Out of Diaspora: Sephardic Settlement in 16th-century Palestine

Jews from Spain had been settling in the Ottoman Empire since at least the fourteenth century, and after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 the populations of Sephardic Jews in the cities of the Ottoman Empire increased significantly. Messianism was in the air in those days, and Jewish hopes of returning to Zion in anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah coincided with Ottoman imperial designs on Palestine. After the Ottomans annexed Palestine in 1516, Jewish, and especially Sephardic immigration to Palestine surged, fueled both by favorable immigration policies and by messianic fervor. The reconstruction and settlement of Tiberias (an ancient site prophecied to be the arrival point of the messiah) by Don Joseph Nasi during the 1550s, against the backdrop of the gathering of messianic kabbalists in nearby Safed at the same time, provides us with a snapshot of the twin discourses of de-diasporization: the prophetic and the political.

The expulsion from Spain was a collective trauma superseded in Jewish history only by the destruction of Jersualem by Titus Andronicus in the year 70 CE. Since Roman times, the rabbis had developed a sophisticated (if varied) doctrine of galut (literally ‘exile’) or diaspora that both explained the loss of a sovereign Jewish homeland and provided a structure for community governance and daily life both as colonial subjects in Roman Palestine (in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah) and as a diasporic minority elsewhere. Expulsions and persecutions of Jews in various countries over time were fitted into this scheme, rationalized as divine punishment for the Jews’ lax observance of religious law or excessive acculturation, latter-day examples of the golden calf episode in Exodus.

Sephardic writers who witnessed (directly or otherwise) the events of 1492 gave voice to the trauma of the expulsion and the privations suffered by the expelled, mostly following rabbinic tradition but also drawing more modern looking historical parallels with Roman and medieval examples.  It was, after all, the sixteenth century, and the world was at the brink of modernity, a place characterized increasingly by global trade networks, rapid diffusion of ideas in print, and complex patterns of international migrations. Sephardic reactions to expulsion in the 1500s were bound be be different from Judean reactions in the 100s.

Solomon ibn Verga, author of the anthology of persecutions and expulsions titled Shevet Yehudah (Rod of Judah), includes a number of vignettes of what befell the exiles:

Some of them sought a path by sea amongst turbulent waters, but there also the hand of the Lord was with them to confound and exterminate them, for many of them were sold as slaves and servants in all of the lands of the gentiles. Many sank into the sea, drowning, at last, like lead. Others came to perish in fire and water, as the ships caught fire, and thus the fire of the Lord burned against them. (ch. 51)

I heard from the mouths of one of the elders who went out of Spain that in one ship they declared an epidemic of plague, and its captain threw the passengers onto the beach in an unpopulated area, where the majority of them died of hunger. Some decided to go on foot to find a settlement. One of those Jews, his wife, and their children decided to go; his wife, not accustomed to walking, grew weak and perished. The man and his two sons that he had with him also passed out from hunger and, when he regained consciousness, found his two sons dead…. (ch. 52)

Ibn Verga also goes into depth in examining Jewish-Christian relations and what it means to be a member of a diasporic population struggling to stay in the good graces of a temporal power that holds Judaism and often Jews themselves in open contempt. In a fictional debate between the Spanish King and delegates from the Jewish community, the King accuses the Jews of being dishonest thieves, who have been welcomed into Spain only to repay their hosts with crimes and dishonesty. The delegates respond:

As to the question of thievery, what can we say? Certainly we are like rats: one of them eats the cheese and all of them bear the blame. Naturally, there are good and bad [Jews], but the sins are born by all of us. Are there not robbers and thieves among the Christians? Despite the fact that excellent and superior personal qualities are to be found among the Christians, we still see daily hangings for robbery and thievery. But sovereignty covers up many things, like the veil on the woman covers up many imperfections. Diaspora is the opposite, for it uncovers and makes a stain as small as a mustard grain seem as large as the orb of the sun. (ch. 8 )

The neo-realpolitik in Ibn Verga’s historical imagination represents a new direction in Jewish history. On the surface he respects the prophetic tradition. He explains that the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel act merely as instruments of Providence. But he also brings a new, more modern approach, experimenting with representations of the Christian perspective and analyzing the political processes that drive key events.

