Varieties of Jewish Verse
Once every few decades, an anthology appears that reaches beyond mere scissors-and-paste operations to restore to contemporary readers a lost literary past. A notable instance in English was the publication exactly sixty years ago of H. J. C. Grierson’s Metaphysical Lyrics and Poems, which coming at the very moment when T. S. Eliot and others were rebelling against the norms of 19th-century verse, brought back into the main line of the English tradition the passionately witty poets of the 17th century like Donne, Herbert, and Marvell who had long been discredited, misunderstood, or even half-forgotten.
The publication of T. Carmi’s The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse1 is such an event of recuperation, not only for English readers but for readers of Hebrew as well, who will discover in this bilingual volume unguessed treasures, a few of them appearing in print for the first time, others never before published out of their original liturgical contexts, or, in the case of the secular poems, many never anthologized or published in modern critical editions. There has been, in fact, as Carmi justly observes in his preface, no anthology like this in Hebrew that covers the full 3000-year span of Hebrew poetry. Though the earliest part of Carmi’s anthology, a selection of fourteen biblical poems from the victory hymn in Exodus 15 to the Song of Songs, may be superfluous for some readers, it does lay the ground for one of the important revelations of the volume: the astonishing degree of continuity exhibited by Hebrew poetry through its long history and its wide geographical dispersal.
It was, of course, chiefly the authority of the Bible, both as linguistic standard and as a source of imagery and allusions, that preserved this continuity through so many different eras and cultural spheres. The piyyut, or liturgical verse, of Palestine and Babylonia (roughly, 6th to 11th centuries C.E.) is a partial exception to the rule of continuity because this particular tradition took disconcerting liberties with classical Hebrew grammar and vocabulary, and developed its own sometimes cryptic conventions of kenning and elaborate allusion. Elsewhere, however, the kinship of different Hebrew poems separated by centuries and continents is altogether remarkable. A reader of the poetry of Gabriel Preil and Yehuda Amichai written today in New York and Jerusalem often scarcely has to shift linguistic or aesthetic gears to move into a poem composed in Renaissance Italy, Palestine under the Romans, Babylonia in the 6th century B.C.E.
If The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, the product of more than a decade of painstaking research, rescues characteristic elements of a partly forgotten poetic past, it is, I would propose, even more important for what it reveals of the extraordinary variety of Jewish historical experience. Carmi has tried to make his selections historically representative, avoiding any obvious tilt toward modern preferences and concerns in his choice of the older texts. (He has also provided tactfully concise, helpful notes to the poems and a valuable introductory essay, to which is appended an incisive summary by Benjamin Hrushovski of the systems of Hebrew versification.) In any case, from the end of the biblical period to the latter part of the 10th century, there is scarcely any secular Hebrew poetry that has come down to us, apart from a very occasional brief inset of satirical or eulogistic verse in the Talmud. And since liturgical poetry is manifestly the predominant poetic genre, at least quantitatively, through the entire medieval period, readers will find a good deal of it here, joined, after the onset of the Crusades, by a liberal sampling of dirges, some affecting and a few chiefly horrific, on the massacre of Jews. These disparate Jewish communities over the ages were devout and, in some periods, acutely suffering communities, and the poems bear witness to both these aspects of the Jewish historical condition.
The invocation of devotion and suffering is inevitable, and yet those very terms entail a conjuring with stereotypes, while the vivid evidence of the poems themselves demonstrates the inadequacy of just such stereotypes of Jewish history. The Jews, so runs the formula, have always been a religion, or, according to a different ideological perspective, a religious civilization. The modern age, then, brings with it secularization, which makes troubling “inroads” on Jewish life. There is an obvious element of truth in this familiar way of conceiving things, but one wonders how accurate such an account might be if it should prove that during much of the pre-modern period, the secular and the religious were intimately intertwined, or that, instead of being opposed categories, the religious was often a pliable framework within which the secular could be given quiet or at times even flamboyant expression. All this is not easy to sort out because the tenor and circumstances of Jewish life over the centuries have varied so widely. A few examples, however, from different times and places may at least suggest something of the inadequacy of the conventional categories.
