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Jewish Review of Books on Yehuda Halevi

“Hillel Halkin has done a superb job in responding to these challenges in what is, in my view, his best book.”

July 06, 2010

Review by Robert Alter:

Yehuda Halevi is one of the great poets of the Western tradition and arguably the finest Hebrew poet between the Bible and the 20th-century, but it is difficult to convey his life and achievement to an English-reading audience. Ignorance, false preconceptions, and confusions abound regarding the medieval Spanish world in which he flourished: the distinctive social and cultural matrix of Halevi’s poetry is not well understood, relations between Jews and Muslims at the time have too often been idealized, and the group identity of the Jews of medieval Iberia does not fit common stereotypes. The nature of Halevi’s poetry is an even greater challenge. His technical virtuosity makes his poems extraordinarily difficult to translate. They are endlessly inventive in their word and sound-play, exquisitely musical, and constantly resourceful in their marshalling of biblical allusions in line after line.

Hillel Halkin has done a superb job in responding to these challenges in what is, in my view, his best book. Yehuda Halevi is Halkin’s second foray into medieval Hebrew poetry. A decade ago, he published Grand Things to Write a Poem on: A Verse Autobiography of Shmuel Hanagid, about Halevi’s great predecessor. Halkin is a translator and old-fashioned “man of letters” rather than an academic, but the scholarly thoroughness and rigor (both historical and literary) that he brings to bear in writing Halevi’s biography are impeccable. He gives a lucid account of the emergence, in the latter part of the 10th-century, of a new Hebrew poetry that freely treated secular as well as religious subjects and that followed the qualitative versification, conventional tropes, and genre system of Arabic poetry. He also guides us through the political upheavals of the 11th- and 12th-centuries that drove Halevi from place to place.

The poet was born in Christian Spain, probably in Tudela, between 1070 and 1075. As a very young man, perhaps still an adolescent, he made his way to Granada in the Muslim south, where, in one of the most famous documented anecdotes in Hebrew literary history, he was befriended by Moshe ibn Ezra, the leading poet of the age, after a virtuoso improvisation in a verse competition at a drinking party. As Halkin vividly recounts the story, “the young man from Castile,” when given the challenge of reproducing on the spot the intricate formal structure of a poem by ibn Ezra, not only did so flawlessly but “played repeatedly with its language, echoing it, reflecting it, and sometimes surpassing it while following its every step like a consummate dance partner.”

After a few brief years of residence in Granada, Halevi, probably impelled by the invasion of the Almoravids from Morocco, began a period of wandering, eventually returning to Christian Spain and settling in Toledo. In Toledo, he supported himself as a physician, a profession for which, in Halkin’s plausible account, he had no great love.

After more than three decades in Toledo, in 1140, Halevi left Spain, in a project that could have only been regarded as bizarre and misguided in his own time, for the Land of Israel, then in the hands of the Crusaders and possessing a meager Jewish population. The details of his last months have been much disputed by scholars, but Halkin does an excellent job of sorting out the facts. Halevi’s ship disembarked at Alexandria in early September 1140. In Egypt he was lionized and, indeed, fought over by competing hosts. After half a year, in which as his poems show, he was not insensible to the lushness and luxury of Egypt, he extricated himself from his importunate hosts and on May 7, 1141, departed by ship for Acre. As the documents Halkin canvasses indicate, he died somewhere in the Land of Israel about three months after his arrival there. The story of his being trampled by an Arab horseman at the gates of Jerusalem is no doubt apocryphal, though it vividly registers the devotion to the Holy Land that he expressed so memorably in his Songs of Zion.

Beyond this broad outline, the details of Halevi’s life have to be teased out by inference, largely from hints in the poems. Halkin does this judiciously, though at least a few of his conclusions are necessarily conjectural. He proposes that Halevi had two children who died young, and a daughter who bore a grandson named after him and who was probably married to the son of the great poet and biblical commentator Abraham ibn Ezra. Halevi did not write about his wife, and Halkin infers from this that she did not play much of a role in his emotional life. This may well have been the case, but arguments from silence are always a little tricky. From the spectacular long love poem that begins “Why, my darling, have you barred all news,” which Halkin justly rates as one of Halevi’s finest poems, he concludes that the poet did have one early grand passion, but in the end was somehow separated from her. I would like to think so, too, though one must concede that there is a leap of inference in moving from poem to life and that even a poem as powerfully felt as this one might still have been an act of sheer poetic invention. Like many biographers, Halkin occasionally goes on to treat such conjectures as though they were established facts, though on the whole he is circumspect in building a picture of the life from the existing evidence.

