July 26, 2001
The Poetry of Lamentations
"The Book of Lamentations: A Meditation and Translation" by David R. Slavitt (Johns Hopkins University Press. $15.95).
David R. Slavitt's new translation of Eicha (Lamentations) demonstrates his masterful sensibilities and poetic fortitude. Avoiding the abstract and distant language typical of academic poetry, Slavitt's poetry and translations are accessible to the common reader, but written without compromise.
Consider his treatment of Lamentations, chapter 1, verses 6-7: "From the daughter of Zion all beauty is banished and glory is gone. Her princes are starving deer that are lacking in speed and strength and cannot elude their pursuers. Gone are all the good times that Jerusalem cannot remember, those pleasant and prosperous days before her townsfolk fell into the enemy's hand, and none was there to help her. Her adversaries gloated and mocked her desolation." (Compare that to the perhaps more literal Artscroll translation: "Gone from the daughter of Zion is all her splendor. Her leaders were like harts that found no pasture; they walked on without strength before the pursuer." [1:6])
Poet, critic, journalist and translator, Slavitt is an unknown gem of American Jewish letters.
Here Slavitt introduces this short, sad, painful, holy text with his own meditations on the course of sorrow in Jewish history. He reminds the reader of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, of the expulsion from Spain, and of the act of expulsion of English Jewry on July 18, 1290, also Tisha B'Av.
This beautifully laid out Hebrew-English text deserves close attention, and David Slavitt, our gratitude for his work.
"Keter Malkhut" ("Crown of Royalty"), and the 17th-century Spanish-converso poet João Pinto Delgado's "Poema de la Reyna Ester" ("The Poem of Queen Esther").
Here Slavitt introduces this short, sad, painful, holy text with his own meditations on the course of sorrow in Jewish history. He reminds the reader of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, of the expulsion from Spain, and of the act of expulsion of English Jewry on July 18, 1290, also Tisha b'Av.
In the preface, he observes:
I simply couldn't understand the charm (of celebrating a bar mitzvah at the Kotel, the Wailing Wall). Or at Masada, either, for that matter, where people also have bar mitzvahs, as well as swearing-in ceremonies for the Israeli armed forces.
"These are not happy places," I observed, and I said that I'd as soon celebrate such an occasion at Auschwitz.
"Auschwitz isn't ours," his daughter-in-law, a rabbinical student, said, after a moment's thought.
After another moment, I answered her: "It is now."
With that tone, and those sensibilities, David Slavitt has given us a sad and treasured gift with his translation of a text too often overlooked during our busy and joyful summer vacations.