Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi, edited by Heinrich Brody, translated by Nina Salaman. ?1924 and 1952 by The Jewish Publication Society of America: Philadelphia, pp. 192.

The Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi is not new, but perhaps the idea of reading such a book is new to some of the mishpochah. This book, compiled nearly seven decades ago from 11th century writings, is definitely worth reviewing. For how can we consider the future if we lose touch with the past?

The book is multifaceted and is not for poetry lovers only. Like a finely cut jewel, it reflects beauty and light on a myriad of planes. If among the subjects of travel, geography, history, the Hebrew language, Scripture and a heartfelt love for God you can find something of interest, then perhaps this book is for you. Oh yes, those who love poetry will also find it worthwhile!

Jehudah ben Samuel Halevi was born in Toledo, Spain in 1806. Physician, philosopher and poet, Halevi left his profession at about the age of 50 in order to fulfill his dream of seeing the Promised Land. His poems are filled with the love, hope and adventure of that dream:

Can bodies of clay
Be prison-houses
For hearts bound fast
To Eagles’ wings—
For a man life-weary
Whose whole desire
Is to lay his face
In the chosen dust?
Yet he feared and trembled
With falling tears,
To cast Spain from him
And seek shores beyond;

excerpt from p. 39

Halevi’s journey from Spain to Alexandria is documented; his steps can also be traced up the Nile to Cairo and Damietta, and there were reports of his visits to Tyre and Damascus. Once he reached his goal the documentation of his travel ceased, but according to tradition he was slain by an Arab horseman.

Problems always arise in the translating of literature, but particularly when shifting poetry from one language to another. The imagery painted by words in one language does not necessarily have a counterpart in the colors of another culture’s palette. Yet, even in English, the poems of Jehudah Halevi are songs which soar beyond constraints of language.

The Hebrew, side by side with English, provides the reader who is proficient in hebrew the opportunity to read Halevi’s poems as they were penned. For the learner, the side by side translation provides an opportunity to expand his or her knowledge and use of the Hebrew language.

Likewise, Halevi’s extensive use of Scripture enhances our appreciation of its poetic beauty. It deepens our awareness that we can so saturate ourselves with the Word of God that our deepest longings are expressed in its promises and replete with its references to our heritage and our hope.

“Glory Unto Egypt” contains three Scripture references. Can you find them?

Look on the cities and consider the villages
Which Israel held in possession;
And give glory unto Egypt, and lighten
Thy steps; nay, tread thou not heavily
Upon the streets where the Divine
Presence passed through
To seek the blood of the covenant
upon the doorposts,
And the pillar of fire and the
pillars of cloud,
And the eyes of all watching them
and beholding!
From thence were hewn the
masters of God’s covenant,
And thence were carven the
corner stones of the people of the
Lord.

“Glory Unto Egypt” p. 32

Scripture references (and extra-biblical writings) are clearly marked in the margins and occasional footnotes are also supplied for some helpful background information. An appendix of endnotes—for those interested in the intricacies of literary style and its translation—can be found in the back of the book.

This book provides the kind of enrichment we need as we consider our Jewish heritage and hold fast to our birthright. So think about a trip to the library or a browse through your bookstore to find Selected Poems of Jehudah Halevi. It’s not for poetry lovers only!