Wydawca: Skyline Kategoria: Literatura faktu, reportaże, biografie Język: angielski Rok wydania: 2017

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Opis ebooka Jewish Portraits - Lady Katie Magnus

In the far-off days, when religion was not a habit, but an emotion, there lived a little-known poet who solved the pathetic puzzle of how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Minor poets of the period in plenty had essayed a like task, leaving a literature the very headings of which are strange to uninstructed ears. ‘ Piyutim ,’ ‘ Selichoth ’: what meaning do these words convey to most of us? And yet they stand for songs of exile, sung by patient generations of men who tell a monotonous tale of mournful times: ​ ‘ When ancient griefs Are closely veiled In recent shrouds,’ as one of the anonymous host expresses it. For the writers were of the race of the traditional Sweet Singer, and their lot was cast in those picturesquely disappointing Middle Ages, too close to the chivalry of the time to appreciate its charm. One pictures these comparatively cultured pariahs, these gaberdined, degenerate descendants of seers and prophets, looking out from their ghettoes on a world which, for all the stir and bustle of barbaric life, was to them as desolate and as bare of promise of safe resting-place as when the waters covered it, and only the tops of the mountains appeared.

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Table of contents

‘THESE, TO HIS MEMORY’

PREFACE

JEHUDAH HALEVI PHYSICIAN AND POET

THE STORY OF A STREET

HEINRICH HEINE: A PLEA

DANIEL DERONDA AND HIS JEWISH CRITICS

MANASSEH BEN ISRAEL PRINTER AND PATRIOT

CHARITY IN TALMUDIC TIMES SOME ANCIENT SOLVINGS OF A MODERN PROBLEM

MOSES MENDELSSOHN

THE NATIONAL IDEA IN JUDAISM

THE STORY OF A FALSE PROPHET

NOW AND THEN A COMPOSITE SKETCH

FOOTNOTES:

‘THESE, TO HIS MEMORY’

February 7 : January 11

PREFACE

The papers which form this volume have already appeared in the pages of Good Words, Macmillan’s Magazine, The National Review, and The Spectator, and are reprinted with the very kindly given permission of the editors. The Frontispiece is reproduced through the kindness of the proprietors of Good Words.I fancy that there is enough of family likeness, and I hope there is enough of friendly interest, in these Jewish portraits to justify their re-appearance in a little gallery to themselves.

