Rivka Basman Reciting “Vayskayt”

a vayskayt for blog

Rivka Basman Ben-Haim’s poem, “A Vayskayt”, A Whiteness, is dedicated to Kadya Molodowsky.  Rivka delighted in Kadya’s poetry when she herself was a schoolgirl in pre-WWII Lithuania.  After WWII,  when Kadya edited a collection of poems on the Holocaust (entitled Lider Fun Khurbn, Poems of/from the Holocaust), one of Rivka’s poems was in the collection.

The two met in the early 1950s when Kadya lived in Tel Aviv and Rivka, on kibbutz Ha-Ma’apil. That’s when the two got to know each other personally. Rivka could not have known that in a letter written while she was in Israel, Kadya told a friend that she was getting browbeaten for “living well with the Almighty”. Of course, as Kadya herself said (on a different occasion) to live well with someone is to argue with them.  And Kadya had serious arguments with the God of Israel. But listening to Rivka/reading this poem, you realize that Rivka had Kadya’s position nailed down precisely.

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Clarification: I have (most unwittingly) done the poet a dis-service by labeling her a “holocaust survivor”. While there is no doubt that Rivka Basman Ben-Haim is a holocaust survivor, and that this experience lurks under the surface at all times, it does not  and should not define her.  Any one who will read the articles in the following posts, listen to the recordings below, and/or read the texts below, will see that Rivka Basman Ben-Haim has done many things since those years.  Her poems are about eveything and anything, and are by no means limited to this one theme.

This winter Rivka Basman Ben-Haim published a new book called Liederheym,

Poem(s)-home.  Below is its front cover

Front Cover Rivka Basman Ben-Hayim’s New Book 2013

Front page of Liederheym


Below is a photo of Rivka reading from her new book at the book launching.

(Photo- courtesy of Bella Bryks-Klein):

photo of Basman at book launching

Here are 10 poems from that book- first a recording, then the Yiddish and the English.  On some screens, the English version is not formatted properly.  If you do not get a properly formatted version for theEnglish translation, click on the hyperlink to get Word file.  If the file still does not appearproperly formatted, you maybe using the Chrome browser.  In that case, use Internet Explorer as your browser, and all will be well.

liederheym page 8 Di Kroyveshaft -recording

Liederheym p. 8 di kroyveshaftHow to explain                                                                         The intimacy                                                                      Between Yiddish and Hebrew?                                       Perhaps the way Yiddish breathes deeply                              Into a Hebrew word,                                                            Warms up the letters,                                                           Gives them a softer step.

And then when Yiddish                                                          Tells Hebrew about                                                                Her tears-                                                                                    Both languages pray                                                              The identical prayer                                                                    To God.

If the English translation above was not properly formatted, click below for a Word document:

Liederheym page 8 English translation

liederheym page 10 Tsu Zikh– To Myself- recording

Liederheym page 10 YiddishFirst be in the poem                                                        Entirely within the poem                                             Immersed from head to feet                                               Then swallow the poem                                                           Like sunny oranges                                                               Bitter-sweet.



If the English translation above was not properly formatted, click below for a Word document

Liederheym page 10 English translation

liederheym page 12 Di Shtekhers The Thorns- recording

Liederheym page 12 YiddishThe thorns                                                                           That’ve withered                                                                       Lose their sharpness,                                                           They shrink                                                                                   And they soften-                                                                        So old age shows                                                          Everyone                                                                                     Its mark.

If the English translation above was not properly formatted, click below for a Word document:

Liederheym page 12– English translation

liederheym page 14 Mit Lider fun Yung Yisroel With Poems of “Yung Yisroel”- recording

Liederheym page 14 YiddishI was fated                                                                                   To inhale your breath                                                                 I was fated to sink                                                                     Into your song-                                                                            An old-young                                                                               A salty-sweet                                                                                A true-dream-like                                                                    And I read your verse                                                            And I long-for and speak to you                                             And am silent.

If the English translation above was not properly formatted, click below for a Word document:

Liederheym page 14 English

liederheym page 15 Nokhn Shturm After the Storm recording

Liederheym page 15 Yiddish

Let the words play                                                                     Let them be happy with a dream,                                      Don’t show them the color of your will,                           Don’t remember past days.

Let them create worlds                                                         Which come with flowers to greet                                          An unmasked reality,                                                                   A reality that’ll never feel pained.

Let the words play                                                                       As calm follows a storm                                                             Your wind-swept will becomes calm                                       Trust those words and believe them.                                                                                                 Let them play.

If the English translation above was not properly formatted, click below for a Word document:

Liederheym page 15 English

liederheym page 17 A Vort A Word -recording

Liederheym p17 better YiddishA word                                                                                        Is an apple                                                                                 A plum                                                                                      And a dream.

