Texts & Translation

יום־כּיפּור אין שול

Yom Kippur in Synagogue

Avrom Liessin

Translation by Dov Greenwood

INTRODUCTION

Avrom Walt, who wrote under the pen name of A. Liessin, was born in Min­sk in 1872 to a fam­i­ly with an emi­nent rab­binic lin­eage. Like his ances­tors, he demon­strat­ed remark­able intel­lec­tu­al apti­tude from a young age, which he put toward the study of Tal­mud. Like his con­tem­po­raries, though, he was also attract­ed to non-reli­gious works, espe­cial­ly his­to­ry books, and at the age of twelve already had fright­en­ing doubts in his faith” (line 37). A year lat­er, Liessin aban­doned tra­di­tion­al obser­vance of Jew­ish law when he was caught break­ing the Sab­bath at the Volozhin yeshi­va, and was placed under a ban by the head of the yeshi­va. Because of this, he became an out­cast in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, leav­ing him home­less. After wan­der­ing for some time in this state, he depart­ed for Vil­na, where he joined a group of mask­il­im and even­tu­al­ly became rec­og­nized as a leader in Jew­ish social­ist cir­cles. In 1896, at the age of twen­ty four, Liessin immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States and began pub­lish­ing his poet­ry in the Forverts. In 1913, he became edi­tor of Di tsukun­ft and pub­lished his writ­ings there, almost exclu­sive­ly. Under his lead­er­ship, Di tsukun­ft became the most sig­nif­i­cant jour­nal of Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture in the coun­try. Despite Liessin’s pro­lif­ic activ­i­ty and pub­lic promi­nence in his life­time, few of his poems have been pub­lished in Eng­lish translation.

Yom Kip­pur in Syn­a­gogue” was writ­ten by Liessin when he was twen­ty-five years old and is one of his first poems writ­ten in the New World. I can­not help but feel that it rep­re­sents a con­fes­sion, a sym­bol­ic nar­ra­tive of his own loss of faith. I first dis­cov­ered the poem in Di yon­tefdike teg, a vol­ume of Rollansky’s Muster­verk fun der yidish­er lit­er­atur series, where it had been select­ed for the chap­ter on Yom Kip­pur. I was drawn by the pow­er of the poem, espe­cial­ly the cen­tral line: But who … but who can prove it?” Can any­one read that line with­out a deep empa­thy for the boy who los­es his faith on the Day of Judge­ment — alone among the mass­es? Indeed, this theme haunts much of Liessin’s work; as Shmuel Char­ney wrote: What is the cen­tral motif, what drove A. Liess­in’s poet­ry? […] To me, it seems: the weighty long­ing for faith, the lost and long-sought Eden of emu­ne [belief].”

Liessin’s craft express­es itself through a metic­u­lous lyri­cism and rhythm, which he main­tains almost obses­sive­ly. It would have been unjust not to strive to pre­serve these aspects of his poet­ry in trans­la­tion, though at times oth­er styl­is­tic con­cerns take prece­dence. But that trade­off is nec­es­sary, as Yom Kip­pur in Syn­a­gogue” is also char­ac­ter­ized by a dense, oppres­sive, and time-slow­ing atmos­phere gen­er­at­ed by a rep­e­ti­tion of words and phras­es that trap the read­er in this envi­ron­ment. Between and with­in stan­zas, for exam­ple, words like hey” (hay), gezikhter” (faces) and kohol” (con­gre­ga­tion) focus the read­er on some of the most evoca­tive imagery:

And feet pound the hay beneath.

The hay-smell wafts up, reek­ing like liquor,
[…]
And bleach­es and yel­lows each face.

The old faces look out in ter­ror,
[…]
A con­gre­ga­tion of corpses.

The con­gre­ga­tion shiv­ers and sways

In oth­er places, Liessin links con­cepts across the poem using sin­gle words like flatern” (quiver): the boy stands and he quiv­ers, con­demned to death,” join­ing the quiv­er­ing” flames, which burn slow­ly and sad­ly.” Pre­serv­ing Liessin’s care­ful dic­tion, there­fore, took prece­dence in my trans­la­tion. I hope that I have struck a bal­ance that faith­ful­ly allows the read­er to expe­ri­ence the full range of emo­tion I had the first time I read the poem.

Click here to down­load a PDF of the text and trans­la­tion. The orig­i­nal text can be found on pp.100 – 103 in Vol. 1 of Liess­in’s Lid­er un Poe­men, avail­able at this link from the Steven Spiel­berg Dig­i­tal Yid­dish Library.

Dov Green­wood reads Avrom Liess­in’s Yomkiper in shul.” 

Dov Green­wood reads his trans­la­tion of Avrom Liess­in’s Yom Kip­pur in Synagogue.” 

יום־כּיפּור אין שול

עס ברענען נשמה־ליכט מיד, מעלאַנכאָליש,
און סומנע די װעקסענע שטראַלן,
זײ בױגן זיך, קאָרטשען זיך אום אין אַן אימה,
װי װער װאָלט געהײם זײ באַפֿאַלן.

