Translation in Diaspora: Historia de las Indias in Hebrew

 In two previous posts I wrote about the cultural context and actual translation of the Spanish chivalric novel Amadís de Gaula (Zaragoza, 1507) into Hebrew made by Sephardic physician and translator Jacob Algaba (Constantinople, 1550). Here I would like to expand my discussion of translation from Spanish to Hebrew made in the sixteenth century to include another book well-known to students of Spanish literature: Joseph Hakohen’s 1557 translation of Francisco López de Gómara’s Historia General de las Indias (Zaragoza, 1552).

Here they come

When we read these translations as examples of Sephardic diasporic cultural production, the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula,  we begin to see a different picture. Their translators placed these works in the service of a Jewish literary culture, one whose values were often at odds with those of the original authors and readers of the Spanish originals. At the same time, the Sepharadim were deeply identified with Iberian vernacular culture and history, and these translations were a form of cultural capital upon which they traded in the broader Jewish context of Western Christendom and the Ottoman Empire.


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 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 range of historical scatterings: African, Indian, Chinese, Armenian, and others. In other posts I’ve written on how current ideas about non-Jewish diasporas can be helpful for thinking about Jewish diaspora, and in particular the Sephardic ‘double diaspora’ from Zion and from Sefarad. [see previous post on double diaspora]


Diasporic populations are by nature multilingual. They typically use one or more diasporic languages brought from the homeland in addition to one or more languages of the hostland. It follows that translation across these languages would be an important part of their cultural life.

López de Gómara’s notice to his translators

Diaspora is often presented as an alternative to the idea of national languages and literatures (Tölölyan, “Transnational” 8). Lawrence Venuti, an expert on translation in literature, writes that translation can be part of a nationalist cultural agenda:

Foreign texts are chosen because they fall into particular genres and address particular themes while excluding other genres and themes that are seen as unimportant for the formation of a national identity; translation strategies draw on particular dialects, registers, and styles while excluding others that are also in use; and translators target particular audiences with their work, excluding other constituencies. (“Local 189-90)

Although diasporic and national cultures are different, in both cases translation can serve similar purposes. Sephardic Spanish-to-Hebrew translations bring texts over from a language of national and imperial culture into one of a diasporic language of learning. They reauthorize the works for consumption by the broader, non-Sephardic Jewish community, so their motives for translation were not to make the works in question intelligible to themselves, but rather to represent some version of Spanish or Sephardic culture to the broader Jewish world.

In these translations, we see a conflicting desires at work: on the one hand our translators sought to bring Spanish literature to a broader Jewish audience. In this they were banking on the prestige of Spain as a world power, as a source of great literature, and to a certain extent they identified with Spain’s prestige. But at the same time, their relationship with Spain was conflicted: it was at once their ancestral homeland and the country whose kings had brutally rejected and ejected them. Hakohen’s translation of López de Gómara’s account of the conquest of the Americas demonstrates this conflict in some interesting ways, as we are about to find out.

Hakohen’s Historia de las Indias

Francisco López de Gómara, secretary and chaplain to Hernán Cortés in Seville, published his second-hand account of the conquest of the Indies in Zaragoza in 1552. It was later decried as inaccurate and overly rosy in its portrayal of the Spanish colonial enterprise, and particularly in its lionization of Cortés himself. Such objections notwithstanding, it provided readers with a detailed —if inaccurate— account of the geographic, political, and social realities of New Spain, by any measure an exciting and relevant topic of discussion in Spain and elsewhere.

The first half of the sixteenth century saw a surge in Jewish historiography. Jewish writers began to write chronicles and histories that recorded events of importance to Jewish communities, the succession of gentile kings, wars, calumnies, expulsions, and so forth.  While some historians of Jewish culture have explained this apparently sudden interest in historiography as a reaction to the trauma of the expulsions from Spain and from various Italian city states, it was more likely simply a sign of the times (Bonfil, “Golden”). In the age of print, exploration, and complex international trade networks, global politics and history was now part of the dossier of a good Jewish courtier or businessman.

Joseph Hakohen was an Italian Jew of Sephardic background and author of a number of secular histories in Hebrew (León Tello, “Introducción” 25-35). In the introduction to his Chronicles of the Kings of France and the Kings of the House of the Ottoman Turk, he writes that it is good to learn of the deeds of great kings against the Jews so that, as he writes in his introduction to his “that the remembrance thereof not pass away from among the Jews; and the memory of our wrongs shall not come to an end” (Hakohen, Chronicles 1: xx). But the Hebrew histories of the sixteenth century were more than updated lamentations of Jewish suffering; they were guidebooks to a globalizing world that negotiated between imperial contexts. This increased interest in international affairs should come as no surprise given Jewish involvement in diplomacy and international trade.

We must keep in mind that Hakohen’s Historia de las Indias appeared in 1557, five years after Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas’ Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias (1552) discredited López de Gómara’s history as a blatant fabrication and puff piece meant to validate Spanish conquest in the New World. Hakohen’s treatment of Gómara’s work is likewise highly critical. Why translate a work only to criticize and undermine it all the while? Moshe Lazar, the modern editor of Hakohen’s translation, notes that Hakohen embeds a critique of the Spanish colonial project similar to that voiced by Las Casas. Hakohen editorializes liberally in his translation of the events narrated by López de Gómara, freely glossing and emending López de Gómara’s text to bring it in line with his own values and those of his audience.

Coat of arms given to Columbus by the Catholic Monarchs

In one striking example, López de Gómara recounts the triumphant return of Christopher Columbus to the court of the Catholic Monarchs, where he is given a hero’s welcome. Gómara describes the coat of arms presented to the Genoese navigator, which he inscribes with a couplet celebrating his own achievements:

Puso Christoual Colon al rededor del escudo de armas, que le concedieron, esta letra:

Por Castilla, y por Leon.
Nueuo mundo hallo Colon. (López de Gómara, Historia 22)

Christopher Columbus put this inscription around the coat of arms that they gave him:

For Castile, and for Leon.
Columbus found a new world.

Hakohen, somewhat more critical of Columbus’ project, glosses the couplet, first reproducing it in Spanish (with a slight variant) in Hebrew letters, followed by a poem of his own composition:

Por Castilla y por León
Medio el mundo halló Colón

For Castille and for Leon
Columbus found half of the world

And I, Joseph Hakohen, composed the following, saying:

For Castilla, and also for Leon
Colon found a new world
But with the passage of the sun through the sky,
they crossed into the Valley of Ayalon (Joshua 10:12-13)
There he earned eternal fame
For there he also found a colony
Thus many nations were humbled
In great reproach, contempt and dishonor,
For this man crossed there,
to become the mistletoe [i.e. a parasite] to their oak.

Elsewhere he frankly contradicts López de Gómara’s version of events, offering a counter history to the hegemonic narrative of the Spanish original. For example, López de Gómara’s chapter on syphillis is plainly titled “Que las bubas vinieron de las Indias,” or ‘syphillis came from the Indies.’ (Historia 37-38).

Smallpox devastating the Nahuatl, from the Florentine Codex c.1585.

He explains that Spanish conquistadors contracted syphillis by having sex with indigenous women from the island of Hispaniola, then returned to Spain. Subsequently they traveled to Naples to fight the French, where they infected Italian women with the disease:

Los de aquesta ysla Española son todos bubosos. Y como los Españoles dormian con las Indias hinchieronse luego de bubas, enfermedad pegajosisima, y que atormenta con rezios dolores. Sintiendose atormentar y no mejorando, se boluieron muchos dellos a España por sanar, y otros a negocios, los quales pegaron su encubierta dolencia a muchas mugeres cortesanas, y ellas a muchos hombres, que passaron a Italia a la guerra de Napoles en fauor del rey don Fernando, el segundo, contra Franceses, y pegaron alla aquel su mal. (Historia 36-37)

The inhabitants of that island Hispaniola are all syphillitic. And as the Spanish slept with the Indian women they then became infected with syphillis, that most contagious disease that torments one with fierce pains. Feeling afflicted and not improving, many went back to Spain to recover, and others to conduct business, by which they infected many courtesan ladies who in turn infected many men who went over to Italy to the War of Naples on the side of King Fernando II, against the French, and there they spread their disease.

Without editorializing, Hakohen turns López de Gómara’s narrative on its head, substituting a very different epidemiology of the Columbian exchange that runs counter to López de Gómara’s official narrative. Hakohen’s chapter is titled “Syphillis is a French sickness, that the Spaniards brought from there, and they also brought the hordeolu (orzuelo, ‘stye’) illness.”[1] His version differs considerably from that of López de Gómara:

The Spaniards brought syphillis to Italy from the Indies when they went to Naples, in the year 1494. They slept with women, and French also slept with them, and the syphillis shone [first] in their foreheads and in time ate half of their flesh. . . . And the Spaniards also brought hordeolu (styes) and morbili (measles), which is called jidri in Arabic,[2] and smallpox, which the inhabitants of that land had never seen before that day; and many thousands of them died of those two illnesses. Their time of their [death] warrant had come upon them then. (Sefer ha-Indiah 30-31)

The constrast is dramatic. Hakohen reverses the trajectory of infection, returning the origin of the pestilence to Europe and backing up his version by adding details and citing medical authorities absent in the Spanish original. He is clearly at odds with López de Gómara, particularly as regards the morality of Spain’s colonial project.


This hostility to Spanish conquest is hardly unique to Hakohen. We have noted the well-known case of Las Casas. There were also a number of of Hakohen’s countrymen in Italy who took up their pens against Spain. The most prominent among these was Girolamo Benzoni, a Milanese whose bitter failures in his brief time in the new world engendered in him a vibrant hate of all things Spanish. Benzoni gives voice to this hatred unstintingly in his Historia del nuovo mundo, published in Venice in 1565, eight years after Hakohen finishes his translation of López de Gómara.

Unlike Benzoni, Hakohen’s relationship to the Spanish colonial enterprise is more complicated: he is describing a culture of which he is a part but from which he has been excluded. When Sephardic authors such as Hakohen write about Spain, or adapt works by Spanish authors, they are in a sense turning and re-turning toward Spain, but this orientation toward the diasporic homeland is the product of human history and not part of any divine plan. However, the strong attachment to Sepharad/Spain expressed by Sephardic writers intertwines and alternates with the desire (if not the actual project) of returning to Zion.

This contains material from a talk I gave at the Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese of the University of Colorado at Boulder on 1 November 2012. My thanks to the Department and to the Center for Humanities and Arts for their support.

I appreciate your feedback and comments. Feel free to leave a comment below or email me.

Works cited

  • Bonfil, Robert. “How Golden was the Age of the Renaissance in Jewish Historiography?” History and Theory 27.4 (1988): 78–102. Print.
  • Hakohen, Joseph. Sefer Divre Ha-yamim : Le-malkhe Tsarefat U-malkhe Bet Oṭoman ha-Tugar. Ed. David Arie Gros. Yerushalayim: Mosad Byaliḳ, 1955. Print.
  • —. Sefer ha-Indiʼah Ha-hadashah. Ed. Moshe Lazar. Lancaster, CA: Labyrinthos, 2002.
  • —. Sefer ʼEmeq Ha-bakha = The Vale of Tears : with the Chronicle of the Anonymous Corrector. 2nd ed. Ed. Karin Almbladh. Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1981. Print.
  • León Tello, Pilar. “Introducción.” El Valle Del Llanto (’Emeq ha-Bakha). Joseph Hakohen. Trans. Pilar Léon Tello. Barcelona: Riodpiedras, 1989. 9–35.
  • López de Gómara, Francisco. La historia general De las Indias y Nueuo Mundo con mas la conquista del Peru y de Mexico. Antwerp: Juan Steeliso, 1554.
  • Tölölyan, Khachig. “Rethinking Diaspora(s): Stateless Power in the Transnational Moment.” Diaspora 5.1 (1996): 3–36.
  • Tölölyan, Khachig. “The Contemporary Discourse of Diaspora Studies.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 27.3 (2007): n. pag. Web. 20 July 2011.

