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A masterly biography of Yehuda Halevi, one of the greatest of Hebrew poets and a shining example of the synthesis of religion and culture that defined the golden age of medieval Spanish Jewry.
Like Maimonides, with whom he contrasts sharply, Yehuda Halevi spanned multiple worlds. Poet, philosopher, and physician, he is known today for both his religious and secular verse, including his famed “songs of Zion,” and for The Kuzari, an elucidation of Judaism in dialogue form. Hillel Halkin brilliantly evokes the fascinating world of eleventh- and twelfth-century Andalusian Spain in which Halevi lived and discusses the influences that formed him. Relying on the astonishing discoveries of the Cairo Geniza, he pieces together the mystery of Halevi’s last days, with its fateful voyage to Palestine, which became a haunting legend.
An acclaimed writer and translator, Halkin builds his account of Halevi’s life and death on his magnificent translations of Halevi’s poems. He places The Kuzari within the wider context of Jewish thought and explains why, more perhaps than any other medieval Jewish figure, Halevi has become an inspirational yet highly controversial figure in modern Jewish and Israeli intellectual life.
“Offering more than a masterful biography, Halkin includes many eloquent English renderings of Halevi’s poems, no mean achievement as these were written in an Arab-influenced Hebrew style, meter, and idiom. . . . But Halkin’s greatest contribution is his nimble navigation of the twists and turns of Halevi’s turbulent life and the controversies that punctuate the many interpretations of his thought. . . . Given that the mountain of literature about Halevi has produced as much confusion as information, Halkin’s broad yet deeply learned synthesis of his subject’s life and works is particularly welcome.” —Moment magazine
“During the Spanish middle ages, one of poetry’s golden eras, Yehuda Halevi’s work glimmered with an astonishing virtuosity among its masters. Halkin has written a vivid, smart, and engaging portrait of both the artist and his age. Against a shifting background of political and religious thought, Halkin presents us with a poet who cast a romantic eye on the fallen world, a passionate pilgrim and philosopher after whom Hebrew poetry was never the same.” —J. D. McClatchy
“There’s a great deal to enjoy in Yehuda Halevi, but for me it’s the poetry that truly inspires. The translations do their job: one feels the heft, courage, and urgency of Halevi’s passion to sing, and comes away understanding that, before and beyond all the tortured politics and endless blood, the real history of the Jewish people can be found not in exile but in the great love poetry, stemming all the way from the Song of Songs to Halevi to Amichai—the true home of Jewish longing and imagination.” —Philip Schultz
“A wonderfully fresh biography of the great medieval Jewish poet and philosopher. Halkin has also provided a potent reading of Halevi’s poems, a powerful contextual study of his times, and a provocative interpretation of his legacy. Read this definitive work and you will be deeply immersed in the world of a figure that Heinrich Heine described as ‘God-kissed.’” —Edward Hirsch
“A thoroughly researched, carefully rendered biography that evokes the vanished world of golden age Spanish Jewry. . . . One of its great assets is Halkin’s original translations of Halevi’s verse. It is precisely Halkin’s admiration of the poet that makes his subject come so fully to life.” —Forward