People reacted differently to the events described by Ibn Verga. Historically,very few Jews emigrated to Palestine from the diaspora, and those who did were typically supported by charitable donations from abroad, there being little to no Jewish commerce or industry in the Holy Land. In the Ottoman period, the more favorable relations between the Sultans and his Jewish subjects resulted in an increased Jewish presence in Palestine. Jewish immigration to Palestine was only a trickle compared to the far larger settlements in important trade centers such as Salonika and Constantinople, but for Jews, Palestine had unparalleled historic and spritual appeal. Some sought refuge in the protection of the Ottoman Empire, seeking to recreate the life they had enjoyed in Spain. For them, the move to Palestine was an ironic double diaspora, a return to the days of Roman Palestine, living in the zionic homeland under a foreign king — a situation, we should remember, that was in perfect accordance with the rabbinic throught of the times.

Two reactions to exile

We can discern two different reactions to the expulsion from Spain in the intellectual and political gestures made by various Sephardim during the sixteenth century. The common response was to turn inward, to shun the vernacular culture and cosmopolitanism that many rabbis interpreted as having invoked God’s punishment of expulsion. Others sought to recreate their Spanish experience by taking full advantage of the benevolence of the Ottoman Sultans and gaining prominence at the Sublime Porte (the court of the Sultan) just as they once had at the courts of Christian monarchs in Spain and Portugal.  Many Sephardim who lived in Palestine had spent some time living as conversos (Jews converted to Catholicism) in Spain, Portugal, and in Spanish territories in Italy. This experience had given them a bittersweet taste of life as a member of the dominant culture. They were more familiar with the intellectual and religious life of the Christian majority than their unconverted Jewish counterparts. As we will see, Some conversos who then returned to Judaism in Italy or in Ottoman lands suffered terrible guilt for having chosen an insincere conversion over expulsion or martyrdom at the hands of the Inquisition. This drove some to an extreme form of pious ascetisicm that ironically bore clear marks of Christian influence. For other ex-conversos, the experience made them hungry for more — not more Christianity, but more of the relative freedom and power that comes with a majority identity. Some toward God, others toward material and political security.

Joseph Karo (Toledo 1488 – Safed 1575) was one of those who turned toward God. Karo was an highly respected expert in Jewish law, and is best known as the author of the definitive synthesis of Jewish law, the Shulkhan Arukh or ‘Set Table.’ He migrated from Spain to Portugal to the Ottoman Empire, passing through Salonika and Constantinople before settling in Safed in Palestine. There he joined a group of pious mystics who concerned themselves with putting the spiritual house of Jewry in order. For Karo and the circle of mystics who had gathered at Safed in northern Palestine, the expulsion was divine retribution for the sins of the Sephardim. Their project was the spiritual refinement of all Jews, to be achieved through rigorious observation of the law and tireless pursuit of the mystical dimensions of the Torah and the commandments. Karo and his companions dedicated themselves to the tireless and compulsive refinement of religious law and mystical practice. For them, the road to redemption was the path of righteousness, exacting fulfillment of the divine commandments and rigorous contemplation of the nature of God. They were not concerned with reestablishing Jewish political power — this would be accomplished only after the arrival of the messiah. And the best way to prepare for this, according to Karo and his circle, was through fastidious observation of the commandments and penetrating contemplation on their mystical meaning.

Karo recorded a series of visions in which the shekhina (God’s feminine aspect according to kabbalistic doctrine) spoke through him. These visions, which are more like a series of lectures on biblical interpretation, promote an extreme ascetism virtually unkown in prior Jewish tradition (it is possible that an influx of conversos who had returned to Judaism in the Ottoman Empire had introduced some ascetic practices from Spanish Catholicism)(Goldish) . Karo summarized these in the introduction to his Magid Meisharim (‘Preacher of Righteousness’):

Be careful to avoid taking taking pleasure while eathing meat and drinking, or while partaking of any other kind of enjoyment. Act as if a demon were forcing you to eat this food or indulge in the enjoyable activity. You should very much prefer it were possible to exist without food and drink altogether, or were it possible to fulfill the obligation of procreation without enjoyment. (Fine 56)

