Verse > Anthologies > Joseph Friedlander, comp. > The Standard Book of Jewish Verse
Joseph Friedlander, comp.  The Standard Book of Jewish Verse.  1917.
Jehuda Ben Halevy
By Heinrich Heine (Trans. Margaret Armour)

“IF, Jerusalem, I ever
Should forget thee, to the roof
Of my mouth then cleave my tongue,
May my right hand lose its cunning—”
In my head the words and music        5
Round and round keep humming, ringing,
And I seem to hear men’s voices,
Men’s deep voices singing psalms—
And of long and shadowy beards
I can also catch some glimpses—        10
Say, which phantom dream-begotten
Is Jehuda ben Halevy?
But they swiftly rustle past me,
For the ghosts avoid, with terror,
Rude and clumsy human converse;        15
Yet, in spite of all, I knew him.
Yes, I knew him by his forehead
Pale and proud with noble thought,
By the eyes of steadfast sweetness;
Keen and sad they gazed in mine.        20
But more specially I knew him
By the enigmatic smiling
Of the lovely lips and rhythmic
That belong to poets only.
Years they come, and years they vanish;        25
Seven hundred years and fifty
It is now since dawned the birthday
Of Jehuda ben Halevy.
At Toledo in Castile
First he saw the light of heaven,        30
And the golden Tagus lulled him
In his cradle with its music.
The unfolding of his powers
Intellectual was fostered
By his father strict, who taught him        35
First the book of God, the Thora.
With his son he read the volume
In the ancient text, whose fair,
Picturesque and hieroglyphic,
Old-Chaldean, square-writ letters        40
From the childhood of our world
Have been handed down, and therefore
Seem familiarly to smile on
All with naïve, childlike natures.
And this ancient, uncorrupted        45
Text the boy recited also
In the Tropp—the sing-song measure,
From primeval times descended.
And the gutturals so oily,
And so fast he gurgled sweetly,        50
While he shook and trilled and quavered
The Schalscheleth like a bird,
And the boy was learned early
In the Targum Onkelos,
Which is written in low-Hebrew        55
In the Aramaean idiom,
Bearing somewhat the resemblance
To the language of the prophets
That the Swabian does to German—
In this curious bastard Hebrew,        60
As we said, the boy was versed,
And ere long he found such knowledge
Of most valuable service
In the study of the Talmud.
Yes, his father led him early        65
To the Talmud, and threw open
For his benefit that famous
School of fighting the Halacha.
Where the athletes dialectic,
Best in Babylon, and also        70
Those renowned in Pumbeditha
Did their intellectual tilting.
He had here the chance of learning
Every art and ruse polemic;
How he mastered them was proven        75
In the book Cosari, later.
But the lights are twain, and differ,
That are shed on earth by heaven;
There’s the harsh and glaring sunlight,
And the mild and gentle moonlight.        80
With a double radiance also
Shines the Talmud; the Halacha
Is the one, and the Hagada
Is the other light. The former
I have called the school of fighting;        85
But the latter, the Hagada
I will call a curious garden,
Most fantastic, and resembling
Much another one that blossomed
Too in Babylon—the garden        90
Of Semiramis; ’mongst wonders
Of the world it was the eighth.
Queen Semiramis, whose childhood
With the birds was spent, who reared her,
Many birdlike ways and habits        95
In her later life retained;
And, unwilling to go walking
On the flat and common earth,
Like us other common mortals,
Made a garden in the air—        100
High on pillars proud, colossal,
Shone the cypresses and palms,
Marble statues, beds of flowers,
Golden oranges and fountains;
All most cunningly and surely        105
Bound by countless hanging bridges,
That might well have passed as creepers,
And on which the birds kept swinging—
Birds of many colours, solemn,
Big, contemplative and songless,        110
While the tiny, happy finches,
Gaily warbling, fluttered round them—
All were breathing, blest and happy,
Breathing pure and balmy fragrance,
Unpolluted by the squalid,        115
Evil colour of the earth.
The Hagada is a garden,
Is just such another whimsy
Of a child of air, and often
Would the youthful Talmud scholar,        120
When his heart was dazed and dusty
With the strifes of the Halacha,
With disputes about the fatal
Egg the hen laid on a feast day,
Or concerning other problems        125
Of the same profound importance—
He would turn to seek refreshment
In the blossoming Hagada,
Where the beautiful old sagas,
Legends dim, and angel-fables,        130
Pious stories of the martyrs,
Festal hymns and proverbs wise,
And hyperboles the drollest,
But withal so strong and burning
With belief—where all, resplendent,        135
Welled and sprouted with luxuriance!
And the generous heart and noble
Of the boy was taken captive
By the wild romantic sweetness,
By the wondrous aching rapture,        140
By the weird and fabled terrors
Of that blissful secret world,
Of that mighty revelation
For which poetry our name is.
And the art that goes to make it,        145
Gracious power, happy knowledge,
Which we call the art poetic,
To his understanding opened.
And Jehuda ben Halevy
Was not only scribe and scholar,        150
But of poetry a master,
Was himself a famous poet;
Yes, a great and famous poet,
Star and torch to guide his time,
Light and beacon of his nation;        155
Was a wonderful and mighty
Fiery pillar of sweet song,
Moving on in front of Israel’s
Caravans of woe and mourning
In the wilderness of exile.        160
True and pure and without blemish
Was his singing, like his soul—
The Creator having made it,
With His handiwork contented,
Kissed the lovely soul, and echoes        165
Of that kiss forever after
Thrilled through all the poet’s numbers,
By that gracious deed inspired.
As in life, in song the highest
Good of all is simply grace,        170
And who hath it cannot sin in
Either poetry or prose.
And that man we call a genius,
By the grace of God a poet,
Monarch absolute, unquestioned,        175
In the realm of human thought.
None but God can call the poet
To account, the people never—
As in art, in life the people
Can but kill, they cannot judge us.        180

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