[1] Hakohen uses the Hebrew term holei ha-tavelei for the Spanish bubas.

[2] Jidri is Andalusi Arabic for smallpox. The Classical Arabic form is judari. It is interesting that Hakohen is familiar with the colloquial rather than learned form, which suggests that he learned it in discussion with an Arabic speaker, rather than from consulting an Arabic book or a Latin or Romance translation of an Arabic book.

Sephardic Literature after Las Navas de Tolosa: The Romance Turn in Jacob ben Elazar’s “Sahar and Kima”

This is the paper that I would have given today at the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalmazoo, Michigan, if the ticket from Eugene to Kalamazoo did not cost $900. Special thanks go to Prof Erik Ekman of Oklahoma State for organizing the panel “1212 Remembered: The Eight Hundreth Anniversary of Las Navas de Tolosa,” and for allowing me to lurk electronically via Skype from my office in Eugene. Thanks also to my co-panelists, Professor Barbara Boloix-Gallardo of Washington University and Prof. Jonathan Ray of Georgetown University. Feedback and comments are welcome via email.

 The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, as all of you know, is the cliché turning point of the balance of political power on the Iberian Peninsula between Christian and Muslim kingdoms. For Muslim political power, it was the beginning of the end, for Christians it was, or came to be understood retrospectively, as the point after which the total elimination of Muslim political power seemed imminent or at least possible. I’ll leave to the historians in the room the small detail that Granada continued to be a sovereign, if eventually tributary kingdom for some two hundred fifty years after Las Navas, and the even more problematic detail that Islam continued to be practiced in parts of Castile-Leon and Aragon for a full four hundred years after Las Navas.

But I am not going to speak about the battle itself, or even of the political context or related historical issues. Instead, I would like to use the literary production of Iberian Jews as a kind of lens through which to examine the cultural impact of the transition between Muslim and Christian rule in Castile, paying specific attention to how one Castilian writer of prose fiction in Hebrew bridged the Andalusi and Christian periods. The text in question, a collection of Hebrew tales by a man named Jacob ben Elazar, dates from the same decade as Las Navas de Tolosa, and is a bellweather for how Jewish literary culture reacted to regime change in Castile.

Ben Elazar’s Book of Tales (Sefer Ha-meshalim in Hebrew) is a collection of 10 short pieces of narrative.[1] In Ben Elazar’s tale “Sahar and Kima,” the author demonstrates his relationship to the literary culture of the dominant Christian society while simultaneously reflecting the Andalusi Hebrew literary tradition. In his manipulation of the literary conventions of the Hebrew maqama (rhyming prose narrative) he carves out new literary space to give voice to the concerns of a community in transition between Arabic-dominant and Romance-dominant host cultures.[2]

Ben Elazar is writing precisely when Castilian is still very much emergent as a literary language, when Gonzalo de Berceo —often named in literary histories as the first author to write in literary Castilian—writes his works of mester de clerecía (religious narrative poetry), and a full generation or two before the massive vernacularization project of Alfonso X.

In the context of Christian Castile, some of these new examples were bound to come from the literary practice of the Christian majority, notably the Romance-language poetry and prose that was written and read in the courts of Christian monarchs and nobles. Just as the Hebrew poets of the Jewish communities of al-Andalus succeeded in adapting Arabic poetics and literary mores for a Hebrew-speaking audience, Sephardic writers living in Christian Iberia drew on the literature of the Christian majority for inspiration. In the example we are about to explain, Ben Elazar’s adaptation of courtly romance is a diasporic literary strategy that draws both on the authority of Andalusi Hebrew literature and on the examples of the emergent Romance-language styles, including French chivalric romances, and troubadour poetry that were popular in Castile during the thirteenth century.

It is not particularly shocking in itself that a Sephardic writer would be imitating styles popular at court where he or his benefactor might have served. This was very much the case with Jewish writers in al-Andalus, who famously adapted Arabic poetics in their Hebrew verse over the course of the tenth to the twelfth centuries. In this case, however, Ben Elazar’s discourse of courtly love (for lack of a better term) appears some years before writers working in Castilian begin to bring over the world of the French Tristan, Arthur, and Lancelot into their own language. Ben Elazar’s Sahar and Kima is a very early example —perhaps the first example— of an authoctonous Iberian writer adapting Arthurian courtly discourse in an original composition.

Apart from scattered references to Arthurian material mentioned by trouabours during the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the first Iberian narratives that bear significant Arthurian influence were those included in the Alfonsine histories, and these did not emerge until the mid- to late-thirteenth century, followed shortly thereafter by the book of Cavallero Cífar at the turn of the fourteenth. This means that Ben Elazar’s tale of Sahar and Kima would be one of the first Iberian texts to bear influence of chivalric courtly mores, some three quarters of a century before the first Castilian-language example. Reading Ben Elazar’s Hebrew text in the Romance language context gives us more data points to bring to our consideration of the development of Chivalric Romance in Spain. He introduces elements of the courtly attitudes and behaviors (as well as the physical surroundings and props) of the world of chivalric romance while substituting feats of poetic and rhetorical brilliance (the pen) for that of arms (the sword) as is the norm among heroes of French and Castilian chivalric novels. Jonathan Decter points up this distinction in his comparison between Ben Elazar’s book with the French and (considerably later) Castilian versions of the romance Floire et Blanchefloir. He concludes that “Ben Elazar does not create protagonists who embark upon chivalrous forest adventures or engage in tournaments to earn love and prestige. Yet his characters do embody the internal transformations charcteristic of Romance protagonists”.[3]

How does this synthesis between Arabic and French tradition play out in Ben Elazar’s text? Much of it has to do with the way in which he adapts the chivalric literary sensibility to the culture of the Sepharadim. If epic poetry such as the Cantar de Mio Cid or the Chanson de Roland tells the story of arms in service to feudal lord, the great innovation of chivalric romance was to press arms into the service of love. The feudal lord is displaced by the lady as the figure around which the action is oriented.

One might think that since Ben Elazar is using biblical Hebrew to tell his tale he might graft bits of Biblical feats of arms into the text to keep with the spirit of the genre. Maybe he would describe rhetorical heroics using the language of Biblical heroics, describing feats of arms in the same language the bible uses to describe the great military exploits of Samuel, Joshua, or even the against-all-odds battle between David and Goliath. He does not. The heroics of “Sahar and Kima” are courtly, but not chivalric. Since there is no Jewish class of warrior-nobles in Christian Iberia, the literature does not develop an inventory of imagery of the warrior hero. He is more indebted to the Arabic sense of rhetorical prowess featured in the medieval maqamat. While tenth- and eleventh-century Andalusi Hebrew poets —most notably the Granadan general Samuel Hanagid ibn Nagrela— wrote war poetry, the exemplary values of the poetry of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are poetic excellence and religious piety. For Ben Elazar’s audience, the criteria for heroic values do not include feats of arms. Knights appear very infrequently in works by Sephardic and other Jewish authors, and when they do it is through translation from other languages or when the knight is a subject of parody. There is no autochtonous chivalric hero in Hebrew literature. Arms as a category of excellence is often replaced by letters, whether secular or sacred.

Let’s see for ourselves how this plays out in the text. The story begins with the young nobleman Sahar embarking from the port of Jaffa to Syria. There is a storm, and a shipwreck,[4] and our hero washes up on the shores of the land of Tsovah, perhaps Aleppo, but as in chivalric romance, the geography is fuzzy, fantastic, sort of irrelevant. He wanders into the city, where are all the girls and women of the place are stunned by his beauty. He stumbles into the palace, mistaking it for a synagogue, and is immediately detained and tied up by a pair of Ethiopian guards. When he recites an extemporaneous poem in protest, the crowd is floored by his poetic skill, and he is released. Kima hears this poem and falls in love with him, tossing him an apple inscribed with a poem and blowing him a kiss. Sahar is escorted out of the court and tossed into the street, forlorn and pining for Kima. She sends a servant with a letter professing her love for him. The servant leads him back to the palace where Sahar recites more poems of his love for Kima. After making him pass through a series of tests of his resolve and poetic prowess, Kima reveals herself to him, reproaching him for speaking openly of their love. There ensues a series of sung and written poetic exchanges, followed by a Bollywood-esque song and dance routine, and then a romantic all-nighter in the hortus conclusus of the palace garden. The couple is discovered by Kima’s father, the King, who threatens to kick Sahar out, but is so moved by laments of the young lovers that he agrees to allow them to marry. Shortly after the nuptials he dies of plague, conveniently passing his crown to Sahar and Kima, who live happily ever after — Vivieron felices y comieron perdices.[5]

What most distinguishes this narrative from other Hebrew (and Arabic) love stories of the middle ages is its particular brand of courtliness. It is the details of the behavior of the young lovers that really sets this story apart from its Hebrew analogues and places it closer to medieval Romances written in European vernaculars.

Not all of the details of the amores of the protagonists are specific to courtly love chez Capellanus. Much of the nuts and bolts of the amorous discourse is common to both Andalusi and Romance courtly traditions. Sahar falls in love with Kima from just hearing her voice.[6] He complains of her aloofness, constantly laments the mere possibility of being separated from her despite never really having been united with her. Ladies in waiting serve as go-betweens, carrying poetic messages between the lovers. Love letters and poems are not simply recited or written on paper. In one case Kima embroiders a poem to Sahar on a curtain behind which she hides from him.[7] And of course, the lovers complain of the impossibility of love and of the pain of separation.

However, there are many examples of amorous motifs and moves that are anomalous in Hebrew or and Arabic tradition and seem much more characteristic of vernacular courtly discourse. When Sahar sees Kima, he bows and kisses her hand.[8] He does this to avoid scandal in front of Kima’s ladies in waiting. I’ve never heard of anyone kissing anyone else’s hand in Hebrew. Her response to this advance is to wax lyrical about the value of chaste love, but she couches this idea in terms of class and in terms of an understood doctrine of courtly love. She explains to Sahar the ‘laws and customs of true lovers’ enforce chastity, while the sons of slaves yield to their passions. The narrator assures us that her words ennoble and edify Sahar, who then concedes to spend the entire night in the palace gardens with her, speaking of approved courtly topics but not actually touching physically.[9]

Kima repeatedly chastises Sahar to be chaste in his love for her. What is interesting about this is that she is not simply preoccupied with her honor, or with being haughty, which would be a perfectly recognizable posture for a courtly lover: la belle dame sans merci. No, Kima’s objection to physical love is on moral grounds. She explains that “to love with passion is a sin”[10] and does her best to stave off his physical advances. This manifestation of troubadouresque chaste love is particular to the vernacular literary tradition of Western Europe, and has no exact analogue in Arabic. Though the figure of the suffering, chaste lover is found in the verses of the so-called Udhri (‘pure’) poets,[11] and Ibn Hazm himself includes a chapter on “Submission” in The Dove’s Neck-Ring, the nature of Sahar’s devotions to Kima are more suggestive of the French Arthurian romances.

