In the old country (how happy I was)
There was our house
In the village
By the river. I saw fields of oats,
I was young
And we sang in the afternoon.
Oh everything was just—
The dark bread was gritty and strong,
The soup was thick and brewed.
I would lope to school
To be cuffed, again, by the rabbi (who was pious but not too forgiving),
My tablet and ink in my sack and a chunk of lunch cheese in brown paper.
Later, it was warm and good,
To the smell of tea hanging beneath red curtains,
And my shoes were left at the door.
In the old country the air was clean.
In the old country my father was an honorable man.
(How happy I was in the old country.)
In the old country there was wheat
And the Volga sang to me at midnight.
Sad was I to leave these well-known scenes,
To pack my colorful-gamey clothes
And sleep with my bundle touching my leg lest it be taken;
To vomit over the rail
And smell salt air
And see an ocean
And not see the Volga at dawn.
How good it was, how happy I was,
In the old country, I mean –
If only it weren’t for the Cossacks….