Fascinated by Byron

Sheila Spector explores Byron’s influence on Jewish readers and writers from the early 19th century to the late 20th.

English Poet (photo credit: Courtesy)
English Poet
(photo credit: Courtesy)
ENGLISH POET GEORGE Gordon Byron (1788-1824) was both famous and infamous for his poetry, life and lifestyle.
Mathew Arnold claimed that “falsehood, cynicism, insolence, misgovernment, oppression and their consequent unfailing crop of human misery… roused Byron to irreconcilable revolt and battle” in both writing and action.
One might easily fathom why the historically outcast Jews seeking inspiration and a transformation would be fascinated by this character. Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Revisionist Zionist leader, wrote in 1904 that Byron’s work might well serve as the bible of individualism, while in 1919, another prominent Zionist, Nahum Sokolov, stated that the last lines of “Oh, Weep for Those” should serve as the Zionist motto.
The Yiddish poet Aaron Tzeitlin wrote in 1924 that humanity’s wish to be redeemed is embodied in Byron’s actions and poetry. That same year, another Yiddish poet, Avraham Reisen felt that the world’s sorrows disturbed Byron’s sleep and that his poetry might serve as the voice for the lonely sheep amid 70 wolves. Byron and the literary Byronic hero are thus perceived as the model for the New Jew: a struggling, misunderstood, brave, sensitive figure to identify with, replacing the weak, ghetto Jew.
“Byron and the Jews,” written by the independent New York-based literary scholar Sheila A. Spector, the author of several books that explore the intersections and relations between British and Jewish cultures, is devoted to the virtually unexplored yet fascinating issue of the Byronic influence on Jewish readers and writers from the early 19th century to the late 20th. Its aim is to expose the underlying agendas of the translators in their attempt to read their identity as individuals and in relation to the Jewish nation.
Many European writers drew inspiration for their nationalistic ambitions from Byron’s life and work, creating a wave of literature and poetry expressing revolutionary ideas and supporting the non-conformist, individual mind called Byronism. This phenomenon has been investigated by scholars, and the historical significance of Byronism has been acknowledged through translations of his work, and yet no thorough textual analysis of translations of his work into other languages, and especially into Hebrew, has been published.
The influence Byron exerted on Jews, both during his lifetime and after his death, has not been fully appreciated. As late as 1956, the Israeli critic Yosef Klausner, in his essay “Byronism in our New Poetry,” reckoned that Byron’s work (especially the “Hebrew Melodies”) had been translated into Hebrew more than any other poet’s work. Like other critics, Klausner does not analyze the translations.
“BYRON AND THE JEWS” IS the first attempt to tackle Jewish Byronism and the first to discuss the translations themselves as more than merely coincidental embellishments of the historical discussion.
Modern Jewish literature emerged in 18th and 19th century Europe within the context of Jewish emancipation on the one hand, and persecution on the other. It idealized the biblical past, as did Byron, for all his iconoclasm.
Echoing the aspiration for national emancipation in vogue at the time, following the French Revolution, many Jewish writers understood their task as intellectually emancipating and “Europeanizing” the Jewish masses. However, following the pogroms of the 1880s and the consequent disillusion with assimilation, many writers joined the growing trend of returning to the Jewish roots of solidarity and a rising nationalistic sentiment.
Spector is evidently comfortable swimming in these virtually uncharted waters, and invents her own terminology. She considers herself an “accidental Byronist,” since she discovered Byron by way of reading translations of his work. Her renderings of the Hebrew and Yiddish translations back into English, which she terms ‘untranslations,’ are intended to reveal “the process by which a translator manipulated the original in order to make it conform to the rules of the new language.” Each translator Judaized and Zionized Byron according to his agenda and the various intellectual and political movements that nurtured a growing Jewish national consciousness.
After briefly discussing her theoretical assumptions about translations in a way that will engage even the non-specialist reader, Spector opens with Byron’s interrelationships with his Anglo-Jewish contemporaries.