Ben Elazar is doing things here that no other Hebrew author in Latin Christendom has done. He is adopting the local conventions for representing idealized heterosexual love and blending these sensibilities with conventions, ideologies, and habits of expression drawn from the Andalusi and Biblical poetic traditions.[12]

In light of all this, if we compare “Sahar and Kima” to the Hebrew tradition alone, Ben Elazar looks like an outlier, a radical innovator. But when we look at him next to his colleagues writing in Romance, he looks like a writer who is simply up to date and writing the way people write in France and Spain at this time.  It is noteworthy that Ben Elazar would be writing something that looks like courtly romance in the early thirteenth century in Toledo, when such courtly subjects do not appear in Castilian until the turn of the fourteenth century.[13]

In order to properly situate “Sahar and Kima” in the discussion of Romance we need to distinguish the Courtly from the Chivalric. In his definition of Chivalric Romance, Cesar Segre emphasizes the relation of the characters to the courtly setting,[14] and while there is no doubt that Jews were players on the courtly scene, and occasionally went to war, there is relatively little of the Chivalric in the medieval Jewish experience.


In “Sahar and Kima,” the courtly chivalric ideal is displaced by a scholarly, but still courtly, ideal. While critics tend to characterize the tension in Romance between the clerkly and the knightly,[15] this dichotomy is obviated in the Jewish context. This stands to reason when we think about the social context of Jewish writers and readers in comparison to that of their Christian counterparts. The patrons of most Hebrew authors are not nobles, but notables, courtiers whose fortunes hinged on royal patronage and business affairs, but not feats of arms. We have in “Sahar and Kima,” a case of courtly ideals refracted through a diasporic experience, where courtly heroics are framed in terms of excellence with the pen, as opposed to the sword.[16] “Sahar and Kima” gives us an example of the practice of courtly romance in Castile well before the Castilan Crónica de Flores y Blancaflor intercalated in the Alfonsine Primera Crónica General, and some seventy years before the Cavallero Zifar.


[1] The first four chapters are literary debates between body and soul, poetry and prose, this poet and that one, and the pen and the sword. The next six are tales narrating various configurations of love interests, whether a boy and a man, a woman and two men, a man and two women, an old man, a man and a woman, or in the final chapter, a boy raised by a wolf. Decter has written studies of individual chapters. Decter, Jewish Iberian 164-74, “Sodomite,” “Landscapes.”

[2] On this transition and its impact on Sephardic writers see Decter, Iberian.

[3] Decter, Iberian 156.

[4] The shipwreck motif is resonant with the Libro del cavallero Cífar and with the Byzantine novel that is generally populated with shipwrecks. Thomas, Romances 16. Historians of the novel frequently include it in characteristic features of the Byzantine novel. In her discussion of Achilles Tatius’ Kleitophon and Leukippé, Margaret Doody refers to the “usual shipwreck.” Doody, True 54. Margaret Mullett writes that “on a textual level, shipwreck, adverse winds, calms, and pirate raids were expectedly unexpected — and essential to some travel genres as well as to the world view of Byzantium” Mullett, “Peril” 259. For an overview of the shipwreck in the Byzantine novel (both ancient and medieval), see Mullett, “Peril” 269-72.

[5] For a summary of the tale see Decter, Iberian 150-52.

[6] Ben Elazar, Stories 90, ll. 100-05. We find similar such examples of love-before-first-sight in Ibn Hazm’s The Dove’s Neck Ring, where he discusses those who fall in love by dreaming of their beloveds or by hearing others talk about them. Ibn Hazm, Neck-Ring 26-30, Tauq 28-29.

[7] Ben Elazar, Stories 94, ll. 214-17.

[8] Ben Elazar, Stories, 89-90, l. 90-91.

[9] Ben Elazar, Stories 98, ll. 330-31. What makes this so interesting is that it is all couched in Biblical Hebrew, with all the stock biblical imagery, phrasing, and allusions that implies. For example, Kima describes their amorous bond in the same terms that God explains the covenant to Noah. Much like his Christian counterparts, Ben Elazar speaks of love in religious language.. When Sahar speaks of the ‘laws and customs’ of courtly lovers he uses language drawn from Exodus, where Moses’ father-in-law Jethro is exhorting Moses to instruct the Israelites in the new laws received at Sinai (Exodus 18:20).

[10] Ben Elazar, Stories 92, ll. 155-58. According to Georges Duby, “courtly love was a game, an educational game. It was the exact counterpart of the tournament… As at the tournament, the young man was risking his life in the hope of improving himself, of enhancing his worth, his price, and also of taking, taking his pleasure, capturing his adversary after breaking down her defences, unseating her, knocking her down, and toppling her.” Duby, Love 57.

[11] On the Udhri poets, see Encyclopedia of Islam, “`Udhri.” Roger Allen’s capsule description of the love-sensibility of the Udhri corpus bears repeating in full: “The poet-lover places his beloved on a pedestal and worships her from afar. He is obsessed and tormented; he becomes debilitated, ill, and is doomed to a love-death. The beloved in turn becomes the personification of the ideal woman, a transcendental image of all that is beautiful and chaste. The cheek, the neck, the bosom, and, above all, the eyes —a mere glance— these are the cause of passion, longing, devastation, and exhaustion.” Allen, Introduction 105.

[12] Hayim Schirmann notes that the women in Ben Elazar’s stories have a more active role and are more agentive in the narrative (“Contes” 295). This squares with the idea that the chivalric romance developed in order to speak to the concerns of a courtly audience (and perhaps to courtly patronage) that included powerful women.

[13] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Helga Bennett claim that in Spain, “courtly subjects do not begin to appear until 1300 in the genre of the Libros de caballería.” Gumbrecht and Bennett, “Literary Translation” 208.

[14] Segre, “Bakhtin” 28.

[15] Simon Gaunt writes that “the ubiquitous irony of romance is undoubtedly informed by the opposition between chevalrie and clergie that underscores many texts: a clerical narrator offers an ironic perspective on his chivalric hero.” Gaunt, “Romance” 47.  According to Barbara Fuchs, “their scholarly values of clergerie (clerkness) differ markedly from the aristocratic, heroic chevalrie (chivalry) of romance heroes’ Knights, that is, did not write romances.” Fuchs, Romance 40.

[16] Not just a lack of sovereignty, but speaks to a specific experience – it would be entirely possible to have a religious minority that traditionally bore arms for their king.

Works Cited

Allen, Roger. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.

Ben Eleazar, Jacob. The Love Stories of Jacob Ben Eleazar (1170-1233?). Ed. Yonah David. Tel Aviv: Ramot Publishing, 1992. Print.

Decter, Jonathan. “A Hebrew ‘sodomite’ Tale from Thirteenth-century Toledo: Jacob Ben El‘azar’s Story of Sapir, Shapir, and Birsha.” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 3 (2011): 187–202. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.

—. “Changing Landscapes of the Hebrew Rhymed Prose Narrative.” Studies in Medieval Jewish Poetry: A Message Upon the Garden. Leiden: Brill, 2011. 55–67. Print.

Decter, Jonathan P. Jewish Iberian Literature: From al-Andalus to Christian Spain. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Print.

Doody, Margaret. The True Story of the Novel. New Brunswick  N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996. Print.

Duby, Georges. Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. Print.

Encyclopedia of Islam CD-ROM Edition. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2004. Print.

Fuchs, Barbara. Romance. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Gaunt, Simon. “Romance and Other Genres.” The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 45–59. Print.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich, and Helga Bennett. “Literary Translation and Its Social Conditioning in the Middle Ages: Four Spanish Romance Texts of the 13th Century.” Yale French Studies 51 (1974): 205–222. Web. 23 Feb. 2010.

Ibn Hazm, Ali ibn Ahmad. El Collar De La Paloma. Vol. [3. Madrid: Alianza, 1971. Print.

—. Ṭawq Al-ḥamāmah Fī Al-ulfah Wa-al-ullāf. Ed. Muhammad Ibrahim Salim. al-Qāhirah: Maktabat Ibn Sīnā, 1993. Print.

Mullett, Margaret. “In Peril on the Sea: Travel Genres and the Unexpected.” Travel in the Byzantine World. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2002. 259–284. Print.

Schirmann, J. “Les Contes Rimées De Jacob Ben Eleazar De Toledo.” Etudes D’orientalisme Dédiées a La Mémoire De Lévi-Provençal. Paris, 1962. 285–297. Print.

Segre, Cesare. “What Bakhtin Left Unsaid.” Romance : Generic Transformation from Chrétien De Troyes to Cervantes. Ed. Kevin Brownlee & Marina Scordilis Brownlee. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1985. 23–46. Print.

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.

Your feedback and comments appreciated. Use comment field below or email me.


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.

Reading Amadís in Istanbul


Constantinople circa 1500

It was 1541 in Constantinople when Sephardic physician Jacob Algaba published his Hebrew translation of the first book of Spanish runaway bestseller Amadís de Gaula (1508). His translation of the endless adventures of the knight errant became the first novel written in the Hebrew language, and a literary example of Sephardic culture as the site of a symbolic struggle between the Spanish and Ottoman Empires.

In a way Algaba’s translation is exemplary of the complex relationship Sephardim had with the culture of the land from which they had been expelled in 1492.  Part of the way in which the Sephardim expressed their ‘Spanishness’ was in mimicking the intellectual and cultural habits of Imperial Spain.  They reenacted Spanish cultural imperialism by their imposition of Sephardic culture on the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire and by their adaptation of the Humanist rhetoric of Spanish historians and novelists. Just as the Spanish Amadís was imagined as a Christian hero of Spanish imperial designs, Algaba’s Sephardic Amadís was a sort of avatar of Sephardic supremacy within the Jewish world, and a response to the Sephardim’s alienation from Spain.

On the stage of the Mediterranean at the turn of the sixteenth century, the Sephardim are a sort of by-product of empire. Jettisoned from Spain, the Sephardim were free to rebrand ‘Spanishness’ to suit their own interests. They were hardly, after all, ambassadors of Spanish interests. But they were profoundly shaped by the cultural legacy of the land they had called home for over one thousand years by 1492. Though rejected by their home metropolis, they were still able to convert their Spanish identity into social currency in the host metropolis.

A Knight against the Turk

The chivalric novel Amadís de Gaula (1508) by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo was a smash hit and set the standard for popular fiction of the sixteenth century. Readers could not get enough of the (seemingly endless) exploits of the knight errant who protected the weak, battled dark knights, sorcerers, and dragons, all in the name of his beautiful damsel Oriana. Montalvo’s book, and its many, lucrative sequels, itself became a kind of popular literary monster that only Don Quijote could defeat, effectively parodying Amadís and his successors to death in 1605.

