B. Judah Abravanel, Poem to His Son (1503)

Son of the Jewish sage Don Isaac Abarbanel

Translated from Hebrew by Raymond P. Scheindlin,
Professor of Medieval Hebrew Literature,
Director, Medieval Jewish Studies: JTS

This Hebrew poem by Judah Abravanel (also known as Leone Ebreo) is an anguished expression of the dislocation experienced by a prominent-Jewish aristocrat caught up in the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. It was written in Italy in 1503 and addressed to the poet's twelve-year-old son, Isaac, then living in Portugal.

The family had originally lived in Portugal, then moved to Castile in 1483 when Judah's father fell from grace at the Portuguese court. After the 1492 Edict of Expulsion in Castile, however, the infant Isaac was sent to live with relatives in Portugal for safety, while his father and grandfather later fled to Italy. Unfortunately, Manuel I of Portugal ordered the forced baptism of Jewish refugee children in 1497, an edict that applied to young Isaac. This letter was written to Isaac while Judah was serving as a doctor to the Spanish viceroy in Naples, and it may have been prompted by the expectation of bringing Isaac to Italy.

In the poem, Judah not only rails against fate, but admonishes his son to live up to family traditions. Clearly, as with many Marranos (Jews who had converted to Christianity under pressure but still considered themselves to be Jewish), Isaac had access to some Jewish education despite his conversion.

We do not know what happened next, or whether father and son were ever reunited. Isaac may have left Portugal in 1507, when Marranos were given permission to leave the country, and a Jew bearing his name turned up in Salonica in 1558. This poem is presented in the same format (sic) as presented in the original translation.

Time with his pointed shafts has hit
My heart and split my gut, laid open my entrails,
landed me a blow that will not heal,
knocked me down, left me in lasting pain.
Time wounded me, wasted away my flesh,
used up my blood and fat in suffering,
ground my bones to meal, and rampaged, leapt,
attacked me like a lion in his rage.

He did not stop at whirling me around,
exiling me while yet my days were green,
sending me stumbling, drunk, to roam the world,
spinning me dizzy round about its edge--
so that I've spent two decades on the move
without my horses ever catching breath--
so that my palms have measured oceans, weighed

the dust of continents--so that my spring
is spent-
                    no, that was not enough:
He chased my friends from me, exiled
my age-mates, sent my family far
so that I never see a face I know-
father, mother, brothers, or a friend.
He scattered everyone I care for northward,
eastward, or to the west, so that
I have no rest from constant thinking, planning--
and never a moment's peace, for all my plans.
Now that I see my future in the East,
their separation clutches at my heels.
My foot is turned to go, but my heart's at sea;
I can't tell forward from behind.

my bear, my wolf! -- ate up my heart, cleft
it in two and cut it into bits,
so that it aches with groaning, panic, plunder,
confiscation, loss, captivity.
But even this was not enough for him; he also seeks
to snuff my spark, exterminate my line.

Two sons were born to me, two splendid sons,
two precious, noble, handsome boys.
The younger I named Samuel. Time,
my watchful overseer, confiscated him,
struck him down, just five years old,
and all that grew from him was misery.
The elder I called Isaac Abravanel,
after the quarry where I myself was hewn,
after one of Israel's greats, his grandfather,
a man a match for David, Lamp unto the West.
At birth I saw that he was good,
his heart a fitting site for wisdom, apt
repository for the goods
his forebears handed down through me.
He was just one year old--alas!--when Time,
the enemy ever at my heels,
took him away.

The day the King of Spain expelled the Jews
he ordered that a watch be set for me
so that I not slip away through mountain passes,
and that my child, still nursing, should be seized
and brought into his faith on his behalf.
A good man got word to me in time, a friend;
I sent him with his wet-nurse in the dark
of midnight--just like smuggled goods!--
to Portugal, then ruled by a wicked king
who earlier had nearly ruined me.
For in his father's time--a worthy king!-
my father had achieved success and wealth.
Then this one followed him, a grasping thing,
a man but with the cravings of a dog.
His courtiers and his brother schemed revolt.
He thwarted them and killed his brother; then,
alleging that my father was with them,
he tried to kill him too! But God,
the Rider of the clouds, preserved his life.
My father fled to Castile, home of my ancestors,
my family's source. But as for me,
the King seized all my gold and silver,
took as forfeit everything I owned.

Now, seeing that my child was in his land,
and learning that I planned
to join my father's house in Italy,
the King detained my child and gave command
that none should send my stray lamb back to me.
After lie died a foolish king arose,
fanatical and hollow in the head,
who violated all the House of Jacob,
turned my noble people to his faith.
Many killed themselves, rather than
transgress the Law of God, our help in need.
My darling boy was taken, and his good name,
the name of the rock from which I was hewn changed!
He's twelve years old; I haven't seen him since--
so are my sins repaid!
I rage, but only at myself;
there's no one else but me to bear the blame.
I chased him from mere troubles to a trap,
I drove him from mere sparks into a flame.
I hope to see him, heartsick with my endless hope.

