10 Poems by Elhanan Nir (translated by Ross Weissman & Itamar Landau)
Reb Hillel Zeitlin was Revealed to Me
When doubts come to a man
and drop him to the depths of his loneliness,
he will toil in Torah and engross in his love of her constantly.
And because of the austerity of Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz, who wrote
that a man is obligated to be an expert in every room and not let go,
I didn’t move from Masechet Ketubot, a small masechet,
and I didn’t listen to the radio and I didn’t peak at newspapers
I encircled her at night seven times,
she’s only acquired by one who gives his soul over to her.
Then Reb Hillel was revealed to me, his beard wild, he whispered to me:
Elhanan Niria — P r a y e r
Elhanan Niria — A i r
Elhanan Niria — G o d
and he continued on to Treblinka
On the cold nights of Sabbath Eve
I 15 years old am striding
to the house in the crumbling courtyard of Broyda
of old Rabbi Yossi Lev Zusman
who would sing Ya Ribon
in a melody he received from his teacher, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harlap,
who received it from his teacher Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Shapira, the ascetic,
and it was then the heart was imprinted with the seals of the Shechina,
and holiness was felt even palpably in the breeze,
in fingers, in thin bodies,
and the piercing wail emitted
when he would scream prok yat anach m’pum aryevata**
still sends a sigh through all of my ruchin ve’nafshin*
and considers breaking down and escaping through one of my limbs
but it still does not leave.
*spirits and souls
**redeem your people from the mouth of the lions
The request will be about the size of a palm
and it will clear the way
and soon arrive to the point
(she will know that this is the point)
to agree to rest already
in abundant mercy
from all request
Shabbat of Comfort
On the eve of the Shabbat when we call out, comfort, comfort my people
and I am in the mikveh
and wind from the hills glides over my body
slipping away into the water
that awaits it after this week of brokenness
and the pain and our love that’s already falling between the stones,
and the Jews call this the destruction of the Temple
and new waters flood the purifying man.
Shabbat comes and she
is a comforting touch for all that’s been forgotten and trembled
and a faint voice rises up from al-Khader
groaning from deep in the throat, onto the soul
and pleading for love with singed tears
love, love, come
only under the water can I hear.
The Unformed and Void of Himself
And the human being’s essential work
is that he too arrive to a state
of the unformed and void of himself,
and through this he will recognize his Creator
for he has no grasp on his life.
Only through his failures
will he find the source of his life
which is our faith.
(From the testament of Reb Usher Freund)
Already two months
and I don’t know how to say to you
that according to Halacha, of course . . .
but just so you know
it’s already been two months.
And all of my bones call out,
but don’t quite know how, in accordance with Halacha, to say to you
that this— that we have a new baby, thank God,
doesn’t mean I’m
waiting for you—
Now to Praise
A young man gets up in the morning
and those dear to him become a checklist:
1. Talking to God.
2. Sandwiches for the wife.
(Splash more lemon juice on the avocado,
and try to spread it to the ends, the way I like it).
3. Take the children to preschool.
4. Go to work. Dentist,
and when will the night come and flood the searching streets,
and when will a burning moon light it up again
and a great darkness falls
and why is this battle in me
and the child cries, dad, come, the monster is climbing up again,
come into life.
Now to praise
Synagogue. First time
Now we enter the synagogue
and don’t ask, but where
and the toys–
and where is the extra Shabbat
and the soul.
“Since the Temple was destroyed it was enough
for the world to use three letters.”
(Masechet Eruvin 18b)
I said once I get married,
after the kids are born
when I’ll have time,
when we’ll look onto the green.
And still the heart is filled with fear
and still I don’t have three letters to say
(Tisha b’Av 5773)
Torah at Night
“He who wants to merit the crown of Torah
should be careful all his nights, not to waste even one of them
whether in sleep, food, drink, conversation or other like matters,
rather, he should spend his time in the words of wisdom and the study of Torah.”
(Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 246:23)
After Tikkun with Leah
already I was drunk from the joy of Torah
and the darkness was knocking, knocking, and the cold penetrating
and my heart burned for the Creator,
and I would’ve burned up in His love
and I spread myself flat on the floor in the trembling room,
and asked that He give me Torah in my rising up
and in my laying down
that my descendents and I should know His name and be dedicated
to the lovely deer and graceful doe.
But the night had its own demands,
and my children cried in their beds
and I ran from the first to the second and pleaded with them
that they might let me continue to drink from the wine of Torah,
it is my ancestral inheritance in these golden nights of winter—
they screamed water water
and pointed at the bottle and raised up their hands
and I called out to life: it’s not possible to hold it all,
Torah and family don’t exist in the same place
the Rambam merited a child only at the age of fifty,
and amidst all the shouting
I didn’t see.