Let me begin with an anonymous poem—it is actually the opening section of a longer poem in the form of an alphabetic acrostic—composed in Palestine under the Byzantine empire, sometime between the 4th and the early 7th century. It is a liturgical piece, intended for use in public worship as part of the prayer for dew recited during the Passover festival. One could hardly imagine a more clearcut instance of a religious poem—verses actually framed to serve an institutional function. Here is how it reads in Carmi’s translation:2
I shall sing praises now that the time of the
singing bird has come,
and I shall answer in song:
go in peace, rain.
I shall look at the deeds of my God, so pleasant
in their season,
and sweetly say:
come in peace, dew.
The rains are over and gone, the winter is past;
everything is created with beauty:
go in peace, rain.
The mandrakes give forth their perfume in the
sorrows are past:
come in peace, dew.
The earth is crowned with new grain and wine,
and everything cries:
go in peace, rain!
This gives a fair sense of the lovely lyric simplicity of the original, though, as one might guess, the Hebrew has a quality of delicate musicality absent from the English version (there is, to cite a single instance, a nicely orchestrated play of sound and meaning in “mandrakes,” dudaim, “lovers,” dodim, and “sorrows,” devaim). In regard to function, this is of course a liturgical poem and thus inevitably a religious one, but precisely what kind of experience is expressed in these lines? The poet naturally invokes God, Whose “deeds” in bringing about the change of the seasons are “so pleasant,” but his accent falls decisively on the pleasantness of the created world. Indeed, in the first line of the Hebrew, he does not sing praises, which might suggest an explicit turning to God at the very beginning, but rather he utters song (zemirot), which aligns him more directly with the singing bird or nightingale (zamir) and places him in the great vernal chorus of nature. The poet responds to the sudden freshening of life and beauty in nature with an alertness of the senses that does not seem very different from, say, the famous opening lines of The Canterbury Tales, in which Chaucer celebrates the sweet showers of April and the movement of renewal they bring. I would not be so crass as to argue that what we have in these fifteen Hebrew lines is a secular poem in religious guise, but the poem does register a sense of the beauty of nature, including the elation of awakening physical desire, which one might say was not strictly required by the liturgical occasion.
There is, however, a further complication in the link between the status of these lines as liturgical poetry and as nature poetry. The central verses of the passage are virtually a pastiche of phrases from the Song of Songs. Now, the Song of Songs is read in synagogues on the Sabbath of Passover, and so there is a kind of association of liturgical occasions here, but I don’t think that entirely explains the presence of the biblical material in the poem. Whatever its allegorical interpretations, the Song of Songs was—and has continued to be for the millennium and a half since the composition of this liturgical poem—the great luminous model for Hebrew love poetry and Hebrew poetry about spring. The images from the Song of Songs work here like those crumbs of Japanese paper Proust describes which, when immersed in water, magically stretch and take shape and color as flowers and people. The term pastiche I used a moment ago is a little misleading in its suggestion of inertness or mechanical activity, for what actually happens is that the biblical text springs to life again in the quickening medium of the poet’s imagination, or to view the process from another angle, the Song of Songs serves as a powerful catalyst for the poet’s imagination as he responds to the natural world around him. This is not in itself secular poetry, but it gives us a glimpse of the cultural matrix upon which, a few centuries later, an extraordinary tradition of Hebrew secular poetry would grow.
The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse includes several other spring liturgy poems from different periods that, like the text we have just considered, stand on the threshold of becoming celebratory nature poems. Another kind of ritual occasion, the marriage ceremony, provides the pious framework for a variety of love poems: after secular verse had taken root in Spain, some of these epithalamia would be frankly erotic and, in the subsequent Italian period, even bawdy. But in the liturgy proper, as Carmi’s variegated selections tend to show, the poetic imagination addresses itself to a wide spectrum of topics, and for some of these the liturgical occasion seems less a justification than an excuse.
Let me offer one relatively unfamiliar example. Middle Eastern Jewry, beginning in the 10th century or perhaps a little earlier, developed a special commemoration of the death of Moses which was associated with the fall festival of Simhat Torah. Carmi includes several poetic laments composed for this rite. The most recent of these is a strophic poem, cast in the form of a dialogue between the weeping Jochebed and her son Moses, probably written in the 15th century, possibly by Samuel ben Moses Dayan of Aleppo. In the penultimate stanza, Jochebed takes final leave of her son: “Go then in peace, O you who pitched my tent!/ Your parting is a bitter thing for me, more bitter than any illness. / May the Lord bestow His peace upon you and also upon me./ May he listen to my bitter lament,/ and show His favor for your sake and for mine.”