The particular flavor of mystic aseticism practiced by Karo and his associates in Safed was a novelty in the Jewish context, bringing to a head a tendency that had been percolating in Sephardic religious practice at least since the anti-Jewish violence of 1391 in Spain (Goldish, “Patterns”). The expulsion had kicked off a messianic fervor that lead some, most notably Isaac Abravanel (leader of Castilian Jewry and father of Leone Ebreo, the author of the Dialogues of Love) to predict its arrival in 1503 (Netanyahu 216-226). This movement died out after the 1540 arrival predicted the self-fashioned messiah Solomon Molkho did not come to pass. In the Ottoman Palestinian context, messianic hopes were further stirred when Suleyman the Magnificent rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem between 1536 and 1542 (Levy 20-21). Afterward, kabbalists such as those gathered at Safed changed course, urging a general purification of Judaism and of Jews worldwide in order to hasten the arrival of the Messiah.  And while their messianism was not as urgent at that of the previous century, they introduced an important innovation in Jewish messianism: Karo himself was the first to suggest that it was human action, and not divine action, that would bring about the coming of the messiah and the redemption of the Jews (Elior 22). They took on personal responsibility for what they perceived as the moral failings of the exiled Sephardim and strove for a spiritual perfection that would pave the way for the coming of the messiah through the mystical work of reuniting the shekhina with her lover.

Karo’s student Moses Cordovero likewise taught that redemption—allegorized in the reunion of the King (God’s masculine aspect) with his Queen (God’s feminine aspect)—depends upon human actions. When we do good, we draw them together; when we sin, we drive them apart (Jacobs 37). The more good deeds we perform, the sooner comes the Messiah. Simple.

Cordovero wrote a guide to making this happen called The Palm Tree of Deborah. According to Cordovero, when we do good, we do good not just to ourselves to also to God, who benefits from our actions:

In the acts of benevolence man carries out in the lower world he should have the intention of perfecting the upper worlds after the same pattern and this is what is meant by doing lovingkindness to the creator. (Cordovero 91-92)

Likewise, bad deeds do harm to the Shekhina, God’s feminine aspect in Kabbalistic thinking:

the flaw of his deeds pushes away the Shekhinah from above. He should fear to cause this great evil of separating the love of the King from the Queen. (Cordovero 117)

So, when we imitate a given divine trait (as revealed in Scripture), we act not only on this world but also upon the divine world. The good deed of healing the sick heals not only the sick person on Earth, but also helps to cure the sickness of the Shekhina in heaven, who is lovesick due to her separation from the King (God). Cordovero therefore instructs us to

visit the sick and heal them. For it is known that the Shekhinah is love-sick for the Union, as it is written: ‘For I am love-sick.’ Her cure is in the hands of man who can bring her the good medicine she requires, as it is written: ‘Stay me with dainties, support me with apples’ [Song of Songs 2: 5]. (Cordovero 94)

This messianism was not in the least political —on the contrary, Jewish messianic doctrine had long held that Jewish sovereignty would not return to Zion until the messiah had already arrived. But not all Sephardic Jews were content to defer sovereignty until the messianic age, nor to dedicate themselves, as did Karo and the Safed mystics, to ritual purification in hopes that it might speed the messiah’s arrival. At least one man, as if in response to Ibn Verga’s lament on the travails of diaspora, sought to take matters into his own hands.

Don Joseph Nasi and the Tiberias Experiment

While Karo and his mystics focused their energies inward, penetrating deep spiritual mysteries, his namesake Don Joseph Nasi (formerly João Miguez), the Duke of Naxos and de facto leader of Ottoman Sephardi Jewry in the mid-sixteenth century, focused on temporal power. In 1561 Don Joseph negotiated a perpetual land grant consisting of the ancient Galilean city of Tiberias and its surroundings, with the aim of rebuilding the ruins of that city and establishing there a silk and textile operation similar to the one previously established in nearby Safed (on the opposite shore of the Sea of Galilee).

From the Ottoman point of view, Jewish migration to Palestine followed the customary practice of incentivizing religious minorities with specialized commercial and administrative skills to settle in provincial centers. Both parties were served: the Sephardim enjoyed advantageous tax rates and lucrative concessions, while the Ottomans both broadened their tax base and hedged their political interests vis-à-vis indigenous Arab leadership. In the case of Palestine, a Jewish settlement in the Galilee served to bolster Ottoman interests against those of local Arab sheikhs, who found common cause with the Franciscan Dean against Don Joseph. The Dean, Bonifacio Stefano Ragusi, wrote against Don Joseph’s (whom he refers to as João Miguez, his Christian name) plans in a letter. He writes that he fears that the Jewish settlers will try to turn St. Peter’s church into a synagogue:

