Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Meir ben Eliahu:
Into the Light (1)

I wanted to write about this book before and also something about the two events that launched it, the second just last night. 

What is the book? 

It is a collection of the known poems of a thirteenth century Jewish poet named Meir ben Eliahu, of whom hardly anything else is known. Some of the poetry was discovered in the Vatican Library by a Jewish scholar called Abraham Berliner who published it in a tiny edition in the original Hebrew in 1887. Other work was found in Russian manuscripts. The texts were available to the few who were interested in such things. This is the first translation into English.

How do we know the poems are by Meir ben Eliahu? We know that because he signed them, not by scrawling his name underneath, but by the use of acrostics embedded in the poems. The fullest of those acrostics tells us:

I am Meir, son of rabbi Eliahu, from the city of Norgitz which is in the land of isles called Angleterre. May I grow up in the Torah of my Creator and in ferar of him; Amen, Amen, Selah.

Norgitz was an unusual spelling of Norwich even at the time, but Meir was certainly from Norwich and his father, possibly one Elyas, was mentioned in a deed of 1293 as having lived next door to the synagogue.  Meir himself (his name means Light) is not recorded.

The expulsion of the Jews in England took place in 1290, at the climax of a long period of trouble for Jews, particularly in Norwich. In 1144 the body of a twelve year old boy called William was found on Mousehold Heath, now in Norwich, then just outside. There was a hue and cry and the Jewish community was accused of ritual murder. William was quickly canonised and there were pogroms, punishments and executions. In 1190 most of the Jews in the city were massacred. Some forty years later those that remained were, as the Introduction to the book puts it, 'burned out of their houses'. Between and after there were repeated efforts to get the Jews to convert. Accusing Jews and executing them was a good way taking possession of their property. And then, under Edward I, came the full expulsion, only reversed, after much negotiation, by Cromwell, who needed the trade, in 1657.

That is the background. Meir's poems are a direct response to the 1290 expulsions.

The book itself is beautifully produced by a Norwich press with a full introduction by the editor and instigator of the book, the writer and journalist,  Keiron Pim. The translations are by Ellman Crasnow and Bente Elsworth both of whom used to teach at the UEA,  who provide a very useful Translators' Note.

It seem, in many ways, to be a very local matter. The poems are by a citizen of Norwich and relate to the history of Norwich. They are published and translated in Norwich and launched there. What gives it more than local prominence is because the William case in Norwich is the very first recorded blood Blood Libel. That is enough to render it of much more than local interest. 

Being the very first English translation of these seven hundred year old poems, the book's appearance also has a distinct place in English historiography since the poems - which predate Julian of Norwich, -are the only works of their kind relating to the expulsions. 


The golden age of medieval poetry in Hebrew is collected in Peter Cole's marvellous anthology, The Dream of the Poem, that covers Jewish poetry in Muslim and Christian Spain from 950-1492. Meir's poems are to the north of that great period in every sense. They are not as rich or lyrically diverse as the poems in Cole's anthology and are perhaps a little cruder than the best of the work in Cole nevertheless they bite and hold firm where necessary and soar when opportunity affords. That is if we go by the English translation. I myself have no Hebrew.

We have essentially five poems if one counts the set of sixteen poems at the end as a single work. As concerns the translation, the poems are given in facing versions: English on the verso, Hebrew on the recto. English clearly requires more words since the stanzas in English are generally longer but that is often the case in verse translation. I'll discuss the translation later. 

Of the five poems three are particularly interesting: A Liturgical Poem on the Burden of Exile Suffering and Ruin (Put a Curse on My Enemy) which is a lament in response to the expulsions; the longest poem, Who is Like You, which runs through the Torah from Genesis to the Exodus and contains the long acrostic quoted above, and the final group of Sixteen Poems.

Of these three the Sixteen Poems are the freest and most lyrical expressions of Meir's imagination though they too involve acrostics and a complex symbolism whereby sacrifical creatures are replaced by various combinations of the letters of Meir's name.

I will continue this piece in the next post, coming straight up.

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