Books Abraham Regelson ABRAHAM REGELSON
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Abraham Regelson - A Reflective Hebrew Poet

From the book Hebrew Studies, 1977

By Prof. David Rudavsky, New York University

Abraham Regelson is one of the few remaining Mohicans among the American Hebrew poets of our time. The American Jewish milieu failed to produce its own creative Hebrew writers or to nurture a Hebrew readership, despite its vast network of Jewish educational and cultural institutions fostering Hebraic learning. Regelson, like his colleagues, with perhaps the single exception of the late Reuven Avinoam, was an immigrant.  He was born in Helusk, a town near Minsk, capital of White Russia, in 1896. When he came to America at the age of nine (1905), he settled with his family in New York City, on the lower East Side, where he attended the Jacob Joseph Yeshiva.  Later he joined the teacher training classes conducted by the renowned Jewish nationalistic Hebrew poet, author and educator, Hayyim Abraham Friedland, known affectionately in his circle as “Het Aleph”, a charismatic and inspiring personality, who imbued young Regelson with his own spiritual elation, as he had succeeded in doing with others of his disciples.


In America Regelson devoted a number of years to Hebrew teaching.  His formal schooling was not at all extensive; he was in the main an autodidact who acquired his extensive knowledge of Hebrew and Anglo-American literature, poetry and philosophy from his own wide reading and diligent study.  After World War 1 he started to write Hebrew poetry. From 1933-1936 he lived in what was then Palestine, the Jewish homeland, where he worked as a journalist for Davar and contributed also to Davar L’yeladim, a children’s publication.  He then returned to America, but shortly after the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, he settled there permanently.


One may become acquainted with Regelson’s Hebrew verse from the volume called by the rather odd name of its title poem, “Hakukot Otiyotaich,” (Thy Letters Are Carved).  This poem, unique in style and content, is an ode to the Hebrew language the poet admires as an ardent lover who praises the virtues of his beloved in “utterances short of his feelings,” and overlooks her faults.  Regelson is true to the Jewish tradition of venerating Hebrew not only as a medium of human speech, but also as the Leshon HaKodesh, the hallowed language of Holy Writ.  The rabbis regarded both the Hebrew word and its letters – in fact their very pattern, as bearing ethical significance and therefore also as sacred (Shab. 148a). These ideas the poet applies to Hebrew as well as the grammar underlying its structure.


The dull Hebrew grammatical forms that to most people are little more than tedious exercises, the noun and verb inflections and similar patterns, are thus infused by the poet with an exalted meaning and are recounted with fervor and excitement.  One is highly impressed by his vast knowledge of nature and his familiarity with the Hebrew names of the multitudinous species of animals, plants and insects he enumerates.  He extols the sublime biblical style and glories in the major episodes of the Torah.  “Through thee,” the poet says to the Hebrew tongue, “I was initiated with love of the Patriarchs . . . With thee,” he continues, “I sculpted on the Mountain the divine tablets for the children of man . . . And thou hast also become for me the language of Creation, the medium of Revelation and the idiom of the end of days.”


The very contour of the Hebrew letters and vowels fascinate Regelson, who marvels at the flexibility of the Hebrew grammatical system with its genders, stems, tenses, prefixes and suffixes.  He speaks of the remarkable propensities of the conversive vav, the properties of the binyanim, the active and passive verb conjugations, the paradigms for word coinages and the singular capacity of Hebrew to absorb Aramaic, Latin, Greek and other foreign vocabulary including Judeo-German or Yiddish.  In that language the Tze'enah uRe'enah was composed, the highly popular compendium of legends and explanations on the Pentateuch, designed for pious Jewish women.  For several centuries they had been drenching the pages of this work with their tears.  The Hebrew Bible is not only the depository of the Hebrew language and its grammatical framework, but it is rich in so many other aspects.  It is the source of the distinguished and revered names of the biblical heroes: Ruth, David, and Yedidyah, implying friendship and love, the last one of God.  It includes names such as Naomi connoting pleasantness in profusion: Sharona, the gift of song, and Tamar, erect stature as the palm.  Places with their historical associations originate in the sacred book, among them: Yarden, Carmel, Hermon, Gilead, Galil, Gerizim, Gilboa and of course Zion, the great Messianic symbol.  Hebrew in view of its numerous synonyms for light may also said to be the language of illumination.  These nouns Regelson skillfully weaves into the texture of his verses, producing an intricate and delicately interlaced fabric which is virtually untranslatable.


