Poem of the Week / The Father, the Son and the Anxious Mother

Yitzhak Laor echoes a widow's promise to her mother-in-law in the Book of Ruth, read during the Shavuot holiday.

Pavel Wohlberg

Empty house
Yitzhak Laor

You pace around the house in
Silent distress, they’ve taken
Your son to the army. Calm down, nothing
Bad will happen to him, they tell you
Your son will not go into any battle and
Yet you are sad, despair fills
The empty house, your chick has flown
From the aging breast. Remember the dread
Of the circumcision: They took him from
You then and exacted a covenant
With a scream, yet he remained
Yours, and they took him from you
To school into a harsher covenant
Robbing him of more and yet
He remained yours, and his
Coarse masculinity also oppressed,
Brought him into an even more
Abhorrent covenant, and yet
He remained yours: A secret
Nickname, clandestine kisses
At night, in bed. Calm down, refrain
Your voice from sadness, womanliness
You instilled will preserve him, your voice
Will echo whither he goes: My son, my son
Lay not your hand upon the lad

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden. View the original Hebrew poem here.

***

There’s an old joke in America about a Catholic priest, a Protestant pastor and a rabbi discussing the question of when life begins.

The priest: “At conception.”

The pastor: “At birth.”

And the rabbi: “When the children goes to college and the dog dies.”

This joke wouldn’t go over very well in Israel, where after high school Israeli youngsters face compulsory conscription into the army (with some controversial exceptions), thrusting their parents into several years of acute anxiety.

In this poem, the speaker tries to calm the mother of their conscripted son. The first argument is rational: He has not been inducted into a combat unit so there is no physical danger. The next arguments present military service as just another item in a series of unpleasant experiences: ritual circumcision, schooling, adolescence. After each of these, the male voice tries to reassure the anxious woman: The boy is still yours. All this is in modern if slightly elevated Hebrew with glancing references to contemporary culture: The “chick” (Hebrew: gozal) in line 7 brings to mind “Fly Away Little Bird,” Arik Einstein’s song about children leaving the nest; and the aging breast brings to mind another song Einstein performed, Haim Nachman Bialik’s “Take Me Under Your Wing,” in which the breast is that of the Shekhina, the female principle of divinity in Jewish mysticism.

The speaker’s own distress breaks through in the last five lines, where the diction changes to a conflation of biblical quotations about dire parent-child moments. “Refrain your voice from sadness” is from Jeremiah 31:15, in which the prophet imagines Rachel weeping for her children. “Whither he goes” echoes the widowed Ruth’s promise to her mother-in-law in the Book of Ruth 1:16, read during the Shavuot holiday, which begins this year on the evening of June 3. “My son, my son” is from David’s guilt-ridden lament for Absalom in 2 Samuel 19.1, and “Lay not your hand upon the lad” is the angel of the Lord stilling Abraham’s hand before he sacrifices Isaac.

Yitzhak Laor has published several novels, many collections of poetry and prose, and numerous reviews and commentaries in Haaretz http://www.haaretz.com/misc/writers/yitzhak-laor-1.648. He founded and edited the literary journal Mita’am and has recently finished a new novel and a book of essays.

Listen to him discuss biblical politics (in Hebrew) with Dov Elboim here.

David Bachar