A word can drive-out                                                          And bring home                                                                         In peace.

A word                                                                                           Is spring                                                                                  And winter                                                                                And snow.

A word                                                                                                                                                Strokes                                                                                                                                                 And hurts.

A word                                                                                                                                                      Is an apple                                                                                                                                                A plum                                                                                                                                                 And a dream.

If the English translation above was not properly formatted, click below for a Word document:

Liederheym page 17 English translation

liederheym page 19 Di Goldene Keyt recording

The “Golden Chain”

Liederheym page 19 YiddishIt often happens                                                                      That I ride by                                                                             The entrance                                                                                    Of the former “Golden Chain”                                                Where Avrohom                                                                Gathered Yiddish words                                                              As rare pearls,                                                                            And Alexander                                                                         With great dedication                                                      Arranged them on the pages.

Pages of Yiddish words                                                    Smiling and teary                                                           Thought-through by generations,                                  Yiddish words like bees                                                                                                                Which seek a flowering spot.

And on-the-way sting the Hebrew city                                                                                        With a reclaimed,                                                                                                                              Lost                                                                                                                                                 Yiddish word.

If the English translation above was not properly formatted, click below for a Word document:

Liederheym page 19 English translation

liederheym page 22 In Veg On the Road- recording

Liederheym  page 22 YiddishLonely people don’t rush,                                                    Don’t hurry,                                                                           They walk step-by-step,                                                         Let all pass them by,                                                         They’ve time to see a blade of grass                                        A tree, a leaf.                                                                           And they tell the wind                                                         What they once had-                                                                 So the wind lingers a moment                                            And writes it down on the leaves                                          Word for word….

If the English translation above was not properly formatted, click below for a Word document:

Liederheym page 22 English translation

liederheym page 24 A Hunt Hot Mikh Arumgekukt  A Dog Looked Me Over – recording:

Liederheym page 24 YiddishA dog looked me over                                                            Began to accompany me                                                          As though he were searching                                                      Not for me but someone else.

While walking he sensed                                                              I was not that other                                                                   So he lowered his head                                                         And stopped accompanying.

That same thing happened to me                                             I thought it was you                                                                 And with a quiet “oy” asked                                                  How exactly do I get to-

If the English translation above was not properly formatted, click below for a Word document:

Liederheym page 24 English translation

liederheym page 50 In Shpigl In the Mirror- recording

Liederheym page50 YiddishYou are yourself-                                                                        No one else.                                                                         What’s different is the time                                               Which encircles you,                                                             This is you.

The same loves                                                                              Nest in  you                                                                              The same thoughts                                                       Accompany your step                                                            And the same consolation                                               Which comes bloodied                                                        From the struggle                                                                 Writes your poem.

If the English translation above was not properly formatted, click below for a Word document:

Liederheym page 50 English translation

liederheym page 17 A Vort A Word


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Rivka Basman’s eulogy for her husband

Rivka Basman Ben-Hayim’s eulogy for her husband

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Mula Ben-Haim and Rivka Basman

Mula Ben-Haim and Rivka Basman

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English translations of Basman Ben-Hayim’s poetry

I have translated some of the poems that the poet recites on this blog. In time, I will post them. Meantime, all translations of Basman Ben-Hayim’s poems are most welcome. If there are other translations not mentioned here, please feel free to make them known.

English Translations of Basman Ben-Hayim’s poetry not mentioned in “My Desert is Hotter”):

1. Stones Bloom – Translation found in Pakn Treger

2.. In the book Trot Bay Trot: Contemporary Yiddish Poetry (Bemporad and Pascucci, eds) Firenze, 2009, there are Yidddish poems on one side and my English tranlations of them on the opposite side, pp. 40-57. (If I can get the publisher’s permission, I will scan them here.)

3. Kathryn Hellerstein and I jointly published a translation of “grinkaytn”, greenesses. It  can be found in  Nashim, no. 19, spring 2010, pp. 174-175.

