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Poetics of the apocalypse: messianism in early Jewish American poetry.


The early Jewish American apocalyptic verse of Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, Miguel de Barrios, and Daniel Israel Lopez Laguna provides an important starting point for the history of Jewish American poetry. By beginning Jewish American literature with these poets, I aim to accomplish three important goals: (r) to more accurately reflect Jewish American literature's diversity; (2) to denaturalize the concept of America; and (3) to remind readers that literary history need not be teleological, even when the poets themselves dreamt of a final telos-the messiah. After summarizing the main tenets of early Jewish American messianism, I show how this messianism impacted Aboab's, de Barrios's, and Laguna's content, genre, and style. Messianism, I argue, affects the poets' desire to write from and of America and their understanding of poetry's goal. Messianism provided a means by which each poet made sense of temporal and spatial ruptures and placed those ruptures in the larger narrative of Jewish (American) history. Throughout my explication of each of these poets' works, I highlight their relationship to later Jewish American literary history by taking note of the unintentional echoes between early and later Jewish American poets. I draw out these parallels in order to argue for a new understanding of literary history that is just as interested in drift, variation, and fragmentation as it is interested in expectancy, reinforcement, and cohesion. Correlation, not causation, is the narrative thread of this new literary history.


In 1646 Isaac Aboab da Fonseca versified the horrors suffered by early American Jews during the Portuguese attack on Recife in his poem "Zekher asiti leniflaot EE (Reminded Was I of God's Miracles). A fervent kabbalist, Aboab came to America already versed in messianic dreams. His congregation took the name Tsur Israel (Rock of Israel) because they believed their presence in America predicted the messiah and would help cause the redeemer to appear. (1) His poem deals with both the physical assault and the spiritual wound left by the Portuguese attack: if Aboab and his followers were helping bring about the messianic era by establishing synagogues at the four corners of the earth, why were they plagued by the Portuguese invaders? Hunger, heat, and disease ravaged the town's inhabitants as the Portuguese blockaded Recife's harbor. Cats and dogs became delicacies, and slaves devoured horses' cadavers they had dug up to eat. For Recife's thousand or so Jews, the Portuguese invasion also raised the specter of the Inquisition, whose flames many had previously fled. By the time relief ships from Amsterdam ran past the Portuguese navy's blockade, only eight barrels of flour remained for the town's eight thousand inhabitants. Weak from hunger, many couldn't even to walk to the harbor to greet their rescuers. (2) When the town finally fell to the Portuguese in 1654, Recife's Dutch inhabitants, including the extensive Jewish community, fled under the threat of death--including two dozen or so who found their way to New Amsterdam. Yet, rather than despairing at the community's suffering and apparent defeat, Aboab made sense of the tragedy. He used the experience to urge repentance and praise God. For Aboab the experiences of Recife's Jews still carried import for bringing about the messiah in spite of the community's failure to thrive.

Aboab's poetry is typical of the early Jewish American poetry I will discuss in this article, in that it takes potential threats to a providential and messianic vision of time and space and reworks them to underscore ultimate Jewish triumph. Despite recurrent tragedies and the radical newness of the Americas, the poets melded American experiences both to a Jewish past and to their dreams of an apocalyptic future. This apocalyptic verse, I will argue, provides an important starting point for the history of Jewish American poetry. Such a starting point may strike some scholars as odd: almost no later Jewish American poets have heard of, let alone were influenced by, the three poets I discuss, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, Miguel de Barrios, and Daniel Israel Lopez Laguna. (3) How, then, can these poets provide a coherent beginning to the literary history of Jewish American poetry? I will argue that despite Aboab's own fervent belief in the causal impact of his verse on Jewish (American) history, as scholars we should be skeptical of the idea that starting points require a telos in later literary production. Rather, early Jewish American poetry helps underscore the ongoing importance of drift, variation, and fragmentation for Jewish American identity.

The centrality of time and space for early Jewish American poetry makes it particularly helpful for reconsidering literary history. The first challenge the poets provide is temporal. Messianic poetry implicitly argues that time contains a pattern, purpose, and direction, and that time's direction is moving toward an ultimate telos, namely the apocalypse. Through tropes and formal features, the poetry not only prophetically envisions that end but also works actively to bring the end about by propelling the reader and the Jewish people toward time's conclusion. Although many literary scholars may not share the poets' notion of providential history and its messianic telos, we still often formulate literary history with a similar notion of historical causality, usually through the specter of influence. I argue that rather than reading the instances of early American literary production as having a causal relationship to later American literature, we should strive for an understanding of literary history that is just as interested in drift, variation, and fragmentation as it is interested in expectancy, reinforcement, and cohesion. Correlation, not causation, is the narrative thread of this new literary history.

