Jews’ Harps

Gabriel Josipovici

  • Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse by T. Carmi
    Penguin, 608 pp, £6.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 14 042197 1

It is not often that a reviewer can say that the book under review has altered his entire conception of the past. Yet that is what I have to say about this book.

It is, to begin with, the product of an extraordinary combination of love and scholarship. Not only is it the first anthology of Hebrew verse in any language to run from Biblical times to the present: it is a bilingual anthology, with the Hebrew and the English printed to face each other, and, though the English translations are not in verse, Carmi’s prose combines accuracy and grace to such a degree that readers without Hebrew will be able to enjoy the book almost as much as readers who have it, while those, like myself, who are in the process of learning the language or have only vague memories of it from the dim childhood past will find many hours of pleasure awaiting them as they patiently decipher the original with the help of the translations.

But the book is much more than a selection of the best Hebrew poetry of the last three thousand years. Carmi has prefaced the anthology with a fifty-page introduction which is both eminently readable and crammed with information. But even this is not all. The introduction forms only part of the apparatus. In addition, there is a concise essay on Medieval Hebrew genres, which directs us to poems and poem cycles within the anthology, an essay on the systems of Hebrew versification by Benjamin Hrushovsky, which is a model of its kind, a very useful bibliography, and, most interesting of all, a table of contents which is presented in the form of running comments on individual poets and poems. The book does not therefore fall into the usual two distinct parts, an introduction where the facts are presented and the editor explains the reasons for his choices, and an anthology of poems. The way the volume is conceived forces us to move backwards and forwards continually, as a note to poem A suggests a link with poem B, and a reference in poem B is drawn to our attention and compared to one in poem C, which guides us back to the essay on genres, which in turn sends us out to other poems in the anthology ... There may be other collections of poetry conceived in this way, but I have not come across them; certainly this is a model it would repay any anthologist to study.

The embedding of the poetry in its historical and literary context is particularly valuable here, for the double reason that we know, to our shame, so little about the bulk of Hebrew poetry, and that this poetry is more closely tied to a particular book, the Bible, and to the fortunes of the communities which produced the poetry, than is the case with any other major literature. The history of Jewish poetry is a unique phenomenon, but its very uniqueness has much to tell us about the very different conditions that have obtained in the literary histories of Japan, Greece, Germany or England.

There are, in fact, four overlapping influences shaping this poetry: that of the Jewish community to which the poet belongs; that of the larger, non-Jewish community in which this is embedded (Moslem Spain, say, or Czarist Russia); that of other Jewish communities at work elsewhere at the same time; and the continuing Biblical presence, of paramount importance to a people without a land. One is therefore likely to find conservative poetry written in Babylonia after a model which has not changed for centuries appearing at the same time as startlingly new imitations of Arabic secular poetry in Spain and as bitter lamentations, modelled on Biblical genres, written in Germany at the time of the terrible pogroms which seemed always to flourish in the wake of the Crusades. Thus, though the anthology is rightly chronological, we have the queer sense not so much of steady movement down the centuries as of eddying waters, spreading further and further afield, but whose source is always present in any sample.

Carmi dedicates the book to Dan Pagis, another Israeli poet and scholar (the two have appeared together in a Penguin Modern Poets volume), and one of the shortest poems in the book is Pagis’s ‘Written in Pencil in the Sealed Freight Car’:

Here in this carload, I, Eve, with my
son, Abel. If you see my older boy, Cain,
the son of Adam, tell him that I

History and Scripture come together here to make this one of the most dignified and moving evocations of that complex series of events we try to make sense of by calling the Holocaust. How little the poet needs to say, but how alive he must be to the vibrations of the past, to the resonance of ancient words and stories. With such a weapon at one’s disposal, it is fatally easy to cut oneself. The best contemporary Israeli poets, however, have a wonderful ability to handle this potent tradition with a coolness that is far more resonant than the most grandiose rhetoric. In his introduction Carmi quotes from a poem by Yehuda Amichai (not included in the volume):

The man under the fig-tree telephoned the man under his vine:
‘Tonight they will surely come.
Armour the leaves,
Lock up the tree,
Call home the dead and be prepared.’