און פֿול איז די קלױז מיטן פֿלאַטער פֿון פֿלעמלעך
און װײנענדע מענטשן אין װײַסן;
עס הױדען זיך קיטלען, עס װאַרפֿן זיך אַרבל,
עס רײַסן זיך שאָטנס און רײַסן.

עס הױדעט זיך װײַס אין די קיטלען דער עולם,
און װאַרפֿט מיט די אַרבל צעשראָקן,
און קלאַפּט אין פֿאַרצװײפֿלונג די הענט אָן די שטענדערס
און טופּעט אין הײ מיט די זאָקן.

און ס׳הײבט זיך דער הײ־ריח אױף און פֿאַרשיכּורט,
און געלבלעך אַ שטױב אַ געדיכטער
פֿאַרנעפּלט די קלױז און די ליכט און די שטענדערס,
פֿאַרבלײכט און פֿאַרגעלט די געזיכטער.

און אימהדיק קוקן די אַלע געזיכטער,
פֿאַרהילטע בײַ נאַכט אין טליתים,
אַזױ װי עס װאָלט זיך דאָס הױדען און שאָקלען
אַ גרױזאַמער קהל פֿון מתים.

עס הױדעט און שאָקלט זיך גרױליק דער קהל,
און ס׳טראָגט פֿון פֿאַרשידענע זײַטן
אַ הודיען פֿון תּפֿילות און אַלטע ניגונים,
פֿון אַלטע, פֿון גרױזאַמע צײַטן.

און ס׳טוליעט זיך נאָענט צום פֿאָטער אַ ייִנגל,
אַ שטילער, אין מיטן די גװאַלדן,
פֿאַרטיפֿט אין מחשבֿות, דעם שטערן דעם הױכן
אין מחזור פֿון זײדעס באַהאַלטן.

ער טראַכט פֿון דער גרױסקײט פֿון מלך־המלכים,
װי קלײן און װי שװאַך און װי אָרעם
איז קעגן אַלמעכטיקן גאָט כּבֿיכול
דאָס שטערבלעכע מענטשל, דער װאָרעם.

ער טראַכט, און ער ציט זיך צו גאָט און באַהעפֿט זיך,
און בעט בײַ אים רחמים און כּוח,
צו קענען פֿאַרטרײַבן די שרעקלעכע ספֿקות
פֿון שװאַכן, פֿון קינדערשן מוח.

און ס׳הודיען די תּפֿילות, און ס׳קלאָגן די יעלות,
און ס׳שױדערט דער גװאַלטיקער לשון,
אַזױ װי די בײמער פֿון אַלטע בית־עלמינס,
בײַ נאַכט אין צעשטורעמטן אָסיען.

און ס׳דוכט זיך, די גײַסטער פֿון אַלטע מאַרטירער,
זײ ברומען דאָ מיט אין די גװאַלטן;
און ס׳דוכט זיך, דער יאָמער פֿון הונדערטער דורות
פֿאַרנעמט זיך די הימלען צו שפּאַלטן.

עס הודיען די תּפֿילות, עס קלאָגן די יעלות,
און שטאַרקער צעברומט זיך דער עולם,
און ס׳גײט אַ גערױש, װי פֿון װאַסערן פֿילע,
אַרױף צום רבונו־של־עולם.

און ס׳מאַטערט דער ייִנגל זיך פֿאָרשטעלן ריכטיק
די גרױסקײט פֿון גאָט און זײַן װעזן —
גענױ און גענױער, אַזױ װי ער האָט עס
אין הײליקע ספֿרים געלעזן.

דאָך פּלוצלינג — װאָס טוט אים אַ קלאַפּ אין געהירן,
אַזױ װי מיט עפּעס אַן אײַזן;
עס טוט אים די העלישע קליפּה אַן עגבער:
„װער קען עס, װער קען עס באַװײַזן?“

עס פֿאַלט אױפֿן ייִנגל אַן אימה אַ װיסטע,
און ס׳שװימט אים אַרױס אין זכּרון
די ענדלאָזע שטראָף פֿאַר אַזעלכע מחשבֿות —
דער גיהנום, דער פֿורכטבאַרער צאָרן.

און ס׳שרעקן די ליכט אים, די שאָטנס, די קיטלען,
און ס׳דרינגט אים אַדורך יעדן אבֿר
די קעלט און דער עלנט, דאָס פֿױלעניש װיסטע
פֿון פֿײַכטן און פֿינצטערן קבֿר.

אָט זעט ער דאָס פֿײַער דאָס גרינע פֿון גיהנום,
אָט הערט ער די שװאַרצע יללה —
די שיבֿעה־מדורים מיט זינדיקע זעלן,
די מחנות מלאַכי־חבלה.

