Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature

Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015 pp.298 $42.75 cloth ISBN 978-0-253-01572-3

Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production Before and After 1492
by David Wacks 

Reviewed by Vanessa Paloma Elbaz*

This book addresses the question “What constitutes Sephardic literature?” While answering this question, Wacks delineates the continuum of how a Sephardic literary voice developed in pre- and post-expulsion communities. Addressing the thematic axes of theology, language and nation-building, David Wacks centers his study on the Sephardic longing for varying homelands (Zion - Iberia) as a hinge marker for the development of this literature. Wacks analyzes six Sephardic writers within their historical arc and delineates how between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries, the surrounding intra- and extra-communal environment propelled Sephardic authors consciously and unconsciously to choose certain linguistic, theological and stylistic directions. In his words, “diaspora is a lens through which to study Sephardic culture's engagement with the sovereign power and vernacular culture of Christian Iberia, the "hostland," and the interaction between this engagement and the symbolic attachment to and practice of the cultural structures oriented toward the Zionic homeland.” (3)

The first chapter places his study within Diaspora studies, after explaining that he arrived at this conclusion late in the process. In his discussion of the relevance of the discipline of diaspora studies for Sephardic studies he uses the concept of ‘double diaspora’: when a significant diasporic community is once again sent out from their host land (as the Sephardim were from Spain in the late fifteenth century) creating a de-territorialization of a diasporic identity. Chapter two presents Jacob Ben Elazar’s Book of Tales (Sefer ha-meshalim) which uses Christian and Arabic literary forms, planting the themes squarely within a Sephardic lens. The next chapter tracks the poetry of Todros Abulafia and its geographical journey from Al-Andalus to Provence and its return to Castile, with a trail of literary influences from all three places. Chapter four focuses on Shem Tov ben Isaac ibn Ardutiel de Carrión’s Proverbios morales in Castilian, which was produced at the behest of the king of Spain. Being the first Sephardic author who was commissioned to write by the king, he of course wrote in Castilian. The chapter discusses language choice at length, and how Ardutiel achieved writing about Jewish morality in the vernacular without any attribution to Jewish sources, thus keeping a sort of neutral position regarding the vernacularization of Jewish topics and literatures. The fifth chapter on Vidal Benvenist’s Efer and Dina discusses the intellectual environment in Spain after the pogroms and mass conversions of 1391 and the Disputation of Tortosa. In this environment Jewish authors use the Romance literary language and address Jewish concerns on sexual morality, sexual intermingling with the majority and assimilation, albeit in the vernacular, and in a veiled manner. Chapter six presents two writers, one of historiography and one of mysticism and religious law: Solomon ibn Verga, author of Shevet Yehudah and Joseph Karo and his mystical text Magid Mesharim. Both of these writers show the literary consequences of the conversion and exile of Sephardim. Impacted by their own expulsion, their writing expresses voices excluded from the ‘Spanish’ discussion which brought them to produce a Sephardic humanism, thus establishing their own agency. The last chapter travels to Constantinople and the adoption of Amadís de Gaula as a heroic text. Even though both Sephardim and the Ottoman Empire were sworn enemies of the Spanish crown, the exile of the Sephardim and their allegiance with the Ottomans would not undermine the cultural continuity of their relationship to Spain and its culture.
The grand arc of Wacks’ book is the linear tale of the development of a literature demonstrating the shifting identity of the Sephardim as perceived through pre- and post- expulsion writings. Wacks posits that the shifting identities can be seen through both the writers’ choice of language and their chosen topics. The historical realities of the 13th through the 15th centuries marked dramatic shifts for Sephardim, and Wacks links them as parts of a grand multi-century literary chain. Unfortunately, the reader is left at various points in the narrative searching for dates to bolster the historical aspect of this literary development.
Throughout this volume Wacks traces how Sephardic literature begins as a Hebrew literature which evolves to a Jewish literature in the vernacular and sixty years after the expulsion turns into Hebrew-language Spanish vernacular literature1 for the consumption of exiled Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire. However, even though language choice is one of the most central aspects of the expression of cultural allegiance and complexity, Wacks does not give it the full space and discussion that it merits within the questions raised throughout the book. It is only in the second chapter that Wacks enters this important discussion on language choice and its ideological charge: it would have been useful earlier, in the introductory chapter. His approach to diaspora focuses mostly on the relationship to land and sovereignty. However, language is one of the fundamental mechanical aspects of identity and a tool for emphasizing cultural belonging. Wacks says that his focus is “on how diasporic experience finds expression in the artistic repertory” (31), but even though the linguistic aspect appears throughout the book, it is not presented as a theoretical basis of his diasporic analysis.