In a certain sense, this is more obviously a “religious” poem than the early Palestinian prayer for dew with its evocation of blossoming mandrakes and lovers’ gardens. The subject, after all, is no less than the lawgiver of Israel, its liberator from Egyptian bondage, and the poem will actually conclude in the next stanza with a prayer for national redemption. One may nevertheless ask what these dramatized cries of a bereaved mother are doing in the liturgy for Simhat Torah. It goes without saying that the whole subject has no scriptural warrant, though the poet and his predecessors in this tradition had certain hints in the Mid-rash to draw from. The leading emphasis of the poem—perhaps in a sense its real subject—is neither Moses, the prophet of prophets, nor the redemption of Israel, but a mother’s grief. The liturgical occasion and the biblical figures operate here in a manner roughly analogous to the iconography of the life of Jesus in Christian painting. That is, the iconography could be a vehicle for the devout representation of the central mystery of Christianity or it could serve as a means for the painter, using the traditional sacred figures, to explore visual and psychological themes of human existence like maternal beauty, childish innocence, suffering, compassion, bereavement. The various poems on the death of Moses, with their characteristic focus on the anguished mother, in fact look very much like a Jewish pietà convention, though not in any way inspired by Christianity, since it evolved in the Islamic sphere.
Such intermittent pulsations of secular or perhaps rather humanistic feeling in the midst of devout expression may help explain the astounding alacrity exhibited by one major segment of medieval Jewry in adopting the secular high culture of the Arabs. This adoption, at least in the realm of literature, occurred almost overnight sometime in the latter part of the 10th century when a brash young man from Fez named Dunash ben Labrat arrived in Córdoba by way of Baghdad, where he had served as secretary to the illustrious rabbinic philosopher and legal authority, Saadia Gaon, and began to write secular poems in Hebrew after Arabic models, using the Arabic meters and rhyme schemes as well as the Arabic generic conventions. Many Jews were shocked by Dunash’s innovations, and some pious objections to the new movement would persist for generations, but the greatest poetic talents of Andalusian Jewry very quickly followed his path.
Here on Iberian soil, the rickety opposition between secular and religious collapses in another way, for the Hebrew poets who wrote exquisite nature poems, richly sensual erotic verse, boisterous drinking songs, and mordant satire, also produced sublime liturgical pieces—still following Arabic prosody—and personal religious poetry. The same figures who created such an exuberantly secular poetic corpus were also, variously, mystics, theologians, exegetes, talmudic authorities. Thus, Solomon ibn Gabirol, the tortured mystic whose neo-Platonic work, Fons Vitae, circulated in Latin translation for centuries among Christian religious thinkers, its Jewish authorship unknown, evokes an Andalusian garden at the beginning of the spring:
With the ink of its showers and rains,
with the quill of its lightning, with the hand of
its clouds, winter
wrote a letter upon the garden, in purple and
No artist could ever conceive the like of that.
And this is why the earth, grown jealous of the
embroidered stars in the folds of the flowerbeds.
Or Judah Halevi, author of The Kuzari, the great medieval apologia for the Jewish faith, and also the supreme virtuoso of the Spanish Hebrew school, writes in a long lover’s complaint to a coy mistress:
Oh, after my death, let me still hear
the sound of the golden bells on the hem of
And if you then ask how your beloved is, I,
from the grave,
will send you my love and my blessings!
And Abraham ibn Ezra, the famous biblical exegete and philologist who, arriving in Italy from his native Spain in the 12th century, singlehandedly Arabized its Hebrew poetics, as Dunash had done before him in Andalusia, writes of his own itinerant poverty with wry humor and candor:
I have a cloak that is like a sieve
to sift wheat or barley.
I spread it out like a tent in the dark of night,
and the stars shine through it;
through it I see the moon and the Pleiades,
and Orion flashing its light. . . .
If a fly landed on it with its full weight,
it would quickly regret its foolishness. . . .
The imaginative richness and variety of secular Hebrew poetry in Spain are familiar topics of celebration in the standard accounts of Jewish history. According to the most common notion, however, what occurred was a sudden sunburst of creativity in the 11th and 12th centuries—the period of the four commanding poets, Samuel Hanagid, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, and Judah Halevi—followed by a few after-glimmerings, then a general return to the norms of devotional ascesis and pious learning which prevailed in Jewish life until the seismic disruptions of modernity began to be felt in the 18th century. This view has remained entrenched because it allows one to think of the Hebrew Golden Age of Spain as an exception proving the comfortable stereotypical rule which defines pre-modern Jewry as a people of martyrs, scholars, and saints whose existence is everywhere pervaded by religiosity.
