- Double Diaspora in Sephardic Literature: Jewish Cultural Production Before and After 1492 by David A. Wacks
Traditional historiography has considered the year 1492 - when the Catholic Monarchs signed the Edict of Expulsion - as a point of rupture dividing the experience of Sephardic Jews into two different realities. On the one hand, there is the pre-1492 Hispano-Jewish experience, both in al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms; on the other, the post-1492 Sephardic experience, in those places where the expelled Iberian Jews settled: North Africa, Western Europe, and the Ottoman Empire.
David A. Wacks calls into question this understanding of the year 1492 as radically disruptive in his fascinating analysis of Jewish cultural production between the 13th and the 16th centuries. By applying the critical concept of diaspora, Wacks sees 1492 not as the end of an era but as the continuation of an idiosyncratic way of understanding Jewishness. In chapter 1, “Diaspora Studies for Sephardic Culture”, Wacks explains the theoretical framework of his study. According to him, Iberian Jews have a clear diasporic consciousness that can be identified and analyzed in their cultural artifacts. Furthermore, there is a double diasporic consciousness in the post-1492 Sephardic intellectual context, in the Jews’ recollection of two expulsions, first from their homeland (Zion) and then from their hostland (Spain). Wacks presents an analysis of the concept of diaspora as well as of the different postcolonial approaches to diasporic communities and experiences, such as those of Khachig Tölölyan, Sudesh Mishra, and Daniel Boyarin, focusing on the relevance of the ideas of galut (exile) and ge’ulah (redemption) for the Jewish case. He also offers a brief overview of the development of the idea of galut in the work of four medieval Sephardic authors: Hasdai ben Shaprut, Abraham ibn Daud, Judah Halevi, and Maimonides.
After this chapter, Wacks presents case studies of a series of Sephardic authors from between the 13th and the 16th centuries: four from Christian Iberia - Jacob ben Elazar, Todros Abulafia, Shem Tov Ardutiel de Carrión, Vidal Benvenist -and three from the Sephardic diaspora - Solomon ibn Verga, Joseph Karo, and Jacob Algaba. According to Wacks, all these authors share a similar diasporic imaginary that finds expression in the choice of topics and in the linguistic and aesthetic traditions that they cling to or depart from. A constant element [End Page 153] in every chapter is the analysis of each of those Jewish authors against the background of non-Jewish (mainly Romance) literary models. In my opinion, this adds incalculable value to the book. Until very recently, scholars of Jewish history and literature have considered Jewish cultural production as an isolated phenomenon, without any significant connection to the surrounding cultural traditions. Wacks is not the first scholar to compare Jewish literary production in Christian lands with the literary tradition of the majority cultures in which Jews lived; such an approach has become relatively common in Hebrew and Arabic literary studies. However, his comparatist training and his vast knowledge of both the Hebrew and Romance traditions make this book unique in its appeal for a wider audience within comparative literature.
Chapter 2, “Allegory and Romance in Diaspora: Jacob ben Elazar’s Book of Tales”, explores two stories from a well-known collection of ten Hebrew maqāmāt, the Sefer ha-meshalim (Book of Tales), by Jacob ben Elazar (12th–13th c.), always under the lens of the theory of diaspora. The analysis of the two stories is preceded by a suggestive discussion of Jewish authors’ choice of language. According to Wacks, the rivalry between Arabic and Hebrew as literary languages in the 12th and 13th centuries recalls the ‘arabiyya vs. shu‘ubiyya conflict that developed centuries earlier, at the beginning of the Abbasid caliphate. Regarding the “Debate between the Sword and the Pen”, Wacks gives three interesting interpretations in which the pen symbolizes eternal power, Maimonidean rationalism, and the diasporic Jewish community, whereas the sword is a symbol...