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The Lost Jewish Culture


Agon, the contest for supremacy throughout ancient Greek culture, necessarily filtered into Greco-Arabic speculation and aesthetic adventure. In the Hebrew poets of Spain, the struggle was first conceived as one of the demands of the Covenant with Yahweh, then joined itself to the ancient quarrel of philosophy with poetry, to Plato’s wrestling against Homer, and to the more intimate struggle of Pindar and the Athenian tragedians with the Homeric poems, which had become the basic text of the Greeks. When Shmu’el HaNagid, the heroic founder of greatness in Sefarad’s Hebrew poetry, called himself the New David he might as well also have been thinking of his role as an amalgam of Achilles and Odysseus, the rival tradition’s David and Samuel.

Peter Cole first received recognition as a translator for his Selected Poems of HaNagid and then of Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who came to HaNagid as a disciple but left after a temperamental dispute with the warrior-statesman poet. Cole’s publishing history suggests a personal preference for HaNagid and Ibn Gabirol since only with The Dream of the Poem does he present the work of Moshe Ibn Ezra, the technical master of Sefarad’s Hebrew poetry, and of Yehuda HaLevi, the most renowned and beloved figure in the group. They mean much to Cole, but do not inspire him as do the heroic HaNagid and the self-tormented intellectual Ibn Gabirol. Far less informed in this than Cole, I independently share his priorities. HaNagid brings sublimity back to Hebrew battle poetry, while Ibn Gabirol sets the archetype for spiritual turbulence in all subsequent Jewish poetry. Moshe Ibn Ezra, with whom Robert Browning identified, had to flee Granada in the early 1090s. Moving about restlessly in the Christian Spain of the north, while mourning for a lost Andalusia, Moshe Ibn Ezra can be seen as living out a darker version of Browning’s self-exile in Italy.

Cole never makes overt his reservations about Yehuda HaLevi, still the best-known Hebrew Spanish poet, partly because of his prose masterwork, the Kuzari, an aggressive argument for Judaism’s truth, but more for his romantic life-story. Driven out of Andalusia in the eleventh century, HaLevi went north to Christian lands and became the Jewish poet of Toledo and also served as medical doctor for the Castilian court. Brilliantly, he quoted Jeremiah the Prophet: “We heal Babel, but it is beyond healing” (51:9). When Toledo erupted in a pogrom, HaLevi left and went on further wanderings, during which he became alienated from Arabic culture. He began to return to biblical poetics, and in a pattern he both exemplified and remodeled to long for Zion. His legendary death, probably aboard a ship from Alexandria bound for the land that had been (and now again has become) Israel, is an abiding myth of Jewish nationalism.


HaNagid (993–1056), called Naghrela (“the dark one”) by awed Arabs, improbably became the leader of all Andalusia’s Jewry (nagid means governor and is the source of his name). The poet who called himself the David of his age then became, in 1037, vizier of the Muslim kingdom of Granada and commander in chief of its Islamic armed forces. For sixteen out of the next eighteen years, his power, second only to that of the Berber king of Granada, remained all but absolute, until he died of exhaustion, in his early sixties.

The faithful warrior-statesman startles us because his poetry represents a throwback, after a thousand years, to the warlike ethos of the Book of Judges, of Second Samuel, and of the Psalms of David. The spirit of the prophet Deborah, exultant in the grand battle ode of Judges 5, reincarnates itself in the courageous HaNagid. Here are excerpts from the King James Version of Deborah’s victorious song:

Then sang Deborah and Barak the son of Abinoam on that day, saying,

Praise ye the LORD for the avenging of Israel, when the people willingly offered themselves.

Hear, O ye kings; give ear, O ye princes; I, even I, will sing unto the LORD; I will sing praise to the LORD God of Israel.

LORD, when thou wentest out of Seir, when thou marchedst out of the field of Edom, the earth trembled, and the heavens dropped, the clouds also dropped water.

The mountains melted from before the LORD, even that Sinai from before the LORD God of Israel.

In the days of Shamgar the son of Anath, in the days of Jael, the highways were unoccupied, and the travellers walked through byways.

The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel, until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel.

And the princes of Issachar were with Deborah; even Issachar, and also Barak: he was sent on foot into the valley. For the divisions of Reuben there were great thoughts of heart.

Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart.

Gilead abode beyond Jordan: and why did Dan remain in ships? Asher continued on the sea shore, and abode in his breaches.

Zebulun and Naphtali were a people that jeoparded their lives unto the death in the high places of the field.

The kings came and fought, then fought the kings of Canaan in Taanach by the waters of Megiddo; they took no gain of money.

