Poem of the Week

From Warsaw With Lust, When Labor Zionism Was Sexy

Low on bread but high on passion: Malkiel Lusternik imagines pioneering life in pre-state Israel.

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Lyric

Malkiel Lusternik

There are no windows in the house,
Neither beds nor chairs there be.
We sup on olive-sized bits of bread
And for dessert sip cups of tea.

The kettle brims with water-dew
O fellow, wet your maw!
Drink up two cups and another two
Then lie down on the straw.

The brunette reclining on the straw
For you with endless patience waits
And if this makes you queasy –
Fear not, it’s no disgrace.

Make love till a pillar of fire glows
Make love till the rising sun
But you must never ask “Why so?”
In reply – they’ll answer: Dunce!

We are princes of the spirit.
We are paupers of the coin.
All we savor
Is our labor
We’ll make love and we’ll rejoice.

We are tomorrow’s scions,
Ascended early on to Zion.
It is good to live for our country’s sake
And to labor as our voice we raise
To sing the Song of Ascents.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

From Sufat Aviv (“Spring Storm”), Warsaw, 1934-35), reprinted in David Weinfeld, editor: Hashira Ha’Ivrit ben Shtei Milhamot Ha’Olam (“Hebrew Poetry Between the Two World Wars”), Bialik Institute, Jerusalem, 1997.

Along with ideological passion, Zionists were subject to the more universal sorts of ardor. Located in 1930s Poland, the young man in the poem fantasizes about the life of his fellow members in the labor Zionist Gordonia youth movement, who had already  immigrated to Palestine, working the land and leading a communal lifestyle.

The first two stanzas depict the Spartan conditions in a early pre-state workers’ collective. The third and fourth stanzas describe (yes, with machismo) sexual initiation and erotic exploits in a community consisting entirely of young people; the fifth stanza blends lust and ideology.

The final stanza combines early Zionist history and Jewish tradition: “It’s good living for our country’s sake” is the flip side of Josef Trumpeldor’s reported dying words in the defense of Tel Hai  in 1920: “It is good to die for our country’s sake” – which the fighter took from the Latin poet Horace: “It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country.”

“The Song of Ascents” is Shir Hama’alot, Psalm 126, which begins: “When the Lord brought back those that returned to Zion, we were like unto them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing.” It is traditionally sung before the grace after meals on the Sabbath and festivals – bringing us back to the frugal repast in the first stanza.

Lusternik, who was born in ód in 1911, moved to Warsaw for his higher education and was active in Gordonia, one of many precursors of today’s Israeli Labor Party. He outlined his ideology in 1932 in the introduction to the first edition of the Hebrew journal he edited,  “Raishit, A Platform for Matters of Life, Literature and Science.”

He envisioned a “pioneering and popular” Zionism that “creates a progressive society and a new morality of life We will build a bridge between the distant and the recent past in our view of Judaism as an organic and synthetic creation We will fight lachrymose lyricism, emasculated sentimentality ... We will bring the message of salvation by means of the man who labors and fulfills  by going to the Land, listening to his heart, the song of the tractor and the tumult of the turbine.”

Lusternik never made it to Palestine. He died either in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 or in Auschwitz in 1943.

*Musing: Would Lusternik see today’s Israel as a fulfillment of his vision?

*Bonus: Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) sings Shir Hama’alot (in Ashkenazi Hebrew, Shir Hama’alos)