Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Atternen Ju at a death and a birth

In my ongoing translation of the narrative poem, The Atternen Juez Talen, I just completed these two scenes. They take place in the Franko-Germanic region of Metz in the year 1039 CE. Our hero has brought letters from the kingdom of Granada to be delivered to the greatest sage of the era, Rabbenu Gershom, the "light of the exile." Thus...

A month of roadin’ and changin’ names and here I am in the verdant vales of Metz, preparin’ to meet the Rav, Rabbenu Gershom, the light of galut*.
                        * Hebrew: exile

A little aside.
How long it’s been since my thoughts turned to Aden. How far the road to Jerusalem. How far our Lor, the ways in You. Once I thought I could walk the way. Then I hoped I could find the way. Now I wonders if there is a way. How far, our Lor? The eye can’t see.

Yet, this is the Palace our Lor created, this world and its talkin’ spirits, us. If we say it is fallen, we are to blame, and we are the architects to renew the Ark....

So I finds my way to the street of Jews, but every alley and lane is blocked with crowds of people shovin’ and wild with wailin’ and screamin’ and beatin’ of breasts.

Into a passage lined with stalls sellin’ belts and shoes and leather goods, I push my way just to free myself from the crush. A man signals to me and rushes up a stair to a balcony. And there down below a street of wails, shoulder to shoulder, such a cry rises up. No king never got such an outburst of tears.

Then the dirgin’ women mad-stagger along, mixin’ their lamentations into the crowd. The din of it all shakes the walls, but just for a moment, it sounded to me like two lutes playin’, melodies entwined, translatin’ the spirit as it leaves this world, its tales of woe and longin’ for joy. Many’s the women leadin’ the mourning. And here comes the coffin, hoisted on high, on the shoulders of the six that are bearin’ the box, it draped in fabric, billowin’, black.

Somehow the crowd folds itself back and the coffin passes thru. And there he lies, an ancient, white bearded sage of a man, wearin’ his kittel* and a saintly smile. Tiny he is, like a withered bouquet.
                        * death gown; shroud

“And who can that be?” I murmur to myself, and the man beside me, looks aghast, and sneers at me,
“Are you a worm? What hole do you live in? You even a Jew?”
“A wanderin’ worm, I suppose,”  says I. “I just arrived from Muslim Spain with important letters for the Light of the Galut.”
“Well, there’s the Light; a flame gone out, and all the worlds are dimmer now. Your travels are wasted. You can go back home.”

Bit as I were by his snippy talk, the shock of his words corked up my mouth. And then like a hand  grabbin’ my wrist, the great man’s spirit sweeps over me, and quickly drags me back down the stairs and into the crowd, that’s heavin’ and contortin’, like behemoth himself is grippin’ us all and slowly trudgin’ behind the corpse.

We comes to a river and an old stone bridge, then follows the stream on the other side. Tiresome long to the burial place, yet a ten minute walk any other day.

Outside the graveyard they set the box down and drag it by rope the last thirty steps, as if to scrape with an adze or a file the last traces of this earth from his soul. Or maybe the gratin’ and grind and bump is to warn his spirit of the darkness ahead.

“Four steps and chant our woe. Four steps at the end of the road. Four steps; our life so brief. Four steps; death a release. Four steps, and the grass is fade. Four steps; the Lor is breathe. Four steps; the earth reseeds.*”
                        Others say ‘recedes’

No doubt Isaiah and King David said it better, but that’s my translation of the death-wailin’ march.

