Karen Alkalay-Gut

Karen Alkalay-Gut

“Traces of Living Flesh:” The Poetry of Israel Emiot


I began reading As Long As We Are Not Alone, the new book of Israel Emiot’s poems translated by Leah Zazulyer, and published by Tiger Bark Press, and thought casually that more people might well be interested in this book. that it would certainly be worthy of a review.  But strangely enough I was halted from this intellectual evaluation by a fit of uncharacteristic weeping.  An image from the past rose to my mind that just wouldn’t leave me:  I saw myself about fourteen years old, sitting at my parents’ dining table with the Yiddish writer Israel Emiot, as he urges me to translate his poetry from Yiddish to English.  I am an obedient child.  I begin with a poem entitled “Spring.”  “Villing tzu efsher nit villung,” that I struggle over.  I, like the spring, was “Willing or perhaps not willing.”

My translation effort doesn’t sound right to me.   Even though it is accurate, I am sure the sound, the rhythm, the pace, doesn’t work, and even though I know little about poetry I understand that my poetic efforts have not been at all successful. It doesn’t sound right to him either.  Perhaps, he thinks, I could try another media.  Perhaps I could be more comfortable with some of his prose.

After a few weeks he returns to me with a draft of a typed manuscript called “The Birobidzhan Affair,” about his life in exile in Siberia.  This is even more of a challenge.  In a language in which I have read only fiction, he tells of how he was sent by Stalin's government to start a Yiddish newspaper and, when he did, he was arrested for doing so.  The response to his claim that he did what he was sent to do was "that was the policy yesterday.”  Living in a democratic country that has adopted me and given me freedom what do I know of official treachery?

 I struggle with the first paragraph, and soon relinquish all hope, knowing I have failed a man starving for communication - so desperate to tell his story and forge a connection with the American writers and critics he knows he must meet in order to create a dialogue - that he would latch on to a gum-chewing teenager whose head was in lipstick and boys.

I had known Israel Emiot since I was twelve, and know something of his tragedy and his loneliness.  But in my latter years in Rochester, he had finally found more literary environments, was less present in my family’s home, and when I moved to Israel in 1972, we lost touch.  When he died on March 7, 1978, I was in the midst of a tumultuous divorce and barely noted his passing. Nevertheless, a vision of him returns to me every so often, like a wound that has never healed properly and must be attended to again and again, and like a muse who prods me into poetry, translating, academic writing.  Just now when I searched his name on the voluminous files in my computer there were tiny references to him everywhere.

But I never put my memories in writing before this book reached me.  I looked at the Yiddish, far more sophisticated and beautiful and touching than I could have understood as a child.  Then my eyes went to the translation – so much more truthful and beautiful than I would have known how to produce in those days when he was so eager to make me grow up as a writer; and I remembered how one day I admitted that I too wrote.  “You must write,” he said, “only if you cannot sleep at night without it.”  Of course I had not heard of Rilke, and Emiot did not mention his source, and it did not matter.  The advice echoed in me for years.  And now, I write this memory because I cannot sleep without writing.

Perhaps I’m the only one who knows, and probably he would have preferred to keep his life separate.  Emiot was forced, like most of us in different degrees, to choose some parts of his biography and ignore others.  The parts of his life he tried to show others were real and true, painful and profound, sophisticated and sensitive. But there were other details as well, some of which I witnessed, and the knowledge of them emphasizes for me the greatness of his character. 

Emiot was a name he took on as his career developed, a name that fulfilled the person he became, more than a pseudonym.  His family name was Goldwasser. I know this because the illiterate woman who cooked in our house when I was growing up always emphasized this fact.  “Don’t look at me like I’m nothing because I’m toothless and ugly,” Ida Goldwasser would say to me, “I am married to a great writer who is only not with me now because he is in a gulag in Siberia.”  Obviously I had not been behaving with the proper respect to the woman whose only interest for me was in the question of whether she was bald under her kerchief.   Ida had been matched off to Israel Emiot before WWII, when they lived near Warsaw, but he had been forced to leave during the war, she told me.  I do not know when or how she arrived in the U.S. with her son Nathan, but she lived with us for a few years before Emiot was found. 

