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Humor And Love In Jewish Poetry Post by :gprialde Category :Essays Author :Gustav Karpeles Date :November 2011 Read :3117

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Humor And Love In Jewish Poetry

One of the most remarkable discoveries of the last ten years is that made in Paris by M. Ernest Renan. He maintains as the result of scientific research that the Semitic races, consequently also the Jews, are lacking in humor, in the capacity for laughter. The justice of the reproach might be denied outright, but a statement enunciated with so much scientific assurance involuntarily prompts questioning and investigation.

In such cases the Jews invariably resort to their first text-book, the Bible, whose pages seem to sustain M. Renan. In the Bible laughing is mentioned only twice, when the angel promises a son to Sarah, and again in the history of Samson, judge in Israel, who used foxes' tails as weapons against the Philistines. These are the only passages in which the Bible departs from its serious tone.

But classical antiquity was equally ignorant of humor as a distinct branch of art, as a peculiar attitude of the mind towards the problems of life. Aristophanes lived and could have written only in the days when Athenian institutions began to decay. It is personal discomfort and the trials and harassments of life that drive men to the ever serene, pure regions of humor for balm and healing. Fun and comedy men have at all times understood--the history of Samson contains the germs of a mock-heroic poem--while it was impossible for humor, genuine humor, to find appreciation in the youth of mankind.

In those days of healthy reliance upon the senses, poetic spirits could obtain satisfaction only in love and in the praise of the good world and its Maker. The sombre line of division had not yet been introduced between the physical and the spiritual world, debasing this earth to a vale of tears, and consoling sinful man by the promise of a better land, whose manifold delights were described, but about which there was no precise knowledge, no traveller, as the Talmud aptly puts it, having ever returned to give us information about it. Those were the days of perfect harmony, when man crept close to nature to be taught untroubled joy in living. In such days, despite the storms assailing the young Israelitish nation, a poet, his heart filled with the sunshine of joy, his mind receptive, his eyes open wide to see the flowers unfold, the buds of the fig tree swell, the vine put forth leaves, and the pomegranate blossom unfurl its glowing petals, could carol forth the "Song of Songs," the most perfect, the most beautiful, the purest creation of Hebrew literature and the erotic poetry of all literatures--the song of songs of stormy passion, bidding defiance to ecclesiastical fetters, at once an epic and a drama, full of childlike tenderness and grace of feeling. Neither Greece, nor the rest of the Orient has produced anything to compare with its marvellous union of voluptuous sensuousness and immaculate chastity. Morality, indeed, is its very pulse-beat. It could be sung only in an age when love reigned supreme, and could presume to treat humor as a pretender. So lofty a song was bound to awaken echoes and stimulate imitation, and its music has flowed down through the centuries, weaving a thread of melody about the heart of many a poet.

The centuries of Israelitish history close upon its composition, however, were favorable to neither the poetry of love nor that of humor. But the poetry of love must have continued to exercise puissant magic over hearts and minds, if its supreme poem not only was made part of the holy canon, but was considered by a teacher of the Talmud the most sacred treasure of the compilation.

The blood of the Maccabean heroes victorious over Antiochus Epiphanes again fructified the old soil of Hebrew poetry, and charmed forth fragrant blossoms, the psalms designated as Maccabean by modern criticism. Written in troublous times, they contain a reference to the humor of the future: "When the Lord bringeth back again the captivity of Zion, then shall we be like dreamers, then shall our mouth be filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing."

Many sad days were destined to pass over Israel before that future with its solacement of humor dawned. No poetic work could obtain recognition next to the Bible. The language of the prophets ceased to be the language of the people, and every mind was occupied with interpreting their words and applying them to the religious needs of the hour. The opposition between Jewish and Hellenic-Syrian views became more and more marked. Hellas and Judæa, the two great theories of life supporting the fabric of civilization, for the first time confronted each other. An ancient expounder of the Bible says that to Hellas God gave beauty in the beginning, to Judæa truth, as a sacred heritage. But beauty and truth have ever been inveterate foes; even now they are not reconciled.

In Judæa and Greece, ancient civilization found equally perfect, yet totally different, expression. The Greek worships nature as she is; the Jew dwells upon the origin and development of created things, hence worships their Creator. The former in his speculations proceeds from the multiplicity of phenomena; the latter discerns the unity of the plan. To the former the universe was changeless actuality; to the latter it meant unending development. The world, complete and perfect, was mirrored in the Greek mind; its evolution, in the Jewish. Therefore the Jewish conception of life is harmonious, while among the Greeks grew up the spirit of doubt and speculation, the product of civilization, and the soil upon which humor disports.

Israel's religion so completely satisfied every spiritual craving that no room was left for the growth of the poetic instinct. Intellectual life began to divide into two great streams. The Halacha continued the instruction of the prophets, as the Haggada fostered the spirit of the psalmists. The province of the former was to formulate the Law, of the latter to plant a garden about the bulwark of the Law. While the one addressed itself to reason, the other made an appeal to the heart and the feelings. In the Haggada, a thesaurus of the national poetry by the nameless poets of many centuries, we find epic poems and lyric outbursts, fables, enigmas, and dramatic essays, and here and there in this garden we chance across a little bud of humorous composition.

Of what sort was this humor? In point of fact, what is humor? We must be able to answer the latter question before we may venture to classify the folklore of the Haggada.

To reach the ideal, to bring harmony out of discord, is the recognized task of all art. This is the primary principle to be borne in mind in æsthetic criticism. Tragedy idealizes the world by annihilation, harmonizes all contradictions by dashing them in pieces against each other, and points the way of escape from chaos, across the bridge of death, to the realm beyond, irradiated by the perpetual morning-dawn of freedom and intellect.

