February 3, 2023

Save the Net Books

Blogazine on Books, Arts, and Music

“God has pity on kindergarten children” [by Yehuda Amichai]

God has pity on kindergarten children.
He has less sympathy for school children
And he has no sympathy at all for grown-ups,
He leaves her alone
and sometimes they have to crawl on all fours
in the burning sand
to reach the first aid station
covered in blood.

But maybe he watches over true lovers
and have mercy on them and protect them
like a tree over the old man
Sleeping on a public bench.

Maybe we’ll give them too
the last rare coins of charity
the mother passed it down to us
so that their happiness protect us
now and other days.

— Yehuda Amichai

This is a great and famous poem. It is the first poem in the Selected Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell (Harper, 1986). Someone tinkered with it, but only very slightly. There are three deviations from the text here: in the third line from the bottom there is a comma after “Mother passed it on to us”; in the penultimate line “their luck will protect us” [rather than “may protect us”]; and the last line is “now and in other days” [rather than “on other days”].

Aside from the ethical question of taking someone else’s translation and making it your own by changing just a word or two, I wonder which version end readers prefer. For what it’s worth, I like “may” more than “will”. Towards the end of the 1850 edition of The Prelude, Wordsworth changed ‘may’ to ‘will’ in the last sentence of these lines from the original edition (1805): ‘what we have loved, / Others will love; and we can teach them how to do it.” I’ve always felt that change was a mistake.

Mitch Sisskind notes that the poem “reveals the authentic and seemingly random, even heartless, aspect of divine judgment, ‘Gevurah.’ As Job said of God, “Though he kills me, yet I will honor him.” As Mel Brooks asked God, ‘Why do you have to be so strict?’”

– DL