Simon's Retreat

By Simon Levinson, Translated and Adapted by Myra Mniewski

Simon Levinson (1870–1928) was a socialist activist and Forward correspondent who spent most of 1927 on assignment searching out Jewish communities in upstate New York in order to report back to Forward readers about Jewish life in the boondocks. His articles depicted Jewish “types” and characters as well as communal life in the state’s remote towns and villages. His writing, while seriously confronting the social and cultural issues of the time, was often droll and playful.

After spending a day tracking down and interviewing Jews in Hoosick Falls, NY, Levinson wrote a wryly comic article about what he’d encountered there (Forward, 4/15/1927). Unlike other towns he’d visited, Levinson struggled in Hoosick Falls to locate the Jewish community. When he did finally manage to encounter some characters he satirized them in his signature style. It wasn’t until the final paragraphs of his account, where Levinson describes the sound of the falling water and how it affected him, that I experienced the writer’s emotional response to his day out in the field. The universal thrashing of the waterfall connected him, through nature, to all beings, from time immemorial to the present. Capturing that frame of mind somehow amplified as well as dispelled the loneliness of the traveling correspondent—a perfect formula for a poem, which inspired me to re-fashion the final paragraphs of his piece into a poem, as it so hauntingly conveyed his mood at the end of a hard day's work.

The project of translating Simon Levinson's Forward articles is being commissioned by his great-granddaughter Marilyn Levinson and her sisters.

When I returned to my hotel
late in the evening
the whole town had already
sunk deep into sleep.

The lash of the nearby waterfall
resounded through the stillness.
Its deafening crash clacked 
like the roar of millions of tongues 
surfacing from underground 
into the night.

It seemed like the stillness was 
deliberately still as if the night
was holding its breath on purpose
inducing the little town
to hold on in quiet anticipation
while the sky and stars peered 
quietly down from above.

Everything around was still,
holding its breath in silent awe,
attentive to the crash of the falling river
that didn’t stop even for a second
but thunderously plunged and plunged
into the stillness of the night.

An ancient spur arose in me
as I began to sense the urge
of early man to kneel unclothed 
and murmur in supplication
to the god 
    of falling waters. . . 

װען איך בין שפּעט אין אָװנט
געגאַנגען צו מײַן האָטעל
איז שוין דאָס גאַנצע שטעטעלע 
געװען פֿאַרזונקען אין טיפֿן שלאָף

דורך דער שטילקײט
האָט זיך געטראָגן אַ הילכיגע פּליאַסקערײַ
פֿונעם נאָנטן װאַסער־פֿאַל.
עס האָט געקנאַקט װי מיט מיליאָנען צונגען
און אַ טויבער גערויש װי פֿון אונטער דער ערד אַרויס
האָט זיך אין דער נאַכט געטראָגן.

און עס האָט זיך אויסגעדוכט
װי די שטילקײט איז אומישנע שטיל געװאָרן
און די נאַכט האָט אומישנע איר אָטעם פֿאַרהאַלטן
און דאָס שטעטעלע האָט זיך אין שטילער
באַגײַסטערונג אויף די שפּיטץ־פֿינגער געשטעלט
און דער הימל מיט די שטערן
האָבן שטיל פֿון אויבן אַרונטערגעקוקט.

און אַלעס אַרום איז געשטאַנען מיט אַ 
פֿאַרכאַפּטן אָטעם און מיט שטילער ערפֿאָרכט
זיך צוגעהערט צום רויש פֿונעם פֿאַלענדיקן טײַך
װאָס האָט אַפֿילע אויף איין רגע ניט אויפֿגעהערט
נאָר איז הילכיק געפֿאַלן און געפֿאַלן
אין דער שטילקײט פֿון דער נאַכט.

אַ שפּאָר פֿון אַלטע גאַנץ אַלטע צײַטן
האָט אין מיר אויפֿגעטויכט 
און איך האָב אין זיך גענומען שפּירן
דעם דראַנג פֿון דעם פֿאַרצײַטיקן מענשן
װען ער איז אויף די נאַקעטע קני געשטאַנען 
און געמורמלט אַ געבעט צום גאָט
פֿון פֿאַלענדיקן װאַסער. . .

 

Myra Mniewski is a poet, writer, Yiddish translator, and teacher. Their work has appeared in Bloom, Bridges, Jewish Currents, In geveb, Forverts and Forward, YIVO online museum, and other venues. They are cofounder of Pollack~Mniewski, Research & Translation, which brings Yiddish to light through translation, multimedia, and performance; a sample of their work can be viewed at jacobmorgenstern.com. Raised to translate for their Yiddish-speaking parents, Mniewski’s relationship to their mother tongue is one of channeling a lost world and, through that, a people whose voices were silenced: "By immersing myself in the voices of my ancestors I’ve been able to meld my love of languages into a vehicle of expression that conveys my own essence and longing."