Comedy, on the other hand, believes that the incongruities and imperfections of life can be justified, and have their uses. Firmly convinced of the might of truth, it holds that the folly and aberrations of men, their shortcomings and failings, cannot impede its eventual victory. Even in them it sees traces of an eternal, divine principle. While tragedy precipitates the conflict of hostile forces, comedy, rising serene above folly and all indications of transitoriness, reconciles inconsistencies, and lovingly coaxes them into harmony with the true and the absolute.

When man's spirit is thus made to re-enter upon the enjoyment of eternal truth, its heritage, there is, as some one has well said, triumph akin to the joy of the father over the home-coming of a lost son, and the divine, refreshing laughter by which it is greeted is like the meal prepared for the returning favorite. Is Israel to have no seat at the table? Israel, the first to recognize that the eternal truths of life are innate in man, the first to teach, as his chief message, how to reconcile man with himself and the world, whenever these truths suffer temporary obscuration? So viewed, humor is the offspring of love, and also mankind's redeemer, inasmuch as it paralyzes the influence of anger and hatred, emanations from the powers of change and finality, by laying bare the eternal principles and "sweet reasonableness" hidden even in them, and finally stripping them of every adjunct incompatible with the serenity of absolute truth. In whatever mind humor, that is, love and cheerfulness, reigns supreme, the inconsistencies and imperfections of life, all that bears the impress of mutability, will gently and gradually be fused into the harmonious perfection of absolute, eternal truth. Mists sometimes gather about the sun, but unable to extinguish his light, they are forced to serve as his mirror, on which he throws the witching charms of the Fata Morgana. So, when the eternal truths of life are veiled, opportunity is made for humor to play upon and irradiate them. In precise language, humor is a state of perfect self-certainty, in which the mind serenely rises superior to every petty disturbance.

This placidity shed its soft light into the modest academies of the rabbis. Wherever a ray fell, a blossom of Haggadic folklore sprang up. Every occurrence in life recommends itself to their loving scrutiny: pleasures and follies of men, curse turned into blessing, the ordinary course of human events, curiosities of Israel's history and mankind's. As instances of their method, take what Midrashic folklore has to say concerning the creation of the two things of perennial interest to poets: wife and wine.

When the Lord God created woman, he formed her not from the head of man, lest she be too proud; not from his eye, lest she be too coquettish; not from his ear, lest she be too curious; not from his mouth, lest she be too talkative; not from his heart, lest she be too sentimental; not from his hands, lest she be too officious; nor from his feet, lest she be an idle gadabout; but from a subordinate part of man's anatomy, to teach her: "Woman, be thou modest!"

With regard to the vine, the Haggada tells us that when Father Noah was about to plant the first one, Satan stepped up to him, leading a lamb, a lion, a pig, and an ape, to teach him that so long as man does not drink wine, he is innocent as a lamb; if he drinks temperately, he is as strong as a lion; if he indulges too freely, he sinks to the level of swine; and as for the ape, his place in the poetry of wine is as well known to us as to the rabbis of old.

With the approach of the great catastrophe destined to annihilate Israel's national existence, humor and spontaneity vanish, to be superseded by seriousness, melancholy, and bitter plaints, and the centuries of despondency and brooding that followed it were not better calculated to encourage the expression of love and humor. The pall was not lifted until the Haggada performed its mission as a comforter. Under its gentle ministrations, and urged into vitality by the religious needs of the synagogue, the poetic instinct awoke. Piut and Selicha replaced prophecy and psalmody as religious agents, and thenceforth the springs of consolation were never permitted to run dry. Driven from the shores of the Jordan and the Euphrates, Hebrew poetry found a new home on the Tagus and the Manzanares, where the Jews were blessed with a second golden age. In the interval from the eleventh to the thirteenth century, under genial Arabic influences, Andalusian masters of song built up an ideal world of poetry, wherein love and humor were granted untrammelled liberty.

To the Spanish-Jewish writers poetry was an end in itself. Along with religious songs, perfect in rhythm and form, they produced lyrics on secular subjects, whose grace, beauty, harmony, and wealth of thought rank them with the finest creations of the age. The spirit of the prophets and psalmists revived in these Spanish poets. At their head stands Solomon ibn Gabirol, the Faust of Saragossa, whose poems are the first tinged with Weltschmerz, that peculiar ferment characteristic of a modern school of poets.(47) Our accounts of Gabirol's life are meagre, but they leave the clear impression that he was not a favorite of fortune, and passed a bleak childhood and youth. His poems are pervaded by vain longing for the ideal, by lamentations over deceived hopes and unfulfilled aspirations, by painful realization of the imperfection and perishability of all earthly things, and the insignificance and transitoriness of life, in a word, by Weltschmerz, in its purest, ideal form, not merely self-deception and irony turned against one's own soul life, but a profoundly solemn emotion, springing from sublime pity for the misery of the world read by the light of personal trials and sorrows. He sang not of a mistress' blue eyes, nor sighed forth melancholy love-notes--the object of his heart's desire was Zion, his muse the fair "rose of Sharon," and his anguish was for the suffering of his scattered people. Strong, wild words fitly express his tempestuous feelings. He is a proud, solitary thinker. Often his Weltschmerz wrests scornful criticism of his surroundings from him. On the other hand, he does not lack mild, conciliatory humor, of which his famous drinking-song is a good illustration. His miserly host had put a single bottle of wine upon a table surrounded by many guests, who had to have recourse to water to quench their thirst. Wine he calls a septuagenarian, the letters of the Hebrew word for wine (yayin) representing seventy, and water a nonagenarian, because mayim (water) represents ninety:


WATER SONG

Chorus:--Of wine, alas! there's not a drop,
Our host has filled our goblets to the top
With water.

When monarch wine lies prone,
By water overthrown,
How can a merry song be sung?
For naught there is to wet our tongue
But water.
CHORUS:--Of wine, alas! etc.

