We, from Bessarabia

By Meyer Kharats, translated by Sebastian Schulman

Meyer Kharats (1912-1993) is a delightfully folkstimlekher poet whose verse in both style and content reflects the folklore and history of Bessarabian Jewry in the Soviet Union and, later, the alienation of immigrant life in Israel. His work is highly playful, deeply emotional, and beautifully lyrical, often relying on subtle wordplay and idiomatic expression. While not often translated, Kharats' poems have been set to music by the likes of Efim Chorny and Asya Vaisman Schulman, and sung and performed at klezmer festivals the world over. "We, from Bessarabia" is a sort of ironic anthem, the modest hymn of an overlooked, rural, and mostly forgotten tribe of Eastern European Jews. You can listen to Efim Chorny's setting here, performed by Chorny and the band Klezmer Alliance. This is the first poem by Meyer Kharats to be published in English.

A note on the translation: the place names in the text have been rendered as they would be spelled and pronounced in Romanian as used in today's Moldova. According to Romanian grammar, the final "i" in most of these names does not get pronounced as a separate syllable. Rather, the "i" marks the palatalization of the preceding consonant, much like the "soft sign" does in Russian or other Slavic languages. The rhythm of the English translation will work much better if the reader does not pronounce the final "i" as a separate syllable. 

We, from Bessarabia We, those who ride out at dawn every day, all our possessions in wagons of hay. Carrying our bread in dusty old sacks, salted snacks in our mouths, joy on our backs. We, from Mărculești, Zgurița, Lipcani, Bălți, Soroca, Fălești, and Briceni. We, from Ungheni, Sculeni, and Rîșcani. We, the Banars, Sepunars, the Baltsans… We, those who don’t even know when or where how we took on the strange names that we bear. Maybe they’ve always come from right here— From the town of Briceva or the fields very near? We, those who look just like one another in our places of work, in our sisters and brothers, in our faults, in our talents, in bad and in good, in porches, in basements, in homes made of wood. We, those who’ve cracked the whips on their hides, fed the sheep, shoed a horse before a ride. Cows we have milked, their calves we have raised, cleaned their filthy stalls in honor and praise. We, those who sow, who harvest and reap, saddled the horses, and sheared from the sheep, adopted the ways of Moldavian folk, summertime we wear a wool hat and a cloak. Free from the whims of the cities and towns, far from Vilna and its rabbi’s renown. We are not sinners, we are not saints, our piety—modest, our trespasses—quaint. After our meals, we drink red and white and after drinking, we take one more bite. If punishment waits after death at the end the whips will fray on our backs as we bend. We, Bessarabians, say it out loud: we are not cowards, we are not proud. Jews plain and simple, just off to the side. Away from the others, our time we shall bide…

מיר, באַסאַראַבער

מיר, װאָס מיר פֿאָרן אַרױס אין פֿאַרטאָגן,  פֿירן דאָס גאַנצע פֿאַרמעגן אין װאָגן,  שלעפּן די ברױטן פֿון טאָרבעס פֿון גראָע  עסן געזאַלצנס און האָבן הנאה.  מיר מאַרקולעשטער, זגוריצער, ליפּקאַנער,  בעלצער, סאָראָקער, פֿאַלעשטער, בריטשאַנער,  מיר די אונגענער, סקולענער, רישקאַנער,  מיר די באַנאַרס, סעפּונאַרס און באַלצאַנער  מיר, װאָס מיר װײסן אַלײן ניט פֿון װאַנען,  אונדזערע מאָדנע פֿאַמיליעס שטאַמען,  אפֿשר פֿון אײביק אָן פֿון דאַנען,  פֿון די פֿעלדער פֿון בריטשעװאַנען?  מיר, װאָס מיר סאַמעװען אײנער אין צװײטן  סײַ מיט די פּנימער, סײַ מיט די קלײטן,  סײַ מיט די מעלות, סײַ מיט די פֿעלערס,  סײַ מיט די גאַניקעס, סײַ מיט די קעלערס.  מיר, װאָס מיר האָבן מיט בײַטשן געפֿאָכעט,  לעמער געפֿיטערט און פֿערדלעך געקאָװעט,  קי געמאָלקן און קעלבלעך געכאָװעט,  שטאַלן גערײניקט אין עושר און כּבֿוד.  מיר, װאָס מיר האָבן געזײט און געשניטן,  לעמער געשױרן און פֿערדלעך געביטן,  איבערגענומען מאָלדאַװישע זיטן  זומער צו טראָגן אַ שאָפֿן היטל.  אָן קאַפּריזן, אָן יעדער שגעון,  װײַט פֿון דער װעלט פֿונעם װילנער גאון,  ניט קײן צדיקים און ניט קײן רשעים,  קלײנע למדנים מיט קלײנע חטאים.  עסן, פֿאַרטרינקען מיט רױטן, מיט װײַסן,  נאָכן טרינקען איז װידער פֿאַרבײַסן,  אױב מע װעט אױף יענער װעלט שמײַסן,  װעט זיך אױף אונדז די בײַטש צערײַסן.  מיר, באַסאַראַבער, קומען זיך מעלדן׃  ניט קײן פּחדנים און אױך ניט קײן העלדן,  ייִדן אַזױ זיך, מע לעבט אין אַ זײַט זיך  פֿון ד'אַנדערע ייִדן ביז װאַנען מע בײַט זיך. 

 

Sebastian Schulman is the Executive Director of KlezKanada, a leading organization in the world of Yiddish culture and klezmer music, and a literary translator from Yiddish and other languages. He has taught and spoken on topics in Yiddish culture and Jewish history at universities and other institutions across North America and eastern Europe. Sebastian is an alum of the Yiddish Book Center and served as a faculty member and was the Director of the Yiddish Book Center's Translation Fellowship, an annual year-long program that supports Yiddish literary translators. His original writing and translations have appeared in Words Without BordersNiv, ANMLY, Electric LiteratureThe Forward, and elsewhere. Schulman's translation of Spomenka Stimec’s Esperanto-language novel Croatian War Nocturnal was published by Phoneme Media/Deep Vellum in 2017. He lives in Montréal, Québec (Tiohtiá:ke, Unceded Kanien’kehá:ka Territory).

Read more from Meyer Kharats in the original Yiddish through the Yiddish Book Center's Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.