Arts & Culture / Mosaic / October 2, 2008

Lecture on Yehuda Halevi’s poetry

Visiting Joseph B. Glossberg Israeli Scholar Gabriel Levin, who is teaching a course titled Modern Hebrew Literature this term, gave the first in a series of three lectures on Thursday, September 25 in the Alumni Room of Old Main. The lecture, “’My heart is in the east and I’m at the far end of the west’: The Life and Poetry of Yehuda Halevi, a Hebrew poet in Medieval Spain,” related the various stages of Halevi’s life to excerpts of his work in translation.

“There weren’t two kinds of poetry, a poet composed for a synagogue in the morning and the garden party in the evening,” Levin said toward the beginning of the lecture.

Yehuda Halevi lived during eleventh and twelfth centuries in Spain moving on and off between the Christian and Muslim controlled areas. The multiculturalism in this region developed the style of Hebrew poets of the time. Though he wrote his poetry in Hebrew, Halevi utilized Arabic patterns.

“I heard one of his poems without really knowing what it meant. I was just taken by the poem and also fascinated by the world he came from,” Levin said about the intersecting of cultures in which Halevi composed his work. “He had a fascinating life. His life has sort of turned into a legend.”

The part of Halevi’s life that is most striking as legendary, is the pilgrimage to the Middle East he went on while in his 70’s that he never returned from. Though it is unknown whether or not he reached his final destination of Palestine, there remains a body of work he composed while traveling, including a whole set of poems written at sea that Levin has focused on.

“He describes the tempest and his fear and the land that all his life he’s desired to see,” said Levin.

Born in France, Levin grew up in the United States and Israel. Settling in Israel in the 1970’s, he made a point of studying Arabic because of its importance to the region. He is currently an editor of Ibis Editions, a small press in Jerusalem that focuses on translated literature from the Middle East, particularly that which may have been forgotten or ignored over time. Levin, who has had three collections of his own poetry published, translates works from Hebrew, French, and Arabic into English.

“It’s a constant tug-of-war between the letter and the spirit,” said Levin of translating poetry and the need to balance a poem’s original meaning with one’s own words. “You’re translating somebody else’s work, and you want to respect his language, so there’s a constant tension and I think good poems come out of that tension.”

Sadie Arft


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