“El-hatsipor” (To the Bird) was Chaim Nachman Bialik’s first published poem. He began its composition while he was still a teenaged student at the famous yeshiva of Volozhin, and it appeared in 1892 in the Odessa-based journal Pardes alongside of compositions by Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Mocher Sforim, Ahad Ha’am, and others. At the age of nineteen, Bialik’s reputation as the most promising new Hebrew poet of his time was launched with this poem, which draws on the lachrymose conventions of late nineteenth-century “love of Zion” poetry but slyly reconfigures them through a constant thwarting of expectations. The bird is repeatedly invited to give utterance by a poet who cannot or will not allow the emissary from the land of Zion to do so. The focus is on the sorrows of Jewish existence in the Diaspora, and the tragic impossibility of the speaker’s regeneration. The voice of the bird remains unheard.
What follows is my rough translation without the meter or abab rhyme scheme of the original. I also very much like this jazz version by the Israeli musician Avishai Cohen, singing from his own cold, northern clime.
To the Bird
Greetings on your return, lovely bird,
To my window from warmer climes—
How my soul longed to hear your voice,
In the winter when you left my dwelling.
Sing to me, tell me, dear bird
From far-off wondrous places,
There in that warm and beautiful land,
Do evil events and calamities happen too?
Do you bring greetings from my fellows in Zion,
From my distant brothers and kin?
O happy ones! Surely they must know
That I suffer, ah, how I suffer in pain.
Do they know how great are my enemies here,
How many rise up against me?
Sing to me, my bird, of the wonders of that land
Where springtime ever dwells.
Do you bring me greetings from the land’s abundance,
From vale and from mountain top?
Does God have mercy on Zion,
Though she is yet left with her graves?
And the Sharon Valley and the hills of myrrh—
do they give their spikenard and spice?
Does the ancient forest, the old Lebanon,
Awake from its slumber?
Does the dew fall like pearls upon Mount Hermon,
Or does it descend like tears?
And how fares the Jordan and its bright waters?
And each mountain and hill?
Has the heavy cloud withdrawn from them,
That had spread pitch black darkness –
O sing to me, my bird, of the land in which
My fathers found life and death!
Are the flowers I planted yet unwithered,
While I myself am withered?
They remind me of the days in which I bloomed,
But now I am grown old, my strength has gone.
Tell me, my bird, what each tree and shrub whisper,
What do their leaves murmur to you?
Do they tell tidings of comfort for which they wait so long,
As their foliage rustles like the forests of Lebanon?
And my brothers the workers, who sowed in tears—
Do they harvest their sheaves in joy?
Who will give me wings that I may fly to the land
In which the almond and date-palm bloom?
And what can I tell you, lovely bird,
What do you hope to hear from me?
From this cold and distant land you will not hear songs,
Only lamentations, only weeping and wailing.
Shall I tell of the hardships which are already
Well known in the lands of the living –
O who can number the troubles past
And present and yet to come?
Migrate, my bird, to your mountain, your desert!
Be happy that you have left my house;
If you dwelt with me, then you too, winged creature,
Would weep bitterly over my fate.
Yet weeping and tears are not the best remedy,
They will not heal my affliction;
My eyes have already darkened, I have filled a waterskin with tears,
My heart has already dried like grass;
The tears have already reached their end—
Yet there is no end to my grief.
Greetings on your return, my dear bird,
Let your joyful song be heard!