Two Poems by Chaim Nachman Bialik


Introduction by Daniel Bosch

C.N. Bialik ( b. 1873 in Radomyshi, Ukraine, d. 1934 Vienna) was one of the most important and influential Jewish poets of the 20th century, a major contributor to the revitalization of the Hebrew language (though he also wrote in Yiddish), and the first modern Hebrew writer to find a large non-Jewish readership in translation. Perhaps best-known for his poems on behalf of a nationalistic and Zionist vision, Bialik also wrote passionate and clear but uncanny lyrics such as you will read below, poems that seem to tell traditional stock narratives — until they don’t. Many of his poems have been set to music.


Sometimes you try for the pearl . . .

Sometimes you try for the pearl—
and get clay.
Without luck, brother,
your field gets swept away!

I did not guess,
I did not see
that this would be and this
become of me.

No father nor mother had I,
no friend nor relation,
Reb Shoel the cobbler my boss—
and I his workman.

He had a daughter
and another;
one lovely as the sun,
ugly as sin the other.

I saw the pretty one—
I wanted her to wed.
All day I thought of her
and in my bed.

One day the cobbler spoke,
he spoke in hints to me,
seeing as . . . being that . . .
and you have nobody.

And I—kein ayin hora—have a daughter,
a good Jewish girl with no taint;
so . . . you get the drift, my son?
For the wise that’s enough of a hint!

That night the guests rolled up,
they drank their whisky and wine,
the cup was smashed,
and the ketubah signed.

There was just one small hitch—
Oy, one bitter error!
I wanted the lovely one—
they gave me the ugly one.

From the day I fell in the trap
until my dying day
I’ll drink my stinking water
from my pot of clay.

If you’ve no luck, brother—
your field gets swept away!
Take a heavy hammer and smash
your skull today!



Kein ayin hora, literally ‘no evil eye’ = the Yiddish expression most frequently used to ward off misfortune; ketubah = marriage contract


Who has a jewel . . .

Who has a jewel,
and who the pearl,
and who six fingers
on his left hand.

And I have three girls
castling breasts,
luscious plaits.

Each wants marriage,
demands a helpmeet,
with nothing to wear
they go barefeet.

And as though the young men
have made a deal, in a flash
the dowry is theirs—
in cash.

And so grooms come and go,
and the story’s the same—
in the end there’s nothing
but heartache and shame.

The food stays uneaten,
it’s also the same,
from pantry to table
and back again:

a handful of oranges,
untouched nuts—
silent witnesses
to anxious nights,

and grooms and youth
in flight,
the hairs of my eldest
already white.

Years fade and the oranges fade
and lose their scent,
worms fill the nuts
and the samovar boils out.

Yes, there’s luck and luck:
one gets the pearl,
the other six fingers
on his left hand.

And I have three girls . . .



These poems translated from the Hebrew by David Aberbach appear in C.N. Bialik: Selected Poems (Overlook Duckworth, 2004)

Scholar, Translator, and Psychoanalyst David Aberbach is Professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.