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Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production Before and After 1492

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The year 1492 has long divided the study of Sephardic culture into two distinct periods, before and after the expulsion of Jews from Spain. David A. Wacks examines the works of Sephardic writers from the 13th to the 16th centuries and shows that this literature was shaped by two interwoven experiences of diaspora: first from the Biblical homeland Zion and later from the ancestral hostland, Sefarad. Jewish in Spain and Spanish abroad, these writers negotiated Jewish, Spanish, and diasporic idioms to produce a uniquely Sephardic perspective. Wacks brings Diaspora Studies into dialogue with medieval and early modern Sephardic literature for the first time.

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1 Diaspora Studies for Sephardic Culture

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[We] were pretending . . . that we had brought a kind of India with us, which we could, as it were, unroll like a carpet on the flat land.

V. S. Naipaul, Literary Occasions

The Torah is the portable homeland of the Jews.

Heinrich Heine, Hebraeische Melodien

Diaspora is a Greek word that describes the broad scattering of a people as if they were seeds scattered across several furrows in a field. In its original usage it described the colonization of people dispersing from metropolis to colonies in order to reproduce imperial authority in conquered lands. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) it came to mean the dispersion of the Jews from Zion throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. Since then it has come to be applied to a range of historical scatterings: African, Indian, Chinese, Armenian, and others. Ultimately diasporic culture is a discussion about Here (the hostland) and There (the homeland). What did we take with us from There? What are we doing with it Here? When (and under what circumstances) are we going back There? And what happens when history conspires to make Here a new There?

 

2 Allegory and Romance in Diaspora: Jacob ben Elazar’s Book of Tales

ePub

Thirteenth-century Sephardic author Jacob ben Elazar lived and worked in Toledo, a city so often described as multicultural or diverse that it has become a bit of a cliché. Ross Brann, for example, writes of a “singularly Iberian cultural pluralism.” Francisco Márquez Villanueva describes late thirteenth-century Toledo as a city that is “still Eastern” (todavía oriental).1 Our aim here is not to go into a full accounting of the cultural life of Ben Elazar’s hometown, nor to critique the various theories of convivencia that have leaned heavily on Toledo as a case study.2 Rather, I aim to read two of Ben Elazar’s Tales, written in the full flush of Toledo’s “multiculturality,” as a case study in diasporic literature. Seen from this angle, Ben Elazar’s work is not only a site of transition between Arabic and Christian literary practice, or an example of a literary convivencia, but also an example of the cultural work of the diasporic writer.

 

3 Poetry in Diaspora: From al-Andalus to Provence and Back to Castile

ePub

The poetry of Todros Abulafia, who wrote at the court of Alfonso X of Castile-León (1252–1284) is the product of two diasporas, one human and one poetic. As a diasporic poet, Abulafia is very much in the tradition of Jacob ben Elazar and other Sephardic poets before him, who negotiated between the Andalusi and biblical Hebrew poetic imaginaries. The troubadour style of poetry has its roots in the Iberian Peninsula, in the highly refined Andalusi lyric brought to Provence by William IX of Aquitaine at the close of the eleventh century. Troubadouresque poetry later returned to the Peninsula as a prestigious export from beyond the Pyrenees, setting the standard for courtly poetics in Christian Iberia. We find in Abulafia’s poetry a curious mixture of Andalusi Hebrew and troubadour poetics that is the product of the diaspora of Andalusi poetics itself, of its sojourn in southern France and its return to Castile at the court of Alfonso X.1

Todros Abulafia was author of an extensive corpus of Hebrew poetry, which he himself collected in his Diwan titled Gan hameshalim ve-ha-hidot (The Garden of Saws and Parables).2 He enjoyed the direct patronage of Alfonso X, “The Learned,” and his diwan contains a number of poems addressed to the king himself.3 Abulafia is a rare if not unique case of a Jewish poet writing in Hebrew under royal Christian patronage, and his poetry, like that of the Provençal and Galician-Portuguese troubadours at Alfonso’s court, is not typically included in scholarly overviews of literary practice at the court of the Learned King. To modern scholarship, Abulafia has been a diasporic poet who is a shadowy outsider from any angle. In Spain he is virtually unknown, despite having written the most significant corpus of poetry and having produced the only known diwan (collected poems of a single author) at the court of that country’s most intellectually important medieval ruler. He is not mentioned in any of the studies of the Christian troubadours who wrote and performed at the court of Alfonso X. He scarcely appears in historical studies of Alfonso’s reign, even in those that deal specifically with the boom in arts and letters for which Alfonso X is famous (hence “the Learned”). Abulafia is absent in Evelyn Procter’s discussion of Provençal and Galician poets of Alfonso’s time.4 Norman Roth mentions him in passing in his discussion of the Jewish translators who collaborated with Alfonso X.5 Joseph O’Callaghan gives an overview of the Galician-Portuguese troubadours active at Alfonso’s court but does not mention Abulafia.6 Salvador Martínez makes brief mention of one verse of the poet in his discussion of the detainment of Alfonso’s Jewish tax farmers.7 Jewish scholars of medieval Hebrew poetry have viewed Abulafia at times with admiring curiosity, at times with disdain. He is still a bit of an enigma. Peter Cole aptly sums up the diverse opinions scholars have formed of Abulafia: one called him “one of the greatest poets of whom the Jews can boast,” while others dismiss him as a “mediocre epigone.”8

 

