- Book Review Index
Byron and the Jews, by Sheila A Spector. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. 244 pp. $59.95.
Sheila Spector’s project began, she explains, when having “compiled a bibliography of Hebrew and Yiddish translations of British Romantic literature,” she “to [her] surprise found that Byron was the most frequently cited writer. Given the unexpected results, [she] then determined to discover why approximately two dozen Jews, ranging from mid-nineteenth-century Europeans to modern Israelis and Americans, would all be attracted to a gentile poet considered even by his close friends to be ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’” (p. 1). While Byron collaborated on or wrote in their entirety several texts on biblical and/or historical themes that would have readily attracted the notice of Jewish intellectuals and literati—most notably, Hebrew Melodies (1815), Cain (1821), and Heaven and Earth (1821)—translators did not limit themselves to these three texts, but also translated Canto 1 of Childe Harold (1812), The Prisoner of Chillon (1816), Mazeppa (1816), Darkness (1816), and Manfred (1817). Spector correctly characterizes all of these texts as “works that could be used in the construction of [the translator’s] particular version of the new Jewish identity, consisting primarily of intellectual elitism, moral integrity and, except for the Zionists, a diasporean existence” (p. 6).
Although her focus is on the translations, which she discusses “as allegorical representations of the cultural struggles experienced by Ashkenazi Jews in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” (pp. 8–9), Spector spends some time thinking through other factors that might have overdetermined why Byron or someone like him would have the appeal that is evidenced by the number of translations of his works that were done. Byron as an individual was viewed as a friend of the Jews and also as someone who supported religious tolerance, arguing in the House of Lords, for example, in favor of Catholic emancipation. More generally, Byron’s sense of his Scottish heritage and his preoccupation with his own and other cultural and national identities put into play a large network of associations and similarities for his Jewish translators, who were also dealing with matters of cultural and national
To the extent that his Hebrew and Yiddish translators were aware of the problematic cultural milieu in which Byron wrote and the issues of identity of which he wrote, one can begin to see how what Spector characterizes as “translation . . . as an act of transplantation” was mobilized in order to attempt to fill “a lack in the importing culture” (p. 3). An additional concern was the modernization of the Jewish identity, initiated by the attempt on the part of European Jewry, at first led by Moses Mendelssohn, to attain Enlightenment, or Haskalah (pp. 9–19).
Spector’s discussion of Byron’s work with Isaac Nathan to produce Hebrew Melodies is fascinating, showcasing her keen ear as a liturgical scholar, finding antecedents in the Kaddish, the Yigdal, and “Ma’oz Z.ur,” among others. The resonant characteristic of these translations is their inherent tension, arising out of Byron’s “complex attitude toward Christianity” and Nathan’s “complex relationship with Judaism.” In the first set of twelve songs, nine of which have identifiable liturgical sources, this tension manifests in four oppositional themes: “faith versus reason; religious Zionism versus secular nationalism; messianic passivity versus social activism; and, finally, on the personal level, Jewish religion versus English identity” (p. 37). These are tensions that have persisted over time and inform discussions of Jewish identity and the imperative to act, or its lack, to this day.
Byron’s value to Jewish culture was that of a writer whose work, translated into Hebrew or Yiddish, might be read with profit by those Jews seeking to resituate themselves in a rapidly changing cultural landscape. The first to undertake to translate Byron were the Maskilim of eastern Europe. Byron, for these young intellectuals, became a litmus test for whether secular literature had a place in the Jewish community, as well as a test case on the question of whether Hebrew could be reclaimed as “a functioning modern language” and replace Yiddish as “the everyday language of the Jews” (p. 55). Spector discusses four translation projects—those of Yaakov Z.evi, Meir Halevi Letteris, Matisyahu Simh.a Rabener and Eliezer Eliyahu Igel, and Judah Leib Gordon.
The Yiddishists, in their quest “to restructure the Jewish mode of thought” (p. 94), found in Byron a predecessor to be mobilized in the quest to use their language as a means of acculturation. They turned first to the vernacular literature of much of the Yiddish-speaking world—Russian literature—which, “for its part was heavily influenced by German Romantic philosophy and by English Romantic poetry; and Byron was the avatar of the English Romantic poet” (p. 94).
