Texts & Translation

“אַלטמאָדיש“ און „דער ים„

“Old-Fashioned” and “The Sea”

Yoysef Kerler

Translation by Maia Evrona

INTRODUCTION

Yoy­sef Ker­ler was born in south­ern Ukraine in 1918, and served in the Red Army dur­ing World War II. He was a sig­nif­i­cant Yid­dish poet, who wrote and pub­lished at a time when doing so posed a con­sid­er­able risk for a Yid­dish writer in the Sovi­et Union. In 1950, not long after the ban­ning of all Jew­ish pub­li­ca­tions, Ker­ler was arrest­ed and served five years in the Vorku­ta gulag for anti-Sovi­et nation­al­ist activity.” 

Fol­low­ing his release, Ker­ler worked as a lyri­cist and pub­lished poet­ry in Russ­ian trans­la­tion and in Yid­dish jour­nals abroad. In 1965, he became one of the first refuseniks when his appli­ca­tion to leave the Sovi­et Union for Israel was denied. After six years, and the inter­ven­tion of writ­ers like Georges Simenon and Arthur Miller, Ker­ler was final­ly allowed to emi­grate in 1971

The fol­low­ing two poems come from Kerler’s 1979 col­lec­tion The First Sev­en Years (Di ershte zibn yor). This was the first col­lec­tion Ker­ler wrote in Israel, and, on the sur­face, its title appears to refer to the sev­en years Ker­ler had lived there by then. Yet the title also con­jures the first sev­en years of plen­ty proph­e­sied by Joseph in Egypt, and, thus, the specter of sev­en years of famine to come. 

In these two poems, how­ev­er, Ker­ler seems more haunt­ed by the specter of the past, par­tic­u­lar­ly the Holo­caust. The first poem, Old-Fash­ioned,” con­tains an excep­tion­al­ly dif­fi­cult word to trans­late: kdoyshim. In Hebrew, this word lit­er­al­ly means holy men,” and it is the word for Jew­ish mar­tyrs, those who died al kidesh-hashem—for the sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of the Name — or, in oth­er words, those who chose death rather than break­ing Jew­ish law. 

Over the years, any Jews mur­dered sim­ply for being Jews came to be called kdoyshim, and in mod­ern times the word is under­stood to refer to vic­tims of the Holo­caust. Yet vic­tims of the Holo­caust were not mar­tyrs, exact­ly, as they were not giv­en the choice of con­ver­sion. Dur­ing the Holo­caust, Jews did not encour­age one anoth­er to die al-kidesh-hashem; they encour­aged one anoth­er to live. Thus they are often said to have been kdoyshim, but al-kidesh-hakhay­im—for the sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion of life. 

This evo­lu­tion is sim­ply impos­si­ble to recre­ate in the lim­it­ed space of a poem, and I fear that after this intro­duc­tion, read­ers will be dis­ap­point­ed by what I set­tled for. As essen­tial as the lit­er­al holy aspect will seem to any­one with a rudi­men­ta­ry knowl­edge of Hebrew, I feared that my attempts to include it in the trans­la­tion risked mis­lead­ing the read­er. Anoth­er poten­tial pit­fall was a word choice that might lead a read­er to think that Ker­ler was refer­ring to vic­tims of Sovi­et oppres­sion, rather than Holo­caust vic­tims. I did won­der if I could find some­thing that might reflect the weight the word has in the orig­i­nal Yid­dish, and the per­son­al feel­ing Ker­ler obvi­ous­ly had for the kdoyshim he men­tions, but I real­ized — inad­e­quate trans­la­tion of one remark­able term aside — the poem had already suc­ceed­ed at that. 

Click here to down­load a PDF of this text and its trans­la­tion.

אַלטמאָדיש

אַלטמאָדיש בין איך ווי דער גרויסער הימל,
וואָס ליכטיקט זיך פֿון וואָלקן־בראָך ארויס
מיט שמייכלענדיקן מיטלײַד צום געווימל
פֿון סאַטעליטן אויף זײַן אינסופֿיקער שויס.

אַלטמאָדיש בין איך ווי דאָס מינדסטע גרעזל,
וואָס פּיקט זיך דורך און גרינט בײַ דעם אַספֿאַלט,
וואָס דאַרט און קוואַרט און ווידער ווערט גענעזן
מיט יעדער טראָפּן וואָס פֿון הימל פֿאַלט.

אַלטמאָדיש בין איך גלײַך ווי ערשט געבאָרן
און ווי געווען זײַנען די קדושים פֿון מײַן דור
וואָס ייִנגערן אַלץ מער זיך אין זכּרון
וואָס בייזער ס'ווערט דער פֿראָסט אויף מײַנע האָר.

—————

אַלטמאָדיש בין איך!

Old-Fashioned

I am old-fashioned like the great sky,
that shines forth after a sudden storm,
with smiling compassion for the satellites
storming over its infinite heart.

I am old-fashioned like the thinnest blade of grass,
that breaks through and grows green in asphalt,
that withers and shrivels and again recovers
with every drop of rain that falls.

I am just as old-fashioned as the newly born,
and as the murdered Jews of my generation were,
they who, in memory, become ever younger
the angrier the frost grows in my hair—

-- -- -- -- -- --

I am old-fashioned!

דער ים

דער ים איז הײַנט מילד ווי אַ מאַמע,
ער נעמט דיך און פֿאַרוויגט
מיט גוטע אַלטמאָדישע גראַמען
וואָס קומען שוין זעלטן צוריק
צו אונדזער צעדולטן יאָרהונדערט,
פֿאַרשיכּורט פֿון בלוט און פֿון נאַפֿט.

דער ים איז הײַנט שטיל און פֿאַרוווּנדערט
ווי נאָר־וואָס אַרויס פֿון באַשאַף
פֿון צווישן די געטלעכע פֿינגער
פֿון וועלכע סע טריפֿט נאָך דער טוי
און ס'מערן זיך זוניקע רינגען
אויף נאָר וואָס געבוירענעם בלוי.

‫*‬

The Sea

Today the sea has a mother’s gentleness,
it surrounds you and rocks you to sleep
with good, old-fashioned lullabies
that now seldom return
to our dazed century,
drunk on blood and kerosene.

Today the sea is still and astonished
as if just emerged from Creation,
from between those divine fingertips,
from which the dew still drips
and bright rings are multiplying
over the blue just born.

*

MLA STYLE
Kerler, Yoysef. “"Old-Fashioned" and "The Sea".” In geveb, February 2016: Trans. Maia Evrona. https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/old-fashioned-and-the-sea.
CHICAGO STYLE
Kerler, Yoysef. “"Old-Fashioned" and "The Sea".” Translated by Maia Evrona. In geveb (February 2016): Accessed Nov 24, 2020.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Yoysef Kerler

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Maia Evrona

Maia Evrona is a poet and translator.