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With Heine at Lorelei

At 161st Street and Grand Concourse in the Bronx, there is a highly ornate fountain named Lorelei located in a rather lonely park dedicated to dead poets. Inscribed at the base of Lorelei is the name and visage of a man — once upon a time, Germany’s favorite Romantic poet. Hitler tried his best to remove all memory of him from German culture, even going so far as to anonymize the attribution of his poems and to order the atomization of his grave site with explosives, all because the poet, Heinrich Heine, was born a Jew.

This Friday, the 24th of Kislev and the eve of Ḥanuka, is Heine’s Hebrew birthday. He was born December 13th, 1797.

Lorelei Fountain

I first encountered Heine, in Amos Elon’s survey of German Jewry, The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933. Here’s why I love him so much. Besides his sharp wit and poetry, Heine railed against patriotic chauvinism. In 1817 at the age of 20 he witnessed the Hep! Hep! riots and a mass burning of “subversive” books  accompanied by speeches against Jews, foreigners, “and cosmopolitans, et al.” Three years later, he penned the following prescient line in his verse tragedy, “Almansor,”:

Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.
[Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people.]

Heine had keen, almost prophetic insight. Elon writes that he “voiced the first, most acute prophecies about German nationalism and militarism.” Heine is famous for having predicted the dangers of Prussian nationalism manifest in a unified Germany. Living as a fugitive expatriat in France in 1834, “he saw the demons lurking under the surface of German life and warned the French:”

Watch out! I mean well with you and therefore I tell you the bitter truth. You have more to fear from a liberated Germany than from the entire Holy Alliance along with all Croats and Cossacks.

A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll. Christianity restrained the martial ardor of the Germans for a time but it did not destroy it; once the restraining talisman is shattered, savagery will rise again, . . . the mad fury of the berserk, of which Nordic poets sing and speak. . . . The old stony gods will rise from the rubble and rub the thousand-year-old dust from their eyes. Thor with the giant hammer will come forth and smash the gothic domes.

The German thunder. . . rolls slowly at first but it will come. And when you hear it roar, as it has never roared before in the history of the world know that the German thunder has reached it’s target.

(H. Heine. “Zur Geschichte von Religion und Philosphie im Deutschland,” Sämtliche Schriften, vol. 3, p.505.)

His attitude towards Judaism was highly influenced by the difficulty he and other assimilated intellectual German Jews felt in the face of state oppression. But these sentiments were tempered when he experienced Polish Jewry during a trip in 1821, writing:

Despite the barbaric-looking fur cap on his head and the even more barbaric ideas within, I hold the Polish Jew in much higher regard than many a German Jew with a Bolivar hat on top of his head and Jean Paul inside it. In stark isolation, the character of the Polish Jew has evolved into an integral whole; by breathing the air of tolerance this character has acquired the stamp of freedom. . . . As for me, I prefer the Polish Jew, with his grimy fur, his flea-bitten beard, his odor of garlic, and his wheeling and dealing to many others in all their savings-bond splendor.

(Heine. Sämtliche Schriften, vol. 2, p.69.)

This description mixes criticism with a liberal romantic pride in ethnic Judaism born outside the constraints and pressures of the assimilationist Germany he was familiar with. In contrast, his attitude towards Reform Judaism reflects deep misgivings. Elon notes that Heine was “dubious about fashionable modifications like German [Jewish] prayer books and organ music. They were merely imitative of Christianity and offered only a “new stage set and decor.” The new rabbis (Heine called them souffleurs–prompters) wore a Protestant parson’s ‘white band’ in their collars. Reform Judaism was like mock turtle soup, he thought, ‘turtle soup without the turtle.’ Heine was an early precursor of the legendary Spanish anarchist who asked a Protestant missionary, ‘How can I believe in your religion when I don’t even believe in mine, which is the only true one?'” Like many Jews in his circle he submitted to a Baptism that held meaning only in the burden of shame and bitterness he would carry the remainder of his life. Professional life in Germany was entirely closed off to Jews unless they submitted to a Baptism. Regardless, his tragic humiliation has haunted his name ever since.

Fleeing Germany for freedom in France, Heine was quickly attracted to the early socialism espoused by Henri de Saint-Simon, a practical philosophy that espoused a mix of free love, pantheism, technocracy, and meritocracy — in short, liberal ideals anathema to more conservative and traditional sentiments. Meanwhile, he continued to write romantic poetry that drew its imagery from the well of both German and Jewish mythology.

Undeniably, I feel a kinship here. I am one dreaming being even when the catalog of prideful identities bifurcates and fragments my imagination in so many useless ways. I am navigating my religious, ethnic, and national identity when ethnic patriotism and religious demands make claims on the integrity and authenticity of my being Jewish, and often enough seem to distract from more universal truths.

