(Home)land: Reflections on Andalusi Jewish Attachment to Place

By: Ross Brann

 “Sefarad is my land, the Land of Israel my destination.”

 Judah al-Harizi, Tahkemoni (Maqama 49)

 yehudah halevi

Letter of Judah Ha-Levi in Toledo to Halfon
ben Nathanel al-Dimyati in Spain, Toledo,
1125. Courtesy of The Library of The Jewish
Theological Seminary.

How were Arabized Jews’ attachments to land mediated through different discourses of place? During the classical period of Islam the idea of watan (Arabic for “homeland,” “native place,” or “hometown”) turned on the dialectical relationship between the Jews’ concrete, living attachment to their place of residence and their devotional yearning for an imagined eschatological homecoming to the biblical land of Israel. The latter was reinforced in daily recitation of canonical rabbinic prayer; it was also voiced with religious urgency in numerous liturgical compositions (Heb. ge’ulot), authored from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries, bemoaning the travails of their Jewish community or of Israel in general. The former is attested in documentary material from the Cairo Genizah and evident as literary expression in various Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic texts. These incongruous sensibilities regarding homeland existed in tension with one another, the one informed by Jewish tradition and memory as well as the uncertainties of existence as a minority religious community, the other by life as it is lived within a particular community rooted in a specific place.

In his magisterial study of the Cairo Genizah S.D. Goitein noted that in practice “homeland” signified the place where one’s parents were buried as well as where people and customs were familiar. Accordingly, it is not possible to think of place, town, or land apart from the natural bonds the individual enjoyed with countrymen. The Jews’ natural human attachment to what is comfortable on account of its familiarity was compounded by their wariness, distrust, or even aversion to what was foreign, unfamiliar, or strange (Ar. al-gharib; the foreigner). The Andalusi Hebrew poet Moses ibn Ezra could thus playfully refer to Judah Halevi, his supremely gifted younger contemporary hailing from the border between the Christian kingdom of Castile and al-Andalus, as having “shined forth from Seir [i.e. the East-Christendom].”

So too, Arabic-style Hebrew verse absorbed the classical Arabic motifs of love of homeland and longing for one’s homeland (hubb al-watan/al-hanini ila-l-awtan). Moses ibn Ezra, exiled from al-Andalus to the Christian kingdoms of northern Iberia apparently on account of personal intrigue and political turmoil, found these motifs and their associated imagery perfect literary vehicles for expressing his deep and enduring attachment to Granada as a home of Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew culture. Indeed, his lyrical complaints on this theme give vent to the intellectually minded poet’s alienation from the “unlearned” Jews he encountered in Castile and Navarre. To put it another way, fondness for homeland informed the Jews’ sense of local and regional identity.

Travel for reasons of trade, scholarship, or piety was prevalent in some classes of Arabic speaking Jewish society. In a mobile world where merchants, scholars, devotees, and refugees frequently moved from their family’s indigenous place to another adopted town, the attachment to watan and the identity it conferred were portable. Moses Maimonides’s self-representation provides the best-known illustration. Long after he had left al-Andalus and the Maghrib for Egypt, Maimonides nurtured a historical-cultural belonging to his Iberian homeland and its rabbinic, philosophical, and scientific traditions. That attachment served as a foundational marker of Maimonides’s identity: he continued to think of himself as “the man from Sefarad” or “the Andalusi” in Hebrew and Arabic respectively.

As we have observed, the most salient literary and occasional textual examples come from Sefarad when its socio-cultural border was congruent with the socio-political borders of al-Andalus. Unlike their Muslim counterparts, who were conscious of Islamic sovereignty and developed an extensive geographical literature incorporating rich representations of territory and realm, Jewish literary and religious intellectuals imagined and produced metaphorical landscapes, but generally eschewed addressing the notion of territoriality; they primarily thought of place and land through the nexus of people, community, and tradition. Hasdai ibn Shaprut. and Samuel the Nagid, two exceptional Jewish figures of the tenth and eleventh centuries invested with political authority, are among the very few to engage in territorial representation of any sort.

