Yehuda Halevi was born in Tudela between 1070 and 1075. He is considered one of the greatest Jewish poets of Spain and of all time, and his liturgical poetry appears in prayer rites of all Jewish traditions.
He is assumed to be the author of Yom Shabbaton, recited and sung at Shabbat dinners to this day. He also was a medical doctor and one of the most important philosophers of medieval Spain, known for his comparative philosophical treatise on Judaism, Kitab al-Khazari, a work that remains relevant.
As a young man Halevi left the Christian kingdoms of Spain to establish himself in Al-Andalus, where he received the influence of Jewish intellectuals such as Abraham ibn Ezra, Selomoh ibn Gabirol and Samuel Ibn Nagrella — future protagonists of the Sephardic Corner. He was befriended by Joseph ibn Migash, the head of the yeshiva in Eli-Hossana (Lucena, in present-day Cordova), known as the pearl of Sepharad.
From Cordova, he traveled to Granada, where Moshe ibn Ezra offered him a position, although it is not clear whether it was related to his medical profession or his philosophical and literary activities.
The turbulent politics and increasingly antagonistic attitude toward the Jewish people in Al-Andalus forced him to return to the Christian kingdoms of Spain, particularly to Toledo, where he was introduced to the court by Yosef Ibn Ferruziel (Cidellus), Alfonso VI’s physician and adviser. He practiced medicine and wrote poetry and philosophy.
When Ferruziel was assassinated, Halevi wrote a poem that included verses in Spanish. This dedicatory is considered one of the first literary manifestations in Spanish.
A talent for improvising poetry, profound thinking and unconditional love of Judaism characterized Halevi. He was said to be a kind and friendly man, well received in tertulias (salons) because of the ease with which he improvised verses on any subject in all styles.
Halevi’s poetry includes secular verses, love songs, and religious and liturgical works. His longest poem is a Kedushah that summons all the universe to praise G-d with rejoicing and that terminates in Psalm 103.
His poems reached as far as India and influenced the rituals of the most distant countries. Even the Karaites incorporated some of them into their prayer book, and there is scarcely a synagogue in which Yehuda Halevi’s songs are not sung during a service.
In time, Halevi reduced his production of poetry on mundane themes and began to produce eulogies for friends and to concentrate on philosophical and religious verses.
His love for Zion led him to the Holy Land, and during his voyage by ship he composed a series of poems about the sea. When he arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, he was well received by the Jewish community and stayed about two years.
It has never been clear whether he reached Jerusalem, and there have been many legends about his presence and death in 1141 in Israel.
Halevi created a religious-poetic genre known as Zionida. The following example reflects his lifelong conflict between his comfortable life in Sepharad and his longing for Zion.
My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west —
How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me?
How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet
Zion lieth beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains?
A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain —
Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.
Life in London
Now we shift to an anecdote concerning the Sephardic diaspora. This month we travel to the Sephardic community of London.
In 1655 Oliver Cromwell readmitted the Jewish people to England. That was when the still-active Spanish-Portuguese Sephardic community was founded and when the impressive synagogue Bevis Marks, the oldest in England, was constructed.
The first inhabitants of the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community in London came from Amsterdam and included prosperous businessmen and merchants.
One of the most important rabbis who served this community was David Nieto, who had been a physician and rabbi in Livorno, Italy. One of his first books, written in Italian and titled “Pascologia,” explains the difference between the Hebrew calendar and the Roman calendars, showing the errors in the astronomic calculations.
In 1702 he was named jajam of the Sephardic community of London and served as rabbi and medical doctor. One of his most famous works is Matteh Dan (or Kuzari Heleq Sheni), heavily influenced by Halevi’s Kitab al-Khazari.
A member of the Sephardic community of London whose occupation was different from what we usually discuss was Daniel Mendoza, the first champion Jewish boxer.
He was only 5-foot-7 and 160 pounds, but Mendoza was England’s 16th heavyweight champion, holding the title from 1792 to 1795. Always proud of his heritage, he announced himself as Mendoza the Jew.
He is the father of scientific boxing. He introduced the concept of defense, developed the guard and the straight left, and made use of sidestepping tactics. His approach, the Mendoza School, also referred to as the Jewish School, was criticized by some as cowardly. But it permitted Mendoza to take advantage of his small stature, speed and punching power.
Mendoza wrote two books about boxing: “The Art of Boxing” and “The Memoirs of the Life of Daniel Mendoza” (1816).
A victory in his first professional fight in 1787 won him the patronage of the Prince of Wales. His acceptance by British royalty (he was the first Jew to speak to King George III) helped elevate the position of the Jewish community in English society.
Mendoza’s matches against rival Richard Humphries (or Humphreys) are legendary. From 1788 to 1790, he lost the first battle in 29 rounds but won the next two in 52 and 15, known as Mendoza the Jew rounds. Mendoza became such a popular figure in England that he was the protagonist of songs and of plays. His personal appearances filled theaters. He and his fights were popular subjects for artists, and commemorative medals were coined in his honor.
A curious fact is that the actor Peter Sellers was Mendoza’s great-great-grandson.
The Sephardic Corner is a monthly contribution of Congregation Or VeShalom to the greater Jewish community.