The infidel jew Zaminex [Don Joseph Nasi —apparently the name used here is a distortion of his Portuguese name, João Miguez] hoped to expel the snakes [Muslims] and settle his brethren the poisonous vipers [Jews] there, to turn our church into a synagogue. In order to stand in the breach, I consulted in utmost secrecy with Rustem Pasha and Ali Pasha [governor of Damascus] and they promised me that no such thing would come to pass during Sultan Suleiman’s lifetime. Their deeds matched their words. (David, Come 32; original Latin in Ragusi, Perenni 269)

What must have been most disturbing to Don Joseph’s enemies in the region was not the mere fact of Jewish immigration, but the unmistakably political nature of the project, a permanent Jewish settlement in the very place where, according to tradition, the messiah would make his first appearance on earth. It was as if these settlers wanted a front-row seat for the redemption, and they were willing to camp out for it, not just all night, but indefinitely.

While to the Ottomans the Sephardim brought administrative skills and extensive business and social networks, the Sephardi discourse of immigration to Palestine was heavily prophetic: ejected from their ancestral homeland Iberia, they sublimated the longing for Spain into a Biblical-flavored discourse of the return from diaspora to the promised land. As favorable as conditions were for them in Salonika or Constantinople, only Zion (even if it came in the form of Ottoman Palestine) could fill the symbolic void that the loss of Sepharad had opened. For them Ottoman Palestine became, in a sense, the homeland they had lost in Spain.

For a community that for centuries had defined itself as a diaspora, for the great majority of whom the scriptural and prophetic homeland of Zion was more symbolic than concrete, what must the prospect of return have been like? It is tempting to draw parallels with the example of post-World War Two Zionism, in which it was a simple symbolic calculus for victims of the Nazis to reclaim the biblical promise of sovereignty as a bulwark against further abuses. But Ottoman Palestine was another time and place, and Joseph’s Tiberian experiment must be read against its own particular background.

Ottoman annexation of Palestine in 1516 opened the gate for increased Jewish immigration to the ancestral homeland. Previous Jewish migration to Palestine was exclusively spiritual, and the olim (those who had ‘gone up’) were supported by charitable donations from the diaspora. This was also the case with the kabbalists settled in Safed, who enjoyed the patronage of diaspora communities as well as that of the powerful Doña Gracia Nasi and her nephew Don Joseph Nasi.

Don Joseph’s Tiberian project differed from other patterns of Jewish settlement in the Ottoman Empire in that it was political as opposed to merely mercantile. In other areas of the Ottoman Empire the Jews pursued commerce, worked as imperial functionaries, or as artisans. In Tiberias, Don Joseph’s plan was long-term and vertically integrated: he planted mulberries outside the city to support silkworm farming, which in turn provided the raw materials for an offshoot of the textiles business that was flourishing in Salonika and to a lesser extent in nearby Safed (some 15km away). Joseph’s aim was to build a durable Jewish settlement that would anchor the growth of a Galilean Jewish fiefdom within Ottoman Palestine. This amounted to a geographic projection of Don Joseph’s influence at the Sublime Porte, the Sultan’s court at Constantinople.

Tiberias was quite near Safed, which had been a thriving center of religious studies for nearly a hundred years. By the time that Joseph began to rebuild the walls of ancient Tiberias, renowned kabbalists such as Isaac Luria, Solomon Alkabetz, and Moses Cordovero were revolutionizing religious life throughout mediterranean Jewry. They cultivated extreme ascetic practices and wrote texts that would become seminal works of kabbalah. The urgency with which they worked and the intellectual ferment that characterized their small circle of mystics was nearly unparalleled in Jewish history.

During the 1560s, while Don Joseph worked to establish his colony, Tiberias and Safed were like twin cities, each expressing a different reaction to the Sephardic diaspora. Some adopted a diasporic apolitical (though one might argue political in its non-engagement) posture, making sovereignty a religious ideal while simultaneously evolving sophisticated strategies to thrive as a non-sovereign nation. We should not forget that Karo was unsurpassed in his systematization of Jewish law. Far from a sloppy ecstatic, he was a compulsive, cerebral mystic. He is not like al-Ghazali in that he was equally rigorous as a lawyer and as mystic. While Don Joseph’s reaction was more political, it shared the industriousness that characterized Karo’s thought. Both were examples of the Sephardic reaction to diaspora, of turnng and re-turning (Tölölyan) to Zion.

