from poems and ballads and Ruth

Itzik Manger


You little sparrows, grey birds of dust and need,
Without bright colours or sweet melodies,
My muse will tri-li-li for you. She sees
Your deprivation, she will intercede.

But first she will throw you crusts of bread. Pik-pik,
Little fellows, hop-hop. Enjoy, have fun;
Here is the thing that’s known to everyone:
Poverty is lighter with a hoedown and a jig.

My muse has a sip of water, curtsies, and begins:
“In the gardens and the fields are poppies red as sins,
The open bleeding wounds of mother earth.

The eagle hugs the clouds, the nightingale his shrub,
And you, you little sparrows, with your own place in the club,
Take pleasure in the role that is assigned to you from birth.”

Eve and the Apple Tree

Eve stands by the apple tree,
The setting sun is red.
Tell us, Mother, what you know,
Of death what can be said?

Death, it is the apple tree,
Whose weary limbs bend down.
It is the slender mockingbird
That sings in the tree’s dark crown.

Adam at the break of day
Went alone to the wood.
Adam says, “The wood is wild,
And what is wild is good.”

But she is afraid of the wilderness.
She draws to the apple tree,
And if she doesn’t, it comes to her
In dream and reverie.

It bends and rustles over her,
It whispers, “Destiny.
Forget the No, forget the ban,
Think only, this will be.”

Eve plucks an apple from the tree,
Her head feels strangely light.
Eve becomes a butterfly,
She flutters with delight.

And He Who forbade the tree to Eve
Is with His work content,
And holds for just a moment back
The mighty sun’s descent.

This is the dream of Eve each night,
Whatever one may believe.
The tree wets the dreamer’s hair with tears
In the dream of Mother Eve.

“Don’t cry, lovely apple tree,
I believe in you,
And you are stronger than the word
That stands between us two.”

Eve embraces the apple tree.
Its branches toss and tumble.
Overhead the pious stars
Look down at Eve and tremble.

translated from the Yiddish by Murray Citron


This fragment of the long poem “Ruth” I dedicate to my sister Sheyndl and her companion, the weaver Volke Glozman. Two-thirds of the poem, together with other manuscripts, were lost in my wayfaring and wandering.

Naomi recites “God of Avrom”

Old Naomi inside the house
whispers “God of Avrom,”
her blond daughters-in-law beside her
listen reverent and pious.

“God of Avrom, great god,
the holy shabes is passing
and like shabes in a strange town
my joy is gone.”

She goes slowly to the window:
outside the mill darkens.
It hardly breathes with its blades,
the evening wind is cold.

Elimeylekh bought the mill,
and the mill ground bread,
now her husband is in the true world,
and both sons are dead.

Now she is a wretched widow in the town,
alone with both daughters-in-law–
Orpah is as good as rye bread
and Ruth is pious and beautiful.

Naomi remembers: once, once,
she did not like the shikses,
but probably it was fated –
now she cares for both of them.

They loved her sons,
worked with them in the field.
with father- and mother-in-law “the apple
of their eye”
and honor from the world.

Now they are two widows
and she—a widow herself.
For them the earth might still have joy,
but she, a woeful stone,

will drag and drag herself on foot
until she comes to Canaan
and there the angel of death
will become her second husband.

Naomi whispers, and next to her
the daughters-in-law listen piously–
outside it smacks of hay and wind,
in the house of “God of Avrom.”

Naomi speaks to her daughters-in-law

Orpah pours from the samovar
three glasses of steaming tea,
the first glass for the mother-in-law,
her head as white as snow.

Outside in the late summer night,
a shikse in a star-blouse
makes a spell and sings and calls back
love from far away.

And what she sings the river repeats,
the wind in the field repeats,
the road repeats, the wood repeats,
the whole world repeats.

Only to the three widows in the house
the sweet song does not come.
Ruth is sad, Orpah deep in thought,
Naomi old and tired.

Naomi lifts her head and says:
“Hear, my daughters, hear:
what is an old broken person,
a poor thing, what is she worth?

So tomorrow, very early,
I’ll go back to my country,
there at least my grave will be
where my cradle was.

And you, you return home,
each along her road,
and may my blessing be with you
until the end of your days.”

Naomi falls silent. The oil-lamp burns
and the samovar hums.
And far above the three widows’ heads
trembles the crown of sorrow . . .

Ruth cannot fall asleep

Ruth stands before the mirror, slender,
and combs her blond hair.
The thing the mother-in-law has said
is clear to the point of sorrow.

Tomorrow, that is, in just a few hours,
the mother-in-law by herself
will go to her people and her god,
and she, where will she go?

Home, to the town where her father drinks
and her wicked stepmother curses,
red-haired Marusya—she has saddened,
darkened her world enough.

Home to the town where the noble beats
servants with an iron rod?
She recalls as if today her brother’s body
covered with sweat and blood.

Home to the town where mad Vasil
tells everyone in the market
how Pan Yezus blessed him
on top of Kloyster Mountain?

She trembles. Outside the river sounds:
“Come, Ruzhke, beloved, come!
I’ve divorced the old Rusalke
and you are good and pious.

Come be my Rusalke, Ruzhke dear,
come be the water-wife,
I have water-roses for your hair
and pearls for your body.

With me you’ll have things that are good,
nothing can be better,
by day the ginger of the sun
and by night the shine of the moon.”

Ruth hears and fevers. Yes, she is ready.
If the mother-in-law won’t take her with her,
she will become the river’s Rusalke.
And she smiles, sad and tired.

At the crossroads

At the crossroads the summer wind sings:
—the roads are old,
one road to the town, one road to god,
the third road to the wood.

The road that leads to the wild wood,
that is the road of death.
The road that leads to the silent town,
that is the road of bread.

The third road that leads to god,
that is the road of joy,
for god is joy and over-joy,
god is eternity.

Naomi listens. Her heart understands
what the summer wind is singing,
she heard its babble long before,
in her crib, as a child.

She breathes deep. It smells in the field
of fresh-mown hay,
why then does parting
cause her pain to the point of tears?

And Naomi says, “hear, daughters, hear,
what has to be shall be,
we celebrate the last meal here
with ryebread and with wine.”

They sit by the edge of the road
and celebrate the meal in silence,
from far away gestures to them
the old abandoned mill.

The old abandoned mill
stretches its hands to them:
I served you faithfully for years,
why are you hurting me?

The linden trees beside the road,
they are weary and old.
They give voice today as ever
to the longing for the wood.

The women sit by the road
and mutely celebrate the meal
and above the three widows’ heads
swallows piously flutter.

translated from the Yiddish by Lawrence Rosenwald

translated from the Yiddish by Murray Citron and Lawrence Rosenwald