REUVEN BEN-YOSEF
   
  Reuven ben-Yosef was born in New York in 1937 to an assimilated family.  He knew little about Judaism until a tour of army duty in Germany made him conscious of being a Jew.  Although he had already begun to publish poetry in English, he resolved to live in Israel and to become a Hebrew poet.  Together with his wife Yehudit, he arrived in Israel in 1959, knowing no Hebrew.  He learned Hebrew while working on a kibbutz and over the years managed to acquire an extensive knowledge of the Jewish tradition, from the Bible through medieval poetry to the founding generation of Israeli poets.  He fought in three wars, and as a defender both of a staunchly Israeli viewpoint and of a poetry connected to the tradition he stood in the Israeli cultural landscape as a somewhat isolated but highly respected representative of a minority position.   For the last twenty-four years of his life he lived in Jerusalem, where he became editor of the Bitsaron publishing house which Yehudit now continues.  He died on Purim in 2001 after the reading of the Purim scroll. 
     

 

IN THE LIGHT OF BLACK MARBLE

 

Margarethe Herzl died, that is fell victim,

in Theresienstadt. I read this in a foreign book

and couldnít believe it. In fine print, in the footnotes

about her father, known in Hebrew

as Binyamin Zeev, in the year 1943 according

to the Christian calendar, in the Nazi camp, the daughter

of Theodor Herzl, among the murdered, I didnít want to believe it.

 

And I went to Yad Vashem, on the slope of Mount Herzl

where her father is buried. It turned out nothing was recorded

about his daughter in Theresienstadt. Only those victims

who had survivors in the land of the living

to testify, declare, about the death of their relatives

were recorded. And no one had brought up

the memory of Margarethe. Of course I could

have told the clerk, but did not want to.

 

I turned to ascend. There, on the hilltop, what dominates

is the black marble monument garlanded with roses,

and one name engraved on it: Herzl.  Margarethe

was born on the twentieth of May, according to the book,

on the foreign date of my daughterís birth, but not

on the Hebrew date, the nineteenth of Iyyar, in Kiryat-Shmonah

in the state of Israel in the light of black marble.

 

                               Translation:  Esther Cameron


LETTERS TO AMERICA

1. Letter to my Brother

I write you in a simple tongue
because you do not understand Hebrew, my brother
We lack this bond, yet perhaps we share
a fraternity which is striving to relate
from beyond the waters, so that one day
in one of the lands you travel, you can attain
the wisdom that you have not encountered your self.

I write to you because you do not
understand, and you do wish to be my brother,
not like those wandering uncles on other soils
which every Jew can lay claim to, but rather
my own flesh and blood whose want of self heralds
my bones' immunity, and didn't you once say,
"I will take pride in you from the saddening distance."

I write to you because you are not.
The King's image has departed, and there is no more
than the clean hand, the fine glass and wine,
at the sea shore on a day's outing, your eyes yearn
eastward, and your mouth swallows and the heart
pains and beats in its easy time, how pleasant
to think of one's blessings in nostalgic tranquillity.

How good it is to carry your pain within your heart
yet to sit dry as the dust, grain of salt and wine to ease the eye
and a horizon, scalloped wheel revolving
from evening to morning and round again, return
my brother from these yearnings and read this chronicle
I write in a simple tongue, I your brother
who lives on the street of the watchman, Israel.

2. Letter to my Sister

To my sister, captive among the gentiles,
to my sister, snatched from us, no one the wiser,
I write on a slate smooth as the skies,
a reflection of cloud, and the burning sun,
this message of a brother beyond reach, because your many addresses
have been lost to me since you turned to gentile ways.

To my ten years younger sister,
to the baby whom I never knew, to the pupil,
who wrote to me from across the seas:  "I fear
that I will not be as I wish to be."
I am the sole witness of your captivity, because our parents' silence
never prohibited, only permitted you all things all the years.

To my sister whose purity was permitted to all,
to my sister whose purity can never again be believed,
she wrote to me, "I hope that you are fortunate but have not
made a fortune," only I will weigh your jewels,
pearl and diamond, witness of your soul within,
because there is no faith that your belief is pure.