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Encyclopedia Article on Basman Ben-Hayim

The following article on Basman Ben-Hayim appears in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Women.  It is a bit out of date, but it gives the names of the poet’s books and some extra biographical information not found in the other articles. See http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/basman-ben-hayim-rivka


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“My Desert is Hotter”

The following article,  gives an overview of Basman Ben-Hayim’s poetry.  It has English translations of poems not found in the introductory essay here (“Not Yet…”), an extended bibliography of translations of her poems into Hebrew and references to translations into English other than my own.  http://wjudaism.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/wjudaism/article/view/12648

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Hear the Poet Recite Her Own Poetry

The following 70 tracks were on a CD that Basman Ben-Hayim made in Israel.  She and the producer of the CD disc, Mr. Leo Fayerman,  have given me permission to put these recordings online for the general public.

addendum for Basman post 

After hearing a bit of music, you can listen to the poet talk about writing poetry: click on the following:  01IntroductionbyPoet

English translation of introduction

To listen to the poem called  “In Bloom”, click on the following: 02InBli

English translation of In Bloom

What follows is one of the few poems in which the poet touches on what might be called a “political” subject.  It is her view that there should be no such thing as capital punishment.  It’s called: “Why Must We Kill a Person?”.  To hear it click:  03TsuVosDarfMenTeytnAMentch

English translation of Why Must We Kill a Person

The following poem is entitled: “One Gets Sick From Remembering”: 04FunGedenknVertMenKrank

English translation of One Gets Sick

The following poem is entitled: “We Are Uneasy”: 05Umru’ikZaynenMir

English translation of We Are Uneasy

This poem is entitled: “‘Tollarup’- A Street with a Musical Name”:  06TollarupaGasMitaZingeknNomen

English translation of Tollarop, A Street with a Melodious Name

The following poem is entitled: “Those Forests are Still Aflame” : 07EsFlamenNokhAltsYeneVelder

The following poem is entitled “Bright [Written] Lines”: 08LikhtikeShures

The following poem is entitled “The Gift” 09DiMatone

The following poem is entitled: “In Memory of My Little Brother Arele”: 10LeZeykherMaynBrunderlArele

This poem is entitled: “You Say We Must Record”:  11DuZogstMenDarfFarshraybn

This poem is entitled: “Have You Seen How the Tree Has Aged?”12HostGezenViDiBoymIzGevornaZokn

Click here for the poem “Amid the Surrounding Noise”: 13InTumelFunArum

This poem is entitled “Time Doesn’t Pass Without Leaving Signs”: 14DiTsaytFargeytNitOnSimonim

Click here for “My Mother”: 15MaynMame

The following poem, written after the poet spent time in Soviet Russia (during the Cold War) is entitled: “In the Moscow Synagogue”: 16InMoskverShul

The following poem is entitled “A Stone Lamb”: 17AShefeleFunShteyn

The following poem is entitled: “The Most Beautiful Thing I Saw at Dawn”:  18DiShensteZakhVosKh’hobGezenBaginen

Click here for: “What Does a Person Take Along for the Road?” 19VosNemtAMentshMitZikhInVeg

Click here for: “For Whom Does a Flower Bloom?” 20FarVemenBlitABlum

The following poem is entitled: “Sometimes You Have to Re-take Old Paths” 21MenDarfAmolBanayenAlteVegn

The following poem is entitled: “If People Were to Start Their Day Planting Flowers”: 22AzMentshnVoltnOngehoybnZeyerTogMitFlantsnBlumen

Click here for: “Did You Know the Young Man Who Fell Yesterday Along the Jordan?” (It should be noted that in Israel one says “fell” when one means “killed in war”.): 23TsiKentIrDemYinglVosIzNekhtnGefalnBamYarden

 The poet dedicates this poem to Rami, a former  pupil who was killed. Click here for “My Pupil”:  24MaynerATalmid

This poem is entitled: “To a Turtle”: 25TsuAShildkret

This poem is entitled: “What Does a Bird Do When Its Loved-one Dies?” : 26VosTutAFoyglVenZaynNoenteShtarbt

Click here for “Let’s Hear Good Music” : 27LomirHernGuteMuzik

Click here for: “[I] Struggled a Whole Night”: 28AGantseNakhtGerangltZikh

This poem  is entitled: “Night-time Walks”:  29NakhtikeShpatsirn

This poem is entitled: “The Salty Figure of Lot’s Wife”:  30DiZaltsikeGeshtaltFunEyshesLot

Click here for: “To the Grey Path”: 31TsumGroziknShteg

Click here for: “It’s Not a (Great) Feat”:  32S’izNitKeynKunts

This poem is entitled: “When It’s Quiet I speak Yiddish”: 33InShtilkaytReydIkhYidish

This poem is entitled; “You Can Lean On a Word”: 34OyfAVortKonMenZikhOnshparn

Click here for: “Poems are Sad”: 35LiderZaynenUmetik

Click her for: “A Day”: 36ATog

The following poem is entitled: “We Drained Swamps”.  It is a reference to the national project, undertaken in the 1950s,  to drain the Hula Valley swamp.  This turned out to be ecologically unwarranted. Late in the 20th century, the swamp was returned to its pristine condition.  This is Basman Ben-Hayim’s (pithy) take on that story. 37MirHobnGetriknZumpn