They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera. The river of Kishon swept them away, that ancient river, the river Kishon. O my soul, thou hast trodden down strength.

Compare Deborah’s song to Peter Cole’s translation of HaNagid’s description of his victories in “The War with Yaddayir”—Yaddayir was the cousin of the king of Grenada who sought to usurp the throne. In a mosaic of allusions to the Hebrew Bible, particularly Psalms, HaNagid shrewdly avoids referring to the Song of Deborah, which is not to be surpassed in Hebrew. A first sampling of Cole’s power as poet-translator properly can be from the two final stanzas of “The War with Yaddayir”:

I am, I answered, the David of my age!

He responded: Is Saul, too, with the prophets?

And I told him:

The heir of Merari, Sitri, and Assir,

Elkanah, Mishael, Elzaphan, and Assaf!

How could a poem

In my mouth be improper

to the God who heals my wound?

There is nothing here as sublime as “Zebulun and Naphtali were a people that jeopardied their lives unto the death in the high places of the field” or “They fought from heaven; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.” But the Song of the prophet Deborah, and her captain, Barak, is the oldest and possibly the best poem in the Hebrew language. Like Shelley at the close of his “Ode to the West Wind,” Cole silently addresses HaNagid and says: “Be through my lips/The trumpet of a prophecy” (italics mine). Israeli Hebrew poets tend not to compose battle odes: Deborah, King David, and HaNagid are high points of a tradition made mostly by themselves. Cole becomes something like a major Jewish American poet when HaNagid dismisses an Idiot Questioner with “I am, I answered, the David of my age!” and pledges his victory hymn to please Yahweh, who was himself a Man of War.

There are two other major kinds of poems by Shmu’el HaNagid, first erotic lyrics, satires, and elegies; and second, epigrams expressing further reflections upon mortality. Like the writers of Arabic love songs, HaNagid and many Hebrew poets who follow him seem to celebrate a bisexuality, though rather ambiguously, since social conventions govern what can be said. Even Shelomo Ibn Gabirol, whom Cole appears to rank second only to HaNagid, is an altogether different poet from the vizier-general. A tubercular, bitter personality and yet a sublime visionary, Ibn Gabirol can be thought of as a Hebrew Leopardi, though a Leopardi who is a Yahwistic theist rather than a Lucretian nihilist.

The masterpiece of Ibn Gabirol is the rhapsodic and Neoplatonic Kingdom’s Crown, fully translated in Cole’s Selected Poems of Gabirol, and, sadly, represented in The Dream of the Poem only by a ten-page excerpt. But even here, Cole catches the acutely individual accent of one of the major Hebrew poets:

I’m ashamed, my God,

and abashed to be standing before you,

for I know that as great as your might has been,

such is my utter weakness and failing;

as exalted as your power has been and will be,

such is the depth of my poverty;

as whole as your perfection is,

so is my knowledge flawed.

For you are one and alive;

almighty, abiding, strong and wise;

You are the Lord my God—

and I am a clod of dirt and a worm;

dust of the ground and a vessel of shame;

a speechless stone;

a passing shadow;

a wind blown-by that won’t return;

a spider’s poison;

a lying heart uncut for his Lord;

a man of rages;

a craftsman of scheming, and haughty,

corrupt and impatient in speech,

perverse in his ways and impetuous.

This eloquent pathos again makes me hear in Ibn Gabirol a forerunner to Leopardi. Both poets, theist and nihilist, pragmatically close the incredible, not-to-be-traversed distance between a normative Judaism and Epicureanism. It is as though Walt Whitman, Lucretian and self-reliant, were to be indistinguishable from T.S. Eliot, self-proclaimed royalist, Anglo-Catholic, and classicist. I myself do not discern much of a difference between “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and its revisionary child in The Waste Land. Leopardi contemplates a different sublime in the abyss of nothingness; Ibn Gabirol desperately yearns for a sublime revelation of Yahweh, but the shattering alienation of the poet’s wounded consciousness from the height emerging in the poem unites Leopardi and Ibn Gabirol.


I don’t share in Peter Cole’s implicit preference for Moshe Ibn Ezra over his student Yehuda HaLevi, but to choose between these two strong poets is a difficult decision. Moshe Ibn Ezra is not the equal of HaNagid or of Ibn Gabirol in originality and yet is a more nuanced artist than either. As Cole remarks, the central theme of Ibn Ezra’s life and poetic art is exile. Twice he had to flee Granada, first as a child during the Muslim uprising against HaNagid’s son and successor in 1066, and permanently a few years after the Berber invasion of 1090. The second half of his long life was spent in the Christian north, where he was afflicted by nostalgia for the lost cultural glories of Arabic-Hebraic Andalusia.