But to live, Hebrew must be the common medium of speech in the mouths of little ones.  This thought brings to the poet’s mind the heartrending, appalling and crushing memory of the three million Jewish children lost to their parents, their people and to the holy tongue when they were barbarically slaughtered in the Nazi Holocaust.  Hebrew, the poet might have observed, could have been well characterized as the language of lamentation, not only illumination.  The poet, therefore, summons it to mourn for the young martyr whose childish ears will never hear the fascinating tales of the Bible; whose sweet voices will never utter the Modeh Ani each morning, or the Four Questions on the night of Pesach.  Hebrew, too, should weep for the perished potential of Ahad Ha’ams and Mendeles who might have emerged from the ranks of these Nazi victims.  The poet bewails the cruel massacre of these innocents:


Woe to the pure eyes of Hebrew children extinguished by murderers,

The sweet mouths designed to chirp thy syllables, writhing in death seizures,

Strangled the slim throats from which thy melodies might have rung out;

These hallowed bodies left to decay,

Heaps upon heaps on piles of rubbish in wayside pits without name or mark.


But “who can ascend the mount of thy glory?” the poet inquires of the Hebrew tongue in the Psalmist’s idiom (14.2).   The poet responds rhetorically, enumerating the prime ethical and intellectual qualifications of one who seeks this kind of eminence.  He must be steeped in the Hebrew classics of all ages, their major commentaries such as Rashi, their moral insights and gems of wisdom.  He must also be conversant with the works of Maimonides; and “each night dip into the Mishna and Midrashim, and make the Book of Books his daily fare.”   Besides, he must be at home in the philosophy of a Nachman Krochmal, the halachic history of rabbinic literature such as that of an Isaac Hirsch Weiss, and similar writings.  Only with equipment of this nature could one attain Hebraic eminence.


With this passionate attachment to Hebrew, there is little wonder that our poet, who might have devoted his talents to English writing, preferred Hebrew, or as he had expressed it: “Hebrew preferred him.”  He concludes his poem with a plea to the Hebrew language and homeland to be permitted to join its builders and toilers.  These lines, however, are obscured with complex and rather obscure metaphors:


Inscribe me on thy tablet with the well-diggers and pipe-layers.

With the plower, planter, weeder and hoer,

With him who blasts the rocks, and furrows the seas and pierces the air

With the workers in cotton and wool, lime and mortar, bromium and potash

In wood, iron and precious stones –

And cut in thy border paths to the hiddenmost goals of man

By which God reveals and conceals Himself and the world exalts and deifies itself.


In his moving elegy on the foremost figure in modern Hebrew poetry, Chaim Nachman Bialik (1873-1934), entitled, “The Man of The Stars,” Regelson speaks of him as “the heart of a nation – a heart who walked among us. . . his wrinkles of sadness kindled with a smile . . . and bearing on his shoulders the burden of generations . . . whose love was free to all in need of it.”  This man, burning with a prophetic fire was genuine, unfeigning and forthright.  The poet accordingly beseeches his mourners:


Place no wreath on his casket,

No flag or Talith,

He was a plain man,

Far from vain adornments, or pious ornaments.

And in his simplicity

Lower him into the soil he knew.


The earth embracing the body of this spiritual giant speaks of him with reverence:


His thought encompassed eternity;

Compressed in his brain,

Time, space and nature at themselves wondered,

Revelled in their own beauty;

And he was at one with the insect and clump of grass

With the moon tugging at the seas, and the silent song of the stars.


In this excerpt Regelson alludes to his metaphysical doctrine of cosmic unity.  A single all-pervading principle governs the whole of creation.  The earth, too, affirms that “man and the races of man and the whole animal and plant family constitutes only a chapter in my interlacing scrolls.”


A tremor and current in my sea of life

One moment projected from within me

Then swallowed up in me.


In the stillness of the night when the noises of the city are muffled, the poet holds an imaginary conversation with a reddish clod of turf from Bialik’s grave.  He poses the psalmist’s query: “What is man that Thou rememberest him?” (8:5-6)   Is there no more “remains” of even a Bialik save his dust?  Yet he discerns a common core linking all existence:


Is this all there is to man, a little ashes and a little decay?

And what to him is the profundity hewn in his books,

And what of all the beauty crowning his thoughts,

What to him is all the praise and lament after he is gone?

And lo, I saw the mass of soil extending,

Merging with the whole globe,

And the earth beneath me sang and danced,

The stars wondered . . .


To Regelson there is accordingly no plurality.  All is one, even birth and death; both are products of the same destiny and fate. They are twin poles of the same axis, as he observes in his “Yechiel and Dumah.”  As for Bialik, who gave utterance to Jewish longings, his people could gather him unto the shrine of his immortal visionaries where he could be among the stars.  For himself, our bard craves ultimate reunion with the undying spirit of the great master:


Let the sea carry me where it will,

To an alien shore.