To my sister who wrote:  "I can no longer trust my parents,
I am afraid that I will not have a chance to do the things I
want to do in my life, I hope you are fortunate
but have not made a fortune," I want to write a poem,
but you have been captive among gentiles for so long,
your addresses have been lost, I am witness they are no more.

3. Letter to my mother

Length of days, my mother, can you offer this to me?
because I want to write to you of all the honor
harvested in this land, as distant from you
as is a vineyard from the wine, distant as the gleam of budding fruit
is from the opaque glass held in your hand, in your solitary night.

Where are you now, my mother, alone in the night?
Because I wish to speed to you all the trmbling
of my fear in the bombardments on the Golan heights, a revelation
a mountain of smoke for your son who played with toys when there were
crematoriums, a son of war, but I never cried out mommy.

Until this place, until the land of Israel, my mother, I never said
Mommy.  Can you give me length of days?  and a blessing
in exchange for honor, because the earth has become laden with our honor,
the watch-sons, and as a brave son I too will embrace my mother
and keep her with me within my people for the length of days.

But you are sailing again to breadth of the seas, length of days
yet you do not arrive at either the dead or the living, not husband
and not home, your grandchildren are playing here in the sunshine.
Where are you now, my mother, alone in the sunshine?
What is the color of your hair over the salt waves.

4. Letters to America

My father is not here, he is in the lands of dispersion.
Dispersed over every river and ocean.
In the seas and in the lakes.  In the wood.  In the stone.
My father who loved to ride the sea,
and in the end got his desire.
We were never close and now
I study his letters, finding words:
"Letters cannot speak of matters truly profound."

And I must write letters to America.
Because my father was born there, and bore me,
and if I with my name, the gift of my father,
am not, and if my father perished, I must be
truly profound, and undertake to salvage such granules
of his wisdom as "I want to encourage
my son in his quest, not to forget
secret emotions, ideas, memories and fears"

And it is important to write letters to America.
Because six million Jews are there, less one.
six million living, more or less the number
consigned to the flames in my childhood
but that was distant, in the old, the forgotten world,
transported to their death in railway cars, while
I played with an electric train
present of my father, on the wall to wall rug.

My father is not there.  He is in the lands of dispersion
all of them, all of him, I will not be able to gather
granules of wisdom which have truly dissolved.
I can only remember and be afraid: there was a dream
and my father was Joseph, interpreter of the corn of plenty
When I awoke he was destroyed,
he was dispersed over mighty waters, removed
from his own devastation, the concrete burden of America.

5. Memory of Towers

Towers blossom in the air in the city of New York.
When I was eight years old, it was towards the end of the war,
a friendly fighter plane collided with a tower,
cut down several soaring floors.
I could hear the blast from where I was, the only
explosion I remember from the war, and fourteen lives
were lost, some in that sky-high office.

Just then I was nearby in the office
of a soul-doctor, because my mother demanded an explanation
for some matter not made clear to me, a certain aberration
like a cough, I remember myself coughing.
I had read about composers who fell ill with tuberculosis
and I loved to play music, to strive for a melody
that would rise up in the light air between the towers.

For once upon a time, the air was bright and innocent.
But a plane smashed into a tower, from its observation point
you could see eighty kilometers distance.
The doctor gave me a game or two
and asked which one did I enjoy, and mother jumped up
quickly asking what was that noise, then on the radio
they announced that tragic accident and they announced the end of wars.

Time turned and I said no longer a child
I will ascend to the land of the Nigun, I will aspire,
and be worthy of Jerusalem, my mother telephoned
again to that soul-doctor, she asked
what did I enjoy?  For no other mother in the city of New York
had a son whose spirit blossomed thus into the air
and the sound of her voice rose and smashed into the towers.

6. Letter to a Father

When there is no father, there can be no son, but what is the fate of a son
without a name, without a father to send a letter to?
So I write to the father of clouds, to the clouds of mist,
threshing drops of sea water that they might sweeten
the glass held out from the vineyard true to my lips,
because then I kiss a father wrapped in cloud.

