Largely forgotten today, the Vienna-born Jewish poet and writer Uriel Birnbaum (1894-1956) was perhaps best appreciated by an Austrian Catholic aristocrat Count Arthur Polzer-Hoditz, who published a brief study on Birnbaum’s work in 1936. Uriel’s father Nathan was himself a fascinating figure: a close associate of Theodor Herzl and devotee of Zionism—a word Nathan likely coined—he eventually broke with the movement, became a Diaspora nationalist, and then, after a religious awakening, a ḥasidic anti-Zionist.
The elder Birnbaum’s ideological peregrinations were matched by the younger’s artistic ones. Polzer-Hoditz described him as a “poet, artist, and thinker,” and by one estimate he produced “more than 6,000 poems, 130 essays, 30 plays, ten short stories, fifteen fairytales, fragments of a longer epic poem, twenty chapters of a lost novel, and 30 collections of illustrations.” Judy Taubes Sterman, whose father translated some of Birnbaum’s verse into English, examines fifteen sonnets he wrote about the first four chapters of Genesis:
Almost midrashic in their approach, they fill gaps in the narrative by entertaining questions that would likely never have occurred to even thoughtful readers of the Bible. How did Eve feel when she first laid eyes on Adam? What did Adam think happened to Eve’s body after she died? Who showed up for Adam’s funeral, and what were they feeling?
In “Cain at Abel’s Grave,” the poet wonders not about Cain’s emotional state at the time of the murder of his brother, but rather about how Cain would perceive the act much later, after years of restlessly wandering the earth. His conclusion takes us by surprise:
In Eden it was night. Rings of bright flame
Blazed from the swords of angels, whirling, vast.
Cain clambered strenuously till he came
To the wall’s summit—and leaped down. Steadfast,
Supported by his metal staff, he passed
Through Eden’s darkly sweet pervading scent,
Searching until he found the grave at last,
And spoke, as if in greeting, his head bent:
“Abel, I did not come here to repent
That deed of fury I could not restrain.
The weary centuries I underwent
As wanderer brought me—with new fury and disdain:
You never knew life’s hardships, nor life’s pain;
I readily would strike you dead again!”