When my great-grandfather Leib-Kolman
was asked if he really could
write in five languages
with never a single error,
he said not so, it was simply
an error on the part of those
who are not on speaking terms with grammar.

He worked at the post office,
identifying and sorting mail
from Moscow and Odessa,
Warsaw and Bucharest,
Paris and Kishinev,
America and Palestine.

He could read any address
but didn't know a single addressee.
His gaze was downcast--
at the ground or a book;
the ground was soft, lilac-grey,
and the book was old,
with yellowing pages
and a massive leather binding.

It was a total waste of time
to greet him on the street,
and fruitless to take offense
when he made no reply.

They greeted him anyway
and took offense regardless.

Neither one nor the other mattered in the least.

He read the Talmud, sorted letters,
and prayed, rocking
under the white shawl
bordered with black stripes.

If any problems came up
Malka, his wife, dealt with them;
she didn't need an address
in order to locate someone.

At the critical juncture she donned
her claret velvet dress,
her rhombic gold brooch
with twenty garnets
and one modest ruby,
seated herself in the cabriolet
and made an exit.

She made three of four
of these little excursions, not more,
resulting in a new job for her husband,
a draft deferment for her first-born, Yakov,
release from prison for nephew Zeev.

Her trip to Beltsy in regard
to the investigation of David, her youngest,
who ran away from home, was the first time
her excursion ended in failure.

Never again did she don the claret dress;
the time had come for other excursions.

In forty-two, in Tashkent, where
dissolute David wound up, finding himself
to be a major in a tank division,
a Communist and a husband
to several wives, Leib-Kolman
was an old greybeard
increasingly isolated from the world,
increasingly lost in an otherness
that found expression in rocking and muttering,
though he no longer read the book,
wore the yamulka, or covered his head
with the shawl.

All that belonged to another life
(which no one but he would call a life)
jettisoned during flight--
attempted flight, actually--
failed, like all other attempts.

He questioned no one
and asked for nothing,
except, perhaps, in prayer.

But who cares what it means--
the slow diminishing montonous rocking
of somebody's body, a withered stick?

Rabbi Yitzkhak Levi said,
"Rocking during prayer,
while seeming to be a conventional
outward show of piety,
nevertheless maintains an erroneous
point of theology: rocking,
returning back to the beginning,
is uncharacteristic of the spirit,
of a steadfast adherent to the Law
and one who can tell the beginning
from the end."

They say that Rabbi Yitzkhak Levi
couldn't stand to be in the same room
with a pendulum clock.

© 1996 Boris Khersonsky. All rights reserved.
Translation by Ruth Kreuzer and Dale Hobson.