Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 532
Heine’s sequence of three poems on Jewish themes forms part of his collection Romanzero (1851; English translation, 1859). The title was undoubtedly suggested by the Hebrew Melodies (1815) of Lord Byron.
The poems reflect both continuity and change as far as the poet’s attitude toward Judaism and his Jewish heritage is concerned. “Prinzessin Sabbat” (“Princess Sabbath”) presents, in thirty-eight unrhymed stanzas, a warmly evocative account of the Sabbath observance in a synagogue. On the eve of the Jewish day of rest, Israel (that is, a Jew) is temporarily freed from the witch’s curse that has transformed him into a dog and enters the house of prayer like a prince ready to meet his princess, the personification of the Sabbath, who is as humble and quiet as she is beautiful. Heine describes the richly symbolic festive bustle in the synagogue as the princess promises her beloved culinary delights. Such treats stir visions of biblical scenes, but the waning of the Sabbath threatens to transform the observant Jew into a workaday beast again. The poem ends with a description of the traditional Havdalah ceremony. The smell of a spice box sustains the worshipers, who are saddened and weakened by the need to bid the Sabbath farewell, and a few drops of wine serve to extinguish the candle and thus the day of rest.
“Jehuda ben Halevy,” the longest poem in this sequence, has twenty-four stanzas and almost nine hundred lines, and yet it is a fragment with an elegiac beginning and undertone, for in his age-old mourning for devastated Jerusalem the poet invokes the exemplary figure of Judah ha-Levi, a scholar, physician, and poet. Heine gives a flowery description of the making of the poet and his study of the Torah and the Talmud, but he also integrates him into the mainstream of Christian medieval Europe and calls him the equal of the great Provençal poets, though his muse was Jerusalem rather than some lady love. In a long digression, Heine concerns himself with jewels found by Alexander the Great after his victory over the Persian king Darius III in 331 b.c.e., specifically the wondrous wanderings of a pearl necklace. He also pays tribute to the other great poets of that age, Salomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol (Ibn Gabriol) of Malaga and Moses ibn Ezra of Granada.
“Disputation” consists of 110 unrhymed stanzas. The witty narrator gives a mordant account of a fourteenth century public debate between a Franciscan friar and a rabbi at the Toledo court of King Pedro I of Castile. The question to be settled in this grotesque variant on a medieval tournament is which is the true God, the threefold Christian God of love or the Hebrews’ stern deity. Since the loser will have to adopt the religion of the winner, each dueling debater has assistants ready with baptismal basins and circumcision knives. The friar gives a crude, absurd account of Christian beliefs, and the more rationalistic rabbi emphasizes that Jehovah is a strong living presence. In this twelve-hour mental marathon, the arguments become increasingly heated and vituperative, and when the king asks his queen for her judgment, she comes to the unsettling conclusion that “both of them stink.”
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