Eternal Jew in Volhynia

Of the many layers built into my epic poem The Atternen Juez Talen, I have a particular fondness for integrating folktales, fables, and legends into my stories, modified to fit the time and location. The following scene integrates components of a traditional Slavic fairy tale, to help build out the detail. I have translated it back into Old English (standard English) prose, to make it more accessible.

“I once was a poor man, just like you. Poverty wrapped herself just like a noose around my neck. I could hardly breath. Or like burrs that twist up in a boy’s hair so you can’t pull ‘em out, so she clung to me. Indentured myself to a local knight who was granted a fief, rewardin’ his sword. All gnarled and pocked his face and his heart, and he turned his eye on my darling child. Ever and again, with leer and with sneer he come to my cottage burnin’ for the girl. Oh, her tremblin’ and, oh, her tears and oh, the appall that blanched her face. She who could buy us an honorable life, but I, I preferred my poverty than to sell my child to that viperous knight. And so I endured indignities rakin’ his pigsty and makin’ cakes of cow dung, while he cursed and spit. Nor did he spare the lash to my back, until my heart were cold as ice.”

“An indentured man is owned like a mule but I decided to run away. Troublous times, skirmish and raid. Our lor be off lootin’ in slaughter and rape. That’s when I ups and decides to flee. I borrows an oxcart out of his barn, me as the ox; and my wife and my girls begins to load it with all we own. Now I hears a moan from the stove, and louder it groans, so I peek inside. Scrape and grate and out of the coals like a wisp of smoke, a spirit emerges, pale as a corpse, nor more than ash. Children scream and my wife faints, and me, I spits and calls on The Name.

“‘I ain’t no dybbuk. Be not afeared. I am your Poverty, indentured to you like a servant. I go where you go.’

“Wondrous strange and my mind a-race that such a one is bound to me.

“‘Well, there’s nothin’ for it. You are ours, and those who serve must do their work, so help us carry some of our things.’

“The wraith glides over to pick up a dish but my children say, ‘nay, that’s for us.’ Me, I pulls out a bottle of schnaps and sets it in front of the fireplace, then says,

“‘I need your help out here to put the choppin’ block in the cart.’

“I takes my ax and swings it down to wedge its blade into the block.

“‘Where can I grab this heavy block?’

“asks she. I points and says,

“‘There by the blade of the ax the wood be split. Slip your fingers into the crack.’

“So done. And me, quick as a cat pulls out the ax and the crack squeezes closed, and her hand is caught in the block like a clamp. Oh cry; oh scream; oh bitter her moan and me and my girls we hustle away down the road to Rovno, here.

“Now soon the gnarly knight returns, and there, our house open wide as a barn and nothin’ inside, but a bottle of schnaps.

“‘Them bastard Jews be run away,’

“he growls, and takes a gulp from the crock. And another gulp and he hears the moan of the wraith outside,

“‘Help me, oh Lor.’

“Thinkin’ a spirit be callin’ on him, another gulp and he pokes his head out the window, and there, the girl.

“‘Who be you, oh prissy maid?’

“And she, a-thinkin’ of what to do, and sees there’s nothin’ for it, says,

“‘Oh handsome knight, oh savin’ lor, see here. My hand be caught in this block.’

“And the tipsy knight, his head a swirl, comes to inspect, and the wraithy girl kisses his neck, and a fire begins to warm the old man, and he frees her hand. Not many days and the two are betrothed. Now see how Poverty clings to his arm, and soon that knight has lost his lands and now he’s livin’ in my old hut. And here I am attached to a prince, keepin’ accounts and managin’ his lands. Now lift your eyes and looky ahead. There be his castle and that’s where I live.”

The Eternal Jew comes back west

Our hero has turned back from Khorasan (now Afghanistan), and made his way to Volhynia, a region largely in the Ukraine now. He meets a fellow Jew…

Just before Rovno here come a Jew
ridin’ a horse like a noble man.
*‘Shalom Aleikhem’s’ and ‘Barukh HaShem’s’.*
A little chit and a little chat
as we try to assess the taste of this land.
*-* ‘Peace be upon you and
‘Bless the Name’ (that is, God)

With a flick of his reins the horse turns aside
into a dark and narrow trail,
and the Jew beckons, “Follow me...”
Batkol yanks my sleeve and frowns.
“...And I’ll tell you about this Volhynia.”