Ibn Shaprut’s secretary famously authored a Hebrew letter to the king of the Khazars in which he reports the Jews of al-Andalus, “the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sefarad” (citing a biblical verse from Ovadiah and implicitly its traditional reading), are “dwelling peacefully in the land,” a land that “is rich, abounding in rivers, springs, and aqueducts; a land of corn, oil, and wine, of fruits and all manner of delicacies; it has pleasure-gardens and orchards, fruitful trees of every kind. . . ”

Samuel the Nagid’s idiosyncratic “war” poems bring together biblical language and imagery with Arabic poetic tradition to depict the poet’s inner life amidst various historical or imagined encampments and battle scenes arrayed in the countryside between the army of Granada and its Andalusi enemies. His literary and historical persona remains grounded in the Andalusi scene and setting at every turn.

A twelfth-century communal lament by Abraham ibn Ezra represents a very different manifestation of the discourse of place in Hebrew verse. Incorporating stylistic and thematic elements of the genre of “city elegies,” the poet takes the reader on an – unsettling tour of towns and cities with major Jewish communities devastated by socio-religious upheaval, from Lucena, Cordoba, and Seville in al-Andalus to Sijilmassa, Fez, and Der’a in North Africa. The lyric’s final stanza departs from that emotionally wrought land-based tour to the psychological and spiritual realm in which the key biblical expression, u-me-‘arzah me hoz hefzi, variously understood as “longed-for lands” or “chosen territory,” can simultaneously signify both the poet’s homeland from which he and his community have been exiled and the biblical Land of Israel. Its very ambiguity suggests a Sefarad/ Israel binary.

For Andalusi Jewish religious and literary intellectuals one of the two aforementioned attachments might predominate over the other at a given moment or within a specific text in accordance with its genre and conventions. For example, Judah Halevi is portrayed in a Genizah letter dated 1130 as “the heart and soul of our land [al-Andalus]” while in his own words he refers to himself as “one whose homeland is Sefarad but whose destination is Jerusalem.” Halevi’s most celebrated poetic cycle engages that interior figurative journey and its interface with his actual voyage from al-Andalus to Egypt to Palestine, turning the Arabic themes of love/longing for one’s homeland into lyric vehicles for exploring the Jewish pilgrim’s territorial desire as well as his conflicted feelings about the Egyptian landscape and scene. Here it is worth mentioning the contrast between the metaphysical significance Halevi attributed to the Land of Israel with Maimonides’s assertion that the Land possessed no special qualities save for permitting the complete observance of the Torah in its entirety.

Halevi’s prose formulation struck a chord with Judah al-Harizi, the late twelfth-century author and native of Arabophone Toledo in Castile, who left home and traveled to the Muslim East in search of patronage, a cultural home, and status as a Hebrew and Arabic literary intellectual. In Tahkemoni, al-Harizi’s collection of Hebrew-rhymed prose rhetorical and picaresque anecdotes, the narrator figure Heman ha-Ezrahi responds to a query about his place of origin by rephrasing Halevi: “Sefarad is my land, the Land of Israel my destination.” The post-Crusader condition of Jerusalem and its internally compromised Jewish community is depicted in another anecdote. Yet Tahkemoni, like the other Jewish literary texts with the potential to develop a discourse of place, relates precious little regarding the physical environment the author encountered in eastern Mediterranean lands but much about the character of its Jewish communities and some of their leading figures. This meta-political people, it seems, was attached to the idea of place as much if not more than to place or land itself.

Ross Brann is the Milton R. Konvitz Professorof Judeo-Islamic Studies at Cornell University.  He is currently working on Andalusi Moorings: Sefarad and Al-Andalus as Tropes of Jewish and Islamic Culture [in progress].

From AJS Review 38:1, Spring 2014

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