The wings of swallows flutter to your breath.
You set them free,
like myrrh-tears, from a bundle poured.
And how we long for you,
we who ride a board on the back of the sea!
Keats, Shelley, Byron? Guess again. This verse comes from the poetry of the best known and most beloved of pre-modern Hebrew poets Judah Halevi (ca. 1085–1141). Who is more suited to bring these gorgeous poems to life than Dr. Raymond Scheindlin, professor of Medieval Hebrew Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary and director of its Shalom Spiegel Institute of Medieval Hebrew Poetry. In Dr. Scheindlin’s latest book, The Song of the Distant Dove: Judah Halevi’s Pilgrimage, he tells the story of Halevi’s journey using the poet’s recently discovered letters and his ever-popular poetry.
Dr. Scheindlin teaches and conducts research on the encounter of Hebrew and Arabic cultures in Spain, especially as embodied in the poetry of the two traditions. An expert on Arabic literature, his book 201 Arabic Verbs, long used by nearly every student of Arabic in the United States, has recently appeared in a new edition titled 501 Arabic Verbs.
You are thrilled to have The Song of the Distant Dove come out. Can you explain your excitement?
Yes, I’m always happy when a book of mine comes out, but The Song of the Distant Dove gives me particular pleasure because it combines my two main interests: academic research into the relationship between Jewish and Arabic cultures; and the problem of creating translations of great poems that are themselves poetry. I wanted to make these translations living and breathing English poems, yet at the same time academically authoritative and I am quite pleased with the result.
You are an expert in Classical Arabic. Can you speak about that?
I did my doctorate at Columbia in Arabic language and literature. Learning Arabic was crucial to my understanding of the world that produced the great poets of the Hebrew Golden Age. Hebrew and Arabic are deeply connected and Muslims and Jews have so much in common.
What are the major commonalities between the two?
Well, for starters, their religious systems are very similar, since both are based on a scripture and a parallel set of traditions, which we call “Oral Law” and which they call “The Traditions of the Prophet,” and both derive their teachings through the application of legal reasoning to these traditions. Beyond that, Jews and Muslims have a long shared history that has had a major effect on Jewish culture and produced a significant amount of Jewish literature in the Arabic language.
You will be leading a trip to Spain this spring and will touch on some of these similarities.
I’ll be leading the JTS Mission to Spain this May (May 18–29). We’ll be looking at how the Jews of Spain were able to combine such diverse features as northern European talmudism, Arabic poetry, philosophy and science, and the Kabbalah. Spain was also the most bountiful producer of Hebrew poetry in the Golden Age of Hebrew literature.
During the tour I hope to bring this era to life with presentations on topics like the Inquisition, the last century of Spanish Jewry, and the poetry of Halevi, Samuel Ha-Nagid, and others. We will also be accompanied by my wife, mezzo-soprano Janice Meyerson, who will sing selections of traditional Sephardic music. It should be a great trip!