This study focuses on Medieval Italian Jewry and, in particular, on a specific aspect of Italian Jewry: the Kinah. The reason for such a choice is that the Kinah is one of the first recorded literary manifestations of the Jewish communities residing in Italy. (1) The Kinah, also known as Judeo-Italian Elegy, was written in one of the many Italian dialects, but in Hebrew characters. (2) It was part of the religious services during the fast of the ninth day of the month of Av. (3) My analysis concentrates on both the literary and the linguistic aspects of the Elegy, analyzing the language, the contents, and the style. However, for the sake of clarity, some of the main historical, political, and social events of Medieval Europe are here introduced, calling upon those motives and traditions that could better explain the cultural legacy of Italian Jewry. (4)
The People of Zion on Italian Soil: From Early Presence to the Middle Ages
Italian Jewry has often, and rightfully so, been considered the oldest Jewish community of the Western world, as Jewish presence in Italy has been continuous for over two millennia. Despite the numerous repressions and persecutions, the People of Zion residing on Italian soil have managed to survive through the present day. (5)
We find Jewish settlements in Italy already in the second century before the Vulgar Era. Cecil Roth, in his The History of the Jews of Italy, refers to the Jewish presence in the peninsula as "indeed of profound antiquity [...] its Jewish communities are older than even its most venerable corporations; and if there is now in Rome any institution more ancient than the Papacy, it is the Synagogue." (6)
Substantiated by historical data and archaeological findings, it is believed that the first Jewish settlements were in Rome and to its south, along the trade routes and in the southern ports, (7) which functioned as a link with the Eastern Mediterranean mercantile posts. These small communities of both free men and slaves, were made of artisans, merchants, weavers, dyers, and farmers. Their way of life shows a high degree of cultural assimilation to the local customs, including the language. (8)
In the year 70 of the Vulgar Era, with the fall of Jerusalem, Titus put an end to the political unity of the Jewish people. A great number of Jews from Palestine were enslaved and sent to Italy. The majority was dispatched to Rome, the others were scattered throughout the South: Taranto, Otranto, Oria, and Bari. Such forced emigration increased the Jewish presence in Italy, mainly augmenting and reinforcing its ancient settlements. By the end of the Classical period, Jewish presence is found throughout the whole Italian Peninsula, Sicily, and Sardinia. Cecil Roth, rightfully ascertains that: "every sizable town in Italy had its Jewish community before the decay of the Roman Empire in the West." (9)
Besides Rome, which, since the beginning, has always had the largest concentration of Jewish population, there are, to its north Falerii, Chiusi, Genoa, Tortona, Milan, Brescia, Concordia, Aquileia, and Pola. To the south of Rome there are, instead, the ancient cities of Capua, Naples, Pozzuoli, Pompei, Bari, Otranto, Oria, and Taranto. In Sicily there is evidence of Jewish presence in Syracuse, Palermo, Catania, Messina, and Agrigento.
However things really deteriorated with the Christianization of the Empire in the fourth century. The state of the Jew was one of subjection, oftentimes protected, though unwillingly, by the Pope of the time against violence and brutal excesses. As a whole, however, the basic fundamental human rights of the Jew were maintained. The fifth and the sixth centuries were much of the same: discrimination and hostility but all contained.
Little is known about the daily life of the Jews residing in Italy during these first centuries of the Vulgar Era. Even less is known about their cultural and intellectual life. With the exception of the works of Josephus, (10) and Mattiah ben Heresh (11) no literary activity within the Judeo-Italian communities is to be found until the ninth century. We are left only with ruins of synagogues and tomb inscriptions in Greek and Latin, in which only sporadically some Hebrew words appear, such as Salom, Salom el Ysrael, all coupled with pagan symbols or with a menorah. Once again, this is an indication of poor schooling in Hebrew versus the high degree of assimilation to the local culture(s).
Political and social events of the eighth and ninth centuries will deeply affect Italian Jewry, its daily life, as well as its cultural aspect. The migration of Jews from North Africa, escaping the Muslim grip, had as its main consequence an increasing renewed interest in Hebrew and Hebrew studies as a whole. It was a revival of their culture, of their forgotten living language: thus the birth of rabbinical schools and the increasing production of works in Hebrew. Soon, by the end of the tenth century Italian Jews came to be regarded as highly educated and well trained in religious matters. It should also be noted that the Jewish communities residing in Italy have always been in close contact with Palestine and it was mainly from these southern Italian towns that the Palestinian tradition could be introduced and then transmitted to the rest of Europe.