Sometimes the unfused erotic and devotional elements in Moshe Ibn Ezra baffle me, but Peter Cole is extraordinarily useful as poet-translator, catching the remarkable nuances of Ibn Ezra’s attitude of supplication, and the echoes of HaNagid, stronger poet and personality:

Let it set the sun as a crown on my head,

or make the moon my golden crescent—

Orion a bracelet around my wrist,

its glowing children about me my necklace,

I will not come to desire its power,

not for a home beyond the stars.

My longing instead is to lay my threshold

near the threshold of learned men:

all I want is to move toward them,

although my iniquity holds me back

among a people that does not know me;

with whom I have no part or ease—

for when I greet them with kisses of peace,

they say I hurt them with my teeth.

It is difficult to see how this pathos could be better rendered. It helps explain the very different decisions I’ve earlier described of Yehuda HaLevi who, having come to Granada as a young poet, encouraged by Moshe ibn Ezra, left and made a place for himself as a physician in Christian Toledo; and who then, trapped between Muslim and Christian violence, cultivated a newly revived Hebrew idiom and set out to return to the biblical land of Israel, then ruled by Crusaders, a journey that would have seemed inconceivable to most Jews at the time. After a long sojourn in Alexandria, he apparently died on a ship bound from Alexandria to Acre.

Cole may undervalue some of the secular poetry of HaLevi, but he appreciates the quiet eloquence in the seeker after Zion. Perhaps the best of Cole’s own voice breaks through in his wonderful version of HaLevi’s meditation on time and friendship, dedicated to Moshe Ibn Ezra. I quote only the opening of the poem of sixty-eight lines:

We’ve known you, parting, ever since we were young,

and the river of weeping that runs between us is ancient.

What good would it do to fight against blameless Fortune,

or quarrel with days, when they have done no wrong?

The heavens’ spheres race along fixed courses,

and nothing on high ever departs from its path.

Could this be news—when nothing new comes into

a world whose laws are drawn by the hand of God?

Here again is Cole’s rendition of the most famous poem of the Hebrew Renaissance, HaLevi’s desperately dignified “My Heart Is in the East”:

My heart is in the East—

and I am at the edge of the West.

How can I possibly taste what I eat?

how could it please me?

How can I keep my promise

or ever fulfill my vow,

when Zion is held by Edom

and I am bound by Arabia’s chains?

I’d gladly leave behind me

all the pleasures of Spain—

if only I might see

the dust and ruins of your Shrine.

This is the classical, Zionistic awakening from the Dream of the Poem—the dream that cultural tolerance could hold off the violent monotheism of Islam and the murderousness of Christian polytheism (to tell a little truth). In his great prose dialogue, the Kuzari, written in an ironic Arabic, HaLevi made a classic, permanent defense of Judaism against its demographically overwhelming rivals, Islam and Christianity. He also, with fierce irony, rejects the Arabic culture of his fellow poets and scholars. Heroic, tense, more relevant today than ever, the Kuzari seems to me the great book of the Hebrew Renaissance of Spain, which it totally repudiates as an immoral error.


Part Two of The Dream of the Poem, which chronicles the long anguish of the Jews of Christian Spain, features three great (and troubling) poets: Avraham Ibn Ezra (no relation to Moshe), the scabrous Yehuda Alharazi (a kind of Thersites figure), and finally Todros Abulafia, previously all but unknown to me, and virtually dismissed by T. Carmi in his important Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (1981) as “an epigone of the Andalusian school.” Cole rehabilitates Todros Abulafia, whose personal intensity and directness is without parallel in his Spanish Hebrew precursors.

Avraham Ibn Ezra, the first of the Silver Age poets of Hebrew Spain, was still resident in Andalusia and Toledo until he was fifty or so. After that, for more than a quarter-century, he was a wanderer: in Rome, Provence, North Africa, France, and England. A highly original biblical exegete, he wrote discursive books on diverse subjects. As a Hebrew poet, he was—when writing on secular subjects—comedic and ironic, toward the self as toward others. I find a Chaucerian touch in him, some two centuries before Chaucer.

Cole translates powerfully what may be Avraham Ibn Ezra’s most famous poem, the harrowing “Lament for Andalusian Jewry.” Here, though, I will quote the refreshingly ironic “A Cloak”:

I have a cloak that’s a lot like a sieve

for sifting wheat and barley:

at night I stretch it taut like a tent,

and light from the stars shines on me.