The untenability of such a view has been made evident by the recent scholarly work in Hebrew of Dan Pagis on the manifold continuations of the Hebrew secular tradition after the Spanish period, and Carmi, who gratefully acknowledges his debt to Pagis’s researches, includes some impressive instances in his anthology of the lively persistence of secular verse well after the 12th century. Geographically, the movement that started in Andalusia spread to Christian Spain, Provence, Italy, North Africa, Greece, and Turkey, as far east as Yemen, as far north as Amsterdam. Chronologically, it constituted an unbroken tradition that ran on to the 18th century, where it overlapped with the Hebrew Enlightenment, which began in Germany as a much more self-conscious and ideological movement of secularization emulating Central European literary models. The poems and novels that roll off the presses in Tel Aviv today are not merely the consequence of the Zionist revival over the past half-century or more but are part of a thousand years of continuous secular literary activity in Hebrew—fully half the period since the destruction of the Second Temple.
It is, of course, important to keep in mind that Jews were doing much besides writing amorous and satiric verse during this second millennium of Diaspora existence. The flourishing of Hebrew poetry in Spain was almost contemporaneous with the development of Hasidut Ashkenaz, the mystical and ascetic pietistic movement that began in 12th-century Germany, and with the emergence of the Kabbalah in Spain itself. In the centuries that followed, Jewish cultural energies were frequently expressed in exegesis of both the Bible and the Talmud, in codes of law and in responsa, in devotional and mystical treatises, in movements like the Hasidism of Eastern Europe and the ascetic ethical regimen of Musar promulgated in many of the great East European talmudic academies.
All this pious activity can hardly be thought of as peripheral. From the 13th century on, the major thrust of Jewish imagination, its real profundity and originality, indisputably moved through these various religious channels; and even in the classic age of Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries, there were achievements in religious philosophy and mystical writing as forcefully imaginative as the great secular poems of the period and more comprehensive in scope. The best of this secular poetry in the Andalusian era is, I believe, on a par with the finest lyric poetry of the Western tradition, while Hebrew verse from the 13th to the 18th centuries, however lively and engaging, hardly has the same imaginative authority.
In any case, the abundance and vitality of secular literary activity in this period are historical facts to be reckoned with, and I suspect that prevailing ideas about the last several centuries of Jewish history would look rather different if they were not so centered in Ashkenazic Jewry. Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, especially in the last few centuries before modernity, lived by and large in enclaves, speaking their own language, not entirely sealed off from their Gentile surroundings but separated from them, one might say, by a semi-permeable membrance. In contrast, the Sephardic Jews of Spain and Italy, though by no means free of legal discrimination and the threat of persecution or even physical violence, lived in much freer interaction with their host cultures. The 800-year tradition of Hebrew literature they created bears witness above all to the positive genius for assimilation that has been one of the central mechanisms of Jewish existence through the ages.
This genius for assimilation, to invoke a famous distinction of the Hebrew essayist, Ahad Ha’am, was a matter of competitive rather than self-effacing imitation. The Hebrew of the Bible, Dunash and his followers argued, was an even more perfect instrument of literary expression than the Arabic of the Koran, and anything they could do, we could do better—which the great Hebrew poets after Dunash proceeded to accomplish, fashioning the most brilliant and at times luxuriant poems according to all the Arabic topical conventions, using the same kind of imagery as the Arabic, but in an elaborately wrought indigenous Hebrew drawing on two millennia of Jewish tradition. The Hebrew writers absorbed from their Arabic models not only forms and conventions but also—for these are never wholly separable—a certain sensibility, a certain way of seeing the world, an inclination to cultivate or even revel in certain kinds of experience. If the writing of love poems, both heterosexual and (in accordance with Arabic convention) homosexual, was generally a literary exercise rather than a confession of personal involvement, it nevertheless entailed an imaginative immersion in the experience expressed, so that “mere” exercise often shades into personal expression, the latter becoming unambiguous in the case of a poet like Todros Abulafia of 13th-century Toledo, who describes some of his actual mistresses in verse and wittily defends his weakness for Arab and Christian girls.