In contrast to the Yiddishists, who were generally proponents of Golus-Nationalism, the Hebraists who followed them were generally proponents of Zionism. The pogroms of 1880–81 signaled that full assimilation and full acceptance in eastern Europe would never occur, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 made it clear that a homeland on or near the historical home of the people of Israel was in prospect. These later “Hebraists tended to use Byron as a counterweight, translating the British poet in conjunction with a call to moderation against the hard-liners who dominated the Zionist movement from the 1897 Congress through statehood” (p. 137).
The Zionist-Hebraists during the Palestinian period effectively bridged the historical and cultural gap from Haskalah to the development of Palestine as a territory on its way to becoming the Jewish state. Solomon Mandelkern was the first such. According to Spector, Mandelkern’s translations “evince the ambivalence of a maskilic projrct produced by a biblical scholar with a H.asidic background; that is, Mandelkern transforms Byron’s secular lyrics into a text capable of supporting the kind of polysemous exegesis applied to the Bible” (p. 141).
David Frishman, the most widely known of Byron’s translators, appended to his translation of Cain a substantial essay on how the Byronic hero can be used to furnish “building blocks of the new Jewish identity apposite to the Zionist cause.” Writing when he did—that is, mostly before the Balfour declaration—he “advocated spiritual rather than political Zionism, refusing to incorporate Zionist ideology into his writing” (p. 143).
Isaac Loeb Baruch (Brocowitz), a Hebrew teacher, compiler and translator of texts into Hebrew, and a long-time resident of mandated Palestine, then Israel, followed Frishman’s lead in his translations, in that he was quite likely “using Byron to help generate a new personal identity for himself, as well as a national identity for the Jewish people.”
In the period leading up to and during Israeli statehood, Byron’s poetry became an instrument of social critique. Jacob Orland’s translation of Hebrew Melodies (1944), published as a bilingual edition in a Palestine virtually on the brink of Israeli statehood, “was intended as a plea for a partnership between the British and the Jews” (p. 158).
Moshe Giyora, like Orland a member of the third aliyah, translated Childe Harold’s Farewell to England, included in Ha-shoshana ha-kehula (The Blue Rose [1959–60]). Set historically in a period of ferment and reassessment between the Sinai Campaign (1956) and the Six-Day War (1967), the translation attempts to capture the tension created by a sense of alienation from the land of one’s birth in the absence of any sense of what life might be like in another land.
After the 1982 war against Lebanon, the national consensus in Israel that all of its wars were both just and necessary was shattered; “instead, a significant peace movement consolidated against what many believed to have been a war of choice as opposed to a war for survival.” Shmuel Friedman’s bilingual edition of Hebrew Melodies (1983), accompanied by a biographical and historical essay-epilogue by Michael Desheh, took “what had been interpreted as a collection of poems advocating political Zionism” and read them in a manner “suggest[ing] that the Israelis would do better to return to the spiritual values of Zionism” (p. 165).
In Spector’s conclusion she makes a case for translation as “a form of transcultural allegoresis. . . . When a translator displaces a text from its original context, he or she disrupts the relationship with external reality, replacing the author’s intention with his or her own” (p. 171). Spector attributes this transformation to the alternative universe both created and inhabited by the new language, and to the interpretive community that inhabits that alternative universe. While my term of art would probably be palimpsest rather than allegory, my quibble about whether one may talk of intentionality duly noted, I take her point. I do wish that she had noted the parallels between at least some of the successive appropriations of Byron by the Jews and the appropriations of Shelley by leftist emigrés to Russia such as Bertolt Brecht, Walter Haenisch, and Alfred Wolfenstein, who both translated and wrote of the modern political implications of such texts (as Robert Kaufman has noted). But these quibbles duly noted, Spector’s book is on balance a splendid study, mobilizing historical scholarship, bibliography, close reading in three languages, and enough theory to make the study as a whole cohere as an original and important contribution to Judaic studies.