Italy, and in particular the whole South, including Sicily, can boast of its ancient schools of religious poetry in Hebrew: "the earliest in Europe, if not the earliest outside Palestine." (12) Only by bearing this in mind, can we then understand a twelfth-century scholar, when he, using as his model Isaiah 2:3, (13) said: "from Bari comes forth the Law, and the word of God from Otranto." (14)
As we have seen, then, at the end of the first millennium and in the early Middle Ages, southern Italy is the irradiating place for Jewish culture. However, things begin to change. At the end of the thirteenth century, persecution in the Kingdom of Naples (15) left many Jews with either conversion to Christianity or exile, i.e., migrating north: Rome, Central and Northern Italy. After a century, Jewish life in Southern Italy, except for Sicily, was almost entirely eradicated, having lost its past splendor and fame, never to be regained. From now on, Jewish settlements are to be found in Rome and to its north.
In the meantime, the great trading cities of central and northern Italy begin to free themselves from the remote, indirect control of the German Empire, thus managing to organize themselves into semi-autonomous independent states. The Jews residing here, to the north of Rome, are mainly merchants and traders, especially in the great Italian republics, such as Pisa and Genoa. Before the thirteenth century, however, only to a few Jews permanent or temporary residence to the north of Rome was allowed. (16) This attitude was the result of fear of economic competition rather than a religious bias. Gradually, though, in the following two centuries things lead to a change, to the invitation of Jewish settlements within their cities, due partly to the Catholic Church. For a long time the Church had been very adamant in its crusade against Christian usury. It was precisely at this point that many central and northern Italian cities began to invite Jewish loan bankers. The need for capital was great, and Jewish money lenders served the purpose.
Thus the end of the thirteenth century figures as the turning point for such "internal Diaspora." The People of Zion move north. They make their appearance in central and northern Italy, living in close contact with the goim, in the cities, and countryside. (17) Of the central Italian geographico-political regions, the Marche and Umbria, due to geographical contiguity, successfully manage to maintain their cultural ties with the Jewish community in Rome.
The Jews already residing in these central and northern Italian towns (18) hence open up the way for new migrations. These new immigrants were Jews, but they were also "Italians" speaking a vernacular which had at its roots Latin. Therefore, assimilation to other Italian Jews was not difficult, and instead of drastic linguistic consequences, it created a linguistic compromise. Life and culture of Italian Jews in these first three centuries of the second millennium thus reflect these deep changes-mainly political-that touched the Italian Peninsula as a whole.
Hebrew is the literary language of these communities: the religious language in which the Jews of the Diaspora-Galut in Hebrew-expressed themselves. It was studied and learned at the scholae (19) and used for the daily prayers. In all other aspects of daily life, Italian Jews had totally adopted the local customs and/or language(s), feeling more comfortable with the latter-the local regional vernacular with which each community expressed itself-which was, after all, their native tongue. Hebrew was thus confined to religion, to literary and moralistic treatises. Yet, there were instances in which old, antiquated or more difficult Hebrew etyma were glossed in Italian-i.e., the local regional Italian-in the margin of texts. (20)
Post-biblical literature in Hebrew derives from the desire of the believer to adore the Lord both in public congregations and private prayer. Sometimes believers would feel the need to express their love and adoration in short, often Scripture-based stories. Such a composition is the piyyut, composed by the payyetanim, (21) who were numerous in the Middle Ages. The piyyut is not an integral part of Hebrew liturgy; it represents, instead, the occasional element for holidays and special days, and in the Midrash the piyyut is seen as a narration.
The first Jewish Italian piyyutim were composed in southern Italy. (22) From the south, paitanic activity spread to Rome and then to central and northern Italy. The piyyutim are divided into classes, special categories, according to their topic, contents, and place within the liturgy.
