Medieval Hebrew Poets 'Come Out of Closet' in New Anthology

Despite the gender-laden language and religious taboos, brilliant biblical and Talmudic scholars including Ibn Gabirol, Yehuda Halevi and others also penned so-called LGBT works, new book reveals.

Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich
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The cover of a new, Hebrew anthology of LGBT poetry called "Niflaata."
The cover of "Niflaata," the new LGBT poetry anthology.Credit: Courtesy
Gili Izikovich
Gili Izikovich

“The male and female Hebrew poets that I studied and read in high school were straight, and to be able to identify with their love poems I had to work on my awareness – to think as though I was on the side of the woman or the man,” says poet and translator Dori Manor. “Something basic was missing for me. When I studied and read and grew up, I realized that modern Israeli culture was exceptional that way.”

Recently Xargol, a Hebrew publishing house, put out an anthology of poetry called "Niflaata," which has what can be called LGBT-laden content and speaks about non-heterosexual relationships and love. Manor is one of its editors, along with Dr. Ronen Sonis, Dr. Dana Olmert, Nadav Linial and Haaretz's Benny Mer. This is the first anthology of its kind to be published in Israel, in contrast to similar works that have appeared in Europe and elsewhere in the world since the 19th century – almost from the moment the concept of homosexuality was publicly recognized in modern society.

In Hebrew the situation was more complicated, however, and this had a direct bearing on the dilemmas and discoveries of Sonis and Manor and their colleagues en route to compiling their anthology. For example, they confronted an almost total absence of what they refer to as LGBT poetry in Hebrew throughout the generations – but also found it in unexpected places that are unfamiliar to most local readers.

The journey began with the biblical “David’s Lament,” with Gilgamesh who dreams of Endiku in “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” and with Achilles and the shadow of Patroclus, and after covering homoerotic and lesbian poetry from the Near East, the Far East, Europe and the United States throughout history – and ended with young, contemporary poetry written in Israel in recent decades.

With respect to "Niflaata," says Manor, 44, “we are getting reactions from people who are not homophobes, but who don’t understand why this is a separate anthology because if it’s good poetry, let it be published as poetry. This is a legitimate question and our response is the response to the 16-year-old youth that I used to be, who was searching for objects for identification. And it’s meant for anyone who hasn’t heard of gay poets. Because, for example, nobody told him that Shmuel Hanagid or Yehuda Halevi wrote homoerotic poetry.

Editors Sonis, left, and Manor, who says, “In most European languages there’s no problem writing ‘I love ...’ and remaining vague.” Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

"This is the same 16-year-old boy who, until Yona Wallach, never encountered someone who wrote, in modern Israeli poetry, a love story to someone of the same sex or who referred to those of his or her own sex erotically. It’s the same type of lacuna that we are trying to fill: for us at that time and for contemporary 16-year-olds.”

When one examines the poetry written in Israel and also poems translated into Hebrew, the absence of LGBT work is surprisingly blatant. Sonis and Manor say that even the works of very famous poets who wrote homoerotic works of love and passion, were not translated into Hebrew and therefore important elements of the identity of those writers are unfamiliar to Hebrew readers.

“The Jews had a 'patent' on the law against homosexuality, [calling for] a death sentence for anyone who committed the sin of homosexual intercourse,” says Sonis, 43, a well-known translator of poetry who teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is among the founders of the literary magazine Ho!.

“No culture in the surrounding area was as extreme," he adds, "and in fact didn't begin to exist in modern Hebrew until the 1960s or '70s. In effect, the only place where one could find LGBT poetry was in medieval poetry, in Andalusia.”

'Full of desire'

The greatest of all ancient Hebrew poets, the Spanish commentators of Talmud Rabbi Ibn Gabirol, Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Rabbi Ibn Ezra – all appear in the new anthology as writers of poems aimed at other men. Those same poets are studied in Israeli schools and the piyyutim (liturgical poetry) some of them wrote are familiar to the general public. However, as with the homosexually oriented works of foreign poets that were never translated into Hebrew, this part of their oeuvre has been hidden.

“Fortunately,” says Manor, “there is the great poetry of the Middle Ages in Andalusia, where, under the influence of Arab poetry, some of the great Hebrew poets wrote quasi-erotic, exciting and moving poetry.”

Sonis: “Truth be told, among the medieval poets it’s hard to find anyone who didn’t write such poetry ... They wrote similar poems for young boys and girls, but with one difference: The girl was not supposed to 'give in' to sexual advances whereas the boy can. This is poetry that mainly reflects certain conventions; it contains imagery that repeats itself, such as sly glances and arching eyebrows.”

According to Manor, “The Hebrew poets often called the young boys ‘Ofer’ or ‘Zvi’ [types of deer] and theirs are poems full of desire. Among them Ibn Gabirol, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Rabbi Ibn Ezra ... the greatest biblical interpreters ... and Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid, the great poet of secular Spanish poetry in Hebrew, and a great and wise Talmudic commentator, who writes poems of passion that are marvelous in their directness and daring.”

It is fortunate that this non-heterosexually oriented poetry exists, but Manor says that after medieval times virtually no other such Hebrew poets are known, at least until the 1930s. The anthology includes a poem by Mordechai Georgo Langer, one of Franz Kafka’s Hebrew teachers and friends.

“This is the first poet who wrote LGBT poetry in modern Hebrew," explains Manor. "He is influenced by medieval poetry, uses structures that are reminiscent of that poetry.”

Even in modern Hebrew, there was no LGBT poetry for many years.

“I’m sure that there were gay and lesbian poets, but they didn’t write such poetry,” says Manor. “The social sanctions [against such writing] were apparently too strong. The writers were active within a context of a pioneering, Zionist, very male-oriented culture that demanded the writing of masculine poetry and not, God forbid, poetry that would question the existing social order.”

Turning point

The most significant turning point occurred only in the last two decades or so, when more and more LGBT poets writing in Hebrew, and works aimed at the homosexual public in Israel, began to take center stage.

“Until the 1990s there wasn’t much LGBT poetry,” says Manor. “There was Yona Wallach, of course. Hezi Laskali wrote in the late 1970s, but the real change only takes place years later.”

There are those who say the absence of homo-lesbian poetry in Hebrew stems from the fact that the language is so unambiguous in terms of gender that it doesn’t allow for the vagueness that exists in other languages.

“In most European languages there’s no problem writing 'I love ...' and remaining vague,” says Manor. “From the moment you address someone in the second person in Hebrew, their identity comes out of the closet. That’s a central issue that’s unique to this anthology, because both when we translate and when we write in Hebrew we can’t hide behind veils or screens."

He adds: "That’s a wonderful thing but it makes many poets and translators write hesitant and deceptive poetry, because it’s too easy to say things directly [in Hebrew]. On the other hand, it also makes things specific and clear.”

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