Wait til they get a load of him

But Amadís was more than a fictional hero. Spanish readers imagined him (and in particular his son, Esplandían) as a kind of avatar of Spanish imperial desire, a knight in service to Spain first against the Muslim Kingdom of Granada, and then against the Turk (the Ottoman Empire). In casting these fictional knights errant as imperial heroes, Montalvo was simply participating in the Humanism of his times. Humanist writers working at the court of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella actively promoted a program of imperial imagery that painted Spain as a new Rome, mixing language and imagery from the Latin writings of Imperial Rome with specifically Iberian and Catholic elements. The result was a narrative in which the Spanish crown was a renewal of the Holy Roman Empire, itself a renewal of Classical Rome (Tate, Ensayos 292). In the introduction to the first Amadís, Montalvo wonders aloud how the writers of Classical Rome would have been inspired to new heights had they witnessed the glorious campaigns of King Ferdinand in Granada:

¡what flowers, what roses might they have planted on its occasion, as concerns the bravery of the knights in the battles, skirmishes, and dangerous duels and all the other cases of confrontations and travails that were performed in the course of that war, as well as of the compelling speeches made by the great King to his nobles gathered in the royal campaign tents, the obedient replies made by them, and above all, the great praises, the lofty admirations that he deserves for having taken on and accomplished such a Catholic task!
(Rodríguez Montalvo, Amadís 219-220, translation mine).

Once the threat of Muslim Granada had been conquered by Ferdinand and Isabel in 1492, it was a logical next step to look toward Istanbul. The Ottoman Turks had, after all, conquered Constantinople in the not-so-distant past, and the loss of Christian Constantinople was, during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, still a fresh wound. Diego Enríquez del Castillo (ca. 1500), wrote that “the pain of the loss of Constantinople, that the Turk had conquered, was very recent in the hearts of all.” (Crónica 156). Ever since the Ottoman sack of Otranto, Italy in 1481, Spanish (and particularly Aragonese) writers were preoccupied by the possibility of a Turkish invasion of the Peninsula (Giráldez, Sergas 24). While an Ottoman invasion of Spain was probably not in the offing, such fears were similar to US fears of a Soviet invasion 1960s following the Cuban Revolution and famously parodied in the 1966 film The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming. The cult of Amadís and his successors and their iconic (if anachronistic) status as Christian heroes of imaginary conquests in the Mediterranean East were an understandable, if irrational, reaction.

Don Quijote’s Dream Team: Knights Errant vs the Turk

Mehmet enters Constantinople (1454) by Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929)

Amadís finally met his match in Don Quijote, who parodied the knight errant protagonists of the Spanish chivalric novel beyond any hope of redemption. Interestingly, Cervantes also zeroed in on the tendency of fans of chivalric fiction to conflate the exploits of their heroes with current events. In this scene, Alonso Quijano (aka Don Quijote) suggests a simple solution for King Philip II’s ‘Ottoman Problem’: round up all the Spanish knights errant and send them to fight the Turk:

there might be one among them who could, by himself, destroy all the power of the Turk…. [if] the famous Don Belianís were alive today, or any one of the countless descendants of Amadís of Gaul! If any of them were here today and confronted the Turk, it would not be to his advantage!’ (trans. Grossman 461)

The effect is similar to a movie in which the sci-fi crazed protagonist suggests sending Luke Skywalker to battle Al-Qaeda. The English translator of Sergas de Esplandían (Montalvo’s sequel to Amadís) made a similar observation, calling Luke Skywalker “a kind of Esplandían redividus” (Little, “Introduction” 21).

What does a Sephardic Amadís look like? And what might a Hebrew Amadís champion, if not the Spanish conquest of Ottoman Istanbul where Jacob Algaba translated the exploits of the Ur-Knight Errant into Hebrew a generation after Montalvo described Amadís’ deeds as worthy to be celebrated by the pens of Imperial chroniclers? In order to answer this, we need to take a look at the ways in which Sephardic intellectuals retooled and adapted the intellectual habits of the Spain they had left behind.

‘Doing Spanish’: Sephardic Humanism and Cultural Imperialism

Upon their arrival in Ottoman lands, the Sephardim proceeded to dominate the Romaniote (Greek-speaking) and other Jewish communities. They were bearers of a prestigious European cultural legacy, and many of them were highly skilled in areas valued by the Ottoman Sultans: finance, administration, diplomacy, and the like. In addition the Sephardim had access to tremendous social capital in the form of international, even global trade and diplomatic networks. Contemporary sources bear out this characterization of the Sephardim as the socially and culturally dominant group within Ottoman Jewry, imposing their liturgy, rabbinic jurisprudence, cuisine, language, and social customs on the wider community. Writing in 1509, Rabbi Moses Aroquis of Salonika bears witness to this phenomenon:

It is well known that the Sephardim and their scholars in this empire, together with the other communities that have joined them, make up the majority, may the lord be praised. To them alone the land was given, and they are its glory and its splendor and its magnificence, enlightening the land and its inhabitants. Who deserves to order them about? All these places too should be considered as ours, and it is fitting that the small number of early inhabitants of the empire observe all our religious customs… (cited in Hacker, “Sephardim” 111)

This Sephardic cultural imperialism is one way in which the Sephardim expressed their ‘Spanishness,’ in carrying out a version of the Spanish cultural imperialism that characterized the late fifteenth century. Just as Spain colonized the Canary Islands, the New World, and bits of North Africa, the Sephardim did likewise in their new territories, the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire.

This imperialism, like the Spanish, also had its attendant historiography, its intellectual culture: a Sephardic Humanism. The historian Solomon ibn Verga, writing in Hebrew in the mid-sixteenth century, borrowed liberally from Spanish sources and like his Christian historian counterparts, legitimized the current political order by linking it to the regimes of Classical Antiquity. In his history of expulsions and persecutions he writes like a Humanist, substituting both authors of Hebrew antiquity (Bible, Rabbis) for Latin and Greek authors favored by Christian humanists, but he also draws on Classical and medieval Iberian authors, lending his prose of more sophisticated, cosmopolitan tone. (Gutwirth, “Expulsion” 149-150). He cites Josephus frequently, creating a Jewish humanist precedent in the Roman author who plays Virgil to his Dante.

Amadís in the Sephardic context

What is the role of a Hebrew Amadís in this context? As with the case of Ibn Verga’s history book (Shevet Yehudah), the project of the Sephardic intellectual is twofold: on the one hand, they sought to legitimize their work by drawing on the prestige of Spanish Humanism; on the other, they reshaped this humanism into one that reflected the values of the community in a diasporic, transimperial context.

But never on Shabbat

Algaba’s translation does not appear ex nihilo. Ottoman Sephardim were avid readers of Spanish editions of Amadís and other chivalric novels. In the early sixteenth century, Jerusalemite Rabbi Menahem di Lunzano chastised his community (in verse) for reading Amadís and Palmerín [de Olivia, 1511]  on Shabbat (the Sabbath), when they should have been reading religious books (Di Lunzano, Shete Yadot f. 135v). There was also a robust tradition of ballads sung in Sephardic communities about heroes named Don Amadí (or sometimes Amalví or other variants). Many of these songs had nothing to do whatsoever with the stories found in Montalvo’s book; Amadís had simply come to mean ‘hero’ in the popular Sephardic imagination. (Armistead and Silverman, “Amadís” 29-30)

Jacob Algaba's Hebrew translation of Amadís de Gaula

Montalvo’s original Amadís had to pass muster with the Catholic censors and with the chivalric imaginary of the Spain of the Catholic Monarchs. Algaba, while giving voice to the Sephardic love for their vernacular culture, is free of these limits. He based his translation not from Montalvo’s 1508 edition, but from an earlier manuscript version whose Amadís was earthier, wilier, less courtly and less likely to make it into print in Spain in 1508. Algaba’s Amadís plays dirty when nessary, and the characters in Algaba’s version tell it like it is. In one example, Algaba includes an episode omitted by Montalvo where Amadís tricks his opponent into looking away in order to hit him: He asks the knight ‘to whom does that beautiful maiden behind you belong?’ When the knight looks away, Amadís sticks him in the groin with his lance, spilling his guts (Piccus, “Corrections” 187-88). In another example, Montalvo omits a reference to a character farting that is included by Algaba (Piccus, “Corrections” 201). These are scenes that do not pass muster with the chivalric imaginary of the Spain of the Catholic Monarchs.

The Hebrew Amadís, therefore, is at once celebratory of and resistant to Montalvo’s Amadís. The culture of Montalvo’s Amadís, with its exaggerated religious rhetoric and rarefied standards of courtliness, has rejected Algaba (who was born in Spain), and Algaba is happy to return the favor, refashioning Amadís as a Sephardic hero, one who springs from Iberian tradition but who is free of the restraints of official Spanish culture as propagated by the courts and controlled by the censors of the Catholic Monarchs.

Works cited

  • Armistead, S. G. “Amadís de Gaula en la literatura oral de los sefardíes.” La pluma es lengua del alma: Ensayos en honor del E. Michael Gerli. Ed. José Manuel Hidalgo. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs, 2011. 27-32.
  • Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel. Don Quixote. Trans. Edith Grossman. New York: Ecco, 2003.
  • Enríquez del Castillo, Diego. Crónica de Enrique IV de Diego Enríquez del Castillo. Ed. Aureliano Sánchez Martín. Valladolid: Secretariado de Publicaciones  Universidad de Valldolid, 1994.
  • Giráldez, Susan. Las sergas de Esplandián y la España de los Reyes Católicos. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
  • Gutwirth, Eleazar. “The Expulsion from Spain and Jewish Historiography.” Jewish History: Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky. London: Peter Halban, 1988. 141-161.
  • Hacker, Joseph. “The Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire in the Sixteenth Century.” The Sephardi Legacy. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1992. 108-133.
  • Little, William. “Introduction.” The Labors of the Very Brave Knight Esplandían. Trans. William Little. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1992. 1-61.
  • Lunzano, Menahem di. Shete yadot. Jerusalem: [s.n], 1969.
  • Piccus, Jules. “Corrections, Suppressions, and Changes in Montalvo’s Amadís, Book I.” Textures and Meaning: Thirty Years of Judaic Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Ed. Leonard Ehrlich et al. Amherst: Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2004. 179-211.
  • Rodríguez de Montalvo, Garci. Amadís de Gaula. Madrid: Cátedra, 1987.
  • —. Sergas de Esplandían. Ed. Carlos Sainz de la Maza. Madrid: Castalia, 2003.
  • Tate, Robert Brian. Ensayos sobre la historiografía peninsular del siglo XV. Madrid: Gredos, 1970.

This post was adapted from “Reading Amadís in Constantinople: the Sephardic as imperial abject,” a paper I gave at the  2011 UC Mediterranean Research Project Fall Workshop: “Mediterranean Empires” on 29 October 2011 at UCLA. [Workshop program] Thanks to the Seminar organizers for their hospitality and support.

Ethnic Polemic in Medieval Spain: Arabiyya, Shu’ubiyya, and Ibraniyya

Summary: In the Abbasid-era (800s-900s) authors writing in Arabic joined a debate between those who identified as ethnically Arab and those who identified as Persian. This debate was reproduced in al-Andalus (1000s) between Arab and non-Arab Spanish Muslims. Jewish writers in al-Andalus then adapted this debate to the question of the relative superiority of Arabic and Hebrew as a literary language for the Jewish communities of Spain. After the Christian conquest of Spain, Arabic was replaced by Castilian at court. Nonetheless, Hebrew writers continued to battle the specter of Arabic’s literary legacy even as they faced the new, more immediate threat of Hebrew’s extinction by vernacularization and eventually by mass conversions of Spanish Jews to Christianity.