No sweetmeats can delight
My dainty appetite,
For I, alas! must learn to drink,
However I may writhe and shrink,
Pure water.
CHORUS:--Of wine, alas! etc.

Give Moses praise, for he
Made waterless a sea--
Mine host to quench my thirst--the churl!--
Makes streams of clearest water purl,
Of water.
CHORUS:--Of wine, alas! etc.

To toads I feel allied,
To frogs by kinship tied;
For water drinking is no joke,
Ere long you all will hear me croak
Quack water!
CHORUS:--Of wine, alas! etc.

May God our host requite;
May he turn Nazirite,
Ne'er know intoxication's thrill,
Nor e'er succeed his thirst to still
With water!
CHORUS:--Of wine, alas! etc."


Gabirol was a bold thinker, a great poet wrestling with the deepest problems of human thought, and towering far above his contemporaries and immediate successors. In his time synagogue poetry reached the zenith of perfection, and even in the solemn admonitions of ritualistic literature, humor now and again asserted itself. One of Gabirol's contemporaries or successors, Isaac ben Yehuda ibn Ghayyat, for instance, often made his whole poem turn upon a witticism.

Among the writers of that age, a peculiar style called "mosaic" gradually grew up, and eventually became characteristic of neo-Hebraic poetry and humor. For their subjects and the presentation of their thoughts, they habitually made use of biblical phraseology, either as direct quotations or with an application not intended by the original context. In the latter case, well-known sentences were invested with new meanings, and this poetic-biblical phraseology afforded countless opportunities for the exercise of humor, of which neo-Hebraic poetry availed itself freely. The "mosaics" were collected not only from the Bible; the Targum, the Mishna, and the Talmud were rifled of sententious expressions, woven together, and with the license of art placed in unexpected juxtaposition. An example will make clear the method. In Genesis xviii. 29, God answers Abraham's petition in behalf of Sodom with the words: "I will not do it for the sake of forty," meaning, as everybody knows, that forty men would suffice to save the city from destruction. This passage Isaac ben Yehuda ibn Ghayyat audaciously connects with Deuteronomy xxv. 3, where forty is also mentioned, the forty stripes for misdemeanors of various kinds:


"If you see men the path of right forsake,
To bring them back you must an effort make.
Perhaps, if they but hear of stripes, they'll quake,
And say, 'I'll do it not for forty's sake.'"


This "mosaic" style, suggesting startling contrasts and surprising applications of Bible thoughts and words, became a fruitful source of Jewish humor. If a theory of literary descent could be established, an illustration might be found in Heine's rapid transitions from tender sentiment to corroding wit, a modern development of the flashing humor of the "mosaic" style.

The "Song of Songs" naturally became a treasure-house of "mosaic" suggestions for the purposes of neo-Hebraic love poetry, which was dominated, however, by Arab influences. The first poet to introduce the sorrow of unhappy love into neo-Hebraic poetry was Moses ibn Ezra. He was in love with his niece, who probably became the wife of one of his brothers, and died early on giving birth to a son. His affection at first was requited, but his brothers opposed the union, and the poet left Spain, embittered and out of sorts with fate, to find peace and consolation in distant lands. Many of his poems are deeply tinged with gloom and pessimism, and the natural inference is that those in which he praises nature, and wine, and "bacchanalian feasts under leafy canopies with merry minstrelsy of birds" belong to the period of his life preceding its unfortunate turning-point, when love still smiled upon him, and hope was strong.

Some of his poems may serve as typical specimens of the love-poetry of those days:


"With hopeless love my heart is sick,
Confession bursts my lips' restraint
That thou, my love, dost cast me off,
Hath touched me with a death-like taint.

I view the land both near and far,
To me it seems a prison vast.
Throughout its breadth, where'er I look,
My eyes are met by doors locked fast.

And though the world stood open wide,
Though angel hosts filled ev'ry space,
To me 'twere destitute of charm
Didst thou withdraw thy face."

Here is another:

"Perchance in days to come,
When men and all things change,
They'll marvel at my love,
And call it passing strange.

Without I seem most calm,
But fires rage within--
'Gainst me, as none before,
Thou didst a grievous sin.

What! tell the world my woe!
That were exceeding vain.
With mocking smile they'd say,
'You know, he is not sane!'"

When his lady-love died, he composed the following elegy:

"In pain she bore the son who her embrace
Would never know. Relentless death spread straight
His nets for her, and she, scarce animate,
Unto her husband signed: I ask this grace,
My friend, let not harsh death our love efface;
To our babes, its pledges, dedicate
Thy faithful care; for vainly they await
A mother's smile each childish fear to chase.
And to my uncle, prithee, write. Deep pain
I brought his heart. Consumed by love's regret
He roved, a stranger in his home. I fain
Would have him shed a tear, nor love forget.
He seeketh consolation's cup, but first
His soul with bitterness must quench its thirst."


Moses ibn Ezra's cup of consolation on not a few occasions seems to have been filled to overflowing with wine. In no other way can the joyousness of his drinking-songs be accounted for. The following are characteristic:


"Wine cooleth man in summer's heat,
And warmeth him in winter's sleet.
My buckler 'tis 'gainst chilling frost,
My shield when rays of sun exhaust."

"If men will probe their inmost heart,
They must condemn their crafty art:
For silver pieces they make bold
To ask a drink of liquid gold."


To his mistress, naturally, many a stanza of witty praise and coaxing imagery was devoted:


"My love is like a myrtle tree,
When at the dance her hair falls down.
Her eyes deal death most pitiless,
Yet who would dare on her to frown?"

"Said I to sweetheart: 'Why dost thou resent
The homage to thy grace by old men paid?'
She answered me with question pertinent:
'Dost thou prefer a widow to a maid?'"


