For God or the Moroccan Boy?
Jacob Israël de Haan was born in 1881 in Drenthe, a backwater province of the Netherlands. One of eighteen children, he was raised with a traditional Jewish education in a small suburb of Amsterdam, far from the intellectual and demographic center of European Jewry. As a teenager, he renounced his religion and courted a gentile woman a decade his senior, Johanna van Maarseveen. Over the next few years, he befriended a cadre of intellectuals engaged in nascent ideas of psychiatry and connected to Freud. De Haan, who was gay and had sadomasochistic proclivities, was thrilled by the disinterested frankness of modernity.
De Haan’s 1904 novel Pijplijntjes offers a homoerotic, semi-autobiographical account of his relationship with the physician Arnold Aletrino. (Aletrino was not publicly gay, but as early as 1897 he had argued that homosexuality was a condition that could occur in healthy people.) Even in the relative tolerance of turn-of-the-century Holland, the book was a scandal, which Aletrino and van Maarseveen sought to cover up by buying back the print run.
In the years following, he dabbled as a lawyer and published essays in magazines as well as poems that would be included in his collection Libertine Songs. He traveled to Russia in 1912 and wrote an influential book condemning the abysmal state of its prisons. A year later, after hearing a voice in an Amsterdam park, he became a devoutly observant Jew, and in 1915, he published a pious book of poetry expounding on his religiosity. Following the 1917 Balfour Declaration, de Haan turned into an ardent Zionist and moved to Palestine in 1919. Believing he would be greeted in Palestine by dignitaries as a major literary figure, he was surprised to meet, instead, total indifference. The struggling Jewish community in Palestine was more interested in agriculture than peripheral literary figures.
In Jerusalem, de Haan grew increasingly disillusioned with the Zionists’ unwillingness to cooperate with Arabs. He also had several affairs with Arab men. Renouncing Zionism, he became a leader of Haredi anti-Zionist activity in Palestine, even going on to meet with Abdullah I of Jordan on behalf of his faction. Overt sexuality returned to his poems. Of this phase, the journalist Liel Leibovitz writes: “Like a man possessed, he set out to convince the Brahmins in London that there was another Jewish community in Palestine, one that abhorred the idea of independence, one that was ready to make common cause with the Arabs, one that welcomed the crown’s continued sovereignty. He wrote long and eloquent letters to Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, as well as to the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour himself.”
As de Haan’s stay in Palestine went on, threats against his life from the Zionists increased. But he remained irreverent, making flippant jokes about his imminent demise. On June 30, 1924, de Haan was shot as he exited a synagogue by the Haganah commander Avraham Tehomi. Commenting on the assassination later, Tehomi said, “I have done what the Haganah decided had to be done. And nothing was done without the order of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi [the second president of Israel] . . . I have no regrets because [de Haan] wanted to destroy our whole idea of Zionism.” It was the first political assassination within Palestine’s Jewish community.
Although de Haan is considered the most important Jewish poet to write in Dutch, his poetry has never been published in a book-length English translation. The poems I’ve translated are from his 1924 collection Kwatrijnen (Quatrains), a distinctively frank exploration of spiritual belief, queer desire, and their intersection. The work stands on the razor edge of repression and expression, open about sexuality while casting a doubt on religiosity.
The verse itself is remarkably formal. I have attempted to retain the formalism where possible, such as the capitalized line-initial letters, and the translation of the pronoun gij, now archaic in standard Dutch, as thou. But I have foregone the ABAB rhyme scheme in service to the cadence and idiomaticity of the original. In place of the end-rhymes, I have written many of the poems in blank verse, matching the mostly iambic original. Where lines are cut short, or where they deviate substantially from the meter, the English is mirroring a deviation in the Dutch.
Just the voice of London. Lost in you
Every pretty voice falls. One wild force.
Over the air, under the road, the rails
Along which life speeds to the abyss.
Before the pale aurora
Fate drives me along your Street.
All your treasures, all your deeds,
He drank the wine. I saw the sunbeams
Forfeit one eternal moment in his glass.
He will never know (God knows where we wander)
That I was the Poet of his chalice.
The Eternal City. O, Song, what is eternal?
From Rome to Jerusalem I traveled
past seas deep and mountains harsh and snowy:
I found nothing eternal but the moment.
A monk: deep in his prayers.
I came. He looked. I was moved.
God’s sky never laughed like that in earthly eyes.
What horrific past does he carry with him?
I read poems from Gutteling and Perk.
They died. When I die, who will read me?
To what avail? The Song is human work,
Now or later: it will be forgotten.
A light dizzy spell is where I live.
My life foams like Turinese wine.
Before my soul and sentences I quiver.
Where will be the end of my wandering?
Because thou wert the King, it was forgotten.
Because thou wert a poet, they don’t forget.
Hour in, hour out, seated here by the Wall,
The Righteous of my People pray your Song.
I wait for what, this evening hour—
The City stalked by sleep,
Seated by the Temple Wall:
For God or the Moroccan boy?
The Wailing Wall: my unshakable conscience,
On which I know the power of God’s Love.
Whether I, seated in devoted prayer,
Remember Hassan or forget him.
The full Moon and the three stars shine,
By the Wall, we speak the evening prayer.
Soon with Adil Effendi I will wander,
Where no piety can save my soul.
His mother frees him from his clothes
The water ripples from the little bath.
My heart shivers in one tenderness shunned.
Is God’s holy city not Jerusalem?
Who closes today his book of Quatrains,
How will he begin the day tomorrow?
No life extends beyond its borders.
These: Soul, Senses, Eternity, and Moment.
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