There was also the kinah, an elegy often associated with the services and the religious functions of the month of Av. Various elegiac poems of this type were written in the Middle Ages. Perhaps the most famous of all is the Sionim-i.e., Odes to Zion-composed by Judah ha-Levi. (23)
In addition, some kinot are present in the Bible: for example, the kinah of David honoring Saul and Jonathan in II Samuel I: 19-27, and in Lamentations, in Hebrew Eiknah,) was also known as the Book of Kinot. The first kinot were used for lamenting the death of family leaders or of whole nations (Genesis 23:2; Jeremiah 22:18; Zaccariah 12:10). With time, gradually, the kinot were also recited when major calamities struck the Nation, i.e., the people of Zion.
The ninth of Av-Tishah be-Av-is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. In the Talmud (Numbers 13-14) God designated the ninth of Av as a day of calamity because of the lack of faith in His promises to rescue them from the wilderness: "You wept without a cause; I will therefore make this an eternal day of mourning for you." It was then decreed that on the ninth of Av the Holy Temple would be destroyed and the People of Zion would go into exile and not enter the Land of Israel (Numbers 14:29).
The Mishnah (Ta'an 4:6) tells us of five disasters that happened on this day: a. after their Exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel would never enter the Promised Land; b. the first destruction of the Holy Temple by Nebuchadnezzar, (586 b.V.E.); c. the second destruction o the Holy Temple by Titus, (70 V.E.); d. the fortress-city of Bethar seized in 135 V.E.. with the massacre of Bar Kokhba and his men; e. 136 V.E., Jerusalem is renamed Aelia Capitolina, and the Holy Temple becomes a pagan temple. (24) Such a day, then, has ultimately become the utmost symbol for all persecutions and calamities that have befallen upon the chosen people.
The synagogue service begins, after sundown, with the Ma'ariv (25) followed by the reading and chanting of the Book of Lamentations. At the end of Lamentations, the next-to-last verse is repeated by everyone because of the hopeful note of its message: "Turn us unto You, o Lord, and we shall be turned, renew our days of old."
Following the Book of Lamentations, there is the recital of a series of piyyutim. These prayers, known also as kinot, describe the destruction of the Temple and portray the sins of the Jewish people. The last kinah is entitled Eli Tzion Ha-lo tishali, (Sweet singer of Zion), and is sung to a well-known melody. Yehudah Ha-Levi composed this poem. It sings of the restoration of Zion: a hope that has been cherished by every generation of Jews. The verses speak eloquently of Israel and of the pains of Galut.
Many kinot for the ninth of Av start with the word Zion, including the Judeo-Italian Kinah. The Italian rite, among other things, includes also the Nahem for the blessings and the restoration of Jerusalem.
The Judeo-Italian Kinah: La ienti de Sion
A Kinah is usually made of verses-with a minimum ranging between 22 and 24-following the Hebrew alphabet, thus forming an acrostic. Each stanza is divided into a double refrain, creating a very special rhythm, an echo, or better yet, an echoing rhythm. The musicality of the whole elegy derives from this particular rhythm, from the very echo that it causes. Therefore it is evident that the kinah is intended to be sung. Usually there is a rhyme that the believer reads, similar to a chanting, then follows a longer passage recited by the whole congregation. Judeo-Italian texts were not composed in order to be learned and/or memorized. They were meant, instead, for public reading, recited in congregation during the religious services. They were aimed at a very simple audience, mainly women and the young. These Jews of the Diaspora barely knew how to recognize the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and to read aloud during the religious services. Sadly enough, many Jews could barely read the holy texts. In fact, the language with which these Jewish Italians expressed themselves daily and with which they felt more comfortable was the local Italian vernacular.
The Italian Kinah is divided into three parts: 1.) an initial introduction of 48 verses-it is the lamentation for the massacre and the following Diaspora, (Galut), of the chosen people; 2.) a medial section, of also 48 verses-it concentrates on only one episode of the Galut; 3.) and a final, conclusive part, of only 24 verses-it is the invocation to God, the hope, the fervent desire for the reconstruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Verses 1-48 recount the many regrets of the Chosen People, the People of Zion. They have lost the glory of their past, the blessings of the Lord. The Temple, now destroyed, is the main object of the Lamentation, along with all the misadventures that it caused. Israel suffers, it is being mocked. All this is narrated in very generic terms, without any specific reference to the Scriptures. Only verses 37-39 recall a particular episode of the Talmud and the Midrashic literature.
