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Letteris, Me’ir

(1800?–1871), Hebrew poet; editor and translator of poetry and dramatic works. Me’ir (Max) ha-Levi Letteris was born in Żółkiew, eastern Galicia, into a family of Hebrew publishers. His father also served as head of the town’s Jewish community for many years. After receiving a traditional education, Me’ir Letteris pursued general studies with a tutor, and in 1820 traveled to Vienna where he studied at the Academy of Natural Sciences for two years. Between 1826 and 1830, he was at the University of Lwów, and later attended the University of Vienna. Letteris earned his living in those years as a journalist, writing literary and dramatic criticism. At an older age (in 1844), he received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Prague.

When Letteris was 11 years old, he met Naḥman Krochmal—a meeting that turned out to be significant. Krochmal became Letteris’s rabbi, mentor, and close friend, and when Krochmal’s Moreh nevukhe ha-zeman (Guide of the Perplexed of Our Time) was published (posthumously), Letteris wrote his biography (1851). [See the biography of Krochmal.] Letteris’s translation from German into Hebrew of a speech by David Friedländer, and the production of a new edition of the publication Ha-Me’asef, brought him close to the world of maskilim in Germany, and the appearance of his own poetry collection, Divre shir (Collection of Poems) in 1822 established his reputation as a poet. In 1823, Letteris published the anthology Ha-Tsefirah, to which some of the leading maskilim of his generation contributed.

In 1846, Letteris published his article “Toldot ha-filosof Barukh Spinozah zikhrono li-verakhah” (Biography of the Philosopher Barukh Spinoza of Blessed Memory). Unaware of the Jewish community’s sensitivity about Spinoza, Letteris was dragged, at great personal cost, into a tumultuous debate that caused his friends, even those who were more moderate maskilim, to draw away from him. Moreover, for financial reasons Letteris accepted the task of proofreading the Bible published by the British and Foreign Bible Society of London (1852), a Christian organization.

Once again, Letteris found himself humiliated, and he was not forgiven for many years. Only after his death in 1871 did critics judge him more positively, at which point even long-standing opponents such as Perets Smolenskin acknowledged his talent.

Through his original and translated poetry, Letteris paved the way for romantic poetry in Hebrew literature. His collections of Hebrew verse (which include original poems as well as translations) are Divre shir, Ayelet ha-shaḥar (Morning Star; 1824), ‘Afrot zahav (Gold Ore; 1852), and Tofes kinor ve-ugav (One Who Plays the Harp and Pipe; 1860). Letteris wrote poems in German as well, and his publication of Sagen aus dem Orient (Legends of the Orient; 1847) earned him a gold medal from Emperor Franz Joseph.

One of Letteris’s poetic innovations was his emphatic demand for form and content to complement each other. In fact, Letteris was among the first Haskalah poets who did not conform to rules about poetic diction, and he always attempted, to the extent possible, to avoid creating an unreasonable distance between the language used and the reality shaped by a poem. This conformity, or harmony, was not easy to accomplish, as Hebrew was not a spoken language in Letteris’s day, and the language was saturated with complex biblical phrases. Influenced by European poetry, Letteris made commendable efforts to ensure that the language of lyrical Hebrew poetry, both original and translated, would be more flexible. He thereby paved the way for his successors.

In 1869, Letteris published his autobiography, Zikaron ba-sefer (Memoir in a Book) in which he vividly described the literary and philosophical atmosphere of the Haskalah movement in Galicia. He translated many European literary classics, lyrical poems, and plays, including works by Virgil, Lucian, Racine, Byron, Goethe, Schiller, and the Austrian Jewish poet Ludwig August Frankl. Additionally, he translated (from German) the satire Alexander the False Prophet by the Greek satirist Lucian (in Ha-Tsefirah; 1823), thus contributing to the infusion of European satire into contemporary Hebrew.

Letteris chose a different approach in translating Racine’s plays. In Geza‘ Yishai (based on Athalie; 1835) and Shelom Ester (based on Esther; 1843), he focused on aesthetic quality, creating some of the most polished Hebrew translations of the nineteenth century. He also translated Goethe, including lyrical poems and the play Ben-Avuyah, based on Faust (a translation and reworking of part 1 of Faust; 1865), triggering both positive and negative critical reaction.

Fond of Byron’s works, Letteris was the first to translate parts of the British poet’s Hebrew Melodies (Neginot mini kedem). Byron’s influence is also clearly evident in Letteris’s original lyrical poetry. Influenced by the poet’s characters and evocation of a spiritual world, Letteris’s own characters show the individualistic strain of heroes agonizing in the face of their fates.

In his translations, Letteris clearly did not intend or claim to produce literal versions. Instead, he allowed himself to devise a sort of fusion, blending together the translation and his own interpretation. Accordingly, he states the following in his introduction to Ayelet ha-shaḥar: “Those that I had taken from the poets of the nations, I toiled arduously on them, and I did not translate them in the way of the translators, but through much labor I made them my own, and will readily proclaim, publicly: they are mine.”

Letteris’s primary contribution to nineteenth-century Hebrew poetry was in the development of lyrical verse. His poetry departed from the rationalist productions of his predecessors, and the antirational element progressively crystallized in his verse. At the center of his work, he placed the “wisdom of the heart,” affirming that “An understanding heart I had set as a goal for myself.” By “understanding heart,” Letteris expressed the distance between himself and the poets of rationalist Haskalah.

Suggested Reading

Yehuda Friedlander, “Li-Veḥinat yetsirato shel Me’ir ha-Levi Leteris—Perek be-sifrut mashvah,” Sefer Bar-Ilan Le-mada‘e ha-ruaḥ veha-ḥevrah—Kovets he-‘asor, Decennial Volume II (1955–1965), ed. Menaḥem Zevi Kaddari, pp. 21–30 (Jerusalem, 1969); Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 2, pp. 369–400 (Jerusalem, 1952); Avraham Shaanan, ‘Iyunim be-sifrut ha-haskalah (Merḥavyah, Isr., 1952), pp. 42–55; Samuel Werses (Shemu’el Verses), Megamot ve-tsurot be-sifrut ha-haskalah (Jerusalem, 1990), pp. 231–235, 255–256; Israel Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, trans. and ed. Bernard Martin, vol. 10, pt. 11, The Science of Judaism and Galician Haskalah, pp. 113–119 (Cincinnati and New York, 1977).



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann