Poem of the Week

A Nitwit, a Beggar and a Bitch Trump Their Betters

Israeli poet Natan Alterman takes a satirical view of pride, starting with King Solomon himself.

The Song of the Wise Man and the Fool

Natan Alterman

Oftentimes the wise man will mutter in a snit
That wisdom is no more than a lot of hot air
But if the fool opines swiftly: “Yes, that’s it!”
Hauteur might have caught the wise one in a snare.

For if a wise man’s and a ninny’s words seem to match
There really is a difference – and therein lies the catch.

If the beggar groans about the grimness of his plight
And the rich man whose sensitive soul is aflame
Grants the beggar a coin and groans there at his side 
That too is a groan, although plainly not the same.

For if the giver’s and the panhandler’s rants seem to match
There really is a difference – and therein lies the catch.

The lady is obsessing over every flounce and stitch
Of a silken dress to impress and make a hit.
For if it’s haute couture that will clothe a certain bitch
Madame’s silk must be silkier, by more than just a bit. 

And should you encounter these two monstrous dames
As though there’s no difference – their ilk is not the same.
If a wise man’s and a ninny’s words seem to match
There really is a difference – and therein lies the catch!

By permission of the publisher: from Sammy Gronneman, Shlomo Hamelekh Veshalmai Hasandlar (“König Salomo und der Schuster,” translated into Hebrew and with added lyrics by Natan Alterman, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1975. Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

Pride can mean the opposite of shame or the opposite of modesty. As the opposite of shame it appears in the phrase “gay pride”, while Dante Alighieri defined the pride that is the opposite of modesty as “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one's neighbor" – as in boasts about “the most moral army in the world”. 

Natan Alterman
Illustration by Eran Wolkowski based on a photo by Boris Carmi

This poem satirizes varieties of the second kind of pride. In each pair – wise man and fool, rich man and beggar, lady and bitch – the difference between them works against the seemingly stronger individual: The wise man is tripped up by his arrogance, the rich man by his selfish sense that he suffers like the beggar and the competitive lady by her lack of pride in the first sense: confidence in herself.

Alterman wrote this song for his translation of a comic play about the king exchanging places with the cobbler who looks exactly like him, König Salomo und der Schuster  (“King Solomon and the Cobbler”), by Sammy Groneman (1875 -1952), a German Zionist intellectual who came to Tel Aviv in 1936. The first production, without songs, was at the Ohel Theater in 1944. In 1964 the Cameri Theater staged it with Alterman’s new, added lyrics and music by Sasha Argov (1914-1950; Habima revived it in 2005).

In the Book of Proverbs attributed to him, Solomon had some choice words about pride, e.g. “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” In Medieval Christianity, Pride or Vanity was the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins; sinners were consigned to hideous punishments in the next world. In its early years, Israeli society was not so much anti-pride as it was pro-modesty, with, for example, figures like David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi admired for the simplicity of their home, wardrobe and public demeanor. Values have changed since then.

Poet, playwright, commentator and journalist Natan Alterman was born in Poland on August 14, 1910. He was one of the most influential figures in modern Hebrew drama, journalism and poetry, beginning with his first volume of poems. “Stars Outside,” in 1938. He wrote for a while at Haaretz and published a weekly verse commentary on current events, “The Seventh Column,” in the Labor newspaper “Davar.” After the Six Day War, he supported the greater land of Israel. He died in Tel Aviv on March 28, 1970.

*Bonus: “The Song of the Wise Man and the Fool” from the Habimah production.