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The expulsion from Spain was a collective trauma superseded in Jewish history only by the destruction of Jersualem by Titus Andronicus in the year 70 CE.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.

 

Reading Amadís in Istanbul

Summary

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.

Work in Progress Talk

This is the slidecast from a Work in Progress talk I gave last week at the Oregon Humanities Center, where I was Ernest Moll Fellow in Literary Studies during Winter term 2011. You can also listen to the .mp3 here.