The Jewish half of me awoke in 1976 when my surrogate father Avraham, in whose house I was staying, talked to me about the Jewish faith of which I knew next to nothing. He told me about The Kuzari, a book by Yehuda HaLevi (c 1075-1141)who lived in Spain during the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry and died in the Holy Land on his way to Jerusalem. The next day I bought the book and read it. It wasn't an easy read. It's about an empire that in its hey day covered large parts of present day Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine and others. It was locked in between the Christian West and the Muslim East. The emperor feared them both and invited representatives of the three major religions to come and make their case, so he could choose the right religion for himself and his people. In the end he chose the Jewish religion as the most just, noble and truthful. He converted and – so the story goes – many of his people. To a great extent this is a historical fact. (You may want to read Arthur Koestler's The Thirteenth Tribe on this subject)
So The Kuzari was my introduction into Judaism. There are easier ways. I forgot about Yehuda Halevi and the Golden Age until recently a new biography was published by Hillel Halkin. See my review in September 2014. That book put me on the trail of the poems of Shmuel Hanagid, (993-1056) a Jewish governor of Muslim Granada and surroundings, a fearless warrior and a great poet. And now I have read The Dream of the Poem by Peter Cole.
The convivencia – the often but not always troubled coexistence of Jews, Muslims and Christians in those days in Spain – is a fascinating time of which a lot is known because of the poetry that survived.
Peter Cole, a poet and translator, took it upon himself to translate a great number of poems written by 38 Jewish poets between the years 950 and 1492. In these 500 years the poetry changed from liturgical to secular, from wise to scabrous, from funny to sad. They moved around a lot, too, as they were not always wanted where they lived. Thrown in prison for a ransom, forced to convert, some converted, others fled. From Andalusia to Saragossa, from Toledo to Narbonne in the Provence and any number of places in between.
Yehuda Halevy, who at the age 65 left Spain for Jerusalem, wrote this:
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.
Moshe Ibn Ezra wrote:
Let man wail whose years are consumed
and whose days have passed like smoke from a furnace
while his malice amasses like sand
and his guilt increases like locusts,
For his life is like a dream, and death his waking from it.
The warrior-poet Shmuel Hanagid wrote:
First war resembles a beautiful girl
we all want to flirt with and believe.
Later it's more a repulsive old whore
whose callers are bitter and grieve.
If you are only slightly interested in Medieval Jewish poetry then this is your book:
The Dream of the Poem / Peter Cole / Princeton University / € 26,99