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.

We leapt nimbly over the stones of the street and wound our way from alley to alley and sidestepped the camels and donkeys and waterbearers and idlers and news criers. Until finally my companion came to a stop and said, here’s the house of the one you were looking for. I told her goodbye and went in.

I found the man in his house sitting at his table. I don’t know if he recognized me or not. Since as I entered he’d come up with a novel chidush,2 he carefully explained it to me. And from that chidush to another. As I left I meant to ask him who the woman who’d shown me the way to his house had been, the light of whose face was peace and the affection of whose voice was comfort, but who can silence a scholar as he reveals his chidushim.

A few days later I once again went to the city for the sake a particular old woman, the widow of a rabbi, whose welfare I’d promised her grandson I’d see after before I returned to Jerusalem.

That day marked the beginning of the first of the divisions of the rainy season. The rains had already begun to fall and the sun was covered with clouds. A day like this outside the Land is seen as a spring day, but in Jerusalem which is spoiled by seven or eight months of sunshine, a day the sun doesn’t blaze in full force seems like winter, and everyone hides away from it in houses and courtyards and anywhere they can find a dry corner.

I strolled here and there, taking in the fragrance of the gleefully falling rains, enveloped in colorful mists, tapping against the stones of the streets and drumming on the walls of the houses and dancing atop the roofs and dripping down and pooling into puddles upon puddles, sometimes murky and sometimes clear and gleaming with the rays of sunlight that burst intermittently through the clouds to see if the waters had abated, for in Jerusalem even on a rainy day the sun seeks to play its part.

I walked between the arched shops of the silversmiths, and from there to the spice merchants, and from there to the cobblers and the carpet weavers, and from there to the tiny eateries and from there to the Street of the Jews. Wrapped in the most ragged of rags sat the poor, mindlessly extending their hands from within their wrappings, glaring with fury at everyone who walked past without reaching a hand into his pocket. I had with me a pocketful of pennies, and I went down the line from beggar to beggar and distributed the pennies to each one in turn. Finally I asked about the rebbetzin’s3 house and they directed me.

I walked into one of those courtyards which everyone who lays eyes on doubts if anyone truly lives there, ascended six or seven broken steps and arrived at a warped door. I encountered a cat outside and a heap of refuse within. Due to the steaming cold I didn’t see a single person, but I heard an angry voice weakly asking, who’s there? I lifted my eyes and saw a sort of iron bed, upon it a mound of pillows and blankets, and within the mound lay an irate and surprised old woman.

  1. In this instance, both a commandment and a good turn.
  2. An innovative solution to any number of the many debates raised in the Talmud or other Jewish legal texts.
  3. Yiddish, a rabbi’s wife.

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