She maintains that Byron had an “instrumental, if accidental,” role in the development of the Anglo-Jewish scholar and writer Isaac D’Israeli’s writing and that D’Israeli (Benjamin Disraeli’s father) in turn “helped Byron consolidate his idea of the Byronic hero.” Another English Jew whom Byron supposedly influenced was Isaac Nathan, who composed the music for the “Hebrew Melodies,” mostly based on Jewish liturgical sources. Spector claims this relationship contributed to Byron’s skeptical view, which questioned the validity of religion.
The author then considers the work of five maskilim (proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment movement), including the 19th century Austrian-Jewish poet Meir Halevi Letteris, and shows how they manipulated their Hebrew translations of Byron so as to garner support for the reforms of Jewish society they wanted to introduce.
They were all enthusiastic, purist Hebraists: their use of the Hebrew language in its biblical form was meant to show that Jewish society had gone astray and needed to return to its former glory. Letteris, for instance, advocated a return to a healthy, informed skepticism.
In his work, according to Spector, the emphasis is put on indicting religion for perpetuating Jewish exile. For example, he introduces into “Oh! Weep for those” an ironic note by translating the beginning of the first line “Oh! Weep…” into “Bitter praise…” (halelu mar) with the root hll denoting and connoting both praise and prayer and foolishness, thus questioning the concept of prayer itself.
Chapter three, “Byron and the Yiddishists” presents the writers who used Byron’s work to clarify and buttress their attitudes towards Diaspora and Zionism as well as their opinions in the language controversy between Hebrew and Yiddish in the period between the Russian revolutions and the Holocaust. According to Spector, the controversy was not only lingual, but also political, the Yiddishists writing against a set of beliefs that Hebrew stood for.
Thus, the first translators into Yiddish were Diaspora-nationalists who believed in the assimilation and acculturation of European Jewish society, some even using the translations as “a vehicle for converting the Jewish masses to Marxism.” Others turned to Byron in their search for their new English/American-Jewish identities, or, later, as a gesture of resistance to the Nazis.
The final group of Byronists are the Zionists, who conscripted Byron first in the service of a spiritual Zion (the poet Solomon Mandelkern is a good example); then, like the 20th century Israeli writer and poet Jacob Orland, to the cause of political and practical Zionism.
More recently, Byron has been appropriated by leftist critics of Israeli government policies (such as Shmuel Fridman’s 1983 bilingual edition of the “Hebrew Melodies”). It is important to note that these different movements, which in this book are presented consecutively, were mostly contemporaneous. Spector does her best to unravel the complexity of their interplay.
Each separate discussion of the different translators and their periods solidifies Spector’s premise, made explicit in the conclusion, that the act of translation invariably produces an allegorical reading. The norm of the day was to convey the spirit of the work as the translator perceived it: faithfulness to the original text was not a central consideration.
Whatever was deemed suitable for Jewish society and its advancement would be transmitted, though usually the pieces chosen for translation naturally lent themselves to a Jewish reading, being based on biblical themes or conveying a tone of disbelief in and defiance against establishments.
The early translators into Hebrew even considered their translations an improvement on the original. “All the men surveyed in this study [used Byron] as a tool for expanding the communal Jewish identity,” and for determining their own personal identity. The later translators, while being more concerned with accuracy, were nevertheless committed to their agenda and at times compromised fidelity to the text in the service of a message.
“Byron and the Jews” is a fundamental resource, which no doubt will be consulted by every scholar of translation and of reception in both Romantic and Jewish literature. Spector provides a near perfect balance of literary analysis within its social and historical contexts. The analysis of the different pieces is brief, yet poignantly accurate. An insight into why she selected certain poems for discussion over others would have been interesting. Spector provides concise and convenient definitions for many terms such as haskala, bund and shekhina, and takes almost nothing for granted, though her use of italics seems to be inconsistent.
The book’s potential readership is wide, since the topic is enthralling and the writing is mostly accessible to both specialists and the general public.
 Adi Orian is a Literature and Translation PhD student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an English teacher.