Arabiyya: Arab superiority in a Multiethnic Islam

The Arabic language boasts a rich poetic tradition that predates Islam by some centuries. The revelation of the Qur’an in Arabic was further proof (for the Muslim community) of the superiority of their language, and by extension, their culture. When the community of Islam began to grow beyond the borders of the Arabian peninsula where Arabic was a native language, large numbers of Persians, Assyrians, Berbers, and members of other ethnic and linguistic groups began to adopt Arabic as their literary language. Arabic became an imperial language used by authors from a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups. In this pluralist Islamic society, during the first centuries of the Abbasid Caliphate (beginning in 762 CE), there developed a debate over the relationship between language and ethnic identity that was critical of the doctrine of Arabiyya (also the word for the Arabic language), the idea that the superiority of the Arabic language flowed from the superiority of the Arabs themselves, a fact proven by their being chosen to receive the Qur’an.

Arabic comes from here

Medieval Arab grammarians, attempting to clarify the meaning of obscure passages of the Qur’an, often visited Bedouin tribes to do linguistic fieldwork. The dialects of the Bedouins were considered by the city dwellers to be purer and closer to the language of the Qur’an. This idea was in contradiction to the idea that the language of the tribe of Quraysh, of which the Prophet Muhammad was a member, was the superior dialect of Arabic at the time the Qur’an was received. In order to solve this dilemma, the grammarian Abu Zakariyya Yahya bin Ziyad al-Farra’ (d. 822 CE), a native of Kufa (in present-day Iraq), explained that the dialect of the tribe of Quraysh, of which the Prophet Muhammad was a member, was superior because the Qurayshis were in constant contact with different Bedouin tribes. This way, he reasoned, the Qurayshis were able to select the best features from each of the Bedouin dialects in forming their own poetic language:

We said: In the same way they [the Qurayshis] were accustomed to hear from the tribes of the Arabs their dialects; so they could choose from every dialect that which was the best in it. So their speech became elegant and nothing of the more vulgar forms of speech was mixed up with it.
(Kahle, “Arabic” 69)

Shu’ubiyya: The response of the non-Arabs to Arabiyya

During the Abbasid Caliphate, Muslims of Persian background, many of whom were accomplished grammarians and poets in Arabic, criticized the doctrine of Arabiyya, instead advocating for the superiority of non-Arabs. This was the shu’ubiyya (from Arabic sha’b, ‘people’ or ‘nation’), the ethnic polemic between Arabs and non-Arabs. Shu’ubi writers attacked Arabs for their rustic origins as desert nomads, while they prided themselves as representatives of a cosmoplitan urbane culture that predated Islam. Thus the poet Abu Sa’id al-Rustami wrote in the tenth century CE:

The Arabs boast of being master of the world and commanders of peoples.
Why do they not rather boast of being skillful sheep and camel herders?
If I am asked about my descent —says the same poet—I am of the tribe of Rustam
but my song is of Lu’ayy b. Ghalib.
I am the one who is publicly and secretly known
as a Persian whom Arabianism (al-ta`rib) drew to itself.
I know well when calling the parole
that my origin is clear and my wood hard.
(Goldziher, Muslim 150)

Although the language of Abbasid era Shu’ubiyya speaks to ethnic origin, what was actually at stake for the writers and their audiences was the question of class and of access to prestigious administrative positions at court and in the Abbasid adminstration. The elites of Abbasid society largely claimed Arab descent, while the great mass of middle-class functionaries more often identified as Persian. Ultimately, the Shu’ubiyya debate was not about Persians being cultured and Arabs being primitive nomads, it was about gaining access to good white-collar jobs (Norris, “Shu’ubiyyah” 31).

Sassanid-era (Persian) warrior

In al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) this debate was reproduced by writers who identified as descendants of the Arab elite that led the 711 invasion of Visigothic Hispania, or as descendants of the various other ethnic groups that lived in the Iberian Peninsula (Hispano-Romans, Visigoths, Franks, Slavs, Basques) and who converted to Islam and adopted Arabic as their literary language.

The author Abu Amir ibn García al-Bashkunsi (i.e. ‘el vascuense’, the Basque) was one such author who resuscitated the shu’ubiyya debate in tenth century al-Andalus. In his case, the ruling class of the kingdom of Denia considered itself to be of pure Arab lineage and discriminated against those it considered to be of non-Arab stock. Ibn García himself, as his name suggests, was born a Christian in Basque country, but was taken captive as a child and brought to al-Andalus where he converted to Islam and received a classical Arabic education. His shu’ubi treatise (ca. 1050) harshly criticizes the rulers of Denia for their ethnic arrogance and their rustic origins:

Your mother, O Arabs, was a slave to our mother. If you deny this you will be found unjust. There is no excess in remonstrating, for we never tended monkeys nor did we weave mantles, nor did we eat wild herbs; there is no cutting off your relationship with Hājar; you were our slaves, servants, enfranchised ones, and valets… (Monroe, Shu’ubiyya 24)

[The non-Arabs] are clear, grave, not camel herders or diggers tilling the soil; great kings, not burners of camel dung for fuel…. These non-Arabs were warriors, not guardians of palm branches or planters of palm shoots…

…their drink was wine, and their food roasted meat, not the mouthful of colocynth seeds in the deserts or the eggs of lizards taken from their nests. (Monroe, Shu’ubiyya 25-26)


Jewish Arabiyya and Ibraniyya in al-Andalus

During Ibn García’s lifetime a parallel discussion was taking place within the Jewish communities of al-Andalus over the relative merits of Arabic and Hebrew. The Jewish communities of al-Andalus (Muslim-ruled Spain) were highly Arabized, but many were also conversant in the Romance dialects of the Iberian Peninsula. In addition to their participation in the Arabic-language culture of the times, Andalusi Jews also left behind a tremendous legacy of Hebrew-language learning ranging from Rabbinical treatises to secular poetry.

Some Andalusi Jewish writers, such as the poet Moses ibn Ezra, espoused a kind of Jewish Arabiyya. Ibn Ezra held Arabic to be a flawless model for Hebrew to follow. In his treatise on Hebrew poetics, Ibn Ezra argues that Arabic poetics are the benchmark for Hebrew poets. He even goes as far as saying that Biblical Hebrew poetry at its best sounds like Arabic poetry. Ibn Ezra’s poetic ideal is a sort of amalgam of Arabic poetic sensibility and Hebrew language:

And the poetry of Moses was true and kingly,
Like an Arabic poem, in words of sweetness.
And one speaking in the language of the Jews,
Spoken in perfect symmetry,
And the power of the speech of Araby
With its turns of phrase and eloquence.
Delightful sayings, in the Arabic tongue or the Hebrew,
And wisdom to grasp on every side, from each direction. (Allony, “Reaction” 35)

Even after Christian monarchs conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic continued to be a prestigious language of secular and Jewish learning, particularly in the fields of grammar, poetics, and philosophy. A select elite of Jewish intellectuals living in Christian Iberia continued to study Arabic and to produce learned treatises in Arabic long after it ceased to be the language of government. The city of Toledo was conquered by Alfonso VI in 1085 CE, yet nearly a century and a half later Toledan writer Jacob ben Eleazar (fl. ca. 1220) would complete a treatise on Hebrew grammar, Kitab al-Kamil, in Arabic.

A contemporary of Ben Eleazar named Judah al-Harizi, who was a translator of Arabic literature into Hebrew as well as an author in his own right, begins his book Tahkemoni with a lament for the sorry condition of Hebrew language learning in the Jewish communities of the Arab world (including Spain), and calls for a Hebrew renaissance by which Jewish authors might lay claim to the literary greatness exemplified in the Hebrew Bible:

They have enslaved the tongue of the Israelites to the tongue of Kedar [i.e., Arabic] and they said: ‘come let us sell her to the Ishmaelites.’ And they said to her: ‘Bow down, that we may go over.’ And they took her and cast her into the pit until she perished among them. And the tongue of Kedar blackened her, and like a lion, tore her. An evil beast devoured her. All of them spurned the Hebrew tongue and made love to the tongue of Hagar. They embraced the bosom of an alien. They desired the wife of a stranger. They kissed her bosom, for stolen waters were sweet to them. Their hearts were seduced when they saw how excellent was the poetry that Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian handmaiden had borne. And Sarai was barren!  (al-Harizi, Tahkemoni 32)

Around the same time in Toledo, Jacob ben Eleazar (author of the Kitab al-Kamil) wrote a collection of stories (Sefer Meshalim, ‘Book of Tales’), and like al-Harizi includes in his introduction a refutation of Arabic’s superiority and assertion of Hebrew’s literary greatness. He explains that the reason he wrote his Book of Tales was to demonstrate Hebrew’s virtues and to silence the doubters:

Said Jacob ben Eleazar: The reason for this book of tales, and the composition therein of my words, is because the learned amongst the Arabs were troubling the Holy Tongue, who nonetheless boasted against it in their insolence, saying: ‘it should be fitting to write in our language every tale!’ They were challenging Our Language, saying: ‘we will prevail!’….

Whereupon I began to compose, saying:

You would mock me, saying: ‘is not the Holy Tongue crude?’

But no! She is a giant who silences all others, run to her and do not falter, whether elegy or invective, or saw or anecdote. (Ben Eleazar, Love 14-15)

In these pro-Hebrew texts (Ibraniyya is the Arabic word for Hebrew), authors drew on some of the resources of the shu’ubiyya, but the context of their argument was quite different. Abbasid and Andalusi shu’ubi writers wrote in the dominant, official language of state that was common to both Arabs and non-Arabs. By contrast, Jewish writers of the Ibraniyya wrote in Hebrew, which was read exclusively by their Jewish peers. Their debate was internal to the Jewish community. They were fighting to determine which language would emerge victorious as the prestige language of secular learning in the Jewish communities.

Prato Haggadah, Spain 14th c. (image housed at Jewish Theological Seminary)

In a sense this debate was a rhetorical exercise. Thanks to the efforts of the Ibn Tibbon family of translators, Hebrew boasted a large repertory of secular scientific and philosophical texts brought over from Arabic originals (mid-twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries). The Ibn Tibbons were Spanish Jews who migrated to Provence during the mid-twelfth century, when the Almohad invasion of al-Andalus made life difficult for certain Andalusi Jewish communities. They translated scores of important works of grammar, Aristotelian philosophy, and science into Hebrew for diffusion among the Jewish communities of Europe and the Mediterranean who lived in countries where Arabic was not widely known. Thus Hebrew became a language of secular learning as well as of Rabbinics in the region (Robinson, “Ibn Tibbon”).

Ibraniyya after Arabic: The Threat of the vernacular

What is curious is that by the late thirteenth century, authors living in Christian Spain such as Isaac ibn Sahula were still waging poetic war against Arabic, which by now was no longer a productive secular literary language in Christian Iberia (though colloquial Arabic continued to be spoken, especially in Valencia, well into the sixteenth century). Stil, Ibn Sahula continues the Ibraniyya debate in the introduction to his collection of tales and anecdotes, Meshal Haqadmoni (‘Tale of the Old Timer,’ ca. 1285).

I shall explicate the reason for [this book’s] publication,
Upon God’s holy mountain [i.e. the Hebrew language] rests its foundation,
to declare its pure and holy nature is its purpose
to preach of the compelling greatness of Hebrew speech,
To show the nations and their generals its beauty.
For I saw that many had dulled its golden rhetoric,
Preferring instead all kind of other books:
The wisdom of the Greeks and the tales of the Arabs (Ibn Sahula, Meshal 10)

Ibn Sahula’s desire to ‘show the nations’ harkens back to the origins of the Shu’ubiyya debate, which emphasizes national or ethnic difference rather than linguistic. In the Jewish context, there are no ‘nations or generals’ to witness the beauty of the Hebrew language in Ibn Sahula’s book: his audience is exclusively Jewish. As in the case of al-Harizi, the debate is internal, a struggle to ensure that when Jews wrote works of poetry, philosophy, or science, that they did so in Hebrew and not Arabic.