Through it I see the crescent moon,

Orion and the Pleiades.

I weary, though, of counting its holes,

which look like a saw’s sharp teeth,

and dreaming they might be mended with thread

drawn back and forth’s no use.

If a fly lands there with force like a fool,

at once it regrets what it’s done:

Replace it, Lord, with a mantle of glory—

and one that’s properly sewn.

This might be Chaucer complaining to his empty purse, but Chaucer was not a displaced poet, as Avraham Ibn Ezra was. More flamboyant is Yehuda Alharizi, whose startling Book of Tahkemoni can be read in the fine English translation of David Segal (2001). It is a maqaama, a picaresque narrative in rhymed prose with interspersed poems, and Alharizi’s poem in this Arabic genre produces an outrageous masterpiece, satirizing with desperate glee the Jewish communities he visited in the Near East, Palestine included. Written in rivalry with the Arab master al-Hariri’s picaresque stories, The Book of Tahkemoni hilariously sustains rereading. Cole confines himself to giving us a large group of Alharizi’s frequently inserted lyrics. One of the best of these is titled by Cole “Palindrome for a Patron; Or, Caution: This Door Swings Both Ways”:

Master, yours is righteousness. No evil

do you grasp. All Mercy. Yours are morals

empty of obloquies. This God did—for,

truthfully, you are joy without dishonor.


Dishonor without joy are you, truthfully.

For did God this—obloquies of empty

morals are yours. Mercy! All grasp

you do evil. No righteousness is yours, Master.

The Spanish Hebrew poets, particularly in their long Christian twilight, needed to depend upon patrons, with all the immemorial ambivalences such relationships involve. The freebooter Alharizi is a poet who flowers in his own ambivalences, rather like Baudelaire in that respect, or like “the Yiddish Baudelaire,” Moshe Leib Halpern, the best Jewish poet ever to write in these United States.

The best of Peter Cole’s Big Seven, Todros Abulafia, is all but new to me. A thirteenth-century Jew in Christian Toledo, Todros initially flourished at the court of Alfonso the Wise, who developed a late piety, with its usual imposition of heavy taxes on his Jewish subjects. A spell in prison (with most of the other Jews of Toledo) somewhat diminished Todros’s flamboyant persona, but he retained his curious trust in Yahweh. Though I have remarked this in other contexts, it must be the ultimate Jewish irony (if not Jewish joke) that Yahweh, least trustworthy of deities, demands that the Jews trust in their Covenant with him.

Cole terms Todros the “liveliest” of the Christian Age Spanish Hebrew poets. The scamp certainly was resilient, and received court patronage from Sancho IV of Castile/Toledo, the son of the wise Alfonso, but Sancho died in 1295, and Todros simply vanished from Jewish history. Cole happily resurrects him, charmed by his ironic character. Who could resist my particular favorite among Peter Cole’s translations of Todros?

There’s nothing wrong in wanting a woman,

and loving girls is hardly a sin—

but whether or not they’re pretty or pure,

Arabia’s daughters are what you should look for.

Stay far away from the Spanish Christians,

although they’re fair and bright as the sun,

for they’ll provide neither comfort nor ease,

even with shawls and silken sleeves:

their dresses are always covered with mud,

as their hems are dragged through dung and crud.

Their minds are empty from heartless whoring—

when it comes to seduction, they know not a thing.

But the Arab woman’s grace is her glory,

ravishing spirits, banishing worry.

And whether or not she’s wearing her clothes,

she looks as though she’s decked out in gold.

She’ll give you pleasure when the day arrives,

for in lewdness’s ways and desire she’s wise,

her legs gripped tightly around your head,

crying out Lord!!—and raising the dead.

The lover who opts for the Christian feast

is just like a man who’d lie with a beast.

Jewish women are omitted, though the rakehell Todros remained a more-or-less faithful Jew. Cole commends Todros for “freshness and candor,” and rightly sees in him a final cheerfulness, against the odds, as Spanish Jewish culture began its two-century decline from Sancho IV to Ferdinand and Isabella.

Peter Cole’s The Dream of the Poem is much more than a distinguished anthology of the Hebrew poetry of Spain. Its eloquent introduction and highly informative brief biographies of each poet are surpassed by the more than two hundred pages of notes packed with surmises and insights that transcend his invariably relevant guides to meaning of the many hundreds of poems by more than fifty poets. Any reader who wonders, as I have throughout my life, what are the cultural prospects for American Jewry, will find an immense store of analogues in Cole’s superb book.


Was Spain So Bad? November 8, 2007

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