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The Faith of Small Things

Rilke’s ‘Ninth Elegy’ and the people we lose

Yehuda Fogel
January 26, 2024

In the last two years, I lost two of my grandparents. My mother’s father passed first, at the age of 96, in August 2022, and then my mother’s mother, in April 2023. After 69 years of marriage, my grandfather and grandmother passed within eight months of each other.

They were good people. My grandfather Leon was a man of fierce beliefs, with an intense love of his family, the Torah, and wisdom, wherever it might be. He traded stocks—on the trading floor for several years, and at the crowded desk in their breakfast room for many more—well into his 90s. He was born in Brooklyn, to parents from a different world: His mother was born in Egypt, and his father in Aleppo, Syria.

He lived in Brooklyn his entire life, and spent it all in the Syrian community that he was born into, and yet he pushed against the provincialism of perspective that sometimes marked his neighbors and co-religionists. He was a strong Democrat, in an immigrant community that leaned increasingly rightward. He was proud of his Sephardic heritage and community, but he countenanced no sentiments of Sephardic purity. He was fond of pointing out that the view of some Sephardim that the rabbinic abbreviation samech-tet as stands for “sefardi tahor,” or “pure Sephardic,” was mistaken. He went to public school, followed every day by an unusually rigorous regimen of four hours of Torah study with a tutor from 3:30 to 7:30 p.m.

In the 1950s he started learning at the Mir Yeshiva, where he grew close to R. Shmuel Brudny z”l (zichrono l’vracha, may his memory be for blessing) and R. Avraham Kalmanovitz z”l, a maggid shiur and rosh yeshiva of Mir, respectively. While the Sephardic and Ashkenazi yeshiva communities of America have now developed a close relationship, this type of cross-cultural pollination was rare for a Sephardic individual of this time. My grandfather davened at the Mir Yeshiva for 40 years, and later developed a deep relationship with R. Shmuel Birnbaum z”l, another rosh yeshiva and important leader.

He adored words, and wisdom, of many faces, and loved telling me the riddles of Ibn Ezra, or the stories of Shmuel Yosef Agnon. In his middle age, my grandfather, still trading stocks on Wall Street, enrolled in a class at Columbia on Agnon, and went uptown to learn about one of his favorite writers. He loved other writers, too, sharing respect for Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, and many others. When my grandparents aged, and I’d drive them from Brooklyn to my parents’ home for Shabbos, no matter my resistance or level of exhaustion, there was only one permitted radio option: WQXR 105.9 FM, classical music, which would put my grandfather into a didactic mood, telling me about the greatness of the composers of each movement—while my grandmother fell into a deep sleep in the back seat.

There’s a lot to say about my grandfather; it feels like everyone has a story or word of wisdom about him. My grandmother feels more subtle to me. She was born into an Ashkenazi family in St. Louis, smiled quietly, and asked for very little. She seemed most happy surrounded by those she loved, and always seemed so elegant to me. When we visited, my grandfather would be at his desk, CNN on a small TV, spreadsheets of stocks open on his computer, and my grandmother would be in the den or kitchen, where she would have a word for and about everyone. Not everyone in the family, but everyone. Grandma seemed to know everyone, or at least something about everyone, and something about everything, too. Her way was quiet, and she was as comfortable with a hammer and drill as she was at the stove. There was an ancient-seeming cottage cheese tin that was filled with crispy home-baked chocolate chip cookies for as long as I or anyone can remember. When I recently went back to look through their house, the tin was still there, but no cookies were left in it.

At my grandfather’s funeral, many people spoke about the depths of his Torah scholarship, the strength of his values, and the dedication he had to doing what was right. At my grandmother’s funeral, fewer people spoke, and the words were simple, more pure. They spoke of the food she cooked for others without expectation, the gossip she shared like affection, and the love that coursed through the whole of her life. At her funeral, Rilke’s words floated in my head:

Are we here perhaps just to say:
house, bridge, well, gate, jug, fruit tree, window—
at most, column, tower … but to say, understand this, to say it
as the Things themselves never fervently thought to be.

These words come from Rilke’s “Ninth Elegy” of his Duino Elegies, and I wasn’t able to dislodge them at any point of her funeral, the shiva, or in the rest of the year of mourning since.

In this elegy, the poet asks a simple question: Why must we be human, and why do we long for it?

