I come to visit a rabbi,
a purportedly wise and learned man.
Are you Jewish? – he asks me
with a self-important look.
Well, undoubtedly, I’m Jewish.
Just take a look at my name;
it will tell you a lot about me.
With this name, it wasn’t easy
to live in the Soviet state.
But the rabbi doesn’t care.
He speaks sharply. He interrupts.
Do I light the Shabbat candles
every week before Shabbat?
That’s what worries him,
that’s what matters the most to him.
It’s not nice to lie to the rabbi:
No, I don’t light the Shabbat candles.
But, honestly, I remember
all the signs of being Jewish
that were typical for us.
I affirm: my mom and dad,
my uncles and my aunts
spoke and read and wrote in Yiddish.
But the Rabbi isn’t moved.
Did your mother light the candles? –
he goes on stubbornly.
And again, I must be honest:
“If she lit the Shabbat candles,
that is not what I remember,
but she baked the most delicious
hamentashen for Purim,
and she cooked gefilte fish
for Rosh Hashanah.”
This upsets the poor rabbi,
he is shaking in frustration:
Did your grandma light the candles? –
now he almost screams at me.
Sadly, I never met my grandma:
she had been forced into the ghetto.
In those days the light was fading,
how could she think of candles?
Not the candles – Auschwitz ovens
burned daily at that time,
so that people of her nation
would burn in fires worse than hell.
Grandmother, surely, was Jewish,
no one doubted that for a moment,
no one asked her any questions,
when they came to take her life.
I’m certainly no wiser than you,
you’re a scholar, an orthodox,
and a highly respected bookworm,
but I can decide without you
who I am and to whom I was born.
Those ovens are still burning
in my speech; it is full of fires–
take them for your Shabbat candles
and don’t you dare blow them out!
Rebecca Levitant was born and raised in Vilnius. She graduated from Vilnius University. Since 1996 she has been living in New York, where she graduated from Adelphi University. She works as a teacher, and writes poetry and prose. She is the author of two poetry books, “Parallel World” (2004) and “Mirror in Love” (2015), as well as many publications in literary magazines, almanacs and online.
These English poems by Gari have the same energy and elegance as his Russian poems, and they are enriched by his multilayered, polyphonic use of the English language to express thoughts and feelings with sophistication and humor.
This new edition by Shearsman Press (UK) contains translations of Marina Tsvetaeva’s narrative poems (поэмы). They can be seen as markers of various stages in her poetic development, ranging from the early, folk-accented On a Red Steed to the lyrical-confessional Poem of the Mountain and Poem of the End to the more metaphysical later poems, An Attempt at a Room, Poem of the Mountain, a beautiful requiem for Rainer Maria Rilke, New Year’s Greetings, and Poem of the Air, a stirring celebration of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight and the quest for the soul’s freedom. These translations were first published by Ardis in 1998 and reprinted by Overlook in 2004 and 2009. The current edtion was published by Shearsman Press (UK) in 2021.