Words Like Sapphires: 100 Years of Hebraica at the Library of Congress, 1912–2012

“By the rivers of Babylon,” as told in Psalm 137, the Jewish exiles from the Holy Land, led into captivity after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, hung their harps upon the willows, lamenting “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Yet sing they did: the annals of subsequent Jewish history are studded with songs and poems regarded as classics of Hebrew literature. From the courtyards of medieval Spain to the tenements of the Lower East Side in New York City, Hebrew poets continued the ancient traditions even as they adopted new genres and poetic forms. In medieval Spain, under Muslim rule, Jewish poets poured the Hebrew language into Arabic patterns and verse forms; in Renaissance Italy they wrote Hebrew sonnets and canzone in the best traditions of Dante and Petrarch. And so on down the ages, in Jewish communities across the globe, they continue while also extending their output in vernacular Jewish languages such as Yiddish and Ladino. Today, both in the State of Israel and abroad, Hebrew poetry continues to thrive as poets use the treasures of the ancient language to distill new idioms and create poems with a very modern sensibility. From politics to the deepest emotions of the human spirit, Hebrew poetry responds to the challenges of contemporary life and provides a voice and an inspiration for every new generation of artists and readers..

A Masterpiece of Hebrew Literature

One of the masterpieces of Hebrew literature, the Book of Cantos by Immanuel of Rome was created in the tradition of the Arabic maqama (rhymed frame-stories), set in the world of early Renaissance Italy, and written in a brilliant rhymed Hebrew laced with metrical Hebrew poems. A perennial favorite since its composition in the late thirteenth century, Immanuel’s Book of Cantos was one of the first non-religious books printed in Hebrew; this first edition was produced by the master of early Hebrew printing, Gershom ben Moses Soncino. Immanuel of Rome (b. 1265) was a contemporary of Dante, the famed author of the Divine Comedy, and is notable for having composed the first sonnets written in any language other than Italian, as shown in the book on display.

Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome. רפס תורבחמה (The Cantos of Immanuel of Rome). Brescia: Gershom ben Moses Soncino, [October 30, 1491]. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (053.00.01)

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First Book of Hebrew Poems Printed in the United States

This book has the distinction of being the first book of Hebrew poems and the first Yiddish book printed in the United States. The poems, in Hebrew with facing Yiddish translation, celebrate the Jewish people, the Hebrew language, and America, though they are perhaps more notable for enthusiasm than for literary quality. The short German poem on the title page is spoken, as it were, by a personified “Israel, the Elder:”

O say it to all,
Open and free;
A Jew I am,
And a Jew I will be.

[trans. Abraham Karp]

Jacob Zevi Sobol. ריש בהז דובכל לארשי ןקזה (“A Golden Poem in Honor of Israel, the Elder” ). New York: Tepalowsky, 1877. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (054.00.00)

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Creative Talent in Contemporary Israel

In 1989, nine Israeli artists were commissioned by the Jerusalem Print Workshop to create etchings for poems by Hebrew poets of their choice. The resulting books offer a wide spectrum of creative talent in contemporary Israel. Printed in a limited edition of thirty copies, each book contains six to twelve screen-printed poems and is housed in an Obichi wood box. The poem displayed here is הפורטרט [“The Portrait” ] by Dan Pagis, one of the most renowned Hebrew poets of the last few generations; the accompanying etching is by Israeli artist Tamara Rikman.

םיטירחת לש םיריש: העשת ירפס ןמא לש םיטירחת םירישו (Etchings of Poems: Nine Albums of Etchings and Poems). Jerusalem: The Jerusalem Print Workshop, 1989. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (055.00.00)

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Bilingual Edition of Poems by an Esteemed Young Israeli Poet

This unique artist’s book is a bilingual edition of poems by Ronny Someck, one of the best-known and most esteemed young poets working in Israel today. The formal title of the book in English is “Pointe Shoes;” but a more literal translation of the Hebrew title might be “Advice to a Young Girl Dancing,” which is more evocative of the book itself. The poems are accompanied by two hand-colored linear etchings by Israeli book-artist Ido Agassi.

Ronny Someck. הצע הדליל תדקור (Pointe Shoes), with etchings by Ido Agassi. Raanana: Even Hoshen Press, 2009. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (057.00.00)

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A Noted Book Artist's Take on a Traditional Jewish Folk Tale

This artist’s book was created through the combined talents of noted book-artist David ben Shaul and Uri Orlev, one of the most outstanding Israeli authors of literature for children and a recipient of the highly prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award (1996). The book is a modern take on the traditional Jewish folk tale, using elements that are common to the genre. Unfolding accordion-style, the book was screen-printed and issued in a limited edition of seventy five signed and numbered copies. An English translation by Hillel Halkin accompanies it.

David Ben Shaul and Uri Orlev. רופיס לע ךלמ הכלמ לוגנרתו (A King, a Queen and a Cock). Jerusalem: Jerusalem Print Workshop, 1996. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (058.00.00)

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"Will Her Love Remember"

American artist, calligrapher, and printmaker Lynne Avadenka took as the starting point for this book the one Hebrew poem of thousands written in medieval Jewish Spain that is attributed to a woman. The eight-line poem, “Hayizkor ya’alat hahen,” by the wife of Dunash ben Labrat, is translated into English as “Will Her Love Remember Her.” Avadenka explains, “I freely lettered the first Hebrew lines of the poem, and the shapes created from that calligraphy became the plum colored lithographs accompanying the text. The decorative vellum lacing and closure echoes the punched and laced bindings of the books from that time and place. The movement of the pages echoes the content of the poem: the lovers are separated; they will be divided, never together again.”

Lynne Avadenka. Plum Colored Regret, with English translation by Peter Cole. Hebrew and English. Huntington Woods, Michigan: Land Marks Press, 2010. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (056.00.00)

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