are dancing, adorned with flowers
planted by God Himself
spread far and wide
without beginning or end.
Here alone in the midst of grass
I feel a whole world in me –
I feel a gust
From the open field.

It’s quiet, still. But something
flew by, like an arrow —
it felt like something childlike
now a thousand miles away.
It was a gleaming, a bolt of light
infusing right into my eye
dewdrops of sweet happiness
of young happiness, unageing.
It was the green forest
Glimpsing me.

Kh’volt geven a baln visn (It would be nice to know)
Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger

It’d be nice to know
what my death will be like.
Will my soul expire
with a bitter moan?
Or will I spit it out
with bitter gall?
Perhaps it will leak out
in a tear of pearl
to tremble, shimmer
generations after me.
Perhaps in a stranger’s heart,
in their crown?
Maybe it is fated to wink out
like a butterfly
dancing and trembling
around a tallow candle?
Or will my soul
like that candle
sputter, gutter and dizzily whirl
in view for a while
suddenly vanish
into black depths
eternally surrounded
by silent dark death?
Or is my fate
a living death:
paper shrouds
in a bookshelf
where gray mice
burrow into me
extracting my white
bones, one by one?
Alive at my own grave
I’ll stand
and recite Kaddish:
I will. For myself!
Or this, even:
my death will come
in humble form:
a nasty winter night
next to a fence somewhere
hungry and frozen
I’ll die like a dog
and the snow will bury me.
My curse’s
final keening
will be blown away
by the evil wind…

Poems of Isaac Leybush Peretz

Mayn muze (My Muse)
Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger

My muse is no flower,
It is not in the field that she grows;
Nor a butterfly seeking out
Flowers with a kiss to bestow.

My muse is no nightingale,
She sings not a sweet tune…
She is an old, Jewish woman,
Shrunken, her face a ruin.

Abandoned with orphans
Scattered everywhere;
She is a great pauper,
She screams and swears.

A teatr iz di velt (The World’s a Theater)
Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger

The world’s a theater.
God’s director.
A fine play. A pity, though:
The prompter is the Devil.

The booth is the black heart.
The Devil forges the play!
And if you recite the wrong thing
You can’t take it back!

Of course, you can’t be careful enough.
And can’t make a fuss.
The play is fantastic.
The mistakes – genius!

The actor stumbles too.
When he’s supposed
to hurl the cup away,
he brings it to his mouth!

The wine drops glow like flames.
He empties the glass.
There’s no hurrying the thunder.
God’s patience is great.

Meyn nisht (Don’t Think)
Translated by James Loeffler

Don’t think that
the world is just a tavern,
Made so you might claw
your way in, and guzzle and swill,
While others look on from afar,
with glazed eyes weakened by hunger,
With dry mouths and stomach cramps
Oh, don’t think, the world is a tavern!

Don’t think that the world
is just a stock market,
Created so that the strong might
trade information back and forth,
While it is left for the weak,
That poor maidens might sell their honor,
Grown women the milk from their breasts,
Men the marrow of their bones,
And children their smiles,
A strange expression etched on their waxen faces.
Oh, don’t think, that the world is a stock market!

Don’t think that the world
is just abandoned property,
Created for foxes and wolves
to pounce on it,
For theft and plunder;
That the sky is a curtain,
made so God won’t see!
That the clouds are so that
no one can see your hands;
That the wind will
muffle the wild cries;
That the earth will
soak up the blood of the victims.
Don’t think that
the world is abandoned property!

The world is no tavern, or stock market,
or abandoned property!
All will be measured,
all will be weighed!
No tear, no drop
of blood ever vanishes,
No spark extinguished,
no eye blotted out!
From tears come rivers,
from rivers come oceans,
From oceans—a flood,
from sparks – thunder –
Oh, don’t think, that
there is no Judge and no Judgment!

Di Tsayt (Time)
Translated by Alyssa Masor

Eternal time,
she goes her way.
She does not know
of months, or weeks or days.
She goes and does not pause
while on her own way.
She does not understand
“close” or “far away”!

It does not help to cry,
or beg, or groan.
She cannot be spurred,
or leashed, or owned.
She sees neither ditch,
nor thorn, nor stone.
She goes on her eternal way!

Vesuvius thunders,
dust shakes.
An insect chirps,
Niagara reverberates.
She hears not when
we criticize or celebrate.
She goes on her eternal way!

Whether thousands rejoice
or thousands need bread,
Should the first wisps of morning
blaze golden-red.
She does not greet life
or bemoan the dead.
And she goes on her eternal way!

Hof un glayb (Hope and Faith)
Translated by James Loeffler

Have hope! Spring is not far off.
Butterflies will flutter!
New nests, new birds.
They’ll sing new songs.

Have faith, night is already past,
and the clouds also dispersed.
The sky will grow blue;
New stars, new suns!

New roses, new flowers
will bloom and grow tall.
There will be light, fragrance, and song,
And, above our graves as well.