And Carmi comments: ‘The introduction of the anachronistic telephone into the body of a famous biblical idiom for peace and peace of mind – “They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree and none shall make them afraid” – is enough to jolt any Hebrew reader. But something is also happening on the physical, visual level. The peace-loving vine and fig-tree shed their symbolic roles and are transformed into the routine accessories of field camouflage.’ Such shedding, such transformation, such irony, he could have added, are the stuff of Hebrew poetry of all periods.

Surprisingly, modern Hebrew poetry has been well served by translations in recent years. Penguins have already brought out English versions of poetry by Nelly Sachs, Abba Kovner, Pagis and Carmi; Tony Rudolf’s Menard Press has made available the wonderful poems of Amir Gilboa (to my mind the best living Israeli poet), Yehuda Amichai, Leah Goldberg, Moshe Dor, Shlomo Viner, Dahlia Ravikovitch and David Vogel; Oxford have published Amichai and Carcanet Pagis; Tony Rudolf and Howard Schwarz have recently edited an enormous volume of modern Jewish poetry, which includes a 300-page section on Hebrew poetry.[*] All these, of course, are in English only. But some years ago Schocken Books brought out a companion volume to Stanley Burnshaw’s splendid The Poem Itself, entitled The Modern Hebrew Poem Itself. This has the Hebrew and English on facing pages, and seems to have been guided by some of the same editorial principles as lie behind the present volume: at least, the names of Carmi, Pagis and Hrushovsky are prominent there too. Many of the poems included in the modern section of the Penguin are to be found in the American volume, and in the case of Bialik and Amichai I prefer the Schocken selection. But since, as I have been suggesting, no modern Hebrew poet can be understood without a sense of the tradition in which he is working, the Penguin triumphs once again, even if it is only modern poetry one is interested in.

The present volume is divided into three sections, Biblical and post-Biblical, Medieval and modern. But, in fact, it forms a seamless whole. The first thing to be said about the choice of poems is that it is a poet’s choice: every poem is there because it is good. And that makes about four hundred and fifty pages of good poetry, most of it completely unknown to English readers. What is even more startling is that this is the first comprehensive selection of Hebrew poetry not just in English but in Hebrew. To understand why this should be so is to gain an insight into the extraordinary way in which the physical and the spiritual seem always to be intertwined in the destiny of this people.

The simple fact is that much of this poetry was totally unknown a hundred years ago. And I don’t mean unknown to the wider public. I mean that it had literally been lost. How it came to be recovered is a story which I find more moving than the discovery of Tutankhamen’s treasure or the palace of Knossos. Let Carmi tell it:

The enormous jigsaw puzzle of piyut [Medieval Hebrew poems] began to reveal its contours only with the discovery of the Cairo Genizah (‘hiding place’). This momentous event – momentous for almost every branch of Hebrew scholarship – has been aptly described as a cluster of miracles. It was a miracle that the community in Fostat (Old Cairo), which is known to have bought its synagogue in the ninth century, perpetuated the customs and liturgy of the Palestinian rite. It was a miracle that they, and subsequent generations, held the written word in such esteem that any piece of writing in Hebrew could not simply be thrown away, but had to be stored in a special lumber-room. It was a miracle that hundreds of thousands of fragments were deposited in the windowless room in the synagogue’s attic from the 11th to the 19th century. And it was nothing less than a miracle that they were preserved from decay and were not discovered prematurely.

In 1896 two ladies from Cambridge, on a visit to Cairo, bought some Hebrew manuscripts as a memento. On their return they showed them to Solomon Schechter, then Reader in Rabbinics at Cambridge University. He realised, to his amazement, that he was looking at a fragment of the Hebrew original of Ecclesiasticus.

