Modern Hebrew Night Poems | A Lecture by Professor Robert Alter

Next week, we will have a chance to further explore the theme of Jewish Nightlife with Professor Robert Alter.

Robert Alter is Professor of the Graduate School and Emeritus Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967, and where he is the Founding Director of the Center for Jewish Studies. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the Council of Scholars of the Library of Congress, and past president of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has twice been a Guggenheim Fellow and has been a Senior Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem, and Old Dominion Fellow at Princeton University. Professor Alter has written widely on the European novel from the 18th century to the present, on contemporary American fiction, on modern Hebrew literature, and on literary aspects of the Bible. His 25 published books include two prize-winning volumes on biblical narrative and poetry, and award-winning translations of Genesis and the Five Books of Moses. In 2009, he was given the Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Contribution to American Letters by the Los Angeles Times. In 2013, he received the Conference on Christianity and Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Charles Homer Haskins Prize given by the American Council of Learned Societies.

In preparation for his lecture, professor Alter shared with us his translations of Hebrew poetry.

1.
​​Midnight Vigil

Gloomy night, a strong wind sends a strong raincloud
rolling over the town,
and all the little town sinks
in deep mire and in sleep.

The dark entrances are silent.
The rustle of rain alone stirs in them,
and collapsing houses, bleak and desolate,
show black faces here and there.

And like a wretched orphan to whom
the charity people have forgotten to give a blanket for warmth,
roofs laid bare, they bend low,
huddle, and silently groan,

as if they reflected and pondered
voiceless evil thoughts:
Are they cracked to their foundations
and show defiance to all?

And driving rain rolls down
like streams of tears on the walls;
the roofs shrink more and more
and the town weeps bitterly.

Those who sleep in the dark curse
in their dreams the morrow and yesterday—
oh, rest complacent, eternal beggars, schnorrers!
and dream a good dream, you heavy-yoked people.

From between the cracks
the wind’s howl bursts forth, blood-freezing.
Ah! who knows if the curse
of an innocent perishing brother is bound up there?

Not a single star remains on high,
not a spark of light, not a beam—
just a solitary window still shows some light:
a Jew getting up for the midnight vigil.

​​​​​H.N. Bialik

2.

​​​In Praise of the Night​​​

​​​1.
Very ancient the night in our blood,
dense, dark as old wine.
Like wine it’s sweet and bitter too.
It sings, it sings in the depth of our dream.

It is in us of old, buried, hidden,
it walks by day at our heels,
lies in wait till our love is ripe
to burst forth in the gladdened body.

But if we betray it and do not love
and its ferment and its singing are in vain,
in hateful darkness it will flood us.

In it our soul and body sink
and in our eyes a sun bereaved
will find its dark reflection.

​​​2.

Its glory fearsome
its hand is heavy,
the brilliance of its stars
for its lovers.

Its secret deep
for it alone,
its autumn scents
its springs’ as well.

It hides in the garden
the bridegroom’s lips,
in the darkness—
the arms of the bride.

Its shadow conceals
the knife,
and blood is swallowed up
in the darkness.

Praise, oh praise
the black of night,
its eyes are fair,
its eyes ablaze.

Praise, oh praise
we sing to the night,
by desire scorched,
our bodies ablaze.

​​​Leah Goldberg

3.

Bats, fugitives of light who wait in the crevice,
their feet against the ceiling
upside down angels of rubber, who follow
with big ears, with precision,
the dull ticking within them
to the final count,
the signal to burst out
of the quivering tangle—dark upon dark—outside​​​​​​​​​

​​​Dan Pagis

4.

​​​​But We Must Praise

​​​​ We must praise the Lord of all.
–Hebrew liturgy

But we must praise
a familiar night. Gold borrowed from the abyss.
Cypresses rose forever. Far away,
long hair still flows, Lord of the loss of all.

What are you doing to me, far-away woman?
As on branches you hung me with weeping thoughts.
From far away your hand touches me as if testing
my bridges. They bear the weight and tremble. Yours is the kingdom.

Behind my words dark as a moon
come to me, make me tired.
But we must praise the loins of all: your lap.
Shout of the shoulder

that bore you to me on the night of reversal,
stars of forgetful man above us.
Your body’s style, sky’s manner here in the hollow
of this narrow world. But we must.

​​​Yehuda Amichai

A Piyyut and Its Publication History

Kol berue ma’ala umatah (“All creatures above and below” [in Heaven and on Earth])
Bakkashah with acrostic “shelomoh” (Solomon)
Attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol (Malaga-Valencia, 11th centurty CE)
On bakkashot see Idelsohn p. 157

Publication history (selection) based on Davidson’s Thesaurus
Otzar hatefilot, Vilnius 1914
Arba’h ta’aniyot, Constantinople 1780
Bet av, Livorno 1877
Bet habechirah, Livorno 1880
Bet ya’aqov, Tunis 1898
Bakkashot yerushalayim, Jerusalem 1913
Bakkashot rash”ad, Ms. Bodleian Library (Oxford)
Zavche shlemim, Constantinople 1728
Z”Y Izmir, Smirne 1766
Yigal, Jerusalem 1885
Yiztchaq yeranen, Jerusalem 1855
apa, Mezhirov (Ukraine) 1793
Liqute zvi hachadash, Warsaw 1879
M. Argil 1, Livorno 1878
M. Tunis 1, Livorno 1861
Machzor Elohei Ya’aqov, Jerusalem 1908
Meshat Binyamin, Jerusalem 1909 (Persian)
Mishmeret hachadash, Baghdad 1908
Sidur ya’avatz (Italy), Altona (Germany) 1731
Sidur tefilah, Mantua 1676

In class, we discussed how the publication history of a piyyut can be researched, and how it points to the following directions:

– Social history: impact of a liturgical poem on a given community, or on a network of communities across the global Jewish diaspora
– Intellectual history: the intellectual debates involved in the creation and diffusion of a piyyut, and the spiritual dimensions involved in its textual and musical meanings
– A “history of feelings” (in the nexus between text and music)

We discussed all of this around the fact that the class is learning and rehearsing the poem illustrated above.