Why, if it’s possible to spend this span
of existence as laurel, a little darker than all
other greens, with little waves on every
leaf-edge (like the smile of a breeze), why, then,
must we be human and, shunning destiny,
long for it? ...

Rilke considers some options—joy, curiosity, character development—but ultimately finds them insufficient cause, as they are not unique to the human experience.

Oh, not because happiness, that over-hasty profit of loss impending, exists.
Not from curiosity, or to practice the heart,
that would also be in the laurel …
but because to be here is much, and the transient Here
seems to need and concern us strangely. Us, the most transient.
Everyone once, once only. Just once and no more.
And we also once, Never again. But this having been
once, although only once, to have been of the earth,
seems irrevocable.

All of this human stuff is therefore for the strange immediacy that is our lives. Rilke seems surprised by how now life can be, playing with that sense that we are sometimes struck by of being fully and completely where our bodies are, and he pins the reason of our existence on this sense. Reading aloud, I wonder if there is a onomatopoeic quality to the word once; the word slips so easily out of the mouth, and leaves my teeth sad that there’s no more sound to come.

We first experience life, then try to grip it in our hands, and eventually try to become life itself, only to learn to ask with Rilke: “but to the other realm, / alas, what can be taken?” Not seeing, suffering, or love, for “they are better untold of.”

And so we drive ourselves and want to achieve it,
want to hold it in our simple hands,
in the surfeited gaze and in the speechless heart.
want to become it. give it to whom? Rather
keep all forever ... but to the other realm,
alas, what can be taken? Not the power of seeing,
learned here so slowly, and nothing that’s happened here.
Nothing. Maybe the suffering? Before all, the heaviness
and long experience of love—unutterable things.
But later, under the stars, what then? They are better untold of.

It’s here the poem reaches its emotional climax. I tend to remember little else from this poem but these words:

The wanderer does not bring a handful of earth,
the unutterable, from the mountain slope to the valley,
but a pure word he has learned, the blue
and yellow gentian. Are we here perhaps just to say:
house, bridge, well, gate, jug, fruit tree, window—
at most, column, tower ... but to say, understand this, to say it
as the Things themselves never fervently thought to be.

I like to believe that the humble cottage cheese container my grandmother decided at some point to fill with cookies never thought it could be loved as it was, and that the seforim with broken spines and battered covers that my grandfather spent his life learning never dreamed of being held as tightly as they were. I don’t think of my grandparents as wanderers of mountain slopes or valleys; most of their life was spent on the same few blocks of Brooklyn, and yet I know they did carry something in their hands all the time that I was blessed to know them.

Is it not the hidden cunning of secretive earth
when it urges on the lovers, that everything seems transfigured
in their feelings? Threshold, what is it for two lovers
that they wear away a little of their own older doorstill,
they also, after the many before,
and before those yet coming ... lightly?

Washed away by the years, it’s hard to remember that big families like mine are predicated on a simple love of two people for each other. The love doesn’t start with grandchildren or children as it can feel, but with two people, in whose feelings all seems transfigured. I never met my grandparents at the first threshold of their love, but I did at the second threshold of their love, and saw them coming lightly to it.

There are many moments in this poem that make me pause, and revert course upward, reading a line again and again, waiting for the letters to make sense in my mind. This is one such moment: “Is it not the hidden cunning of secretive earth / when it urges on the lovers, that everything seems transfigured / in their feelings?” I can’t say how this happens, but I believe that it does happen, and not just for lovers. We become woven through the things in our life, and the tanglement of memory, feeling, and language fuels the engine that purifies these words, whatever that might mean to you.

Here is the time for the unutterable, here, its country.
Speak and acknowledge it. More than ever
the things that we can live by are falling away,
supplanted by an action without symbol.
An action beneath crusts that easily crack, as soon as
the inner working outgrows and otherwise limits itself.
Our heart exists between hammers,
like the tongue between the teeth,
but notwithstanding, the tongue
always remains the praiser.

Here the vines on the border between the concrete and sayable and the unutterable grow tangled. Are the “house, bridge, well, gate, jug, fruit tree, window” aspects or expressions of the unsayable? Rilke is at his most declarative here, and his most cryptic, speaking ex cathedra while urging us to put words to the unutterable here, to “speak and acknowledge it.”

