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

David A. Wacks Indiana University Press ePub

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.

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

David A. Wacks Indiana University Press 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.

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

David A. Wacks Indiana University Press ePub

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

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1 Diaspora Studies for Sephardic Culture

David A. Wacks Indiana University Press ePub

[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?

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

David A. Wacks Indiana University Press 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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