Perhaps the greatest Yiddish poet of the post-war era—if not of the language’s entire history—Avrom Sutzkever (1913-2010) spent most of World War II in the Vilna ghetto before fleeing to the forests to fight with the partisans. Thereafter he settled in Israel. He was also a prolific author of prose, some of which, like this short story translated by Zackary Sholem Berger, comes close to poetry. The tale is set in the Aladdin Cafeteria in Jaffa, near the sea where, as the author reminds us, the prophet Jonah set sail for Tarshish:
I’m in the Aladdin again today. It’s a spitefully humid day. The sea air is limp. It floats face up on the small, shattered waves, and the gap in the air over the sea is the color of the inside of a mother-of-pearl shell.
A locust hatches in weather like this.
I have an idea, which progresses to a vision: the waves opposite me are not waves but the grandchildren of the whale that swallowed Jonah. . . .
According to the clock it’s now noon, and in the glass belly of the whale there are only a few guests: a drowsing old man with a newspaper in his drowsy hands; a snuggling couple like two thick branches of one, let’s say, tree of love; a woman with a black veil over her face; and me, the witness to all this. Nevertheless, the cafeteria manager takes such pity that he orders the lights turned on. The bulbs manage but a blink and like freshly decapitated snake heads go out with a hissing of tongues.
On the outside of the windowpanes, which chatter like teeth, a cloud floats by, earth that has made its way up into heaven, a fiery plow in its breast. I see its reflection: the woman with the black veil is sitting at my table right now. The storm slapped the glass whale and slid the woman over to me, together with the chair.
Six digits carved into her left arm, ending with a one and a three.