Some nights I shall glitter in my decay,

Until the merciful clay will cover me,

But through the massive giant sphere,

Through primitive layers and lavas recalling the sun’s birth,

Through rivers’ arteries beneath hidden mountain roots,

Will flutter a throb and temor,

A shiver will convulse between the ashes of my body

And the dust of yours.


 *   *   *   *   *   *   *

And with the earth’s rigorous logic and the calculus of the pulsating stars,

Beyond all my mire,

I shall know thy light as one of thy children of eternity.


Regelson’s superior skill as a lyricist is evidenced particularly in his autobiographical verse typified by “Kindling the Light,” which is the story of the poet’s birth.  His father, Judah Velvel, was a yeshivah bachur, whose marriage to Rachel, age fifteen, had been arranged by a shadchen or matchmaker, as was the custom in the shtetl of those days.  His father-in-law had seen in him both a suitable husband for his daughter, as well as a carpenter’s apprentice in his building ventures.  Our poet Abraham was one of six surviving children from this union.  He was born and reared in the most wretched poverty.


The lyric opens with a reflection on the process of human reproduction, the generation,


Of a spark in the maternal shelter,

Glowing secretly for nine months of bliss, nine months of gestation

Until it emerges into the air, blazing impassionately, painfully, anxiously,

A wavering light, raging light, fickle light and forlorn light.


The much longer lyrical poem, “The Sacrifice of Shlemyahu,” recounts the great tragedy that befell the poet and his family when his youngest offspring, Shlemyahu in the poem, born in mandatory Palestine, died during the difficult three years they spent there in the thirties.  His death was evidently due to the lack of proper medical care in the country at the time, when it was crowded with Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, for whose reception the Yishuv was not adequately prepared.  Shlemyahu’s father, Or in the poem, harbored a guilt feeling since he had permitted himself to be lured away from his son’s bedside by an adventure with a young married woman.


The poet describes the grim events following the child’s death.  On Friday afternoon he had visited the hospital morgue to view the youngster’s body.  The next evening, after the Sabbath ended, the funeral cortege consisting of the members of the family and the Hevrah Kadisha, or burial society, rode on the hospital bus to the cemetery.  The bus also served as the hearse and carried the remains of the little boy, wrapped in a black cloth, together with the corpse of an adult.  During the trip the members of the Hevrah Kadisha chanted appropriate psalms.  At the graveside before the burial, the child’s face was bared, “it appeared pale, cold and calm against the trembling light of the stars.”  Then a stirring scene was enacted as the bereaved mother knelt at the open grave and delivered herself of the characteristic self castigating Jewish mother’s dirge:


What a bed had I prepared for thee, my sweet?

What a lullaby have I sung to you to put thee to sleep, my darling?

What a mother was I to have abandoned thee to strangers.


*   *   *   *   *   *   *  


And the earth gathered thee up, and forever and ever

You will be a baby, poor and sweet, neither a lad, nor man,

And for all time my joy will be with thee in the pit, robbed from me.


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Earth will caress thee, not my arms.

Farewell my beloved!  Farewell!


The grave was soon sealed.  Nature too mourned.  But death breeds new life.


That very moment the stars were swallowed up; the first rain of the season descended quaveringly

Soft drops, light and gentle –

A kiss on man’s cheeks, a tap on the earth

The clouds shed their drips and departed,

As if bestowing their blessings on a new seed, just buried

As a promise of new life.


There is still another hope for the departed Shlemyahu.  In a dramatic monologue, “Bialik and My Little Brother,” the child’s sister entrusts him to the care of the celebrated poet who had died two months earlier.  The childless Bialik loved children, and now that he resides among the stars he will await and welcome the little boy cheerfully.  He will clasp him in his arms and will reveal to him many secrets: why the sun burns with so radiant a flame, what is beyond the stars, and why disease and death.  Of course the little one will also learn to write verse, and sometimes, when his mother sits in the garden, there will flash in her mind like a fulgent leaf, a poem composed by the youngster.  This very human idea appeals to Regelson who gives it expression through the lips of his daughter.


The poet digresses from his primary theme about Shlemyahu to a totally unrelated episode that occurred at the United Nations more than a decade later – the 1947 partition plan, reluctantly accepted by the Jewish community of the Jewish homeland but peremptorily rejected by the Arabs.  This excursus exemplifies the Talmudic epigram of “beginning with a pitcher and ending with a barrel” (BK 27a).  One can perhaps think also of the analogy of the proverbial cathedral united chiefly by its complexity.  The poet echoes here the view of the skeptic who sees little meaning in the creation of 1948 of a shrivelled Jewish state, “severed on all sides, its area small and enemies mighty.”  To which the poet, the “trumpet of salvation” responds:


Since when is Sinai the highest of mountains

And Yeshurun the giant among people?

