Apr 05, 2020
This translation of “Children of the Field” is excerpted from the forthcoming anthology Honey on the Page: An Annotated Anthology of Yiddish Children’s Literature, edited and translated by by Miriam Udel (NYU Press, October 2020).
Click here to download a PDF of the original Yiddish text.
The pioneering and prolific Israeli children’s author Levin Kipnis (1894-1990) published just one volume of Yiddish holiday tales, Untern taytlboym [Under the Date Palm], in 1961. Kipnis, who was born in 1894, emigrated to Palestine in 1913 and worked as an educator; over the course of a lifetime that spanned almost the entire twentieth century, he would go on to contribute about 800 stories and 600 poems to the burgeoning canon of Hebrew juvenile literature. His collection of holiday tales, mostly set in a beckoning, utopian Israel, appeared in New York with the children’s house Farlag Matones [Gifts Press], and it was indeed conceived as a gift—from one of the foremost children’s authors in a renascent Zion to Yiddish-speaking children the world over.
In preparing my forthcoming anthology of Yiddish children’s literature, Honey on the Page, I translated a Passover story from this volume, “Children of the Field.” When I did so, I never could have anticipated how eerily relevant it would be to this year’s circumstances, the first time any of us have ever been asked to #SederinPlace. In fact, I believe that Kipnis has gifted all of us who are planning to observe Passover in 5780 with a tale of protective seclusion and ultimate hope: in other words, precisely the story we need right now. “Children of the Field” elaborates on material from Tractate Sotah 11b, a suite of extravagant rabbinic midrashim about the early life of Moshe and supporting characters like Miriam and their parents. The substance of the midrash proceeds from Rabi Averah’s agreeable thesis, “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt.” The passage goes on to describe how, despite a general ban on Jewish procreation, the women would bring their husbands lunch in the fields and seduce them there, give birth in similarly exposed circumstances, and then place their “illegal” sons under the apple trees for safekeeping. In that way, they fulfilled the letter of Song of Songs 8:5: “Under the apple tree I roused you; It was there your mother conceived you, There she who bore you conceived you.” According to the account in Sotah, God would then send an angel to clean the newborns and bestow upon each child two “suckling stones,” one flowing with oil and the other with honey, in keeping with the verse in Deuteronomy (32:13): “And He would suckle them with honey from a crag and oil from a flinty rock”.
In his expanded retelling, Kipnis furnishes a great deal of detail about the baby boys’ daily—and nightly—care:
The apple trees cared for the tiny little boys, the blades of grass kept them hidden, and bright-eyed angels with clear wings flew down from the heavens, an angel for each and every child. They stroked the children’s little heads so that their hair grew very long, soft and silky, and covered their whole bodies…. They gave every child a pebble in each hand, one a milk-stone and the other, a honey-stone. After that, they dug out holes near the roots of the apple tree, and padded them with grass—as a mother makes a bed for her child; they laid the children in the holes—as a mother lays her child in the cradle; and they sang heartfelt songs—as a mother lulls her child to sleep.
Through sheltering in place, a period of vulnerability and exposure is transformed into a situation of womb-like safety for a generation whose very survival is at risk: “The tiny little boys slept peacefully in their dark cradles, sucking milk from the milk-stones and honey from the honey-stones; they slept peacefully and dreamt of the bright day to come….” Eventually, the need for seclusion comes to an end, and Kipnis marshals the sun itself to ratify the day’s specialness and to affirm, in modern fashion, the uniqueness of each individual child: “One lovely dawn, the sun rose large and dazzling, shining seven times more beautifully than usual, and spread its beams over the apple field, warm, sweet rays—one for each and every child.” The sun’s warmth leads inexorably to the blossoming of the hitherto incipient children: “This made the earth split open, and little heads began to sprout forth like pretty flowers. In the blink of an eye, the entire field was full of little children, like a very large kinder-gortn, or garden of children.” Here Kipnis re-literalizes an image that had already been bent into figurative daily use by the mid-twentieth century. (The irony is not lost on me that kindergartens are precisely part of what we have now lost to widespread school closures.) But what Kipnis promises us is that the garden of children will truly bloom when it becomes safe once again to leave our protective seclusion. Meanwhile, we cling to our suckling stones (which may, for contemporary children, have transmuted into a steady supply of ramen and popcorn) and shelter in our respective cradle holes, under our disparate apple trees.
Although the boys grow up like tall grass in both the Talmudic and Yiddish accounts, each version builds to an instructively different narrative climax. In Sotah, it’s the epiphanic moment when the newly freed grown-up children recognize the divine author of their liberation:
And when the Holy One, Blessed be He, revealed Himself at the Red Sea, these children recognized Him first, as it is stated: “This is my God, and I will glorify Him” (Exodus 15:2).
That is to say, they recognized God from the original divine revelation during their infancy and could claim with plausible authority, “This is my God.” Meanwhile, in Kipnis’s secularizing retelling, the human leader takes center stage, and the story crests with a more humanistic appeal to a generation that has been miraculously spared a disabling servile consciousness despite growing up in a time of slavery and peril. Their ambit has been narrow, but their ambitions remain broad. Of course the prolonged period of seclusion is not without consequences for that cohort of baby boys. Their adjustment once again to bright sunlight is followed by an accelerated, even foreshortened childhood. A modicum of innocence is lost, but a sense of purpose is gained:
So the sun illuminated the field: beams of sunlight flooded it, and the children bathed in light. They got up, found their footing, and began to grow bigger and taller—and just like that, they were already young men, tall and handsome as date palms, strong and brave—a large army of heroes standing at the ready and waiting for their liberator.
And the rescuer came.
It happened at midnight.
Yes indeed, as the Torah insists, salvation occurred at midnight—when things were darkest.We are so accustomed to reading Genesis through the rosy lens of Exodus that it is easy to forget how truly hopeless the Israelites must have felt on the cusp of their redemption from Egypt, how long and dark the night of their servitude. To have cherished the legacy of Abraham and Sarah over centuries, only to watch their sacred community ebb away under a new Pharaoh’s strictures. Kipnis offers a bulwark against hopelessness. His story culminates in the triumphant blossoming of the Exodus, but he lingers on the germinal phase leading up to that tale of tales. “Children of the Field” helps us to embrace the present reality not as the end, a tragic denouement of the good run at civilization we all had, but rather as the hopeful prelude to a multifarious redemption on whose forms we can only now speculate. So here we are, as we prepare for Pesach 5780, Passover 2020: hunkered down in Zoomlandia, most liminal of spaces, sheltering under the trees of divine care, and praying for the sun to come out and release us to a brighter, freer, more expansive future.
Children of the Field
(Click here to download a PDF of the original Yiddish text)
Who has ever seen or heard of such a thing: children sprouting out of the earth like grass in a field?
Of the kind sun sending her golden rays onto their little heads and the heaven’s dew dripping its pearly drops upon them?
Of songbirds singing cheerful songs and butterflies fluttering by them all around and around?
Of a soft breeze caressing their hair and of angels covering them with their wings and rocking them with lullabies?
1. An Apple Field
A large, wide field extended not far from Goshen in the Land of Egypt. The field was overrun with tall, thick grasses and a lot of large, branching apple trees.
In the shade of the apple trees sat Jewish shepherds, trilling on flutes, and all around them grazed the sheep: reddish, spotted, and speckled—like flowers amid the grasses.
But there arose a new king in Egypt, a wicked one, and he forced the Jewish shepherds to abandon their sheep and toil with bricks and mortar. The wicked king issued an edict: “Every little boy that is born to the Jews must be cast into the river!”
The Jewish mothers didn’t obey the villain; they hid their newborn boys, and each night when it grew completely dark, the mothers would zigzag their way to the apple field, where they lay down their tiny newborn boys by the roots of the trees and prayed:
Apple tree, apple tree!
The grief, it drives me wild.
As you guard your apples,
Please protect my child.
And when the dew fell and polished the grass with its pearly drops, the mothers cried:
Pearly little blades of grass,
The grief, it drives me wild!
From burning heat and frigid cold,
Please protect my child.
When the morning star appeared and the birds began to sing, the mothers lamented:
Tuneful little songbirds,
The grief, it drives me wild.
Sing your happy little songs
Lull to sleep my child.
2. In the Cradle Pits
The apple trees cared for the tiny little boys, the blades of grass kept them hidden, and bright-eyed angels with clear wings flew down from the heavens: an angel for each and every child. They stroked the children’s little heads so that their hair grew very long, soft and silky, and covered their whole bodies… . They gave every child a pebble in each hand, one a milk-stone and the other a honey-stone. After that, they dug out pits near the roots of the apple tree and padded them with grass—as a mother makes a bed for her child; they laid the children in the pits—as a mother lays her child in the cradle; and they sang heartfelt songs—as a mother lulls her child to sleep.
Sleep in peace, itty-bitty ones
Close your eyes, pretty little ones
Sleep, my child, sleep
There will come a day of days
When the sun will brightly blaze
Sleep, my child, sleep
Your rescuer soon will come to you
You’ll rise, a generation new!
3. In the “Kindergarten,” or the Garden of Children
The tiny little boys slept peacefully in their dark cradles, sucking milk from the milk-stones and honey from the honey-stones; they slept peacefully and dreamt of the bright day to come.
One lovely dawn, the sun came up large and dazzling, shining seven times more brightly than usual, and spread its rays over the apple field, warm, sweet rays—one for each and every child.
This made the earth split open, and little heads began to sprout forth like pretty flowers. In the blink of an eye, the entire field was full of little children, like a very large kinder-gortn, or garden of children.
The children raised their eyes to the sun and asked, “What happened, dear sun, to make you shine so brightly today?”
The sun replied, “Today is the first day of spring; you should know that during this spring month, the liberator will come and lead you out of Egypt.”
The children asked, “Is this the day about which the angels sang, ‘There will come a day of days’?”
“Soon! That day will come soon,” replied the sun.
So things turned very happy: the children of the field, the flowers of the field, the birds of the field—every last one of them grew joyful.
4. The Day of Days
The anticipated day arrived.
The sun blazed like fire and said, “Pharaoh, the Egyptian king, has a hard and wicked heart, and he doesn’t want to free the Jews; so I will withdraw my light from Egypt and leave it in the dark for three days and three nights.
And that’s what the sun did: for three days, she sent all of her light only to the Jewish children in the apple field.
This is what the sun said:
“Dear, wonderful children! Long have you lain in dark little beds, and you haven’t seen me shine in many days; wicked Pharaoh has robbed you of my light, but now I’m going to repay the debt to you by lighting up seven times brighter.”
The children replied happily, “Dear, good, bright sun! In the darkness, we dreamt of your shining; we have missed it, and we love your light!”
So the sun illuminated the field: beams of sunlight flooded in, and the children bathed in light. They got up, found their footing, and began to grow bigger and taller—and just like that, they were already young men, tall and handsome as date palms, strong and brave—a large army of heroes standing at the ready and waiting for their liberator.
And the rescuer came.
It happened at midnight.
Moses the Liberator came and called, “Stand up, free children! You, who were never slaves to Pharaoh, you who never felt his heavy hand, you who never molded any bricks and mortar, stand up and lead the way for the entire people!”
“We’re going! We’re going!” they all cried out with one voice.
And with courage and pride, with loud singing, they strode to the gates of Egypt, and the entire people, the Children of Israel, marched after them with their heads held high!