“On Pride”

Melech Ravitch, translated by Ladislav Charouz, published on February 03, 2020.

Zekharye-Khone Bergner, known under the pen name Melech Ravitch, was a Yiddish poet, writer, and literary scholar. Born in Radymno, Eastern Galicia, Ravitch was brought up speaking German and Polish, however, he began to publish in Yiddish as early as 1910, when his first poems appeared in the periodical Der yidisher arbeyter (The Jewish Worker). In 1912, Ravitch published his first book of poetry, entitled Af der shvel (On the Threshold).  

Ravitch left home at the age of fourteen, residing in Lemberg (Lviv), and Vienna. He joined the Austrian army in the First World War. In 1921, Ravitch left for Warsaw, where he became cofounder of the weekly periodical Literarishe bleter (Literary Pages), a leading journal in the interwar years. In 1935, Ravitch moved to Australia, which he soon left for Argentina, then Mexico, until finally settling in Montreal, where he died in 1976. 

The poem “On Pride” appears in Ravitch’s Nakete lider (Naked Poems) published in 1921. The collection is considered a turning point for the poet, departing from the neoromanticism of Ravitch’s earlier pieces. Abstract, intellectual, and free of rigid stylistic constraints, Nakete lider became an important achievement for modernist poetry in the Yiddish language. “On Pride”, a satirical dialogue between “the Man” and “the Fool”, exhibits the hallmarks of Ravitch’s modernist turn particularly well. The rhyme scheme and meter change organically throughout the poem, which itself overflows with expressive imagery. Ravitch’s soliloquized critique of what he calls “national pride” remains just as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. 

The translator would like to thank Joshua Price for his instruction and for his suggestions on this piece. 

—Ladislav Charouz

***

On Pride

An Ironic Dialogue

The end of summer. A wide village road lined with trees. Before sunset. The Man walks with his eyes wide open and bright. The Fool gesticulates by his side. 

The Fool:

Take back your words,
They’ve stoked the fire of my pride; 
And now it cracks like timber set aflame. 
No time to beat retreat from quarrel’s side,
If you want pardon, you must kneel in shame.
Pride burns the fingertips to toast,
Bow down, pay homage to the tiny ghost.
Do you refuse?! – 
I have the strength to bend your will,
I, Fire-Hill!

The Man:

You understood me wrongly, friend;
Now listen to my words once more, remember them.
An individual’s pride is but a bubble in a glass, 
But this “national pride” of which you’re fond,
Is a big, polluted, soapy pond, 
And old men, young men, grey, blonde, black, lie at its banks 
And cry, and howl, and wail, 
And through long and dirty straws exhale 
Air creating frothy waves.
And your words, my young friend,
Are as far from what’s right,
As day is from night,
As a garden from a mining site,
As joy from sorrow’s blight. Come feel my wrist,
My healthy, human fist,
And count the beats per minute in my blood:
My coolness and my calmness show
Seventy, not so?

The Fool:

Yes, seventy.
Your words prick with irony,
You lost soul!
In spirit, you are a street-running tramp!
Eighteen million [1] voices in my heart call:
Purge the blasphemer from your midst!
And I say to you: Guard yourself well!
The fire swells,
And flaming drops already
Trickle through my veins!

The Man:

Young friend!
The apple trees have borne
Rich fruit this year,
The bread is cheap,
If you are smart, your storehouse overflows,
And the sun shines,
As if it were not autumn yet. 
The pretty girls are older by a blessed year,
And are as fine
As the ruddy apples in the orchard,
And I have heard the poet Dovid Kenigsberg [2]
Sends greetings overflowing 
To the world again this year 
In a book with wondrous poems. 
Oh – the world is still a joy and brims
With young girls who burn quietly at night,
Like village windows,
And black bread at water mills, a slice to bite,
And juicy pears whose coolness is a sweet delight, 
And songs and music bright.

The Fool:

 (had become silent on his part;
And as the sun that shone the close of day
Had clambered down the mountains to depart, 
And at the sea continued on its way,
It shone a final light into his heart,
And he became a man, and man he stayed).

 

[1] By most accounts a somewhat generous estimate of the world’s total Jewish population.

[2] Dovid Kenigsberg (1891–1942?) was a Yiddish-language poet from Eastern Galicia. The work to which Ravitch refers here is Kenigsberg’s Hundert sonetn (One Hundred Sonnets), published in Vienna in 1921. (See more at https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Kenigsberg_Dovid)

 

Ladislav Charouz graduated Yale University in 2019 with a BA in History and English and an MA in History. His undergraduate work focused primarily on modern European history with an emphasis on religion. He is currently a Light Fellow pursuing intensive language study in Mandarin Chinese.

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