Wary, our steps get slow and short.
“Worry not. This shorter way
“is cooler; nor wolf nor thief hide here.”
And he lifts the bag slung on my back
and loops it onto his saddle bag.
Batkol and me on high alert.
“I once was a poor man, just like you.
“Poverty wrapped herself just like a noose
“around my neck. I could hardly breath.
“Or like burrs that twist up in a boy’s hair
“so you can’t pull ‘em out, so she clung to me.
“Indentured myself to a local knight
“who was granted a fief, rewardin’ his sword.
“All gnarled and pocked his face and his heart,
“and he turned his eye on my darling child.
“Ever and again, with leer and with sneer
“he come to my cottage burnin’ for the girl.
“O, her tremblin’ and, o, her tears
“and o, the appall that blanched her face.
“She who could buy us an honorable life,
“but I, I preferred my poverty
“than to sell my child to that viperous knight.
“And so I endured indignities
“rakin’ his pigsty and makin’ cakes
“of cow dung, while he cursed and spit.
“Nor did he spare the lash to my back,
“until my heart were cold as ice.”

Then he stared at us with glassy eyes,
as the copse grew thicker and the way obscure.
And suddenly I’m chilled. Is it his stare
or the damp and sulphurous air of the wood.

“An indentured man is owned like a mule…

The Eternal Jew comes to Genoa

In recent posts I’ve translated my epic about the Eternal Jew back to standard English prose. Here’s an example of the real stuff, which is to say, poetry in New English (metaEnglish).

The setting: the Eternal Jew and his wife have tired of Prague, and have decided to return to Spain. They keep a careful journal of the route, a journal they hope to sell to traders who want to take advantage of the new markets developing in the interior of Europe….

Me, I keepen fule akkounts
A the way, with skechez, noets, an maps
A streets, bildenz, lanmarks, plants,
Ennee notabbel toppollujjeez,
An arroez showen the sunz path.
No dowt Ittalyen traderz wil fien
Theze sheets a rezors an werth sum trade.

Kum owten the Alps tu San Meeshel*             * San Michele, Italy
Like leevz blowen in a ottem skwal
Rite pas Vennes an thru the hilz
An almoes intu the brinee dreenk
Down on Zhennovahz* bussellee doks,            * Genoa
Them pielz with ferz an barrelz a sawlt
An pitteyes weepenz a slaevz a-chaend.
Wun a theze galleez, fer the rite prise,
Wil shorlee take us tu Mulluggah*.                    * Malaga

I set abbow tryen a hawk my maps,
But I kwik-like seen my mists a chans:
     "I sale boet; I doen drive kart."
     or "If I kant sale thaer, I doen go."
     or "Thats the kien a trubbellee werk
     "Venneeshenz like, not Zhennovese,
     "A duket a werk an a denar a pay."
     or "Prog? Iz that sum kien a fish?"
     or "I aen got no yuse fer Ju."

Fienlee sumwun taeks a peek
In my foleyo a skechen maps.
     "Kum with me. I knoez a man...."

Fleeing the Caucasus

Here’s another translation back to old English (you know, the English you speak) from my poetic epic, The Atternen Juez Talen. It’s an amusing little vignette.

Here’s the setting: the Eternal Jew and his wife, Batkol decide to leave Georgia (in the Caucasus) after a disastrous earthquake. They are probably suffering from what we’d now call PTSD....

Eyes to Baghdad. Expectin' to find just lone and level sands stretched out after the Mongols had harrowed that field. But first we stumbled into Tabriz. What is this? Muezzin* calls; a market place with busy stalls; some bushy palms; and bright glazed tiles on the face of a musjid's** dome and walls. Even churches and synagogues back in the warren of market streets.
* him who chants the call to prayer
** mosque

As we gawk along, some guy rushes up, squawkin' about our travels beyond and our Master already restin' at home and come along we mustn't be late.
"Our Master? Us on the road beyond?"
Troubled times and madmen abound. And tender and soft we decline his help.

"Don't be afeard. I mean you no harm, but the Holy Father will join us soon, and many the delicate dainty prepared, and your Master be worried that you be lost."

How many Christians, and not a few Jews believin' these be the end-time days. This sorrowful mystic broke in his grief, imagines around the next corner we'll find the King Messiah who will save us all. Just then we’re at an open door and some haggard woman is shoutin' ‘hallelu’ and grabbin' our arms, obsequious -like, and draggin’ us into an opulent room, brocaded curtains and velvet chairs, and some foreign rake with a feather in his cap gapes at us as we gape at him.