Not in dimension is greatness

See, who were our ancestors:

A minor Sheik, our Father Abraham, yet he was the prince of God:

Isaac – as great as his pile of wood, as the intensity of his readiness for sacrifice;

Jacob’s whole kingdom – rock crumpled under his head

And to him, that was the cradle of the dream and the promise, his sanctuary.

And from them – the burning bush and Tablets of Law, the trumpets of Jericho –

         The resurrection of the dry bones, Meir and Akiva

A divine balance of the laws of creation and human ethics . . .


The poet concludes with the hope that the Arab people will ultimately unite with the Jews in an Abrahamitic fraternity of the great nations descended from Shem and Ever (Gen. 10:21ff).


One of Regelson’s long homilies in verse, the “Shir Hatikkun,” a title which could be rendered as the “Song of Restoration,” incorporates his principal ideas.  The concept of tikkun in rabbinic lore suggests the idea of setting the world aright or improving the social order, as in tikkun haolam.  In the Zohar and Kabbalah it has a different meaning, connoting the restoration of the original state of the unity of the Godhead or the cosmos, prevailing before Creation, a return to which is tantamount to geulah or redemption.  It is in this latter sense that Regelson employs this term.  Underlying it is the mystical assumption that the divine unity was disrupted at Creation when it was splintered into the numerous species of life and matter.  Before that, man was part of the original single entity, but he was afterward set apart from the luminous whole and became an “abandoned spark,” or a “secluded drop,” rather than a sea.  Early man bitterly deplores this development and wonders:


. . . How was I cast

Into a fixed form, a shape escaped from a womb, with groping senses.

And the whole world became for me a buffer and barrier?

          my foes a clod and stone

The cold assailed me, spikes of hunger gored my entrails,

And from the jungle, beastly claws are poised to rip me asunder.

Who splintered, who severed the unity of all, and I became; 

A fragment among fragments, a stranger unknown?  How my divine nature was drained

And who will relieve my oppressive loneliness?


But primitive man, endowed with the attribute of love, was redeemed from his dreary isolation when Hubalah appeared in these cold, gloomy surroundings as a sort of twin sister.  Her coming in her erotic charm was like that of spring banishing winter.  At first it was only carnal lust that lured him to her lair, but later it grew into a loftier human sentiment.


In time, we witness another drama.  Now Yuval, a name suggested by the Genesis story (4:21) makes his debut.  His affection for his mate Helah has matured into a noble, tender passion, kindled by the balmy air of Spring, the fresh buds and flowers.  The poet sings to the revival of nature at that time of the year:


The buried and interred

In the damp earth, in its layers of darkness,

Have awakened!

The rain prods them, warmth from the air,

And a slumbering spark of life is enflamed, an essence aspiring

To deepen its roots and lift the stem!


*   *  *   *   *   *   *


Sprouts gallop forth!

And the bent mulberry, with bristling, serrated veined leaves,

And the patched sycamore – with its leaves: small feather flittering –

From their midst stretch branches,

As if the earth, a dear,

Grows powerful, divided horns

To gore the pure heaven.

And ho my birds, ho my insects!

Denizens of the grass and tenants of the bush,

Twittering, fluttering, wrangling, adoring

So fertile and blind is earth’s belly

So intoxicated by fragrance and bedazzled by sun,

What does it know of form?


Helah suddenly dies and leaves Yuval in a state of consuming, inconsolable grief.  To protect her dead body from falling prey to predatory beasts, Yuval hid it in a deep cavern.  After a long and tragic winter of aimless longing and wandering, his spirit was regenerated by the summer sun.  He visited the corpse of his beloved Helah and was cruelly disillusioned.  The blooming beauty he knew was gone; in her stead he found a shrivelled skeleton.  The glistening eyes that had been welcoming him were extinguished in their bony sockets.  Relentless and unyielding agony and anguish gnawing at his heart, aroused the artistic spirit within him, as if it were heeding an inner call.  From the withered entrails of the corpse, he fashioned a bow and strings and with these improvised instruments, he poured forth an avalanche of song and melody which gave vent to his sorrow and grief.  Enraptured by his own melancholy song, he soon conjured up the image of Helah in its irresistible charm and grace.  He kissed it and was seized with a “delight beyond pain,” and “a pain beyond delight.”  Yuval thus mastered the secret of “snatching far-off treasures and ancient fortunes, harnessing the vile and loathsome to the chariot of splendor, and from the dead bones and decay to exact joy, beauty and vitality,” to lift his depressed spirit.


