Poetry, pashkevils, and parody

Here is a cute Haaretz review of some 16th century parody poems that appeared as pashkevils and become part of an anthology of mixed secular and religious given to a bride. I edited the review down and re-arranged parts. The review reads as if the author Roni Weinstein brought the poems to class and used them as a basis for a general intro to the culture 16th century bakhurs. Any thoughts on comparing our pop-culture to theirs?

Two Poems in Yiddish, Rhymes of an Ashkenazi Poet in 16th-Century Venicetranslated and prefaced by Claudia Rosenzweig, Bibliotheca Aretina

The word pashkevil (in the singular form ), long ago become part and parcel of the Yiddish and Hebrew languages, but its origin is Italian. The 16th-century Hebrew and Yiddish scholar Elye Bokher (pseudonym of Elia Levita ) wrote about it in his Hebrew dictionary “Sefer Hamedakdek”: “Yes, in olden times people who composed proverbs would write their works on the doorsteps of charitable people or secretly in busy streets, so that they could not be identified. That is the custom in Rome to this day and those things are called katavot [articles],” he noted.

And indeed, to this day one can see such advertisements, pasquinate in Italian, in various places in Rome, on the walls of houses or on statues, mainly with political satire.
Elijah, the son of Asher Halevy Levita Ashkenazi, also known as Elye Bokher, was born in 1468 in Ipsheim, Germany, and died in 1549 in Venice. During his lifetime, he managed to write what became some of the basic works of Yiddish literature: He compiled a dictionary, wrote poetry, translated holy books and he may be best known for adapting knights tales into Yiddish. The most famous of them were “Paris and Vienna” and “Bovo d’Antona.” The Jews of Ashkenaz (Germany ) and later of Poland were avid readers of stories about knights and kings, a tradition that lasted for hundreds of years. The 19th-century “Tales of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav” also include references to these stories.

It is no coincidence that Levita was called “Bokher” (lad ), which in the Hebrew spoken at that time meant an unmarried man or a yeshiva student who travels from place to place to learn Torah. Elye indeed wandered from Germany to Italy as he sought sponsorship. He found it among Jewish patrons of the arts and Catholic clergymen such as Egidio da Viterbo, for whom he copied several Hebrew manuscripts and also composed books about the Hebrew language.

In her book, Rosenzweig, a gifted researcher of Yiddish literature, translates into Italian two poems by Elye Bokher;
The first poem was written when Bokher was an adolescent, upon his arrival in Venice. There he had to defend his good reputation in the face of slanderous claims that he had joined other Jews in looting during a fire that raged near the city’s Rialto Bridge. After expressing his anger for being unjustly arrested, he continued with a bitter criticism of wealthy Jews, who seem to get away with perpetrating various injustices. In the final stanza he describes himself as one of the young adolescents who initiate and participate in the Purim festivities.

The manner in which Ashkenazim celebrate Purim offers fertile ground for the writing of witty and unbridled poems. As they developed in Germany during the Middle Ages – and then spread to other Jewish communities in the Diaspora, first and foremost to Jewish Italian communities – the holiday festivities were apparently modeled on the Christian carnival, with its own deep roots in pre-Christian pagan traditions. The latter carnival, and the Purim holiday by extension, was a time in which the boundaries between what is permitted and what is not, between the private and the public, between the shameful and the refined, are all broken down, and the body – full of vitality – shows all its aspects, including those that are usually concealed.

Young yeshiva students spearheaded the events of the Purim-style carnival in their communities in Ashkenaz. Young men in Italy, for example, would dress up as women and hold up masks – something that Rabbi Halevi Minz, one of the great Italian rabbis of the period, reported with much anger.

Nothing can be more harmful to an enemy’s image than to strike at his masculinity and sexuality, it seems. Such a goal was well served by witty poetry in a language that the Italians call, to this day, “biting” or “murderous,” be it orally or in writing, in pasquils displayed in the streets of a Jewish neighborhood and sometimes on synagogues’ walls.
This is reflected in the second poem by Elye Bokher, “Shir Hamavdil” – an ironic paraphrase of a liturgical poem sung on Saturday nights as the Sabbath ends:

He labels that person as a “complete goy,” one who “does not know how to pray, a failed teacher who misleads his pupils when he teaches them Hebrew grammar, (and one who ) gambles in card games.”

Bokher then goes on to a juicy part that most befits this genre: dealing with the enemy’s sex life as expressed in his failed marriages with three different women. He divorced his first wife without even touching her, which means he is impotent. The second wife was a young and pious woman with whom he, again, failed to have intercourse. She died of grief. Without waiting for the traditional seven mourning days to end, the man promptly started looking for a third woman. With her, too, he failed sexually and she ran away from him. The poem continues its slanderous tone by stating that the man has sex with cats and chickens. In the last stanza the author says he intends to go to the city of Pesaro, where the Soncino family has a printing press, and print the poem there so that he can post it on walls in public places.

How widespread was such poetry and who read it? …Groups of such young people “engaged in games and composed comic poems in the beit midrash,” according to the “Sefer Midot,” published in Yiddish in 1542.

One of the manuscripts in which the poems were preserved was a father’s wedding gift to his daughter. It also included a complete collection of practical essays for the young woman: a collection of traditions, material from contemporary guides called “women’s books,” translations into Yiddish of the five biblical scrolls (Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations ), prayer and liturgical poems, a translation of Pirkei Avot, seven tales, a bilingual poem about the different ages of life, a poem about a competition between wine and water, a quiz and a wedding poem suitable for Purim.
The holy and the profane, the high and the low, the refined and the vulgar – all meet here more easily and with more joy than during the contemporary era, which is characterized by shame and modesty.

Hence, including such works in manuscripts given as a wedding gift to a young woman was not unusual in those days. It reflected a tradition that harks back to the Middle Ages with derogatory songs familiar to the Hebrew poets. In fact, the phenomenon was common to Jews and Christians in Europe, where one could find poems composed by young traveling priests, which dealt with love and bodily pleasures. Those novices also composed parodies about Christian liturgy in Latin or in a mixture of Latin and Italian – spoofs known as “macaroni.” Full version here.

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