A body’s been given to me—what shall I do with it,
so singular, and so mine?
For the joy of living quietly, and breathing,
To whom, tell me, shall I give my thanks?
I am the gardener, and I am the flower;
I am not alone in the prison of this world.
My warm breath is already fixed
on the glass of eternity.
A pattern is fixed on it,
Unrecognizable in recent days.
Let the moments flow on their turbid way—
The dear pattern will not be stricken out.
A Poem for the 2,000 Chickens That Died of Heat Exhaustion in Boro Park this Wednesday
I don’t feel any particular sympathy for you chickens
most of the time, my love begins
and ends at the scrumptious yellow marbling
under your skin, but
nothing should die of thirst
and unseasonable heat
in a stacked cage on the sidewalk
in New York City
you never got the chance to die for our sins
(at least formally,
rotated thrice with a grip on the wing tendons
and buoyed by the ritual of purgation),
while the clutter & paraphernelia of prayer
was elsewhere assembled indoors,
thousands of prayer books with thin thin pages
and fragrant white hung in plastic sheaths to keep
spotless for the holiday
Why You Shouldn’t Learn Too Much Torah on Yom Kippur
A little is all right,
A little, just to whet
your appetite for the ridgeless
tedium of prayer,
A verse or two to strengthen your arm
for its concussive impact above the rib bones
Too much and one might
get distracted from the process of repentance
leaning down to flip
to the next verse, the next chapter,
you might lick your arid lips
and wet the pad of your thumb, to turn the page
Twelve years and two days ago, I celebrated my bat mitzvah, on September 9, 2001. It was big and fancy, in a tent in my backyard; everything was purple, including the purple skirt-suits Sarah Lavin and I wore, somewhat mysteriously, and we had sushi and a glassblower. I came to school that week still buoyed by the experience of the massive party at least nominally in my honor, the gold early-September sun through the unturned trees, etc. And then Tuesday morning, when “terrorist attack” was on everyone’s lips, we watched piped-in news from a Spanish TV channel on the ancient TV we all gathered around at school, which only echoed, through fuzz, the ominous plume of smoke we could see drifting up outside our school windows. As much as anything in my life ever had, and even at that age, it felt as if the two events were connected: the one epitomizing some buoyant, carefree prior era in which life floated along in a lavender haze; and the new era, full of perilous uncertainty, in which crossing the George Washington Bridge took hours, in which just getting home felt like a necessary safety that I could no longer take for granted.
Meet Yoel Weisshaus. Yoel, a Chasidish Jew who grew up in a Yiddish speaking home in Brooklyn, attended Yeshiva at an early age. Yoel is a peasant with chutzpa known for suing the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey over its controversial toll hikes, at prices that exceed twofold what one earns per hour under the minimum wage. Yoel is talented and drafts his own pleadings because he cannot afford an attorney, his case is still ongoing. He freelances in sales of American made braidings and ribbons for local garments and hat manufactures. Yoel has an accent because English is not his first language, but he is still striving to learn English writing.
Today’s theme: Going to the Doctor.
Jews Make Jokes:
A Jew goes to the doctor.
—Doctor, will I live?, he asks.
—But what’s the point?, the doctor answers.
Ukrainian With a Smile:
A patient goes to the doctor with a jar of urine.
"Doctor, I have bad test results, what do I do?"
The doctor takes the jar in hand, looks at it under the light, and suddenly takes a mouthful of urine and spits it into the patient’s face. The patient screams, and the doctor says:
"Your urine is excellent, my friend, but you’ve got to work on your nerves."
This may be the darkest joke I’ve ever read. The backstory on this is that millions of people died in Ukraine in 1932-33 [and many more in subsequent famines but that’s the infamous one] thanks to Stalin’s harvest quotas and the zeal of the Communist bureaucracy in collecting them, thereby leaving the peasants to starve. GREAT PUNCHLINE!! Anyway, this is the best joke about farm collectivization in rural Soviet Ukraine you’ll hear all day.
In a small Ukrainian village, red commissars were heading the surplus appropriation committee.