This poem is entitled: “The Rain”: 38DerRegn

This poem is entitled: “My Doctor, the Tree”: 39MaynDoktorDerBoym

Click here for “We Re-pay Everyone with Gold”:  40MirTsolnOpAYedernMitGold

Click here for: “Who knows”: 41VerVeyst

This poem is entitled “Don’t start Up with the Night”.  There is a sly humor here, as there is in Basman Ben-Hayim’s poem “My Desert is Hotter than Yours”. : 42HeybZikhNitOnMitDerNakht

This poem is entitled: “Far-Away Suns: For Meyer Yellin”.  (Meyer Yellin was a fellow Yiddish writer who lived in Israel.) : 43VayterZunenFarMayerYelin

This poem is entitled “Sholem Rozenfled”.  Rozenfeld was a well-known community leader in the  Yiddish world as well as a friend of the poet.: 44SholemRozenfeld

Click here for the poem: “In Equal Parts”:  45GlaykhOyfGlaykh

Click here for the pome: “Flower-like White” :46BlumikVays

This poem is entitled “Mula”.  Mula (a nickname for Shmuel) Ben-Hayim, an artist,  was Basman Ben-Hayim’s husband. See the biography above for more. :  47Mula

This poem is entitled: “Longing”: 48Benkshaft

This poem is entitled: “The Earth Remembers”.  Like many other poems the poet has written, the Holocaust is in the poem, but it is addressed only tangentially. 49DiErdGedenkt

Click here for the poem: “Polonaise”: 50Polonez

Click here for “The Sun Begins Setting While on High”: 51DiZunHeybtOnGeynFunDerHeykh

The following poem is entitled: “History”: 52Historye

The following poem is entitled: “I Saw in a Tree”: 53Kh’hobGezenInABoym

Click here for the poem: “Young Artists”.  One should remember that for a while Basman Ben-Hayim and her husband lived in the artists’ colony of Tsfat. 54YungeMolers

Click here for the poem: “Still Life”: 55ShtilLebn

The following poem is entitled; “The Sun-Dial Stood Still”: 56DerZunZaygerIzGeblibnShteyn

The following poem is entitled: “In Seeking Out Love”: 57InShpurnFunLibshaft

The following poem is entitled: “Poem Elixir”: 58LiderEliksir

The following poem is entitled: “The Day that Slides Away”: 59DerTogVosGeytFarbay

The following poem can be found in English translation in the introductory essay above (“Not Yet: a Great Yiddish Poet Lives”).  Click here for the poem “Spring”: 60Friling

The following poem is entitled “Purim in the City”: 61PurimInShtot

Click here for the poem: “Don’t Hurry – an English Poem”: 62AyltNitAnEnglishLid

Click here for the poem: “Pigeons Speak YIddish”:  63ToybnReydnYidish

The following poem is entitled; “Sometimes a House is Compared to a Ship”: 64AmolIzGeglikhnAShtubTsuAShif

The following poem is entitled: “Loners”: 65Aleyngeyers

The following poem is entitled: “On Mula’s Tenth Yortsayt” (Alternatively: “On the Tenth Anniversary of Mula’s Death”):  66TsuMula’sTsentnYortsayt

Click here for the poem: “Years Later I Understand” : 67NokhYornBanemIkh

Click here for the poem: “Those Who Hug a Tree”: 68DiVosNemenArumABoym

The following poem is entitled: “I’ll Go Holiday-like During the Week” 69Kh’velGeynYontefInDerVokhn

The final track is music the poet chose to end this series of recitations.  To hear it click on: 70Music

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Not Yet: A Great Yiddish Poet Still Lives


Not Yet– A Great Yiddish Poet Still Lives

            When Avrohom Sutzkever died in January, 2010, word went out that “the last great Yiddish poet” was gone.  But there is a very different, very fine Yiddish poet who is still alive: Rivka Basman Ben-Hayim.  Twelve years his junior, a fellow poet and a true friend of his, Basman Ben-Hayim is still writing poetry.  She lives and works in Israel but is hardly known in the U.S.

            The twelve years that separated Sutzkever and Basman Ben-Hayim were critical years.  Sutzkever was a grown man who had been to the university and married by the time the Nazis occupied Lithuania.  Rivka Basman, on the other hand, was only a young teenager when the Nazis herded her first into the Vilna ghetto and then into the Kaiserwald labor camp.  In the camp, Rivka and two other young women attempted to lift the spirits of their camp mates.  At the end of every work day, one sang, one danced, and one, Rivka, recited a poem she had composed that day.  Although she was untutored and her poetry was raw, Rivka later felt that her poetry had succeeded in consoling her camp-mates.  As she said in her poem “Remembrance”:

I sang then

And my poem

Was itself our sun.