Verses 49-96 concentrate on the argument of the Elegy. The topic is a religious one, tinged with folklorist elements. The main story is taken from the Midrash and the Talmud. There are two versions: one from the Midrash Ekka Rabba, the other from the Babylonian Talmud. There is also a third version, in the Midrash Ekka Zuta, however this one is a derivatio of the Babylonian Talmud. The other two, instead, besides a few differences and small details, are very similar to each other. (26) It seems that the author of the Elegy knew both versions, especially the Midrash Ekka Rabba. In fact, from the latter he appropriates almost all of the story. This could in part be due to the story being orally transmitted-through the centuries-and then recorded into folklore books.
Verses 97-120 end the Elegy. Here we have the prayer, direct and explicit, to the Lord. It is a wonderful plea to the Lord, so that He may pour once again those abundant blessings which He used to bestow upon His people in the past. It is the People of Zion here who talk, those Chosen by the Lord. The world has to return to its original setting: the enemies-the goim-on one hand and Israel on the other. This is the only hope, surpassed only by the joy of the Lord, by the fulfillment of the prophesy: the return to Israel, seeing Zion, entering into Jerusalem. Such ending is typical of pan-Hebraic kinot on the ninth of Av. Past and present calamities are lamented. But there is the gracious hope for tomorrow, the future "prophesied by the prophet." (v. 117)
The Elegy, as mentioned earlier, was written in vernacular, i.e., in the local regional Italian language, but in Hebrew characters (27) and it was found in two manuscripts, both dating back to the 14th century. The original date of composition is uncertain: end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth century.
The language is central or central-southern Italian. However, we do not have enough data-linguistic and/or historical-to determine its collocation in time and geo-linguistic space. Attached to the Elegy were found some selicoth -- i.e., penitential hymns -- which refer to historical events of the Jewish community in Rome. This could prove that the Elegy might have been written in Rome or in any of those small Jewish communities of central Italy in close religious and cultural contacts with Rome.
Of the two manuscripts, the first one belonging to the Temple of Ferrara was found with the vowels possibly added by the same scribe. However, the great majority of them are gone and there are also many errors of transcriptions which make the interpretation very hard. Oftentimes there are corrections, usually written over or above the text. Such orthographic errors could be a good indication that, by this time, the scribe already was not understanding well the text from which he was copying. The second text, found at Parma, is made of two different manuscripts. The Kinah is contained in the first volume, following some prayers for the fast of the ninth of Av, as part of a regular Machzor in Hebrew. This text has only the consonants. Its vowels were added later and perhaps not even by the same scribe. This copy has less mistakes and seems closer to the original Elegy.
Both texts are not copies of one another; instead they derive from a common archetype, be it directly or indirectly, which, it seems, was itself not void of mistakes.
The tercets-with each metrical line made of four words-have only one rhyme meter. The verses have asymmetrical syllables in which neither the number nor the position of the atonic syllable are taken into account. There is a constant though: to the last tonic syllable follows an atonic. Therefore the verses are paroxytones. However, the composer does not follow this pattern all the way through: in such cases there are only three accented words.
Generally speaking, the language of the Kinah is central Italian. It belongs to that vast linguistic and geographic area that covers Marche, Umbria, and Latium. However, it is impossible to narrow it down to an exact location. Umberto Cassuto (28) opted for the Marche area, and more precisely its southern boundaries. But he himself was not really convinced about it. The linguistic characteristics are very vague and/or too generic, so widely spread and dispersed on a vast geographic territory that it is impossible to arrive to a common place of origin, to the irradiating point. (29) There are also some southern features. These could be due to the scribe himself-mainly for the Ferrara manuscript-or to the mere historical events of the various Judeo-Italian communities. The latter theory seems more appealing than the former. As I have mentioned earlier, the first Jewish communities are to be found in the South. Only later, due to political reasons, the Jews were forced to migrate north -- i.e., Rome, Central, and/or Northern Italy. These southern features, then, could be linguistic traces, remnants of their original locations before they were forced to move north.