The book also offers a helpful account of the immediate and larger contexts of Halevi’s career as well as of the later reception of his work. Against the common notion that this was a “Golden Age” of Hebrew poetry in which Arabs and Jews in Andalusia enjoyed the blessing of convivencia, or harmonious co-existence and mutual tolerance, he shows what serious historians of this time and place have long known: there were deep tensions between Arabs and Jews. Spanish Jews were on occasion subject to murderous pogroms, and though they drew from the riches of Arabic culture, the Muslims among whom they lived generally despised them. This attitude was richly reciprocated. Medieval Spanish Jews generally regarded Islam as, in Halkin’s blunt words, “an insult to human intelligence” for accusing Judaism of having fabricated a past about which the Jews alone possessed the authentic version.

Yehuda Halevi abounds in brilliant translations of the poems, and Halkin has clearly taken great pleasure in producing them. He has an apt sense for which are the finest poems. Such translation needs to be accompanied by commentary, and Halkin is consistently good in performing this task. His concise concluding comment on the famous poem that begins, “My heart in the East / But the rest of me far in the West” is exemplary: “It is a miniature marvel of balance in which opposites tug in different directions while remaining musically joined; an answer to a riddle that asks, what, though torn in two, remains whole; the last moment of equipoise in a man tensing his muscles to jump and to take Jewish history with him.” That jump to the East, of course, will be recorded in detail in the last section of the biography.

The discussion of the poems is also quite helpful to the English reader in identifying many of the subtle and telling allusions to biblical texts. I noticed only one slip. In a poem written in Egypt in which Halevi begs his hosts to allow him to leave for the Holy Land, Halkin claims that the phrase “Let me travel to my Lord,” shalchuni ve-elkha la-adoni, alludes to Moses’ “let my people go” because the same verb is used. In fact, these words are a verbatim quote from Genesis 24:54, in which Abraham’s servant implores Rebekah’s family in Mesopotomia to let him go back to his master in Canaan, a more pertinent destination for the poem than the wilderness to which Moses is headed: “Do not hold me back … send me off, that I may go to my lord.”

The translation of these intricate and virtuosic Hebrew poems is a difficult undertaking, and Halkin does an admirable job, producing English versions that seem to me preferable to Peter Cole’s widely praised translations. The best of the translations exhibit a decorous eloquence, like this stanza from the elegy that may have been for Halevi’s own daughter:
Alter Revised Halevi Article Image

O daughter torn
From her mother’s rooms!
What life have I left when,
Shaped from my soul,
She makes my tears flow
Like a spring from split stone?
How can she be so changed,
Once white as the moon,
That she now wears the earth
As her bridal gown,
Its sod the sweets
Of her wedding feast?
Bitter is my own misery,
For death has come between you and me.

In place of the monorhyme of the original, which is virtually impossible to reproduce in English, Halkin sensibly deploys, as he does often elsewhere, an irregular pattern of slant rhymes (stone-moon-gown) and almost-rhymes (sweets-feast). These hints of the musicality of the Hebrew reinforce the expressiveness of the English. At times, however, Halkin strains too hard for rhymes, producing odd or ungainly turns of phrase. In one religious poem, we encounter “Arabia’s minions” who covet Israel’s “beau,” that is, her God. “Beau,” which I suspect Halkin uses to get a near-rhyme with “sows” at the end of the line, is a mistake in register, carrying associations of Restoration comedy or antebellum Southern plantations. Similarly, in the love poem, “Why, My Darling, Have You Barred All News,” Halkin gives us: “My heart, half sweetness and half bitterness, / Honeyed kisses mixed with hemlock of adieus, / Has been shredded by you into pieces, / and each piece twisted into curlicues.” The first two of these lines are fine, but the shredding into pieces of the heart, and especially the curlicue, are something of an embarrassment. And yet, in this same poem, Halkin beautifully conveys the lovely force of the Hebrew in the following lines:

Between us lies a sea of tears I cannot cross,
Yet should you but approach its moaning waves,
They’d part beneath your steps,
And if, though dead, I heard the golden bells
Make music on your skirt, or your voice asking
how I was,
I’d send my love to you from the grave’s depths.

