The Poets and Their Poems

In this section the reader will find poems, biographical information on the poets, reading lists, links, and photographs. Currently there are English translations of poems by Yehudah Halevi, Samuel Hanagid, Abraham ibn Ezra, Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Joseph ben Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi.

Yehudah (Judah, Jehudah) Halevi (1075/86 to 1141)

Samuel Hanagid (993 to 1056 or later)

Abraham ibn Ezra (ca. 1089/92/93 to ca. 1164/67)

Moses ibn Ezra (ca. 1055-1060 to after 1138)

Solomon ibn Gabirol (ca. 1021/22 to 1051/69)

Joseph ben Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi (ca. 1261 to before 1330)

Note on the Dates of the Poets

These are maddeningly inconsistent. Even the same translator provides different dates in different collections. Internet sources like Wikipedia confuse still further. I have tried to select dates used by more than one source. Aside from Joseph ben Tanchum ha-Yerushalmi, the poets flourished between the late eleventh and mid-twelfth—the Middle Ages—which probably is all you really need to know and remember. They are all medieval Jewish, or Hebrew, poets, to make it even simpler.

Note on the Translators and Translations

Over a period of at least 120 years, people have been translating the medieval Hebrew poets into English. Some of the earliest translations were by the poet Emma Lazarus, and some of the most recent are by Gabriel Levin (Yehuda Halevi) and Hillel Halkin (Samuel Hanagid).

Most of the translations are in verse, but some are in prose. For example, the scholar Benzion Halper did many prose translations for his book on Jewish literature, and the poet T. Carmi made prose translations of all the selections in his classic Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse. Sometimes, it must be said, prose translations read better than verse ones, but with each type of translation, something is sacrificed, since translation in general is difficult and translation of medieval Hebrew poetry is extremely difficult.

Originally I had decided against including older translations, since they have an old-fashioned or Victorian ring and their neat and tidy rhyme and meter have little to do with what is found in the originals. However, quite a few modern translators have opted for features not found in the originals, so this reason turned out not to be a very good one. In addition, I decided I actually like some of the older versions, sometimes even more than the newer ones.

In choosing the poems for the web site, I went through all of the translations I could find and selected what I thought were the strongest poems by each translator. I then compared translations of the same poem and picked the translation I liked best. I further refined the list so that the assortment of translators would be representative of different approaches and periods. There also were other considerations: For instance, sometimes I let sentiment influence me, as in the case of Amy Levy, a Victorian author who had a remarkable output of writing and then killed herself at the age of 28. How could I not include her translations of Abraham Geiger’s German versions of Halevi? And finally, I eliminated translations I could not afford or did not want to pay for, and translations whose copyright status was hard to determine or, sad to say, whose publishers were uncooperative. (“Sad to say,” because poetry has such a small readership and earns so little money, so as both a poet and long-time book editor I am baffled at efforts to thwart its promotion or dissemination.) Although these latter reasons may sound crass, all print anthologies operate on too-small budgets that undoubtedly influence the editors’ selections.

Note on the Format of the Poems on This Web Site

Whenever possible, I have kept the format of the translations found in the books and articles used. With some of the older translations by Nina Davis and Alice Lucas, I sometimes simplified the formatting. In the case of T. Carmi’s prose renditions, I did not follow the line breaks in the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse but instead expanded the lines to break according to my word processor’s margins. Each version is, frankly arbitrary, since the Penguin designers had margins and space constraints to worry about as they attempted to place the translations to the right of the Hebrew originals, and Microsoft has attempted to replicate the standard margins once used on typewriters, if anyone still remembers these once-wonderful machines. But, to prevent readers from thinking Carmi’s renditions are verse, with verse line breaks, I did what I did, may the spirit of Mr. Carmi, and the generous souls at Penguin, forgive me.

Note on the Transliterations and Transcriptions Used on This Web Site: Babel or Babble?

Judah, Jehudah, Yehuda, Yehudah. Halevi, haLevi, HaLevi, ha-Levi, Ha-Levi, Halevy. What gives? First there was the Tower of Babel; then there was the Tower of Hebrew Babel; and finally there was the Tower of Hebrew Transliteration/Transcription Babble.

Welcome to the world of Hebrew transliteration and transcription. There are several “standard” styles, usually based on the requirements of the author or publisher or scholarly society, on the capacity of the word processor or typesetter, on the nature of the audience, or on tradition. Often these are hybridized, so that even in a book by a top scholar, the reader may find Qodesh next to Judah, the Q belonging to one system and the J to another. Seventy translators and Jewish-studies scholars in a room, seventy different opinions on transliteration and transcription.

Because this site incorporates work from different eras, authors, and publishers, transliterations and transcriptions of Hebrew words and names will be different, not to mention inconsistent. For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the finite supply of headache remedies on the planet, I have decided to let sleeping dogs lie. If you had to decide how to transliterate a Hebrew book or even just try to decide which transliteration or transcription of someone else to use, I suspect that you might do the same.

Diacritical Marks

For example, those found in Arabic transliterations. One thing at a time!