Another question which remains to be answered is what is the boundary of diaspora? Did the Sephardic diasporic hostland ever turn into a homeland? If so, do we see it in the literary output of Sephardim as such, or no?
Wacks masterfully demonstrates throughout his study of these authors and their oeuvres how Sephardi authors oscillated simultaneously between cultures, languages, genres and themes that were common to medieval, ancient and early modern literary voices. He also raises some important points on how previous scholarship overlooked the multi-directional influences occurring in Andalusian literary culture. For example, an early key historical moment before the arrival of Sefer HaMeshalim was the Reconquista of Toledo in the 11th century. Consequentially, there was the partial (but not total) hispanization of Toledo. This double cultural ‘appartenance’ of the Jews of Toledo supported the existence of a text such as Sefer HaMeshalim, a book of proverbs in Hebrew whose root sources are debated to come from either European Christian or Eastern Muslim sources. Elazar's use of these foreign literatures at a transitional time for the Sephardi community show how they were negotiating the transition from one cultural moment to another.  Wacks sees this as a tool for Elazar’s voice as a diasporic writer instead of as a writer of a multicultural community. He names this “an author doing diaspora” (35). Elazar’s choice to write in Hebrew, a crucial language choice, establishes a healthy Sephardi contribution to vernacular culture while establishing that Hebrew language was the “superior” choice for Jewish writers. However, as Wacks shows by the end of the chapter, Elazar’s Romance draws heavily from chivalric style while using conventions, ideologies and habits of expression from Arabic and Hebrew, straddling three worlds, languages and literary traditions. Throughout the third chapter Wacks discusses the debt that Troubadour poetry owes to Andalusian Arabic poetry and how Abulafia’s poetry blended European and Arabic voices, creating a third voice which he then introduced to the court of Alfonso X, his patron. Once again language, (Abulafia chose Hebrew to write) is mentioned. Considered an assimilationist by his peers (76), Abulafia wrote in the poetics of the majority but not in their language. In this manner, he maintained a clear boundary around his readers who would need to know Hebrew, but not around the topics which were the mainstay of the Iberia of his time. In other words, he inched toward the topics of the vernacular while keeping a language boundary.
The discomfort of homeland/hostland in a literary voice is represented in the chapter on Ardutiel’s work. Wacks states “Ardutiel is clear of his position, of the difficulty of the living member of a marginalized religious minority proposing to speak (or write) authoritatively on moral matters.” (108) His style of writing the Proverbios is referred to as a textual performative performance, because it was written in the vernacular, and not in a ‘written’ language par excellence like Hebrew. The Debate engages in a parody of the medieval Arabic and Hebrew literary debate between the pen and the sword. Wacks puts forth an interesting approach of interplay between the Proverbios and the Debate: it is as if this interplay represents the debate between Hebrew and Romance which embodied Ardutiel’s anxiety due to the “increasingly unstable environment” which eventually led to the expulsion of the Jews from Castile-León, Navarre and Portugal (126).
By the last chapter Wacks chooses to focus on the importance of Spanish imperial power for Sephardic literary output. His fresh view of Sephardic humanism as “an obscure counter history of an emergent Spanish national state” (183), links Sephardim continuously with Spanish cultural and political development. Especially because of the vacuum left in Spain by the Jewish departure and the vacuum of Spain within the exiled Sephardim themselves, both communities continued to interact with each other, directly or indirectly, in the century following 1492. He concludes with an important statement regarding Ibn Verga, Karo and Algaba’s literary voices as “the forge of a new phase of Sephardic cultural identity: the fusing of Hispanic and Jewish cultural identity” (208).
The innovative value of this work is that instead of presenting a break between pre- and post- expulsion literature, Wacks presents a continuous literary development influenced by and influencing identity and Sephardic consciousness. It covers the Sephardic literary voice in its layered complexity which is usually compartmentalized within academia into either Hebraist or Hispanist or medievalist or early modernist. In presenting this continuum, with examples of important contributions to its literature during these centuries, the intellectual voice is recast in a more unified manner, probably closer to the way that Sephardim from the 15th and 16th centuries would have experienced it. Wacks has written an important volume on transnational identity shifts through literature with complex linguistic, thematic, religious and nationalistic concerns in constant interplay.

* Vanessa Paloma Elbaz, Centre des recherches moyen-orient méditerranée, Institute national des langues et civilisations orientales, Sorbonne Paris Cité, Paris, France,  and  Director of KHOYA: les archives sonores du Maroc juif, Casablanca, Morocco.

1. This means a Spanish (not Jewish or Christian/ not religious) secular literature BUT now in Hebrew, in other words, translated into Hebrew for these Sephardim who wanted Spanish culture - but now they were reading it in Hebrew.

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