“So, you little bitches, are you sad to lose your cow to the revolution?”
“No, Mr. Officer, we are not sad.”
“And your horse, you kulak beasts, you don’t regret losing it to the revolution?”
“No, Mr. Officer, we don’t regret it.”
“And your pig, you malformations, don’t you regret losing it to the revolution?”
“No, Mr. Officer, we do not regret it.”
“And what about your chicken, you whores, you don’t regret losing it to the revolution?”
“We regret losing the chicken.”
“What can we say, Mr. Officer… we don’t have a cow, or a horse, or a pig…”
Sometimes you can tell the most about a culture by what it’s willing (and unwilling) to joke about. You can read more about the ‘32-33 famine in Ukraine, otherwise known as “Holodomor” (or “Hunger-Death”), here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor
For more details about the joke books, I refer you back to my first joke translation post;. From now on, I will simply refer to the books as “Ukrainian with a Smile” (UWS) and “Jews Make Jokes” (JMJ). THIS POLICY SUBJECT TO CHANGE.
Today’s theme: making fun of Russians.
-What do you call a person who speaks Ukrainian?
-What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
-What do you call a person who speaks only one language?
* Most Ukrainians speak Russian and Ukrainian.
** The actual word in the joke is ‘Moskal,’ which is a derogatory Ukrainian word for a Russian. It’s kind of a slur.
A son asks his father:
-Papa, who are we - Jews or Russians?
-Why do you need to know that, little son?
-One of the boys in the courtyard is selling a bicycle, and I need to know whether to haggle with him and buy it, or curse at him and break it.
That’s an interesting question. I think that Ukraine is a deeply divided country and like most statements about it this has to be qualified by region. I would say that Western Ukraine - the part that lies relatively close to the border with Poland- definitely embraces Western ideals and values much more than the Eastern part of Ukraine (which I clumsily define as “from Kiev eastward”). This divide is most neatly represented by language: Western Ukraine mostly consists of people who speak Ukrainian in daily life, whereas Eastern Ukraine consists mostly of people who speak Russian. Likewise Western Ukraine tends to support independence-based parties and the current political opposition (Tymoshenko’s Batkivshina party), whereas Eastern Ukraine forms the power/voter base for Viktor Yanukovich, a deeply Russia-oriented leader (who famously has become the butt of many Ukrainians’ jokes for his persistent inability to speak Ukrainian). Ukraine is a deeply divided country on many many levels, in ways established by history and continuing in the current era. But I would say that Western Ukraine does hew somewhat towards “Western” values.
On the other hand I’m not entirely sure that Russia isn’t part of Western civilization. It’s a confusing thing to think about, in ways emblematized by the geography of Russia itself: partly in Europe, partly in Asia; with poems and novels emphatically part of the Western literary canon, but separated by its remoteness, religion, and countless other factors…
What do you think, readers? Is Russia part of Western civilization? If not, is it “Eastern”? Or sui generis?
So I promised you some joke translations. Here are two jokes. The first is from Ukrainskii S Ulibkoy - Ukrainian With A Smile, published in 2007. Part of a series called “The Ilya Frank Method of Reading,” it aims to teach Russian speakers Ukrainian by presenting intra-line translations of Ukrainian jokes. (However, I’ll mostly be relying on the Russian texts of the jokes because my Ukrainian is pretty terrible.)
Today’s joke theme: wives.
A wife gives her husband money for a liter and a half of oil. He returns from the store.
"So, did you buy it?" she says.
"Well, I bought a liter and a half," he says. "But there was no money for oil."
(TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The joke is that he bought a liter and a half of vodka. #ukrainianlife)
The second joke is from Evrei Shutyat (Jews Make Jokes), a book of Jewish jokes, aphorisms, and anecdotes published, in Russian, in St. Petersburg and Tartu in 2009. The book mostly consists of Soviet-era jokes, both about Jews and by Jews. They for the most part express a lot of despair, but in a funny way.
A wife asks her husband:
FImochka, what kind of women do you like: smart ones or beautiful ones?
—I don’t love either kind, Sofochka. I love only you!
This post brought to you by suburban boredom.