0 dear gazelle! What makes you tarry so?
Why do you thus crush a father's heart?
Why do you aim your arrows at my inmost parts?
Why do you dim the fight by sending clouds
and make the shining seem like night to me?
The moon is always darkened in my sight,
my star is blotted out by clouds;
no sun's ray ever penetrates my home,
or crosses my doorsill to reach my beams.
My roses never bloom on Sharon's plain,
my grasses never feel the driving rain.
You steal my very sleep with the thought of you--
am I sleeping or awake? I cannot tell.
I cannot touch my food, for even honey stings,
and sweets taste venomous to me.
Miserably I nibble coal-burnt crusts,
moistening with tears my dried-out bread.
My only drink is water mixed with tears;
the blood of grapes does not come near my mouth.
I'm drunk with nothing more than water,
like a Nazirite or one of Rechab's sons.

But when I dream of your return,
and when I picture in my mind's eye how you look,
how good my fortune seems! The rose returns
to dress my cheek in sanguine once again.
I sleep and find sleep sweet; I wake
refreshed, delighting in your lingering image.
The water that I drink is sweet, and even earth
tastes sweet when I imagine you are here.
But when I think about our separation,
hear blasts my heart, a desert wind within.
I seem like one dismayed or in a faint,
diminished somehow and reduced in size.
The thought of you is joy to me and pain,
tonic and torment arc from you, balm and bane.
I have your image graven on my heart,
but also our separation in my core,
and any joy your image brings to me
cannot outweigh the reproach your absence speaks.
Your absence frustrates all my plans,
your exile blocks, diverts my roads.

* * *

Let me go back to speaking to my boy,
for that will make him leave off hurting me.
Now pay attention, son: Know that you
descend from scholars, men with minds
developed to the point of prophecy.
Wisdom is your heritage, so do not waste
your boyhood, precious boy.
Think of your studies as pleasure: learning Scripture,
conning the commentators, memorizing Mishna,
reasoning out the Talmud
with the Thirteen Principles, guided by
the glosses of the ancient Schools . . .
--But how can I control myself when he is lost?
That is the thought that sickens, strangles, slashes me;
that is the razor, sharper than any barber's blade,
that rips the membrane of my aching heart,
that brings into my miserable heart
into my very gut the flaming sword:
To whom will I hand on my scholarship?
To whom can I pour the nectar from my vines?
Who will taste and eat the fruit of all
my learning, of my books, when I am gone?
Who will penetrate the mysteries
my father put into his sacred books?
Who will slake his thirst at my father's well?
Who will drink at all in this time of drought?
Who will pluck the blooms of my own garden,
hew and harvest my own wisdom's tree?
Who will take my undone works in hand?
Who will weave my writings' woof and warp?
Who will wear the emblem of my faith
when once I die?
Who will mount my mule or ride my coach?--
Only you, my soul's delight, my heir,
the pledge for everything I owe to God.
       For you, my son, my heart is thirsting, burning;
in you I quell my hunger and my thirst.
My splendid skills are yours by right, my knowledge,
and the science that has gotten fame for me.
Some of it my mentor, my own father
bequeathed to me -a scholar's scholar he;
the rest I gained by struggling on my own,
subduing wisdom with my bow and sword,
plumbing it with my mind. Christian scholars
are grasshoppers next to me. I've seen their colleges--
they've no one who can best me in the duel of words.
I beat down any man who stands against me,
crush and hush my opponent, prove him wrong.
Who but me would dare to tell the mysteries
of the Creation, of the Chariot, of its Rider?
My soul excels, surpasses all the souls
of my contemporaries in this wretched age.
My Form is fortified by God, my Rock,
locked, imprisoned in my body's cage.
It yearns for you to surpass my degree;
I always hoped that you would outdo me.

Dear one, what keeps you with an unclean folk,
an apple tree alone amid the carobs,
a pure soul lost among the nations,
a rose among the desert thorns and weeds?
Set out upon the road to me, my dear.
Fly, bound like a fawn or a gazelle,
and make your way to your father's house, who sired you
(may God protect you, Who protected me!).
May the Lord give you smooth roads to travel,
lift you out of straits to my ample court,
heap upon your head my forefathers' bounty,
besides my father's and my grandfather's wealth.
Then He will light my spirit in its darkness,
and redirect my footsteps to the plain.
I now commend my son to God, my shepherd,
and cast my burden on my Highest Father.
He will bring my dear son to my presence:
When I call my darling boy will hear.
Then I will sing a love-song to my Maker,
hymning my passion to Him while I live,
bringing my offering, setting my gift before Him.
My song it is that binds me to my Holy One.
The best of me is in it: my heart and eyes.
O may it please Him like the Temple rams;
my hymn, my words, like bulls upon His altar.
And may He show me Zion in her splendor,
the royal city of my anointed king,
and over it, two luminaries, equals:
Messiah, son of David and Elijah.
May never enemy again divide her,
or nomad pitch his tent in her again.


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Source: Hebrew text published by Havim Schirmann, Mivhar bashira ha'ivrit heiWya (Berlin: Schocken Verlag, 1934), pp 217-222. English text from "Judah Abravanel to His Sons,"Judaism 41 (Spring 1992). Amrican Jewish Congress. © Copyright is held by ALL original parties as listed above. Prepared for HTML by S. Alfassa for the Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture in full respect to the United States Fair Use standards, embodied in section 107 of the Copyright Act. September 2002.


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