Hearing the sad news this past week of Benjamin Harshav’s passing, I asked Adriana X. Jacobs, a colleague who specializes in contemporary Israeli poetry and translation, to say a few words in tribute. This is what she wrote:
A few trembling lines on the palm of my hand.
I held them long
And let them flow through my fingers,
Word by word.”
—Jacob Glatshteyn, “A Few Lines”
translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav
The great literary scholar and translator Benjamin Harshav died this past week at the age of 87. Though he had been ill, the official announcement of his passing was nonetheless shocking and heartbreaking. The moment I heard the news, I shared the feeling, which others articulated, of a “void” opening up. I did not study directly with Harshav and did not know him personally, though I met him a few times while I was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale. Yet I am indebted to him in ways that reveal themselves in every project I undertake. Harshav leaves a tremendous legacy in the fields of Yiddish and Hebrew literary scholarship, but that legacy also includes his brilliant pedagogy and students who have gone on to mentor new scholars and inspire new readers. That’s hardly a void. But looking back at his oeuvre, and projects that will come into fruition in the near future, it’s clear that there was something about Harshav that made him special, incomparable, and irreplaceable.
He was born Binyamin Hrushovski in Vilna (then a part of Poland) in 1928. During WWII, his family fled to the Soviet Union, where he briefly studied math and sciences at Orenburg University and joined Dror, a Zionist-Socialist movement that was active in Poland and Germany. In 1948, he emigrated to Palestine, and following the 1948 war he enrolled in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From that point on, he dedicated himself to a serious study of Hebrew and Yiddish literatures that included a doctorate in Comparative Literature at Yale under the direction of René Wellek. He returned to teach in Israel at the Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University, where he founded the Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics and the journal Poetics Today. His teaching resume included several stints as a visiting professor in Europe and the United States, and in 1987, he returned to Yale and concluded his teaching career there, as the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature and Professor of Slavic Literatures.
As the Yiddish poet H. Binyomin, he published a collection of poems Shtoybn (Dusts) in 1948 and was a founding member of Yung Yisroel, a group of Yiddishists in Israel. In that same period, he also started the journal Likrat, which marked a transformative moment in Hebrew poetry and was also where the poet Yehuda Amichai published his first poems. As the poet Gabi Daniel, he also published Hebrew poetry in the major literary journals of the day (a collection of his Hebrew poems followed in 1990). Harshav’s marvelous collection of essays The Polyphony of Jewish Culture (2007) offers a personal history of the development of Israeli literary culture in the statehood period, but the story of his own creative contribution to Hebrew and Yiddish literature is not as well known. The forthcoming publication in Israel of his Collected Poems, which will include both his Yiddish and Hebrew output, as well as an introduction by the scholar and translator Chana Kronfeld, promises to fill this gap.
The epigraph to this post comes from American Yiddish Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (1986, University of California Press), a monumental undertaking and collaboration with his wife Barbara Harshav, an internationally-recognized translator from Hebrew, Yiddish, French and German and former president of the American Literary Translators Association. With Barbara, Harshav also translated into English major collections of the work of the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever (Selected Poetry and Prose, 1991) and the Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai (A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994). In his most recent publication, Three Thousand Years of Hebrew Versification: Essays in Comparative Prosody (2014), he refers to her in the acknowledgments as “my partner among books.” Their collaboration was, in a word, remarkable. Harshav also translated into Hebrew, and his translations of Yiddish literature, including the works of Sholem Aleichem, Avrom Sutzkever and Moshe Leib Halpern were highly praised. His Hebrew translation of Bertolt Brecht’s German poems appeared in 1978 under the title The Exile of Poets. And on that note, it feels right to conclude here with a poem about translators in the Harshavs’ translation:
And We Shall Not Get Excited
by Yehuda Amichai
And we shall not get excited. Because a translator
May not get excited. Calmly, we shall pass on
Words from man to son, from one tongue
To others’ lips, un-
Knowingly, like a father who passes on
The features of his dead father’s face
To his son, and he himself is like neither of them.
Merely a mediator.
We shall remember the things we held in our hands
That slipped out.
What I have in my possession and what I do not have in my possession.
We must not get excited.
Calls and their callers drowned. Or, my beloved
Gave me a few words before she left,
To bring up for her.
And no more shall we tell what we were told
To other tellers. Silence as admission. We must not
translated from the Hebrew by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav
Thank you for that thoughtful overview of Benjamin Harshav’s life and work. My parents gave me the Harshavs’ American Yiddish Poetry as soon as it was published, with a Yiddish inscription, and I’ve learned from it, dipped into it, appreciated it again and again. So much wisdom and knowledge in the introductory materials, so much skill in selection and translation. May this tradition continue and flourish.