In 11th century Spain, where the great Hebrew poet Yehuda Halevi composed many of his masterworks, poetry was, for the educated classes, the language of everyday life. In his biography of Halevi, published this year by Nextbook Press, Hillel Halkin describes the young Halevi improvising poetry (about the pleasures of wine, of course) in a busy tavern—which, Halkin explains, would not have been an unusual way to spend an evening. “If calling an age ‘poetic’ refers, not to some supposed collective sublimity or imaginativeness of mind, but, more mundanely, to the widespread use of poetry in ordinary life as a medium of communication and social exchange, the young man was born in one of the most historically poetic of ages,” Halkin writes. “Poems were an everyday vehicle for the expression of emotion; for the sending of messages and requests; for the carrying of news from one encampment to another; for the recording and remembering of unusual events; for the wooing of the opposite sex; for the enhancement of celebrations; for the flattering of authority; for the vaunting of one’s exploits; for the praising of one’s friends and the derogation of one’s enemies, and the like.”
20th century America is a little bit different. For most of us, poetry is something outside of the everyday—but to celebrate National Poetry Month, Tablet is trying to be a bit more like medieval Spain by including a Halevi poem, in Halkin’s new translation, on the Scroll each afternoon. Today’s poem is an ode to Jerusalem that, Halkin points out, several centuries later was a favorite of the Jewish-born German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine. Enjoy your daily drink of Andalusian wine below—or download and print out a pocket-sized version here. Plus, check out a bonus poetry feature from our archives, and don’t forget to enter Nextbook Press and Tablet Magazine’s Yehuda Halevi poetry contest!
Zion! Do you wonder how and where your captives
Are now, and if they think of you, the far-flocked
From north and south, east, west, and all directions,
Near and far, they send their greetings
As I send mine, captured by my longings
To weep like Hermon’s dew upon your mountains.
Mourning your lowliness, I am the wail of jackals;
Dreaming your sons’ return, the song of lute strings.
My heart stirs for Peniel, and for Bethel, and all those
With their pure traces of God’s presence, where your
Facing the portals of the highest heavens,
Stand opened by your Maker. You He illumines
Not with the sun, or moon, or stars, but with the rays
Of His own glory. Gladly I would choose
To pour my soul out where your chosen ones
Stood in a downpour of God’s effluence.
You are the throne of the Lord, His royal house –
How then are slaves enthroned in your lords’ houses?
If only I could wander past the way points
Where God appeared to your appointed and your
And, flying to you with a bird’s wings,
Shake woeful head, remembering the throes
Of your dismemberment, my face
Pressed to your earth, cherishing its soil and stones –
Yes, even so, the graves of patriarchs.
Wondrous in Hebron at your choicest tombs,
I would cross Gilead, and Carmel’s woods,
And stop to marvel at your lofty peaks
Across the Jordan, on which, illustrious,
Lie buried the two greatest of your teachers.
Your very air’s alive with souls;
Your earth breathes incense and your rivers
Run with balm. I would rejoice
To walk with my bare feet, in tatters,
Upon the ruins of your Sanctuaries,
In which, before it was removed from us,
The Holy Ark stood guarded by its Cherubs
Posted at the innermost of chambers –
And then, all worldly pomp cast off, I’d curse
The fate that did defile your peerless pilgrims.
How could I eat or drink, seeing the dogs
Make off with the remains of your proud lions?
How find the daylight sweet when my two eyes
Were forced to witness crows feast on your eagles?
Enough, desist from me, O cup of sorrows,
Drained to the dregs of all its bitterness!
Zion! God’s love, combined with Beauty’s grace,
Has bound to you the souls of all Your friends,
So that they joy when you’re at peace
And weep when you’re all wounds and wilderness.
Imprisoned, they yearn for you, each from his place
Turning to bow in prayer to your gates —
Your many flocks, dispersed to distant hills
Yet ever mindful of their vows
To re-ascend to you and reach your heights,
As the palm tree, rising above all else,
Is scaled by the bold climber. Who compares
To you? Not ancient Babylon, nor Greece:
What are all their empty oracles
Beside your Prophets and the breastplates of your priests?
The heathen kingdoms lapse, collapse, and pass,
But you remain forever, crowned for the ages.
God makes His home in you: Blesséd are those
Who dwell with Him, residing in your courts.
Blesséd is he who comes, and waits, and sees
The rising sun illuminate your dawns,
In which your steadfast share the happiness
Of your lost Youth, restored as it once was.