How I longed for his embrace.  When there is no will
there can be no wisdom but what is the fate of wisdom
when there is no longer a father to will the reply to
a letter?  I study the eloquence of a stone,
silent mother of the dust where a father and son embrace,
so they might be born and so go both of them together.

Torah and a way of life, these are the birthright of a father
more precious than the staff of life, more numerous than granules of wisdom
from a man who might disappear into the sea.
And the son's commandment is to be worthy of his legacy
But what is the fate of a legacy not in Jerusalem
from a father without a son to a son without a mother and a commandment

If there is no wisdom there is no death, but what is the fate
of wisdom left to me by my dead father, he said "Here
among the steel and glass buildings of New York
there are no trees there is no grass, no remote Rabbinic homilies,
pretexts rooted in the past, here a man's commandment
is the sole responsibility for his own life."


7. Book for the daughters of my brother

It is written, on the fragrant mountains of Beter, from the creviced
mountains
to the hills of myrrh strode the beloved in the song,
and fragrant songs that you will never hear from any rich uncle
in America, I your uncle who loves you will sing to you
from the land of Israel.  Land of the gazelle taken flight but I am here,
I the brother of your father am here on the mountains of spice and myrrh,
and you are begetters of Jerusalem over the sea,
Zion in smoke, New York on the map, a street
that has no name, only a number on the snow-covered street sign.

I did not play there as a child, because that neighborhood was split
by Germans, and someone wrote a book about a spy, -- House on the Street
with
the number of your very street - agent of the master butcher.
You've learned about him as you have learned of Babylon, Rome and Jerusalem,
in a bookish way.  It is difficult to hate that which we have never seen.
The beauty of the gazelle of Israel fallen on a desecrated altar, the sword,
the suffocation and the sorrow flicker out and fade beneath
the Christmas tree, and the quality of a neighborhood is improving,
without a doubt, when Jewish neighbors take the place of slaughter.

I am trying to write a new book for you,
but where have you gone daughters, asks the beloved uncle,
where have you turned in the streets of winter?   I ask you to
turn away from this holiday joy, excelsior rising in those night skies,
clusters of idolatry suspended in the lighted bush.
It is written, we will lie down in the bleak of winter and we will
rise to vineyards that we might drink the goblet pure from the earth's vine,
with the blessings of heaven and all the seas as one.
I, your beloved try to love you through many waters.

In the spring you go to pleasure at the coast-line.
Tranquil I go to greet the frontier of the sea.
And your father will buy you presents, but you have been peddled cheap,
sold for a Christmas carol, for resurrection at the shore,
your freedom reaching only as far as the eye can see the horizon clear of
ships.  Whither have you turned begetters of Jerusalem, asks the uncle
and do I dwell in your hearts on my Celestial mountain?
It is difficult to love what we have never seen.  Are
you beautiful, daughters of my brother, dolls in smoke?

8. Letter to Myself

As there are no ties and all relations are distant
I relate to myself, let's call it the cords and the agony of love,
the plaited filaments of faith in your own self, and isn't it true that
to be loved, to pleasure in the caress of another
was always your vice since those early days, since that first smile
in the pasture of your parents, in the golden cradle
you laughed there, a buoy floating on the sea of happiness, but I
dreaded smiles, fearing the faceless joy.

You did not refuse to see, but were sick of longing, you wanted to touch,
a mother and a father, a brother and a sister.
The eldest you, the Sunday morning visionary, when the family sat to talk.
Another land was what I asked for, there my father's master would not be
the burden of drudgery, there my mother would more often smile at me.
They did not understand but who would not treasure
such a cloudwoven boy to fold him to their heart?
I have no memory of false colors from those childhood days.

You do remember but you put it out of mind, their eyes are hung
like lanterns in the tunnel of your night, and you move on
because I no longer question, I only stoop to mine
the precious underground incorporeal substance, long gone,
of distant loved ones and you refuse to accept
the fact that you were wanted, because I must carry on,
only I, the strike force along the tunnel walls.
I want to draw near to Jerusalem and all that will come to pass.