Works Cited

  • David, Abraham. To Come to the Land: Immigration and Settlement in Sixteenth-Century Eretz-Israel. Tuscaloosa  Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1999. Print.
  • Elior, Rachel. “Exile and Redemption in Jewish mystical thought.” Journal of the Interdisciplinary Study of Monotheistic Religions (JISMOR) 4 (2008): 11-24.
  • Fine, Lawrence. Safed Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
  • Goldish, Matt. “Patterns in Converso Messianism.” Jewish Messianism in the Early Modern World. Vol. 1. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 2001. 41-63.
  • Ibn Verga, Solomon. Sefer Shevet Yehudah. Ed. Azriel Shohet. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1946.
  • —. La vara de Yehudah. Trans. María José Cano. Barcelona: Riopiedras, 1991.
  • Jacobs, Louis. “Introduction.” The Palm Tree of Deborah. Trans. Louis Jacobs. London: Valentine Mitchell, 1960. 1-39.
  • Levy, Avigdor. The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire. Princeton: Darwin, 1992.
  • Netanyahu, B. Don Isaac Abravanel, statesman & philosopher. 5th ed. Ithaca  N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • Ragusino, Bonifacio Stefano. Liber de Perenni Cultu Terrae Sanctae. Venice, 1875.
  • Roth, Cecil. The House of Nasi: the Duke of Naxos. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1992.
  • Tölölyan, Khachig. “The Contemporary Discourse of Diaspora Studies.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27.3 (2007): n. pag. Accessed 20 July 2010.

This post was made possible with support from the UC Mediterranean Studies Research Project/Mediterranean Seminar and forms the basis of a roundtable presentation given at the The Mediterranean Seminar (UC Multi Campus Research Project), Spring Workshop Roundtable: ‘Reconstructing the Past.’ UC San Diego, 3 Feb 2012.

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Translation in Diaspora: the Hebrew Amadís de Gaula

In a previous entry, I discussed the literary and cultural contexts of Jacob Algaba’s 1541 Hebrew translation of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s 1508 chivalric novel, Amadís de Gaula. Here I would like to talk more directly about the text of the translation itself, in order to show what Algaba’s translation does as a translation made by and for members of a culture in diaspora.

Amadís de Gaula is a chivalric romance that became a bestseller and major entertainment franchise in sixteenth-century Spain. In 1508 Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo published what would be the first of a multiple-volume series of the adventures of Amadis of Gaul and his numerous successors. It spawned a wildly successful (and widely critcized) genre of popular novel that famously met its demise at the hands of Miguel de Cervantes, who mercilessly parodied the books in the figure of Don Quijote. The novel was perhaps the most important exemplar of the Spanish chivalric imagination, an iconic brand or franchise that was instantly recognizable as Spanish. It was a natural favorite for Sephardic Jews who, while living in Constantinople, Salonika, or elsewhere, spoke Spanish and still identified strongly with the vernacular culture of their land of origin. Its reception by Sephardic Jews and its translation into Hebrew offers us a glimpse into the literary practices of the Sephardic diaspora. The Hebrew Amadís can help us to better understand the diasporic cultural production of the Sephardim.

And when we say ‘diaspora,’ what do we mean? I’ve written in another post on the idea of ‘double diaspora,’ that the Sephardim (Spanish Jews) experienced not only the diaspora from their Biblical homeland, which I will call ‘Zion’ but also a diaspora from Sefarad (Spain). They experienced —and gave voice to— the separation from their ancestral land of Sefarad in terms both real and symbolic, and their cultural production in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere in the Sephardic diaspora should be understood in light of this fact.

Why does this matter when we are studying the cultural significance of a translation? It matters because in doing so we are expanding the discussion of Jewish diaspora. First-wave modern theorists of diaspora writing in the 1970s and 1980s argued that the cultural imagination of diasporic populations vacillate between two geographical territories, constantly mediating between the symbolic value of their homeland and the lived reality of their current hostland. Later theorists of more recent diasporas have criticized this ‘dual-territorial’ model. Sudesh Mishra, one of the harshest critics of this approach, argues that it cannot address the complexities of the modern diasporas of Indian, African, Chinese, and other populations.

This discussion has prompted historians and theorists of Jewish diaspora take a second look at how they think about Jewish history and culture in diaspora. The concept of ‘double diaspora’ attempts to account for some of this complexity by studying the cultural production of the Sephardim in and beyond Spain as giving voice to two overlaid layers of diaspora that interact, and in the words of Jonathan Boyarin, “echo back and forth” in the Sephardic cultural imagination.