There are some scholars, mainly in the past, including Umberto Cassuto, who firmly believe in a Roman-based Jewish-Italian koiné which later spread throughout the peninsula, wherever Jewish communities were to be found, eventually modifying and dividing itself according to the phonetic differences of the new locations. This koiné would have therefore been the common ancestor of all the Jewish settlers in Italy, becoming then a means of communication denoting an antique homogeneity. (30)
Therefore, talking about Judeo-Italian dialects (languages) is talking about the languages of the places where each Jewish community lived. A Jewish-Italian and a goy when speaking would differ only in the lexical choice pertaining to his/her religious expressions and/or other linguistic archaisms, mainly due to centuries-old segregations. Here and there linguistic fusions will be found, where to the Hebrew root the local Italian "vernacular" gender marker is added or where some Hebrew verbal forms adapt to the Italian model. But besides these peculiarities, which by the way are quite minimal, Judeo-Italian is well integrated, linguistically indivisible, and practically the same with the language of the goim of that given region and/or geographico-political area. (31)
As I have mentioned earlier, the Italian Kinah does not have a lot in common with other pan-Hebraic kinot. These kinot have many analogies, specific references, mainly direct quotes from the Holy Scriptures. The Italian Elegy, instead, does not follow this pattern. There are a few references, but they are very vague and certainly there is no direct quote from the Scriptures. Whenever the verses are modeled on some textual verses, the style and the expression are so powerful and unique that the sacred model upon which it draws is put in the background. The Kinah has its own personality, very Italian, full of cultural elements-firstly the language-particular, peculiar to its origin. Since it was composed in Italy, it was influenced by its culture, mentality and history.
In the pan-Hebraic world, the person who would usually recite the kinot was the sofed or, in the case of a woman, the mekonen, (Ecclesiastes 12:5; Jeremiah 9:16;19) and oftentimes they themselves would compose them. Our Judeo-Italian composer, writing in "vernacular," was addressing the audience. Umberto Cassuto called him a sheliach zibbur, (32) i.e., a person who would celebrate. A shaliach is a knowledgeable person who knows the Law. His task is to help the believers in understanding the Scriptures and other religious matters. It is very possible, then, that this Italian shaliach could have also sung the Elegy amongst the whole congregation. And this would explain the use of the vernacular within the literary pattern. He resembles, in his style, the minstrel, the medieval traveling poet and musician. The lexicon and the way he addresses his audience evoke the ballad singer. Whether this is conscious imitation or just evidence of strong influences of popular compositions of religious minstrels, it certainly talks about the language and the influence of this itinerant poetry upon the early Italian literature, where secular and religious aspects are intertwined, inseparable.
From the phonological point of view the Kinah reflects dialectal features of central and southern Italy. However, as Giuliana Fiorentino has also noted, there is not "a single specific and more typical fact would permit a precise localization." (33)
There are a few dialectal features that
blatantly reveal their central and/or southern origin:
'nfanti (v. 67); 'nalzata (v. 7); 'mmediati (v.15)
pinzaru (v. 16); 'nfranzi (v. 24)
ienti, notti, onori, porti, donni, flambi,
and in such tonic words as: rimo, signuri;
dece, fici, quilla, condutta, lie;
ddesfatto (v. 110), ettri (v. 37), ddio (v. 47), cki (v. 53), dde (v. 83);
Concerning its lexicon, what makes it different from other forms, or rather, other "local" vernaculars and "standard" Italian, are specific words pertaining to religion, not many, and a few linguistic calques, i.e., loan translations into the vernacular of a concept, an idea, originally non existent in situ-in the local language(s)-but used in Hebrew. There are also some translations, even literal, new ways of saying, or new meanings given to "old" ones-i.e., pre-existing and currently used-words:abbero scordatu (v. 21), abbero desirtato (v. 28),
abbe afflambato (v. 30), abbe venduta (v. 56),
fu tradato (v. 58).
i.) Emperio (v. 8) translates the Hebrew Malkhut;Some religious Judaic words are also found in Italian: e.g., Sion, Israel, Deo, Templo, Santo, Sacerdoti, Leviti. In the midst of the narration, our shaliach calls the attention of his listeners, crying:
ii.) Rumpere la lie e lo pattu (v. 111) translates the idea of berith-e.g., breaking the Law and the covenant with the Lord;
iii.) Gattivandu (v. 6) is a calque, via Greek, and it translates the concept of "living in slavery."