Now the hespeds,* the heapin’ of praises, usually enough to fill the whole grave, but in this case we’re talkin’ the Light of Galut. Except maybe Moshe** and some prophets and kings, who stands taller than the rabbi of Metz?
                        * Hebrew for ‘eulogy’
                        ** Hebrew for ‘Moses’

Then ropemen heft the coffin once more, walk it over Gehenna’s* door, and ease it into its worm hole. Then each man heaves a shovelful of dirt to fill the yawning jaws of the grave. And like the Reed Sea that split in two, two lines form in the mournin’ crowd, and between walks the family, touchin’ hands amidst murmurs like “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion’...
                        * an after-death place related to ‘purgatory’

Well, I still got these letters for someone to read. If it won’t be Gershom, then the one in his stead. I have a pretty good clue who it will be from the crew that gave the eulogies and the way the pack postured and growled and who was bitin’ and who was yippin’.

At the end of the shiva* I make appeals to Ya’akov ben Yakar but his door is closed to mourn his rav for thirty days. But then he eagerly calls on me to deliver my epistles and be on my way. Problem is: I don’t see myself just bein’ a delivery boy. Spite of my stumbles and crude appearance, I’m like to parley with the bitin’ dogs and not them as yip or skulk or drool.
                        * seven days of mourning

And so I bargains,
“It’s a long and windy road, and dangers there be and letters get lost or are easily confiscated or robbed. You need to confide your tikkun* with me, in case I survives but the letters don’t.”
                        * Hebrew: interpretations and conflict resolutions

And then I adds, just to nail it tight,
“Espania and all of Afrik awaits the definin’ word from the din* of Metz.** Even Sura and Pumbedit let their standards blow in your wind.”
                        * Hebrew: judge, judgement;
                        ** others say: ‘din emet’, Hebrew: judge of truth

His face don’t let his thoughts escape but I can see he’s readin’ me, and plenty of flatter has been dished to him. What I don’t know is, how worldly wise he be of the thievin’ officials and desperate poor and connivin’ traders and murderous crows, the flood and fire and storm and plague that walk and stalk and snake the road.

“I must study the words your prince has written and prepare responses to all of his questions. Once I know its critical mass I can then determine the force of it, and whether your eyes can bear to see. But in the mean, to ease our wait, a nephew has been born to a notable, a student of Gershom’s, Shimon of Mainz. In three days is his brit milah.* Why not come and celebrate?”
                        *Hebrew: covenant of circumcision

Well, I always goes to a brit milah. Eliezer’s verses* declare the feast will save from Gehenna.** Seein’ this world, I got no taste for anything worse. Or to flip it over, the taste of the feast is rarely better than at a brit.
                        * Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, chapt. 29
                        ** see note on Gehenna above

That particular brit hardly stood out from the hundreds I’ve witnessed. The scrawny lad was held by his sandak*, that same Rabbi Shimon. The infant hardly squawked at all, then heartily sucked the wine-soaked bib. I remembers this brit for only one thing, as the first of many a meeting I had with Shlomo Yitzchaki, Rashi the Sage. We didn’t discuss much Torah that day. Of course, he was only eight days old.
                        * godfather who holds the baby during the ceremony

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sofer writing a Megillah scroll

The video below shows Jeffrey Shulevitz working on writing a Megillah scroll (scroll of the Book of Esther). In the audio portion of the video, I talk about some of the advice Jeffrey has to offer.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

A scene from Arabian Nights

I just finished translating the following scene from The Atternen Juez Talen, taking it from MetaEnglish (stevetok) to Old English (what you call "normal" English, as if there's something normal about it), and from poetry to prose.  I hope you enjoy it.

Here's the setting:
The Atternen Ju (Eternal Jew) is an associate and agent of Shmuel HaNagid, the vizier of the king of Granada, 1039 CE. Sent as the king's emissary to Metz, he has been thrown in jail as a spy while entering Gaul from Spain. Meanwhile, back in Garnottah (Granada's old name), his wife Batkoel is having her own adventures. Here they are (but remember, this is a reflection, being told by the Eternal Jew, so the story is in his voice)...

Back in Garnottah Butkoel arises from her modest and withdrawn place in the court. Free of constraints, and walkin’ the streets, she sees the straits of women and girls. Outcast they are, downcast, domineered, and cowed. Like chattel by law and by fisty men.