Ottoman Jewish print culture

Before examining the text of the translation itself it is worth considering Algaba’s Hebrew Amadís in the context of the Hebrew print culture and of the Ottoman Jewish society of the times. The Hebrew print industry was active in Spain from the late fifteenth century, and presses in Spain produced a great number of religious works (Bibles, Talmuds, Biblical commentaries, liturgical and moralistic texts, etc.) but also volumes of philosophy, science, and what we might call secular prose such as histories and fiction. In the early sixteenth century Hebrew printing continued to flourish first in Italy and then in Ottoman cities such as Salonika, Adrianopole, and Constantinople.

For most of the sixteenth century nearly all titles with any discernible Jewish content were published in Hebrew (in Salonika printers brought out a few titles in Judeo-Spanish, and Italian printers published some in Italian or in both Italian and Hebrew) but for the most part Hebrew had pride of place as the prestige language of the Jewish press. However, Jewish printers in Italy and the Ottoman Empire were not culturally isolated or closed to the vernacular and learned languages of their non-Jewish neighbors. On the contrary, the itinerant printer Gershon Soncino (who moved his press a number of times to various locations in Italy and the Ottoman Empire) published a number of titles for Christian patrons in Italian, Greek, and Latin. Apparently, the Greek vernacular culture of the Ottoman Romaniote Jews did not have sufficient caché to warrant repackaging in Hebrew. Constantinople Jews were not commonly very proficient in Turkish in the sixteenth century, and in any event the Ottomans did not license Turkish-language printing until the mid-eighteenth century, so that option was not on the table for Soncino.

In Ottoman Jewish society, Hebrew was the academic and religious lingua franca of a number of different ethnic groups who had settled in Ottoman cities. While Salonika in the sixteenth century was overwhelmingly Sephardic, the indigenous Greek-Speaking Romaniote Jews had significant communities in the cities and were joined by Ashkenazi Jews from Western and Eastern Europe as well as some Mizrahi (Eastern) Jews from the Arabic, Persian, and Turkic-speaking areas of the Ottoman Empire and beyond. But by their numbers, their superior cultural level, and their considerable network of commercial and diplomatic contacts, the Sephardim quickly emerged as the prestige subculture of Ottoman Jewry. This, along with the fact that Sephardim conversant in Spanish would have no need of a Hebrew translation in order to read Amadís, suggests that the translation was made either for Greek-speaking (but Hebrew-reading) Romaniote Jews in Ottoman lands or perhaps for non-Spanish-speaking Jewish readers in any country that Algaba’s edition might eventually reach. At this time Jewish merchants, diplomats, and scholars traveled widely throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. While he have no documentary evidence of the reception of Algaba’s translation, it is not unreasonable to think that copies may have ended up in the hands of readers in Cairo, Tunis, Venice, Troyes, or Cochin for that matter.

Sephardic culture (in the broad sense) had long history of prestige in the East, going back to Maimonides, who retained the sobriquet ‘Ha-Sefardí’ long after leaving his native Cordoba. The Ottoman Sephardim likewise represented this prestige, expressed both in their Spanish vernacular culture and in the wealth and influence they wielded. Accordingly, the Sephardic community attracted and assimilated members from the other groups, and soon was the dominant ethnic culture in Ottoman Jewish society. As we read Algaba’s text we should keep two things in mind: he was in all likelihood writing for non-Sephardic Jews, and he was consciously representing Sephardic culture to them in choosing to translate a Spanish (European) novel, a genre that had yet to be introduced to Hebrew.

The task of Algaba’s Amadís

Let us how turn to the text and see how Algaba worked with Montalvo’s text to appeal to Jewish audiences and (it must be said) to sell copies of his translation. One common strategy of Algaba is to de-Christianize the text, removing references that might offend Jewish sensibilities. It is noteworthy that in most of these cases he avoids substituting specifically Jewish terms or concepts. Algaba’s Amadís is the first major narrative work in a register of Hebrew that is largely free of the dense weave of clever Biblical and rabbinical allusions that was characteristic of nearly every other work of Hebrew prose being published at the time (Judah al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni, Judah ibn Shabbetay’s Offering of Judah, Vidal Benvenist’s Tale of Efer and Dina, etc.)

