Jan 192013

This is the best psalm. There is nothing mannered about it. It is raw and direct. Its abrupt shifts in emotional tenor, alternately tenderly poignant and brutally ugly, and its spare, fractured language and cadence perfectly capture and express the horror of dispossession and exile.

It also seems to be a psalm that, judging from what I’ve observed among the Internet’s swollen ranks of armchair exegetes, seems to disturb Christian readers, since it becomes so abruptly and viciously violent. I haven’t observed much hand-wringing over it in Jewish circles, on the other hand; I don’t know if that’s because most Anglophone Jews are not entirely aware what they’re saying when they recite psalms in Hebrew, or if Jews are simply capable of identifying with the Bible’s instances of narrowly national/ethnic sentiment (however occasionally ugly) in a way that Christians aren’t. I don’t know. Maybe a bit of both. If one needs, for theological reasons, to approach the Bible solely as a universalist religious text, divested of its nagging parochialism, then certain things are hard to countenance.

(I have, however, noticed that while Jews often quote the middle section (“if I forget you…”), especially in Zionist contexts, the last section is dropped out. I believe this does damage to the integrity of the work. The ugliness of this psalm’s closing wish is part of what makes it such an effective piece.)

And, to make a graceful segue, among other (vaguely) Abrahamic religions, the Rastafarians certainly found something to identify with in Psalm 137 (Rastafarianism itself is basically a cultural/religious system built on identification with Biblical Jewish content, but that’s an essay for another time). So because everyone likes the posts with music more than the posts with just regular boring poetry, I have attached the Melodians’ famous “Rivers of Babylon,” an early reggae masterpiece. Boney M. – raḥmana litzlan – covered it, and a lot of people seem inclined to attribute it to stoner trio Sublime (though their cover isn’t much to pass the kutchie over) – but really, whaa di ras claat yuh chat bout wi dat? Cho! I an’ I your raaaaankin’ selectah, stricktly original reggae version mi haffi bring yuh! Come mek wi go mash it up nuh!

The Melodians - Rivers of Babylon

As Rastafarians are wont to do, they, well, Rastafarianize the text a bit. “The Lord” becomes “King Alpha,” because why not? You may also notice that they insert a chunk of Psalm 19, which should be familiar to the siddur-literate Jew from its placement in the closing section of the Amidah. Rastafarians are so Jewish.

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon
  there we sat
and there we wept
  remembering Zion.
On willows there within
  we hung our lyres —
for there our captors asked for words of song
  and our tormentors – joy!
“Sing for us a song of Zion!”
  How can we sing God’s song on foreign soil?
If I forget you, Jerusalem
  may my hand forget itself;
let my tongue cleave to my palate
  if I do not remember you,
if I fail to set Jerusalem
  above my foremost joy.
Remember, God, the sons of Edom
  that day in Jerusalem
saying, “Strip her! Lay her bare to her foundation!”
  You daughter of plundered Babylon:
happy is he who pays you your due as you paid us;
  happy is he who grabs your babies and smashes them on the rocks.

תהילים קל״ז
עַל נַהֲרוֹת בָּבֶל
שָׁם יָשַׁבְנוּ
גַּם בָּכִינוּ
בְּזָכְרֵנוּ אֶת צִיּוֹן.
עַל עֲרָבִים בְּתוֹכָהּ
תָּלִינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵינוּ.
כִּי שָׁם שְׁאֵלוּנוּ שׁוֹבֵינוּ דִּבְרֵי שִׁיר
וְתוֹלָלֵינוּ שִׂמְחָה
שִׁירוּ לָנוּ מִשִּׁיר צִיּוֹן.
אֵיךְ נָשִׁיר אֶת שִׁיר יְהוָה עַל אַדְמַת נֵכָר.
אִם אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם
תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי.
תִּדְבַּק לְשׁוֹנִי לְחִכִּי
אִם לֹא אֶזְכְּרֵכִי
אִם לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת יְרוּשָׁלַ‍ִם
עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי.
זְכֹר יְהוָה לִבְנֵי אֱדוֹם
אֵת יוֹם יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם
הָאֹמְרִים עָרוּ עָרוּ עַד הַיְסוֹד בָּהּ.
בַּת בָּבֶל הַשְּׁדוּדָה
אַשְׁרֵי שֶׁיְשַׁלֶּם לָךְ אֶת גְּמוּלֵךְ שֶׁגָּמַלְתְּ לָנוּ
אַשְׁרֵי שֶׁיֹּאחֵז וְנִפֵּץ אֶת עֹלָלַיִךְ אֶל הַסָּלַע.


ʕal naharót bavél
sham yashávnu
gam bakhínu
be-zokhréinu ‘et tziyón
ʕal ʕaravím be-tokháh
talínu kinorotéinu.
Ki sham she’eilúnu shovéinu divréi shir
ve-tolaléinu simḥáh
Shíru lánu mi-shír tziyón.
‘Eikh nashír ‘et shir ‘adonái ʕal ‘admát neikhár?
‘Im ‘eshkáḥeikh yerushaláyim
tishkáḥ yemini.
Tidbák leshoní le-ḥikí
‘im lo ‘ezkeréikhi
‘im lo ‘aʕaléh ‘et yerushaláyim
ʕal rosh simḥatí.
Zekhór ‘adonái livnéi ‘edóm
‘et yom yerushaláyim
ha-‘ómrim ʕáru ʕáru ʕad ha-yesód bah.
Bat bavél ha-shedudáh
‘ashréi she-yeshaléim lakh ‘et gemuléikh she-gamált lánu
‘ashréi she-yoḥéiz ve-nipéitz ‘et ʕolaláyikh ‘el ha-sálaʕ.