You want a future that will absolve what has been torn asunder,
for the sake of gold that flashes in the lamentations of your dreams
otherwise you will be fortuneless.  I despise
poverty; just as I love to remember
my mother waving her hand to me, so long as I don't have
to return to the bars of a crib, where I floated
as you conjure it, on the surface of happiness
as if the face of happiness could be in America.

9. Memories of our Warm Haven

In winter, in the Christmas recess, we would fly south
winging like the birds, down the road
past the city of Washington, the capitol a distant dream
of white domes, we flew on to the land of swamps
and cabins left standing in the south after the war which
freed thousands from slavery, and on
our way to the warm district, two weeks of sands and sun.

New York birds were not so far-ranging, but we sang their songs for them
and we rested, not mindful of where waves begin,
at some umbilicus between East and West
these were born, they advanced upon the shore-line,
upon that strip of stand left unforbidden to the Jew
who multiplied and grew in America after the war.
Now you could hear Yiddish spoken everywhere in the sun.

And seagulls hovered over the face of the waters, and small birds ran
in and out with the water-line, their feathers almost brushing
the foam, I had a pail, I was a builder
and I fell in love with a real castle that had ramparts
and a gate which closed, it seemed for ever, because I never saw
anyone inside, although I spent a long time there with my pail
and shovel and my stronghold of sand until floodtide.

A span of years later I was permitted to enter
a castle much like that one, a house bought by my parents
in the warm harbor, with a white rampart and a gate
that opened.  I was summoned to the bedside of
my father who was ill.  You might never see him again, not forevermore.
But I know that we will meet again in Jerusalem
on the day that the sea will rejoice in praise like thousands of song-birds.

10. A Second letter to my brother

If I write again perhaps you will understand, that now
you are a brother and a colleague: your book
arrived and I read it, but my book
sent you only arrived, then brother
was quickly laid to rest among the tomes in your library,
not far from the anthologies of wisdom
lexicons of a nation foreign to me, that I might worship
at the dusty incense monolith which stands
in your air conditioned home.  I, a rare display, a papyrus mummy
more pleasing than the dismay of a flesh and blood brother.

It is hard to believe the childhood years, we lived
in one room then, and we used to talk about school
in the mornings, and in the evenings
we talked of trains that travelled across America
and of the big ocean.  You stayed in New York
and I am with the watchmen who survive
in the land whose language you do not perceive,
on the soil which America's untamed poet
traced as Syriac ground, with the people whose heart
England's player-poet marked out as most hard.

I am the man whom the poet of your waste-land
tongue likened to a rat gnawing
under downtown wharfs, carrying the world's pestilence,
but that one knew nothing of the world
which I carry within me, and which will not be heard by you unless
you listen, unless you are gripped by the cords of love
which did bind us once, although we quarreled
over different kinds of toys, because together we held on
to the trains which raced cross-country
and to the sea, the beginning and the end yet it is not full.

But I refuse to continue on the way of respect
when there is no way, only an air mail route,
and I will not accept the plea of your rare letters
that brotherly love stay alive from afar, when I
alone must obey your childhood from beyond the beginning
and the end, and I alone bear the burden of today,
under plague-ridden warfs of New York rivers:
in a voice like the chirping of a rat gnawing
in a voice like the chirp of a desert bird flying over its expanse of sand.
This is a prayer whispered in the mountain, far from the sea.

11. Whispered Prayer to the Sons of my Sister

The good mother, the good mother baptized.
The good mother baptized and drowned.  No more mother.
The good no longer mother, she has drowned
children.  Do you hear me, sons of my sister?
Drowned children in her womb, her excellence had mercy
on the man who might disappear into the sea
so she swiftly immersed her body and was reborn, but her excellent
soul drowned to death, and you, children, her soul.
If you would have lived, you would be her soul.