To his love-poems and drinking-songs must be added his poems of friendship, on true friends, life's crowning gift, and false friends, basest of creatures. He has justly been described as the most subjective of neo-Hebraic poets. His blithe delight in love, exhaling from his poems, transfigured his ready humor, which instinctively pierced to the ludicrous element in every object and occurrence: age dyeing its hair, traitorous friendship, the pride of wealth, or separation of lovers.

Yet in the history of synagogue literature this poet goes by the name Ha-Sallach, "penitential poet," on account of his many religious songs, bewailing in elegiac measure the hollowness of life, and the vanity of earthly possessions, and in ardent words advocating humility, repentance, and a contrite heart. The peculiarity of Jewish humor is that it returns to its tragic source.

No mediæval poet so markedly illustrates this characteristic as the prince of neo-Hebraic poetry, Yehuda Halevi, in whose poems the principle of Jewish national poesy attained its completest expression. They are the idealized reflex of the soul of the Jewish people, its poetic emotions, its "making for righteousness," its patriotic love of race, its capacity for martyrdom. Whatever true and beautiful element had developed in Jewish soul life, since the day when Judah's song first rang out in Zion's accents on Spanish soil, greets us in its noblest garb in his poetry. A modern poet(48) says of him:


"Ay, he was a master singer,
Brilliant pole star of his age,
Light and beacon to his people!
Wondrous mighty was his singing--

Verily a fiery pillar
Moving on 'fore Israel's legions,
Restless caravan of sorrow,
Through the exile's desert plain."


In his early youth the muse of poetry had imprinted a kiss upon Halevi's brow, and the gracious echo of that kiss trembles through all the poet's numbers. Love, too, seems early to have taken up an abode in his susceptible heart, but, as expressed in the poems of his youth, it is not sensuous, earthly love, nor Gabirol's despondency and unselfish grief, nor even the sentiment of Moses ibn Ezra's artistically conceived and technically perfect love-plaint. It is tender, yet passionate, frankly extolling the happiness of requited love, and as naively miserable over separation from his mistress, whom he calls Ophra (fawn). One of his sweetest songs he puts upon her lips:


"Into my eyes he loving looked,
My arms about his neck were twined,
And in the mirror of my eyes,
What but his image did he find?

Upon my dark-hued eyes he pressed
His lips with breath of passion rare.
The rogue! 'Twas not my eyes he kissed;
He kissed his picture mirrored there."

Ophra's "Song of Joy" reminds one of the passion of the "Song of Songs":

"He cometh, O bliss!
Fly swiftly, ye winds,
Ye odorous breezes,
And tell him how long
I've waited for this!

O happy that night,
When sunk on thy breast,
Thy kisses fast falling,
And drunken with love,
My troth I did plight.

Again my sweet friend
Embraceth me close.
Yes, heaven doth bless us,
And now thou hast won
My love without end."

His mistress' charms he describes with attractive grace:

"My sweetheart's dainty lips are red,
With ruby's crimson overspread;
Her teeth are like a string of pearls;
Adown her neck her clust'ring curls
In ebon hue vie with the night;
And o'er her features dances light.

The twinkling stars enthroned above
Are sisters to my dearest love.
We men should count it joy complete
To lay our service at her feet.
But ah! what rapture in her kiss!
A forecast 'tis of heav'nly bliss!"

When the hour of parting from Ophra came, the young poet sang:

"And so we twain must part! Oh linger yet,
Let me still feed my glance upon thine eyes.
Forget not, love, the days of our delight,
And I our nights of bliss shall ever prize.
In dreams thy shadowy image I shall see,
Oh even in my dream be kind to me!"(49)


Yehuda Halevi sang not only of love, but also, in true Oriental fashion, and under the influence of his Arabic models, of wine and friendship. On the other hand, he is entirely original in his epithalamiums, charming descriptions of the felicity of young conjugal life and the sweet blessings of pure love. They are pervaded by the intensity of joy, and full of roguish allusions to the young wife's shamefacedness, arousing the jest and merriment of her guests, and her delicate shrinking in the presence of longed-for happiness. Characteristically enough his admonitions to feed the fire of love are always followed by a sigh for his people's woes:


"You twain will soon be one,
And all your longing filled.
Ah me! will Israel's hope
For freedom e'er be stilled?"


It is altogether probable that these blithesome songs belong to the poet's early life. To a friend who remonstrates with him for his love of wine he replies:


"My years scarce number twenty-one--
Wouldst have me now the wine-cup shun?"


which would seem to indicate that love and wine were the pursuits of his youth. One of his prettiest drinking songs is the following:


"My bowl yields exultation--
I soar aloft on song-tipped wing,
Each draught is inspiration,
My lips sip wine, my mouth must sing.

Dear friends are full of horror,
Predict a toper's end for me.
They ask: 'How long, O sorrow,
Wilt thou remain wine's devotee?'

Why should I not sing praise of drinking?
The joys of Eden it makes mine.
If age will bring no cowardly shrinking,
Full many a year will I drink wine."


But little is known of the events of the poet's career. History's niggardliness, however, has been compensated for by the prodigality of legend, which has woven many a fanciful tale about his life. Of one fact we are certain: when he had passed his fiftieth year, Yehuda Halevi left his native town, his home, his family, his friends, and disciples, to make a pilgrimage to Palestine, the land wherein his heart had always dwelt. His itinerary can be traced in his songs. They lead us to Egypt, to Zoan, to Damascus. In Tyre silence suddenly falls upon the singer. Did he attain the goal he had set out to reach? Did his eye behold the land of his fathers? Or did death overtake the pilgrim singer before his journey's end? Legend which has beautified his life has transfigured his death. It is said, that struck by a Saracen's horse Yehuda Halevi sank down before the very gates of Jerusalem. With its towers and battlements in sight, and his inspired "Lay of Zion" on his lips, his pure soul winged its flight heavenward.

