“Portraits of the Great Poets of Israel.” Commercially produced lithograph based on an illustration printed in the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Asif, 1886. (1) Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn, (2) Yehudah Leib Gordon, (3) Naftali Herts Wessely, (4) Adam ha-Kohen (Avraham Dov Lebensohn), and (5) Avraham Ber Gottlober. (YIVO)

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Lebensohn, Mikhah Yosef

(1828–1852), Hebrew poet and translator. Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn (Mikhal), son of Avraham Dov Lebensohn (Adam ha-Kohen), was born in Vilna. In addition to receiving a traditional Jewish education, he was encouraged by his father to study Russian, Polish, German, and French, and began writing and translating at an early age. In 1845, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and subsequently traveled to sanatoria in Germany (Reinerz, Salzbrunn, and Berlin) in search of a cure. In Berlin, he was introduced to German culture, including the philosophy of Friedrich Schelling, and befriended the prominent Jewish scholar Shneur Sachs. In 1850, Lebensohn returned to Vilna. Attempts to cure his disease failed and he died at age 24.

Lebensohn published two books: Harisut Troyah (1849), a partial translation (from German) of Virgil’s Aeneid; and Shire bat Tsiyon (Songs of a Daughter of Zion; 1851), a collection of poems. After Lebensohn died, his father assembled Kinor bat Tsiyon (Violin of a Daughter of Zion; 1870), poems written during the poet’s last years. Shire bat Tsiyon is devoted to biblical and historic figures, with each piece exploring the motif of humans confronting fundamental issues such as identity, faith and heresy, and life and death. Lebensohn’s lyrical poetry focuses primarily on three subjects: love, prayer, and death. The love he describes is realistic, erotic, and at the same time wistful, unattainable, and utopian.

In the poem “Shelomoh ve-Kohelet” (Solomon and Ecclesiastes), Lebensohn presents the two faces of King Solomon: the one, “Solomon,” filled with youth, faith, optimism, love for nature, philanthropy, and love for Shulamit; and the other, “Ecclesiastes,” a man whose wisdom and experience cause him doubts that undermine his faith. Another poem, “Ya‘el ve-Sisra,” presents the murder of Sisera not merely as an act of heroism but also as a moral injustice, showing the betrayal of a defeated adversary who had put his trust in his hostess. Following the advice of Shemu’el David Luzzatto, Lebensohn completed the poem in the spirit of the Bible, but his subversive interpretation of this particular story—as in the case of “Shelomoh ve-Kohelet”—remains.

The motif of a hero facing death appears once again in Lebensohn’s “Nikmat Shimshon” (Samson’s Vengeance) and also, most prominently, in two poems devoted to Moses and to Yehudah ha-Levi. Some critics found in Lebensohn’s descriptions of their fates an implied manifestation of the poet’s own fate—a person who, in his own way, observed the “promised land” from afar.

The prayer motif is found in “Ha-Tefilah” (The Prayer), “Ha-Boded ba-sadeh” (Alone in the Field), and “El ha-kokhavim” (To the Stars). In these, the poet takes note of nature and the world, observing how they radiate strength and religious, even pantheist inspiration. Though God is present everywhere and in everything, the poet shows that it is not tevel (the world, the universe) that prays, but he, a human being, who experiences phenomena internally and outwardly.

The death motif appears in many of Lebensohn’s poems. The best-known example, “Ḥag ha-aviv” (The Holiday of Spring; i.e., Passover), situates the poet in a crowd that includes “beautiful maidens,” all celebrating the holiday in Berlin. The poet does not join the festivities, however, as he is being stalked by re‘ah ayumah (horrible companion/spouse)—his disease—whose ultimate end and purpose is death.

Lebensohn’s translations constitute an important element of his total literary output; their structures tend to be loose and often amount to adaptations. In his introduction to Harisut Troyah, he notes that he had chosen to translate sections from the Aeneid because of its beauty and value as a timeless masterpiece; as a zealot of the Hebrew language, he considered it his duty to confront this task. Lebensohn also translated (among other works) parts of Saul by Conte Vittorio Alfieri (Aḥarit Sha’ul) and the ballad “Der Erlkönig” by Goethe (“Melekh balahot”). Many of his own poems were influenced by foreign-language masterpieces. Here and there, his poems contain allusions to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth and to Schiller’s “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy)—the famous poem sung in the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Lebensohn was recognized and appreciated by his contemporaries, and was regarded by scholars as one of the most important writers of his time, a premature genius who followed an unusual path as a poet. He was a maskil poet who did not enlist in the Haskalah wars but regarded himself, first and foremost, as a creative artist.

Suggested Reading

Joseph Klausner, Yotsrim u-vonim, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv, 1943), 124–142; Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 3, pp. 228–268 (Jerusalem, 1953); Fischel Lachower, Toldot ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 2, pp. 114–133, 305–307 (Tel Aviv, 1963); Micah Joseph Lebensohn, Shire Mikhal: Igrotav ve-targumav (Tel Aviv, 1964); Eisig Silberschlag, From Renaissance to Renaissance, vol. 1, Hebrew Literature from 1492–1970 (New York, 1973); Nahum Slouschz, The Renascence of Hebrew Literature, 1743–1885, trans. Hen-rietta Szold (Philadelphia, 1909).



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann