The Lost Jewish Culture


I count at least seven great Jewish Diasporas: Babylon-Persia; Hellenistic Alexandria; Muslim and Christian Spain, including Provence-Catalonia; Renaissance Italy; Eastern Europe– Russia; Austria-Hungary together with Germany; the United States. Peter Cole’s The Dream of the Poem devotes itself to the crown of Jewry’s literary achievement in Muslim and Christian Spain: the blooming of a Hebrew poetry that, at the very best, could rival the magnificences of Scripture such as “Song of the Red Sea” (Exodus 15:1b–18), the “War Song of Deborah and Barak” (Judges 5:1–31), and “David’s Lamentation over Saul and Jonathan” (2 Samuel 1:19–27).

The central figures in Cole’s anthology are great by any relevant standards: Shmu’el HaNagid (called the Nagid), Shelomo Ibn Gabirol, Moshe Ibn Ezra, Yehuda HaLevi—all of Muslim Spain (circa 950–circa 1140)—and Avraham Ibn Ezra, Yehuda Alharizi, and Todros Abulafia who lived in Christian Spain and Provence (circa 1140–1452). These seven poets are fully the equal of such Spanish Renaissance poets as Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, and San Juan de la Cruz. Luis De León was, incidentally, of a converso family, or Jews compelled in 1492 to become Christians or be exiled. He edited the mystical prose of Saint Teresa of Ávila. Teresa herself, partly Jewish by descent, had to endure investigation by the Inquisition, while Luis de León was imprisoned some four years.

If he had been born just two generations earlier, Luis de León would have been another of the canonical Hebrew poets of Spain. But, with that paradox, I turn to the history of Hebrew poetry, first in Muslim Spain and then in the darker Christian Spain. That “darker” refers to the persecution of Jews and Moors, but the persecution in some sense extended to most of the Spaniards in Christian Spain from the seventeenth century on to the death of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

The Muslim conquest of Spain began in 711 under the Ummayyad dynasty, which ruled from Damascus. They sent an army of mainly North African Berbers into the Iberian peninsula, which was then ruled by Visigoths who had long since replaced the Romans, under whom Jews first had come to Spain. In the second half of the eighth century the heroic military leader Abd al-Rahman I gained control over Arabic Spain, or al-Andalus, and set up his capital in Córdoba, where his benign treatment of Jews (and Christians) led to their thorough transition to Arabic culture, and helped make Córdoba an extraordinary urban civilization throughout the tenth century.

The extraordinary rebirth of major Hebrew poetry among the Andalusian Jews, brilliantly set out by Peter Cole, needs to be seen, in part, as a response to their complex linguistic situation. In Roman Spain their daily language primarily had been Latin with some remnants of Aramaic, rather than Hebrew. In Muslim Iberia they mostly adopted Arabic, the international lingua franca. At the same time, a modified Latin, generally called Romance, evolved into the Old Castilian that would become the main spoken language…

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