TWO PHOTOS: Odessa, 1915

The picture of Rachel was taken at home,
at the secretary, with a book in her hands.
On the desktop is a deskset,
a narrow vase in Nouveau style
and piles of books, some of which
are almanacs: Sweetbriar, The Elocutionist.
Two small bronze busts (Andreev and Tolstoy)
are turned to face the camera; on the wall is
a bas-relief of Nietsche; a little to the left
on the carved wooden shelf
is a statuette wearing a cocked hat
with arms crossed on its chest.

The picture of Robert was taken at the same desk,
but instead of a book, a pen is in his hand.
The blank paper looks out of place
on the cramped and jumbled flat space.
More: a journal, on the cover of which
one is able to decipher Chronicles of War.

Photos reflect what is now misnamed
the "inner world" of a family.

Different poses, different pursuits
disclose the disparate pretensions.

The ink stand has been preserved,
part of it, at least.

Rabbi Yitzchak Levi used to say,
"It's no surprise that Jews
excel in worldly scholarship,
to the envy of their neighbors--
when they abandon the Torah
the hole in their hearts and minds
is so vast that you could place
within it anything you want."

And Rabbi Schraga Mendlowitz
would reply, "There is nothing to be surprised at
and, alas, nothing to be proud of.
Would Jeremiah be proud
if he was told
that Jewish sculptors
had carved a golden idol
of Baal-Fegor better
than the Canaanites?"

Their friend Aaron ben Riven
was silent for a moment, then answered,
"Well, anyway, whatever you say,
my son graduated with honors
from St. Petersburg University
and is being published in the capital papers."

Aaron takes from the inkpot
the tiny graven ivory lid
(which even then was probably crazed
with a fine web of cracks)
and turns it over in his hands--a habit.

The ink stand has been preserved.

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