Poem of the Week / 'Cain Is Still Murdering His Brother'

Asher Reich looks at the Bible both as a boy and a man.

The Book

Asher Reich


When I moved not long ago, I discovered

my forgotten Bible:

A bar mitzvah present, the only thing

I took with me when I deserted the home of my youth

for forty years in the desert.

I leafed through the book: some pages were stuck together

as in a classified secret. Cain, of course, is still murdering his brother.

For every murder, two other brothers sprout up in the field.

Goliath puts away his armor and takes a lunch break

from his eternal battle with the little Israelite.

The Philistine’s head is already adorned with rubber bullets

like kinky curls. The first astronaut,

Elijah, shoots up in a storm to heaven in a regular launch.

Locally made UFOs sail in Ezekiel’s Heavens.

I continued skimming: The pages were already blackened with blood,

gory wars that continue on their own.

Only the sins remain like white stains, prophets

disappear from the book to prophesize far away. Kings

have escaped to the diaspora. Angels have flown back to the caves of the firmament.

From his sofa, God sadly ascended and turned out our light.

Translated from Hebrew (“A View of the Land,” 1999, Hakibbutz Hameuchad) by Karen Alkalay-Gut.

***

We are now in the midst of Hebrew Book Week. This is a somewhat fuzzy concept. Not only does the “week” last for 10 days rather than seven, prompting one to wonder what God would have invented had he chosen to create for three more days – but also, it is not entirely about books. Perusing the stands in public places around the country, you will also find other products, such as games, videos, recordings and what can only be described as tchatchkes.

That said, it is indeed about Hebrew – one of Israel’s most remarkable products. But unlike oranges and apps, Hebrew doesn’t have much of an export market, which means Book Week is not only an opportunity for book lovers to meet and greet one another at the open-air markets, but also an opportunity for publishers of Hebrew books to sell their surplus wares without the intervention of the two largest booksellers. The stocking and pricing practices of this near-cartel are seen as unfair to authors and publishers and in the long run to readers, who are encouraged to buy many books in the shops but not necessarily good ones.

And, of course, Hebrew Book Week is also an opportunity for politicians to trot out the cliché about “the People of the Book” as a self-congratulatory phrase that often goes along with the phrase “the Jewish Genius.” However, the term “the People of the Book” is apparently not indigenous to Judaism but rather an invention of Islam. It appears 32 times in the Koran to refer to adherents of scripture-based religions that reject the Prophet Mohammed – chiefly Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. Over time, the “book” in the phrase has come – in Jewish minds, at least – to refer mainly to the Old Testament. This is what Asher Reich means by “The Book” in the title of this poem.

Asher Reich has written 16 books of Hebrew poetry and translated four books of poetry from German into Hebrew. He also edited the remarkable anthology “A Kiss Through the Veil: Hebrew Verse Translations by Many Hands Compared” (Am Oved, 2001), based on a long-running series in the Culture and Literature pages of Haaretz, in which several different translations of a single Hebrew poem appeared side by side. Reich's own works have been translated into many languages, and he has been the recipient of numerous literary prizes. For more of Asher Reich’s poetry translated into English, see “The Poetry of Asher Reich: Portrait of a Hebrew Poet” (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), edited by Yair Mazor and illustrated by Michael Kovner.

Reich was born to an ultra-Orthodox family in 1937 in Jerusalem's Mea She’arim neighborhood. As a young man, he left that world, joined the army, studied philosophy and Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and has lived in the secular world ever since. He currently resides in Tel Aviv.

Reich has told Haaretz,“If I know or like something from my ultra-Orthodox life, it is that from the day I could read, I learned and memorized the prayers. All of this knowledge was preserved for days to come.” He has also told a German interviewer that reading was what saved him from his bleak childhood: “I was fortunate enough that, even before I was three, I was transported, through the words of the Torah, into an enchanted universe of words, sounds, and prayers; a world which took me away from the desert of my childhood."

In the second and third stanzas of this poem, the images are at once critical and faux-juvenile, from Reich’s “enchanted universe of words.” It is as though a bored boy of about bar mitzvah age, shortly before he begins seriously daydreaming about girls all the time, is doodling elaborate and irreverent sketches in his notebook or in his mind about the biblical killing, fighting and wars, and linking these exciting scenes to kinds of violence known from the present. The language is purely descriptive and neither the biblical heroes nor the present come out smelling of roses.

In the fourth stanza, the language is more explicitly judgmental, using words like “gory” and “sadly” as a more mature speaker, looking at the Book with new eyes, seems to sigh and say, “What has been the point of this whole story, apart from some scenes that a callow mind found exciting?” In the end, God gets up off his sofa like someone about to turn off the television, and turns out the light, as though to close the circle and negate his “Let there be light” in the beginning of The Book.

Musings

*Alkalay-Gut has suggested to Haaretz that the images here are reminiscent of comics. How would Reich’s poem look as a comic strip or animated film? It’s worth remembering that the word “cartoon” originally referred to a preparatory sketch or drawing for a more elaborate work of art and only later came to refer to caricatures, comics or animated films. There is no known painting based on the drawing above – imagine the Rembrandt painting is found. How would it look? 

Ezra Gut