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  • "They have ears, but do not hear":Gendered Access to Hebrew and the Medieval Hebrew-French Wedding Song
  • Kirsten A. Fudeman

Among the literary texts left by medieval French Jews we have an exceptional piece, a wedding song in sixty-two lines and seven stanzas written entirely in Hebrew characters. The song, which appears in a thirteenth century manuscript of the Mahḥzor Vitry housed at the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America,1 was edited and translated into modern French by D. S. Blondheim and more recently discussed and translated into English by Samuel Rosenberg on the basis of Blondheim's edition.2 Part of the song's value stems from the fact that it is the only known example of medieval verse that mixes Hebrew and French, although the macaronic genre may nonetheless have been popular among French-speaking Jews, as it was among Christians: Jewish communities elsewhere frequently composed verses mixing other languages, and there is also a large corpus of poetry written by European Christians, some of it mixing two languages, and some three or more.3 [End Page 542]

In the first section, I describe Blondheim's and Rosenberg's work on the wedding song and then summarize the song itself (the full text of the song can be found in the two appendices), offering several new readings. The second section contains a discussion of Hebrew-French diglossia in medieval France and limitations on women's access to Hebrew. This serves as background for the analysis in the third section, where I argue that the wedding song has at least two possible readings, one aimed primarily at men and the other at women and girls. The differences between the roles of French and Hebrew in the song suggest one way in which gendered limitations on the access to Hebrew might have manifested themselves in medieval Jewish society.

The Song

The Hebrew-French wedding song was first brought to the public's attention by D. S. Blondheim in two articles, one directed primarily at Hebraists and the other at Romance philologists.4 In the former, Blondheim presented the entire song in the Hebrew alphabet alongside a line-by-line translation of the Hebrew lines into modern French and transcription of the Old French lines into the Latin alphabet. He did not translate the Old French lines into modern French. In the latter, Blondheim gave only the transcription of the Old French lines in the Latin alphabet and his modern French translations of the Hebrew lines. Both articles include copious notes which greatly enhance the reader's appreciation of the song, particularly with regard to double entendres and biblical allusions. I will say more about both of these below.

Rosenberg, a specialist in medieval French language and literature, acknowledges that his English translation "depends heavily on Blondheim's translation of the Hebrew verses and his romanization of the French—as well as on his very fine scholarly apparatus." Among Rosen-berg's original and valuable contributions are a new English translation of the French lines and the contextualization of the song in medieval [End Page 543] French and Hebrew literature. Another important contribution made by Rosenberg is the observation that the stanzaic structure of the wedding song may resemble a triangle, with the base formed by stanzas 1 and 7 (both involve the chorus), the next level composed of stanzas 2 and 6 (both involving the bride and various choral voices, according to Rosen-berg), the next level composed of stanzas 3 and 5 (both involving the bridegroom) and the center stanza forming the peak (chorus and bridegroom both speaking):5

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It is clear from Rosenberg's discussion of the wedding song that we are dealing with a complex composition. Two new observations, not made by either Blondheim or Rosenberg, reinforce this impression even further. First, the Hebrew lines, replete with sexual puns and innuendo, are of a markedly different tone from the French ones, which tend towards the romantic and martial. Second, the song has at least two, and possibly three, different readings. These are related to gender expectations and gendered access to Hebrew, as I will...