4.6. Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik, poem ‘And it shall be when the days grow long… From the visions of the latter prophets’ (1908)

The beginning of the long, Hebrew poem Ve-hayah ki yaʾarkhu ha-yamim – Me-he-zionot ha-neviʾim ha-aḥaronim (“And it shall be when the days grow long… From the visions of the latter prophets”) by Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik (1873-1934) reads Ve-hayah. This can be translated as “And it was;” here, however, Ve-hayah is a “prophetic perfect,” characteristic of the prophetic Bible books, a past tense referring to events in the future, as if they had already happened. The title and first line of the poem, Ve-hayah ki yaʾarkhu ha-yamim, “And it shall be (or: “come to pass”) when the days grow long” is, in the words of Bialik’s translator David Aberbach, a “deflationary play” *Aberbach, C.N. Bialik, Selected Poems 182 on Isa. 2:1, Ve-hayah be-aḥarit ha-yamim, which the King James Bible translates as “And it shall come to pass in the last days[.]” Instead of the “dread majesty” (Isa. 2:19) at the end of days, there will be summer at the end of the lengthening days. However, there is neither fear nor joy in the poem. The term “latter prophets” in the subtitle is normally used to distinguish Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve Minor Prophets from the “Former Prophets” in the historical books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. In Bialik’s poem, “latter” might been used quite literally, denoting modern times, or more precisely, the early 20th-century chronotope of an East European shtetl. *The samovar (large tea kettle) in v. 61 suggests a Russian or Ukrainian chronotope. The poem pictures the lives of Jews, who feel unfulfilled and long for the Messiah.

And it shall be when the days grow long—
all alike, with little joy, much grief—
man and beast gripped with boredom;
a man will go to the seashore at twilight
[5] to think
but the sea won’t run away—
he’ll yawn;
he’ll go to the Jordan, it won’t flow back—
he’ll yawn;
[10] he’ll watch the Hunter and the Bull—
they’re still in the sky—
he’ll yawn.
Man and beast will be miserable together,
burdened with life,
[15] tearing hair in boredom—
and the cat will be bald of whiskers.

Longing will sprout
like stale mushrooms in a rotted tree stump.
Longing will fill the cracks
[20] as lice fill rags.

In this way, the life of the poor East European Jews passes by. And then the hunger comes, not the hunger for bread or for a vision, not even for the ubiquitous God, but for the Messiah, who will come at the end of days; and every morning people rise with an empty feeling and rush to the window, yearning for the Saviour, who will be announced by a shofar. The last 16 lines of the poem read:

[50] From under blanket his wife will emerge,
scrawny, depressed, her hair a mess,
she’ll pull her dry breast
from the baby’s mouth,
and listen carefully:
[55] isn’t the Messiah coming?
isn’t that donkey braying?
Baby lifts head from crib,
mouse peeps from hole:
isn’t the Messiah coming?
[60] Isn’t that his donkey’s bells?
Maid fanning samovar behind stove
sticks coal-black face outside:
isn’t the Messiah coming?
Didn’t his trumpet sound?
[65] – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

*C.N. Bialik, Selected Poems 136-43. Translation copyright © 2004 by David Aberbach. Published in 2004 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission. “Trumpet” (v. 64) is “shofar” in the original Hebrew. Many verses of the poem allude to Bible verses from prophetical books, but first of all from Ps. 114. This Psalm about the Exodus—“When Israel went forth from Egypt, / the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech”—is part of Hallel (Pss. 113-118) and said on the first two days of Pesaḥ. *The composer Ernest Bloch gave it joyous and triumphant music. Chapter 4.7. Ps. 114:3 about the waters giving way to the Israelites: “The sea saw them and fled, / Jordan ran backward,” is transformed by Bialik into the depressing vv. 6-8: “but the sea will not run away— . . . he’ll go to the Jordan, it won’t flow back—[.]” These verses also allude to Exod. 14:21: “Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the LORD drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night” and to Josh. 3:15-16: “But as soon as the bearers of the Ark reached the Jordan . . . 16 the waters coming down from upstream piled up in a single heap a great way off[.]” The stars, still overwhelming in Job 9:9: “the Bear and Orion, . . . And wondrous things without number” are simply present in Bialik’s poem: “he’ll watch the Hunter and the Bull— / they’re still in the sky—” (vv. 10-11). As “Hunter” (Orion) and “Bull” (Taurus) are prominent constellations in the winter sky of the northern hemisphere, summer is still far away. Vv. 33-36: “Then hunger will come . . . not for bread or vision, / but for the Messiah!” are a faint echo of Amos 8:11: “A time is coming—declares my Lord GOD—when I will send a famine upon the land: not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water, but for hearing the words of the LORD” and the depressing banality of v. 37: “Every man will rise at dawn” lacks the greatness of Ezek. 37:13: “You shall know, O My people, that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and lifted you out of your graves.” The longed-for arrival of the Messiah in vv. 55-56 and 59-60: “isn’t the Messiah coming? . . . Isn’t that his donkey bells?” has only the “humble” and not the “triumphant” in common with Zech. 9:9: “Lo, your king is coming to you. / He is victorious, triumphant, / Yet humble, riding on an ass[.]” The most sarcastic reference to a Bible verse is found in vv. 17-18: “Longing will sprout / like stale mushrooms in a rotted tree stump,” from which ascends a different smell than from Isa. 11:1: “But a shoot shall grow out of the stump of Jesse[.]” In this poem, the biblical Past is altered by the Present: greatness has become banality and hope has turned into disappointment.