The pity of it all is that the fathomless tragedy of the Holocaust was not only the mass slaughter of our families and the dissolution of our being. It is also in how Germany butchered and mutilated itself, for we were once Germans even if they refused to accept this, and how much the poorer they are for it. Romantics like Heine pined for acceptance as Jewish Germans, a desire absolutely justified by his ancestors cultural identity rooted in the more than 1500 year long residence amidst the misty woods and vales of Ashkenaz. Ethnic narratives profoundly shaped by Zionist self-reliance and a complete rejection of Germany following the Holocaust, conspire as well to obscure the profoundly deep connections Ashkenaz Jewry had in those lands, cities, and shtetls stolen from our grandparents and great-grandparents. Their presence as neighbors was organically entangled in their culture, but they pretended it wasn’t so, and what a bloody mess they left behind when they ripped us out from inside them.

This coming Sunday 2-5pm, December 13th, I’ll be at the Lorelei Fountain in the Bronx reading Heine’s poem Die Lorelei, drinking a toast in his honor, and lighting the third light of Ḥanuka. Anyone who cares to is welcome to join me.

Heinrich_Heine by Gottlieb Gassen

Portrait of Heine by Gottlieb Gassen, 1828

Die Lorelei

by Heinrich Heine

Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Daß ich so traurig bin;
Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,
Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn.

Die Luft ist kühl, und es dunkelt,
Un ruhig fließt der Rhein;
Der Gipfel des Berges funkelt
In Abendsonnenschein.

Die schönste Jungfrau sitzet
Dort oben wunderbar,
Ihr goldenes Geschmeide blitzet,
Sie kämmt ihr goldenes Haar.

Sie kämmt es mit goldenem Kamme
Und singt ein Leid dabei;
Das hat eine wundersame,
Gewaltige Melodei.

Den Schiffer im kleinen Schiffe
Ergreift es mit wildem Weh;
Er schaut nicht die Felsenriffe,
Er schaut nur hinauf in die Höh’.

Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen
Am Ende Schiffer uns Kahn;
Und das hat mit ihrem Singen
Die Lorelei getan.

I don’t know what it may signify
That I am so sad;
There’s a tale from ancient times
That I can’t get out of my mind.

The air is cool and the twilight is falling
and the Rhine is flowing quietly by;
the top of the mountain is glittering
in the evening sun.

The loveliest maiden is sitting
Up there, wondrous to tell.
Her golden jewelry sparkles
as she combs her golden hair

She combs it with a golden comb
and sings a song as she does,
A song with a peculiar,
powerful melody.

It seizes upon the boatman in his small boat
With unrestrained woe;
He does not look below to the rocky shoals,
He only looks up at the heights.

If I’m not mistaken, the waters
Finally swallowed up fisher and boat;
And with her singing
The Lorelei did this.

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon’s Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

5 comments to With Heine at Lorelei

  • Wie wunderlich (strange).
    I just published Reb Zalman’s post on hanukkah (http://www.rzlp.org/wordpress/?p=355) and he references Heine in it and so I was researching the reference as you were having these thoughts.
    This is the first time I have heard Reb Zalman make reference to this poet and he uses his phrase to indicate and aspect to our modern day sanctuary, which we must be sure to reclaim, cleanse and sanctify, then resuscitate and finally to make “conscious” as part of observance of Hanukkah.
    I sang Dichterliebe as a senior recital. sehr schoen! m’chayye!
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this precious individual.

    Gabbai Seth Fishman
    Reb Zalman Legacy Project

  • Poetry by Heine on the Sabbath and Cholent, among others can be found in translation of the Works of Heinrich Heine at the Internet Archive.

    PRINCESS SHABBES

    In Arabia’s book of fable
    We behold enchanted princes
    Who at times their form recover,
    Fair as first they were created.

    The uncouth and shaggy monster
    Has again a king for father :
    Pipes his amorous ditties sweetly
    On the flute in jewelled raiment.

    Yet the respite from enchantment
    Is but brief, and, without warning,
    Lo ! we see his Royal Highness
    Shuffled back into a monster.

    Of a prince by fate thus treated
    Is my song. His name is Israel,
    And a witch’s spell has changed him
    To the likeness of a dog.

    As a dog, with dog’s ideas.
    All the week, a cur, he noses
    Through life’s filthy mire and sweepings,
    Butt of mocking city Arabs ;

    But on every Friday evening,
    On a sudden, in the twilight,
    The enchantment weakens, ceases,
    And the dog once more is human.

    And his father’s halls he enters
    As a man, with man’s emotions,
    Head and heart alike uplifted,
    Clad in pure and festal raiment.

    ” Be ye greeted, halls beloved,
    Of my high and royal father !
    Lo ! I kiss your holy door-posts,
    Tents of Jacob, with my mouth ! ”

    Through the house there passes strangely
    A mysterious stir and whisper,
    And the hidden master’s breathing
    Shudders weirdly through the silence.