With the death of Yehuda Halevi, the golden age of neo-Hebraic poetry in Spain came to an end, and the period of the epigones was inaugurated. A note of hesitancy is discernible in their productions, and they acknowledge the superiority of their predecessors in the epithet "fathers of song" applied to them. The most noted of the later writers was Yehuda ben Solomon Charisi. Fortune marked him out to be the critic of the great poetic creations of the brilliant epoch just closed, and his fame rests upon the skill with which he acquitted himself of his difficult task. As for his poetry, it lacks the depth, the glow, the virility, and inspiration of the works of the classical period. He was a restless wanderer, a poet tramp, roving in the Orient, in Africa, and in Europe. His most important work is his divan Tachkemoni, testifying to his powers as a humorist, and especially to his mastery of the Hebrew language, which he uses with dexterity never excelled. The divan touches upon every possible subject: God and nature, human life and suffering, the relations between men, his personal experiences, and his adventures in foreign parts. The first Makamat(50) writer among Jews, he furnished the model for all poems of the kind that followed; their first genuine humorist, he flashes forth his wit like a stream of light suddenly turned on in the dark. That he measured the worth of his productions by the generous meed of praise given by his contemporaries is a venial offense in the time of the troubadours and minnesingers. Charisi was particularly happy in his use of the "mosaic" style, and his short poems and epigrams are most charming. Deep melancholy is a foil to his humor, but as often his writings are disfigured by levity. The following may serve as samples of his versatile muse. The first is addressed to his grey hair:


"Those ravens black that rested
Erstwhile upon my head,
Within my heart have nested,
Since from my hair they fled."

The second is inscribed to love's tears:

"Within my heart I held concealed
My love so tender and so true;
But overflowing tears revealed
What I would fain have hid from view.
My heart could evermore repress
The woe that tell-tale tears confess."


Charisi is at his best when he gives the rein to his humor. Sparks fly; he stops at no caustic witticism, recoils from no satire; he is malice itself, and puts no restraint upon his levity. The "Flea Song" is a typical illustration of his impish mood:


"You ruthless flea, who desecrate my couch,
And draw my blood to sate your appetite,
You know not rest, on Sabbath day or feast--
Your feast it is when you can pinch and bite.

My friends expound the law: to kill a flea
Upon the Sabbath day a sin they call;
But I prefer that other law which says,
Be sure a murd'rer's malice to forestall."


That Charisi was a boon companion is evident from the following drinking song:


"Here under leafy bowers,
Where coolest shades descend,
Crowned with a wreath of flowers,
Here will we drink, my friend.

Who drinks of wine, he learns
That noble spirits' strength
But steady increase earns,
As years stretch out in length.

A thousand earthly years
Are hours in God's sight,
A year in heav'n appears
A minute in its flight.

I would this lot were mine:
To live by heav'nly count,
And drink and drink old wine
At youth's eternal fount."


Charisi and his Arabic models found many imitators among Spanish Jews. Solomon ibn Sakbel wrote Hebrew Makamat which may be regarded as an attempt at a satire in the form of a romance. The hero, Asher ben Yehuda, a veritable Don Juan, passes through most remarkable adventures.(51) The introductory Makama, describing life with his mistress in the solitude of a forest, is delicious. Tired of his monotonous life, he joins a company of convivial fellows, who pass their time in carousal. While with them, he receives an enigmatic love letter signed by an unknown woman, and he sets out to find her. On his wanderings, oppressed by love's doubts, he chances into a harem, and is threatened with death by its master. It turns out that the pasha is a beautiful woman, the slave of his mysterious lady-love, and she promises him speedy fulfilment of his wishes. Finally, close to the attainment of his end, he discovers that his beauty is a myth, the whole a practical joke perpetrated by his merry companions. So Asher ben Yehuda in quest of his mistress is led from adventure to adventure.

Internal evidence testifies against the genuineness of this romance, but at the same time with it appeared two other mock-heroic poems, "The Book of Diversions" (Sefer Sha'ashuim) by Joseph ibn Sabara, and "The Gift of Judah the Misogynist" (Minchatk Yehuda Soneh ha-Nashim) by Judah ibn Sabbataï, a Cordova physician, whose poems Charisi praised as the "fount of poesy." The plot of his "Gift," a satire on women, is as follows:(52) His dying father exacts from Serach, the hero of the romance, a promise never to marry, women in his sight being the cause of all the evil in the world. Curious as the behest is, it is still more curious that Serach uncomplainingly complies, and most curious of all, that he finds three companions willing to retire with him to a distant island, whence their propaganda for celibacy is to proceed. Scarcely has the news of their arrival spread, when a mass meeting of women is called, and a coalition formed against the misogynists. Korbi, an old hag, engages to make Serach faithless to his principles. He soon has a falling out with his fellow-celibates, and succumbs to the fascinations of a fair young temptress. After the wedding he discovers that his enemies, the women, have substituted for his beautiful bride, a hideous old woman, Blackcoal, the daughter of Owl. She at once assumes the reins of government most energetically, and answers her husband's groan of despair by the following curtain lecture:


"Up! up! the time for sleep is past!
And no resistance will I brook!
Away with thee, and look to it
That thou bringst me what I ask:
Gowns of costly stuff,
Earrings, chains, and veils;
A house with many windows;
Mortars, lounges, sieves,
Baskets, kettles, pots,
Glasses, settles, brooms,
Beakers, closets, flasks,
Shovels, basins, bowls,
Spindle, distaff, blankets,
Buckets, ewers, barrels,
Skillets, forks, and knives;
Vinaigrettes and mirrors;
Kerchiefs, turbans, reticules,
Crescents, amulets,
Rings and jewelled clasps;
Girdles, buckles, bodices,
Kirtles, caps, and waists;
Garments finely spun,
Rare byssus from the East.
This and more shalt thou procure,
No matter at what cost and sacrifice.
Thou art affrighted? Thou weepest?
My dear, spare all this agitation;
Thou'lt suffer more than this.
The first year shall pass in strife,
The second will see thee a beggar.
A prince erstwhile, thou shalt become a slave;
Instead of a crown, thou shalt wear a wreath of straw."


