Three Hebrew Songs
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Harold Shapero’s Three Hebrew Songs began as two—a pair of settings of modern Hebrew poetry for tenor voice and piano, which was commissioned by the composer’s graduate student at Brandeis University, Cantor Jack Kessler. After Kessler introduced Shapero to an array of modern Hebrew verse by some of the most prominent modern Hebrew poets, Shapero selected Hazor’im baleilot (They Who Sow at Night) by Sh. [shin] Shalom and Ha’omnam od yavo’u (Will There Yet Come Days of Forgiveness) by Leah Goldberg. A number of years later, Shapero received a commission from conductor Gerard Schwarz and the Y Chamber Orchestra for a work to be performed in its concert series at the 92nd Street YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association), under whose auspices that orchestra (known as the New York Chamber Orchestra when its concerts were moved to Lincoln Center after becoming independent of the Y) had been founded. For that occasion the composer created and interpolated a third piece, or movement—a setting of Saul Tchernikhovsky’s poem Ayit! ayit al harayikh (Eagle! Eagle Over Your Mountains)—and revised and orchestrated the original two settings to frame the new one. In its final form, the work was dedicated to the forty-fifth anniversary of the State of Israel.
Sh. [shin] Shalom [Shalom Joseph Shapira] (1904–1990) was born to a prominent Hassidic family in Parczew, Poland. At the onset of the First World War his family relocated to Vienna, and they resettled in Palestine in 1922. There, after graduating from the Teachers College (Mizrahi) in Jerusalem, he joined a settlement community known as Kfar Hassidim, where he became one of its first teachers. He subsequently taught at Rosh Pina, in the Upper Galilee, and then went back to Europe temporarily for studies at the University of Erlangen (1929–1931). He returned to Jerusalem and remained there until 1939, when he moved to Haifa and eventually became chairman of the Hebrew Writers Association.
In 1941 Sh. Shalom was awarded the Tchernikhovsky Prize for his translation into Hebrew of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Among his important poetry and poetic collections are Balev ha’olam, Sefer hashirim, V’hasonnetot, Panim el panim, Shabbat ha’olan, and Shirim. He also wrote many short stories, which appear in his volumes Yoman bagalil, Aliyat haḥassidim, and B’metaḥ hagavo’a.
In the poem Hazor’im baleilot, Shalom focuses on the image of young Zionist pioneers sowing the fields of a kibbutz in the Galilee by moonlight—as if in secret—to avoid the frequent attacks by marauding Arabs (“the surrounding mountains do not understand us”). The idealism of the era is transparent in their plea for protection and success, not so much for their own sake, but for the future generations for whom they are committed to rebuilding the land: “May our children eat and be satisfied. . . . Only for them do we sow at night, for their sake our steps are alarmed.”
The religious mysticism of the Hassidic environment of the poet’s youth translates here to a form of secular humanistic mysticism or spirituality—though not necessarily or explicitly shorn of religious association or fervor—in the reference to their souls (i.e., not their bodies alone) longing for grain. The seed they scatter (which may have biblical overtones in God’s promise to Abraham to multiply his seed) is “precious and holy.” But if the plea is actually to the Almighty, it is couched in the form of a plea to the moon to give of its light for their work, to guide them with its light, and to give them sufficient time for their task. For it is “the moon”—or God? or nature? or posterity? or the inner spirit of mankind?—that understands their mission and their task. There are faint but firm echoes of phrases and sentiments from the Book of Psalms and from Hebrew liturgy (“Guard us from . . .”; “May they … remember us for good”). But the poet speaks of himself and his fellow sowers not simply as Israelites, nor even solely as Jews, but now as anashim ivrim—Hebrew men, or people—in the spirit of the modern Zionist enterprise of that time. In the poem’s optimistic tone, the spirit of commitment will prevail, refusing to be thwarted or repulsed by the threat of terror; and the inner creative spark, which informs so much of Shalom’s poetry, negates both practical and spiritual defeat. They are sowing seeds of grain for sustenance and for a future thriving land, but they are also sowing spiritual seeds in the context of a redeemed people.