4 The Anxiety of Vernacularization: Shem Tov ben Isaac ibn Ardutiel de Carrión’s Proverbios morales and Debate between the Pen and the Scissors

ePub

Diasporic communities construct their identity in different ways, and language choice plays a large role in determining the boundaries among, as well as the relationships with, the hostland, the homeland, and the diverse communities of the larger diaspora.1 We have seen how Sephardic writers mediated between the classical literary languages of the hostland (Arabic) and the homeland (Hebrew) and their participation in the development of a literary vernacular, especially at the court of Alfonso X of Castile-León. In this chapter I will address what happens when a Sephardic author steps into the literary limelight of the hostland, writing in the literary register of the vernacular that is common to both diasporic minority and dominant majority. Shem Tov ben Isaac Ardutiel (Sem Tob or Santób in Castilian) is a key figure in this discussion because he wrote significant original secular literary works in both Castilian and Hebrew. In this aspect he is perhaps unique in medieval Iberia, and the relationship between his Proverbios morales (Moral Proverbs; Proverbios hereafter) and Vikuah ha-‘et ve-ha-misparayim (Debate between the Pen and the Scissors; Debate hereafter) tells us much about the significance of language choice in diaspora.

 

5 Diaspora as Tragicomedy: Vidal Benvenist’s Efer and Dina

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By the turn of the fifteenth century, the anxieties expressed by Shem Tov Ardutiel over assimilation and pressures to convert to Catholicism had been realized dramatically. The violent pogroms of 1391 affected nearly every Jewish community in the Iberian Peninsula. Thousands of Sepharadim converted to Catholicism in their wake, creating for the first time a substantial class of conversos, the presence of which would eventually inspire the estatutos de limpieza de sangre (the statutes of blood purity) and finally the expulsion of Jews from Castile-León and Aragon. The communities were very much preoccupied with dealing with the events at hand, and things were only to go from bad to worse with the Disputation of Tortosa in 1413–1414, a public religious debate that culminated in the conversion of many of the Jewish notables of Aragon.1 Benvenist’s Efer and Dina, written sometime between these two events, is at once a moralizing treaty, a medieval gender novella, and a biting social parody. It was a carnivalesque literary release valve in a time when increasing assimilation and pressure to convert were putting unprecedented strain on the social fabric of Sephardic life. Benvenist’s text, the story of a tragically mismatched May-December marriage, is a moral allegory, a wake-up call to the Jewish communities of Aragon to shun materialism, resist the temptation to convert, and cleave to traditional values. Yet at the same time, and much as is true of Shem Tov ben Isaac Ardutiel of Carrión, Benvenist is, despite his religious and political message, a member of a linguistic and vernacular cultural community that includes both Christians and Jews. He participates in the vernacular culture of the times that include popular lyric, tales, proverbs, and so forth. Given that he was one of the few Jews of his day who could both read and write Latin, it is not at all unlikely that he was familiar with Latin and Romance literatures as well. His warning message to the Sepharadim of his day is delivered in a Hebrew that bears the marks of his experience as such. He makes use of a number of themes, conventions, motifs, and narremes that are prevalent in the vernacular culture of the day.2

 

6 Empire and Diaspora: Solomon ibn Verga’s Shevet Yehudah and Joseph Karo’s Magid Meisharim

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Diaspora is not a uniform experience, and each author’s work refracts the experience of Sephardic diaspora in very different ways. Both Solomon ibn Verga and Joseph Karo were born in Spain and left in 1492 while still quite young. For both of them, the experience of expulsion and displacement was a major influence on their worldview and shaped their intellectual innovations in ways that had a profound impact on later Jewish thought. Ibn Verga, a historiographer, is author of the book Shevet Yehudah, a chronicle of ancient and medieval persecutions and expulsions of European Jewish communities. The rabbinical thinker and kabbalist Karo is best known as the author of a highly influential code of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh, but it is his mystical treatise, Magid Meisharim (The Preacher of the Righteous) that we will consider here. In both cases, the diaspora of the Sepharadim from the Iberian Peninsula was key in their intellectual and spiritual formation and left a profound imprint on their work. Though the exile from Spain and Portugal was hardly the only such trauma to take place during the Middle Ages, it was a disaster on an unprecedented scale and as such provoked very strong reactions in the Jewish world.

 

7 Reading Amadís in Constantinople: Spanish Fiction in the Key of Diaspora

ePub

In exile, facing the painful reality of being Jews and no longer being Spaniards, the Sepharadim chose to continue to be Jews and Spaniards at the same time.

Samuel Armistead and Joseph Silverman, En torno al Romancero sefardí

Sephardic authors in the generation following the expulsion gave voice to a new layer of diasporic consciousness, of being in diaspora from Spain. Ibn Verga’s work couches this consciousness in a Sephardic humanist voice, building on and reacting to the humanist historiography of Spain and Italy, creating a diasporic counterhistory to that of the official chronicler of the Spanish royalty. Joseph Karo’s project, while patently spiritual and not concerned with temporal history, still demonstrates a familiarity with the current belief that human agency was now a factor one must take into account when discussing the sweep of human history, even when the parameters of that history are determined by God. Both adapted the intellectual practices of the dominant culture into specifically Jewish intellectual traditions. Ibn Verga, more than Karo, deliberately repackages Spanish culture as Sephardic culture, writing as he does from outside the Spanish imperium and in a literary language that had a rapidly shrinking audience on the Iberian Peninsula itself.

 

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