The Magazine

Singer of Zion

A fitting tribute to a great Jewish poet.

Sep 27, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 02 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Yehuda Halevi
by Hillel Halkin
Schocken, 368 pp., $26

Singer of Zion

World circles with Jerusalem at the center, from Yehuda Halevi’s ‘Book of Kusari’ (15th c.)

bpk / SBB

This is a tour de force. Hillel Halkin’s Yehuda Halevi is a complex, daring, and consistently fascinating biography of a complex and daring man, one of the great heroes of Hebrew literature and Jewish history. Halevi comes second only to King David in his fame and influence as a Hebrew poet. He was also a renowned theologian who, in his last years, abandoned life in the fast lane of medieval Spain to make the perilous journey to settle in the land of Israel. 

Writing Halevi’s biography is a different sort of perilous journey. It requires mastery of a wide range of complex material in many languages, the judgment to make good guesses where the record goes blank, and the sheer virtuosity to convey the essence of medieval Hebrew poetry in modern English. Halkin has completed the hard journey with distinction. His book is a fine wine with a million complex overtones, or a moonlit garden-court where the music of Halevi’s poetry (a hidden fountain) mingles with the soft voice of his philosophy and the exotic fragrances of his long-ago life (Halkin calls him “the first great romantic figure in Jewish history”)—and where you feel, too, like a persistent breeze, the strong connections between the great medieval poet and his 21st-century biographer. Halkin was born in America, settled in Israel, and became a compelling spokesman for Zionism and the resettlement of modern Jews in the Jewish state. Halevi is not merely a hero; he is Halkin’s hero.

Halevi was born somewhere in the Muslim-ruled south of Spain between 1070 and 1075. His life-story is full of legends and counter-legends, and poems to be combed for clues about the poet—always a tricky business; but Halkin’s readings are imaginative, bold, and usually convincing. To write Halevi’s story is like riding a skittish horse that might bolt at any time, but Halkin guides the narrative with a sure hand. The end of his life is one of the central Halevi mysteries: He set out for Israel in 1140 and died a year later; some say he never reached his destination, others that he was killed by an Arab horseman at the very gates of Jerusalem. After sizing things up carefully, Halkin tends to believe version two.

Halevi wandered back and forth between the Christian- and Muslim-ruled parts of Spain; he was known to Jews all over the medieval world as the foremost poet of the age, a brilliant thinker and devoted communal leader. He lived in Spain during the convivencia, the supposedly “multicultural” era during which Jews thrived in Muslim Andalusia. But Halkin makes clear that life was no picnic for Andalusian Jews: Some did rise to power and prominence, but many experienced harassment, and there was an occasional vicious pogrom—such as the murder, in 1066, of 4,000 Jews in Granada. For Halevi, Andalusia seems to have been just barely more comfortable than Christian-ruled Toledo.

As a poet, he wrote medieval Hebrew (and sometimes Arabic) with panache and passion: He is the author of love-poems, prayers, and the famous shirey tsiyon, “songs of Zion”—poems of love and longing for Israel and Jerusalem. And the influence of his Kuzari as a work of Jewish theology is equaled only by Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed. The Kuzari (written in Judeo-Arabic, Arabic in Hebrew characters) presents an imaginary conversation between a rabbi and the King of the Khazars about a typically medieval topic: whether Christianity, Islam, or Judaism is the best and truest religion. The king chooses Judaism. And in fact the pagan king of the remote and improbable nation of Khazaria did, indeed, become a Jew in the eighth century, and Khazaria remained (in effect) a Jewish state for several hundred years. (Halevi might have encountered Khazari Jews in Toledo.)

For Halkin, the Kuzari is an intellectual milestone: “More than any other Jewish book of the middle ages, The Kuzari insists on Judaism as a universal faith.” But it’s not only a work of theology; it is also the plot key of Halevi’s life—and the center of Halkin’s book, and of Halkin’s powerful feelings for Halevi. The Kuzari ends with the rabbi’s convincing himself that a Jew has no religiously honest choice but to pick up and go to Israel. And so, upon completing his book, Halevi picked up and went. “Does this make him the first Zionist?” Halkin asks, and answers, “A strong case for Halevi’s proto-Zionism can be made.” In other words, yes. (With the appropriate scholarly reservations. Halkin is every inch a scholar.)

So the great poet set off at the end of his life on the difficult, dangerous journey to Israel—itself a hazardous place to live, a bloody rag with Crusader and Muslim armies tearing at it from opposite ends. “Yehuda Halevi’s friends missed the point when they urged him not to run the risk of travel to Palestine,” writes Halkin in one of his most impressive passages. “The risk was the point.” Everyone must have something he is willing to die for, writes Halkin, addressing his audience directly; otherwise, “he is trivial.” (This paragraph alone is worth the price of the book.) A Jew, in particular, must be prepared to risk everything for Zion. Halevi did. And so did Halkin. When Halkin moved to Israel as a young man, the risks were no longer quite as great as they had been in Halevi’s day; but they were great enough. As a soldier in the Israeli army, Halkin was wounded in the 1982 Lebanon war. In our own day the risks seem to grow by the hour.

Bringing this book safely to port must have been a chore, in part because of gaps in the record and the need for asides to explain where information comes from and how it has been assessed over the ages. Topics crop up, from the history of medieval Spain to Heinrich Heine’s narrative poem about Halevi (parts of which Halkin translates from the German) to the author’s conversation with a waiter at the “café-bar Juda Levi” near the “Plaza Juda Levi” in Cordoba—a city that is evidently proud of its great poet, and the Jewish tourist dollars for which he stands. 

But harder even than weaving together the story’s far-flung strands was the project of re-creating Halevi’s poetry for an English-speaking audience. As a translator Halkin is resourceful, clever, inventive, and sometimes inspired. He conveys a sense of the beauty and depth of this medieval poetry, for all its complex prosody, its rhyme schemes that in some cases simply have no equivalent in English, and its constant biblical echoes and allusions. Sometimes Halkin transliterates the Hebrew, supplying accent marks and a literal translation. Sometimes he risks a rhymed English version—occasionally succeeding but usually, as in nearly all such translations, making the reader wince—partly in sympathy with the translator and partly in pure discomfort. Sometimes he settles for simple but effective prose (or free verse) translations, with evocative notes to convey the lyrical power of the Hebrew original. 

Halkin is an entertaining writer. (“This is, one might say, the Hispano-Hebrew equivalent of a Hallmark greeting card.”) Sometimes his prose is wonderful. (As Halevi sets out by ship for Israel, he “would have been alerted by the activity on deck: a towline being secured to a prow belaying pin, the last visitors and vendors shooed ashore. The telltales trailed eastward.”) And sometimes it is awkward but effective. The last chapter, in which Halkin joins his story to Halevi’s, wobbles at times but recovers to make a strong finish. The book is nearly always convincing, nearly always compelling: a biography to last many generations.

David Gelernter, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is a professor of computer science at Yale and the author, most recently, of Judaism: A Way of Being


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