Apr 262014

Well, with the help of Soul and Gone’s resident Mysterious Masked Man who happens to be a scholar of Italian Jewish literature and history, we’ve solved the mystery of yesterday’s poem. The intended target of this poetic bromance was Avraham ha-Cohen of Zante, a physician, Jewish scholar and poet from Crete who studied medicine in Padua (where he befriended Ferrarese and the local circle of poets) and spent his life on Zante, known better as Zakynthos, a Greek island which was then under the dominion of La Serenissima Repubblica, the glorious-if-often-douchey Venetian Empire.

It bears mentioning, first of all, that there’s a long tradition of Hebrew poets writing epistles of praise to one another, often over incredible distances. The Andalusi poets did this all the time, and they yielded some very fine works which I haven’t yet gotten around to translating (I’ve been more interested in translating the diss poems, as my longtime readers may have noticed). Generally, if the poet on the receiving end was touched, he would respond in kind, conventionally in the same style, often using the same rhymes (as in the poem below).

It also bears mentioning that the poem Avraham wrote below in response to Mordechai Ferrarese is, unfortunately, a little bit racist. Any good student of history knows that it’s often unhelpful to retroject our modern mores when we study historical figures, but…well, it’s not a lovely metaphor. But it is what it is. As you might expect, Cohen inverts Ferrarese’s praise, downplaying his own merits while extolling Ferrarese’s. It would all be rather sweet were it not for the whole race thing. But hey, in the denouement of the saga of Ḥever the Kenite’s unfortunate marriage in Yehuda al-Harizi’s Taḥkemoni, he beats his new bride to death with a stick and it’s played for laughs, so, you know, taking a broad view of Hebrew poetry, it could be worse.

Avraham ben Shabbetai ha-Cohen of Zante (early 18th century)
An Ethiop Whose Skin Bears a Tale

An Ethiop whose skin bears a tale, not of grace,
But of darkness, not light, bestowed by the skies;
Towards all watchers will flow the smoke of her face,
A river of tears too from their sobbing eyes.

Though in the mirror her clothes too she’ll embrace
Brightly-hued garments, fur collars, her guise,
Bracelets and bangles and jewels all in place,
But double’s the shame, twice as black she’ll arise.

A sad man is he who would don his own crown
To the youths in the street he’d be scorn’s very height;
His fine silks are mud, they disgrace the sapphire,

But your poems are marv’lous, with excess they’ve shone,
The blackest of skin they’d turn bright with delight,
The hand of a wretch with their grace they’ve brought higher.

אברהם בן שבתאי הכהן מזנטי
כושית אשר עורה לעד עליה

כּוּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר עוֹרָהּ לְעֵד עָלֶיהָ
חֹשֶׁךְ וְלֹא אוֹר כּוֹנֲנוּ שָׁמָיִם
יַגֵּר בְּרוֹאֶיהָ עֲשַׁן פָּנֶיהָ
נַחַל דְּמָעוֹת מִבְּכִי עֵינָיִם.
גַּם כִּי בְמַרְאֶה תַּעֲרֹךְ כֵּלֶיהָ
בִּגְדֵי צְבָעִים עִם סְגוֹר פַּרְוָיִם
צָמִיד וְאֶצְעָדָה וְקִשּׁוּרֶיהָ
מִשְׁנֶה כְלִמּוֹת הֵם שְׁחוֹר כִּפְלָיִם.
נִקְשֶׁה אֲשֶׁר יִשָּׁא בְרֹאשוֹ כֶּתֶר
קֶלֶס נְעָרִים הוּא בְּחוּצוֹת קָרֶת
הַבּוּץ לִבֹץ יִהְיֶה לְבוּז אַחְלָמָה.
אַךְ שִׁירְךָ מַפְלִיא וְנָתוֹן יֶתֶר
עוֹר יַהֲפֹךְ כּוּשִׁי בְּאוֹר תִּפְאָרֶת
וִימִין קְשֵׁה יוֹם עַל־עֲרָבוֹת רָמָה.


Kúshit ‘ashér ʕoráh le-ʕéid ʕaléha
Ḥóshekh ve-ló ‘or konaná shamáyim
Yagéir be-ro’éha ʕashán panéha
Náḥal demaʕót mi-bekhí ʕeináyim.

Gam ki ve-mar’éh taʕarókh keiléha
Bigdéi tzevaʕím ʕim segór parváyim
Tzamíd ve-‘etzʕadáh ve-qishuréha
Mishnéh khelimót heim sheḥór kifláyim.

Niqshéh ‘ashér yisá ve-roshó kéter
Qéles neʕarím hu be-ḥutzót qáret
Ha-bútz li-vótz yihyéh le-vúz ‘aḥlámah.

‘Akh shirkhá maflí ve-natón yéter
ʕor yahafókh kúshi be-‘ór tif’áret
Vimín qeshéh yom ʕal ʕaravót rámah.

Apr 262014

I found my last literary translation exercise an enjoyable diversion from both the torrent of poems for this site and some more serious translations I’m working on that will hopefully bear fruit soon, be-sha`ah tovah u-mutzlaḥat. And since Agnon is the master of the modern Hebrew short story and I have most of his books, I thought why not tackle in stages a few of his short stories until I either get bored or sued by his estate, whichever comes first? So with that in mind, I have set out to translate “Tehilla,” which, like “Agunot,” is also a Jerusalem story, but of a very different sort, written decades later soon after the War of Independence (and, I should remind you, the loss of the Old City of Jerusalem). Unlike “Agunot,” “Tehilla” isn’t neatly organized into chapters, so I’m just going to translate however much I feel like, whenever I feel like it, and if you don’t like it, check out those other Hebrew poetry and literature translation blogs. So without further ado:


There was an old woman in Jerusalem. A fine woman whose like you’ve not seen in all your days. Righteous she was, and knowing she was, and graceful she was, and modest she was. The light of her eyes was kindness and mercy, the wrinkles of her brow were blessings and peace. Were it not for the impropriety of comparing women to angels, I would compare her to an angel of G-d. And this too she had: the spryness of a girl. Were it not for the garments of dotage upon her, not a trace of old age was apparent.

Before I’d left Jerusalem I hadn’t known her; after I’d returned to Jerusalem, I did. And how had I not known her before? How do you not know her now? It’s simply that every man is meant to know who he knows, at the time that he knows him, for the reason he knows him. For what reason did she come to know me? The story was that I went to visit one of the scholars of Jerusalem who lived near the Western Wall and was unable to find the house. I found instead a woman approaching with a water jug and asked her. She told me, come and I’ll show you. I said, you don’t need to bother yourself, just tell me where to turn and I’ll be on my way. She smiled and said, what do you care if this old woman merits a mitzvah?1 I said, if it’s a mitzvah, then by all means, but at least give me the jug in your hand. She smiled and said, you’re asking me to lessen the mitzvah . I said, I’m not asking to lessen the mitzvah, only your burden. She said, it’s no bother, it’s a privilege, a privilege that the Holy One Blessed Be He allowed his creations to look after their needs with their own hands.

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  1. In this instance, both a commandment and a good turn.