Serach in abject despair turns for comfort to his three friends, and it is decided to bring suit for divorce in a general assembly. The women appear at the meeting, and demand that the despiser of their sex be forced to keep his ugly wife. One of the trio of friends proposes that the matter be brought before the king. The poet appends no moral to his tale; he leaves it to his readers to say: "And such must be the fate of all woman-haters!"

Judah Sabbataï was evidently far from being a woman-hater himself, but some of his contemporaries failed to understand the point of his witticisms and ridiculous situations. Yedaya Penini, another poet, looked upon it as a serious production, and in his allegory, "Woman's Friend," destitute of poetic inspiration, but brilliant in dialectics, undertook the defense of the fair sex against the misanthropic aspersions of the woman-hater.

Such works are evidence that we have reached the age of the troubadours and minnesingers, the epoch of the Renaissance, when, under the blue sky of Italy, and the fostering care of the trio of master-poets, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, the first germs of popular poetry were unfolding. The Italian Jews were carried along by the all-pervading spirit of the times, and had a share in the vigorous mental activity about them. Suggestions derived from the work of the Renaissance leaders fell like electric sparks into Jewish literature and science, lighting them up, and bringing them into rapport with the products of the humanistic movement. Provence, the land of song, gave birth to Kalonymos ben Kalonymos, later a resident of Italy, whose work, "Touchstone" (Eben Bochan) is the first true satire in neo-Hebraic poetry. It is a mirror of morals held up before his people, for high and low, rabbis and leaders, poets and scholars, rich and poor, to see their foibles and follies. The satire expresses a humorous, but lofty conception of life, based upon profound morality and sincere faith. It fulfils every requirement of a satire, steering clear of the pitfall caricature, and not obtruding the didactic element. The lesson to be conveyed is involved in, not stated apart from the satire, an emanation from the poet's disposition. His aim is not to ridicule, but to improve, instruct, influence. One of the most amusing chapters is that on woman's superior advantages, which make him bewail his having been born a man:(53)


"Truly, God's hand lies heavy on him
Who has been created a man:
Full many a trial he must patiently bear,
And scorn and contumely of every kind.
His life is like a field laid waste--
Fortunate he is if it lasts not too long!
Were I, for instance, a woman,
How smooth and pleasant were my course.
A circle of intimate friends
Would call me gentle, graceful, modest.
Comfortably I'd sit with them and sew,
With one or two mayhap at the spinning wheel.
On moonlight nights
Gathered for cozy confidences,
About the hearthfire, or in the dark,
We'd tell each other what the people say,
The gossip of the town, the scandals,
Discuss the fashions and the last election.
I surely would rise above the average--
I would be an artist needlewoman,
Broidering on silk and velvet
The flowers of the field,
And other patterns, copied from models,
So rich in color as to make them seem nature--
Petals, trees, blossoms, plants, and pots,
And castles, pillars, temples, angel heads,
And whatever else can be imitated with needle by her
Who guides it with art and skill.
Sometimes, too, though 'tis not so attractive,
I should consent to play the cook--
No less important task of woman 'tis
To watch the kitchen most carefully.
I should not be ruffled
By dust and ashes on the hearth, by soot on stoves and pots;
Nor would I hesitate to swing the axe
And chop the firewood,
And not to feed and rake the fire up,
Despite the ashy dust that fills the nostrils.
My particular delight it would be
To taste of all the dishes served.
And if some merry, joyous festival approached,
Then would I display my taste.
I would choose most brilliant gems for ear and hand,
For neck and breast, for hair and gown,
Most precious stuffs of silk and velvet,
Whatever in clothes and jewels would increase my charms.
And on the festal day, I would loud rejoice,
Sing, and sway myself, and dance with vim.
When I reached a maiden's prime,
With all my charms at their height,
What happiness, were heaven to favor me,
Permit me to draw a prize in life's lottery,
A youth of handsome mien, brave and true,
With heart filled with love for me.
If he declared his passion,
I would return his love with all my might.
Then as his wife, I would live a princess,
Reclining on the softest pillows,
My beauty heightened by velvet, silk, and tulle,
By pearls and golden ornaments,
Which he with lavish love would bring to me,
To add to his delight and mine."


After enumerating additional advantages enjoyed by the gentler sex, the poet comes to the conclusion that protesting against fate is vain, and closes his chapter thus:


"Well, then, I'll resign myself to fate,
And seek consolation in the thought that life comes to an end.
Our sages tell us everywhere
That for all things we must praise God,
With loud rejoicing for all good,
In submission for evil fortune.
So I will force my lips,
However they may resist, to say the olden blessing:
My Lord and God accept my thanks
That thou has made of me a man."


One of Kalonymos's friends was Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome, called the "Heine of the middle ages," and sometimes the "Jewish Voltaire." Neither comparison is apt. On the one hand, they give him too high a place as a writer, on the other, they do not adequately indicate his characteristic qualities. His most important work, the Mechabberoth, is a collection of disjointed pieces, full of bold witticisms, poetic thoughts, and linguistic charms. It is composed of poems, Makamat, parodies, novels, epigrams, distichs, and sonnets--all essentially humorous. The poet presents things as they are, leaving it to reality to create ridiculous situations. He is witty rather than humorous. Rarely only a spark of kindliness or the glow of poetry transfigures his wit. He is uniformly objective, scintillating, cold, often frivolous, and not always chaste. To produce a comic effect, to make his readers laugh is his sole desire. Friend and admirer of Dante, he attained to a high degree of skill in the sonnet. In neo-Hebraic poetry, his works mark the beginning of a new epoch. Indelicate witticisms and levity, until then sporadic in Jewish literature, were by him introduced as a regular feature. The poetry of the earlier writers had dwelt upon the power of love, their muse was modest and chaste, a "rose of Sharon," a "lily of the valleys." Immanuel's was of coarser fibre; his witty sallies remind one of Italian rather than Hebrew models. A recent critic of Hebrew poetry speaks of his Makamat as a pendant to "Tristan and Isolde,"--in both sensuality triumphs over spirituality. He is at his best in his sonnets, and of these the finest are in poetic prose. Female beauty is an unfailing source of inspiration to him, but of trust in womankind he has none:


"No woman ever faithful hold,
Unless she ugly be and old."