JEHUDAH HALEVI PHYSICIAN AND POET

In the far-off days, when religion was not a habit, but an emotion, there lived a little-known poet who solved the pathetic puzzle of how to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Minor poets of the period in plenty had essayed a like task, leaving a literature the very headings of which are strange to uninstructed ears. ‘Piyutim,’ ‘Selichoth’: what meaning do these words convey to most of us? And yet they stand for songs of exile, sung by patient generations of men who tell a monotonous tale of mournful times: ‘ When ancient griefsAre closely veiledIn recent shrouds,’as one of the anonymous host expresses it. For the writers were of the race of the traditional Sweet Singer, and their lot was cast in those picturesquely disappointing Middle Ages, too close to the chivalry of the time to appreciate its charm. One pictures these comparatively cultured pariahs, these gaberdined, degenerate descendants of seers and prophets, looking out from their ghettoes on a world which, for all the stir and bustle of barbaric life, was to them as desolate and as bare of promise of safe resting-place as when the waters covered it, and only the tops of the mountains appeared. One sees them now as victims, and now as spectators, but never as actors in that strange show, yet always, we fancy, realising the barbarism, and with that undoubting faith of theirs in the ultimate dawning of a perfect day, seeming to regard the long reign of brute force, of priestcraft, and of ignorance as phases of misrule, which, like unto manifold others, should pass whilst they would endure. ‘ A race that has been testedAnd tried through fire and water,Is surely prized by Thee,’cries out a typical bard, with, perhaps, a too-conscious tone of martyrdom, and a decided tendency to clutch at the halo. The attitude is altogether a trifle arrogant and stolid and defiant to superficial criticism, but yet one for which a deeper insight will find excuses. The complacency is not quite self-complacency, the pride is impersonal, and so, though provoking, is pathetic too. Something of the old longing which, with a sort of satisfied negation, claimed ‘honour and glory,’ ‘not unto us,’ but unto ‘the Name,’ seems to find expression again in the unrhymed and often unrhythmical compositions of these patient poets of the Selicha. Their poetry, perhaps, goes some way towards explaining their patience, for, undoubtedly, there is no doggedness like that of men who at will, and by virtue of their own thoughts, can soar above circumstances and surroundings. ‘Vulgar minds,’ says a last-century poet, truly enough, ‘refuse or crouch beneath their load,’ and inevitably such will collapse under a pressure which the cultivated will endure, and ‘bear without repining.’ The ills to which flesh is heir will generally be best and most bravely borne by those to whom the flesh is not all in all; as witness Heine, whose voice rose at its sweetest, year after year, from his mattress grave. That there never was a time in all their history when the lusts of the flesh were a whole and satisfying ambition to the Jew, or when the needs of the body bounded his desires, may account in some degree for that marvellous capacity for suffering which the race has evinced.These rugged Piyutim, for over a thousand years, come in from most parts of the continent of Europe as a running commentary on its laws, suggesting a new reading for the old significant connection between a country’s lays and its legislation, and supplying an illustration to Charles Kingsley’s dictum, that ‘the literature of a nation is its autobiography.’ Selicha (from the Hebrew, סְלִיחָה) means literally forgiveness, and to forgive and to be forgiven is the burden and the refrain of most of the so-called Penitential Poems (Selichoth), whose theme is of sorrows and persecutions past telling, almost past praying about. Piyut (derived from the Greek ποιητἡς) in early Jewish writings stood for the poet himself, and later on it was applied as a generic name for his compositions. From the second to the eighth century there is decidedly more suggestion of martyrdom than of minstrelsy in these often unsigned and always unsingable sonnets of the synagogue, and especially about the contributions from France, and subsequently from Germany, to the liturgical literature of the Middle Ages, there is a far too prevailing note of the swan’s song for cheerful reading. Happier in their circumstances than the rest of their European co-religionists, the Spanish writers sing, for the most part, in clearer and higher strains, and it is they who towards the close of the tenth century, first add something of the grace and charm of metrical versification to the hitherto crude and rough style of composition which had sufficed. Even about the prose of these Spanish authors there is many a light and happy touch, and, not unseldom, in the voluminous and somewhat verbose literature, we come across a short story (midrash) or a pithy saying, with salt enough of wit or of pathos about it to make its preservation through the ages quite comprehensible.Hep, Hep, was the dominant note in the European concert, when at the beginning of the twelfth century our poet was