Weeks and days she walks and she broods. At last, she makes a plea to the king,
“Let me start a school for girls.”
“Away with you! A woman you are and have no right to sue the king!”
But words come round to Shmuel the Prince and he sits with Butkoel, and this is her say:
“Half the people in this land have no voice. Are we nothing but cows to milk and to plow? You have cut out our tongues; why not cut off our hands? Would the king poke out his falcon's eye, or cut off a leg of his cavalry’s horse? So why do you hobble us? Give us a school. Give us the tools to think and to build, and double the worth of the land and the crown.”

Times pass, then a moment comes when Shmuel is sittin' in the royal lounge chattin' with his king. “Once I sailed to a distant land where the sun was  bright and the soil rich, and everywhere orchards with fruitful trees, but the people languished, hungry and weak.”

“Strange”, says the king. “Why was this so?”
“The people must let a half of the fruit rot on the ground for bird and beast.”
“What a foolish king and a foolish law. The people should rise up and drive him out.”
“That king is you, oh honorable one!”

Then the king jumps up and furious roars, and Shmuel is sure his head will roll. But quickly, composure returns to the king.
“Surely I am not so foolish as that. My land is wealthy; the people thrive.”
“But how much more if women too could learn and work and build up the land.”

“That Jewess has captured your ear, I see. And if she catches your eye, your heart is next. But let her go out and start her school. We will quickly see that a woman’s skill is in boiling troubles and spinning lies.”
Then he leaves his vizier in a foul mood. And thus thinks Shmuel:
That’s not the last time this matter will growl and bite at me.

A school for girls is no simple thing. Where will it be and who will attend and who will teach and what texts will they use?

But who will teach? That’s a harder thing. Teachers are plentiful, but all are men, and forbidden to be alone with girls. In any case, which of them approves of girls learning to read? Probably not a single one.

And if a teacher falls from the sky where is a father who will send his girl to be more educated and learned than him? And if teachers and fathers rain from the sky where’s the rabbi, imam, and priest to agree about which holy text they will learn?

Thinking all this, Shmuel’s fears allay.
‘This episode will pass. The king will be stung by it no more.’

Butkoel, all excited and open eyes, has  already found three empty rooms where the baths of the harem used to be, behind the ovens that heat the tanks of water supplyin’ the new hamam.* Open rooms with brickwork domes full of lights for the sun to shine in, and plenty of space for many a girl.
                        * baths

On the first day of Chanukah, Kislev 25, forty eight hundred years into creation; in the month of Rabi, 431, the years since Muhammad fled from mobs in Mecca; and December 17 of 1039 by the Christian count of when their Lor came down. That’s when Butkoel opens the door of her school, a modern Chanukah*. Hardly two months since she spoke to the king. Twenty two girls sit there that day, twelve of them Jews; of the Muslims, eight; and two Christian girls who had to sneak past their mothers who never heard of such a thang.
                        * means “dedication” in Hebrew

Them mothers come rushin’ in just about noon,
“Where’s my girls? You give ‘em right back! Abductin’ them to pollute their minds. There’s work to be done, you lazy brats.”
Then they looks around all scowl and accuse, and their girls stand up in trembly fear. And here come Butkoel, calm and smilin’, and says, “Do you know who’s teachin’ your girls? Come meet her. She's one of the wives of the king.”
You could see just a little knife in that smile.

Real quick, them women’s faces change. Their words slop out like soup on the floor.
“Well I didn’t... my clothes... my baby back home...”
But it’s too late; she’s already standin’ there, and walks right up, face to face with the most forward mother, and grabs her arm and gives her a kiss on each dirty cheek. And then the other, kissin’ the same. Both of them just about falls in a swoon. Fear, astonishment, glory, pride. You can already see how fast they’ll run back to their neighbors to sashay and purr.

