Naomi Speaks to Her Daughters-in-law
By Itzik Manger, translated by Murray Citron
Itzik Manger wrote a series of poems based on the Book of Ruth, only eight of which survive. He was already famous for his many Bible poems, and much else, when in 1938 he moved from Warsaw to Paris. He got out of Paris one jump ahead of the Germans and made his way to Marseilles, North Africa, and then to England, where he spent the war years. When the Ruth poems were published, it was with a note in which Manger said the rest of the series had been lost during his wanderings in North Africa.
Orpah pours from the samovar
Three hot glasses of tea,
The first for her white-haired mother-in-law,
And they sit and drink, all three.
Outside, the darkened summernight—
A temptress dressed in stars—
Calls back love from wherever he strayed,
From work, or dreams, or wars.
And the song she sings, the river repeats,
And the wind from the field of clover.
The road repeats it, the forest repeats it,
It is sung the whole world over.
But to the widows the song though sweet
Is a tale already told.
Ruth is sad, Orpah lost in thought,
And Naomi is tired and old.
Naomi lifts up her head and says,
“My daughters, hear, alas,
The words of a soul that is broken and old,
With a grief that will not pass.
Tomorrow at the break of dawn,
I will start on foot to the west.
In the land where once my cradle was,
There my bones will rest.
And you, my daughters, go you also home,
Take your separate ways,
And my blessing will be with both of you,
Till the end of all your days.”
Naomi is still. The samovar hums.
The oil lamp flickers down.
Over the heads of the widows floats,
Disconsolate, sorrow’s crown.
Itzik Manger was born about 1898, in Czernowitz (today Chernivtsi, Ukraine), when it belonged to the Hapsburg Empire. He was one of the greatest and most popular Yiddish poets of the first half of the twentieth century. Manger was known and loved for his playful rewritings of traditional Jewish stories and his “neo-folksy” style.
Murray Citron is a grandfather and lives in Ottawa. His translations have appeared in print and digital periodicals in Canada, England, and the United States.