The mostly iambic meter of this English version works very nicely. It is not necessary for Halkin to claim, in a justification for his own use of accentual-syllabic meters, that the medieval Hebrew poems exhibit regular patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables despite their deployment of ostensibly quantitative meters. It is perfectly true, as he says, that the adoption of quantitative verse from the Arabic was artificial because Hebrew does not intrinsically have an audible distinction between long and short vowels. Instead, the half-vowel schwa (like the “a” in “alone”) and all its grammatical equivalents were conventionally defined as short syllables for metrical purposes. But poets attuned to the Arabic meters would surely have read the Hebrew in a fashion that brought out the patterned sequences of short and long and that actually muted stress. (A small case in point from a familiar text: in the hymn Adon Olam, the only proper way to read the two words azai melekh, “then king,” is u – – -, which is one metrical foot, and not u´´u, or as it is usually sung with a false stress on the last syllable to produce an iamb, u´u´.)

As Halkin justly observes in contrasting his view of Halevi’s last voyage with that of the American scholar of medieval Hebrew poetry, Raymond Scheindlin, “it is one of the measures of literary greatness that we see ourselves in it.” For Halkin, who made the decision as a young man to move from America to Israel, the ultimate realization of Halevi’s life was his determination in his last years to tear himself from “all the good things of Spain,” kol tuv sefarad, and make his way to the Land of Israel. Halkin discusses this driving motive intelligently as it is expressed in both the poetry and in Halevi’s famous philosophical dialogue, The Kuzari. He is careful not to represent it as a simple instance of medieval proto-Zionism. This is a plausible focus for defining Halevi’s life and work, and I am not inclined to debate it. If there is an emphasis that might be added to Halkin’s account, it is the rich sensuality that suffuses so many of the poems—those golden bells on the skirt of the beloved woman—religious as well as secular. Such sensualism sets him apart, at least in degree, from the other Hebrew poets of his era.

Many of Halevi’s most brilliant religious poems fall under the category called ahavah, the liturgical prelude in the morning service to the benediction “Blessed are You . . . who loves Israel.” As Halkin properly notes, these poems are strongly inflected by the allegorical reading of the Song of Songs, in which God is the lover and the people of Israel the beloved (though even in allegory, the sexiness of these biblical poems was not lost on Halevi). But there is also a strong carry-over from the secular love poems, shaped on Arabic models, in which the lovers have been painfully separated and the speaker (usually male), recalling the nights of rapture at some desert encampment, bemoans the separation. Some of Halevi’s ahavot vividly individualize the abandoned beloved and endow her with an erotic psychology, representing her, for example, as masochistically reveling in her suffering and humiliation because, coming as they do from her lover, they alone give meaning to her life.

In one of Halevi’s most memorable ahavot, the beloved begins with these words: “My love, have you forgotten how you lay between my breasts, / and how could you have let me be by slavers long oppressed?” At the end, after looking back on how she has been shamed and banished through the harsh stations of exile, she strikes an explicitly sexual note: “Give your strength to me, / and to you I’ll give my loving.” The last word, dodim, is drawn from the lexicon of the Song of Songs and obviously invokes the allegorical reading of that text, but, as Halevi was perfectly aware, it is a term that refers to lovemaking, not merely to an emotion of love. The messianic redemption is imagined in the poem concretely as a moment of sexual consummation: the divine lover, long absent, gives his strength to (or puts his strength into) his beloved, who responds with welcoming rapture.

There is surely no single key that explains extraordinary achievement such as Halevi’s, though sensual immediacy is one of his creative signatures. Hillel Halkin is no doubt aware of this characteristic, but his own emphasis falls elsewhere. In any case, his biography, with the translations it incorporates, gives us a vivid and persuasive sense of Yehuda Halevi that should make him more real and more understandable than he has been until now.

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