Schechter rushed to Cairo and succeeded in obtaining permission to crate some one hundred thousand fragments back to Cambridge. In an article in the Times published in the following year he recorded his impressions of the Genizah:

It is a battlefield of books, and the literary productions of many centuries had their share in the battle, and their disjecta membra are now strewn over its area. Some of the belligerents have perished outright, and are literally ground to dust in the terrible struggle for space, whilst others, as if overtaken by the general crush, are squeezed into big, unshapely lumps, which even with the aid of chemical appliances can no longer be separated without serious damage to their constituents. In their present condition these lumps sometimes afford curiously suggestive combinations; as, for instance, when you find a piece of some rationalistic work, in which the very existence of either angels or devils is denied, clinging for its very life to an amulet in which these same beings (mostly the latter) are bound over to be on good behaviour and not to interfere with Miss Jair’s love for somebody. The development of the romance is obscured by the fact that the last lines of the amulet are mounted on some IOU or lease, and this in turn is squeezed between the sheets of an old moralist, who treats all attention to money affairs with scorn and indignation. Again, all these contradictory matters cleave tightly to some sheets from a very old Bible...

Poets such as Yannai, one of the greatest of the early Medieval masters, were discovered in the Genizah, and many who had been hardly more than names were fleshed out. Even today the bulk of the material has not been properly sifted, and Carmi reminds us that though Samuel Hanagid and Solomon ibn Gabirol are universally recognised as among the greatest Hebrew poets, it was only in 1934 that the bulk of the former’s poems was published for the first time and that more than forty unknown poems by the latter were first published only three years ago. That is why Carmi insists that his selection can only be in the nature of an interim report.

His insistence should not lead us to underestimate the extraordinary achievement which this book represents. For the reader who thinks himself reasonably familiar with the Bible, the Biblical selections alone, with the attendant annotations, will come as a salutary shock. ‘The beginning of wisdom in biblical study,’ Carmi quotes Professor Greenberg as saying, ‘is the realisation that the Bible is an exotic book about which modern readers understand very little.’ How does the Western reader react to the suggestion put forward some years ago by the great Biblical scholar, Umberto Cassuto, that the principles of organisation for the Biblical books, as well as for sections within the books, may well include the principle of size: you start with the longest, and end with the shortest? This principle clearly applies to parts of the Koran and is obviously at work in the lay-out of the Prophetic Books in Scripture. Such a principle, however, runs counter to every possible Western idea of meaning and organisation, with its strong holistic bias. Carmi’s notes to his Biblical selections place these firmly in their Middle Eastern context, and in doing so remind us that what we had so long taken as utterly familiar may well be utterly alien. The attacks on holism of Nietzsche and Derrida here find factual confirmation: they cease to be strange and radical attempts to force us out of our normal ways of thinking, and make us see that we may have ignored a central part of our heritage, or been too selective in our sense of what was our ‘tradition’. One simple example simultaneously illustrates Carmi’s genius for the apt quotation from the relevant authority. In his preface he makes the simple factual point that he will translate the second-person singular by ‘You’ or ‘you’ when referring to the Deity, rather than ‘thou’. He backs this decision by quoting Professor Orlinsky: ‘The Biblical writers made no distinction between God on the one hand and man or animal on the other so far as the pronoun or verbal form was concerned. God and the serpent and Pharaoh – all are addressed directly by “attah”.’

The rich array of post-Biblical liturgical poetry presented here should also go some way towards resolving one of the most bitter debates Christian scholars are now engaged in. For the past ten years Michael Goulder has been scandalising conservative theologians by his insistence that the Hebrew liturgy and lectionary is the principal key to the organisation, not merely of late Old Testament books, such as Chronicles, but even of the Gospels and Revelation. Carmi’s anthology would seem to lend credence to Goulder’s views by revealing how post-Biblical poetry, up to the tenth century, was in fact written: usually by cantors, precisely to fit into a still rather open liturgical framework. He is quite right to take the first section of his anthology up to the rise of secular poetry in Spain, for there is actually no sharp break between the Bible and post-Biblical liturgical poetry; the decisions to close the canon of Scripture and to fix the liturgy once and for all were purely social and political decisions, which had little to do with the content of either Scripture or liturgy.