The whole of Creation, even the inhabitants of the marshes responded to the music:


And the primeval monsters roared and trumpeted in their swamps

The faulty foundations of the earth were bared and subjugated

And the primordial chaos loitering at the door of existence

That stretched its arms to confuse the course of the stars and disarray the life of man

Was smitten, conquered and reduced to the rhythm of song.


Thus was love and melody established in the world.  Generations later, they unfolded into a vision that spread upon the earth, to unite all life and beings from the highest to the lowest.  This was the ideal proclaimed by Moses, father of the prophets, who is portrayed in a tableau as standing perched at sunset atop a lofty peak, bearing in his arms the symbolic young male-goat of Hebrew legend, whose thirst he quenched with the sweet waters of a brook gushing forth from a rock.  At his feet was the slender but firm bush, the roots of which had ploughed through the rock and embedded themselves in the soil, rising upwards like a Jacob’s ladder bridging earth and heaven.  The bush ignited by the flaming sun illuminated everything above it, lighting up the fringes of the sky with a red hue, which merged with the harmony of Creation.  In this striking scene Moses revealed the mystery of the unity of the cosmos, which filled him with compassion and sympathy for all life and nature.  But though this vision soon vanished, it yet survived in his heart.  Moses assumed it as his mission to disseminate it among his people, for “if it will be mine alone, it will not even be mine, since it emerged simultaneously from the yearning of all creatures for the mighty God lodged within them.”  This ideal the poet rendered in humanistic terms, “to bind soul with soul, to reduce the callousness of heart, narrowness of mind, and turning the back by one brother towards another.”  Eventually too, all species of animal, plant, and soil will be included in this goal, together with man.


In an allied poem, “Moses on Mount Nebo,” the great teacher recognizes that he could not communicate this lofty ideal represented by the burning bush to his people in its pure state.  Accordingly he acknowledges, “I know full well that I beclouded with smoke the whiteness of the fiery bush so that it dazzle not dim eyes.  I sweetened the elements of my doctrines to adapt to the pallets of slaves unable to sanctify truth.”  His principles in their pristine form, however, Moses entrusted to the prophets and seers of the future who could separate the smoke from the fire, the dross from the gold, the Word of God from Moses’ own precepts   . . . “for as the cooled lava turns to stone on the smoldering mountain, so the Word of the Lord is congealed in the tenets of man.”


Until there erupts another rebellious stream of fire

To shatter the petrified precepts and obsolescent altars

And set up a new law upon their ruins.

Thus will man’s elevations rise to higher eminences.

And he shall lodge his shoulder as a prop for the stars

And shelter his head among the treasures of the Most High.


This was the faith that inspired Moses in his last moments, not the expectation of a land flowing with milk and honey.  This was the goal that he transmitted “to generations yet to be born, epochs and dreams yet to be projected like heights of blue, soaring towards the sky, ridge above ridge and peak above peak until lost from view in the mists of eternity.”  Accordingly Moses, the great moral leader, cautioned his successors to ready themselves to be iconoclasts in their turn, to destroy the older order, and on its foundations to build the new.  Yet one cannot but assume that this idea must not be applied categorically, for later values are not necessarily superior to traditional ones.  In fact, is this not a major present day dilemma?  It is even today too tempting an inclination to replace true and tested standards of ethics with new and experimental criteria.  Such a tendency could, if carried far enough, lead to moral chaos instead of progress.


While the Shir Hatikkun with its Kabbalistic overtone exploits the notion of pre-mundane perfection, another poem, Aviel, considers this idea in relation to the next world.  The setting Aviel is rather trite.  The hero, Aviel, a love-lorn youth, abandons the city with its phantom pleasures to seek peace and forgetfulness in the bosom of the autumnal forest.  Because of his frustration he becomes immersed in himself and isolated from nature and its charms.  But here among the trees he plucks himself  a handful of leaves and soon meditates on the mystery of life enshrined within them and on the tiny granules which serve as channels for the streams of vitality, past and present, and the enigma of the good apple that ever renews its sweetness.  Then, while Aviel lies down to rest in these surroundings of seasonal death and decay, his deceased father appears to him from the Olam HaEmeth, the World of Truth, as the great beyond is often referred to in Hebrew lore.  The parent explains that the reason for calling it so is that in that domain a mortal is not hostile to his fellow nor does he see him as an impediment in his path.  It would thus seem that only death raises a soul above rivalry and exploitation, and that only in the hereafter can it expose its underlying grace and godliness.  The youth therefore desires to enter this perfect realm, but his father rejects the idea because as he says to his son:


I have bequeathed to thy soul the legacy of song

A charge to agonizing generations and visionaries

And divine blessings amidst the curses of a world of gloom.


