To a Friend

Written by:
Avrom Sutzkever
Translated by:
James Nadel
Spring 2018
Part of issue number:
Translation 2018

Sutzkever’s poem “To a Friend” follows the story of the medieval halakhic commentary Or Zarua, which was written in the late 12th century by Isaac ben Moses of Vienna; a copy now resides in the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana in Amsterdam. Legend has it that this manuscript version of Or Zarua—one of only two in the world—was stuck underwater for several centuries after a ship transporting it capsized. Miraculously, in the mid-19th century, a fisherman in Holland pulled it from the depths relatively unharmed—albeit with shells encrusted on some of its pages.

For Sutzkever, this difficult road from creation to exhibition does not diminish the piece but rather enhances and almost sanctifies it. He consoles Isaac ben Moses (the titular friend), calling him the “first Gaon of the depths”—a genius whose work survived even in the abyss. The manuscript “glows” and “shimmers”—a possible reference to Psalms 97:11, from which the poem gets its name: “Light is sown [Or Zarua] for the righteous . . .”—demonstrating that its existence could not be repressed forever. Or Zarua itself contains a rich description of Jewish life and customs in the Middle Ages; everyday experience preserved against all odds. Perhaps Sutzkever imagined that the world of Eastern European Jewry that he knew so intimately would someday be similarly transmitted through space and time.

To a Friend

You were bent over, bitter and melancholy, 

A lock of your hair—a bird on a branch; 

The words you recite wander to the 

Synagogue door, where their sanctity fades. 

Soon the abyss will swallow all trace of them 

Along with your best friend—the manuscript. 

Oh, friend, drop into this anonymous abyss 

Only there does the climber feel joy. 

Not long ago I saw a bundle 

Of old parchment papers in Amsterdam—

Soon they will (“th’ll,” as my mother would say) 

Start to glimmer. Let me explain: 

800 years ago, a Jew from Bohemia 

All rags and tatters, disappeared from a ship. 

He could not quite save the pages of his Or Zarua 

From the watery depths, 

So their timid sparks proclaim: 

“The ship sank, with all mice and men.” 

Everything, down to the last 

Eyelash, dropped into the sea, 

Now not even the waves can recall that voyage—

Thus began its journey 

To eternity: not fearing the weather, 

The parchment starts to stir. 

Slowly, the centuries pass,

And the pages probe the murky depths.

Suddenly a fisherman, astonished,

Pulled a parchment fish

Onto the coast of Holland!

Quickly he sold his ware,

And for no small sum.

Written on the fish were small letters,

And pearls, pearls on top of each like crowns.

I saw the pearls above the letters . . .

See, my friend, eternity can bring rewards.

So do not lament, but instead be the first Gaon

Of the depths—where there are so many pearls.*


*The manuscript of "Or Zarua," written on parchment by Rabbi Isaac ben Moses, was found in the Rosenthal Library in Amsterdam. [Footnote in original text]

צום חבֿר

געבױגן ביסטו, גאַליק־מעלאַנכאָליש,

אַ פֿױגל אױף אַ דאָרן — דײַן טשופּרינע;

אַ לשון, זאָלסטו, װאַלגערט זיך אין פּאָליש

צוזאַמען מיט זײַן װעלקנדיקער שכינה.

ס'װעט באַלד אַ תּהום פֿאַרשלינגען זײַנע סליאַדן

באַנאַנד מיט דײַנע בוזעמפֿרײַנד — כּתבֿ־ידן.

אױ, חבֿר, לאָז דעם תּהום דעם אומבאַװוּסטן

אַלײן אין תּהום, װעט ליב זײַן דאָס געקלעטער.

געזען האָב איך אין אַמסטערדאַם אַנוסטן

אַן אַלטן בינטל פּאַרמעטענע בלעטער — — —

זײ װעלן (ס'פֿלעגט מײַן מאַמע זאָגן׃ זײ'לן)

צעשימערן זיך באַלד. איך נעם דערצײלן׃

אַכט הונדערט יאָר צוריק איז קרוע־בלוע

אַנטרונען אױף אַ שיף אַ ייִד פֿון בעמען.

און בלױז די בלעטער פֿון זײַן "אור זרוע"

אַזױ דערצײלן אָפּגעהיטע פֿונקען׃

"מיט מאַן און מױז די ספֿינה איז געזונקען."

אַצינד, װען איבער אַלצדינג מיט אַנאַנדער

אַראָפּגעלאָזן האָט דער ים זײַן װיע,

ניטאָ קײן כװאַליע, װאָס געדענקט דעם װאַנדער —

אַצינד האָט אָנגעהױבן איר נסיעה

די אײביקײט: אָן מורא פֿאַרן װעטער,

באַװעגן זיך די פּאַרמעטענע בלעטער.

פּאַװאָליע, אַ יאָרהונדערט נאָך יאָרהונדערט,

זאָנדירן זײ דעם גליװערדיקן דנאָלאַנד.

און פּלוצעם האָט אַ פֿישעריונג, פֿאַרװוּנדערט,

אַרױסגעצױגן לעבן ברעג פֿון האָלאַנד

אַ פּאַרמעטענעם פֿיש! פֿאַר כּמה גולדן

האָט אױסגעקױפֿט שױן עמעץ זײַנע שולדן.

באַשריבן איז דער פֿיש מיט קלײנע אותיות,

און פּערל, פּערל איבער זײ װי קרױנען.

איך האָב געזען די פּערל איבער אותיות...

אַזױ, מײַן פֿרײַנד, קען אײביקײט באַלױנען.

טאָ ליאַרעם ניט, און זײ צו ערשט אַ גאון —

פֿאַראַן גענוג נאָך פּערל — אױף די דנאָען.*


*דער כּתב־יד פֿונעם 'אור זרוע', געשריבן אױף פּאַרמעט פֿון ר' יצחק בן משה, געפֿינט זיך אין דער ראָזענטאַליאַנאַ, אַמסטערדאַם.

AVROM SUTZKEVER (1913–2010) is considered the premier master of Yiddish poetry. Born in Smorgon, he spent his early childhood in Siberia, to which his family fled during the First World War. He achieved renown as a writer in Vilna in the interwar period, making his reputation in the 1930s as part of the literary group Yung-Vilne, and he later survived the Vilna Ghetto. While much of his early work typifies the interwar Yiddish modernist movement, exalting the beauty of nature, his work spans the entirety of late-20th-century Jewish history, and the Holocaust and its narratives gave rise to much of his poetic landscape. After World War II, Sutzkever immigrated to Tel Aviv, where he spearheaded the literary journal Di goldene keyt (The Golden Chain), a self-conscious attempt to connect with the rich Yiddish literary tradition of Eastern Europe and continue its legacy in Israel.

JAMES NADEL is currently a Fulbright Scholar living and teaching in Baku, Azerbaijan. His research focuses on the history of Yiddish-speaking communities in Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Nadel was a 2017 translation fellow at the Yiddish Book Center. Previously, his translations of Sutzkever have been published in In geveb and The Paper Brigade.