Jiri Langer, the first Hebrew poet from Western Europe in the modern period.
Prague is hardly a city remembered for its rich hassidic tradition.
In fact, one would be hard-pressed to recall a hassidic master who journeyed to Bohemia. Even hassidic tales featuring Prague are scarce. In the interwar period, however, one Czech Jew surprisingly found inspiration further east in the heartland of hassidism.
Jiri Langer (1894-1943) was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Prague. His Hebrew name was Mordechai Dov, but he was known by the Czech equivalent of George – Jiri (written with diacritical marks on top of the “r” and “i” and pronounced “yizhi”).
When he was 19, Langer left Prague on a quest to find his Jewish roots; in his own words, he was “inspired by a secret longing.” But writing 25 years after leaving what he called “European civilization with its comforts and achievements,” Langer admitted that “even now after the passage of so many years” he still could not explain to himself what precipitated the journey.
Langer’s wanderings led him to Galicia, to the hassidic court of the charismatic Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeah of Belz (1851-1926) – a place that Langer would later call “the Jewish Rome.”
The short visit in Belz left an indelible mark on Langer, and he returned to Belz a few months later. Years later, reflecting on the journey to Belz – that is, the spiritual journey to the world of hassidism – Langer observed in his book Nine Gates to the Chassidic Mysteries that “[o]nly a few children of the West have accomplished this journey, hardly as many – when I come to think of it – as there are fingers on the hand that writes these lines.”
Langer remained in the court of the Belzer rebbe, and became part of his inner circle of hassidim. Langer would later recall that “[t]he site of the saint’s mystic dance fills us with godly fear” (Nine Gates, p. 14).
Toward the end of World War I, Langer returned to Prague and began a teaching career. There, he became friendly with leading Jewish authors and intellectuals such as Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whom he taught Hebrew, and Max Brod (1884-1968), who in his autobiography credited Langer with helping him finish some of his works.
During the interwar period, Langer wrote a number of works in German about Jewish ritual and mysticism. In 1937, on the eve of World War II, he published his hassidic work in Czech – a fascinating compilation of vignettes, recollections and hassidic tales. “The Chassidic legend,” wrote Langer, “is not without its cloudy moods. On the whole however it can be said that the mysticism of the Chassidic legends is bright and joyous, which gives it a great charm and appeal without in any way detracting from its depth” (Nine Gates, p. 28).
Two years after publication, the Nazis who had occupied Czechoslovakia banned the book and confiscated existing copies.
In 1941, Langer fled occupied Prague and clandestinely reached the shores of British Mandate Palestine. A year later in Tel Aviv, he published a short collection of poems in Hebrew, entitled Me’at Tzori, thus becoming the first Hebrew poet from Western Europe in the modern period. His poetry is generally written in rhyme and meter, and resembles the Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain.
Langer died in Tel Aviv in 1943 after suffering illness. He is buried in the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery in Givatayim.
In 1961, Langer’s hassidic work was translated into English and published in London. While Nine Gates was subsequently translated into other languages, it has yet to be translated into Hebrew.
Before his introduction to Nine Gates, Langer wrote a short but moving few lines: “When you have read my book seven times, you will say, perhaps with justice: ‘It is a bad book; however, one incident in it pleased me.’ Which? – Each of you will say something different… Each according to the roots of his soul and the glimmer of the worlds through which his Earth flew on that night.”