The Cantor-Poets: Review Essay
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The Cantor-Poets: A Review Essay The Cantor-Poets Review Essay by Ephraim Nissan eMS, University of Greenwich, London A. A Lifetime's Quest For Early Hymnography 119 The Fathers of Piyyut: Texts and Studies Toward a History of the Piyyut in Eretz Israel, by Shalom Spiegel. Selected from his literary estate and edited by Menahem H. Schmelzer. New York and Jerusalem: The Jewish Theological Seminary ofAmerica, 1996. Hebrew, 434 pp.; English introduction, 10 pp. $28.00 (c) ISBN 965-456-020-8. In the awareness, by the educated Jewish public, of the piyyut, i.e., Jewish hymnography ,I it is especially the classic, much celebrated Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Spain, in the 11th to 13th centuries, that catches the eye.2 When that Golden Age eventually started to unfold, it did so with such poets-e.g., Samuel the Nagid (Vizier), or that proud youngster resenting him, the giant Ibn Gabirol-who were endowed with a taste and aesthetic conceptions quite unsimilar to what used to be mainstream during the previous several generations of authors in Spain itself, or the traditionally related Maghreb, or everywhere else for that matter. Poetry ofboth the old and new traditions included secular compositions as well as hymns: poems as religious themes. Hebrew hymns are termed piyyutim, and paytanim (hymnists) is how authors ofpiyyutim are referred to. Yet, in the context of the Golden Age, by "polemic against the paytanim," it is the critique of the poetry of old that is meant (unless you are dealing with a philosopher like Maimonides, who later on was to dislike the hymnists regardless of style, because ofthe theologically to him questionable assertions that their art inspired them to include in their verse). Anyway, the Golden Age of Hebrew poetry in Spain ISee, e.g., Leon J. Weinberger, Jewish Hymnography: A Literary History (London and Portland, OR: The Littman Library ofJewish Civilization, 1998), and Aharon Mirsky's Hebrew papers collected in his Ha 'Piyut: The Development of Post Biblical Poetry in Eretz Israel and the Diaspora (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, Kinnus Series, 1990, in Hebrew). 2See Jefim Schirmann's posthumous, excellent Hebrew book The History ofHebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain, edited, supplemented and annotated by Ezra Fleischer (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press and Ben-Zvi Institute, 1995). 120 SHOFAR Winter 1999 Vol. 17, No.2 opened with a critique of previous poets' copious and "flawed" neologization, and in the main revolved around an acrimonious debate among the "old" and "new" grammarians. Yet, there is much more to this than linguistic theory. In literary studies, a generalized concept of the "Baroque" is fairly current for a poetic of excess as an antithesis of classicism. A hallmark of the earlier, pre-Gabirolean phases of the piyyut is the obscurity ofboth the awkward wording (and syntax), and the riddle-laden content. This obscurity of expression in earlier, (broadly speaking) "Baroquish" piyyut is only matched, in current educated yet "vulgate" awareness, by the obscurity of the fame of the beginnings and maturation of hymnography in the Land of Israel, before and after the Islamic conquest-this being the basis for piyyut in the Levant, Ashkenaz, and Western Mediterranean up to the Spanish classicist revolution and beyond. The story of the labors of birth of the splendid, yet demanding volume under review, as told by Schmelzer in the Hebrew and English introductions, has an odd flavor to it. It vaguely reminds this reviewer of three of Agnon's Jerusalemite scholar characters; I concede, however, that the match only obtains by coalescing thereminiscence of two stories, and as though the scholar from the ftrst story were to study the materials of the third scholar (who belongs, instead, in the other story, out of the two by Agnon I am recollecting). Short of telling the plots, I'll only outline the analogy. Adiel Arnzeh's pursuit of an arcane subject-producing the ultimately accurate reconstruction of the city plan of Gurnlidata and the city's fall at the hands of the Goths-leads him to self-confinement and forsaking publication, in the short story "Forever." In another story, "Iddo and Enam," scholar Ginat's feats apparently are the recovery ofthe lost Iddo language and...