He turns to the madman and asks of him,
"Hoyar aze twa? Iyar niy on gise."

Well, that's my scriptin' of what I heard. It sounded like some garbled Spanish or such, and my heart leapt, thinkin' of Spain.

It's been a few years since we been back there so my lingo were probably garbled as his, but all excited to know the news -- how goes Grenada and who is the King? I blurts out, "I'm a Spanish Jew." An amused smile curls his lips.

And there's Batkol, yankin' my arm,
"This place is creepy. Let's scram. Come on!"

And the haggardly woman tries to appease Batkol, cooin' and pattin' her hand; and now the Holy Father struts in but it's just some priest from a local church; and the madman jabbers at this one and that; and here come some pastries, and now some tea; so it takes quite a while to sort things out.

Reader, the first thing you probably should know: this weren't Messiah, nor even the Pope. But he spoke Italian and he actually said,
"Who are these two? They ain't our guides."

And if I recall he said his home was Venice, but he's on a quest out east, and his servant mistook us for his guides, and his name is Margo Folo, or such.

Batkol's still yankin' my arm to go, as I accept an offer to join them for meat.
"Incorrigible man," she mutters, annoyed.

Portraits from a Jewish orphanage

In my ongoing translation of The Atternen Juez Talen back into “old” (ie, normal) English, I came to this short portrait I thought you might like. It takes place in Georgia (in the Caucasus) around 800 years ago, in the midst of the Mongolian invasions. In the aftermath of one battle, the Eternal Jew and his wife set up an orphanage for the children who survived. In the morning they would teach the children some Torah, and in the afternoons they would send the children out as apprentices.

Here’s a portrait of one child, and the setting he lived in.

Samson. Well, that's what he come to be called. Funny how a person lives into a name. Built like a bull, and tough as one too, like a thunderstorm that flashes from afar, threatening, but rare to strike home. But when his tears welled up you were best to run. He would sit stone still in our Torah talk, and silent as stone and probably as dull. But the butchers and porters, they all competed when they seen his arms, shoulders and neck. With clever cajolin' and callin' in debts they bartered til butcher Zev prevailed. Zev could hack thru an ox's flank with a single stroke; and cut to the heart of our Halakhah* as quick and sure. In the butcher's prayer house he was the rabbi.

* Jewish law and rulings

In the strop and hone of rabbinic thought, where every moment is seen as unique, and law must flex itself to fit our twisted world, that we might bring God and justice down to us; in the butcher's blade and the gush of blood; in the splattered fat and splintered bone; there, Samson become a man under the knife of the butcher Zev. Nor dull and cold as I had thought, the lad's heart. He come to learn anatomy of the cow and sheep, and eternity of Jewish law. But stony, still. Nor smile nor joke bent his lip. "He needs a wife." his father-boss declared for him. But like his namesake, Samson preferred the Gathly girls, the Mongol ones. Wild of talk and morals loose, and neither Mongols nor us Jews were pleased to let our children mix. More than once did Samson face a gang of angry Mongol boys. And more than once he hung the dead on poles to give the crows a feast.

And more than once our Mongol lord demanded reprisals, gold or grain. Finally the khan sent a troop to take Samson as a prisoner. But word out-sped their horse. Samson fled and joined a rebel band. Some say he became a mercenary thief. Others say he was a Maccabee.** A future ballad told his tale: The Highwayman; shot down like a dog.

** Family that led rebellion against Hellenists, ~170 BCE

Notes from a Georgian Han, 2

About a week ago I posted 2 excerpts from The Atternen Juez Talen that I’m currently translating back to “old English”. Here’s another one you might enjoy.

To remind you: the setting is a small town in medieval Georgia; the year about 1270 CE. Our hero is recording some notable events that happen in the courtyard of the han (caravanserai) he’s working in.

2.

At the gate of the han, stompin’ and screams; two wild men, hair matted in knots, beards that swallowed the whole of their face and it made their heads look ghastly large, like them demons the Tibetans paint on their scrolls. Their robes were a patchwork of scraps and holes stained and filthy and as foul as their mouths, them screamin’ for blood of some rascal thieves. With an elbow my neighbor gives me a poke:

“De-frocked Nestorian monks, I hear, beggin’ and pilferin’ and skulkin’ about. It seems some lad got the better of them.”

Curious and amused I finish the verse of *Pesukei Dezimra* I’m scribin’ for the rav, **“Supru v’goyyim et kavodo.”**

Then I wipe my quill and mosey on down to piece out the story from their monkey mouths. When I get there, one is pawin’ his purse lookin’ for something, with growl and curse.

