Thursday, February 4, 2010

I Have Seen Upon the Earth

From a 1934 translation of Moses Ibn Ezra's אשר בנה עלי ארץ. It reminds me much of Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), but almost darker in a way. Then again, I'm of the school of thought that Qohelet was a rather uplifting book, if anything. This, on the other hand, is dark, I think. This poem was found in a text by the JPS from 1934, and the poem was translated by Solomon Solis-Cohen. The book itself is part of a collection of Jewish Classics published in the 1930s.

"I Have Seen Upon the Earth"

I have seen upon the earth spacious mansions,
Palaces of ivory, with lofty chambers
And pillars upon carved pedestals --
Houses richly adorned and filled with things of
beauty --
And, as in a twinkling, I Have seen them heaps of ruins,
Wherein none might dwell.

Tell me: Where are they that builded?
And where are they that inhabited?
Where are their souls and where are their bodies?
And what hope is there for man,
Save to await death,
With the grave ever before his eyes --
For time is a herdsman,
And death like a knife,
And all that live, as sheep.

For the curious, I'm currently inventorying a book collection bestowed upon my department by a rabbi who passed away many years ago. The collection includes many siddurim, machzorim, and a bounty of personal, handwritten notes by the rabbi who donated the works. There are a bajillion haggadot, too. The rabbi, of the Conservative flavor, had many beautiful and old books, and I've found one dated to 1861. For a bibliophile such as myself, this project is absolutely amazing and thrilling. I'm a huge geek, so everytime I find something older than the 1960s I get stoked. Here are a collection of haggodot, some from the 1940s, others from the 1950s, and a few from what I believe is the 1960s. Missing from this photo is an original Maxwell House Haggadah from 1935, which was the third year of printing for Maxwell House and their haggadot. The great thing about the 1935 Haggadah? It's written in the most simple, plain English -- a stark contrast from the haggadot of the more recent (by this I mean 1980s-ish) Maxwell House versions that are chock full of "thou" and "thee" and "thine."

Over the coming weeks you'll get some beautiful glimpses into this project, because, although some might view these books as extremely modern and not worth a second glance, they are definitive pieces of literature for modern, American Judaism. And in our day of e-this and e-that, to hold a book from 1861 and smell the history and feel the cover sandpapering your hands is something priceless and beautiful.