The full measure of mockery he poured out upon a deceived husband, and the most cutting sarcasm at his command against an enemy is a comparison to crabbed, ugly women:


"I loathe him with the hot and honest hate
That fills a rake 'gainst maids he can not bait,
With which an ugly hag her glass reviles,
And prostitutes the youths who 'scape their wiles."


His devotion to woman's beauty is altogether in the spirit of his Italian contemporaries. One of his most pleasing sonnets is dedicated to his lady-love's eyes:(54)


"My sweet gazelle! From thy bewitching eyes
A glance thrills all my soul with wild delight.
Unfathomed depths beam forth a world so bright--
With rays of sun its sparkling splendor vies--
One look within a mortal deifies.
Thy lips, the gates wherethrough dawn wings its flight,
Adorn a face suffused with rosy light,
Whose radiance puts to shame the vaulted skies.
Two brilliant stars are they from heaven sent--
Their charm I cannot otherwise explain--
By God but for a little instant lent,
Who gracious doth their lustrous glory deign,
To teach those on pursuit of beauty bent,
Beside those eyes all other beauty's vain."


Immanuel's most congenial work, however, is as a satirist. One of his best known poems is a chain of distichs, drawing a comparison between two maidens, Tamar the beautiful, and Beria the homely:


"Tamar raises her eyelids, and stars appear in the sky;
Her glance drops to earth, and flowers clothe the knoll whereon she stands.
Beria looks up, and basilisks die of terror;
Be not amazed; 'tis a sight that would Satan affright.
Tamar's divine form human language cannot describe;
The gods themselves believe her heaven's offspring.
Beria's presence is desirable only in the time of vintage,
When the Evil One can be banished by naught but grimaces.
Tamar! Had Moses seen thee he had never made the serpent of copper,
With thy image he had healed mankind.
Beria! Pain seizes me, physic soothes,
I catch sight of thee, and it returns with full force.
Tamar, with ringlets adorned, greets early the sun,
Who quickly hides, ashamed of his bald pate.
Beria! were I to meet thee on New Year's Day in the morning,
An omen 'twere of an inauspicious year.
Tamar smiles, and heals the heart's bleeding wounds;
She raises her head, the stars slink out of sight.
Beria it were well to transport to heaven,
Then surely heaven would take refuge on earth.
Tamar resembles the moon in all respects but one--
Her resplendent beauty never suffers obscuration.
Beria partakes of the nature of the gods; 'tis said,
None beholds the gods without most awful repentance.
Tamar, were the Virgin like thee, never would the sun
Pass out of Virgo to shine in Libra.
Beria, dost know why the Messiah tarries to bring deliverance to men?
Redemption time has long arrived, but he hides from thee."


With amazement we see the Hebrew muse, so serious aforetimes, participate in truly bacchanalian dances under Immanuel's guidance. It is curious that while, on the one hand, he shrinks from no frivolous utterance or indecent allusion, on the other, he is dominated by deep earnestness and genuine warmth of feeling, when he undertakes to defend or expound the fundamentals of faith. It is characteristic of the trend of his thought that he epitomizes the "Song of Songs" in the sentence: "Love is the pivot of the Torah." By a bold hypothesis it is assumed that in Daniel, his guide in Paradise (in the twenty-eighth canto of his poem), he impersonated and glorified his great friend Dante. If true, this would be an interesting indication of the intimate relations existing between a Jew and a circle devoted to the development of the national genius in literature and language, and the stimulating of the sense of nature and truth in opposition to the fantastic visions and grotesque ideals of the past.

Everywhere, not only in Italy, the Renaissance and the humanistic movement attract Jews. Among early Castilian troubadours there is a Jew, and the last troubadour of Spain again is a Jew. Naturally Italian Jews are more profoundly than others affected by the renascence of science and art. David ben Yehuda, Messer Leon, is the author of an epic, Shebach Nashim ("Praise of Women"), in which occurs an interesting reference to Petrarch's Laura, whom, in opposition to the consensus of opinion among his contemporaries, he considers, not a figment of the imagination, but a woman of flesh and blood. Praise and criticism of women are favorite themes in the poetic polemics of the sixteenth century. For instance, Jacob ben Elias, of Fano, in his "Shields of Heroes," a small collection of songs in stanzas of three verses, ventures to attack the weaker sex, for which Judah Tommo of Porta Leone at once takes up the cudgels in his "Women's Shield." At the same time a genuine song combat broke out between Abraham of Sarteano and Elias of Genzano. The latter is the champion of the purity of womanhood, impugned by the former, who in fifty tercets exposes the wickedness of woman in the most infamous of her sex, from Lilith to Jezebel, from Semiramis to Medea. An anonymous combatant lends force to his strictures by an arraignment of the lax morals of the women of their own time, while a fourth knight of song, evidently intending to conciliate the parties, begins his "New Song," only a fragment of which has reached us, with praise, and ends it with blame, of woman. Such productions, too, are a result of the Renaissance, of its romantic current, which, as it affected Catholicism, did not fail to leave its mark upon the Jews, among whom romanticists must have had many a battle to fight with adherents of traditional views.

