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Jewish Literature’s Impelling Force on History - Analyzing the Mutual Reflection of Jewish Texts and Jewish Culture

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Jewish Literature’s Impelling Force on History:

Analyzing the Mutual Reflection of Jewish Texts and Jewish Culture

        The changing climate of religion has always been a topic of household discussion and academic study. More specifically, Judaism has often been at the epicenter of religious shifts, moving throughout history as a very much detested demographic to a supported demographic and today, as a demographic that has persevered through much attempted genocide, but still facing ant-Semitism on an everyday basis in certain parts of the world. As history in general has always been, the history of the Jewish people may be learned through the literary figures that lived during these different periods and the detail and style of their works. Poetry and the climate of Judaism have a mutually beneficial relationship, each thrusting the other forward in space; poetry evolving in its structures, styles and content, while Judaism thrusting through its suppression. Both have tendencies to benefit the other. Not unlike literary figures, the influence of the precursory figure inevitably impacts the latter, and so we may assume that without previous history and literature, the present would not be as it is.

        To suggest the truth in this mutually progressive relationship, a focus on various authors throughout this context is necessary. Notable figures such as Dunash Ben Labrat, Heinrich Heine, Hayim Nahman Bialik and Allen Ginsberg have created works that reflected and inspired historical change. Additionally, there is much published literature on the impacts of previous poets on their successors. American literary critic, Harold Bloom, has established his literary ethos with his widely celebrated theories published in The Anxiety of Influence. According to Bloom, “because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul, he does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has no been written for him.”[1] Several academics have undermined this argument, stating if it were true, Bloom’s own claims are the result of someone else’s work and thought, and consequently, Bloom himself is “not thinking his natural thoughts.” Regarding his theory and Jewish poetry compared to Jewish history, it becomes apparent that these poets are not writing with singular thoughts, but instead linear, acting just as history does. This raises the question of whether these linear subjects are running parallel to one another or if they are elapsing in conjunction with one another. Deep analysis and a close read of these authors’ work suggest the latter.

        Working chronologically, we begin with the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain, where Jews were actually accepted in Europe and as a result their culture blossomed. Often coined, “the Father of Andalusian Hebrew Poetry,” Dunash Ben Labrat has received much acclaim for his poem, He Said Don’t Sleep. With this poem Labrat introduced Arabic meter into Hebrew poetry. While the two styles coexisted separately, they were now harmoniously weaved into Labrat’s poetry. His use of the Arabic qaside style (poem of praise, its double structure of opening and body, is praise of God and the moral values sermonized in the Torah) enabled his text to metaphorically begin to assimilate these cultures. The critical note here is Dunash’s exploitation of Arabic style within traditional literary values. His writing reflects the early assimilations between Jewish and Gentile writings. The poem indirectly upholds God’s values from the Torah by rejecting the invitation to the pleasures of feasting and culture. Dunash’s poem accuses the practitioner of “abandoning the study of the Supreme God’s Torah.”[2] This line represents the strict dedication to religion of the time. Judaism shaped Labrat’s ways of writing just as Labrat reflected Judaism’s practices at the time. Together the two foreshadow the era of suppression that Judaism would fall into.

        Heinrich Heine’s Dona Clara discusses the impacts of a muted suppression with unordinary circumstances. Harold Bloom writes, “influence is simply a transference of personality, a mode of giving away what is most precious to one’s self, and its exercise produces a sense, and, it may be, a reality of loss. Every disciple takes away something from his master.” [3] It may be understood that while many years elapsed between these two authors, through the literary progressions of time, that of his Jewish predecessor, Labrat, has shaped Heine’s writing. Their works coincide with progressive radical views, yet they differ in structure. Unlike Labrat’s qasida style, the German poet utilizes irony and symbolism to deliver his message on behalf of the Jewish people. Heine provides his audience with images “flowers” and “gardens.” These natural elements suggest purity and innocence, yet the acts done by the characters are just the opposite. The woman of the poem continues to rehash her disgust for Jews. While the knight in the poem draws her attention from this, saying, “forget about the Jews,” he has motives not clear to the woman. The two lovers have sex and subsequent to the act, the knight reveals to the woman he is a Jew. She is left speechless as the poem concludes. Through Henie’s rhetorical choices and use of language he achieves a level of irony to be noted and taken into context of Jewish history. Moreover, in the text the woman compares gnats to Jews with hooked noses. It is no coincidence that a gnat is something with the ability to sting. The author includes this erotic detail to compare the metaphor to the reality, where the knight has “stung” the noble gentile.  The point to note is Heine’s open-ended conclusion: He is posing the question of what is to happen next, moreover, what is to happen next in Jewish history after the Jews begin to assimilate sexually with the rest of the world? This poem and its meanings speak to the attempted assimilation Heine openly advocated. Jews and gentiles of the time were not one of the same, but they were beginning to mingle. Heine’s literature leads into the increasing hostility this assimilation would raise that can be noted in Bialik’s In the City of Slaughter.

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