For TU B’SHEVAT: Two Poems by Alter Esselin
(A Torah study led by Rabbi J.B. Sacks on January 20, 2024)
With Tu B’Shevat coming this week, let us look at two poems by the Yiddish poet, Alter Esselin. Esselin was born with the name Orkeh in the Russian empire in 1889. His father died when he was 10. He received no formal education, and came to the United States five years later but the uncle who was sponsoring him died while he was in transit; no other relatives took an interest. He became a carpenter, and took on the name Alter instead of Orkeh due to an Ashkenazic custom of renaming the eldest surviving son in event of a father’s early demise as a way of asking the Angel of Death not to bother the family again. He moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he lived the rest of his life, working as a carpenter by day, and writing poetry at night. Although without formal education, he wrote hundreds of poems, and one many awards. Esselin’s poetry often dealt with themes that are thought to be morbid and pessimistic: loneliness, the bite of conscience, and the scourge of poverty. These themes emerged directly from his life experiences. He wrote about them in order to defy them, and thus to overcome them. Let’s focus on two poems that deal with trees.
Silence Beyond Words
In the silence of the night
The trees stand in melancholy calm.
Only a faint rustle of leaves.
On high—a star tremor.
Fireflies flash in the folded bed linen of the fields.
Silence streams from the moon,
Silence covers the world.
And from my heart there comes joy,
Joy that overflows in courage, praise
And expectation of honors.
How quick the flight to highest height;
The fall into deepest abyss.
Questions to Consider:
- What is “melancholy calm”? Have you ever felt that?
- What is the symbolism of the fireflies—
do they hold out glimmers of light, of hope?
- If “silence covers the world”, how can and
why does joy come from the poet’s heart?
- What might this poem have meant to Esselin, knowing that he had a hard life?
- How might we tap into our own ability to feel joy even when lonely or experiencing other life challenges and life difficulties?
Trees die not alone.
They take along with them:
The violins of the winds,
The hymns of the nests
The mirrors of the sun,
The laughter of leaves,
And a delicate perfume.
They leave behind only the mystery
Of their unity and patience.
Questions to Consider:
- Think about each of the five images presented (lines 3-7)—
each succinct yet memorable–and how you relate to each.
- How does each of the five images present a different facet
of a tree’s experience?
- Have you ever experienced “the violins of the winds” or
“laughter of leaves”? When have you experienced these?
- Do such experiences leave behind the “mystery of their unity and patience”?
- Is this poem more about death or about life?
- How does our study today help you to think ahead to and prepare for Tu B’Shevat?