Thursday, February 26, 2009

Spend A Moment With Spender

David Aberbach, Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Studies at McGill University, Canada, has a piece on the poet Stephen Spender (here), on the topic of "Stephen Spender's Jewish roots".

I've extracted this as relevant to my blogging and you should know that:

Spender inherited his parents’ liberal views and commitment to social causes, progress and culture...Spender remained under the spell of German high culture and, as soon as the war ended, he revisited Germany and wrote a book about its ruins. Spender had something of the bizarre attachment of German Jews to Germany, described by Frederic Grunfeld: “While half the German Jews were being murdered in the name of a greater Germany, many of the rest continued to think of themselves as ambassadors of the German Geist”...Spender transcends his age, partly for reasons having to do with his German-Jewish background and the failed “symbiosis” of Deutschtum and Judentum, of the prophet Isaiah and Goethe, with an admixture of English Romanticism and Liberalism...The moral basis of Spender’s Communist sympathies was the biblical idea that, as he wrote, “all men are equal in the eyes of God, and that the riches of the few are an injustice to the many”.

My selection:

he saw the creation of the State of Israel in moral terms, as the rectification of a historic injustice. Spender described as miraculous Israel’s survival after being attacked in 1948 by five Arab countries as well as Palestinian Arabs, when many predicted its annihilation and a renewal of the Holocaust. In his book on Youth Aliyah, Learning Laughter (1952), commissioned by George Weidenfeld, Spender defined Israel’s purpose – like that of all nations which have adopted the Hebrew Bible – as religious and moral: to be “a light unto the nations”, an example to the world. As a poet with a social conscience (see, for example, “An Elementary School Classroom in a Slum”), Spender was particularly moved by the care given in Israel in the early years of statehood to deprived and traumatized children (including many Holocaust survivors) from dozens of countries, the majority being refugees fleeing persecution in Arab lands. He suggested that the integration of Oriental and Western children in Israel could be an international model for pluralism.

Israel seemed to fulfil biblical prophecy, as an apocalyptic redemption after centuries of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust: “There has been a terrible wave of persecution; there has been the miracle of the birth of the State; there has been the deliverance from the invading Arabs; there has been the Ingathering; and now there is the struggle demanding a unity which accepts the significance of all these things”. Of the modern significance of the festival of Passover, Spender wrote: “It is not only the celebration of a past religious experience but participation in the miracle of our own times”. Great religious poetry was needed to retell the biblical story in modern terms: Uri Zvi Greenberg was Israel’s poet of national rebirth.

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