On the BirthWrong tour, we did a session on homo-eroticism in Medieval Andalusian Jewish poetry. We read out some poems as examples. Some attendees asked me to share those poems for reference, so here they are.
“He Said, Don’t Sleep”, Dunash ben Labrat (920-990)
ben Labrat was the first major Hebrew poet of the Golden Era. He combined the style of Muslim secular poetry and the metre of traditional Arabic poetry with Hebrew words and themes from the Torah. During the discussion, some people asked whether there was any poetry by women. I didn’t know, but it turns out that ben Labrat’s (unnamed) wife also wrote poetry. I couldn’t find any of her poems so would encourage anyone reading this who knows more to post in the comments. In this poem, a young man approaches him for an evening of pleasures, but he rebukes him, saying that he could do no such thing while Christian Crusaders invade Jerusalem.
He said, “Don’t sleep. Drink old wine
with myrrh and lilies, henna and aloes,
in an orchard of pomegranates, palm, and vines
full of pleasant plants and tamarisks, to the hum of fountains
and the throb of lutes,
to the sound of singers, flutes, and lyres.
There every tree is tall, branches are fair with fruit,
and winged birds of every king sing among the leaves.
Doves moan melodiously,
and the doves reply cooing like reed pipes.
We will drink among flower beds fence in by lilies
putting sorrow to flight with songs of praise.
We will eat sweets and drink by the bowlful
We will act like giants and drink out of huge goblets.
In the mornings I will arise to slaughter bulls
healthy and choice, with rams and calves.
We will anoint ourselves with fragrant oil and burn aloe incense.
Before the day of doom overtakes us, let’s fill ourselves.
I reproached him: Silence, silence! This, how dare you
when the Holy House, the footstool of God, to Uncircumcised!
Foolishly you’ve spoken, sloth you’ve chosen;
Nonsense you’ve uttered like mockers and fools.
You have abandoned the study of the Supreme God’s Torah
and you rejoice with jackals running wild in Zion.
How could we drink wine and how raise our eyes
when we are nothing, abhorred, and loathed?
Arise my rapture, Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058)
ibn Gabirol is by a long way my favourite of the Medieval Andalusian poets, and I’ve written about him for this site before. This poem is an interesting one. Conservative (read: homophobic) commentators now say that, like the Song of Solomon, his poetry wasn’t erotic at all, but about G-d. Some of his poetry is undeniably homoerotic. Some is clearly just religious. Some, like this one, are both.
Arise, O my rapture, at dawn I exclaim,
Go seeking the face of my love, the King,
I thirst at the thought of Him, burn as with flame,
And chatter like swallow upon the wing.
No gifts can I bring save of heart or of wit,
My cause to my lips I can only trust.
Desires my Redeemer a ritual fit,
How should I suffice who am based on dust?
When I with my self seek communion, I shrink,
Were I mightier far, I should still be small,
Soul and strength in adoring Thee faint and sink,
Yet sing Thee I must till the end of all.
O Brook, Moshe ibn Ezra (1055-1138)
ibn Ezra saw all poetry as a form of metaphor and brought ideas of Greek philosophy into Jewish religious poetry before Maimonides codified the connection. ibn Ezra wrote in Arabic and we still use some of his poems in the liturgy today. This is a great translation, in that it captures the rhyme and the rhythm of a babbling brook.
O brook, whose hurrying waters go
To the far land that holds my friend,
By thee, my greeting let me send;
And if thy waves seem red as blood,
Tell him my tears have stained thy flood;
The mingled drops of eye and heart,
For exile, and for love, they flow—
Exile and love, that rend the frame
Of them who dwell from friends apart.
O brook, bespeak him tenderly;
Fill thou his heart with thought of me,
So that usurper may not claim
My place therein.
Make him to know
That for his ransom I would give
What years I yet may have to live—
Or if my life be all too little worth,
That which I hold most precious upon earth.
Song, Yehuda haLevi (1075-141)
haLevi remains one of the most controversial poets in our history. He is upheld as an example of one of the first religious Zionists, having made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in his seventies. In this matter, he was profoundly alone at the time (his Egyptian and Iberian counterparts thought he’d grossly misunderstood the Scripture) and remained a lone religious advocate of aliyah for nearly a thousand years. His writings are powerful – arguing for a Judaism based on action, not belief – though also very ethno-centric and problematic for modern readers.
On the wind
in the cool of the evening
I send greetings to a friend.
I ask him only to remember the day
of our parting when we made a covenant
of love by an apple tree.
The Market, Samuel ibn Nagrellah (haNagid)
This one is unlike the others in that – firstly, there are no erotic themes (that I can identify) and it seems mostly like an argument for vegetarianism. Secondly, ibn Nagrellah is much better known as the vizier (prime minister) of the Granada caliphate than as a poet. I like this poem and I think it helps complete the set, giving a flavour of the styles of poetry from the era.
I crossed through a souk where the butchers
hung oxen and sheep at their sides,
there were birds and herds of fatlings like squid,
their terror loud
as blood congealed over blood
and slaughterers’ knives opened veins.
In booths alongside them the fishmongers,
and fish in heaps, and tackle like sand;
and beside them the Street of the Bakers
—whose ovens are fired through dawn.
They bake, they eat, they lead their prey;
they split what’s left to bring home.
And my heart understood how they did it and asked:
Who are you to survive?
What separates you from these beasts,
which were born and knew waking and labor and rest?
If they hadn’t been given by God for your meals,
they’d be free.
If He wanted this instant
He’d easily put you in their place.
They’ve breath, like you, and hearts,
which scatter them over the earth;
there was never a time when the living didn’t die,
nor the young that they bear not give birth.
Pay attention to this, you pure ones,
and princes so calm in your fame,
know if you’d fathom the worlds of the hidden:
THIS IS THE LAW OF MAN.