The same process of assimilation occurred again in Italy. It is an instructive curiosity of literary history that the first language after Italian in which sonnets were written was not French or Spanish or English but Hebrew—by Immanuel of Rome, who was composing sonnets before the end of the 13th century, within decades after the form was invented. The Hebrew poets of Italy wrote ottava rima, terza rima, sestinas, whatever seemed elegant or challenging or merely fashionable in Italian poetic practice; and beyond such matters of form, they absorbed the imaginative cast of the dolce stil nuovo, of ribald comedy, of the Italian baroque and neoclassical movements. Some of these poets, beginning with Immanuel, also wrote in Italian, or on occasion composed ingenious bilingual poems, but the continuing appeal for them of writing in Hebrew, which of course was not a spoken language, as an expression of their cultural identity as Jews, is remarkable.
At times their language could be quite mannered, but often one is struck by its vivid immediacy, its capacity to sound as though it were the actual vernacular of the poet. Thus Jacob Frances, in a poem written in Leghorn on the occasion of his brother’s marriage in 1656, begins: “Leave off, you poetasters, leave off your singing!/ All your pens should be dragged along and flung on a dung heap!/ Pooh, pooh to you, pooh and a thousand poohs!” It is a little hard to believe that the third line, pu, pu aleikhem, pu v’elef pu, could have been written before the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, but it shows how far the Hebrew poets were moved in their emulation of vernacular models to give their language the pungency and suppleness of a living tongue.
The involvement of Jews in secular poetry is of course part of a broader pattern of involvement in secular cultural activities. Over this eight-century span from Spain to Italy, Jews were often at the forefront of medicine, mathematics, astronomy, diplomatic service. More popularly, individual Jews were dancing masters (one of the earliest Italian treatises on dance was written in Hebrew), musicians, actors, not to speak of gamblers, con men, or simple thieves. Leone Modena, who is represented in The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse by a single penitential poem for Yom Kippur, encapsulates in his own life this multifaceted involvement of Italian Jewry in general culture, high and low. Carmi’s biographical note for Modena is as wonderful as any of the poems themselves in the anthology:
Judah Aryeh [Leone] Modena (1571-1648) was born in Venice and studied under the poet-grammarian Samuel Archevolti in Padua. A child prodigy, he translated passages from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso at the age of twelve. He became famous as a rabbi and preacher in Venice and was the author of the first autobiography in Hebrew, The Life of Judah. In this unusually revealing narrative he lists twenty-six professions at which he tried his hand, among them: maestro di cappella, author of an Italian comedy, dayan [rabbinical judge], alchemist (his son died of lead poisoning after one of the experiments), writer of amulets and talismans, and matchmaker. He was addicted to gambling and, as a result, was perpetually on the verge of penury. At the request of the English Ambassador in Venice, he wrote Historia de riti ebraici for presentation to King James I. An avid polemicist, he wrote famous tracts against Christianity, Karaism, and the Kabbalah, and a condemnation of games of chance.
The astronomic distance between popular preconceptions and this real life of a 16th-century Venetian Jew is vividly illustrated by Jonathan Miller’s appalling television production of The Merchant of Venice, recently shown in America on the PBS network. As many viewers objected, Miller and his leading man, Warren Mitchell (né Maisel), compounded the hostility of Shakespeare’s characterization by divesting Shylock of whatever elements of dignity the playwright had given him, presenting the rapacious merchant with the Yiddish accent and the immigrant tics of a Jew in an anti-Semitic anecdote.
What is especially revealing is that Miller and Mitchell, in a televised conversation about their production, could say with a sense of complacent authority as Jews that Shakespeare had perfectly caught the historical character of Jewish culture in stressing Shylock’s puritanical recoil from life and its pleasures, and that their own version brought to the fore the sympathy for the Jew which they perceived in the text of the play. Their self-deception on this last point is not so puzzling as it might first seem, for the anti-Semitic sterotype is in several respects only the reverse side of the modern sentimental stereotype of a traditional Jew. In both these perspectives, a Jew of Venice or Amsterdam or Barcelona would be imagined in the same terms facilely attributed to the Jew of Vilna or Bialystok: a dour, slightly stooped, wan figure, preferably with beard untrimmed, enveloped in a drab, shapeless caftan, exhibiting a certain tendency to draw back into the shadows at the sound of Gentile footsteps, his deep-set eyes, however, gleaming with a strangely intense light—for the anti-Semite, the glow of avarice; for the sentimentalist, the luminous vision of mystical realms beyond the shards and fragments of a world in exile. In contrast to Leone Modena’s twenty-six professions, sacred and profane, this stereotypical Jew is allowed only the most limited occupational repertoire: for the anti-Semite, he is of course a moneylender, if not some more sinister conspirator against the property and life of innocent Christians; for the nostalgic philo-Semite, he is a rabbi, a sage, or perhaps a saintly beggar.
