David Slavitt has written his own response [Part I, "Meditation" (pp. 1-58)] to the five poems (chapters) that comprise the Old Testament's "Book of Lamentations," which he has translated here from the Hebrew [Part II, "Lamentations" (pp. 59-85)]. The poems appear in Hebrew and in English, on opposite pages. In addition there is a "Note on Translation" (pp. xiii-xiv) and a "Bibliographical Note" (pp. 87-88).

Five poems--The Book of Lamentations--express Israel's brokenness, bewilderment before God, and sorrow at the catastrophes that have beset the Jewish people through the ages. Slavitt's meditation and notes on translation prepare the reader for far more than a prosaic historical account of the destruction and biblical plights of the Jews. "A translator wants to be faithful to the original work but then discovers how fidelity to the word can mean a betrayal of the sentence." (p. xiii)

"As a boy, I knew next to nothing of Tish'a b'Av," begins the author's meditation. We learn, as he did, about "[this] worst day of the year"(p. 6)--the day in 587 B.C. that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and six centuries later on the same day, when the second temple was destroyed. Annually Tish'a b'Av is devoted to grieving "every terrible thing that happened in this world "(p. 6): Zion, Jerusalem, the Holocaust. Except for The Book of Job (see annotation in this database) and Lamentations, reading even the Torah, the most sacred text in all Judaism, is forbidden on this solemn day.


How wise was the biblical poet about the physicality of grief: "[k]nees weak, eyes full of tears, and even my bowels bothered” . . . [m]y mind is numbed." (p. 69) There is no room for trite consolations in "Lamentations" or in Slavitt's commentaries: "[Y]earning for relief but no longer expecting it"(p. 57) is a response to the metaphysical and spiritual questions that are called upon by unspeakable sorrow.

Fascinating, too, are Slavitts's biblical citations, such as God's response to the archangel Metatron, who offers to do the weeping for the Holy One: "If you will not let me weep, I shall go to a place where you cannot enter and will weep there, alone . . . "(Jeremiah 13-17, p. 15) "Our tears, we come to understand, are also in His image."(p. 57)

Slavitt, self-revealing and humble in his assertion about the benefits as well as the costs of grief, hopes "that there may be people who will see in what is here my love for the work and that they may come to feel that love themselves."(p. xiv)This reviewer did.


Johns Hopkins Univ. Press

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