09.12.14, Einbinder, No Place of Rest

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Shmuel Shepkaru

The Medieval Review 09.12.14

Einbinder, Susan L.. No Place of Rest: Jewish Literature, Expulsion, and the Memory of Medieval France. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. 256. ISBN: 978-08122-4115-0.

Reviewed by:
Shmuel Shepkaru
University of Oklahoma

An insufficient amount of historical records makes the study of the Jewish expulsions from France a challenging task. The study of the expulsion of 1306 and its traces in later Jewish literature in No Place of Rest is no exception. Apart from the paucity of literary material, the study encountered the historical void that the distances between text and context, history and memory, and dislocation and relocation often create. Aware of such constraints, Susan L. Einbinder aimed not only to provide an analysis of the poetry, but also to turn such limitations to her advantage. Thus she desired to shed more light on the literature of abstruse authors, their poorly documented experience, and obscure surviving memory.

Each of the six chapters generally includes a short historical background, information about the poets, and the history of the manuscripts that preserved their works. The study then proceeds with an analysis of the text and aims to situate the texts within their historical and cultural context.

More specifically, the book opens with Isaac b. Abraham of Aire, ha-Gorni (chapter one). Presented as a native of Gascony and a witness of the expulsion of its Jews in 1287, his work serves to trace the paths of the expelled, their relocation, and "how history chose to remember them" (15). Einbinder rejects the "romantic" classifications of Isaac as a Hebrew troubadour from the lower class. Instead, he is a "mainstream member of an intellectual elite" (33), who was affected by the ongoing controversy between "Greek philosophy" and Jewish tradition. His elitist style contributed to the unpopularity of his work. These conclusions are based both on her analysis of Isaac's poetry and its survival in a single manuscript (Ms. Munich 128).

The known Yedaiah Beders and the unknown Joseph ben Sheshet Latim are two "rationalists" who observed the expulsion of 1306 through the eyes of the refugees (chapter two). Rationalizing the traumatic event philosophically, they provided an elitist understanding of history in time of crisis. Not primarily intended for public recitation, their works are understood to represent the history of the elite who absorbed the French émigré. Eventually, the high form of these elitist works "contributed to the loss of the event they commemorated" (60).

In contrast, the traditional liturgical genre had better chances of survival (chapter three). This point is illustrated through the popular hymns of Reuben b. Isaac of Montpellier, a victim of the expulsion of 1306. His poetry serves to trace the exiled and their new lives in the continent and North Africa, because his poetry was designed to shape communal memory (70) and "keep a community intact" (63). In time, the exiled succeeded not only to maintain their old culture whole, but to shape the culture of the Jewish communities that absorbed them. This was especially true in the Jewish communities of North Africa.

In Crescas Caslari's poetry on the Book of Esther (chapter four), both traditionalist and rationalist styles come to the surface. As a physician and a communal leader, Crescas applied these two approaches to the biblical Purim narrative to call to mind the memory of Provençe and capture contemporary realia. Crescas's dual approach could make his vernacular romance appealing to women and children as well as medically sophisticated males (89). The inclusion of his Hebrew Esther poetry in the heritage of Comtadin Jews attests to the popularity of his work.

Jacob ben Solomon is another physician who wrote poetry (chapter five). His Evel Rabbati (Great Mourning) is an attempt to maintain the cultural values of his parents in exile. In Evel Rabbati Jacob commemorated in a distinctive prose-style the loss of his daughter to the plague of 1382. Jacob understood his daughter's death as an act of God and a test of faith rather than a natural event explained by science. Here again the clash between rationalism and traditionalism comes to the surface. Thus his work is understood to be polemical and commemorative.

Commemoration and polemics are the characteristics Einbinder finds also in the Parma 1883 collection of liturgical hymns by the French Jewish exiled or their descendants in Northern Italy (chapter six). This time the polemics were not internal. While commemorating specific past communal experiences of the 1394-refugees, these hymns "cunningly" commented (140) on local contemporary events, such as the Tortosa Disputation (1412-1414). But soon these comments on history became memory of the past in following liturgy that preferred generic topoi over historical details. This chapter is followed by a short Epilogue.

Given the challenges Einbinder faced, the information she retrieved from her sources and the conclusions she provided attest to her remarkable skills as a scholar of medieval Hebrew literature. At the same time, these challenges leave open a couple of questions. First, the origin of the poets or their parents is not always certain (Jacob ben Solomon is "Most likely the child of French Jewish refugees in the Comtat," 111). Based on the name "ha-Geroni," Einbinder identifies Isaac ben Abraham as a Gascon refugee from Aire [1] (southwest France) living in Provence. But Joseph Shatzmiller placed him in Montpellier (southeast France). [2] The second possibility should have been addressed. Generally speaking, Hebrew transliterations of geographical localities have been a thorny assignment for medievalists and this seems to be even more so with French locations.

Second, some of the poetry is analyzed against the background of the controversy between "Greek philosophy" and Jewish tradition. However, the separation of the two was not always clear cut. This may complicate the grouping of poets along these lines as well. For instance, Maimonides' works (the center of the controversy) show that Jewish authors could address different audiences in different formats and even convey what may appear to be inconsistent views. In the case of the Kuzari, Judah ha-Levi labored to knock down "Greek philosophy" in favor of Jewish traditionalism by applying philosophical methods. Nor is it too adventurous to assume that even rationalist men may turn to heaven in times of personal tragedies, especially in poetry and liturgy, and still be "rationalists."

Finally, the non-specialist would have benefited from a conclusion that would show how the individual chapters come together to provide the larger picture of expulsions, history, culture, and memory.

These comments are not meant to detract from Einbinder's work, but to attest to her achievement. Her book is a pleasure to read, it provides a generous bibliography, introduces hardly known or unfamiliar literary works, and provides intriguing analysis. No Place to Rest places Einbinder among the leading scholars of medieval French Jewish literature.



1. The identification was made already by M. Steinchneider in A. Bedersi, HŌtam toknīt (1865) 3:1-13.

2. Joseph Shatzmiller, Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 27.

Article Details

Author Biography

Shmuel Shepkaru

University of Oklahoma