            When the Nazis liquidated the camp, Basman rolled these poems under her tongue.  She now feels these poems are “not sublimated enough” and so are not of esthetic value.  But because she feels they are of historic value, she plans to donate them to Yad Va-shem.

            Basman met and married Shmuel (Mula) Ben-Hayim after the war.  Together the two joined Berikha, the movement that helped send Jewish refugees illegally to (what was then) Palestine.  Once they reached Palestine themselves, the couple settled in kibbutz Ha-Ma’apil.  Life continued to be fraught with danger.  Mula joined the Haganah and fought actively in the War of Independence, while Rivka herself took up arms when the kibbutz was attacked.  Basman Ben-Hayim has never been willing to speak in detail about this period.  “We were attacked, so we defended ourselves”.  That is all she volunteers when asked about the war.

            Basman Ben-Hayim says now that watching things grow on the kibbutz was “therapeutic”.  But for her, as for many survivors, for all the apparent normalcy, the trauma of the war years lingers on.  Here is how she put in her poem

“The Depths”:

You’ve stitched

My ripped surface,

Pasted and gathered,

Until there appeared

A tiny light

And I forgot about myself.

I’m no longer broken

But the depths-

They haven’t yet spoken.

            In the 1950s, Basman Ben-Hayim was a member of Yung Yisroel, the organization of Yiddish poets living in Israel that Sutzkever spearheaded and encouraged.  Rivka continued to publish poems in Di Goldene Keyt, the journal edited by Avrohom Sutzkever as well as in Svive, the journal edited by Kadya Molodowsky, as she took a teaching degree and taught children on the kibbutz.

            From 1963 to 1965, when her husband was Israel’s cultural attaché to the Soviet Union, she taught the children of the diplomatic corps in Moscow.  Never one to shirk from danger, she maintained clandestine contact with Soviet Yiddish writers.  Her book of poems, Bleter fun Vegn, Leaves from the Roads, written after she returned home from Moscow, gave voice to her concern for Jewish life behind the Iron Curtain.

            Basman Ben-Hayim now heads the Yiddish writers’ union located in Bet Leyvik.  Like YIVO in New York, Bet Leyvik sponsors programs on Yiddish, the language and its literature, for the general public.  Occasionally it is Basman Ben-Hayim herself who speaks.  More often than not, the lecturers are drawn from the pool of researchers in Israel and abroad.

            Basman Ben-Hayim’s poems are personal and elegiac.  They tend to be short and they nearly always have rhyme.  She writes about her Holocaust experience, but always obliquely.  But that is by no means her only theme.  She writes of love, friendship, the natural world of Israel and human nature as she knows and understands it.  Here is her poem on friendship:

“Younger than Time”

There is an old friendship

Young looking

Which comes and speaks

Of cherry blossoms,

Preserves the sap

Which a honeybee has lost-

There is an old friendship

Younger than time.

It comes and inquires

About each separately.

A silence that’s concealed

Rejuvenates the mind.

There is an old friendship

Younger than time.

            In Israel when jacaranda trees blossom in spring they throw entire streets into a purple shower.  Here is Basman Ben-Haim’s poem on Tel Aviv in spring:


The jacarandas flooded Tel Aviv streets

And people drowned in the bloom.

Passersby­ smiled at the purple,

Poets­ didn’t understand, how

With no pencils, with no paper, such creation

With no erased lines of speech

Shows itself suddenly with such elation

And sings itself, all purple.

The jacarandas flooded Tel Aviv streets

And people drowned in the bloom.

Passersby­ smiled at the purple,

Poets­ didn’t understand, how

            Basman Ben-Hayim, who took on her husband’s name after his death, has written nine books of poetry, and put out two volumes of collected works.  She has won just about every prize known to the Yiddish world, among them the Hofstein prize and the Manger prize.  She has also written Yiddish translations of, and put out a dual language (Hebrew-Yiddish) book with, the Hebrew language poet Roni Somek.  Over the years, Hebrew translations of her Yiddish poems have appeared in Hebrew language journals, so she was not entirely unknown to the Hebrew-reading public.  This year, fourteen different well-known Hebrew translators put out a book of her poems translated into Hebrew.  Entitled “Al Metar Ha-Geshem”, “On a String of Rain”, it takes Yiddish poems she has written over sixty years and puts them into poetic, living Hebrew so Israeli lovers of poetry can see what they were missing.  It is time the English reading world got an equal chance to see what they are missing.

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