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


To thee I have given a sensitive ear attuned to song,

And entrusted thee with unfulfilled hopes,

To flourish and thrive within thee


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Will they wholly perish as if they never were?


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Here are two weapons to arm thyself for life

To do battle with extinction: a craftsman’s plum,

To build thee an eternal epitaph with bricks of glory,

And man’s powerful impulse to bear progeny.


On awakening the youth turns to the earth with a challenge:


Is thy life as thy soil, black, mute –

And a creature descending to the grave;

          perishes, is extinguished

A lonely flash of sorrow, and no more?

Or will it fall into thy flaming soul

And be bound up in thy vigorous life,

In which every man, fly and shrub

Is to thee like the wave of an eyelash or a hair’s ripple

Which you sustain in love when they blossom

And caress to thy heart when they wither?


The earth remained silent as of old, and guarded its secret.  It did, however, imbue Aviel with renewed courage, from its own spring of valor.  A new star, beckoned to him – the star of love, which shines with a distant brilliance and speaks solace to anguished hearts.


In the dialogical poem, “Ahiya and Israel,” Israel ben-Eliezer (Besht – Baal Shem Tov, 1700-1760), the founder of Hassidism, on an occasion when he had divested himself of his corporeality, went on a tour of heaven with Ahiya of Shiloh (I Kings 1:29), reputed in Jewish legend to have survived throughout the centuries of Jewish history.  To the Besht’s question as to whether the celestial beauty and perfection he saw was real or merely a passing illusion, Ahiyah replied with a rhetorical question: “What is the mundane world in comparison with the majestic Essence of God?”  One can almost hear the exalted, rapturous intonation of the speaker who uttered these words in wonderment.  To which the Kabbalist Israel responded ecstatically: “A dream, an illusion and a nullity!”


Ahiya then elaborated on his Kabbalistic doctrine in mystical terms: “The soul is a mere garment or reflection of God, as the world is to the soul.  So are the upper and lower worlds – garments, and not the true substance or core.  In both realms, darkness overshadows the light, and the insignificant gains priority over the significant.”


“There is, however, this distinction,” the Besht explained: “In Eden, the kelipah or shell (betokening the forces of evil), which hide the good, is transparent, while on earth the shell is thick and opaque.”  “Yet, Ahiyah pointed out, “Eden is built from the magnificence of the sinful earth, where man must collaborate with the Divine in extracting the sacred sparks from its mud and mire.”


Ahiya posed another question to Israel, before the latter descended to earth: “What about Samael (Satan) and the lust of the flesh that makes man an animal reproducing without abeyance?”  In answer, Israel cited the sages who declare (Ex. R9:7) that were it not for sex, man would neither marry nor procreate.  Thus even the biblical serpent has an affirmative role.  True, a world without the serpent would have been less depraved and closer to God, but it would then have been overcome by His dazzling glory.  In weaving the veil that screens God from his creatures, Samael rendered a vital service to the world, hence his name Samael, because he blinds our eyes (1) and shields them from the Deity in His absolute unity.  Accordingly:


God set a boundary to His truth; placing a limit upon His splendor

And constricted them into illusory forms; had they overrun their banks,

Earth would kiss heaven and be lost in the union;

And I and thou would cease being separate and distinct.

In love; and a single flame would consume all colors and shadows;

And the world’s container full of the wine of His glory – would melt in the wine.


In his magnificent didactic poem, “Cain and Abel,” the poet combines a distinctive elegant style with grand scenario and profound social insight.  The thought pattern of this work requires explanation.  As Regelson indicates in his Notes, it is based on the Buddhist outlook as interpreted by Arthur Schopenhauer (1778-1860) and his European disciples (2). The main characters in this poem, the two brothers, Cain and Abel, symbolize different ideas than those in the Genesis story.  Cain (3) is the man of enterprise, the energetic builder of cities and civilizations.  He is prodded by his passions to rule and dominate.  Abel (4), however, is the contemplative individual who sees futility in Cain’s activity and strives for release from life’s ambitions and labors, in Nirvana.  The opposing temperaments of the two brothers lead to an inevitable clash.  Cain soon complains to his father, Adam, that Abel is sabotaging his efforts by spreading pernicious propaganda among the masses employed in his ventures, but Adam refuses to arbitrate the conflict between his sons. Cain then takes the law into his own hands and slays Abel.  Before his death however, Abel pronounces a dread imprecation upon his assailant:


Streams of black night and thick darkness, curse Cain!

