6: Quotations on Naphtali Herz Imber's appearance and character, 1892, 1932, 1975.
Three major Zionist thinkers, each of whom was personally acquainted with Naphtali Herz Imber, reflect on his life and character, appearance and artistry. Two are from memoirs, while a third, Israel Zangwill's, is from a novel which presented a fictionalized portrait of the poet. Together, they paint a picture of an extremely eccentric man suffering from alcoholism, at once admired for having written the great "anthem of the Jewish people," but feared or mocked for his outrageousness.
Imber had written the poetic credo of Zionism, but was perhaps not the most serious believer in that (or any) cause, and did not even at all times identify as a Jew. One legend about him finds him in San Francisco dressed as a Hindu ascetic, where he supposedly married a gentile woman who was much taken with his mystic charms. An incident found in Louis Lipsky's essay on Imber is illustrative of the strange position in which Imber often found himself throughout his unusual career: "He once came to a Yiddish theatre where a Zionist play was being given in which Hatikvah was sung, but he was not allowed to enter the theatre" (Memoirs in Profile, 179–180).
Suggested Activity: Divide the class into three and have each group read one of the passages about Imber. Once the students have finished reading, each group should present to the others the content of their passage in their own words, and lay out what each respective author's perspective on Imber might have been. Were they admiring, mocking, or a combination of both? What particular interest did Imber hold for each of them? What new things do we learn about Imber, if any, from each author's writing?
Once the individual passages are covered, you may move into a general debate on authors and their art. Should it matter whether an artist fully believed in the messages of their art? Are the creation and its arguments still legitimate, even if the author thought or lived in a way that ran contrary to them? Should an author’s character be taken into account when considering their work? Do you think Imber might have been received differently if he had lived in your own era?
Sources: Israel Zangwill, "The Neo-Hebrew Poet," Chapter 7 of Children of the Ghetto (London: William Heinemann, 1892), quoted in Philip Slomovitz, "The Man Behind Hatikvah," The Jewish People's Almanac, ed. David C. Gross (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1981), 307.
Philip Cowen, Memories of an American Jew (New York: The International Press, 1932), quoted in Slomovitz, 310.
Louis Lipsky, Memoirs in Profile (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1975), 180.
Source sheet by Mikhl Yashinsky (New York, 2019).