Meantime, neo-Hebraic poetry had "fallen into the sear, the yellow leaf." Poetry drooped under the icy breath of rationalism, and vanished into the abyss of the Kabbala. At most we occasionally hear of a polemic poem, a keen-edged epigram. For the rest, there was only a monotonous succession of religious poems, repeating the old formulas, dry bones of habit and tradition, no longer informed with true poetic, religious spirit. Yet the source of love and humor in Jewish poetry had not run dry. It must be admitted that the sentimentalism of the minneservice, peculiar to the middle ages, never took root in Jewish soil. Pale resignation, morbid despair, longing for death, unmanly indulgence in regret, all the paraphernalia of chivalrous love, extolled in every key in the poetry of the middle ages, were foreign to the sane Jewish mind. Women, the object of unreasoning adulation, shared the fate of all sovereign powers: homage worked their ruin. They became accustomed to think that the weal and woe of the world depended upon their constancy or disloyalty. Jews alone were healthy enough to subordinate sexual love to reverence for maternity. Holding an exalted idea of love, they realized that its power extends far beyond the lives of two persons, and affects the well-being of generations unborn. Such love, intellectual love, which Benedict Spinoza was the first to define from a scientific and philosophic point of view, looks far down the vistas of the future, and gives providential thought to the race.

While humor and romanticism everywhere in the middle ages appeared as irreconcilable contrasts, by Jews they were brought into harmonious relationship. When humor was banished from poetry, it took refuge in Jewish-German literature, that spiritual undercurrent produced by the claims of fancy as opposed to the aggressive, all absorbing demands of reason. Not to the high and mighty, but to the lowly in spirit, the little ones of the earth, to women and children, it made its appeal, and from them its influence spread throughout the nation, bringing refreshment and sustenance to weary, starved minds, hope to the oppressed, and consolation to the afflicted. Consolation, indeed, was sorely needed by the Jews on their peregrinations during the middle ages. Sad, inexpressibly sad, was their condition. With fatal exclusiveness they devoted themselves to the study of the Talmud. Secular learning was deprecated; antagonism to science and vagaries characterized their intellectual life; philosophy was formally interdicted; the Hebrew language neglected; all their wealth and force of intellect lavished upon the study of the Law, and even here every faculty--reason, ingenuity, speculation--busied itself only with highly artificial solutions of equally artificial problems, far-fetched complications, and vexatious contradictions invented to be harmonized. Under such grievous circumstances, oppression growing with malice, Jewish minds and hearts were robbed of humor, and the exercise of love was made a difficult task. Is it astonishing that in such days a rabbi in the remote Slavonic East should have issued an injunction restraining his sisters in faith from reading romances on the Sabbath--romances composed by some other rabbi in Provence or Italy five hundred years before?

Sorrow and suffering are not endless. A new day broke for the Jews. The walls of the Ghetto fell, dry bones joined each other for new life, and a fresh spirit passed over the House of Israel. Enervation and decadence were succeeded by regeneration, quickened by the spirit of the times, by the ideas of freedom and equality universally advocated. The forces which culminated in their revival had existed as germs in the preceding century. Silently they had grown, operating through every spiritual medium, poetry, oratory, philosophy, political agitation. In the sunshine of the eighteenth century they finally matured, and at its close the rejuvenation of the Jewish race was an accomplished fact in every European country. Eagerly its sons entered into the new intellectual and literary movements of the nations permitted to enjoy another period of efflorescence, and Jewish humor has conquered a place for itself in modern literature.

Our brief journey through the realm of love and humor must certainly convince us that in sunny days humor rarely, love never, forsook Israel. Our old itinerant preachers (Maggidim), strolling from town to town, were in the habit of closing their sermons with a parable (Mashai), which opened the way to exhortation. The manner of our fathers recommends itself to me, and following in their footsteps, I venture to close my pilgrimage through the ages with a Mashal. It transports us to the sunny Orient, to the little seaport town of Jabneh, about six miles from Jerusalem, in the time immediately succeeding the destruction of the Temple. Thither with a remnant of his disciples, Jochanan ben Zakkaï, one of the wisest of our rabbis, fled to escape the misery incident to the downfall of Jerusalem. He knew that the Temple would never again rise from its ashes. He knew as well that the essence of Judaism has no organic connection with the Temple or the Holy City. He foresaw that its mission is to spread abroad among the nations of the earth, and of this future he spoke to the disciples gathered about him in the academy at Jabneh. We can imagine him asking them to define the fundamental principle of Judaism, and receiving a multiplicity of answers, varying with the character and temper of the young missionaries. To one, possibly, Judaism seemed to rest upon faith in God, to another upon the Sabbath, to a third upon the Torah, to a fourth upon the Decalogue. Such views could not have satisfied the spiritual cravings of the aged teacher. When Jochanan ben Zakkaï rises to give utterance to his opinion, we feel as though the narrow walls of the academy at Jabneh were miraculously widening out to enclose the world, while the figure of the venerable rabbi grows to the noble proportions of a divine seer, whose piercing eye rends the veil of futurity, and reads the remote verdict of history: "My disciples, my friends, the fundamental principle of Judaism is love!"


FOOTNOTES:

(47) For Gabirol, cmp. A. Geiger, Salomon Gabirol, and M. Sachs, Die religiöse Poesie der Juden in Spanien.

(48) H. Heine, Romanzero.

(49) Translation by Emma Lazarus. (Tr.)

(50) See note, p. 34. (Tr.)

(51) J. Schor in He-Chaluz, Vol. IV., p. 154 ff.

(52) S. Stein in Freitagabend, p. 645 ff.

(53) H. A. Meisel, Der Prüfstein des Kalonymos.

(54) Livius Fürst in Illustrirte Monatshefte, Vol. I., p. 105 ff.


(The end)
Gustav Karpeles's essay: Humor And Love In Jewish Poetry

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