This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Hertz the Poet*

As a group, poets have often been the objects of a cruel stereotyping that extends beyond their literary activities. We are all familiar with the image of an emotionally volatile personality, shabby in dress and in abode, quick of temper and tragic in love, a misfit whose social awkwardness is intensified by a generic weakness for alcohol. In some instances, the bohemian lifestyle has been enough to identify people as poets (if only to themselves), even though they rarely or never succeeded in finding an audience or publisher for the sublime creations of their spirits.

Our hero Hertz, a Jewish poet from Galicia, came close to matching this stereotype of the ne'er-do-well bard, except that he faced an additional obstacle that obstructed his path to artistic immortality: He sought to be a Hebrew poet in nineteenth-century Europe, before the sacred tongue had been transformed into the living language of a modern nation-state. Having chosen his exalted calling, he took up the vagabond's life, wandering through the European and Levantine capitals, continually trying to charm a few coins from potential patrons of the literary arts.

One patron who was unable to resist Hertz's grotesque attraction was Sir Lawrence Oliphant (1829-1888), the distinguished English traveler who was among the earliest Christian sympathizers of the nascent Zionist movement. Sir Lawrence brought Hertz to Palestine, where he assisted him in pursuing his literary ambitions. A small collection of his Hebrew works was actually printed.

From among those forgettable creations of his, one sentimentally nationalistic poem even achieved considerable popularity--and this from a poet who was outspoken in his belief that wine and women were the only fitting themes for the muses!

Nevertheless, Hertz's fragile tolerance for the uncouth Middle East could not long outlive his gentile patron. His personal attitude towards the Zionists was one of utmost cynicism and contemptuousness for their earnest idealism. Therefore, when Oliphant died a few years later, there was nothing substantial to keep the poet from returning to civilized London. There he resumed his previous manner of existence as a shabby mendicant who occupied his days trying to squeeze out a meager and sporadic livelihood from the generosity of affluent devotees of Hebrew letters.

Soon Hertz joined the torrent of Jewish immigrants making their way to America, where his bizarre escapades--embellished exponentially in his own retelling of them--became a source of perplexity and distress for supporters of Hebrew culture. To hear him tell it, this unwashed alcoholic exerted an irresistible magnetism upon the opposite sex.

As he wandered across the American expanses, Hertz was likely to show up unexpectedly in San Francisco in the guise of an Indian mystic, or on the East Side of New York as a Hebrew troubadour. He published incoherent articles about oriental theosophy that were accepted by editors more out of pity than because of their merits. Out of respect for his earlier contribution to Hebrew poetry, some Jewish community leaders arranged a small monthly allowance for him, knowing full well that the benefits of their generosity would not last much farther than the nearest saloon.

Hertz drank himself into the grave before his 54th birthday, in 1909.

And yet, for all his cynicism and self-destructiveness, there was no escaping that one nationalistic poem that he had composed during his youthful sojourn in Palestine, and which continued to be passionately declaimed and sung throughout the Jewish world.

Acquaintances recalled the proud and dreamy smile that would appear on his lips when he beheld the crowd rising to its feet at the intoning of that melodramatic old rhyme. Hertz presented quite a picture on those occasions, with his uncombed hair, his foul-smelling clothing and the perpetual whiskey bottle protruding from his coat pocket. To be sure, there were many times when he was in such a rowdy and disorderly state that he was not even allowed into the halls where his poem was being recited, and he was forced to listen to it from the street outside.

Had it not been for that single poem, Hertz would have been utterly and justly forgotten as a poet. It consisted of eight stanzas and a chorus, and had been composed in 1878, on request, to honour the founding of the town of Petah Tikvah. It was published in Hertz's own literary journal, Barkai,

That one poem, expressing the Jewish people's age-old longing for its homeland, strikes us as the antithesis of Hertz's cynical life. And yet, it achieved a vitality of its own. Set to an inspiring Moldavian-Romanian folk theme by a farmer from Rishon Le-Zion, it was adopted as the official hymn of the Zionist movement, sung at the close of the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basle in 1903 in the presence of Theodor Herzl himself; and it was ultimately accepted as the national anthem of the State of Israel.

Those perceptive rabbis of the Talmud observed on occasion that there are some people who achieve their life's destiny through a single act. Indeed, it was through his one memorable poem, originally entitled Tikvateinu (our hope), but later modified and renamed Hatikvah (the hope) that a third-rate versifier from Galicia named Naftali Hertz Imber, almost in spite of himself, enjoyed his taste of immortality.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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