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When Gay Love Was Unhappy in Modern Hebrew

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Men loving each other. From the Tomb of the Diver, Paestum, Italy.
Men loving each other. From the Tomb of the Diver, Paestum, Italy. Credit: Wikipedia
Vivian Eden
Vivian Eden

Atop the Hill of Silence
Mordechai Jiří (Georgo) Langer

Atop the hill of silence we sat thinking thoughts
About the huge impossible.
And our silence conceived and bore its fear.
And before our eyes, lo, spread God’s great expanse
And on the horizon, sky kissed earth and both rejoiced.
And we shall sit in silence gazing at the sublime distance
Thinking about the impossible.  

From “Niflata: Antologia shel shira lahatabit” (“Thy Love to me Was Wonderful: An Anthology of LGBT Poetry, edited and annotated by Ronen Sonis and Dory Manor), Hargol Press and Modan Press, Tel Aviv, 2015).

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden

A new Hebrew anthology of LGBT poetry takes its title from Samuel II,1:26: “Wonderful was thy love to me, passing the love of women,” in David’s lament for Jonathan’s death.

The first part presents other places and times, with some selections in Hebrew from Golden Age Spain, when homoeroticism was not particularly scandalous, as in this quatrain by Yehuda Halevi:

The day I pleasured him on my knees,
In my pupils his own image he spied
Kissing my two eyes he teased
But kissed his own image, not my eyes

The translations from English include works by openly gay poets like Allan Ginsburg and controversially outed poets like Emily Dickinson, whose sexual inclinations – like those of many people who never married – have been questioned but not proven.

English makes it easy to stay in the language closet because apart from male and female third person pronouns (he, she, etc.) and some nouns for biological females (mother, mare), nothing is gendered. Hebrew, though, is less ambiguous for these purposes because it distinguishes between genders almost everywhere: all nouns, pronouns and adjectives and most verb conjugations, with convenient exceptions.

Jiří Langer. Credit: Wikipedia

Mordechai Jiří (Georgo) Langer, the first modern Hebrew poet in the anthology, used those exceptions effectively. Other poems of his speak explicitly about homoerotic encounters but in this one he employed the ambiguity of the non-gendered first person plural past and future (“we sat,” “we shall sit,” etc.) to evade explicitness and capture that awful moment when two people know they want each other but sadly feel they mustn’t.

“Conceived and bore” is biblical, from Genesis 4:1 and elsewhere, while God’s great expanse is “Merhavia” in Psalm 118:5, which the Jewish Publication Society translation renders: “I called upon the Lord in distress: The Lord answered me and set me in a large place.”

At 19, Langer left his assimilated Jewish home in Prague and joined the Belzer Hasidic court. Returning to Prague after World War I, he became involved in religious Zionism, wrote books including one of poems in Hebrew and became friendly with Max Brod and Franz Kafka, to whom he taught modern Hebrew. In 1939 he fled to Tel Aviv, where he published his second book of poetry and was cold-shouldered by the literary establishment for his religious and erotic preferences. Despite “pinkwashing” in public diplomacyIsrael is still not entirely gay friendly.

*Bonus: The funeral march for Jonathan and his father in Handel’s oratorio “Saul”. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22BdaFiInrc

Hndel - Funeral March from Saul OratorioCredit: YouTube

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