Zackary Sholem Berger


Zackary Sholem Berger ( is a writer and translator in Baltimore who writes poetry and prose in English and Yiddish. He is one of the Yiddish Book Center’s Translation Fellows for 2013; his One Nation Taken Out of Another, a bilingual book of Chumashic riffs, appears in November from Apprentice House. Avrom Sutzkever was the greatest Yiddish poet of the 20th century; his peregrinations took him from Vilna to Moscow, from Paris to Tel Aviv. He died in 2010.

Green Aquarium

Avrom Sutzkever, translated from the Yiddish by Zachary Sholem Berger


“Your teeth are bars of bone. Behind them, in a crystal cell, lie your enchained words. Remember the advice of the elder: the guilty, that drop poisoned pearls into your goblet—set them free. Out of gratitude, they will build your eternity; but those others, the innocent, who trill out of place like nightingales over a grave—those you must not spare. String them up, be their hangman! Because as soon as you release them from your mouth, or your pen, they’ll become demons. I am speaking the truth, or may the stars plummet from the sky!”

This testament was left me years ago in the living city of my birth by an old solitary poet, somewhat discombobulated, with a long braid in back like a fresh birch broom. No one knew his name, knew where he came from. I only know that he wrote rhyming notes to God in Aramaic, dropped them into the red mailbox near the Green Bridge, and thoughtfully strolled by the Vilia, waiting for the mailman in Heaven to bring an answer.


“Walk through words like you’d walk through a minefield: one false step, one false move, and all the words which you have threaded onto your veins your whole life will be torn apart, and you with them . . .”

That’s what my very own shadow whispered to me, when both of us, blinded by the searchlights, traveled by night through a bloody minefield, and every stride of mine set down for life or death sheared into my heart like a nail into a fiddle.


But no one warned me to be careful of words drunk from otherworldly poppy-blossoms. Thus I became the servant of their will. But I can’t understand their will. Certainly not their secret: do they love or hate me? They wage war in my skull like termites in a desert. Their battlefield pours out of my eyes with the radiance of rubies. And children go gray from fear when I tell them, Good-dreaming.

Recently, while lying in the garden on a normal day, under an orange branch - or maybe kids playing with golden soap bubbles—I felt a movement in my soul. All right, my words are heading out! In their victory, they had vowed to occupy positions previously off limits: people, angels, and why not stars? Their fantasy plays on, drunk on otherworldly poppy-blossoms.

Trumpets blare.
Torches like birds aflame.
Accompanied by musical lines, frames.
I fell to my knees before one of those words, apparently the overlord, riding ahead in a crown set with my sparkling tears.

“That’s how you leave me, no goodbye, no see-you-later, no nothing? We wandered together for years, you nourished yourself on my time, so before we separate, before you go off to conquer worlds—one request! Give your word you won’t turn it down.”

“Agreed. I give my word. But no long sentences. Because the sun is curving down on the blue branch and in just a moment it will plummet into the abyss.”

“I want to see the dead!”

“That’s quite a wish! Fine. My word is more important to me . . . Look now!”
A green knife cut open the earth.

It turned green.



Greenness of dark pines through a fog;
Greenness of a cloud with a burst gallbladder;
Greenness of mossy stones in rain;
Greenness uncovered by a hoop rolled by a seven-year-old girl;
Greenness of cabbage leaves in splinters of dew that bloody the fingers;
First greenness of melted snow in a circledance around a blue flower;
Greenness of a half-moon, seen with green eyes from under a wave;
And celebratory greenness of grasses lining a grave
Greennesses stream into greennesses. Body into body. And the whole earth has now become a green aquarium.

Closer, closer to the green swarm!

I look in: people are swimming like fish. Numberless phosphorescent faces. Young. Old. And young-old together. Every person I ever saw in my entire life, anointed by death with green existence; they are all swimming in the green aquarium, in a kind of silky, airy music.

Here, the dead are alive!
Underneath them rivers, forests, cities: a giant plastic map. Above them, the sun floating in the shape of a fiery human being.

I recognize acquaintances and friends and doff my straw hat to them:

“Good morning.”

They answer with green smiles, as a well responds to a stone with broken rings.

My eyes slap with silver oars, race, float among all the faces. They search, looking for one face.

I found it, found it! Here is the dream of my dream . . .

“It’s me, darling, me, me! The wrinkles are just a nest for my longing.”

My lips, swollen with blood, are drawn to hers. But—oh, no—they are stuck on the glass of the aquarium.

Her lips swim to mine too. I feel the breath of burning punch. The glass is a cold cleaver between us.

“I want to read you a poem, it’s about you, you’ve got to hear it!”

“Darling, I know it by heart, I’m the one who gave you the words.”

“I want to feel your body one more time!”

“We can’t get any closer, the glass, the glass . . .”

“No, the border will soon disappear, I’m going to smash the green glass with my head . . .”

The aquarium shattered after the twelfth smash.

Where are the lips, the voice?

And the dead, the dead—did they die?

No one. Opposite me—grass, and overhead, an orange branch, or maybe kids playing with golden soap bubbles.

Avrom Sutzkever passed through the fires of the Holocaust but, unlike other Yiddish poets who survived the war, his poetry did not sacrifice lyricism for prophecy—or, perhaps, he made himself into the prophet of symbolic lyric.

Listen (English): Listen (Yiddish):