The depressing atmosphere in Bialik’s poem is determined by a long catalog of negative emotions and qualifications: boredom (10 x), unfulfillment (6 x), neglect (4 x), sadness (3 x), disappointment (3 x), joylessness (3 x), drowsiness (2 x), dryness (2 x), rut, rot, anxiety, exhaustion, emptiness, feverishness, depression, and untidiness. Many of these negative emotions and qualifications are expressed in flat, dull, repetitive sounds: “he’ll yawn” in vv. 7, 9, and 11; “he’ll sigh” in vv. 24, 26, and 28; “man and beast will sigh together” in v. 29; “on the tin roof the cat / will sob and scratch” in vv. 30-31; “cat’s wail scratching / his [every man’s] gut and brain” in vv. 41-2; and “Maid fanning samovar” in v. 61. The poem presents the Messiah after the descending hierarchy of man, woman, child, maid, and mouse, and the supporting act to his powerful shofar blast consists of the braying of the donkey and the tinkling of bells. The conclusion with the shofar blast, that should have been the climax, is enfeebled by the dashed line, suggesting that there is no end to emptiness and boredom.

The distance between dreary everyday life and religious expectations is increased by an inaudible Bakhtinian hybridization: the Yiddish sighing of the characters is expressed in Hebrew, the language of the sacred books and hardly a spoken language in Eastern Europe around the turn of the 20th century. The translator, David Aberbach, goes a step further, stating that the poem has “a topical meaning, particularly with regard to the futile efforts of the East-European Yiddishists to establish Yiddish (which at the time was spoken by the large majority of Jews) as the Jewish national language.” *Aberbach, C.N. Bialik, Selected Poems 182. The only, indirect argument he could find is the first verse of Ps. 114: “When Israel went forth from Egypt, / the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech,” if he is willing to consider the Russian language of the Gentiles in the Pale of Settlement as the “strange speech.” This, however, seems rather far-fetched.

Bialik wrote this poem in the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, where Jews suffered discrimination, oppression, and even large-scale pogroms (for example Kishinev, 1903). Many of them emigrated to America, hoping to find their luck there, and Mr Green in Sholem Aleykhem’s story Mr. Green Has a Job *Chapter 4.8 is a both spectacular and perverted character, inspired by some of these enterprising people. Many among those who stayed in Eastern Europe were unable to take up social or political activity, and their longing for a better future often took the form of passive waiting for the Messiah. Bialik pictures their hopeless waiting, stressing the contrast with some central traditional texts about struggle and deliverance, first of all Ps. 114 about the Exodus from Egypt and Isa. 2 on the end of days.

The very few and also very concise comments on And it shall be when the days grow long… interpret the poem as a harsh criticism of the passivity of the characters. The translator, David Aberbach, states that “Isaiah’s grand eschatological vision is transformed here into a portrait of unending futility.” *Aberbach, C.N. Bialik, Selected Poems 182. The scenes from daily life in the poem are futile indeed, but it remains to be seen if the daily lives of Jewish sweatshop workers in New York, as depicted by Moris Rozenfeld, or poor agricultural workers in Ereẓ Israel would have been more interesting. According to Aberbach, “There are no miracles, only boredom, longing and defeated hopes, familiar motifs in Bialik’s poetry,” *Ibid. 182 but this applies as well to life in the Goldene Medine and the Holy Land. Moreover, looking at the starry sky (vv. 10-11), waiting for the shofar of the Messiah (v. 64) and longing for deliverance as in Psalm 114 (vv. 4-8) may have no chance of success, but are certainly not futile. The literary theoretician Hamutal Bar-Yosef considers Bialiks “prophetic” poems and concludes: “Bialik’s severe criticism of contemporary Jewish life is part of his general anti-sentimental, sometimes anti-Romantic, approach to reality.” *Bar-Yosef, Recreating Jewish Identity 186. The “prophetic” poems mentioned are “Surely the People Is Grass,” “On Your Desolate Heart,” “The Word,” “When the Days Go By,” and “In the City of Slaughter.” Apart from the fact that “contemporary Jewish life” encompasses very different situations, the characters in this particular poem are neither sentimental, nor Romantic: in vv. 33-36 they suffer from hunger, “not for bread or vision, / but for the Messiah!” Bar-Yosef goes a step further, stating that “In Bialik’s ‘prophetic’ poems . . . Jews appear as petty, sly merchants, cowards, and beggars, even in their greatest suffering.” Though And it shall be is one of Bialik’s “prophetic” poems, Bar-Yosef does not give an explanation of these negative qualifications with regard to this poem, nor does she mention its subtle irony, already expressed in the title and subtitle. Aberbach considers And it shall be as the most subversive of Bialik’s “prophetic” poems and according to him, “it is, in fact, anti-prophetic.” *Aberbach, C.N. Bialik, Selected Poems 182. Actually, it is prophetic, though the prophecy is not fulfilled. In the same comment, Aberbach seems to contradict himself, stating that the poem can also be read as a satire on “the grand biblical prophecies of the coming of the Messiah,” first of all on Zech. 9:9 about the victorious, triumphant, yet humble king, riding on an ass. To which should be added Zech. 9:14 about God sounding the ram’s horn.


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