Poem of the Week

Abducted Jewish Musicians Refuse to Play for the Enemy

'They demanded the song; but, oh never / That triumph the stranger shall know': Playboy and revolutionary Lord Byron on the Babylonian exile.

Kovno Ghetto orchestra
George Kadish / Zvi Kadushin

By the Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept

Lord Byron

1
We sat down and wept by the waters
Of Babel, and thought of the day
When our foe, in the hue of his slaughters,
Made Salem’s high places his prey;
And ye, oh her desolate daughters!
Were scattered all weeping away.

2
While sadly we gazed on the river
Which rolled on in freedom below,
They demanded the song; but, oh never
That triumph the stranger shall know!
May this right hand be withered for ever,
Ere it string our high harp for the foe!

3
On the willow that harp is suspended,
Oh Salem! its sound should be free;
And the hour when thy glories were ended
But left me that token of thee:
And ne’er shall its soft tones be blended
With the voice of the spoiler by me!

From “Hebrew Melodies,” 1815

You are a musician deported from your home by a cruel regime. You’ve managed to bring along your instrument, but you face a dilemma: Should you refuse to entertain your captors? Or keep on with your music?

Psalm 137 suggests resistance to be the nobler option, a view evidently shared by the hereditary peer and Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), who pursued many scandalous liaisons, fathered at least one illegitimate child and actively supported the Greek revolutionary movement.

In depicting the distress of Jews exiled to Babylon following Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E., apart from the rhyme with “slaughters,” why does Byron talk particularly about “daughters?”“Daughters of Jerusalem” occurs twice in the Scriptures: in the Song of Songs 8:4, and the description in Luke 23:28, of how Jesus reacted to distraught women in the crowd as he proceeded towards his crucifixion on what has become known as the Via Dolorosa: “But Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.”

George Gordon, Lord Byron, by Thomas Phillips (1770-1845).
Wikipedia

With this reference, Byron implies a parallel between the suffering in exile and the suffering of Jesus and the onlookers en route to Mount Calvary.

In Stanza 2, the captives refuse to perform, with a drastic oath: “May this right hand be withered for ever.”

In the Psalm, which some attribute to the Prophet Jeremiah, this dire outcome– especially for a musician who needs both hands to play almost any instrument – is punishment for "forgetting Jerusalem". This oath is taken at Jewish weddings before the groom stomps on a glass to symbolize the destruction of the Temple. 

Here, atrophy would be punishment for making music under duress: Stanza 3 suggests that art should be pursued only in a free environment.

Well after Byron's time, some Jewish musicians played in ghettoes and concentration camps during World War II, giving performances attended by Nazis. For some it was a way to survive, both psychologically and literally: For a while, early in the course of the war, Jews whose skills the Nazis needed or appreciated were sometimes granted slightly better living conditions.

In Jewish tradition, Psalm 137 is recited on Tisha B'Av, marking the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and various other historical disasters. (This year the commemorative day falls on August 13-14.)

*Musing: The situations in Babylon and in Europe weren’t strictly comparable – under the Nazis the option of not performing but staying alive wasn’t a given, whereas the ancient exiles were not threatened with death and they did have the option of playing their instruments. They chose not to and defined this as protest. Is there something adolescent about their choice to quit playing music and to sit around being demonstratively glum? Would subversive art http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.700137 have been an alternative?

*Bonus: Jamaica is Babylon and Zion is Africa in the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon

From Psalm 137, King James Bible, 1611

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Rivers of Babylon YouTube