Carmi has quite enough material from printed sources and has not ventured into manuscript archives. But it is amazing how much he has uncovered. One of the discoveries he is most pleased about, and rightly, is a tenth-century sequence of poems on the death of Moses, which he found written out as prose in a Bologna rite. Here is the fourth poem in that sequence:

          He refuses to die
‘I will not die! Why should I die!

‘If it is because of my perverse words, spoken at the burning bush, when I heard you say, mouth to mouth, “You shall put the words in Aaron’s mouth”; when I sinfully answered: “I am slow of speech,” and angered You who give man speech – if this is my crime, blot it out and do not call it to mind!’

And the Dread One answered him-that very day: ‘Your words were sweet to me, and though they faltered at the bush they will be remembered for many generations. How can such words be counted a crime?

‘That is not why.’

‘If that is not why, why then should I die?’

‘Moses, go up and die, for it has been decreed that you shall die!’

Such poems, in their realism and their sweet simplicity, will remind English readers of Medieval English poetry, in particular such pieces as the Chester ‘Sacrifice of Isaac’, so beautifully set by Britten. But there are also, in the long Medieval section, passionate or witty love poems modelled on Arabic or Italian secular love poetry, and a number of funny and conceited poems, such as the one on the flea, which is made up entirely of Biblical quotations and which out-Donnes (out-does?) Donne. Though the poetry is always informed by Scripture, it is never pious – indeed, it is often ribald or at least risqué, as in this short poem by Todros Abulafia of Toledo, a contemporary of Dante:

How terrible, how bitter was the day of your parting, my graceful girl. When I remember it, no part of my body is left unscarred. But how very beautiful were your feet when they twined and climbed my back.

Carmi comments: ‘The last line is a typical example of the humour achieved by displacing a biblical phrase. In the original, Lamentations 1.14, the reference is to God’s hand which “plaits” or “knots” the author’s sins about his neck.’ One of my own favourites is the sonnet by Ephraim Luzzato, an 18th-century doctor, appointed physician to London’s Portuguese community hospital, whose disregard of religious decorum earned him much criticism. It concerns a rabbi he particularly disliked who had recently been delivered of a kidney stone, and its two rhyme words are, of course, ‘stone’ and ‘water’:

Arise, afflicted master, see how this people, silent as a stone, is here shedding water. At their groans of distress the waters of the sea pile up. Beams cry out from the woodwork, and stones from the wall.

Now, mighty one, give forth a torrent of water and – gently, easily – discharge the stone. The hearts of those about you are melting, flowing away like water. But you, do not lose heart, for yours is stronger than stone.

The merciful God, who once made streams of water run from a rock in the wilderness, will now draw out water for you from His spring of deliverance.

Surely you will remove the stone from the mouth of the well. You will give us waters [of wisdom] to drink, as you did in former days – until the cornerstone is laid on the good Mountain.

In the end, though, this anthology is much more than the sum of its marvellous parts. And that for two reasons. First, despite the variety, a sense of unity does come through. This has nothing to do with common themes: it is a distinctive tone, which can perhaps best be pointed to by quoting two passages. One is from the first poem, the ‘Song of the Sea’ from Exodus: ‘I shall sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; horse and chariot He has hurled into the sea.’ The other is from the contemporary Israeli poet, Hayim Gouri, whose poem ‘Heritage’ ends:

Isaac, as the story goes, was not sacrificed. He lived for many years, saw what pleasure had to offer, until his eyesight dimmed.

But he bequeathed that hour to his offspring. They are born with a knife in their hearts.

Secondly, what this book does is to break up a history that had become monolithic for us, to open doors and windows in what we had thought were blank walls. The history of Spain and of Spanish poetry, of Germany and German poetry, of Italy and Italian poetry – all these will have to be revised and rethought in the light of this book. It reinforces the insights of such scholars as Peter Brown and Meyer Schapiro, who have tried to draw us out of our Rome-centred, Classics-centred view of the past. It truly does what Eliot said every masterpiece did: alters, if ever so slightly, every single work in the tradition.

[*] Voices Within the Ark, Avon Books (New York, 1980).