Purim: A poem for the Jewish holiday

The poem reflects Paul Celan’s sense of an ultimatum and yet also a lightness that sometimes surprises, especially at the end of “The Meridian.”

 Irish hares outside Dublin Airport on December 3, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS/CLODAGH KILCOYNE)
Irish hares outside Dublin Airport on December 3, 2021.
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

“The hares... cannot live without coming together for play.” – Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution


In memory of Peter Kropotkin

To the great forest came a dog.He said the Lord had sent himTo tell the creatures of the wild:“Tomorrow the world is ending.

“The measure of man’s sin is full,They’ve made His existence a burden.Prepare yourselves as best you can –At noontide falls the curtain.”

The lion bowed his head in thought.He made a proclamation:“All animals shall meet at dawnIn solemn convocation.”

Throughout the night the animalsWere moving through the wood,Till in a central clearing wideThey all assembled stood.

As the sun rose the lion spoke:“Who here can find a wayTo turn aside God’s wrath?” None thereHad anything to say

Until at last the monkey piped:“Let’s try fasting and prayingFor mercy!” “That’s what humans do –Does it help them?” jeered the Raven.

“If I could only get a wordIn private with the Lord,My shrewdness even on high, I ween,Some counsel would afford.

“You, brother Eagle, to such heights,I hear, are wont to soar.”The eagle sighed: “Though high I flew,I never found the door.”

Then spoke the hare: “It’s plain to seeThat we are at wit’s end;So we propose, in Heaven’s name,These hours in play to spend.”

Then all the hares, both young and old,Began their merry dance;They well knew how to leap and bow,To caper, hop, and prance.

The animals stood round and gazed,Forgetting care and sorrow,The sun climbed up and shone as brightAs on Creation’s morrow.

The good Lord looked into the world.The hares at play he sightedWithin the peaceful circle there –My, but He was delighted!

Upon this play so fine and freeHis eyes he could not sate.The minutes passed, the hours passed,Till it was getting late.

The noonday hour was gone, and stillHe was not tired of seeing.“Well, well,” He said at last, “I guessThe world can go on being.”

So hear: even if the time grows darkAnd many storms beset it,Whoever still can find a spark,The world will not regret it.

The story

Peter Kropotkin was a Russian prince turned (peaceful) anarchist. In Mutual Aid, he argues against the theory of “survival of the fittest” as a justification for individual ruthlessness, pointing out that the species most likely to survive and evolve are those whose members help one another. The book contains many interesting anecdotes of animal life, like the one about the hares. Kropotkin is mentioned in Paul Celan’s speech “The Meridian,” which led me to look him up.

In the 1980s in Jerusalem, I was close to a circle of immigrants from German-speaking countries who still spoke and wrote in their native language. There was a poetry-writing group that met at the home of Eva Avi-Yonah and included Manfred Winkler and Magali Zibaso, all gone now, and produced a poetry magazine called Lyris. For this circle I wrote, in German, the original of this poem.

For a long time I despaired of translating it. But a few weeks ago someone wrote to me that while my poems were of a kind he didn’t generally like, being ideological and agenda-driven, there was a saving lightness about them. Energized by this comment, I proceeded to translate the poem into Hebrew and then into English. 

The original poem was more formally perfect – the stanzas were rhymed abab – and contained the word Tierkreis, which means not only “circle of animals” but also “Zodiac,” which gave the thing more of a cosmic dimension. But one friend reassures me that some of the fun still comes through.

In going back to the poem I realized how much it is rooted in Paul Celan’s “Meridian” speech. The meridian (from the Latin word for “noon”) is the line that connects the points on earth where it is noon at a given time. The poem reflects Celan’s sense of an ultimatum and yet also a lightness that sometimes surprises, especially at the end of “The Meridian.”

Translating the poem, in turn, inspired me to formulate a proposal I have been making quite seriously for years as kind of a game called “putting the world back together.” The rules are posted at http://www.derondareview.org/geulagame.pdf. After all, many inventions are made in a spirit of play... Purim sameach!  ■