Now mother has no soul. The house of my sister has been
cut down like the remnant of a cross from the forests of the west.
So good, she beswore her own self to her captors, she stole away
my family.  Within cloisters of wood her husband moves at ease.
A dog is barking in the yard, and beneath her master's beard
I hear the gothic laughter of cloistral-cherubs, the whisper of oiled wheels,
because this man has prophesied extinction.
For this, my sister chose captivity, she submitted her soul
for the salvation of children's souls because her own longed for its doom.

Do you hear me, sons of my sister?  I am the sole surviving watchman,
and I have bread and wine for you:
but my wine is not the blood of libels, of a false deity
my wine is not the wafer, but the staff of life which comforts
those who mourn, which will nurture you to life in the land of Israel
if only you would cross over to me, relinquish the woman who bore you
but was no mother.  But now, how will you survive under the Sky of Mercy,
in that hollow house, filled only with a mongrel bark, that warns off an
uncle who would trespass with his whispered song of mourning.

I will not suffer, the body says to the soul,
I will not sustain the soul who keeps life
from the soul. Everything to dust, says the body,
and when you are extinguished, there will be life.  Do you hear me
sons of my sister?  Do you listen sister?!  I pray
for your sons in the land of life.  I plead
for your soul, because it has become infested
with the waters of captivity, a good mother drowned, she
drowned the children in her womb, testament to her exceeding compassion.

12. A Letter upon the Waters

He who casts his letter upon the face of the waters
will bear blossoms, will reap fruit and meadows that encircle
the vineyard, he will yield rapture in the sun.
A harvest of all that has been sown in the watches of lamentation
and of night, flowing into the sea
that did not part again, but carried salt tears
to the heavens to sweeten.  For what is a sea
if not waters which long for the land of gladness and joy.

So the rain is sweet, but only for the man who does not depart
from the King's image, not in a dream and not the next morning,
with trellised arrays of awakening vineyards,
at dawn, when hope has more power than a dream.
The threat of war seems distant and life on the secure
borders of the possible has flourished, it has achieved the confusion
of success.  The infant walks, the child drives, the man
lifts off over the topmost branches to seed his clouds.

Where the waters return to sweeten the sea and earth.
For others the sea's arms are outstretched to welcome
tears, and the granules of wisdom
of a man will disappear.  Every generality to the sea.
My mother went to sail with the gulfstream.
But my brother embraces the shore, listening
to the surf growing ever near
only to leap back with a broken heart.

Those who descend from this Land in ships
will arrive only at the heart of tears, and rain
at sea is nothing more than another sorrow, it will not
part again to save them.  My sister is as shifting as the sea,
she reaches out her arms, then changeling she enfolds them in
the surge of the deep.  I tell you, every letter upon the face of the waters
would be better sent directly to the heavens
which sweeten.  A letter at sea will only dissolve, will only crumble.

13. Memory of my father

When I was summoned from Israel to visit with
my father who was ill, for the first time in my life I was permitted
to step into a castle, a house bought by my parents
with a white rampart and a gate, in a warm harbor of America.
I embraced my mother, she was emotional and overwrought,
and finally I kissed my father, then I went to sleep.
I was tired, and I never saw my father again.

In early dawn, he suffocated in his sleep, the air
of New York was the killer, my mother said,
so they had escaped to the warm harbor, but
no cure was found even there for those lungs, only an opening
in a white citadel, a door to a palace impoverished of its royalty,
because one prince stayed up north, the princess went west,
and I, I live over the sea on my Celestial mountain.

But even a castle without princes needs
a legacy, so my father willed himself
to separation.  Relatives came, and some friends of my parents
borrowed a motor boat from the locals,
just like the boat I wanted as a boy,
to take me across the sea, but this time it was obvious to me
that you can't go far with the trappings of a borrowed life.

So we did not take the boat far out to sea.  Each one there
mumbled something, my sister sang and I whispered
words of the father of our tribes,
of few and evil days.  My mother wailed Joseph
and scattered his granules over the waves, goodbye Joseph
distributing the dust of his body, until we reached
the mainland which now knew him not.


TRANSLATION:  SHIRA TWERSKY-CASSEL
International copyright