"Translate this" --Alfonso X (1252-1284)

But was Arabic still a viable candidate in 1285 in Christian Castile? Ross Brann was written that by this time writers such as Ibn Sahula were fighting against the ‘ghost of Arabic,’ and that their aim was nationalistic, not linguistic (Brann, Compunctious 123). It is also possible that they were thinking about Spanish while writing against Arabic. In the second half of the thirteenth century, Alfonso X ‘The Learned’ of Castile-León funded a massive initiative to translate Arabic works of philosophy and science into Castilian (not Latin), with the aim to raise the prestige of the Castilian language to a level appropriate to the court of a king who dreamt of becoming Holy Roman Emperor. Though Castilian never gained much traction as a literary language in Spain’s Jewish communities (Wacks, “Toward”), Spanish Jewish authors were fluent speakers of Castilian and the other Romance dialects of the Peninsula, and were familiar with the vernacular literature of their times. The later examples of Ibraniyya may well have been using the Arabic trope as a foil for Castilian as a potential rival for Hebrew.

Ultimately, the threat to Hebrew’s fate on the Peninsula was not to be the adoption of Castilian as a Jewish literary language, but the mass conversion of Jews into Christians who then ceased to write in Hebrew (with a few interesting exceptions). In the early fifteenth century, the poet Solomon de Piera derides these converso poets as “flies who buzz around the horns of a buffalo, or monkeys who slide their hands fruitlessly up and down flutes” (Targarona Borrás, “Carta” 180). Eventually literary Hebrew was dealt the death blow of the Expulsion, which would relegate the study of Hebrew to Christian universities such as Salamanca and Alcalá.



  • Allony, Nehemiah. “The Reaction of Moses Ibn Ezra to `arabiyya.” Bulletin of the Institute of Jewish Studies 3 (1975): 19-40.
  • Ben Eleazar, Jacob. The Love Stories of Jacob Ben Eleazar (1170-1233?). Ed. Yonah David. Tel Aviv: Ramot Publishing, 1992.
  • Brann, Ross. The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Medieval Spain. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1991.
  • Goldziher, Ignác. Muslim studies. Trans. C.K. Barber & S.M. Stern. Chicago: Aldine, 1968.
  • Ibn Sahula, Isaac ben Solomon. Meshal Haqadmoni: Fables from the Distant Past. Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004.
  • Kahle, Paul. “The Arabic Readers of the Koran.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 8.2 (1949): 65-71.
  • Monroe, James T. The Shu’ubiyya in al-Andalus: The Risala of Ibn García and Five Refutations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
  • Norris, H.T. “Shu’ubiyyah in Arabic Literature.” ’Abbasid Belles-Lettres. Ed. Julia Ashtiany et Ashtiany. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1990. 31-47.
  • Robinson, James. “The Ibn Tibbon family: a dynasty of translators in medieval Provence.” Be’erot Yitzhak: Studies in Memory of Isadore Twersky. Ed. Jay Michael Harris. Cambridge: Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, 2005. 193-224.
  • Roth, Norman. “Jewish Reactions to the ʿArabiyya and the Hebrew Renaissance in Spain.” Journal of Semitic Studies 28.1 (1983): 63-84.
  • Targarona Borrás, Judit. “Carta inédita de Selomoh de Piera al Rab Abraham ben Yishaq Ha-Levi.” Miscelánea de Estudios Árabes y Hebraicos 49 (2000): 165-189.
  • Wacks, David. “Toward a History of Hispano-Hebrew Literature of Christian Iberia in the Romance Context.” eHumanista 14 (2010): 178-209.

This post was written with support from the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University, where I will deliver a talk on this subject (13 October 2011).

Rethinking the survey course (Peninsular Spanish Literature 1100-1600)

The survey course of literature was originally designed to give students an introduction to the major authors, genres, and works of a given time period. It is a performance of literary history. The idea is for students to have a general familiarity with a national canon before they progress to the higher-level courses that specialize and go in depth into the study of a more specific time period, artistic movement, genre, author, or work.

Don José says read this

This makes sense if you approach the study of literature as literary history. But the recent social science and cultural studies turn in literary studies has created different expectations and habits of thought among students and professors alike. Some are beginning to find the traditional survey course out of step with expectations and current practice.

In a recent discussion with some students in my survey course on Peninsular Spanish literature (1100-1600), I found that very few of them thought that a Spanish major was essentially (as I had always imagined it) an English major, but in Spanish. That is, they did not feel that the purpose of the Spanish major is to learn the literary history of Spain and Latin America, and to learn about the formal aspects and critical approaches to the literary critical study of poetry, fiction, drama, and film. In short, they didn’t care about literary history; they wanted to ‘learn Spanish.’ One stubborn student admitted that he liked to read books and write essays about them. But the rest saw it differently.

I am always tinkering with my survey course. I teach it at least twice a year, so I have lots of opportunities to swap readings out, fine-tune the written assignments, and update my lecture notes and activities. In light of this recent discussion with my students, I decided on a more radical overhaul this time around.

Fond memories of 3rd-year Spanish

Many students in survey courses of Spanish and Latin American literature (in US universities) are language learners who are in their third or perhaps fourth year of study. They are not anywhere near as proficient in Spanish as the average English major is in English. It makes sense that the survey courses they take would not simply be a Spanish-language version of a survey of English literature. Many third-year language textbooks rubricate readings thematically, opening the unit with a general discussion of the theme (migration, women’s rights, pollution, family structure, etc) then progressing to a related reading with activities and written assignments designed to reinforce student’s understanding of the theme and their command of key vocabulary.

I adopted this approach in structuring my survey courses. I maintain a chronological structure that begins in the eleventh century and ends in the seventeenth. The main difference is in the presentation of the texts. The syllabus introduces each reading with a ‘big question,’ designed to point up the broader social, religious, or political significance of the text. In formulating the questions, I asked myself “what is interesting about this text?” (Not “how have literary historians explained the significance of this text” or “why is this text important for the development of Spanish literature?”).

What's interesting about this text?

For example, the unit on Marian miracles (we read one of the miracles in Gonzalo de Berceo’s Milagros de Nuestra Señora) asks “Why do we want God to be a woman?” For many of the readings, there is an excerpt of a contemporary essay on a related topic, and an additional primary text from the period on the same subject, and the occasional excerpt of a secondary literary critical essay.

The Question-driven syllabus

The ‘big question’ for each reading sets the agenda for the class meetings, discussion section meetings, and written assignments. For each syllabus entry, there is a question, key terminology or themes, a debate topic, and a creative assignment (práctica). In a given lecture meeting you might begin with an individual writing exercise and/or small group discussion of the question, then segue into coverage of the excerpt of a modern essay on a related topic (for the Catholic Monarchs’ Edict of Expulsion we’ll read an excerpt from an essay on ethnic cleansing) or a related primary text from the same period. Discussion section leaders can choose to assign students to prepare both sides of the debate based on textual evidence from primary and/or secondary texts. Alternatively they can choose to have students prepare the creative assignment, which can in turn form the textual basis for activities conducted during section.

Click here to see the full syllabus

None of these adjustments in approaching classic texts means that literary history is consigned to the dustbin. They still learn about Gonzalo de Berceo’s biography, about the emergence of Castilian as a literary language, about Catholic Mariology and popular Marian practices. It is still a survey course of (mostly) canonical texts; one geared for students who do not necessarily see themselves first and foremost as lit majors.

There will be skeptics. They will accuse me of pandering to students’ obsession with ‘relatability,’ of giving in to the tyranny of present-ism. But I think leading with the question is simply good humanism. It helps remind us of how these texts we love to read and teach speak to the human condition. And if our students, even our Spanish majors, are not necessarily presold on the humanities, I don’t see any harm in reminding them why they should be.

Narratology + Film adaptations = Introduction to Narrative (Spanish 333)

Our undergraduate program in Spanish literature has three courses at the third year level focusing on the study of a given genre: poetry, narrative, drama. This summer I taught “Introduction to Narrative” during summer session. It is a 4-credit course that meets four days weekly for sessions of 1h 50m over four weeks [click here to see syllabus].

In the past when I have taught the course I have had the students read a series of short stories and introduce a critical vocabulary of narratological concepts (plot elements, characterization, point of view, etc.). This time I gave them a selection of classic short stories from canonical Spanish and Latin American authors (Don Juan Manuel, Pardo Bazán, Rulfo, Matute, Borges, etc).

Typically I would assign a series of writing assignments geared to demonstrate an understanding of how the authors make use of the various narratological resources (theme, tone, narration, dialogue, plot, etc) and to what effect. The final assignment was usually a 5-7 page literary critical essay focusing on one or more of the texts.

There are two things I wanted to accomplish in designing this course the way I did:

  • Give the students some models for academic literary criticism
  • Provide an opportunity to produce a literary critical project that went beyond the traditional literary critical essay.

For the first three weeks we read one story per class session from the popular anthology Aproximaciones al estudio de la literatura hispánica (Approaches to the Study of Hispanic Literature). For the first class session, the students were responsible for reading the introductory essay on narratology and familiarizing themselves with key critical terms for the study of narrative. Before each class they took a short online quiz (4 strictly factual true/false questions) to make sure everyone had done the reading. In class we reviewed the stories and relevant critical concepts, and workshopped close readings, applying concepts, selecting textual examples, and explaining their importance for understanding the concepts.

In past classes, when reading students’ literary criticism I have been getting the (unscientific) impression that they do not have a strong sense of what professional literary criticism sounds like. That is, they are unfamiliar with the style, the rhetorical strategies and structural conventions of the genre.

It occurred to me that I have never required my third-year students to read literary criticism. I’d always assumed that assigning them professional literary critical essays would either overwhelm them (if in Spanish) or derail the pedagogical mission (if in English). I myself remember college professors of 300-level survey courses in English literature saying that they preferred we focus on writing our own criticism rather than read what other people thought about the texts.

But it is fair to ask someone to imitate a model they have not seen? Probably not; but in any event, I still thought that assigning long literary critical essays in Spanish might not be productive. So this time around, I compromised. For each short story on the syllabus, I located a published literary critical essay, and included 2-3 short selections in a one-page handout [click here to see one]. These extracts satisfied a number of requirements: they are short enough to be easily digestible for in-class discussion of how to deploy textual examples, they were short enough to satisfy most working definitions of fair use (and so could be included in a course reader without incurring additional copyright fees), and they were mostly in Spanish, the language of instruction for the course.

Because the articles are all about the stories the students read in preparation for the lesson, they help bolster their understanding of the material and give them specific examples for how to approach the texts critically. These models of criticism help to give students an idea as to what they are shooting for. I don’t expect them to start writing immediately like professional critics, but better to aim high.

At the end of weeks 1-3 students handed in a short (min 500 words) critical essay written on one of the week’s four texts explaining the author’s use of at least two of the critical concepts discussed in class.

For the final project, the students (working in groups) produced a film adaptation of one of the stories. Students were assigned randomly in groups of four and were responsible for submitting a script (guión) of their adaptation, then a storyboard (guión gráfico), and then the final cut video in .mp4 or .mov format.