The composer interrupts the narration and addressing his audience, talks, either directly or indirectly, as a true medieval minstrel. (35) In the following two tercets he poses these two questions:Ki bole aodire crudeletate (34)
or, a bit earlier in the narration, he sneaks in the innuendo:Quista crudeli ki aodisse,
ki grandi cordoglio no li prindisse,
e grande lamento no ne facisse?
Ki poe contare l'altri tormenti,
ki spisso spisso so convenenti,
plo dori ke flambi ardenti? (36)
Here he calls upon the listeners' judgment, he wants them to listen, to think, to ponder, and, most of all, to fear God and the consequences of His wrath, and at the same time to have pity over His people.ke n nulla guisa si no poi recitare. (37)
çença rimo (entenda ki sa iutare!) (38)
Hence, as we have seen, the pagan, the strictly non-religious model was there: non-Hebraic in nature, and religious and secular at times. It was part of life, of the European culture of that time. The shaliach relegates all this in the background, thus reconstructing a new image, forging a new system upon which to sing and lament the story of his people.
In conclusion, I would like to stress the notable significance of Jewish presence in Italy, its role and influence in the making of Italian life and culture. Jews have contributed, like any other ethnic group, to the formation of Italian culture. Their contribution is ancient, and inestimable. Of course these influences work both ways and speaking of Jewish Italian oftentimes, if not always, is quite synonymous with Italian Jewish. Italian culture and language(s) contributed to this unique expression of Jewry. The secular, the pagan and the non-Hebraic religious experience and models were there. They were part of life, of the European and Italian culture of that time. The Italian shaliach, the composer of the Kinah, had all this at his disposal. The People of Zion are thus an indivisible part of Italy and Italian culture. (39) So unmistakably Italian and yet still Jewish.
in Transliterated Latin script (40)
|1. La ienti de Sion plange
dice: taupina, male so condutta
em manu de lo nemicu ke m'ao strutta.
4. Le notti e la die sta plorando,
7. Sopre onni ienti foi nalzata,
10. E li signori da onni canto
13. Li figlie de Israel erano adornati,
16. Li nostri patri male pinzaru,
19. Pi quisto Deo li foi adirato,
22. Sopre isse mandao si granni osti,
25. Guai, qunata ienti foi meciata,
28. Lo templo santo abbero desirtato,
31. Sprecaro torri e grandi palaza,
34. Vidisi donni là desfare,
37. E ttri navi misero pi mare,
|40. Altri ne vinnéro
tutti çença bandire per quanto;
oi, ke farai, popolo santo?
43. E li leviti e li sacerdoti
46. Tanto era dura loro signoria,
49. Ki bole aodire crudeletate
52. Ne la prisa foro devisati:
55. Lo signore de la soro, meciaro,
58. E lo frate fue tradato
61. Venni una ora ke s'adunaro
64. Una donna aiu, bella quanto rosa,
67. Quilla respundi: k'io aio uno nfanti,
70. In quisto pinzaro parenteze a fari,
73. Foro coniunti ad una caminata:
76. Da sacerdoti io foi figliola,
79. Cosi lo nfanti stava da canto;
|82. Ma so adunato c'una seriente,
nè dde mia lie nè dde mia iente;
como faraio, tristo, dolente?
85. En quillo planto s'abbero aoduti,
88. E l'uno e l'altro se abbraczaro,
91. Quista crudeli ke aodisse,
94. Ki poe contare l'altri tormenti,
97. Santo Dio nostro Signore,
100. Pe lo too nomo santo e binditto,
103. E remembra la prima amanza,
106. E lo nemico k'è tanto avantato,
109. E cetto facza como ao fatto,
112. E deriza stradi n onni canto,
115. E lo santo templo k'è deguastato
118. Leviti e secerdoti e tutta ienti
facsimile of the original text.
© Joseph Abraham Levi and Italica
Italkian Language Main Page
Orbis Latinus Main Page
page is part of Orbis Latinus
© Zdravko Batzarov