The widely-admired poet Dan Pagis, famous for his haunting poems of the Holocaust, was the subject of a special memorial conference at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva, Israel. A Romanian-born Holocaust survivor who died in 1986 at age fifty-six, Pagis was also an important scholar of medieval Hebrew literature.
The conference, which took place entirely in Hebrew, had a small, intimate feeling — many of the presenters were Pagis’s students, all now senior professors of Hebrew literature. Most presentations focused on his scholarly work; he was commended for researching medieval Hebrew poetry in Italy and Holland, not just the more well-known Hebrew poetry of Spain, and for training an entire generation of Israeli medievalists.
“Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car,” a short, spare, and cyclical poem which invokes Cain, Abel, and Eve, is probably Pagis’s most famous poem, and it was the subject of two presentations — one by the scholar Yosef Yahalom, of the Hebrew University, and another by poet and translator Dory Manor.
The roots of “Sealed Railway Car,” Yahalom said, can be found in a medieval poem by Moshe Ibn Ezra (1058-1138) that also features Cain and Abel. Yahalom suggested that in this poem Pagis the poet and Pagis the scholar come together. In the poem, Yahalom noted, Cain is referred to as ben Adam—literally “the son of Adam,” but also the term for “human being” in Hebrew.
Manor, a prominent younger poet in Israel, and the translator of Baudelaire into Hebrew, zeroed in on the same phrase. He commended Stephen Mitchell, the English translator, for his solution to translating ben Adam, and said Mitchell found a fascinating way to catch the dual resonances of the term in Hebrew. Mitchell famously translates it as “son of man.” Adam, in Hebrew, is both Adam the man and man himself, or in other words, mankind.
“Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car” can be found in Hebrew and in Mitchell’s English translation here:
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau.) Follow her on Twitter at @AviyaKushner