According to local legend in Jerusalem, the walls of the old houses in its ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods would have collapsed long ago were it not for the pashkvilim - the posters plastered upon them. The word pashkevil (in the singular form ), long ago become part and parcel of the Yiddish and Hebrew languages, but its origin is…
The writing on the wall
The two 16th-century Yiddish poems featured in a new scholarly work were rooted in broadsides posted on the walls of Venice.
By Roni Weinstein • Ha’aretz
"Due canti Yiddish, Rime di un poeta ashkenazita nella Venezia del Cinquecento ("Two Poems in Yiddish, Rhymes of an Ashkenazi Poet in 16th-Century Venice" ) translated and prefaced by Claudia Rosenzweig, Bibliotheca Aretina
According to local legend in Jerusalem, the walls of the old houses in its ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods would have collapsed long ago were it not for the pashkvilim - the posters plastered upon them. 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.
The tradition of Jewish pashkvilim has aroused the curiosity of researchers of old Yiddish culture such as the late Chone Shmeruk, the Israeli Yiddishist Chava Turniansky, the German linguist Erika Timm, the late Polish scholar Nahum Shtif and Evi Butzer. But the subject of Old Yiddish, the earliest written evidence of which goes back to Italy in the 13th century and which was in use until the beginning of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment ), in the 18th century, passed out of favor among Israeli scholars, even though one cannot understand either modern Yiddish literature or the culture of pre-war Eastern European Jewry without it. Claudia Rosenzweig's "Elye Bokher: Two Poems in Yiddish, Rhymes of an Ashkenazi Poet in 16th-Century Venice," deals with two such poems that were apparently originaly published as pashkvilim.
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; she also expands on their literary-poetic background. 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.
It is quite clear that whoever assembled this collection distinguished between the sacred and the secular in a completely different way than modern people would. 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.
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. The carnival's songs were written in this atmosphere of permissiveness and temporary lawlessness, of everything being turned upside down and with open criticism of the powers-that-be, the clergy and others with whom one desires to settle accounts, as well as of communal and religious norms. The songs were part of a hard-hitting and colorful spectacle.
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] who distinguishes between the sacred and the secular / Who shall forgive our sins." Bokher uses this to launch a venomous counter attack against a rival, who besmirched him. 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? Chone Shmeruk, who was the first to study it and the paskvilim, believes these were expressions of popular culture protesting the erudite and educated culture of the beit midrash, the places of Torah study. Rosenzweig rejects this theory on literary grounds. The two poems are linked with Elye Bokher's other poems and like them articulate a refined and educated literary self-expression in terms of the language they use and the rich allusions to the sacred literature. Such poetry was composed among the young men (bokhers ), who traveled around Europe seeking appealing places and reputable teachers for their studies. 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.
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."
The many voices and polyphony were also evident in Ashkenazi culture, the historical forbear of Haredi Judaism since the Enlightenment. The poems of educated and learned creators such as Elye Bokher show another aspect of this tradition - vulgarity, ridicule, profanity, games, lust and acerbity - that contrasted with the image that the spokesmen of that tradition tried to embody: of propriety and obsessive adherence to modesty and religious devotion.