born. France, Italy, Germany, Bohemia, and Greece had each been, at different times within the hundred years which had just closed, the scene of terrible persecutions. In Spain alone, under the mild sway of the Ommeyade Kaliphs, there had been a tolerably long entr’acte in the ‘fifteen hundred year tragedy’ that the Jewish race was enacting, and there, in old Castille, whilst Alfonso VI. was king, Jehudah Halevi passed his childhood. Although in 1085 Alfonso was already presiding over an important confederation of Catholic States, yet at the beginning of the twelfth century the Arab supremacy in Spain was still comparatively unshaken, and its influence, social and political, over its Jewish subjects was still paramount. Perhaps the one direction in which that impressionable race was least perceptibly affected by its Arab experiences was in its literature. And remembering how very distinctly in the elder days of art the influence of Greek thought is traceable in Jewish philosophy, it is strange to note with these authors of the Middle Ages, who write as readily in Arabic as in Hebrew, that, though the hand is the hand of Esau, the voice remains unmistakably the voice of Jacob. Munk dwells on this remarkable distinction in the poetry of the period, and with some natural preference perhaps, strives to account for it in the wide divergence of the Hebrew and Arabic sources of inspiration. The poetry of the Jews he roundly declares to be universal, and that of the Arabs egotistic in its tendency; the sons of the desert finding subjects for their Muse in traditions of national glory and in dreams of material delight, whilst the descendants of prophets turn to the records of their own ancestry, and find their themes in remorseful memories, and in unselfish and unsensual hopes. With the Jewish poet, past and future are alike uncoloured by personal desire, and even the sins and sufferings of his race he enshrines in song. If it be good, as a modern writer has declared it to be, that a nation should commemorate its defeats, certainly no race has ever been richer in such subjects, or has shown itself more willing, in ritual and rhyme, to take advantage of them.Whilst the leaders of society, the licentious crusader and the celibate monk, were stumbling so sorely in the shadow of the Cross, and whilst the rank and file throughout Europe were steeped in deepest gloom of densest ignorance and superstition, the lamp of learning, handed down from generation to generation of despised Jews, was still being carefully trimmed, and was burning at its brightest among the little knot of philosophers and poets in Spain. Alcharisi, the commentator and critic of the circle, gives, for his age, a curiously high standard of the qualifications essential to the sometimes lightly bestowed title of author. ‘A poet,’ he says, ‘(1) must be perfect in metre; (2) his language of classic purity; (3) the subject of his poem worthy of the poet’s best skill, and calculated to instruct and to elevate mankind; (4) his style must be full of “lucidity” and free from every obscure or foreign expression; (5) he must never sacrifice sense to sound; (6) he must add infinite care and patience to his gift of genius, never submitting crude work to the world; and (7) lastly, he must neither parade all he knows nor offer the winnowings of his harvest.’These seem sufficiently severe conditions even to nineteenth-century judgment, but Jehudah Halevi, say his admirers and even his contemporaries, fulfilled them all.That a man should be judged by his peers gives a promise of sound and honest testimony, and if such judgment be accepted as final, then does Halevi hold high rank indeed among men and poets. One of the first things that strike an intruder into this old-world literary circle is the curious absence of those small rivalries and jealousies which we of other times and manners look instinctively to find. Such records as remain to us make certainly less amusing reading than some later biographies and autobiographies afford, but, on the other hand, it has a unique interest of its own, to come upon authentic traces of such susceptible beings as authors, all living in the same set and with a limited range both of subjects and of readers, who yet live together in harmony, and interchange sonnets and epigrams curiously free from every suggestion of envy, hatred, or uncharitableness. There is, in truth, a wonderful freshness of sentiment about these gentle old scholars. They say pretty things to and of each other in almost school-girl fashion. ‘I pitch my tent in thy heart,’ exclaims one as he sets out on a journey. More poetically Halevi expresses a similar sentiment to a friend of his (Ibn Giat): ‘ If to the clouds thy boldness wings its flight,Within our hearts, thou ne’er art out of sight.’Writes another (Moses Aben Ezra), and he was a philosopher and grammarian to boot, one not to be lightly suspected of sentimentality, ‘Our hearts were as one: now parted from thee, my heart is divided into two.’ Halevi was the absent friend in this instance, and he begins his response as warmly:— ‘ How can I rest when we are absent one from another?Were it not for the glad hope of thy returnThe day which tore thee from meWould tear me from all the world.’Or the note changes: some disappointment or disillusion is hinted at, and under its influence our tender-hearted poet complains to this same sympathetic correspondent, ‘I was asked, Hast thou sown the seed of friendship? My answer was, Alas, I did, but the seed did not thrive.’It is altogether the strangest, soberest little picture of sweetness and light, showing beneath the gaudy, tawdry phantasmagoria of the age. Rub away the paint and varnish from the hurrying host of crusaders, from the confused crowd of dreary, deluded rabble, and there they stand like a ‘restored’ group, these tuneful, unworldly sages, ‘toiling, rejoicing, sorrowing,’ with Jehudah Halevi, poet and physician, as central figure. For, loyal to the impulse which in times long past had turned Akiba into a herdsman and had induced Hillel in his youth and poverty to ‘hire himself out wherever he could find a job,’[1] which, in the time to come, was to make of Maimonides a diamond-cutter, and of Spinoza an optician, Halevi compounded simples as conscientiously as he composed sonnets, and was more of doctor than of poet by profession. He was true to those traditions and instincts of his race, which, through all the ages, had recognised the dignity of labour and had inclined to use literature as a staff rather than as a crutch. His prescriptions were probably such as the Pharmacoœia of to-day might hardly approve, and the spirit in which he prescribed, one must own, is perhaps also a little out of date. Here is a grace just before physic which brings to one’s mind the advice given by a famous divine of the muscular Christianity school to his young friend at Oxford, ‘Work hard—as for your degree, leave it to God.’ ‘ God grant that I may rise again,Nor perish by Thine anger slain.This draught that I myself combine,What is it? Only Thou dost knowIf well or ill, if swift or slow,Its parts shall work upon my pain.Ay, of these things, alone is ThineThe knowledge. All my faith I place,Not in my craft, but in Thy grace.’[2](1)Halevi’s character, however, was far enough removed from that which an old author has defined as ‘pious and painefull.’ He ‘entered the courts with gladness’: his religion being of a healthy, happy, natural sort, free from all affectations, and with no taint either of worldliness or of other-worldliness to be discerned in it. Perhaps our poet was not entirely without that comfortable consciousness of his own powers and capabilities which, in weaker natures, turns its seamy side to us as conceit, nor altogether free from that impatience of ‘fools’ which seems to be another of the temptations of the gifted. This rather ill-tempered little extract which we are honest enough to append appears to indicate as much:— ‘ Lo! my light has pierced to the dark abyss,I have brought forth gems from the gloomy mine;Now the fools would see them! I ask you this:Shall I fling my pearls down before the swine?From the gathered cloud shall the raindrops flowTo the barren land where no fruit can grow?’(1)The little grumble is characteristic, but in actual fact no land was ‘barren’ to his hopeful, sunny temperament. In the ‘morning he sowed his seed, and in the evening he withheld not his hand,’ and from his ‘gathered clouds,’ the raindrops fell rainbow-tinted. The love songs, which a trustworthy edition tells us were written to his wife, are quite as beautiful in their very different way as an impassioned elegy he wrote when death claimed his friend, Aben Ezra, or as the famous ode he composed on Jerusalem. Halevi wrote prose too, and a bulky volume in Arabic is in existence, which sets forth the history of a certain Bulan, king of the Khozars, who reigned, the antiquarians agree, about the beginning of the eighth century, over a territory situate on the shores of the Caspian Sea. This Bulan would seem to have been of a hesitating, if not of a sceptical, turn of mind in religious matters. Honestly anxious to be correct in his opinions, his anxiety becomes intensified by means of a vision, and he finally summons representative followers of Moses, of Jesus, and of Mahomet, to discuss in his presence the tenets of their masters. These chosen doctors of divinity argue at great length, and the Jewish Rabbi is said to have best succeeded in satisfying the anxious scruples of the king. The same authorities tell us that Bulan became an earnest convert to Judaism, and commenced in his own person a Jewish dynasty which endured for more than two centuries. Over these more or less historic facts Halevi casts the glamour of his genius, and makes, at any rate, a very readable story out of them, which incidentally throws some valuable side-lights on his own way of regarding things. Unluckily, side-lights are all we possess, in place of the electric illuminating fashion of the day. Those copious details, which our grandchildren seem likely to inherit concerning all and sundry of this generation, are wholly wanting to us, the earlier heirs of time. Of Halevi, as of greater poets, who have lived even nearer to our own age, history speaks neither loudly nor in chorus. Yet, for our consolation, there is the reflection that the various and varying records of ‘Thomas’s ideal John: never the real John, nor John’s John, but often very unlike either,’ may, in truth, help us but little to a right comprehension of the ‘real John, known only to His Maker.’ Once get at a man’s ideals, it has been well said, and the rest is easy. And thus though our facts are but few and fragmentary concerning the man of whom one admirer quaintly says that, ‘created in the image of God’ could in his case stand for literal description, yet may we, by means of his ideals, arrive perhaps at a juster conception of Halevi’s charming personality than did we possess the very pen with which he wrote and the desk at which he sat and the minutest and most authentic particulars as to his wont of using both.His ideal of religion was expressed in every practical detail of daily life. ‘ When I remove from Thee, O God,I die whilst I live; but whenI cleave to Thee, I live in death.’[3]These three lines indicate the sentiment of Judaism, and might almost serve as sufficient sample of Halevi’s simple creed, for, truth to tell, the religion of the Jews does not concern itself greatly with the ideal, being of a practical rather than of an emotional sort, rigid as to practice, but tolerant over theories, and inquiring less as to a man’s belief than as to his conduct. Work—steady, cheerful, untiring work—was perhaps Halevi’s favourite form of praise. Still, being a poet, he sings, and, like the birds, in divers strains, with happy, unconscious effort. Only ‘For Thy songs, O God!’ he cries, ‘my heart is a harp’; and truly enough, in some of these ancient Hebrew hymns, the stately intensity of which it is impossible to reproduce, we seem to hear clearly the human strings vibrate. The truest faith, the most living hope, the widest charity, is breathed forth in them; and they have naturally been enshrined by his fellow-believers in the most sacred parts of their liturgy, quotations from which would here obviously be out of place. Some dozen lines only shall be given, and these chosen in illustration of the universality of the Jewish hope. ‘Where can I find Thee, O God?’ the poet questions; and there is wonderfully little suggestion of reserved places about the answer:— ‘ Lord! where art Thou to be found?Hidden and high is Thy home.And where shall we find Thee not?Thy glory fills the world.Thou art found in my heart,And at the uttermost ends of the earth.A refuge for the near,For the far, a trust. ‘ The universe cannot contain Thee;How then a temple’s shrine?Though Thou art raised above menOn Thy high and lofty throne,Yet art Thou near unto themIn their spirit and in their flesh.Who can say he has not seen Thee?When lo! the heavens and their hostTell of Thy fear, in silent testimony. ‘ I sought to draw near to Thee.With my whole heart I sought Thee.And when I went out to meet Thee,To meet me, Thou wast ready on the road.In the wonders of Thy mightAnd in Thy holiness I have beheld Thee.Who is there that should not fear Thee?The yoke of Thy kingdom is for ever and for all,Who is there that should not call upon Thee?Thou givest unto all their food.’Concerning Halevi’s ideal of love and marriage we may speak at greater length; and on these subjects one may remark that our poet’s ideal was less individual than national. Mixing intimately among men who, as a matter of course, bestowed their fickle favours on several wives, and whose poetic notion of matrimony—on the prosaic we will not touch—was a houri-peopled Paradise, it is perhaps to the credit of the Jews that this was one of the Arabian customs which, with all their susceptibility, they were very slow to adopt. Halevi, as is the general faithful fashion of his race, all his life long loved one only, and clave to her—a ‘dove of rarest worth, and sweet exceedingly,’ as in one of his poems he declares her to be. The test of poetry, Goethe somewhere says, is the substance which remains when the poetry is reduced to prose. When the poetry has been yet further reduced by successive processes of translation, the test becomes severe. We fancy, though, that there is still some considerable residuum about Halevi’s songs to his old-fashioned love—his Ophrah, as he calls her in some of them. Here is one when they are likely to be parted for a while:— ‘ So we must be divided; sweetest, stay,Once more, mine eyes would seek thy glance’s light.At night I shall recall thee: Thou, I pray,Be mindful of the days of our delight.Come to me in my dreams, I ask of thee,And even in my dreams be gentle unto me. ‘ If thou shouldst send me greeting in the grave,The cold breath of the grave itself were sweet;Oh, take my life, my life, ’tis all I have,If it should make thee live, I do entreat.I think that I shall hear when I am dead,The rustle of thy gown, thy footsteps overhead.’(1)And another, which reads like a marriage hymn:— ‘ A dove of rarest worthAnd sweet exceedingly;Alas, why does she turnAnd fly so far from me?In my fond heart a tent,Should aye preparèd be.My poor heart she has caughtWith magic spells and wiles.I do not sigh for gold,But for her mouth that smiles;Her hue it is so bright,She half makes blind my sight,. . . .The day at last is hereFill’d full of love’s sweet fire;The twain shall soon be one,Shall stay their fond desire.Ah! would my tribe could chanceOn such deliverance.’(1)