Yitzhak Lamdan’s poem Masada (1927)

Yitzhak Lamdan (1899–1954), Hebrew poet, translator and editor, is remembered above all for his ‘epic’ poem Masada, written between 1923 and 1926.

Lamdan was born in Mlinov, Ukraine, into an affluent family. He benefited from a private education, both Jewish and European. Uprooted by havoc in the Ukraine during the First World War and the civil wars of 1917-1921, he wandered  through Southern Russia with his brother and then joined the Red Army. In l920, after his parental home was destroyed in the pogroms and his brother killed, Lamdan became part of the ‘Third Aliyah’, joining a socialist youth group. He remained in Palestine and, after some years of manual labor, he devoted himself to literature.

Masada follows the life of a refugee; he rejects the advice of those he meets en route (a believer who awaits divine retribution, a communist, and a third who is totally despondent), and he makes his way to the Land of Israel, called Masada in the poem, to be part of the final revolt against Jewish fate. The hopes and equally the despair of the pioneers are illustrated through the lives of the rebels who were holed up in remote Masada. The poem moves from the high point of the ‘nocturnal fires’ and the exultant dancing of the Masada pioneers, to the exhaustion and hopelessness  of the following day. It concludes with the resolution to face all odds and continue the struggle: ‘This is the frontier, from here there is no other/ and behind us, all courses lead to the one and only dead end.’ The symbol of Masada as the last stronghold of the Jewish people derived from the fusion of Josephus’s narrative in the Jewish War, with the awesome, arid setting of the mountain, and the spiritual drama within the poem itself.

Lamdan’s Masada made a great impact on the Zionism of the interwar period and through the fifties. It became part of the school curriculum, both in the Land of Israel and in the Eastern and Central European diaspora (the Tarbut school network). Key lines were set to music and accompanied group dancing. ‘Masada’ stood for the Zionist resolve to survive and ultimately to win, expressed above all in the powerful slogan ‘Masada shall not fall again’.

The climax of Josephus’s account – the collective suicide committed by the defenders of Masada –  is absent. Lamdan speaks of a valiant fight against the enemy, not merely of a siege. The paradoxical combination in the poem of this enhanced heroism with a pessimistic embrace of martyrdom has led Yael Feldman to conclude that Lamdan was not inspired directly by Josephus but rather by the medieval adaptation of his work, Sefer Yosippon.

Lamdan, Y., Masada: A Poem. Tel Aviv, 1927. [Hebrew]
Lamdan, Y., Masada, A Poem by Isaac Lamdan with notes by N. Gutman and Y. Ben Aharon. Ramat Efal, 2011. [Hebrew]

Umen, S., The World of Isaac Lamdan. New York, 1961.
Yudkin,  L., Isaac Lamdan: A Study in Twentieth Century Hebrew Poetry. London, 1971.
Feldman, Y.S., ‘“The Final Battle” or “A Burnt Offering?”: Lamdan’s Masada Revisited’, AJS Perspectives (Spring 2009): 30-2.
Feldman, Y., ‘Josephus or Yosippon?’, Haaretz, Literature and Culture Supplement (July 16, 2010). [Hebrew]

JRA entry contributed by Zviah Nardi