The Anchorite, by Teodor Axentowicz (1859–1938)

In Algaba’s translation, priests become laymen, oaths are secularized, and moralizing digressions (to which Montalvo was famously inclined) are simply omitted. Most of these examples are superficial and predictable. When Amadís exclaims “¡Sancta María!” Algaba substitutes ‘Long live my Lord the King!’ Montalvo has the Queen lead Amadís into her “capilla” (chapel), which Algaba renders as “cámara” (chamber). Elsewhere, Amadís comes upon a wounded knight in the road who asks to be taken to an “hermitaño” (Anchorite) who might ‘tend to his soul,’ which Algaba renders as ‘someone who might heal me.’

Occasionally Algaba changes the moral valence of a term that is not specifically Christian but that might have been unseemly to Montalvo’s target readership. Montalvo describes the inaugural sexual encounter between Amadís and Oriana, for example, as “vicio y plazer” (‘vice and pleasure’), which Algaba renders as ‘delight and happiness.’ When Amadís comes upon a damsel who has been sexually assaulted, in Montalvo’s version she relates that she was “escarnecida” (‘dishonored’) by her attacker, while Algaba’s damsel simply says: “he lay with me.”

Most of the examples of Algaba’s de-christianization of the text are similarly routine; but some merit interpretation. When King Languines orders a traitorous woman burnt to death, Algaba instead has her thrown to her death from a high tower. His reluctance to depict her being burned may be out of respect to victims of the Spanish Inquisition. His alternative may be dawn from Josephus: in the Sefer Yosippon, the medieval Hebrew translation of Josephus’ history, Jezebel meets a similar fate as punishment for her sins.

Despite his secularizing tendency, there are some moments in which he (for lack of a better, less-charged term) ‘Judaizes’ the text, inserting references to Jewish texts, cultural concepts, and observances. A few of these replace Christian references, but many appear to be spontaneous, whether out of a desire to appeal to his audience or, occasionally, for ironic effect.  When Amadís’ step-brother Galaor bids farewell to the giant who raised him on a remote island, the giant asks “que le huviesse memoria” (‘that he remember him’); in the Hebrew takes a more spiritual turn and asks that ‘he not be forgotten from his prayers.’

In particularly playful rabbinical allusion, Amadís deals his enemy a crippling blow to the thigh. In addition to the direct translation for thigh (yareakh) Algaba adds a technical term drawn from the rabbinic discourse on koshering animal carcasses: maqom tsomet hagidin, ‘the place where the tendons come together.’ This is Algaba’s ironic response to the episode in Genesis where the angel, tired of wrestling with Jacob all night long, finally “wrenched Jacob’s hip at the socket” (32: 26). The Biblical text then explains “that is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip [i.e. sirloin, top loin, etc.], since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle” (32:33). Where the Biblical texts derives its dietary ruling from the battle between Jacob and the angel, Algaba playfully writes the language of dietary restriction back into the battle between Amadís and his opponent.

Sephardic chivalry and courtly discourse

Perhaps most significant for our discussion is Algaba’s interpretation of Montalvo’s frequent references to the chivalric and courtly cultural world represented in Amadís. It stands to reason that non-Sephardic Jews, who had never lived in Christian Europe would be unfamiliar with the institutions and practices of chivalry that form the fabric of the social world of Amadís. You cannot, of course, trade on foreign caché that is totally incomprehensible to your audience.  To this end Algaba tailors Montalvo’s references to the institutions of chivalry, social conventions, and courtly practices that may have fallen outside the experience of his non-Sephardic readers. As in the examples of de-Christianization, some such examples are superficial, but telling of differences of expectations of what ‘courtly’ or ‘chivalric’ might mean to non-Sephardic, Jewish audiences.

A character named ‘la doncella de la guirnalda’ (‘the damsel of the garland’), so named because she always wore a garland of flowers to accentuate her beautiful hair, becomes in Algaba’s version the ‘damsel of the crown,’ an accessory that ostensibly made more sense to the Ottoman readers to whom a garland of flowers might have seemed more rustic than idyllic. Algaba often renders declarations couched in elevated courtly language (which abound), in Biblical Hebrew, which better emphasizes their high register. When Amadís declares “¡muerto soy de corazón!” (I shall die of heartbreak!), Algaba renders mah anokhi, she-nitraf libi! (‘What will become of me, for my heart is torn asunder!’), deploying the rarer first-person pronoun anokhi found in the Hebrew Bible. When a rival knight mocks Amadís as unworthy to love Oriana, challenges Amadís to “tell me who she is, so that I may love her.” Algaba puts into his mouth the instantly recognizable words of the Song of Songs (6:10): haged na li mi ha-nishkafa-kemo shahar (‘who is she that shines through like the dawn’). Again Algaba shows a bit of playfulness in his ironic deployment of biblical language, emphasizing the intensity of the discussion between Amadís and his rival in a way that makes sense to his audience.