Each of my grandparents’ shiva was in the house they lived in. They had been there together for 60 years, and raised four children there, who brought along the 25 grandchildren and 65 great-grandchildren to visit frequently. Talk of selling the house began quietly, murmured in corners at my grandmother’s shiva. I sat in the basement poking through piles of pictures, and a cousin of my mother walked downstairs: “Hey, Yehuda, I’m just looking around this basement one last time. I spent so much time here as a child, playing Ping-Pong.”

A cousin sat reflectively in my grandparents’ kitchen during the shiva, doing nothing. “This will probably be my last time in this house,” he said with finality. “I’ll come back once or twice more,” an uncle told me over snacks in my grandfather’s office. Undisguised in these remarks: the fear of impending loss, the grief of a place of “safety, security, and trust,” as my cousin said in a eulogy, and the disintegration of an origin point for a family.

Praise the world to the angel, not the unutterable world;
you cannot astonish him with your glorious feelings;
in the universe, where he feels more sensitively,
you’re just a beginner. Therefore, show him the simple
thing that is shaped in passing from father to son,
that lives near our hands and eyes as our very own.
Tell him about the Things. He’ll stand amazed, as you stood
beside the rope-maker in Rome, or the potter on the Nile.
Show him how happy a thing can be, how blameless and ours;
how even the lamentation of sorrow purely decides
to take form, serves as a thing, or dies
in a thing, and blissfully in the beyond
escapes the violin. And these things that live,
slipping away, understand that you praise them;
transitory themselves, they trust us for rescue,
us, the most transient of all. They wish us to transmute them
in our invisible heart—oh, infinitely into us! Whoever we are.

We cannot impress the angels of the next world with deep feelings and memories, for the angel “feels more sensitively” in this realm, whereas we are just beginners. It is only with the “simple / thing that is shaped in passing from father to son, / that lives near our hands and eyes as our very own” that we can awe the angel.

Things can be happy, blameless, and ours, and “even the lamentation of sorrow purely decides / to take form, serve as a thing, or dies / in a thing.” The things, too, are transient. My mother looks around the room at dinner one night and tells me that every corner of this house is full of memories. If they meet the angels, I hope my grandmother brings her cottage cheese tin, and my grandfather his set of Talmud.

If she meets an angel, I hope my grandmother shows him the cottage cheese tin that’s lived in her cupboard for decades. It was always full of crispy chocolate chip cookies, which I never saw her bake. My father tells me that the cookie tin will be the only contested item in her estate. If he meets an angel, I hope my grandfather shows him the set of Talmud that’s lived on his bookshelf for decades.

We hold objects to hold us over, and offer transitionary, provisional praise. I write of this sorrow through things because there is nothing I could say about my sorrow itself, or the emptiness of having no more living grandparents.

Earth, isn’t this what you want: invisibly
to arise in us? Is it not your dream
to be some day invisible? Earth! Invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your insistent commission?
Earth, dear one, I will! Oh, believe it needs
not one more of your springtimes to win me over.
One, just one, is already too much for my blood.
From afar I’m utterly determined to be yours.
You were always right and your sacred revelation is the intimate death.
Behold, I’m alive. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows less ... surplus of existence
is welling up in my heart.

The elegy ends on a strange note. We began with the awareness that all we can say is the sayable and that we must utter the unutterable, which is to say, to speak the simple things of our life as the things themselves never believed themselves possible. And now we turn to the world, which Rilke reads as desiring to be subsumed or transmuted into us, as if it offers its gifts to us so that we might render them invisible as the things melt into emotions and joy and suffering and other such unutterables.

After my paternal grandparents passed and their estate had been dealt with, an uncle texted my father one Friday afternoon, on erev shabbos. “Come see Mom’s breakfront.” My father went, and reported finding solace in seeing his parent’s art in his brother’s dining room. We choose to speak of love in approximation, by way of other things, and in the items of our lives we find evidence to “the heaviness / and long experience of love—unutterable things.”

When I drove home from my grandmother’s shiva, a car in front of me on the highway had a license plate that said AWETHING, and something like the surplus of existence welled up in my heart.

Yehuda Fogel is a writer and editor at 18Forty, a Jewish media company, and was formerly an editor at the Lehrhaus, an online forum for Jewish thought and ideas.