Ye gates of dawn and wickets of dusk, doom him.

Despise him ye corrals of clustering stars –

No solace to him from clouds, rain and arched mosaics –

And hold back thy blessings, O earth –

For he cut down Abel, thy comforter and redeemer!


Woe to Cain!

If his plow fertilizes the soil, for a time

May it give him of its vigor, but soon seal its womb, for

He has ravaged it without pity or respite; if a city

He builds, and a second, one should rise against the other

To demolish it, grind it to dust, until both lie waste.

Thus shall the right hand smite the left,

And the human passions he kindled shall be his ruination,

And he shall see the end of his toil-chaos and desolation.

On that day he will cry out!    

‘If only a bit of the spirit of Abel were granted me,

To curb the claws of envy, murder and tyranny,

To crumble the swooping and destructive wings of passion –

But there will no longer be Abel . . .!’


To complete his conquest, Cain tries to make an ally of his arch enemy’s daughter, Be’er, but she resists his advances.  He then pleads for her hand in marriage, telling her of his great love for her.  To win her, he astutely proposes that while he spurs his workers to greater productivity, she can teach them to restrain their impulses and avoid attacking each other, thereby promoting her father’s ideals.  Be’er yields, but contrives to deceive Cain.  The latter scorningly reveals his own true intent, exclaiming triumphantly:


I have again defeated thee, Abel, I shall call your daughter spouse,

And she will be only as mortar between my bricks, friction

For my wheels to spur them on their path;

And my foe shall be my slave,

Dispassion – a disdained carrier of my eternal passions,

And the heart of Be’er – a nest of conspiracy;

May the path of Cain prosper, and I shall aid him,

Until he reaches his goal, and the whole earth

Will be trembling and obedient to our will,

Then only from my partner’s bosom I shall wrest his sovereignty

And when ruling alone

I shall cleanse the whole world of its shame of existence;

And the dream of nothingness my father envisioned will come true

And my revenge will be mightier than his enemy who shed his blood.


But Cain’s tactics lead to his undoing.  At the triumphal celebration held on a constellation which was attended by the chief magnates of the universe, Cain, in his toast, reviews the ascent of man from his beginnings as a horrendous creature to his present status as the leader and conqueror of the cosmos, having overcome the animals and forces of nature.  He salutes the Promethians, the Newtons, the Einsteins and Franklins who blazed the trail for the sophisticated civilization that he, Cain, had constructed.  He acclaims his consort Be’er and those who inspired her: Moses, Lenin and Asoka (d. 232 BCE), the great Indian emperor, a convert to Buddhism who had almost succeeded in uniting his entire empire.  The three, a very strange trio ideologically, are credited in the poem with having established a discipline of law to control human passions.  Thus they would appear to be in Abel’s school, yet they are described as advancing Cain’s cause by influencing Be’er to aid him in his project; in fact, they are regarded by the poet as endeavoring to unite men and nations to foster Cain’s work of building the civilizations he designed.  Thus there appears to be a confusion, if not a conflict of ideas.  Moses the theist, an affirmer of life and morality, is here associated philosophically with the atheistic Lenin and the advocate of Nirvana, Asoka – rather strange bedfellows, to say the least.  These contradictions were the source of considerable and justifiable criticism of the poem.


To resume the plot of this epic drama.  As Cain sipped his wine, his face suddenly became contorted, for he had been poisoned by Be’er, as she had planned.  She had carried out her scheme and now proceeded to purge the world of its crime of existence.  She extended her hand in the path of the sun, extinguishing its light and enveloping the star on which she and her guests were assembled in heavy smoke and darkness.  Detached from its constellation the star catapulted wildly and aimlessly through space.  Then she turned to her guests, to denounce the earth’s deceit and falsity:


The world’s peace is a lie,

A tension of opposing forces,

The caress of foes fighting!


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


From the oppression of creature

Your salvation is nothingness.


*   *   *   *   *   *   *


Affirm nothingness,

Transform your will to non-will

And your being to non-being.


But they did not procure their “freedom of nothingness.”  That hope was foiled by the escape of a particle of energy between the ninth and tenth dimensions which became the seed of a fresh existence and the birth of another generation with restored and independent passions – a new order.


