our words make worlds

Al-Andalus / Iberia / Sepharad: Travelling Concepts and Cross-Cultural Contexts International Workshop

Julian Weiss, Rachel Scott, and Yuval Evri (Travelling Concepts) reflect on an international workshop organised in collaboration with Dr Or Hasson (Mandel Scholion Research Center) and held at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem on 12 May 2019

'Al-Andalus / Iberia / Sepharad: Travelling Concepts and Cross-Cultural Contexts' was the latest in a series of international lectures, conference panels, seminars and workshops organised by the Travelling Concepts strand promoting research on the histories, legacies and imaginings of the Iberianate world conceived as a contact zone between Judaism, Christianity and Islam from the Middle Ages to the present. The programme, which brought together researchers from multiple disciplines, languages and historical periods, had no set agenda other than to share projects, learn from each other’s perspectives and methods, and identify areas for future collaboration. The day was structured by six panels based either on the evident intersections between the proposed papers or for their potential for creative juxtapositions. Though we did not begin with a programmatic agenda, a number of cross-cutting themes and common research problems emerged, some of which we highlight in this retrospective review. 

We welcome further comments from the participants about the aspects they think would be worth pursuing in future collaborations.

Translating (Judeo-)Arabic Literary Traditions from al-Andalus to Palestine/Israel

Yuval Evri began the day with a case study on a topic that would return time and again: translation understood not as a derivative, secondary process, but as a powerful creative and social act. In ‘Ever va-‘Arav: Translations of (Judeo-)Arabic Multilingual Traditions from al-Andalus to Palestine, he continued his research into translations from Arabic into Hebrew carried out by Palestinian Arab-Jews in the early XXc, who strove to counter the cultural and linguistic breach between Arabic and Hebrew that was opened by contemporary Zionism and Arab Nationalism. Challenging boundaries and binary thinking also underpinned the intervention of Almog Behar, ‘Sepharad in Jerusalem: The Writings of Yehuda Burla and Ariel Bension’. Reflecting critically on the term ‘Judeo-Arabic’, he interrogated the ideological work done by the hyphen that links and separates languages and communities. His two authors were contemporaries of those studied by Yuval Evri, but they offered differing models of constructing Sephardic identity and tradition. Bension, for example, countered the Arabic/ Hebrew binary by emphasising the entangled histories of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Related questions are also addressed in his podcast, ‘Between Arabic and Hebrew’ .

Readings and Retellings of Ancient Texts and the Making of Memory

Julian Weiss offered an extract from his work in progress on the early modern reception of Josephus in the Spanish and Portuguese speaking worlds from Spain 1492 to Amsterdam, 1687. In ‘A Strange Resistance: Flavius Josephus, Jewish Anthropophagy, and 1492’, he examined the iconic scene of the mother who ate her child during the siege of Jerusalem anthropophagy as a symbol of resistance to political power that acquired new layers of meaning when Alfonso de Palencia translated Josephus during late-medieval Iberian persecution of Jews. In his response, Daniel Schwartz, drew on his own research into Josephus to suggest that Palencia’s translation of Josephus’s Judean War might have had even greater subversive potential than Weiss suggested. Palencia’s contemporary, Alfonso de Madrigal, was the protagonist of Yosi Yisraeli’s hypothesis about ‘A New Linguistic Criticism of the Vulgate: A Converso-Iberian School?’. Like Ron Lasri later in the day, he highlighted the intellectual creativity of Jewish and converso writers of late medieval Iberia, by investigating the implications and genealogy of Madrigal’s critique of Jerome’s ‘mistranslations’ of the Hebrew Bible. His paper continued his interest in Judeo-Christian theological and historical traditions, exemplified by his work on Pablo de Santa María and inter-religious conversion.

