Ruth Langer

title.none: Weinberger, ed. and trans., Twilight of a Golden Age (Langer)

identifier.other: baj9928.9812.008 98.12.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ruth Langer, Boston College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Weinberger, Leon J., ed. and trans. Twilight of a Golden Age. Selected Poems of Abraham Ibn Ezra. Judaic Studies Series. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1997. Pp. xv, 267. $44.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-817-30878-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.12.08

Weinberger, Leon J., ed. and trans. Twilight of a Golden Age. Selected Poems of Abraham Ibn Ezra. Judaic Studies Series. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1997. Pp. xv, 267. $44.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-817-30878-4.

Reviewed by:

Ruth Langer
Boston College

Th e Schiff Library of Jewish Classics of the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) included volumes of selected poems with English translation by three of the greatest Jewish poets of medieval Spain: Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1924), Moses ibn Ezra (1934) and Jehudah Halevi (1924). A lacuna in this collection has finally been addressed with Weinberger's Twilight of a Golden Age: Selected Poems of Abraham Ibn Ezra. While Abraham Ibn Ezra is probably best known across the Jewish world for his Bible commentaries, included in the late medieval Miqra'ot Gedolot (Rabbinic Bible), his poetry was also quite influential, particularly in the Spanish rites. His omission from the Schiff Library was more a question of budget than of quality. (Sarna, 120-130.) The publication of (Hebrew) critical editions of Ibn Ezra's poetry by I. Levin and H. Schirmann has released Weinberger from the most difficult task that confronted the JPS editors.

Indeed, the reader interested in any of the apparatus of the critical editions must refer back to the Hebrew volumes. Weinberger's purpose in this volume is to introduce the English-speaking world to Ibn Ezra's poetic corpus. He provides a sixty-three page introduction, followed by eighteen selections from Ibn Ezra's secular poetry and sixty-five selections of sacred poetry. For each selection, he provides first his translation, then either Levin or Schirmann's Hebrew text, and then a brief commentary which more often focusses on issues of content rather than the less translatable poetics. In his introduction and commentary he is slightly more expansive than his JPS prototypes; they, however, put more emphasis on the Hebrew text, commenting directly on it in some volumes and placing the Hebrew and English texts on facing pages, thus indicating that the English is really present as an aid for access to the Hebrew original.

The reader seeking an introduction to Ibn Ezra's poetry will need to begin with another of Weinberger's prototypes, Raymond P. Scheindlin's volumes Wine, Women, and Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life and The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel and the Soul, which provide much more systematic introductions to important aspects of poetics and thematic norms in medieval Spanish poetry, organized around fairly detailed expositions of individual illustrative poems. Weinberger often presumes familiarity with material Scheindlin discusses more fully. Scheindlin's primary text is clearly the Hebrew original, and his discussions, fuller than Weinberger's, convey to the reader many aspects of the artistry of the Hebrew text. However, Scheindlin includes few of Abraham Ibn Ezra's poems.

Weinberger organizes his book thematically. His introduction, after a recounting of Ibn Ezra's biography, treats seriatim various recurrent topics in Ibn Ezra's poetry and prose compositions, like astrology, wisdom, and aspects of the relationship between God and Israel. However, Weinberger's contextualization of Ibn Ezra's treatment of these topics in the world of Judeo-Spanish and general Spanish poetry and thinking is insufficient, particularly for an introductory text. The reader will learn little about the intellectual climate which shaped Ibn Ezra's productions, his influence on later poets, or where and how his poetry was recited. The concluding sections of the introduction includes a discussion of Ibn Ezra as a biblical exegete (in a section strangely titled "Israel's Diary")--but the book lacks any significant discussion of Ibn Ezra's use of Bible in his poetry, in spite of the fact that practically every line uses biblical language or alludes to biblical text. The final section of the introduction, "Folk Hero," while fascinating, speaks to others' largely mythical perceptions of the man and is not relevant to Ibn Ezra's poetic creations. Most of this introductory material may be found in more and less extensive versions in Hebrew publications.

Thematic concerns also govern Weinberger's choice of poetry. He presents the sacred (or better, liturgical) poetry in categories titled "God," "The Soul," "Israel," and one structural category, "Dialogue and Chorus." He does not formally subdivide the shorter section of secular poetry, but major groupings are devoted to complaints about patrons and, conversely, elegies for them. These thematic concerns are also dominant in his brief commentaries to the individual poems, resulting most often in his ignoring their more artistic elements. A section of the introduction devoted to poetics, to which the individual commentaries could refer, would have been desirable. Most of the time, the reader of the English translation would not suspect that Ibn Ezra has employed an acrostic, a particular rhyme, alliteration, allusions to biblical verses or other esthetic elements that make this such stunning poetry. Footnotes, as found in the critical editions, pointing to the biblical allusions, would be most helpful. Similarly, by organizing the sacred poetry thematically, Weinberger does not give the reader a solid sense of how the poetry was intended to be used as liturgy. His discussions of liturgical use are fragmented and confusing; his introduction (p. 33) mentions only three of the types of sacred poems found in the volume, and even these are out of their liturgical order.

Translation of poetry is a most difficult task, requiring first interpretation of the original, and then decisions as how best to portray the multidimensional sense of the text in another culture's idiom. In a volume such as this, translation also lies at the core of the book's value to its intended audience. Weinberger provides no discussion of his guidelines for translation and only infrequent discussions of his decisions on particular issues. While Weinberger's translations communicate well in English, they are sufficiently interpretative as to confuse the student trying to decode the Hebrew original. Consistent with modern norms, he makes no effort to duplicate Ibn Ezra's meter or rhyme. He frequently shifts the order of phrases within a line, but is infrequently more radical. At times, the two stichs of Ibn Ezra's line appear as two lines in the translation, a change unimportant in terms of meaning, but indicating incorrectly to the reader the aural structure created by the rhyme. More serious are the places where Weinberger's attempt at poetic translation leads him away from Ibn Ezra's actual words. For instance, where a straightforward translation yields, "With all their strength, like enemies they oppress me," Weinberger translates, "Like arch-enemies they tyrannize me with a vengeance." (p. 69) The poem itself does not require this intensification of meaning.

In general, the book suffers from a lack of a strong editorial hand. There are numerous places where the reader understands the opposite of what Weinberger must have intended in his comment. There is an inconsistency in what is commented on or not with each poem, not compensated for by a development of the discussion from one poem to the next. In the introduction, poems are referred to by their Hebrew titles/opening words in transliteration, but these names do not reappear as the titles of the poems presented, and there is no index to the poems, a tool that would be most useful for someone seeking a translation of a particular poem found elsewhere. Although not perfect, this volume is still a significant contribution to the English literature on medieval Hebrew poetry. The translations of the poems are adequate, and the reader will gain a good sense of Ibn Ezra's thematic concerns with occasional hints about the poetry itself.


Levin, I. Abraham Ibn Ezra's Liturgical Poetry [Heb.]. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1975-80.

Sarna, Jonathan D. JPS: The Americanization of Jewish Culture, 1888-1988. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Scheindlin, Raymond P. The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel and the Soul. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1991.

Ibid. Wine, Women, and Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1986.

Schirmann, H. Hebrew Poetry in Spain and Provence [Heb.]. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1959.