“Here! You see this piece of shist? Genuine lapis that bugger swore, highest quality, finest kind, straight from Khorasan’s finest mine and carved by an artist in holy Mashhad. And more he’s got, that bastard says, him takin’ pity on us wanderin’ monks.”

He sticks out his grubby and scabby hand to show us a medallion, crude and dull, like the throw-away matrix you can find in a heap outside a shop for cuttin’ gems. Gray and black veins, splotches of white; some blue patches, them second rate. There’s chuckles and grunts and ‘you been stung.’

“But yesterday this here was blue as the sky, til we took it to sell at ‘Gems of the Shah’. That bitchbag dropped it in a boilin’ pot; when he pulled it out, he hands us this dungball, useless as tits on a bull. Help us find that pisspot runt that sold us this. We’ll cut off his nose.”

Then up rides a soldier, sword in hand, and me and the guys drift back to the han.

*-* ‘Verses of Song’; songs to begin morning prayers
**-** ‘Declare Hem glory to the nations’

Notes from the Caucasus

I am translating a section of The Atternen Juez Talen back into ‘normal’ English. In this scene, set in around 1270 CE, the Eternal Jew (Atternen Ju) finds himself living among unknown Jewish communities in the Caucasus region. The town he’s currently living in is Mtskheta, Georgia. It’s about 20 klicks north of modern Tbilisi. Having set up his scribal shop in a han (caravanserai) on the edge of town, he has decided to record some of the notable events that are happening down in the courtyard of the han while he is working up in the balcony. These little vignettes are subtitled “Sketches Set in a Georgian Han

Here are 2 short ones you may find curious, even interesting.

4.

Spit and strut. Spit and strut.
Surly and burly, them comin’ on.
Spittin’ and pissin’, fart and belch;
Handlers whistle, then a hook to the neck.
Down they kneel, bellow and groan.
The camel’s tale of Kohelet’s* first words.
* aka Ecclesiastes

6.

There’s a box made of stained and knotty slats
That a finger will just about fit between.
Some kind of cage that houses beasts.
I seen a guy stickin’ his pinky in
And the demons inside nearly tore it off.
Squawkin’ a racket like Beelzebub’s jinns,
And rustle and fussin’ like a room full of kids.
But I seen their owner slip in his hand
After hushin’ and shushin’ with soft coos,
And there on his finger a bright green bird
Big as a crow and as like to be mean.
His beak a wide leer, his eyes like veneer.
And just like a salesman, incessant he squawks.

“Ya hear that,” the trader suddenly blurts.
“This girly just said ‘Alhamdulilah*’”
* Arabic: praise be to God

Mystical musings by the Atternen Ju (Eternal Jew)

The following short excerpt is from a scene in The Atternen Juez Talen. Our hero has recently migrated to Poland (around 1320 CE) to start a new life, yet again. He is reflecting on a line from the daily prayers, that the Master of the Universe daily renews the act of creation (often interpreted to mean that the world, and each individual in it, is created anew each day, or even each moment). Reflecting on his own renewal, he goes off on a riff.

Here is a prose translation into standard English (what I call 'old English'), and then the original text as it was composed...

I, the Eternal Jew am a voice in the streaming world a-coil in you -- a recurring face, a recurring place, unknown, familiar, a recurring embrace. Hate me and I will choke you with hate. Fear me and I will hound you with fear. Love me and I will ignite a desire that consumes but can’t be satisfied ...

Blink and look into your mirror. I am behind you. Blink again. I am you. Was it always so? Blink. I’m gone. Was I ever there? Blink. You stand in a room well known. Blink. You are lost, and no way home. Blink. I am with you leading the way. Blink. A stranger has led you astray. Blink. You walk with your father instead. Blink. You awake. Your father is dead....

Each moment the world is created anew. And I, sub-atom, an orbit in you. Where I am, and where I will be... you cannot determine the point of me. Whoever I was and who I can be, you can’t compute that continuity. Accept me. Is this how you mean to be free?

The original text:

I, the Atternen Ju ar a vois
In the streemen werl a-koyellen yu -- 
A rekkerren fase, a rekkerren plase,
Unknoen, fammilyer, a rekkerren embrase.
Hate me an I wil choke yu with hate.
Feer me an I wil hownd yu with feer.
Luv me an I wil ignite a deziyer
That kunsuemz but woen be a sattisfy.
Studdee my bouks an yu may untwist
The okkulten thredz that taengel yur seel
In the annammah grip uv this Addom shel.
Louk tu me az the Proffetten God
An I wil kumpoze divvine skaelz
That reverben myuzeks owt uv the speerz
Koyellen yu in infinnitteez.

