Although Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) is well-known today—as a philosopher, a Jewish theologian and a social activist—Heschel the poet is not. Nevertheless, those who have read his writings in English, spiritual classics like The Sabbath and Man is Not Alone, and have been moved by the power of his prose and the subtlety of his expression, will not be surprised to find that in his youth he had actually published a volume of Yiddish poetry in the heyday of Yiddish literature before the Holocaust.
The 66 precious poems of Der Shem Ham’forash—Mentch, published by Indsel Verlag in Warsaw in 1933, remained close to Heschel’s heart all of his life, though few people knew of their existence. It was more than a decade after his passing before most of his admirers learned of them, being treated to a few tantalizing snippets in Samuel Dresner’s anthology, I Asked for Wonder (a line taken from the dedication of Der Shem Ham’forash—Mentch). But what was unknown to most of Heschel’s readers was that a complete translation of his poetry in English already existed in his lifetime; and still more amazing, it had been made by his younger contemporary, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (b. 1924), who would himself become a towering figure in Jewish and world spirituality, but who at the time was just coming into his own and looked to the older Heschel as a mentor.
As we learn in the introduction, the first drafts of these translations were given as gifts to Heschel after his heart attack in 1969 to cheer him through his convalescence (sometimes accompanied by recordings of Schachter-Shalomi reading both the Yiddish originals and the English translations!) Schachter-Shalomi notes that Heschel was satisfied with some of these early drafts and unsatisfied with others. The poems were deeply personal to him and the translations would need to be revised. Unfortunately, Heschel died before he and Schachter-Shalomi could come together to discuss a revision and the translations were put on a shelf. But now, in honor of the 40th anniversary of Heschel’s passing, Schachter-Shalomi has taken them down again and completed his own revision for the modern reader of sacred poetry. Thus, we have in this volume something truly unique—the combined work and vision of two of the 20th century’s greatest Jewish spiritual luminaries and master’s of Yiddish!
Abraham Joshua Heschel. Human---God's Ineffable Name. Tr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. (pbk, 158 pgs., $14.95.