Despite its limitations, “Cain and Abel” may be regarded as a masterpiece and a tribute to Regelson’s vivid imagination and poetic gifts.  It is often breathtaking in its drama, its scenes and portrayals.  Writeen in 1932, it anticipated the splitting of the atom a decade later.  The poem points to the dangers and risks of the nuclear age and its threat to mankind, particularly since the gap between human ethics and technological advance has grown so widely.  Though posing the problem, however, the poet is silent about a solution as to how to effect a balance between an advanced technocratic culture and human welfare.


“Cain and Abel” is composed in metered, succinct and compact lines, conveying a strained and tempestuous mood.  But Regelson is also capable of writing in a lighter vein, as he proves by his rhymed lyric, “To the Child Raim ben Abraham,” who is none other than his own son Ephraim.  It is the self mockery of an American Hebrew poet.


If the moon you crave, my son

As a gift from heaven,

I shall seize it and give it thee

With my own hands.


And if, for the stars of night, my son,

A longing grips thee,

Fistfuls I shall gather

For thee as toys.


Your father is a mighty poet,

Is there aught beyond his power?

He can command the sunset to deliver him

A pailful of golden light.


But do not ask for bread, my son,

Nor plead for butter

For then your father will nod his head

And ‘nay, nay’ he will say.


Your father is a mighty poet,

Who great power in heaven exerts;

From the Milky Way he will give thee drink

And nourish thee with lightning gleams.


As may well be expected, Regelson was considerably influenced by his American cultural environment in which both English, as well as American literature are prominent factors.  He mentions in his Notes appended to his poetic volume that he had acquired the mystic elements in his verse from English literature, while his interest in the primitive, in nature and the world, he derived from American writers, among them Melville, Emerson, Whitman, Bryant.  The English authors who influenced him include Milton, Blake, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Swinburne and Wordsworth.  As if to repay his debt to them, he rendered into Hebrew a number of poems from these and other poets, which he compiled in a special section in his collection of verse called Ivrurim, or “Hebraizations.”  This division contains translations from Milton, Herrick, Blake, Wordsworth, Bryant, Emerson, Whitman, Swinburne, Tennyson, Thompson, Aiken, Hausman and Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees,” the last poem having become very popular after World War I.  It also takes in Hebrew renditions of several of Abraham Sutzkever’s Yiddish poems.


Regelson’s American orientation is evident in many titles of his own poetry, such as “Concord Hymn,” “Songs of Maine,” “Mist on Martha’s Vineyard,” “The American Flag in the Subway,” and others.  He is a uniquely original and individualistic poet, true to his basic thoughts and feeling.  What he borrowed from others he absorbed and filtered through his own personality, so that he made it very much his own.  Though reflecting a highly aesthetic quality, his verse could hardly be characterized as art for art’s sake, for it is fraught with a social message.  True to the Hebrew classical tradition, he seeks God in the world in the unity and brotherhood of man.


Regelson couches his ideas in sparkling verse, expressed in majestic language, embellished with rich metaphors, but occasionally clouded by obscure and artificial idioms. At times he lapses into lyrical out-pourings; at others he soars to dizzying heights of thought and fancy.  He skillfully employs alliteration as an ornamental device.  His outlook on life is in the main affirmative, and accordingly Jewish.  Regelson has earned and received a number of literary awards, among them the much coveted Louis Lamed Prize, the Brenner Prize of the City of Tel Aviv and the Bialik Award.  More recently, he visited New York to accept the Irving and Bertha Neuman Hebrew Literary Award, given by New York University.  It is heartening to know that all his works are now being assembled, to be published in five volumes.  This is a fitting climax to his life-long literary attainments.  It is hoped too that much of his verse will be translated into English and perhaps also into other languages, so as to make them accessible to a broader audience.




1.  From sama, Aramaic, “blind.”


2.  As a result of his own introspection and that of others, Schopenhauer concludes that the concept of Dinge an sich connotes the Will to live or exist.  Consciousness, he observes, is merely on the surface of our minds; not in its inner layers, only in the crust.  This vital nonrational Will to live is a force buried underneath the consciousness, which like the compass needle, tends in a given direction.  It is analogous to the branches of the tree which reach out towards the sun and light.  In the animal kingdom, predatory beasts develop teeth, claws and muscle, in response to this Will to live, the primary principle of life.  This Will governs intelligence in man, rather than the reverse.


3.  The name ‘Cain’ is thought here to be derived from the root kanoh, connoting a craftsman or artificer (Gen. 14:22), the energetic maker of things.


4.  The Hebrew hevel is assumed here to mean vanity (Ecc. 1:2) an indication of the purposelessness and fruitlessness of the kind of exertion in which Cain is engaged, in order to achieve power and accumulate possessions.

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