Saul Tchernikhovsky (1875–1943) was, together with Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik, one of the two leading poets of the Jewish cultural-national school during the pivotal European period in the development of modern Hebrew poetry (centered in imperial Russia and eastern Europe). That period—which emerged in part as a function of the late Romantic-nationalist stages of the Haskala among middle- and upper-middle-class Jewish literary circles in the Russian Empire—is approximately dated from the early 1880s to the beginning of the third decade of the 20th century and the early days of the British Mandate of Palestine. It overlaps the succeeding modern Palestinian period of Hebrew poetry (1920–1947) in the sense that poets such as Bialik and Tchernikhovsky—and many others of their generation—eventually emigrated to Mandatory Palestine and continued to develop their art there. But they had carved out the foundations of their work within the Russian and Russian-Jewish sphere of influence and in the contexts of its social, cultural, political, and religious forces.
Modern Hebrew poetry was not without precedents by the 1880s, nor did it begin de novo with the generation of Bialik and Tchernikhovsky. Their work followed previous, albeit short-lived, Haskala-driven Hebrew poetry from earlier phases of that Jewish Enlightenment movement in German and German-speaking cultural orbits, which included didactic forms that attempted to propagate the new Haskala ideals; artificially affected and often encumbered styles known collectively as m’litza, which aimed to shed traditional religious- and rabbinic-based language, flavor, and phraseology; and a large quantity of poetry so directly under German literary influence that many such poems were actually labeled nach Schiller (“after the manner of Schiller”). And later, during the first decades of the second half of the 19th century, there arose a more artistically developed and mature Hebrew poetry in the eastern European/Russian sphere by such such writers as Micah Joseph Lebensohn (1828–1852), whose lyric poetry was tinged with individualism and personal experience, and Yehuda Leib Gordon (1830–1892), who departed from linguistic features of biblical Hebrew in realistic images of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement—and whom, among others, Bialik acknowledged for his contributions in paving the way for his own work.
Nonetheless, Bialik and Tchernikhovsky’s names are traditionally and, on many levels, appropriately linked as the twin progenitors and towering figures of the first enduring school of modern secular Hebrew poetry, even though their orientations, literary agendas, styles, and certainly their backgrounds differed in a number of respects. (Zalman Shneur [1887–1959] was sometimes included as a third member of a triumvirate of founders, but literary critics have largely rejected that assessment.) It is generally accepted by literary historians that despite the earlier groundwork, it remained to Bialik and his contemporaries—Tchernikhovsky the most prominent among them—to establish a truly viable and manifestly modern Hebrew poetry that would stand the test of time.
It is undeniable that Bialik (only two years Tchernikhovsky’s senior) has overshadowed Tchernikhovsky in some substantive ways, as he has virtually all modern Hebrew poets—not least owing to Bialik’s unofficial but permanent standing as Israel’s “poet laureate” and as the national poet of the Jewish people. Nonetheless, Tchernikhovsky is certainly considered the foremost Hebrew national poet of Bialik’s circle and of what came indeed to be called the Age of Bialik.
Unlike Bialik and most of the emerging Hebrew poets of that circle, Tchernikhovsky did not grow up in the Pale of Settlement, and thus did not experience firsthand in his youth its typically exilic effects on the various aspects and modes of Jewish life. He was born in a village in the Crimea, in an area that had been annexed from the Ottoman Empire and was sometimes dubbed the New Russia, where Czarist policies toward Jews were more liberal than in the Pale, a factor that was to find reflection in some of his poetry. He first learned Hebrew from his father and then from Haskala-oriented tutors. But he also learned Russian (which was spoken routinely by the Jews in the region)—first at the local village school and then at the Western-style Gymnasium in Odessa. By then he had evinced an interest in writing poetry as well as in translating classic works into Hebrew. His first volume of poetry was published in 1899 (Ḥezyonot umanginot, Warsaw), and this attracted Bialik’s attention and friendship. Thereafter Joseph Klausner, considered the trailblazer in the historical study of modern Hebrew literature, became his great supporter and advocate. Three years later he published additional poems under the same title.