Dos yor (The Year)
Translated by Alyssa Masor

Beautiful is spring!
Beautifully strung with tufts,
gossamer strands
and spider webs
Wisps of scattered
clouds and mist.
Beautiful with the quiet,
shining charm of blue, smiling skies.
And with the sun,
who swims – a weeping bride –
Out from underneath
the veil of mist
And dives back
under, ashamed.
And beautiful is the first
tremble of the forest –
From a good dream
or good tidings awakened.
It trembles, it wants to
cast off the beautiful shrouds
And spread out
newly-sprouted branches
For the winged singers,
who come from foreign lands.
Beautiful is hope;
Beautiful is the tiding,
which is carried on
the light wings of the wind,
over mountain and vale –

Down the mountain,
down the mountain
They chase, roaring, ringing
Sinuous, deep-blue ribbons of water
Amongst white, snow-covered fields –
Pointed-green, life-thirsty heads
Already peek out here and there
And ask: when?

And the heart grows in whoever has one!

Beautiful is the summer.
The generous, rich summer,
With the fiery-flaming
crown over her head
Clothed in gold and brocade
On gold-embroidered divans…

From out the golden-flowing sea
The poppy flames, dreamy eyes of oats
look quietly at the terrifying,
cheerful birds over the sea –

the rivers flow quietly,
Serene and sure,
they go their way
To the sea, to the sea!
With the brilliant, blue sky
And the surfacing foam.

Brown-edged clouds
run away from the sun,
Light, rouged, silver fog
chase after them
Playfully – –Eternal time
goes her way,
The bird is heard
in the forest,
The harvest-song from the field –
The flowing song of the river –

Under the burden
of golden apples
The tree is bent – –
Somewhere a bell sways – –
Tremblingly its ring
emanates from somewhere – –
Pleading for something
from somebody…

Beautiful also is the fall –
Like a setting sun
In thick colors
it blazes –

The vine bids
farewell in flames
The leaves linger in gold
Golden, the trunks – –

The dance before death,
The song of the last breath – –
A goblet of foaming wine
In a trembling hand
Flaming eyes –
To the last time… To the last time…

Whoever can, should lament…
– – – – – – – – – –
I love the winter
most of all –
The smooth, the clear,
the enlightened –
The serene, diamond-
sparkling dead—
White without end,
Clear without end;
Without hope,
Without fear,
Not remembered,
Not needed,

Not living and not suffering…
Cold, brilliant, silent rest…

Amol (Once)
Translated by Alyssa Masor

Once in a molten-gold day,
Illuminated by golden youth,
I planted a tree.
And in its paltry shadow
I sit now completely lonely,
Bent under my own burden,
Encumbered by heavy,
leaden thoughts…

She blooms… Who pierced my
Scattered my blooming-
dreams to the wind.
And sucked out my
hearts-blood with thirsty lips?

She blooms…
I become aware of steps from behind
Do birds flutter in the air
Or – your mantle of leaves, dearest?!

Someone quietly draws near,
And encircles my head from behind
Two cold hands cover
and press upon my eyes…
– I am death!
I am now only passing by
I will come back,
I will mark this spring
from which you drink,
Extinguish the colors
from forest and field,
From stalks and blossoms
upon which you look
And from the sky and the stars,
And from eye and face…
And poison the fruit
of the tree for you —

How cold are your hands, death,
How frosty your breath is, –
Do as you will with me,
But leave my tree be…

Zay mir gut (Be Good to Me)
Translated by Zackary Sholem Berger

Be good to me!
Be a mother, a sister to me.
It’s obvious.
I’m lonely and need your comfort.
In this hard moment,
Let my head,
the nest for rejected prayers,
rest on your lap;
All heaven is
closed off to them –
And in the quiet hour,
between day and night
Hear me out.

They say there’s
youth in the world
and it blossoms like a rose.
Probably true!
But where’s mine? Killed by cold
or torched by flame?
I guess it never was.

There’s love too, people say,
but tell me –
what does that word mean,
a hollow sound for me?
I regret, I regret it.
And what is joy?

So quiet and soft, the stars
Signaled to me,
and – disappointed me.
It was a dream. Driven off.
Nothing remained
in my real life.
I’m withering, freezing.
Be good to me,
I need your comfort.

Poem of Yankev Glatshteyn

The Joy of the Yiddish Word
Translated by Ruth Whitman

O let me come close to the joy of the Yiddish word.
Give me whole days and nights of it.
Bind me, weave me into it,
Strip me of all vanities.
Let ravens feed me, I’ll live on crumbs.
A broken roof, a hard bed.
But give me whole days and nights of it.
Don’t let me forget the Yiddish word
For a single moment.

I’m becoming harsh and commanding,
Like the hand of my livelihood.
Capons and champagne
Indigest my time.
The Yiddish word lies garnered,
But the key rusts in my hand.
Logic steals away my understanding.

O sing, sing yourself towards naked austerity.
The world becomes fat in your bed.
There’ll soon be no place for either of us.
The Yiddish word, loyal, silent, is waiting for you.
And you sigh in a burning dream:
I’m coming, I’m coming.

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