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

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