The opposition between the highly variegated facts of history and just this sort of stereotype is exposed in a peculiar way by a very different kind of anthology of Jewish poetry, Voices Within the Ark.3 This bulky volume is subtitled “The Modern Jewish Poets,” with an implicit emphasis on the definite article, for the editors, in a rage of inclusiveness, have tried to omit no one. Major figures like H. N. Bialik, Jacob Glatstein, and Paul Celan rub shoulders with poets who have never published a book of verse, and with some who did but might have done well not to. There are some fine poems here swimming among a sea of indifferent ones, but it is not easy for a reader to know how to navigate through all this abundance of selections. To the editors’ credit, they have begun with substantial sections of Hebrew and Yiddish poetry—nearly a third of the volume. There follows a long section of English-language poets, almost half of the entire book, and the anthology concludes with a section devoted to “Other Languages” which, in keeping with the aspirations to comprehensiveness, includes Amharic, Turkish, Slovene, and Serbo-Croatian.
Now, when for the purposes of such an anthology, you select material from Hebrew and Yiddish, you are free simply to choose the poems you like best, for the Jewishness of the poetry is in a sense formally underwritten by the indigenous Jewish character of the language: an anthologist’s selection of Yiddish or Hebrew verse need not be different in range or themes from a general anthology of French or German verse. In the English and Other Languages sections, however, of Voices Within the Ark, the editors, naturally enough, felt a certain obligation to choose poems that reflected the particularly Jewish concerns of the poets. The result is an instructive documentation of the constrained self-consciousness with which writers working outside a comprehensive Jewish cultural context imagine Jewish experience and strive to be Jewish.
There are a good many variations on explicitly biblical themes, which has been a perennial form of Jewish expression in many languages, including Hebrew; also, predictably, there are frequent poetic reflections on the mass murder of European Jewry. In the large middle ground between ancient text and modern catastrophe, one encounters a dense cluster of old rabbis, bearded Jews swaying in prayer shawls, flickering Sabbath candles, wailing walls, open Talmud folios, Torah scrolls, angular Hebrew letters floating through the air or tangled in burning bushes, a la Ben Shahn. One might well ponder the cultural contrast between the modern Jewish poets in many languages marshaling all these paraphernalia of sanctity and the Hebrew poets of Spain, Italy, Greece, and Yemen in Carmi’s anthology who write of spring gardens, breasts that invite caresses, the pleasures of drinking, the misery of old whores, the evils of patronage, the squalor of prison, the boisterousness of common inns, claiming as their natural right of experience everything from humble cabbages to the grandeur of kings.
Let me offer one last example from The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse as an illustration of the lively variety of pre-modern Jewish culture, the vigor with which a secular sensibility could flourish in the heart of an officially religious society, and through the means of the Holy Tongue. The poet in question is Immanuel Frances (1618-C.1710), the younger brother of Jacob Frances and his collaborator on many literary projects. Frances was not so extreme a conjunction of sacred and profane as Leone Modena, but like many Italian and Spanish Jews, he did some remarkable shuttling between the two. During the latter part of his long life, he served as a rabbi in Florence and was a respected authority on talmudic law. At the time of the Sabbatian upheaval of 1666, he was a trenchant opponent of the pseudo-messiah and composed an anti-Sabbatian polemic in Hebrew with his brother. In all these regards, Immanuel Frances was certainly a pillar of the traditional community. He wrote liturgical poetry and also recitative religious works commissioned by musical societies. He also wrote Hebrew love poems after Italian generic models, and composed a treatise on poetics. Here is one of his love sonnets (in this one instance, I shall offer my own verse translation, reproducing the Petrarchan form of the original):
When Hannah I behold in shining light,
When I recall Naomi, passing fair—
My heart for Hannah leaps like flames in air,
Naomi makes my soul burn fire-bright.
