Poem of the Week |

Longing for Zion, as Clinical Depression

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Alfonso VI reconquering Toledo from the Moors in 1085. Yehuda Halevi lived in the city during those years. Made for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition in Seville.Credit: Wikipedia

My heart is in the East

Yehuda Halevi

My heart is in the East and I’m furthest West,
how shall I savor my food, how taste?
How shall I honor vows and pledges while
Zion is bound to Edom and I’m in Arab chains?
Spain’s bounty left behind would be a delight
like the sight of the Holy of Holies’ dust.

Translation from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

In the so-called “Golden Age,” when the Moors and the Christians were battling for dominance in Spain, the Jewish physician, poet and philosopher Yehuda Halevi wrote secular and religious poems, including many about longing for return to Zion.

A statue of Yehuda Halevi, Ralli Museum, Caesarea. Credit: Wikipedia

Some have entered the liturgy and many are part of the curriculum in Israel. Generations have memorized this one and the phrase “my heart is in the East” is common coin in Hebrew discourse.

Halevi’s poems often address God directly, or at least discuss God and express faith – for example:

    Servants of time, lo! These be slaves of slaves;
    But the Lord’s servant hath his freedom whole
    Therefore, when every man his portion craves,
    “The Lord God is my portion,” saith my soul.

(Translated from Hebrew by Nina Salaman, 1924)

In “My Heart is in the East,” however, there is no God. The only player is “I” and he sounds like he is severely depressed – or suffering from melancholia, as it was called in earlier times.

The poem begins with the plaint that I am in one place and I’d rather be in a different place (where I have never been). I am dissatisfied with my current circumstances and I fantasize about getting far away from them. There is a reference here to Psalm 103:12 –“As far as the east is from the west.

The voice continues, describing anhedonia – the inability to experience pleasure: I don’t enjoy my food and I have lost my appetite. I can’t function properly and I can’t fulfill my commitments. I blame this incapacity on something outside of myself – the political situation (Zion is in the hands of Bedouin and I’m in the hands of the Moors/Berbers). The only thing that would make me happy is to leave behind all the good things I have in my life (in Spain) and get a glimpse of something meaningful but grim (the ruins of the Temple in Jerusalem).

Halevi was born in 1075 or 1084-85 in Tudela or in Toledo. He wrote his prose in Arabic and his poetry in Hebrew. He finally made the pilgrimage to Zion – a trip with many adventures as recorded in his poems, with a storm at sea and a sojourn in Egypt, which he left from Alexandria in May of 1141. According to legend, he was killed that summer by Arab horsemen on his way to Jerusalem.

*Bonus: “My Heart is in the East” with music by Moni Amarilio, performed by Nechama Handel.