Selected and Translated by Barnett Zumoff
This is the third of a series of geographically themed Yiddish poems that will be periodically posted here. Barnett Zumoff conducts the “Mameloshn” column that appears in each issue of Jewish Currents. “Colorado” is translated from the Yiddish as it appears in Emanuel Goldsmith’s Yiddish Literature in America, 1870-2000, Volume 2.
Khayim Grade (1910-1982) is considered possibly the greatest Yiddish novelist, as well as a fine poet. He was a lifelong rival of Yitzkhok Bashevis Zinger (I.B. Singer), but never became as popular as Zinger, perhaps because Grade did not have the good fortune to be translated extensively into English.
Am I on Earth? Am I not on some other star?
The day, like a clear child’s eye, looks down on this district
and I look up through a veil of joyful tears.
Red, flaming cliffs! I’ve met you somewhere before.
But where? When awake or in a hospital bed when I fevered?
Daytime, when the sun was shining, or when it was dark with rain?
I don’t know. I know only that you once approached me,
running stormily and wildly like a pride of lions,
and just like the sunset, you disappeared into my memory.
And though it is hard to believe in a garden of gods,
your flying past me has ignited belief in my heart.
Now you’ve become a bonfire of glowing roses,
you cliffs that I’ve seen soar.
They say the gods reside in your mountain cracks.
I’ve named you “Mesopotamia,”
Mesopotamia, the city in the desert
where Father Abraham’s laden wedding-camels dozed—
that’s what I want to call the caravan of mountain peaks,
and I also call familiarly the army of walkers and riders,
drunk, like me, on the sylvan air and happily celebrating the sunny, clear day.
Stand still, my traveling companion! Listen to the noise of the depths!
What sound is that, a waterfall or the wind in the trees?
Only he who has wept bitterly in the night out of disappointment
can feel the joyous mood of the silent cliffs.
Only he in whose heart a secret sorrow gnaws
and whose hairy head has been burned up by a thought,
only he can understand what the ancient, swaying forest murmurs
and how sweet it is to die in the shade of the trees.
Forward, my companions! Let’s climb higher to the mountain!
We are fated to see further unbelievable wonders today.
Sorrow has only one face beneath its nocturnal veil,
but joy has many faces, my merry traveler.
Blazing red cliffs, like burning towers,
rusty gold Rockies, like heaps of autumn leaves.
Snows and storms have polished you for millennia
and sunshine has melted your golden forms
till you’ve emerged as a garden of gods.
Now you flicker like a chain of Indian bonfires,
glowing stone-bordered bonfires that give us signs
to guide us even farther across the abysses,
till we all reach the snowy mountain peak.
Bin ikh af der erd? Bin ikh nit af an andern shtern?
Der tog, vi a klor kindish oyg, kukt arop af der gegnt,
un ikh kuk aroyf durkh a shlayer fun freydike trern.
Royt flamike feldzn! Ikh hob aykh shoyn ergets bagegnt.
Nor vu? Af der vakh oder af a shpitolbet in fiber?
Bay tog ven di zun hot geshaynt, oder fintster geregnt?
Ikh veys nit. Ikh veys nor az ir zayt mir eyn mol ariber
in shturmishn, vildn gelaf, vi a staye fun leybn,
un glaykh vi in zunfargang—in mayn zikorn farshvundn;
un khotsh es iz shver in a gortn fun geter tsu gleybn,
hot ayer farbayfli dem gloybn in harts mir getsundn.
Itst zayt ir gevorn a sreyfe fun gliike royzn,
ir feldzn, vos ikh hob gezen aykh bafliglte shvebn.
Men zogt az di geter in ayere bargshpaltn hoyzn—
“aram naharayim” hob ikh aykh a nomen gegebn;
aram-naharayim, di shtot in dem midber vu s’dremlen
avrom ovinu’s balodene khasene-kemlen—
azoy vel ikh dem karavan fun di barg-shpitsn rufn.
Un heymish ikh ruf oykh di makhne fun geyer un forer,
vos zaynen vi ikh fun der valdiker luft begilufn,
un yoyvlen fun freyd vos der tog iz a zuniker, klorer.
Blaybt shteyn, mayne mitgeyer! Horkht vi di opgruntn royshn!
Ver rasht dort, a vaserfal oder der vint in di tsvaygn?
Bloyz der vos hot biter geveynt in di nekht fun antoyshung
ken di glikzelikeyt fun di feldzn vos shvaygn.
Bloyz der vos es nogt im a tsar, tif in hartsn farsoydet,
un oysgebrent hot a gedank zayn farvoksenem sharbn,
bloyz er ken farshteyn vos es murmlt der urvald tsehoydet,
un vi es iz zis unter shotns fun beymer tsu shtarbn.
Foroys, mayne mitgeyer! Hekher, tsum barg, lomir shtaygn!
Nit-gleyblekhe vunder iz haynt nokh bashert undz farbaygeyn.
Der tsar hot eyn ponim bloyz unter der nakhtiker shlayer–
di freyd, ober, hot a sakh penimer, lustike geyer.
Royt-brandike feldzn, vi untergetsundene turmes;
gold-rostike rakis, vi kuper fun harbstike bleter;
yortoyznter hobn geshlifn aykh shneyen un shturmes
un zungli geshmoltsn hot ayere goldene furems,
biz ir zayt aroys fun dem furem a gortn fun geter.
Itst flakert ir glaykh vi a keyt fun indianishe shayters,
fun glutik farshteynerte shayters vos gibn undz tseykhns
vi mir zoln iber di opgruntn vandern vayter
biz mir veln ale dem shneyikn bargshpits dergreykhn.