און פּלוצלינג טוט װידער אין מוח אַ קלאַפּ אים,
אַזױ װי מיט עפּעס אַן אײַזן,
און ס׳עגבערט די העלישע קליפּה און עגבערט:
„װער קען עס, װער קען עס באַװײַזן?“

עס דאַװנט מיט גרױסער התלהבֿות דער עולם,
נאָר אײנער, דער צװײפֿלער דער קלײנער,
ער שטײט צװישן פֿאָטער און פֿרײַנט אַזױ אײנזאַם,
און ס׳קוקט זיך נישט אום אױף אים קײנער.

אָ, אײנזאַם, אָ, פֿינצטער, אַלײן מיט זײַן אומגליק!
ער שטײט אָן באַװעגונג, אָן לשון,
ער שטײט און ער פֿלאַטערט, צום טױט װי פֿאַראורטײלט,
מיט שװײס און מיט טרערן באַגאָסן.

עס װײסט נישט דער פֿאָטער, עס װײסן די פֿרײַנט נישט
די טיפֿע, די גײַסטיקע לײדן,
װאָס האָבן פֿאַראומערט זײַן פֿרילינג פֿון לעבן,
גערױבט פֿון זײַן יוגנט די פֿרײדן.

Yom Kippur in Synagogue

Slowly and sadly the soul-candles burn
And pale rays are lost in the gloom;
They bend and they writhe in terror as though
Someone is stalking the room.

The house is filled with the quiver of flames
And weeping men dressed in white:
Their robes shivering and sleeves shaking,
Their shadows struggle in fright.

The men shiver, white within their robes,
And, scared, arms shake in their sleeves.
Despairing hands strike down on the pews
And feet pound the hay beneath.

The hay-smell wafts up, reeking like liquor,
And with it, a thick yellow haze
Clouds over the room, the candles, the pews,
And bleaches and yellows each face.

All of the faces look out in terror,
Veiled in prayer shawls and darkness,
As though this shivering, swaying group were
A congregation of corpses.

The congregation shivers and sways
And voices resound from the walls:
The drone of prayers and old melodies
From old, from cruel years bygone.

There is a boy, who clings to his father,
Silent, confined in the clamor,
But deep in thought, his high brow bent over
His ancestors’ book of prayer.

He ponders: how great is the King of kings
And how small, how feeble, how poor
Is man before the Almighty Lord—
A mortal being, a worm.

He ponders, uniting with God, drawing near,
And begs Him for mercy, and strength
To drive out of his feeble young mind
The frightening doubts in his faith.

The prayers drone on, the wailing grows,
The awesome speech shudders on tongues,
Like shaking trees in old cemeteries
At night, in the storms of autumn.

It feels as though the ghosts of old martyrs
Rumble amidst the noises,
As though hundreds of generations’ laments
Struggle to break through the heavens.

The prayers drone on, the wailing grows,
Their rumbling swells even more.
And a great noise, like the rush of waters,
Ascends to the Lord of the world.

It tortures the boy to try to conceive
The greatness of God and His essence—
Exact, more exacting, just as he learned
In the holy books from his lessons.

But suddenly, something breaks in his mind,
As though struck by an iron bit—
The devil drilling inside his ear:
“But who . . . but who can prove it?”

A desolate terror falls on the boy,
A memory swims through his head:
The endless punishment for such thoughts—
The dreadful wrath of hell.

The light now scares him, the shadows, the robes,
And through every bone there seeps
The cold and confinement, the desolate rot
Of the dark grave, moist and deep.

Then he sees the green fires of hell,
And hears the pained black shrieking
From sinful souls, tortured by angels
Encamped in its seven rings.

But then, again, something breaks in his mind
As though struck by an iron bit,
The devil drilling inside his ear:
“But who . . . but who can prove it?”

The crowd continues to pray with passion,
But one of them, doubting and small,
Stands with his father and family, alone,
Not noticed by them at all.

How lonesome, how dark, alone in his sadness!
He stands without movement or speech.
He stands and he quivers, as though condemned,
And drowns in sweat and tears.

His father, his family — none of them know
The suffering of his soul,
That casts a pall on the spring of his life,
That robs his youth of joy.

MLA STYLE
Liessin, Avrom. “Yom Kippur in Synagogue.” In geveb, September 2023: Trans. Dov Greenwood. https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/yom-kippur.
CHICAGO STYLE
Liessin, Avrom. “Yom Kippur in Synagogue.” Translated by Dov Greenwood. In geveb (September 2023): Accessed May 30, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Avrom Liessin

ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR

Dov Greenwood

Dov Greenwood graduated Yale college in 2022, where he studied Humanities and wrote his senior thesis on the relationship between modern synagogue Humashim and their historical relationship with American Jewish denominations. He is a translator of Yiddish, modern Hebrew, and Biblical Hebrew, and has been published in Ancient Exchanges, Circumference, The Lehrhaus, and Shibboleth: An Undergraduate Journal of Judaic Studies at Yale.