Thursday, October 21, 2004

Pages 3-4

Raseyner didn't take his hands out from the sleeves behind his back, but moved farther away from me, and yelled right into my face in the middle of the street:

"Do you think, Khayim Vilner, that since you've run away from the study house you've saved yourself? Don't you know what we say around here? Whoever's learned muser will never again enjoy life. You'll turn out defective, Khayim Vilner. You'll be a cripple your entire life. You write little heretical rhymes, and people pinch your cheeks for it like a schoolboy. And, so that you could even further desecrate the name of God, you came to preach your heresy right here in the city where you studied. Right now you're being stuffed with honor like a goose with buckwheat, and people are making much of you, their prodigal son! But later you'll see, when you start studying with the really impure. Oh, they're really going to lay into you! Which of you isn't made sick by criticism? Who among you is really so strong that he doesn't need any approval? Who among you is ready to publish his little book without his name on it? That's the main thing with you people, of course, the name should be right out there on top. On top, nowhere else! You've exchanged our restful soul for desires which you won't achieve, for doubts which after much suffering you will still be unable to answer. Your writing won't make anyone better, and it'll make you worse. I've heard that your book, your big holy book is called 'Yes.' But I'm telling you -- No! You hear me, Khayim Vilner? No!"

Having finished his piece, Hersh Raseyner started striding off quickly. But I was also a student of muser, so I caught up with him:

"Now you listen to me, Hersh. No one knows better than me how torn up you are. You brag that you're not impressed when the whole street laughs at you since you wear tzitzis down to your ankles. You've convinced yourself that your canvas talis-kotn is a wall of fire between you and the world. You're grabbing onto the tzitzis like a drowning man holding onto a rope, but that doesn't help you swim against the current. You're shaming yourself, because you're scared that the world will like you, with its Potiphars, and you won't have the strength to tear yourself away like Joseph. That's why you flee from temptation and think that the world will chase after you. But when you see that the world is still not chasing you, you get angry and yell, No one enjoys his life. That's how you want to comfort yourself. So if you go off by yourself in seclusion in some attic, that's because you'll reject it all completely rather than take the crumb which the world throws your way. That's your modesty -- it's arrogance, not sequestering yourself.

"And who told you that I went looking for enjoyment? I went to look for a truth which you don't have. And, if it comes to that, I didn't go anywhere, I only went back to my street -- to Butchers' Street in Vilna. You think you're really getting under my skin: I wrote a book called Yes and you scream No into my face. You don't comprehend that I myself am saying No to the order of the world! But nevertheless I demand of myself that I say Yes! Because I believe in my street. I love the carriers who have broken backs from dragging burdens; the tradesmen, with sweat pouring off of them at their workshops; the market women who'd cut off their own fingers to give a poor man a morsel of bread. But you lecture the hungry that they are sinning and tell them -- to repent. You laugh at those who work and trade, because they lack spiritual confidence. But you yourself live from prepared food which hard-working wives bring you, and for which you promise them -- the next world. Hersh Raseyner, you sold your piece of the next world to those poor wives a long time ago."

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Copyright issues

I stupidly neglected to consider copyright issues. Until I have straightened those out, or am reasonably sure that I am not infringing on copyright by maintaining this blog, consider this endeavor stillborn.

Update: I have thought about this some more. The last-published translation, in Howe and Greenberg's A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, is (over) fifty years old, and, moreover, I disagree with some of the choices made there in translation. Further, this blog's translation is not meant for profit, or even for publication (not yet, anyway) -- rather, it is meant to acquaint readers with this novella and help me with the ongoing translation.

If any reliable legal authority, or the holders of copyright for the original story, takes me to task, I will cease and desist, but in the meantime I will continue.

My Quarrel with Hersh Raseyner: pages 1-2

In 1937 I came to Bialystok, to the city where in 1930 I studied at the yeshiva of the adherents of Navaredok muser. I met many of my yeshiva friends still there. Several even came to the evening where I appeared. Others visited me at home, so that the rosh yeshiva wouldn’t know. I saw from their overgrown beards that they were suffering from their pauper’s bearing. Their youthful enthusiasm had burned out with time. Though they had piously observed all rules and customs, the weariness of difficult spiritual labors lay on them. They had tried for years to tear out the desire for the pleasures of life, and only later realized that the war with themselves was lost. They had not overcome the evil spirit.

I also met those who became even more pious with time, more serious and closed off. I expected – in vain – that they would, according to the practice of muser students, tell me off in no uncertain terms. They did not scold me. Some were friendly with me, but avoided getting into an argument, and others grunted with regret and looked at me as at a lost soul.

There was someone I looked for the whole time and didn’t find: my former friend Hersh Raseyner. He was a young man with pitch-black hair, with glowing, lowered eyes, always sunk in thought, stern and deeply silent. Only when he shook back and forth over Khoyves-halevoves could one hear his pained, melancholic voice. It was said about him that he had broken all the podiums in the study house while learning muser with enthusiasm. I didn’t run into him. But I heard that he was sitting somewhere in an attic, in seclusion, and didn’t even come to the yeshiva.

One time he came up to me unexpectedly on the street. He was striding hurriedly, head bent down, according to the practice of the Novaredokers who do not want to stay “eye to eye” with the world. Yet he noticed me. He brought his arms behind his back and pulled them into his sleeves, so he wouldn’t have to greet me. The closer he came to me, the higher he lifted his head. When we stood face to face, he looked at me sharply. His nostrils quivered with excitement – and he was silent.

Among the Novaredokers, if you ask: How are you? it means: Where are you in your Jewish life? Have you risen in spirituality? But I didn’t think of that, and simply asked:

“Hersh Raseyner, how are you?”

In the yeshiva people used to call themselves after the town they came from.

Hersh moved back away from me, considered me from head to toe, and, seeing that I was dressed up, gave a grimace of contempt and answered sternly:

“And how are you, Khayim Vilner? Isn’t my question the bigger one?”

I felt my lips tremble and I answered him:

“Your question, Hersh Raseyner, is no question at all. I do what I need to do.”

What is this blog?

This is an intermittent attempt to translate Mayn Krig mit Hersh Raseyner, a novella by Khayim Grade. The original is available on-line. My entries (parts of the translation) will be keyed to the page numbers of the PDF version of the original.

I am aware that there are other translations, but I find them either unsatisfactory or not easily available.

There are many complicated issues in annotating a translation such as this one, including the transliteration, translation, or glossing of Hebrew and Yiddish terms which require a reasonable acquaintance with traditional Jewish religious learning. I am going to ignore those issues for the time being.

The main point of this blog is to get comments, and to acquaint more people with this important work of literature.

I would prefer that no part of this translation be reprinted in any journal, book, newspaper, or other publication without my consent. You may, of course, freely e-mail the translation to friends and enemies alike.