Between two stools I fall in luckless plight:
Today it’s Hannah’s sovereignty I bear,
Before, Naomi was my constant care.
O, Love, where may I flee your searching sight?
Alas, as iron does on iron hone,
Desire upon desire whets its edge,
And so my thoughts from panic take their tone.
I beg you, Love, from fortune’s narrow ledge:
O, grant me two hearts here instead of one,
Or split my heart in two with your swift wedge.
Although the language of this whole tradition of Hebrew poetry is often highly allusive, this particular sonnet is not much concerned with the echoes of classical Hebrew texts; what it does instead is to use the standard poetic vocabulary of amatory experience that goes back to 10th-century Spain in order to render in Hebrew a highly Italianate witty version of a lover’s dilemma. There are just two readily identifiable allusions in the poem. One, in the first line of the sestet, would seem chiefly to be the idiomatic use of a well-known biblical image of strife (“As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens his fellow” [Proverbs 27:17]), which is extended in the next line into a poetic conceit on the psychology of passion. The other allusion, in the last line of the octave, is to a famous expression of spiritual anguish (“Where may I escape Your spirit and where may I flee Your presence?” [Psalms 139:7]), and might conceivably be construed as blasphemous since God is replaced by omnipresent Love, to whom the poet will turn in prayer in the concluding tercet.
In regard to the larger historical reality reflected by such texts, what is most interesting is where to locate this poem in the experience of Immanuel Frances, rabbi, talmudist, and religious polemicist. It would obviously be naive to assume that the sonnet was literally autobiographical, that the good rabbi of Florence was really torn between an irreconcilable passion for a certain Hannah and a certain Naomi. (The names themselves look suspiciously like conventional literary devices, suggesting, respectively, grace and sweetness.) But I think it is almost as naive to assume, as some scholars have done, that poems like this are purely formal exercises with no experiential roots in the life of the poet. The act of creating poetry is hardly ever so exclusively cerebral. At the very least, the experience rendered in the poem was attractive enough to the poet for him to etch it in fourteen lines of carefully wrought verse, which means entering imaginatively into the fluctuations of fickleness and conflicting desire, and in the concluding conceit, the contemplation of a prospect of bigamous bliss contrary to the single-hearted condition of the human animal.
Was Immanuel Frances, rabbi of Florence, a pagan à ses heures when he, or at any rate a speaker he invented, turned to omnipresent Love in prayer? In a limited sense, yes, to the extent that he discovered in the literary convention of entreating the deity Love something attuned to what we undergo as human beings that was worth expressing, and that could not be expressed so sharply in strictly monotheistic terms. But the chief point about the sonnet, and about much of the body of Hebrew poetry with which it is linked, is that it is an act of playfulness.
Playfulness is not a quality much brought to mind in prevalent conceptions of pre-modern Jewry, featuring as they do an exalted but limited cast of mystic sages and tormented talmudists, but it is vibrantly evident in a major current of the last millennium of Jewish cultural history. It is our modern tendency to view Judaism as relentlessly imperative and generally problematic besides, but there is good evidence that many of our ancestors assumed it to be neither. Immanuel Frances was clearly not calling his faith into question in poetically imploring Love to help him solve his problems with Hannah and Naomi, but he may well have assumed that the context of faith was comprehensive yet not exactly pervasive, that one could be relaxed enough as a religious Jew to explore aesthetic and emotional experiences pleasurable in their own right which had nothing to do with precept and creed.
Such exploration does not make the poet a secularist but it is itself essentially secular. This recurrent elan of secular feeling in the midst of religious tradition, using the very language of tradition, is worth pondering. It suggests that Jewish experience before the modern era was more various, and even more paradoxical, than we are accustomed to think.
1 Viking, 597 pp., $25.00 hardcover, $4.95 paperback.
2 Carmi's versions throughout are admirably fluent and precise. But following the pattern of the Penguin anthologies of foreign poetry, they are prose translations meant in the first instance to provide guidance to readers who can make out at least something of the original, and they do not pretend to suggest anything of the form or rhythm of the poems. Because my quotations here do not have the advantage of appearing, as does the English in the anthology itself, in columns of print parallel to the Hebrew, I have taken the liberty of arranging Carmi's prose versions in lines of verse, to give some faint indication of the shape of the poems.
3 Edited by Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolf, Avon Books, 1210 pp., $14.95.