Lady Job

Avrom Sutzkever

From disintegrated clay nests, from barred windows and contorted doors, burning leaves of holy books gravitate to the sunset—children with their arms stretched out—as if the sun had given birth to them in the synagogue square and they're fluttering back to their mother.

When the sun hides her children behind a cloud, they leave their black tears—glowing soot—on the gallery of the city synagogue.

The two-story gallery, lifted in a pyramid above the ruins of alleys and byways, doesn't look the same as it always appeared.

Now the gallery has turned into an eagle on top of an eagle!

The top eagle, with the head of an animal and a blue breast between purple wings, like a spring among roses, is dug into the bottom one with the talons of his four bronze feet.

And the eagle underneath, with a head like an angel, a brilliant snake around its neck, and with its wings—two boulders facing each other over a cliff—stands bent over the city synagogue. Its ten feet—columns hacked out of salt—wobble under the heavy wings.

Overhead, near the bronze legs of the top eagle, against the background of its blue breast, I see a little man hiding.

"Little man, who are you?"

"I'm the painter Yankl Sher, the painter of the alleys . . ."

He's standing opposite a canvas in his green velvet jacket. He got the jacket in Paris. It was unique in our city. People used to stop in the street and admire its beauty. He buttoned it at his neck with a big brass hook. Its pleats shimmered like a peacock's feathers. It had dozens of different pockets full of paintbrushes, pencils, and notepads.

Now the jacket's hanging off him, swollen, covered with mold, like it's worn not by a person but a rooster. And the brush which he's holding in his teeth looks like a cleaver.

His crossed, watery eyes bulge out over his nose, and two brotherly tears close them together.

Now the painter is looking at the crooked streets, then at the canvas, and doesn't believe his eyes. He sees for the first time how the world has changed since he hid himself here in the gallery.

Who blew a church clear across the street? And why is City Hall suddenly here, at the slaughterers' butcherhouse?

Who lit the lanterns in the synagogue's dead courtyard?

Wherefore then, oh dear God, was the Gaon's shtibel condemned to death by a hail of stones? For what reason, pray, was the little tree at the gate sentenced to burn?

Only the gutters didn't change.

Them too! Gleaming with blood . . .

Yankl Sher wants to rub the canvas clean. Where is the truth, on it or outside?

And maybe his palette is to blame, hmm?

Once he saw a little fiddle in the hands of a master. In the middle of playing—Oh no! The sounds were lost. The audience was startled—continuously. The master was pale, like the dust of rosin under the strings. Soon he put his ear up to it and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, the violin has breathed its last. Please rise and pay your respects."

He puts his ear up to the palette. It's alive, it's alive!

Clusters of soot, from the burning leaves of holy books, are falling on his hair, falling on the canvas.

Now he grabs the brush from his teeth. The brush, as if it had absorbed the hunger of the artist, devours the paint. On the canvas, the spots of snow disappear. From the young, fresh, springlike earth blossoms more and more clearly an aged lady.

That's how the eighty-year-old looks. She's come back, back to life! A black Shabbos dress with crystal buttons. White hair, dazzlingly white, like frozen milk. Her face—a tangle of silver wrinkles. Spring brooks quiver in them. Plish, plash. The sun's dancing in the brooks. Tossing little rabbits with its cold bayonets. And the aged lady, just a touch bent over, is carrying a blond girl piggyback.

Behind the aged lady—faces, faces. A chimney with a slashed throat. On one knee, a window kneeling in the air. And the gate over the alley, under which the aged lady is moving, has a black crack in it.

Yankl Sher took a big step back. "Yep, that's what she looked like, the eighty-year-old woman. All that's missing now is . . . hey, what's missing?"

His watery eyes bulged out even more. Overflowed and dripped onto the palette. A moist passionate pink covers his face.

The aged lady is walking . . . with a shel-rosh on her forehead . . . she had picked up the shel-rosh from the ground, from a gutter . . .

"Yankl, if you're a painter, paint the shel-rosh!"

He dips the brush into the fallen tears, in a spurt of red: and the aged lady, with the blond girl riding piggyback, is striding now under the split gate, between bayonets, with a little house on her forehead, where God lives.

"Lady Job, that's what the picture will be called . . ."

The gallery trembles. Both eagles rise up. Two pairs of stormy wings. Together with Yankl Sher the painter, together with Lady Job, together with the kneeling window, and the alley, the eagles escape into a lightning cloud.

translated from the Yiddish by Zackary Sholem Berger



Avrom Sutzkever spent his childhood in Siberia and emerged as a writer in the youthful literary flowering of Jewish Vilna. As poet and Jew in the Vilna Ghetto, he was transformed into a living remnant of a people near death, writing immortal works and helping to conceal Jewish cultural treasures for later rescue. After the war, he became a prophetic symbol and a cultural-historical institution. He founded the Yiddish literary journal, Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain), and in 1985 received the Israel Prize for Yiddish literature. He died in 2010.

Zackary Sholem Berger is a poet and translator in Baltimore who writes in Yiddish and English. His bilingual Yiddish and English book of poetry, Not in the Same Breath/Zog Khotsh Lehavdl, was recently published. He and his wife, Celeste Sollod, are the forces behind Yiddish House LLC, which publishes Yiddish translations of classic English-language children's books.



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