Presentation of Maktoob: The Arabic-Hebrew Translator’s Forum, Yonatan Mendel

Having threaded its way through papers on XVc Spain to early XXc Palestine, translation surfaced in the contemporary land of Israel with Yonatan Mendel’s presentation of Maktoob: The Forum of Arabic-Hebrew Translators. He explained the context and recent history of translation from Arabic to Hebrew, with its asymmetries of power and institutional practices. Emphasising translation as a socio-political act, he outlined the Forum’s aim to create shared Arabic-Hebrew bi-lingual and bi-national translational and political model against the backdrop of the current social trend in which only tiny minority of Israeli-born Jews speak or read Arabic. The presentation had poignant echoes of the earlier papers by Yuval Evri and Almog Behar.

Travelling Tales and Cross-Cultural Translation

Both Ron Lasri and Rachel Scott both grappled with problems faced by medieval Iberian Jews striving to maintain a sense of continuity and ethical stability when the ideological and territorial map of Iberia was being reconfigured. In his paper, ‘Re‑figuring the Sages: The Reception of Rabbinical Aggadah in Anthologies from 14th-Century Spain’, Ron Lasri approached the question via the tales told in Rabbinic oral law, while Rachel Scott examined a different ethical mode, the fable collection. In her talk (part of a much longer project), ‘On the 13th-Century Spanish and Hebrew Translations of Kalila wa-Dimna’, she explored the tension between the fables’ transcultural appeal—their ‘universality’—and their local significance for particular communities of reception. It would be worth revisiting these papers to learn more about the ways in which Iberian Jews exploited ethical compendia to navigate a path through an increasingly intolerant world. In this respect, further parallels might be drawn with Or Hasson’s research on mid-XXc Hebrew translations on the Spanish classics.In his ‘Lazarillo in the Ma’abara: Preliminary Thoughts on the Translation of the Spanish Classics into Modern Hebrew’, he considered the implications of bringing the marginal perspective of the picaro into the newly forged Israeli state. A follow-up meeting could profitably focus on the contingency of translation and compendia as two related modes of reorganizing and remaking the past for the present.

Between Spain and Sepharad: Negotiating Identities and Narratives

Silvina Schammah-Gesser offered ‘Some Critical Observations on the “Return of Sepharad” in Contemporary Iberia’. Outlining the strategies necessary to understand ideological underpinnings the recent Law of Return, she stressed the importance of recognizing the entangled histories of Spain and Portugal, the contrast between idealized visions of Sepharad and actual Jewish experience, and the synergies between heritage tourism and government policies. Her methodological and conceptual insights into this mode of national identity politics complemented the paper by Angy Cohen, ‘Transmission, Tradition, and Recognition: Elements of Identity in the Study of Sephardi Culture’. This extract from her social anthropological project on the cultural memories of Moroccan Jews who had emigrated to Israel challenged conservative or static notions of ‘tradition’. Her findings revealed a more complex picture of ‘tradition’ as resistance against dogmatism and oblivion, as a way of living within ambiguity and contradiction, as a way of experiencing ‘modernity’ without being assimilated to European models.

Rethinking the Boundaries of the Spanish Golden Age

Another highly productive pairing were the papers by Einat Davidi and Ruth Fine, who brought the meeting to a close with accounts of their new research projects on two related ways to re-map literary and cultural history. In ‘Jewish Baroque Literature: The Case of the Jewish and Hebrew Auto-Sacramental Plays’, Einat Davidi approached the literary production of early modern conversos (and re-conversos/ ex-conversos—the terms carry baggage) as a challenge to nationalistic readings of the Golden Age. The autosacramental could be adapted in places like Amsterdam, ‘the new Jerusalem’, to assert and problematise Sephardic ties to Iberia. Also arguing for a diasporic literary history of the early modern Iberian worlds (XVc-XVIIIc), Ruth Fine presented her collaboration with Luce López Baralt devoted to comparative research into the converso and morisco experience. Her paper, ‘The Iberian Diasporas: A Literary Cartography’, posed six lines of research, including relative access to cultural representation, the mythologizing of the converso/ morisco ‘condition’, and generational identities.