Three Yiddish Poets: Avrom Sutzkever, Boris Karloff, Yonia Fain

From Ode to the Dove

Avrom Sutzkever

Rarely, but once in a childhood, an angel appears with its colors
Dazzling, always escorted by melody, under the stars.
Come from the other side, reappeared over world’s barrier,
Disappeared over the chimney, a sign left the family: a feather.

No simple angel. So how did she come to alight on a boy?
Dove is the feather: a marvel of dawn with its magnets of snow.
Newborn dove fluttering—learning still—less than a second,
Till she fell, floating down, right on his porch, silver, round.

Finger-nests of the boy warming her up now. They kiss her.
Cooing again with her sunshine breaths: her snowy fuzz. Her
Boy teaches her flying, picking at fog like at peas.
Dear one—she crooked her head to him—now that you’ve saved me,

What sort of gift would you like now, and don’t hesitate.
Secret of whiteness (mine), snow everlasting, an amulet?
“Darling,” he answers her drunk with joy, “here’s my desire:
Come to me if I call. Come in the snow, rain, and fire.”


I’ve got time today

Boris Karloff

I've got time today
so today I won't
run around, bustle, or rush

I've got time today
bags full of moments ripe and fresh

That's why it's the apple of my eye—
I mean time—
because I have so much today
piled up high.

Short winter Fridays in Jerusalem,
don't think to stop or delay them
where you're kindly lectured
by sun's every caress:
you've got time today
and don't you forget it

The wheels of time's mill
spin around, as always, in a
but me—
        I've got
so I won't run
        or race
                  or hurry


The piano

Yonia Fain

My neighbor, the famous pianist,

has gotten ever sicker the past two years,
his body has slowly shrunk
as if he were hiding himself from the world
and somewhere, with trembling hands,
holding onto a concealed
center of life.

And then one day
he entrusted me
with his apartment keys.
He had to go into the hospital
for an operation
and he asked me
to take care of his two vases
in the window.

“I can bring them to my place,”
I offered.

“No, no,” he stammered.
“The piano has to live with somebody.”
He hung his head
and added as if embarrassed,
“If you have time, it would be good
if once a week, in the evening,
you could just sit for a moment
by the piano.”


Avrom Sutzkever, Boris Karloff, Yonia Fain

Avrom Sutzkever, who died on January 20, 2010 at the age of 96, was the 
greatest postwar Yiddish poet, a prophetic survivor whose fate paralleled the 
tragedies and joys of Jews in the twentieth century. Raised in the brief but
intense literary flowering of Vilna, he melted the printing plates of the city's most 
famous press into bullets for the guns of ghetto fighters. He witnessed the ghetto's 
destruction, helped to salvage the remains of the city's Jewish treasures, testified 
at Nuremberg, and immigrated to Israel, where he was at the center of rapidly 
waning high Yiddish literary culture. He founded and edited for some four decades
the premier Yiddish literary magazine, Di Goldene Keyt. His poems depict his life 
not autobiographically, but auto-epically.

Boris Karloff is the pen name of Dov-Ber Kerler, the polylingual and peripatetic
son of the refusenik Yiddish poet Yosef Kerler. The two Kerlers are probably the only
father-son team in postwar Yiddish poetry. The younger Kerler is known for his
poetic and Yiddishist heterodoxy, his wit, and his openness to young talent. He is a
scholar of Yiddish literary history at Indiana University.

Yonia Fain's odyssey is also emblematic of recent Jewish history. Born in Russia
in 1914, he fled to Vilna, where he studied art and decided to be a painter. In 1939,
the Soviets occupied the city; he fled again to Warsaw but was captured and
imprisoned by the Soviets. He escaped to Japan via Siberia in 1941; the Japanese
deported him to Shanghai, where he spent the rest of the war. After liberation he
went to Mexico City, where he worked on murals with Diego Rivera. He has lived
and painted in New York since 1953, publishing two books of poetry (the latest in
2008) and one book of short stories. His preoccupations are bleak and unsparing
but offer the possibility of resurrection.

Zackary Sholem Berger

Zackary Sholem Berger is a poet, essayist, and translator in Yiddish and English. His work has appeared most recently in the bilingual anthology Step by Step: An Anthology of Contemporary Yiddish Poetry (Verbarium, 2009). His book of poetry Not in the Same Breath (Zog khotsh lehavdl), in Yiddish and English, is scheduled to appear in 2011. He and his wife, Celeste Sollod, operate the publisher Yiddish House, which produces Yiddish translations of classic English children's books. He lives, writes, and blogs in Baltimore with his family and friends, also members of the Yiddishist conspiracy. He can be reached at [email protected].

Ode to the Dove. Copyright (c) Avraham Sutzkever, 1955.
I've got time today. Copyright (c) Dov-Ber Kerler, 2009.
The piano. Copyright (c) Yonia Fain, 2008.
English translation copyrights (c) Zackary Berger, 2009.