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Early Yiddish Epic

edited and translated by Jerold C. Frakes

Publication Year: 2014

Unlike most other ancient European, Near Eastern, and Mediterranean civilizations, Jewish culture surprisingly developed no early epic tradition: while the Bible comprises a broad range of literary genres, epic is not among them. Not until the late medieval period, Beginning in the fourtheeth century, did an extensive and thriving epic tradition emerge in Yiddish. Among the few dozen extant early epics, there are several masterpieces, of which ten are translated into English in this volume. Divided between the religious and the secular, the book includes eight epics presented in their entirety, an illustrative excerpt from another epic, and a brief heroic prose tale.These texts have been chosen as the best and the most interesting representatives of the genre in terms of cultural history and literary quality: the pious “epicizing” of biblical narrative, the swashbuckling medieval courtly epic, Arthurian romance, heroic vignettes, intellectual high art, and popular camp.

Published by: Syracuse University Press

Series: Judaic Traditions in Literature, Music, and the Arts


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-lii

Although it is rather rare in the fi eld of medieval studies to experience “late-breaking news,” it does occasionally happen, even in the subdiscipline of Yiddish epic. In 1957 L. Fuks, the librarian of the Rosenthaliana collection at the Universiteit van Amsterdam, published a sumptuous two-volume documentation of a fourteenth-century anthology of eight Yiddish texts (eighty-four pages in its surviving format), fi ve of which belong to the genre...


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pp. liii-liv

Midrashic Epic

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1 Abraham Our Father

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pp. 3-11

As is standard in early Yiddish midrashic poems, this heroic lay is based on biblical characters but not directly on biblical narrative itself. It makes particular use of the postbiblical midrashic traditions of Abraham’s recognition of the God of the Hebrew tradition and his serial destruction of the idols commercially produced by his father (cf. Bereshit rabbah 38, 13, and the Old Yiddish צאינה וראינה Tsenerene on Gen. 11:28). The lasting theological import of the narrative is obvious in Abraham’s direct recognition of the creator God...

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2 Joseph the Righteous

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pp. 12-14

Based ultimately on the characters of Joseph and Potiphar’s unnamed wife, introduced in the cryptically narrated episode of Joseph’s rejection of his slave master’s wife’s attempt to lure him into sexual transgression in Genesis 39:7–20, this heroic lay’s content derives from the widely known postbiblical Jewish traditions, particularly the midrashic sources on the biblical story.1 The poem’s central motif—of the Egyptian women guests of Potiphar’s wife ...

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3 Book of Samuel

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pp. 15-148

The narrative that has long been considered the masterpiece of Old Yiddish midrashic epic, the ספֿר שמואל Seyfer Shmuel (Book of Samuel), was also known already in the sixteenth century by the alternate title שמואל-בוך Shmuel-bukh (Samuel-book). While the first edition was published in 1544 (Augsburg), there are manuscripts that predate that publication, the earliest now extant dating to the first quarter of the sixteenth century. The date of the epic’s composition...

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4 The Binding of Isaac

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pp. 149-156

The reaffi rmation of the divine covenant with Abraham, his son Isaac, and their future descendants is the primary function of this core narrative of the Jewish tradition, as it is also articulated in the sixteenth-century Yiddish version of the traditional story of the averted sacrifi ce of Isaac from Genesis 22. The renewal of the covenant that had already been established is consequent on the positive outcome of the test by the Hebrew God of Abraham’s faith, whom he had already recognized while a child in Mesopotamia, as represented...

“Secular” Epic

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5 Duke Horant

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pp. 159-180

Since the initial publication of דוכוס הורנט Dukus Horant (Duke Horant),1 which was until the recent discovery of the epic fragment of 1349 on the Cologne slate reckoned as the earliest Old Yiddish “secular” epic, a vast sea of scholarly publications—especially in the field of German studies—has spread. Most of those publications have taken as their thesis (acknowledged or not) that...

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6 Vidvilt

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pp. 181-237

One of the most enduringly popular of the “secular” Yiddish epics (alongside Bovo d’Antona) was the single Arthurian romance adapted into Yiddish by an anonymous poet in the fi fteenth or sixteenth century from Wirnt von Gravenberg’s early-thirteenth-century Middle High German epic Wigalois.1 Versions of the Yiddish epic—variously entitled Vidvilt or Kinig Artis houf— are extant in numerous manuscripts, printed editions (with variously revised reprints), in rhymed couplets, ottava rima stanzas, and prose, over the course...

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7 Bovo of Antona

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pp. 238-316

The author of בבֿא דאנטונא Bovo d’Antona, Elia(s) Levita / Elye Bokher / Elyahu Bah˙ ur / 1549–1469) אליה בחור ), is one of the most interesting men of letters of the period of European Humanism. It often seems that his biography could itself function as a (slightly skewed) cultural history of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries in central Europe and northern Italy. Born in Ipsheim near Neustadt an der Aisch (near Nuremberg), Levita worked as a teacher, publisher, printer, and author of scholarly texts as well as popular...

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8 Pariz and Viene

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pp. 317-406

Until the discovery in 1986 by Anna Maria Babbi of a complete copy of the Verona 1594 edition of the Yiddish text of פאריז אונ‘ װיענה Pariz un Viene (Pariz and Viene), published by Francesco dalle Donne—which had been known up to that point only in fragmentary texts—this poem had generally been attributed to Elia Levita (albeit without any specific evidence in support of the attribution). In the complete text, however, which includes a previously...

Appendix A

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pp. 407-418

Appendix B

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pp. 419-430


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pp. 431-452


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pp. 453-464

About the Author, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780815652687
E-ISBN-10: 0815652682
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815633556
Print-ISBN-10: 0815633556

Page Count: 520
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: Judaic Traditions in Literature, Music, and the Arts
Series Editor Byline: Harold Bloom, Ken Frieden See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 883390836
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Early Yiddish Epic

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Subject Headings

  • Epic literature, Yiddish.
  • Epic literature, Yiddish -- Translations into English.
  • Yiddish literature.
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