To familiarize ourselves with the new format (video) we watched a series of similar video adaptations produced by AP Spanish students in US high schools. We also read Gerardo Sánchez’s short, self-published Como escribir un guión (How to write a script) and looked at examples of professional screenplays in Spanish. They built their skills in a series of in-class exercises in which they practiced conceiving and scripting short scenes from the readings in formal screenplay format.

The students spent week 4 (the final week) of the course workshopping their project in groups of 4 or 5. They spent the weekend working on their screenplay. On Monday they turned in the screenplay, with the storyboard due the following day. Wednesday they finished shooting and editing their short films. On Thursday, I booked the (very swanky) screening room of the new UO Cinema Studies Lab for a Spanish 333 film festival. Each group gave a short introduction to their film and fielded questions after the screening. The groups decided collectively whether or not they wanted to publish their shorts on YouTube.

It may seem counterintuitive to spend three weeks studying literary critical essays and then not require them to write a substantial literary critical essay. This was an experiment. My hope was that by combining traditional literary criticism with cinematic adaptation, the students would:

  • Reinforce their understanding of narrative and narratological concepts by approaching the material in a creative, productive assignment.
  • Come to a better comparative understanding of literary and cinematic approaches to narrative by having to experience, first-hand, the possibilities and limitations afforded by the film medium.
  • Experience something different in one of their Spanish classes, and maybe even have some fun (is that wrong?)

The adaptations were pretty good overall. I made it clear that I did not want them to spend lots of time mastering the equipment or the editing software. I wanted them to tell a story. A couple of the projects were shot entirely on an iPhone or iPod Touch, with pretty impressive results on both video and audio (the Rulfo adaptation below was shot entirely on an iPhone, including the audio). I’ve embedded two examples in this post, adaptations of story no. 35 from Don Juan Manuel’s Conde Lucanor (Spain, 14th c.) and Juan Rulfo’s “No oyes ladrar los perros” (Mexico, 20th c.)


Does graduate coursework in literature prepare students for professional academic literary criticism?

Grad seminar at London School of Economics, circa 1981

What is the point of a graduate level seminar in literature? In a Masters-level class in, for example, medieval Spanish literature, there are two goals.

The first is to help students achieve mastery of a corpus of texts that will provide them with a broad familiarity with Hispanic cultural production. This way, when they are looking for work as instructors at the post-MA or postdoctoral levels they will have a familiarity with major works and movements in their historical contexts. To this end we require them to read and demonstrate critical understanding of primary works and secondary essays.

The second is to help them develop professional skills. To achieve this, I feel it is helpful to draw on communities of practice pedagogy, which in a nutshell suggests that if you want to be a chemist you should do chemistry and not just learn about it.

In literary criticism this generally means engaging with texts and eventually producing a critical essay that is essentially a Fisher-Price version of an academic journal article. I feel this is a reasonable goal for a graduate class but that ten weeks of furious reading followed by a week or so of scrambling to put together an acceptably rigorous essay is not a fair approximation of professional academics.

We all have different working methods, but generally the road from reading to finished manuscript is more iterative. We read, take notes, discuss with students or colleagues, write abstracts, give papers, respond to questions, rework ideas, hand a draft to a colleague, perhaps blog a preliminary version, submit a manuscript for peer review, incorporate readers’ comments, and then —hopefully— have a finished manuscript.

In a traditional graduate seminar there are far fewer formal occasions to articulate and reflect on the ideas you are forming. This is partly due to time constraints: in ten or fifteen weeks it is difficult to both get through a list of books and drill down onto one of them in particular.

We can, however, take steps to offer our students a more graduated experience, one more in line with the experience they are likely to have as an academic literary critic. One way to increase the intensity of a course is to limit the syllabus to one or two major works to be read in full over the term. This way, students can spend less time frantically trying to cram themselves full of Canonical Works and spend more time understanding a single work in its particular context. They can read selections of related works or source texts, historical documents, and secondary essays. And they can work on a series of close readings of the week’s section of the work. All of these, hopefully, contribute to a deeper and more intensive understanding of the work in question.

This format is also more conducive to a critical practice that anticipates the work of a humanities researcher. Students can develop a concept or theme over the course of the term, in a series of related writing assignments, in a conference abstract, in a short paper delivered in class, and then in a term paper.

The communal focus that comes from all students focusing on different aspects of a single work creates a group of critics who all have a stake in the conversation that is based on a deep and sustained reading they have undertaken together. When they present papers, all of their interlocutors are similarly critically engaged in the same text, as in a conference panel where the audience has all read, taught, and written on the text in question.

There are, of course, tradeoffs involved. The monographic course does not get you much closer to the bottom of your exam reading list. You could argue that by showcasing a single work, students who are not likely to take more than a single course in (for example) medieval Spanish literature will not get a sufficiently broad understanding of the period from their subsequent individual readings of the rest of the works on their list from that period.

This can be allayed somewhat by making an effort to bring the work into dialogue with other major works of the time. In one course I required each student to present on a related work of the same period in order to get a better idea of the intellectual context of the times. This provides some synthetic overview of the period, but does not go into much detail about the related works.

This past term I taught a seminar on Fernando de Rojas’ Celestina (1499) putting some of these ideas into practice. It yielded some fine results. There was sustained, insightful discussion in every class session, and all students participated very actively. I could see the students developing their critical voices over the course of the term, and by the end of the ten weeks they were able to write with some authority on their selected themes. The Q&A sessions after the short 10-minute mini-conference papers were lively, and the resulting essays seemed more interesting and more rigorously thought out than the kinds of essays I would receive when the syllabus was more ambitious. For now, at least, I’d say that’s a case for slow reading in graduate education.

What do you think? Have you had success designing (or taking) courses focusing on one work? Courses with graduated assignments that take students through various steps of the idea-mongering process? I look forward to your comments.

Hebrew Bible: Intertextuality in Spanish-Hebrew Literature

This post was originally given as a conference presentation at “Scriptures in Medieval Iberia: Language, literature, and sacred text in a multi-religious society” (Monday, 6 June, 2011, Iona Pacific Inter-religious Centre, Vancouver School of Theology). I’ve also posted a pdf of the handout, including full versions of the texts referenced, along with their translations.

The idea of intertextuality is very useful for understanding the importance of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh in Spain’s medieval Hebrew literature. Intertextuality is the site of a good deal of theorizing, and while time constraints do not allow a full accounting of this discussion, I would like to borrow from Michael Worton and Judith Still’s understanding of the term in its most basic sense as it has been used by various literary critics and theorists. They write that “the writer is a reader of texts…before s/he is a creator of texts, and therefore the work of art is inevitably shot through with references, quotations, and influences of every kind.” This means that each work of art is a sort of group discussion, a collaborative process in which various texts, authors, experiences, and readings participate. The text is a fabric, a weave of a number of threads which in turn are pulled from other texts. Today I would like to talk about the processes by which this pulling and weaving happen in medieval Spanish-Hebrew texts, paying specific attention to the role of Biblical language and source texts.

Reading in the medieval period, especially of literary and poetic texts, was a very different experience from what is generally understood as reading in the modern age.

In this image, a  miniature from a mansucript of the maqamat of al-Hariri of Basra, who wrote in the eleventh century, illustrates a literary gathering, where a popular preacher regales a crowd of listeners with his displays of rhetorical prowess.

There is not a book, page, or pen in sight. The experience is live, oral, aural, and judging from the hand gestures and gazes of both orator and audience, interactive. It is a social event.

This setting is recorded in the maqamat as well as in other genres of literary texts, and many of the structures of medieval literary texts and textual practices derive from a literary culture that is chiefly oral-aural as opposed to written.

By ‘scriptural textuality’ I mean the ways in which scripture is practiced and experienced by the community. This includes the visual reading of the text but also extends to the physicality of the text, its support and packaging, the physical and social contexts of its practice, and the aural-visual memory of its practice.

All of these contribute to biblical intertextuality in medieval Spanish-Hebrew literary texts, as we shall see.

Michael Sells has written about the ways in which Muslim communities experience the Qur’an and describes what he calls the ‘sound vision,’ the relation of sound to meaning, or the combined experience of seeing, hearing, and understanding the Qur’anic text in recitation.

Such recitations form part of the soundscape of a Muslim community, just as public recitations of the Tanakh form part of the soundscape of the writers whose texts we are about to examine.

Here is a demonstration of the idea of a sound vision of a text. This is Surat al-Qariah , “the Day of Reckoning” from the Qur’an, in a traditional modern printed edition. Take a look at the text.

Now, when the recitation and text are experienced together, the impression is quite different. And if the listener comprehends the text, the experience is one of layered visual, auditory, and narrative apprehension. This is the ‘sound image’ that Michael Sells is talking about – the multisensory record of the experience of hearing the text recited.

This understanding of reading as a verbal experience or embodied sensory event is recorded even within the Hebrew Bible itself, where according to Daniel Boyarin, the act of reading is nearly always described as a speech event meant to elicit action. A king reads from a scroll and people act upon the words. Prophets recite to exhort proper behavior from errant fellow Hebrews. Reading is not merely scanning a text but participating in a community, whether political or religious.

By way of demonstration I would like to try to illustrate or at least suggest the various forms of intertextuality that might obtain in any given reading of a biblical text. I’ll take the example of the Hebrew Shir HaShirim or Song of Songs. This text is a frequent source of language and imagery for medieval Hebrew love poetry, and also forms part of the liturgy for the Passover holiday, or Pesah. Here is an image of the opening verses of chapter one as they are written in a modern Torah scroll. The person reciting the text would be using this type of document as a visual support and would supply the vowels, which are absent from this text, and cantillation marks, or trope, from memory.

Any reference to the words of the Song of Songs in a poetic context would evoke, certainly for the poet and most likely for much of his or her audience, this text and its traditional recitation, the sound image similar to the Quranic example we have just seen.

For the poet and his audience that understands the meaning of the Hebrew text, the allusion would also rely on the literal meaning of the text in addition to the sound image of its recitation. This would seem to be obvious but is worth pointing out when one considers that the majority of the audience of such a recitation would likely consist of worshippers who might recognize the sound of the Hebrew words but would not necessarily understand their meaning. There are some billion Muslims worldwide who learn to recite the first chapter of the Qur’an, but only a relatively small percentage of them understand the meaning of the classical Arabic text.

In addition to the sound image of the recitation and the accompanying sensory memories of the gathering in the synagogue where it takes place, the allusion would also carry with it associations with the traditional exegetical interpretations of the passage. In this case, I bring examples from the commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra, a Sephardic rabbi who lived from the end of the eleventh century to the beginning of the twelfth. The traditional rabbinic interpretation of the Song of Songs is that, far more than a mere love poem, the text is an allegory of the love between God and the community of Israel.

To the sound image, literal meaning, and exegetical meaning, we might also add the liturgical context of the texts recitation as part of the Passover liturgy, with all the affective cathexis that attends the celebration of a major religious holiday: the specialness of the occasion, the hope for a good growing season, the spring fever that inevitably strikes the youth any community at this time of year. In this particular photo we see Samaritans celebrating the Passover in the West Bank.

In the same vein, the Song of Songs might well recall for poet and audience the social and familial context of the celebration: the foods, songs, and customs related to the celebration of Passover, the gathering of relatives and friends, the Seder or traditional ritual meal, the new clothes. In this photo we see a scene from a Passover Seder of the Jewish community of Manila in 1925.

