Itzik Manger was the most popular Yiddish poet of the first half of the twentieth century. His poetry collection Medresh Itzik (The Midrash of Itzik) resets a number of Tanakh stories in Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, creating Manger’s own midrashim. Manger explores the emotions of the biblical characters, often in sharp contrast with the terse bible narratives. “Abraham Our Father Receives a Letter” is based on the story in which Abraham sends a servant to find a wife for Isaac (see Pakn Treger’s 2018 translation issue). The basis for “Avishag Writes a Letter Home” is Kings I, Chapter 1. Avishag is the fair damsel who was found to give “heat” to the dying King David, but “the King knew her not.”
Abraham Our Father Receives a Letter
Isaac our father walks in the field,
Pious and dignified,
And sees how a handsome butterfly
Takes a crocus as his bride.
And then the union is no more,
He flutters here, here, here—
Will he at least offer a settlement,
That rakish cavalier?
And Isaac’s eyes are wet with tears:
The world is full of sin!
And he walks with slow and solemn steps
To see if his father’s in.
Abraham stands in front of his tent
And chats with the postilion
Who has brought a confidential fax
To Abraham, Terah’s son.
Eliezer the trusty servant writes
That everything is all right.
The girl is pretty, the dowry secure,
And soon he will bring the bride
With camels, jewels, money, and sheets,
Rebekah is her name.
The family is good, her gefilte fish
Has won worldwide acclaim.
Abraham our father smiles and gives
The messenger a baksheesh.
Since Sarah died, may she rest in peace,
He hasn’t tasted fish.
He shuts his eyes and is content.
He hears Isaac, in cadence true,
Sing a Gemara song. “Praise the name,
He is growing a pious Jew.”
“Abbaye says . . .” Oh, how sweet.
A beam from the setting sun
Plays in Abraham’s long gray beard
And has a moment’s fun.
Avishag Writes a Letter Home
Avishag sits in her little room
And writes a letter home.
“My love to the lambs”—she heaves a sigh—
“And the meadows where they roam.”
A kiss to the mother, and the linden tree;
Her love to that ancient team
That Avishag in the palace here
Sees often in a dream.
Hello to the handsome miller’s boy,
Whose job is in the mill—
For the shepherd’s helper, may there be
Reeds to pipe his fill.
The king is an old and pious man
And she—let the truth be said—
She is the king’s hot water bottle,
That warms for the king his bed.
What she thought—well, who cares
What a village maiden thinks—
Not once or twice she has wept at night
For her fate and the needs of kings.
True, there are wise men here who tell
What a good deed is hers.
They even show her where it’s told
In a bible verse.
A verse for all her youthful years
And the years that are to be.
A line of ink on parchment for
A whole reality.
Avishag puts the pen away.
Her heart and her thoughts are drear.
From her eye there trickles and falls
Onto the page a tear.
The tears fall like dew on the words on the page
Mother and linden tree gleam,
And quiet in a corner weeps
A dainty girlish dream.
Original Yiddish published in Itzik Manger’s Medresh Itzik (Paris: Comité Itzik Manger, 1950).
MURRAY CITRON is a grandfather living in Ottawa. His translations of Itzik Manger and other Yiddish writers have appeared in publications in England, Canada, and the United States.