Between 1899 and 1906 Tchernikhovsky benefited from a formal European education at the universities of Heidelberg and Lausanne, acquiring proficiency in Latin, Greek, German, French, and English. While at Heidelberg, profoundly affected by the study of Goethe’s idyls, he commenced his decades-long project of writing his own Hebrew Idyls. Meanwhile, he studied medicine and became a physician—practicing in Kharkov and St. Petersburg as well as in Finland. During the First World War he served as a military surgeon. Along with his literary devotion, he continued to practice medicine throughout his life.
Tchernikhovsky left Russia in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and lived for a time in Berlin, beginning in 1922. He first visited Palestine in 1925 and settled there permanently in 1931. In his first few years there he edited a Hebrew medical dictionary and wrote a critical study of the Italian Hebrew poet Immanuel (Ben Solomon) of Rome (ca. 1261–1335), in whom he retained a lifelong interest.
Tchernikhovsky’s Hebrew translations of Western and world literature include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Twelfth Night, Goethe’s Reineke Fuchs, Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Anacreon’s poems, and many other works. His own volumes of poetry include Maḥberet hasonitot (1922); Sefer ha’idilyot (1922); Shirim ḥadashim (1924); Kitvei sha’ul tchernikhovsky, in ten volumes (1929–1934); Kol shirei tchernikhovsky (1937); and Shirim (1943; 1951). His poetry has been translated into many languages, including English, French, Russian, German, and Italian.
In Mandatory Palestine, Tchernikhovsky was a member of the Hebrew Language Committee (the Teachers Organization of Palestine), which undertook the official responsibility for establishing uniform pronunciation and spelling of modern Hebrew as well as the adoption of new words; and he served on the Executive Council of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After his death, the city of Tel Aviv established a prize in his honor for excellence in translation into Hebrew.
Literary critics and historians observe in much of Tchernikhovsky’s work an overall sense of freedom from the confines of Judaic orthodoxy, including from some of its moral (though not necessarily sociologically related or ethical) strictures, as well as its ritual requirements, in favor of a type of prebiblical pantheism with nature-oriented concerns. The Hebrew literary scholar Ezra Spicehandler, in his overview of modern Hebrew poetry, has suggested that earlier critics may have confused this pantheistic worldview with paganism. But Spicehandler also noted that Tchernikhovsky was probably “more lyricist than thinker,” responding positively to those elements of Jewish tradition he deemed positive and portraying “the less rigid aspects of Jewish folk life in his native Crimea.”
Tchernikhovsky has also been credited with introducing to Hebrew poetry, as a function of his worldly outlook, the European traditions of epic as well as lyric verse. He framed many of his images of traditional Jewish life—common folk habits, life-cycle events, and even religious holydays and celebrations—in classic hexameters, which, in the view of the 20th-century poet Ruth Finer Mintz, lent them an implied epic dynamic. His ballads and sonnets are also among his important poetry, and his two cycles of sonnets have been cited as the first of that genre in Hebrew. In her comparative evaluation of modern Hebrew poets of the European period, Mintz sees Tchernikhovsky as a classicist, in contradistinction to Bialik’s realism, but she views both as Romantics as well. And she has posited that Tchernikhovsky’s approach was born not only of Hellenistic ideals and the Italian Renaissance but also, more personally, of a special mystic-spiritual concept that informed his abiding faith in Jewish spiritual and national continuity: “The humanization of mankind was for him, as it had been for the Hebrew prophets,” she wrote in her anthology of modern Hebrew poetry, “not an abstract religious ideal but an active social principle.”
“For me poetry is always an act of love,” Tchernikhovsky once wrote to his champion Joseph Klausner, “an act of triumph.”
The “eagle” in Tchernikhovsky’s poem Ayit! ayit al harayikh refers to the “bird(s) of prey” that swooped down upon the carcasses of Abraham’s sacrifice in the scene of God’s covenant with him—symbolically, in the view of rabbinic commentary, illustrating the future obstacles that would stand in the way of taking possession of the promised land—which Abraham drove off, signifying (again, according to commentary) that attempts to negate that promise and plan would ultimately be unsuccessful. In the introduction to his translation of the poem, Hebrew scholar Robert Alter (now celebrated for his monumental new translations of the Pentateuch and the Book of Psalms) suggests that the opening repetition of ayit recalls the opening line of William Blake’s famous poem “The Tiger,” which Alter is certain was known by Tchernikhovsky. And he points out that the speaker is addressing “the Land,” and that the mountains over which the bird circles are the Judean hills.
