The Prince and the Paupered: Medieval Hebrew Poetry Meets the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

Shmuel HaNagid. Selected Poems of Shmuel HaNagid. Translated by Peter Cole. Princeton University Press 1996. 236 pp. $39.95 $14.95 (paper)

Raymond R Scheindlin. Wine, Women, & Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the GoodLife. Jewish Publication Society 1986. 224 pp. $16.95 (paper)

Samuel Ibn Nagrela. Jewish Prince in Moslem Spain: Selected Poems of Samuel Ibn Nagrela. Translated by Leon J. Weinberger. University of Alabama Press 1973. [Out of print]

News flash: The Vatican has announced that the Pope and other ranking church clergy have begun writing secular poetry in Latin, warping the ancient phrases of Vulgate and Mass into stylish, sophisticated odes to wine, women, and song...

Impossible, surely. But at the onset of the last millennium, this is what happened, albeit among rabbis rather than cardinals, in Hebrew rather than Latin, and in Muslim-controlled Andalusiathen the cultural and religious center of the Jewish world-rather than the Holy See. In the mid-tenth century, one Dunash ben Labrat brashly set the Hebrew tongue, for centuries reserved for prayer and sacred study, to the quantitative meters and distinctly secular themes of classical Arabic verse, then the sine qua non of literature. Dunash touched off a literary wildfire that blazed several hundred years and became known, in retrospect, as the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry. The cream of the Jewish community-courtierrabbis who shuttled between Muslim palaces and Jewish yeshivasstarted writing poems about brimming crystal goblets, the luscious girls and boys who filled them, and a host of other distinctly nonspiritual subjects that hadn't been hymned in Hebrew since before the fall of Rome:

These lines by Shmuel HaNagid, considered the first great Golden Age poet and one of the greatest Hebrew poets of any era, echo the Biblical books of Genesis, Samuel, Ezekiel, Psalms, and, faintly, Job, all in the course of riffing on one of the wine-song themes of Arabic meistersinger Abu Nuwas. The tongue is the tongue of the Torah, but the images are pure pleasure-palace.

Medieval Hebrew poetry steered a course between piety and blasphemy that probably cannot be mapped on modern charts-imagine, if you can, a Papal sonnet starting "Hail Marian full of grapes," and the Catholic world treating it not as a case of demonic possession, but as a glorification of their holy tongue. The Arabic poets whom the Golden Agers adopted as models made a great point of demonstrating, through virtuousic versifying, the purity and potency of the language of the Koran. The courtier-rabbis, with the over-achieving minority's chauvinistic pride, were determined to trump their Muslim counterparts and prove the Torah's Hebrew a poetic medium as fit or fitter than scriptural Arabic. If only contemporary ArabJewish conflicts could be so bloodlessly and ravishingly resolved.

As we dip our toes into our own new millennium, it is fitting that interest among English-speaking readers in this poetic treasure-trove from the last seems to be growing, to judge by the recent publication of Peter Cole's Selected Poems of Shmuel HaNagid, and the upcoming appearance of a new translation of HaNagid's sometime protege and fellow Golden Age luminary, Solomon Ibn Gabirol. Medieval Hebrew poetry is what we would now call a triumph of multiculturalism. Admitted to and tolerated (if not welcomed) in the upper echelons of Muslim society, ambitious Andalusian Jews steeped themselves in Arabic language, literature, philosophy, and science. But rather than assimilating, the Jews of the Golden Age-and this is what made it a Golden Age-took the siren song of non-Jewish culture as a wake-up call. The result was a renaissance that included unparalleled achievements in philosophy, philology, and, of course, literature, as Hebrew leapt the margins of prayerbooks and scrolls and reentered the alleys, palaces, and boudoirs beyond them.

The variety and vividness of this verse may startle those who think of learned, devout Jews as pallid, angst-ridden yeshiva bochers bowed, like the soul of Cynthia Ozick's hapless "Pagan Rabbi," beneath towers of musty tomes. …