Bleenk an louk intu yur meerer,
An I am behien yu; bleenk aggen
An I am yu. Wuz it awl wayz so?
Bleenk. Iem gon. Wuz I evver thaer?
Bleenk. Yu stan in a rume wel knoen.
Bleenk. Yu ar los, an no way home.
Bleenk. Iem with yu leeden the way.
Bleenk. A straenjer iz led yu astray.
Bleenk. Yu wok with yur father insted.
Bleenk. Yu awwake. Yur fother iz ded....

Eech momen the werl iz kreyaten a-nu.
An I, sub-Addom, an orbitten yu.
Ware I am, an ware I wil be,
Yu kant determin the point uv me.
Hu evver I wuz an hu I kan be,
Yu kant kumpyute that kontinnuwittee.
Assep me. Iz this how yu meen tu be free?

Many notes, one Song

This is a short excerpt from The Atternen Juez Talen, or in normal English, The Eternal Jew's Tale, in which our hero has a visionary experience that he tries to describe:

We read in our prayers,* 
    “Renewing all; a perpetual day of God-Creation.
And I seen for myself that this be true. I was carried along on my rivery thoughts, every heart beat and every breath, every flickering blink of my eye, a new “me” in a new world come to the surface and then sank down; distinct worlds that bubbled and burst, and bubbled again, new and the same -- consciousness pulsing into my mind, and every mind, notes of one song: I to I, me to you, we to all, all to one; mere slivers of a slivery world that rushes thru us, seamless it seems. But slow it down and note by note it comes apart in fractallin’ thoughts.

For a short time my world slowed down and I seen its notes, one by one floating apart, each from each, and felt the Divine Song of it rejoining the slivers. River. It flows. Wonder and dismay as my eyes seen what my mind fails to understand.

For those who praise war...

The Eternal Jew hears a noise one morning. At first he thinks its thunder; then an earthquake. Then he realizes, an army is attacking. This scene in The Atternen Juez Talen takes place in approximately 1100CE. First a translation into standard English, and then the original in MetaEnglish.

And behind the forward shock of noise
The walls of dust that choke your breath
And cloak your face in a deathly mask
So dragoon and drayman, commando and corpse
All look like statues in a Roman tomb.

And this the song them dragoons sung:

We are the hollow men born for war.
We are the arrogant caked in hate.
We are the sons of pagan gods.
And we are the fruit of polluted clods.

March on, march on, man of dust.
Do what you will; do what you must.

Look on us, your conquerors,
Sharp our tongue and sharp our darts.
Look at us, above all law.
Bloody hands and bloodless hearts.

March on march on, hollow men.
Your road is long; who knows its end?

We are the wallowers, slogging in scorn.
We wallow in impotence, loving a sword.
We hide our envy in a bigot’s abuse,
And express ourselves best with a mob and a noose.

March on march on, man of chalk.
Your road is short; no time for talk.

Look on us who scorn the just. 
Past? We’ll have no piece of that.
Look on us, who mock your trust.
Future? We’ll have no peace in that.

March on, march on, hollow men.
March on, to find your punishment.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Here’s the original metaEnglish version, with its more overtly vibrating language:

We arren hawlo menz bornen wor.
We ar the araggenz kaekt in haets.
We ar the sunz uv pagen godz.
An we ar the frute a poluten klodz.

March on march on, man a dus.
Du wut yu wil; du wut yu mus.

Louk on us, yur konkerren.
Sharp ar tung an sharp ar darts.
Louk at us, abbuv awl  law.
Bludded hanz a bludles harts.

March on march on, hawlo menz.
Yur roed iz long; hu knoez it enz?

We ar the wawlowerz, sloggen a skorn.
We wawlo in impotens, luvven a sord.
We hiden ar enveez in a biggets abyuse,
An espres ar selz bes with a mobben a noos.

March on march on, man uv chok.
Yur roed iz short; no tiem fer tok.

Louk on us hu skorn the jus. 
Past? Weel hav no pees a that.
Louk on us, hu mok  yur trus.
Fewcher? We hav no pees a that.

March on, march on, hawlo men.
March on, an fien yur punnishen.