Algaba translates some of the specific conventions and practices of Spain’s chivalric culture into more familiar, general terms. When Amadís swears an oath of service to Helisenda, he does so “en esta cruz y espada con que la orden de cavallería recebí” (‘upon this cross and sword which I received with the Order of Chivalry’), referencing a specifically Christian, chivalric practice of swearing upon a sword planted point down so that the handle and guard resemble a cross. The reference to the Order of Chivalry would most likely be opaque, and swearing on the cross unacceptable to a Jewish audience. Algaba has him swear simply upon his sword as a kind of shorthand. When Helisena appeals to the honor of King Perión’s squire, she asks him if he is an hidalgo (nobleman of low rank); by this she means ‘are you an honorable individual with whom I can trust my secret?’ Algaba preserves the equation of high birth and good moral conduct implied by the word hidalgo but his Helisena asks the squire ‘who are you and your family? Are they high born? (me`olah, literally ‘superior’ or ‘fine’).

Cárcel de amor, Barcelona, Joan Rosembach 1493

Very occasionally, Algaba demonstrates his familiarity with courtly and chivalric discourse by introducing elements of them into the Hebrew when they are absent from the Spanish. In one such example, Amadís is complaining to Oriana about the difficulty of deferring his sexual desire for her. His complaint is couched in standard language of the courtly lover. He claims it is an impossible task, because his “juizio no puede resistir aquellos mortales deseos de quien cruelmente es atormentado” (‘better judgment cannot resist those mortal desires by which it is cruelly tormented’). What is interesting is that Algaba’s Hebrew rendering introduces a different trope of the courtly lover, one that is also characteristic of Montalvo’s day but that is absent from prior Hebrew tradition. He writes: “my heart is bound and tied in iron chains,” an image very much consistent with the late medieval Western European poetic convention of love as a form of slavery or imprisonment (Spanish books on amorous topics of the late fifteenth century included Siervo libre de amorFree Slave of Love’ and Cárcel de amor Prison of Love). Here Algaba proves himself a knowledgeable reader of Spanish tradition who actively seeks to reconcile, integrate, and mediate between Hebrew and Spanish literary traditions. His insertion of this courtly trope speaks to his biculturality and more importantly to his role of translator mediating between diasporic communities, the Sephardim who represented the prestige of European courtly culture, and the Greek- and Arabic-speaking Jews who were his target audience.


Algaba’s translation project was ultimately a commercial failure. His translation of the first book of Montalvo’s Amadís was of very low quality, and for whatever reason did not appear to have stimulated demand for subsequent installments. We have no concrete data to explain this fact, but we may speculate. Perhaps the time had not yet come for ‘light literature’ in Hebrew. Algaba’s Amadís was certainly alone in that respect: it is the only Hebrew edition of its times of a popular novel. The other secular works that were published in the sixteenth century were more ‘serious’ literature: difficult rhyming prose narratives that were showy displays of erudition and arcana, histories of Jewish persecutions or of the regimes that persecuted them, and a smattering of philosphical and scientific works. Algaba’s test balloon novel was an aberration, and the European novel would not make a significant début in Hebrew until the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, Algaba’s Amadís does tell us a great deal about how he sought to represent Sephardic popular culture to the other communities of the Jewish diaspora in the Ottoman Empire of his day. His adaptation of Montalvo’s iconic work for a non-Sephardic Jewish audience is an illuminating example of how Sephardim chose to articulate their relationship with the land from which they found themselves in a second, Sephardic diaspora.

Works cited

  • Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999. Print.
  • Boyarin, Jonathan. Personal communication. 3 Oct 1993. Cited in Clifford, James. “Diasporas.” Cultural Anthropology 9.3 (1994): 302-338, 305.
  • Mishra, Sudesh. Diaspora criticism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
  • Rodríguez de Montalvo, Garci. Amadís de Gaula. Ed. Juan Manuel Cacho Blecua. Madrid: Cátedra, 1996.
  • —. ʻAlilot ha-abir. Trans. Jacob Algaba. Ed. Tzvi Malachi. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 1981. Print.

This post is based on a paper I gave at the 2012 Modern Langages Association Convention in Seattle, session #260, “From Spain to Sephardic Culture, Language, Literature, and Self-Identity.” You can see the slides here.