    Silence ! save for one, the shammes
    ( Vulgo, synagogue attendant)
    Springing up and down, and busy
    With the lamps that he is lighting.

    Golden lights of consolation,
    How they sparkle, how they glimmer!
    Proudly flame the candles also
    On the rails of the Almemor.

    Bv the shrine wherein the Thora
    Is preserved, and which is curtained
    By a costly silken hanging,
    Whereon precious stones are gleaming.

    There, beside the desk already
    Stands the synagogue chazzan.
    Small and spruce, his mantle black
    With an air coquettish shouldering ;

    And, to show how white his hand is.
    At his neck he works — forefinger
    Oddly pressed against his temple.
    And the thumb against his throat.

    To himself he trills and murmurs,
    Till at last his voice he raises :
    Till he sings with joy resounding,
    ” Lecho dodi likrath kallah ! ”

    ” Lecho dodi likrath kallah —
    Come, beloved one, the bride
    Waits already to uncover
    To thine eyes her blushing face ! ”

    The composer of this poem.
    Of this pretty marriage song,
    Is the famous minnesinger,
    Don Jehuda ben Halevy.

    It was writ by him in honour
    Of the wedding of Prince Israel
    And the gentle Princess Shabbes,
    Whom they call the silent princess.

    Pearl and flower of all beauty
    Is the princess — not more lovely
    Was the famous Queen of Sheba,
    Bosom friend of Solomon,

    Who, has bleu of Ethiopia,
    Sought by wit to shine and dazzle.
    And became at length fatiguing
    With her very clever riddles.

    Princess Shabbes, rest incarnate,
    Held in hearty detestation
    Every form of witty warfare
    And of intellectual combat.

    She abhorred with equal loathing
    Loud declamatory passion —
    Pathos ranting round and storming
    With dishevelled hair and streaming.

    In her cap the silent princess
    Hides her modest, braided tresses,
    Like the meek gazelle she gazes.
    Blooms as slender as the myrtle.

    She denies her lover nothing
    Save the smoking of tobacco ;
    ” Dearest, smoking is forbidden,
    For to-day it is the Sabbath.

    ” But at noon, as compensation.
    There shall steam for thee a dish
    That in very truth divine is —
    Thou shalt eat to-day of cholent !

    ” Cholent, ray of light immortal !
    Cholent, daughter of Elysium ! ”
    So had Schiller’s song resounded,
    Had he ever tasted Cholent.

    For this cholent is the very-
    Food of heaven, which, on Sinai,
    God Himself instructed Moses
    In the secret of preparing,

    At the time He also taught him
    And revealed in flames of lightning
    All the doctrines good and pious.
    And the holy Ten Commandments.

    Yes, this cholent’s pure ambrosia
    Of the true and only God :
    Paradisal bread of rapture ;
    And, with such a food compared,

    The ambrosia of the pagan.
    False divinities of Greece,
    Who were devils ‘neath disguises,
    Is the merest devils’ offal.

    When the prince enjoys the dainty.
    Glow his eyes as if transfigured,
    And his waistcoat he unbuttons ;
    Smiling blissfully he murmurs,

    ” Are not those the waves of Jordan
    That I hear — the flowing fountains
    In the palmy vale of Beth-el,
    Where the camels lie at rest ?

    ” Are not those the sheep-bells ringing
    Of the fat and thriving wethers
    That the shepherd drives at evening
    Down Mount Gilead from the pastures ? ”

    But the lovely day flits onward,
    And with long, swift legs of shadow
    Comes the evil hour of magic —
    And the prince begins to sigh ;

    Seems to feel the icy fingers
    Of a witch upon his heart ;
    Shudders, fearful of the canine
    Metamorphosis that waits him.

    Then the princess hands her golden
    Box of spikenard to her lover,
    Who inhales it, fain to revel
    Once again in pleasant odours.

    And the princess tastes and offers
    Next the cup of parting also —
    And he drinks in haste, till only
    Drops a few are in the goblet.

    These he sprinkles on the table.
    Then he takes a little wax-light,
    And he dips it in the moisture
    Till it crackles and is quenched.

    (Translation by Margaret Armour. A few changes in her translation, mainly “cholent” for “schalet,” “shabbes” for “sabbath,” “shammes” for “steward,” and “chazzan” for “precentor.”)

  • Wow! Thank you. What an amazing homage to cholent! Good Shabbos!

  • Cortland

    It is a family legend that my mother’s ancestor, who seems to have come to this country prior to the Civil War, was in fact descended from Heine. But little is known of her.

    Dreams outlive the dreamer, causing sleepers of the future to awaken, wondering what they meant.

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