My mother brought Ida to the airport to be reunited with her husband, and I have often pictured the scene.  I am certain I saw him for the first time in our home as he walked in from the porch to the kitchen, with blackened and missing teeth, and wearing an elegant worn brown striped suit, far too big for his wasted figure.  I remember her babushka figure and apron and the look of terrible disappointment.   He arrived in Rochester in 1958, and soon after we moved to a far better neighborhood, without Ida Goldwasser, the woman I had come to think of as a babayaga – a Russian witch.

When I first saw him in real life he was probably in his mid-forties, his face pale and deeply lined, his expression tragic, a man who clearly had suffered greatly.  And it was clear to me his suffering could not be relieved by the short round woman with an apron over her green flowered dress and that kerchief tied behind her head.  It was not a well-matched couple.   “For this reunion you think you’ll get the credit?” I would tease my mother, “No, you’ll get the blame!”

There was nothing for it.  This couple reminded my mother of a Russian saying, “God wore out his paws (lappes) looking to match a pair like this.”   There was no ‘pair’.  Neither was there any communication I could see with his rakish son, Nathan, who, as I recall, preferred playing the horses in Batavia to any other activity.  At our house there were literary dinners all the time, and Emiot was always there.  Although I remember there were many Yiddish writers, the only writer who remains in my mind is Haim Grade, noisy as Emiot was silent, drunk as Emiot was sober, and joyful as Emiot was sad.  They sat across the table from each other, but I recall no interchange.

For Emiot Rochester was a refuge and America a vast freedom.  Only when he travelled to New York, he wrote a postcard that rejoiced that he was in the city zolelet ve sova’at, that devours and is surfeited. My brother pointed out that Emiot was quoting Deuteronomy ( 21:20), about the rebellious son who seeks only pleasure. I assumed he was the devourer and his thirst had been sated, that getting away from his staid environment in Rochester released his joy of life,  but a few days later he was mugged and beaten rather severely, and his taste for wandering freely was somewhat diminished..

I assume he managed to make connections and forge friendships in New York because he began writing for the Yiddish newspaper “The Forward,” and soon he began talking about a nun in Nazareth College who was translating some of his poems.

The Jewish community of Rochester took him in and nurtured him, I fully believe, due to the efforts of my parents.  My parents were the intermediary between the refugee community, of which they were a part, and the vast benevolent American Jewish organizations in the neighborhood.  Both of my parents, Louis and Doris Rosenstein, worked separately and together to benefit and develop all Jewish organizations in Rochester, and their efforts with Israel Emiot were one of the ways in which they could link their old, almost vanished world, with the burgeoning present in the city.  Their investment in him was great, and my mother’s pride at the employment of Israel Emiot in the Jewish Community Center was immeasurable.   

Emiot took on the establishment of a new journal, supported by the Jewish Community Center, or what was then “The Jewish Young Men’s and Women’s Association of Rochester.”  The first issue was largely in Yiddish, but later issues included more English.  “Jewish Roots” was an attempt to build linguistic and cultural bridges, but I can find no record of its existence on public databases.  It ceased when Emiot passed away.

So little remains of Emiot that I pored through this new dual language book of poems As Long As We Are Not Alone, as if it were an icon, a scrap of a saint’s linen, a peek at forgotten greatness.

>At last I return to the poem I had failed to translate so many years ago, “Before Spring,” and discovered Zazulyer had skipped a verse in the middle.  The verse that was missing, perhaps the only one in the book, made no sense to me and is still seems to me untranslatable.  I remembered that the third verse is where I originally gave up, and returned to the translation of my youth which seems to have been etched in my memory.

Willing or perhaps not willing,
with the heart and so distant and strange
before the bright smiling spring
>it had my spirit shamed.

Zazulyer makes it much more understandable and poetic; by revising and clarifying she returns the spirit to the verse.

Willingly, perhaps unwillingly,
despite my alienated and remote heart,
spring’s suffusing smile
shames my spirits. (87)

Zuzulyer describes and discusses the rhyme schemes and verse forms of Emiot in introductions to each section, so the problems of exact translation are somewhat overcome. 

In thinking of how to describe this memorable book I am reminded of Zazulyer’s translation of  Emiot’s praise of the beauty of Mona Lisa,
Oh, Master, what is gone is indeed dead,
But it has been transformed by your brushstrokes
Into traces of living flesh. (73) 

The deep emotion of all those refugees, their suffering and loneliness, despite the enormous efforts of their American friends to recover their lost happiness, is recaptured here in the exceptional and succinct poetics of a profound individual, thanks to a community that cared enough to preserve it.