Butkoel steps up to introduce.
“Ladies, you are honored to stand before Katrina, daughter of the prince of Trier. And your honorable queen, these are the mums of your two students, Camile and Jasmine. Dames, would you like to tell us your names?”

The next day, just after sunrise prayers, the clouds still gilded in scarlet and gold, a storm gathers, like clouds stacked up, and wave after wave pushin’ and shovin’. There’s priests and fathers, mothers and girls, some of them wantin’ heads on a plate, some wantin’ to get their girls in the school. Then comes a gendarme, who turns back in dismay, and runs to enlist the king’s guard, all they can spare. Then comes the gawkers, the pickpockets and thieves, all raisin’ a clamor that rings thru the street.

Then another wave sweeps over the mob, startin’ at a corner by the palace gate and slowly ripplin’ over the square. It starts with gasps, and silence behind. As if the storm is swallowed up into a bottle and corked up tight.

The king! And all the storm’s in him. He’s  the bottle ready to blow its cork.
“Just as I said; here’s women’s work: pots boiled over and troubles spun. Where’s the woman? Where is she? Bring that Butkoel, bound, to me!”
As he walks with his guards to the school’s gate the crowd hisses and seethes back as if the king was a red-hot iron.

From the other direction, more hiss and seethe as Butkoel approaches, flanked by two queens. And there in the midst of the crowd they meet, the force of a storm meets the face of a cliff. The face of the king, facin’ his queens, both are stormy. Butkoel between.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

The Atternen Ju meets a vizier

As you may know, I'm working on a prose translation back to "old English" (normal English to everyone but me) of my narrative poem, The Atternen Juez Talen (The Eternal Jew's Tale).

I just finished translating a scene in which he and his wife have undergone a difficult trip from Kairouan (in current Tunisia) to Garnotta (now Granada) to deliver a message to the vizier, Shmuel haNagid (Samuel the Prince)....

Long we are hustled down lightless halls and then, behold, marble baths, steamy and clean and smellin’ of mint. There, two attendants take my clothes, soak me, and scrub me with pumice and soap. They cuts my hair and oil it smooth and bring me new robes like the high-born wear. My own clothes they throw in a bin of rags. Probably use them to mop the floor.

“Now you are ready to meet the vizier.”
And I thinks, ‘Now I knows how Joseph felt when they whisked him from jail to interpret dreams.’

Butkoel come out, her hair in braids, lookin’ like a princess in silk and lace. And what’s that rosy tint on her cheek, and crimson lips like poppy blooms? And I think to myself, not without fear,
“When they brought Bathsheba to David’s room, no doubt they prepared her just like this. Will they send me, like Uriah, out to my death?”

Where next we’re led.... We enters a room like I never seen, and my fears fade. Casement windows with diamond panes inset in deep niches in the wall, with faceted peaks and surfaces in tile, glazed in a sparkly floral designs. Giant tapestries hang on the wall and couches upholstered in minute brocade of geometric patterns, who can describe? A table set with silver plates gilded with a delicate filigree, and silver utensils and silver bowls and silver pitchers all beaded and etched. And cups propped up on thin little pipes; goblets they call them, like drinkin’ from a flower made of glass.

And at every window and every door attendants with cocked heads and haughty stares, weighin’ our thoughts. Not chamberlains these snooty pages, but angels of death with bonebreaker hands.

And just as I wonders, ‘what should I do?’ a door bursts open and a guard shouts out,
“To stations, men!”
And there, the vizier.

Some people float like a leaf in a stream; some sink as soon as the waters get rough; some tumble on, gaspin’ for air; some get stuck in pools midstream or aimlessly drift by stagnant banks.

When Shmuel haNagid steps in a room he is not one of them awash in the stream. He is the mountain that sends forth the stream. Does he step in the room, or the room step to him? The force of his character bends the world. But what is the cost of such world-shapin’ will? Like a spring compressed, you cannot let up, or all your force will redound on you....