MORTALITY
Yehoash
Trans. by Marvin Zuckerman

When I press you to my breast, 
With wild lust, lip to lip,
And our two souls cling together
And blend into one enchanted beam,

Then, a dark shadow falls upon my joy,
And I think, how quickly, not just the flame of youth,
But our whole lives, mine and yours,
Will be drawn back into itself by the great sea

Of eternity, of death and darkness,
The boundless abyss of ALL and NOTHING
From which a blind hand of destiny
Spit us out and spun us together.

And, measuring the short span of
“Ego-life” of love, pain, and joy,
Against the endlessness
Which spreads behind and before us,

I regret your youth and charm,
And, caressing your glowing face,
My fingers already sense how the frost
Of death and not-being creeps slowly through us,

And the enchantment in my gaze is extinguished,
My hand withdraws itself, frightened, from you,
For merely a spark are you, a mere spark am I,
Spewed from out of emptiness.

And if, day after day, you knitted
Every thread of your being to my soul,
And if I ever, with the same attachment, 
Loved you to my life’s highest point,

The deep, eternal night
Would make an end of our dual spark,
And would swallow back up the life-shimmer,
Spit out for one mere moment...

—November 1906

 

(TRANSLATOR'S NOTE:  The above is a free verse translation from the rhymed and metrical Yiddish original.) 

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YEHOASH (pronounced Yehoyesh) is one of the major Yiddish poets of the modern period. Isaac Leib Peretz (Yitzkhok Leybush Peretz) encouraged him, published some of his early efforts, and highly praised his work. He has been called the forerunner of the group of modernist poets known as the Inzikhistn (Introspectivists), who in 1920 claimed him as one of their own. Aside from his considerable accomplishments as a poet, playwright, fabulist, memoirist, and translator from several languages including Arabic, Yehoash's greatest achievement is his monumental translation of the entire Hebrew Bible into modern Yiddish. This widely acclaimed rendering, noted for its beauty, accuracy, and clarity, is the version used whenever the Bible is quoted in any modern Yiddish context. 

MARVIN S. ZUCKERMAN is a professor and Dean Emeritus at LA Valley College, and the author of 7 books and various articles. The son of working-class, Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Warsaw, Zuckerman grew up in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Cooperative Housing development on the southern border of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.  Speaking only Yiddish as a child, he attended, from age five to fifteen, a daily, after-school, Yiddish, secular, socialist-oriented folk-school (Workmen’s Circle) where he learned to read and write standard Yiddish, and was schooled in Yiddish literature and folksong, and in Jewish history and holidays. This May, his translation of a memoir by Bernard Goldstein, Twenty Years with the Jewish Labor Bund: A Memoir of Interwar Poland, will be published by Purdue University Press.