Stanford University Press remembers a gifted poet, translator, and literary scholar.
Benjamin Harshav, poet, author, teacher, translator, and literary scholar, died last week, leaving behind him a remarkable legacy in the fields of Yiddish and Hebrew literary scholarship. A prolific writer and editor of multiple volumes on poetry, literature, and culture, Harshav published no less than eight titles with Stanford University Press—titles that included translations, edited anthologies, and original essays. His life spanned nearly nine decades and three continents—from Eastern Europe, to Israel, to the United States. During his life he was a champion of comparative literature who took part in a watershed poetic movement and worked indefatigably to bring volumes of Hebrew and Yiddish poetry to wider audiences through translation.
A champion of comparative literature who took part in a watershed poetic movement.
Harshav’s Yiddish roots ran deep—he was born in Vilna, Lithuania in 1928, a town which he described as the “self-styled bastion of Yiddish culture.” But in 1941, the year the Germans wrested the city from Soviet control, Harshav and his family fled to the Urals, where—despite that fact that he would eventually follow a calling in literary scholarship—Harshav attended university to study math and physics.
After World War II Harshav moved to Israel where he picked up degrees in Hebrew Literature and Jewish history, joined the ranks of the Israeli literati, and established the Department of Poetics and Comparative Literature at Tel Aviv University (created in 1967). Likrat, the pivotal literary group of which he was a part, emerged in post-1948 Israel as a response to the previous generation of Jewish poetry. Named for the eponymously titled journal that Harshav started, this generation of modernist poets, including Yehuda Amichai, Nathan Zach, and Dahlia Ravikovitch, embraced a more personal poetic style than their predecessors, signifying a sea change in the contemporary ethos of Jewish poetry.
This new wave of poets distinguished themselves from their forebears by favoring a poetic ethos that celebrated the individual over the collective, the personal over the national. “Modern Jewish culture speaks with many voices,” were Harshav’s opening words in his 2007 collection of essays, The Polyphony of Jewish Culture. Harshav, along with his contemporaries, underscored and celebrated the kaleidoscopic quality of Jewish literature, a quality consequent of Diaspora and its resulting multilingualism. Showcasing the sheer variety of life experiences and perspectives of Jewish people scattered the world over became a central prerogative of the Likrat literary group, which concerned itself less with the unity of Jewish culture, and more with the multiplicity of Jewish experience.
Harshav proved to be both a prolific writer and translator of poetry—at once contributing to the corpus of this movement and exporting its influence farther afield.
Over the course of his life Harshav proved to be both a prolific writer and translator of poetry—at once contributing to the corpus of this movement and exporting its influence farther afield. His own first book of poems was published when he was just 19 and he published dozens of poetic works in translation, including two colossal anthologies on the American Yiddish literary tradition (American Yiddish Poetry and Sing, Stranger) co-edited with his wife, Barbara Harshav—an internationally-recognized translator in her own right, who Harshav described as his “partner among books.”
His many literary efforts also yielded multiple awards, including the prestigious Koret Prize for best Jewish book, awarded to Harshav’s substantial biography of Marc Chagall. A vivid portrayal of the life of the 20th-century Jewish artist, Marc Chagall and His Times, traces the artist’s life from humble beginnings in a Russian ghetto, to the centers of modern culture in France, the United States, Germany, and Israel—a geographic and cultural trajectory not unlike Harshav’s own path in life.
And yet, despite his many contributions to the fields of Jewish poetry and comparative literature, what Harshav may remain most remembered for is his personal impact on the institutions he served and the intellects he stimulated. Professor Ziva Ben-Porat of Tel Aviv University remarked on his influence in an edition of Poetics Today:
Metaphorically speaking, whether we grew up in his school or came to know him through his academic, sometimes groundbreaking work (theoretical and institutional), ‘all of us came out of the folds of his overcoat’ … It became evident that in fifty years of activity in the literary field Harshav’s multifaceted personality has produced, inspired, and attracted a large and varied body of scholarship.
Even some who did not know Harshav personally have confessed to feeling a “void” since his recent passing, owing to both his conceptual and pedagogical contributions to his field. In 1987 Harshav left Tel Aviv to take a teaching post as Professor Emeritus of Hebrew Languages and Literatures at Yale University. Susan Bernofsky, a writer and translator who was a postdoctoral fellow at Yale during Harshav’s tenure, had this to say:
I did not study directly with Harshav and did not know him personally, though I met him a few times … Yet I am indebted to him in ways that reveal themselves in every project I undertake. Harshav leaves a tremendous legacy in the fields of Yiddish and Hebrew literary scholarship, but that legacy also includes his brilliant pedagogy and students who have gone on to mentor new scholars and inspire new readers.
Undoubtedly, Harshav leaves behind many colleagues, former students, and creative collaborators who will feel his absence deeply—to say nothing of his close friends and family. We, at Stanford University Press, were grateful for the opportunity to work with Benjamin Harshav, and bring his work to press. We join the many who lament his passing.