“Mortality”

Yehoash, translated by Marvin Zuckerman, published on January 02, 2020.

Yehoash (Yehoyesh) is one of the major Yiddish poets of the modern period. I.L. 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 Yiddish 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.

In 1890 Yehoash emigrated to New York. He then wrote in Hebrew for a short time, without success. All his literary work thereafter was in Yiddish. 

In 1900 Yehoash fell ill with tuberculosis and was sent to the Jewish Sanitarium in Denver, Colorado, where he remained for the next nine years. In 1902 he began contributing to the Tsukunft. In addition to poems of his own, he published there his translations of Byron's poems on Biblical themes, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and Dimitri Merezhkovsky's, "Sakia Muni."  In 1910, Yehoash published his translation of Hiawatha

From 1916 until the day of his death (1927) he worked on his translation of the Hebrew Bible. Between 1926 and 1936, it appeared in eight volumes, including two volumes of scholarly annotations. It was widely acclaimed. 

The body of Yehoash's own poetry is a magnificent achievement. His Romantic lyricism differentiated his work both from the earlier sweatshop poets, on the one hand, and from the modernists on the other.

—From Marvin Zuckerman's entry on Yehoash in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Writers in Yiddish, pp. 337-343.

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Mortality

(A free verse translation by Marvin Zuckerman of a rhymed and metrical Yiddish poem by Yehoash)

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

 

Marvin Zuckerman has had eight books published, two English college textbooks, six in the field of Yiddish, and many articles, including a lengthy one on Yehoash, in Volume 333 of the reference book,  Dictionary of Literary Biography: Writers in Yiddish. His translation of Tsvantsik yor in varshever Bund by Bernard Goldstein was published by Purdue University Press in 2016.

Read the original Yiddish version of "Mortality" in the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.