Particularly impressive in Alter’s analysis is the opening line and its repetition “as a musical theme” at the beginning of each stanza. It is, in his view, “one of the most impressive lines of modern Hebrew poetry for its fusion of image and sonality:
The impact of the stress pattern, the skillful variation of masculine and feminine arrest of the breath groups, the many monosyllabic verbs and adjectives propel the poem with force and grace.
The repetitions of lines, words, vowels, and consonants produce, for Alter, the effect of incantation—with chantlike, repetitive, rhythmic regularity alternating with repeated harshness to echo the speaker’s dual (“contradictory”) sense of the bird’s nature and essence:
In the first stanza, the eagle appears as a thing of breathtaking beauty, the beauty of pure effortless power, beyond all limit or restraint. But the last word of the stanza, “searing,” introduces the idea of pain and possible destructiveness. . . . Yet the speaker’s admiration in no way diminishes.
In the penultimate stanza, the eagle soars, glides, descends, tentatively freezes—as the tense changes momentarily from present to past—and then, soaring again, returns upward to what Alter interprets as its “timeless world.” In the final stanza he sees in the eagle’s “massing of shadow” an ominous image and a “cry of warning to the Land,” which he finds nonetheless “curiously attractive”:
The speaker has been confronted with a vision of primal power in (or above) nature: his feelings toward it are ambivalent.
Alter cites the final two lines of the poem as transparently suggestive of its overall mythic dimension:
Ḥashrat [line 15], a word which occurs only once in the Bible (2 Samuel XXII: 12), describes the clouds “thick” with water that the Creator massed around himself in darkness. The “gathering of shadow,” then, together with the substitution of “giant” for “eagle,” indicates that “mountains of God” is not just an epithet for the hills of Judea, but that it retains the cosmic force of its original biblical usage in which it is paired with “the great abyss” (Psalms 36:6): “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are the great abyss. . . .”
Leah Goldberg (1911–1970) belongs to the Mandatory Palestinian period in modern Hebrew poetry (1920–47) and is identified by Spicehandler as the least ideological of the poets of that time—generally ignoring or downplaying nationalist or specifically Jewish matters and focusing instead on universal concerns.
Goldberg was born in Lithuania and graduated from the Hebrew Gymnasium in Kovno. She studied philosophy and Semitic languages at the universities of Berlin and Bonn and, after earning her doctoral degree, emigrated to Palestine in 1935. There she joined a literary group (Yakhdav) that included the poets Avraham Shlonsky (1900–73) and Natan Alterman (1910–70). She became a literary and dramatic critic for various periodicals as well as a lecturer at the Habima Theater school, and she wrote plays as well as verse. In 1954 she was appointed to the faculty of the Hebrew University, where she taught comparative literature.
Goldberg made Hebrew translations of such major works of Western literature as Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, among many others. Together with Shlonsky she edited and produced an anthology of Russian poetry. Her own poetry from her mature phase is characterized by its overwhelming devotion to beauty and art and its intense lyricism—“wisdom that sings,” in the assessment of the poet Yaakov Fichman. Her major works include Taba’ot ashaa (1935), Shibbdet y’rokat ha’ayin (1940), Al hapriha (1948), and Barak baboker (1955).
Goldberg’s poem Ha’amnam od yavo’u is in many respects typical of her exquisite brand of simplicity and unaffectedness, which nonetheless belies the multiple layers of meaning to be interpreted and the richness of her imagery. Above all, there is the yearning for the sheer beauty of inner peace and humble introspection.
Shapero’s settings are entirely tonal. The first contains alternations between expressionistic qualities and recititative-like passages that recall liturgical intonation. The second maintains a quasi-folksong character until its final climax, which the composer intended as a religious statement. The final movement is the composer’s interpretation of a prayer for peace, with the aura of a chorale throughout. “A final indeterminate cadence,” Shapero has explained, “seems to indicate that that peace is not yet achieved.”