A young Jewish poet once wrote: “I am a prince, and poetry my slave. / I am a harp for every singer. / I’ve only sixteen years of age, / but wisdom—like a man of eighty.”1 The words of a bold, self-assured young man? No doubt. But he was clearly on to something because, today, in his birthplace of Málaga, Spain, there stands a statue celebrating his life and his work. Poet Solomon Ibn Gabirol—and his sassy, emotional, sometimes pessimistic, but eventually more thoughtful poems—is just one of the Medieval Hebrew poets who were discussed, debated, and thoroughly enjoyed at June’s Shalom Spiegel Summer Seminar on Medieval Hebrew Poetry. Offered by The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Shalom Spiegel Institute for Medieval Hebrew Literature (SSI), the event was spearheaded by SSI director and JTS professor of Medieval Hebrew Literature, Dr. Raymond P. Scheindlin, and allowed for a lively weeklong conversation among students and scholars from some of the world’s finest academic institutions.
Shalom Spiegel (1899–1984), was one of the most respected scholars of Judaica of his generation and a leading expert in Medieval Hebrew literature; SSI was established in 1996 in his memory, by a bequest from the estate of his brother, movie producer Sam Spiegel. The institute carries on Dr. Spiegel's work by providing fellowships to graduate students in the field of Medieval Hebrew Literature, fostering international research projects, caring for and affording access to the research materials assembled by Dr. Spiegel during his long and distinguished career, and hosting the intensive summer seminar, which is held every two or three years.
Dr. Scheindlin, a respected author and translator in his own right (Wine, Women, and Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the Good Life ; The Gazelle: Medieval Hebrew Poems on God, Israel, and the Soul ; The Song of the Distant Dove: Pilgrimage Poems by Judah Halevi ) led the seminar sessions on Ibn Gabirol. Another minicourse on the genre of the maqama (a type of story in rhymed prose mixed with verse) was given by Dr. Jonathan Decter—associate professor and the Edmond J. Safra chair in Sephardic Studies in the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University—a JTS graduate and former student / now colleague of Dr. Scheindlin’s. The third minicourse was on manuscripts and paleography (study of ancient writings and inscriptions), led by Dr. Menahem Schmelzer, a former JTS librarian and a specialist in Medieval Hebrew poetry and Hebrew books and manuscripts.
For six days, the JTS campus was abuzz with students, faculty, and lecturers of all ages—many of whom had flown in from near and far—excited by the idea of a joint exploration of poetry from the Middle Ages. One of the reasons students and scholars alike enjoy the study of Medieval Hebrew poetry, suggested Dr. Scheindlin, is because it is so surprisingly accessible: “One of the great attractions of these poems is that there are real human beings behind them.” Student Gabriel Mancuso of Italy, currently a PhD candidate at the esteemed University College, London, was delighted with what he found when he arrived at the seminar: “I came here because I’m interested in Hebrew and medieval poetry first of all. Secondly, because JTS is one of the best institutions on earth: the faculty is amazing. I found all of them really fantastic and exciting, and promoting culture in the world.”
Another student, Laura Weisman of the University of Toronto, said that the Summer Seminar held a particular fascination for her: “One of the proposed chapters of my doctoral dissertation in Hebrew Literature centers on a motif that Medieval Hebrew literature has a lot to say about, and that’s the motif of the apple: I wanted to trace it from biblical literature to the medieval to the modern. And the people who are giving the sessions here at JTS are the cream of the cream of the cream.” Ilana Sasson, a PhD candidate in Bible at The Graduate School of The Jewish Theological Seminary agreed that the level of information, presentation, and debate at JTS is high: “I am working on the translation and commentary of Yefet ben ‘Eli—who was a Karaite in the tenth century in Jerusalem—on the Book of Proverbs,” she said. “I’m here because attending this seminar helps me broaden my horizons in a field that’s very close to what I’m doing.”
For Gabriel, Laura, Ilana, and the other students, the Spiegel Institute Summer Seminar afforded concentrated exposure to a subject that is universally recognized to be a central part of the Jewish literary heritage and an essential component of medieval Jewish culture, but rarely taught outside JTS.
At week’s end, when this year’s SSI Summer Seminar was done, lecturers, faculty, and students—who had been sharing meals and dorms and spending free time together—joined in a formal and celebratory closing, having met new friends and future colleagues and participated in a spirited, productive, and meaningful Jewish academic experience.
If you want to be placed on the Shalom Spiegel Institute’s mailing list or want information on the next SSI Summer Seminar (2010), please email Dr. Scheindlin at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Summer Seminar is available without charge and without academic credit to up to twenty graduate students who are working in medieval Jewish studies or Hebrew literature or simply medieval studies and whose Hebrew is sufficiently advanced to permit them to study Medieval Hebrew poetry in the original language.
|1||“The 16-Year-Old Poet” by Solomon Ibn Gabriol. |
Translation copyright: Dr. Raymond P. Scheindlin (2008)