All of these associations come bundled with poetic allusions to a biblical text: the textual image, the sound image, the literal and exegetical meanings, the lived experience of liturgical and social events related to the text. All of these may be indexed, consciously or otherwise, when a writer deploys biblical text in an original poetic composition, as well as by readers and listeners of that composition.

Let’s see how this intertextuality obtains in a specific example from a strophic poem, a muwashshah, by the same Abraham ibn Ezra who wrote the commentary on the Song of Songs that we have just seen. As you probably are aware, Ibn Ezra, like many of the  prominent Jewish intellectuals of al-Andalus, was a gifted polymath who is also a noted exegete. He was highly educated in rabbinics as well as in secular Arabic poetry, lore, and science. The worlds intermingle in this poem, in which a number of intertexts are juxtaposed with the language of the Song of Songs.

The complete poem is number one in your handout. In this particular stanza, ibn Ezra juxtaposes language drawn directly from Shir Hashirim with a closing couplet or ‘kharja’ in Andalusi vernacular Arabic. The poetic image of the apple as a perfume for, or alternately a substitution for, the mouth of the beloved resonates both with the biblical text as well as with Arabic poetic tradition.

In the literal sense of the Shir Hashirim, the poetic voice describes the body of the beloved in a series of agricultural metaphors that suggest fertility and echo the idyllic setting of the love encounter.

In Ibn Ezra’s own commentary, he explains the literal sense of the text: the lover wants to climb up the body of the woman as if she were a grapevine or a tree, so that he can enjoy the fruit (her breasts) and smell the sweet scent of her breath, which is like apples.

He goes on to explain the religious allegory of these images: that the scent of apples from the beloved’s mouth represents the burnt offerings and incense burned by the High Priest or Kohen Hagadol in the Temple in Jerusalem, both of these being sweet to God.

Abraham ibn Ezra drew not only on Biblical language but was also consciously participating in a well established Arabic poetic tradition of using the apple as a locus of amorous discourse. Arabic, and later Hebrew poets frequently employed descriptions of apples in their poetry. The eleventh-century poet and vizier of Granada, Samuel Hanagid, wrote a series of 15 descriptions of apples, and Solomon ibn Gabirol likewise tried his hand at the genre.

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Like the Shir Hashirim itself, this poem is a text written to be performed, and not just to be recited, as would have been the Arabic poem by Abu Nuwas. The muwashshah in particular was a poetic genre written for musical performance, and even for dancing, and so ibn Ezra’s text would have also been set to music something like what you are hearing now. This deployment of biblical allusion in an original musical poetic setting amounted to a kind of unofficial exegesis. In this recording, the contemporary Spanish ensemble Altramar performs their interpretation of a muwashshah by Andalusi poet Ibn Zuhr (1091-1161). Most experiences of Ibn Ezra’s poem would have been live, accompanied by music and dancing as well. These corporeal readings of the text brought new intertexts to the biblical sources he employed.

Modern critics of medieval Hebrew literature have suggested that these poetic reworkings of biblical language amounted to a form of creative exegesis, not strictly rabbinical but nonetheless significant in that they expanded both the semantic fields attached to the words themselves and the hermeneutics of the biblical texts.

In a 1977 article in AJS Review, Neal Kozodoy suggests that this creative exegesis was an important part of medieval Hebrew poetry, relying as it did almost exclusively on biblical poetic language for its lexical building blocks.

Abraham ibn Ezra lived during the waning of Andalusi political hegemony on the Iberian Peninsula, and by his death Christian monarchs had conquered large sections of what had been al-Andalus.

The generations of Hebrew poets who were raised in Christian Iberia, despite being educated in Arabic, had a very different linguistic experience than their grandparents who were raised in a country where Arabic was the official language of the court, the mosque, and the majlis or literary salon.

They were native speakers of romance vernaculars such as Catalan, Galician, Aragonés, and Castilian. They sang ballads and songs, and told stories that were common to all of their countrymen regardless of religious tradition. In some cases they were familiar with vernacular versions of biblical texts, either from paraliturgical contexts such as the vernacular versions of the Book of Esther that were performed as part of the celebration of Purim, or from popular ballads and other vernacular reworkings of familiar biblical stories.

By way of example I would like us to examine some texts and intertexts from Vidal Benvenist’s text Melitsat `Efer ve-Dina, the tale of Efer and Dina. Benvenist wrote Efer ve-Dina in Zaragoza around 1400, and it was first published by Gershom Soncino in Rimini in 1521.

The story tells of the misadventures surrounding the marriage of the rich widower Efer to the young girl Dina. The eminent scholar of medieval Hebrew literature, Hayim Shirmann, has called Efer ve-Dina a “tragicomedy” (which should resonate with those of you who are familiar with the late fifteenth century work by Fernando de Rojas, Celestina).

In the story, Dina’s impoverished father seeks to better his position by marrying Dina off to the elderly, wealthy widow Efer. Despite Dina’s protests, the two are married, but Efer is unable to fulfill his conjugal obligations to his young wife. He sends one of his servants to procure for him an aphrodisiac, but misjudges the effective dose and dies of a fatal overdose.

Benvenist explains in a lengthy excursus that the tale is a moral allegory, in which one should read Efer as the weakness of the human soul and Dina as the temptations of the material world that ultimately bring one no lasting benefit and in fact may lead to one’s moral demise.

At the time when Benvenist wrote the Jewish communities of Aragon and Castile were under tremendous pressure to convert to Christianity and those who did often enjoyed far higher standards of living than those who chose to remain Jewish, so Benvenist’s message is timely.

Like the poem of Ibn Ezra, the biblical language and allusions in Efer ve-Dina coexist with and interact with a number of intertexts, including the Dina story in Genesis, the Spanish ballad version of that story, the traditional Spanish malmaridada songs in which a young girl laments her marriage to an older man who does not love her, and lastly a kind of situational affiliation with the biblical Esther story and celebration of Purim that I like to call the Esterismo of Dina. Let’s now have a look at these intertexts and how they might have impacted readings of Efer ve-Dina by Benvenist and his audiences.

The ballad of El robo de Dina or the Rape of Dina circulated in Spain in the fifteenth century and probably dates approximately to the time when Benvenist wrote. It is attested in both Peninsular and Sephardic oral traditions as well as in editions printed in Spain in Early modernity. The text follows the story as it is told in Genesis 34, but as is characteristic of the narrative style of Spanish ballads, leaves off in medias res, as Jacob sends messengers to King Hamor to legitimize the relations between their children. The common thread between the biblical Dina and that of Benvenist is the idea that the moral integrity of the community is threatened when a young woman is married off to a man for material reasons. Both are moralizing tales. That of Benvenist is explained at length in his allegorical epilogue, and that of the Genesis version most succinctly in the protest of Simeon and Levi to Jacob: “Should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?” (Gen 34:31)

The biblical Dina intertext is woven together with the popular songs of the malmaridadas, the mis-married young girl who laments her unhappy state. These songs are attested in many western Romance versions, including those in Galician, Catalan, French, Castilian, and Italian. Both ballads, El robo de Dina and La bella malmaridada, were so popular that they were dramatized by the indefatigable Lope de Vega (1562-1635), who wrote thousands of plays during his lifetime.

In this version, the full text of which is at number four in your handout, the malmaridada is depicted in conversation with a knight who promises to take her away from her abusive husband. The husband discovers the two lovers and threatens to kill his wife, who for her part would prefer to die for her newfound love than to continue to live with her husband.

Benvenist’s Dina similarly laments her situation à-la-malmaridada, but with a decidedly more pro-active agenda. She (correctly) fears that a man of Efer’s age will not be able to fulfill his conjugal obligations to her, and lobbies her father in vain to cancel the marriage before it is too late.

Her protestations also echo with the biblical Dina. In Efer ve-Dina, Dina’s father is creating a situation in which Dina will be easily tempted to seek fulfillment outside the context of her marriage. This constitutes a sin on her father’s part, one which resonates with the protests of Simeon and Levi that their father should not put their sister Dina in a situation where her honor might be compromised.

The text is number five on your handout. I will read only the beginning that you see on the current slide, and then I would like to call your attention to two examples of biblical allusions in Efer ve-Dina and their specific intertextualities.

The original of this text is found at number six on your handout. Here, the allusion is to Hoshea 4:12, where the prophet describes how Israel has alienated itself from God through its practice of harlotry, fornication, and other types of poor behavior. The idea is that they are so misguided they seek advice from a piece of wood, which in the context of Biblical Israel would be a reference to idolatry.

So the first resonance of this description of Efer is that of the morally irresponsible Israel described in Hoshea. In addition, there is a double entendre: Efer’s “staff” speaks to him, or rather, he is thinking with his penis, his actions are motivated by his lust, not by correct moral values.

This second example is from the description of the wedding party of Efer and Dina, found at number seven in your handout. The celebratory noises of the wedding party are juxtaposed with the Biblical context, the unnatural (and in the original text synesthetic) sound of thunder coming from Mount Sinai in Exodus 20:15 (kol ha`am ro’im et ha-kolot), In the biblical passage, the unnatural sounds strike fear into the hearts of the Israelites, but here, the sense is that the wedding party sees marriage between the old man and the young girl as unnatural, and views it with disgust (ed. Huss 172 n 254). Benvenist ironically characterizes what should be a happy, natural occasion by using language describing a scene of fear of the unnatural.

The final biblical intertext for Efer ve-Dina I would like to consider before concluding is the Book of Esther or Megillat Ester, which is traditionally recited in the liturgy for the holiday of Purim, which corresponds roughly to carnaval in the liturgical cycle, and like carnaval, is a time to enact inversions of the accepted social order, to drink to excess, and to perform vernacular versions and parodies of traditional liturgies.

Like the story of Dina, that of Esther is like a European novella or comedia in that a woman’s honor or romantic fate determine both the dramatic outcome and in a larger sense, the fate of the community. Dina’s marriage imperils the moral health of both her father and according to Benvenist’s allegory, the entire community. Esther’s marriage to King Ahashverosh, as we all know, turns out to be  the saving grace of the Jewish community of Shushan.

Despite Benvenist’s assurances that his text is meant as a serious moral allegory, in 1521 his publisher Gershom Soncino markets Efer ve-Dina as a Purim entertainment in the tradition of Purim literature that parodies the Talmud, the Prophets, and other traditional Jewish texts. He maintains in his introduction that he means for audiences to “delight in the tales of love and in words of silliness during the days of Purim.”  Whatever Benvenist’s intentions may have been, at least some of his readers saw the Esterismo in Efer ve-Dina and sought to capitalize on it.

In conclusion, I hope to have demonstrated from these examples the following:

Biblical intertextuality is more than a simple matter of the recycling of words from the Hebrew bible. I see it much more (secundum Kozodoy 1977) as the metaphor suggested by the Latin etymon textus, a cloth woven from a number of threads, each one a metaphor for a different allusion, reference, sensory experiences, or memory. Together, these intertexts form a new text that in turn acquires its own life, much as the life of a garment as it is worn and passed from one owner to the next comes to mean much more than a simple combination of threads woven together.

Finally, it is important to recognize that Spanish Hebrew authors, even when drawing on Biblical texts for inspiration or for raw materials, were also placing these texts into discussion with the secular vernacular texts and traditions of their particular time and place. The resulting poetic exegesis was one that was filtered through vernacular artistic sensibilities, much as the Rabbis drew on vernacular culture and reality in their formal exegesis and jurisprudence.