The second useful challenge the early Jewish American poets provide is spatial. By challenging our sense of Jewish American geography and themes, the poets force us to reconsider what we mean by "America." One major geographic dissonance of using these poets as a starting point for Jewish American literary history is that none of these authors wrote in what is now the United States, a term often used synonymously for America. Rather, all three poets spent segments of their life in the Caribbean, and as such help remind us that prior to 1820 the Caribbean had the largest, wealthiest, and best-educated Jewish communities in the Americas. Aboab's, de Barrios's, and Lagunas vision of America may ultimately "unsettle" us, as Maeera Shreiber puts it, for the poets' notion of exile and home is not our own. Their vision of home reminds us that America is a larger and more continuous region than some scholars of American studies consider it to be today.

The poets also challenge us spatially by refusing to stay put. The very unsettled nature of the poets' lives--their constant movements--provide a model for how we might understand Jewish American literary history. Travel is a particularly appropriate metaphor for the narrative of early Jewish American literary history, since the creators and consumers of that early literature were consummate travelers who moved around the Atlantic world for reasons of trade, religion, and marriage. In a very real sense, travel represents the intersection of time and space, in that travel implies a spatial sequence mapped through time. As Kai Mikkonen notes, "The different stages of travel--departure, voyage, encounters on the road, and return--provide any story with a temporal structure that raises certain expectations of things to happen." (4) For early American Jews, travel implied causality in that they believed their movements were part of a providential plan and their actions had consequences for that plan. Russian formalist Boris Romashevsky has similarly suggested that all travel narratives require causality for their structures. (5) Yet the life stories and travels of early American Jews often appear to call this causality into question. Although certainly some Jews planned the beginning and end of their journeys and the places they stopped in between, other early American Jews found themselves suddenly cast adrift due to wars and invasions, or forced to land in unexpected places after being taken captive. In this sense, their travels unwittingly exemplify Lucretius's principle of the swerve--the unpredictable movement that occurs at no fixed time or space and disrupts causal chains. As much as early American Jews dreamed of a telos in their daily lives, the messiah did not come, and their travels in search of that outcome expose potential ruptures in the causal chains of history. Through this essay I highlight how, despite early writers' own teleological understanding of American history, their literature took Jewish American people in unexpected directions that sometimes came to a dead end, made a U-turn, or simply swerved in an unexpected way. While the paths they took may not have led directly to later Jewish American literature, the correlations between their journeys and the paths taken by later Jewish American writers can tell us something fundamental about the Jewish American experience, both through what was constant over time and what is unique to specific eras.

By beginning Jewish American literature with these poets, I aim to accomplish three important goals: (1) to reflect more accurately Jewish American literature's diversity, (2) to denaturalize the concept of America, and (3) to remind readers that literary history need not be teleological, even when the poets themselves dreamed of a final telos--the messiah. I begin by summarizing the main tenets of early Jewish American messianism and then show how this messianism impacted Aboab's, de Barrios's, and Laguna's content, genre, and style. Messianism, I argue, impacts the poets' desire to write from and of America and their understanding of poetry's goal. Messianism provided a means by which each poet made sense of temporal and spatial ruptures and placed them in the larger narrative of Jewish (American) history. Yet while the poets themselves argue for historical causation and cohesion, throughout my explication of each of these poets' works I highlight their relationship to later Jewish American literary history by paying equal heed to the motifs of drift, variation, and fragmentation. That is, I take note of the unintentional echoes between early and later Jewish American poets. These echoes do not result from later poets reading and imitating these three early authors (causation) but instead reflect common strands in the Jewish American experience (correlation).


Aboab, de Barrios, and Laguna do not easily predict the main stream of later Jewish American poetry in that their world view was unabashedly religious and messianic. While critics often discuss later Jewish American poetry in ethnic rather than religious terms, (6) Aboab, de Barrios, and Laguna all saw their poems as enabling the apocalypse. The earliest Jewish American poems remain unrelentingly optimistic about redemption and poetry's efficacy, unlike later Jewish American piyyutim (prayer-poems), psalms, elegies, and laments that usually pessimistically predict a "return doomed to sour." (7) This early optimism reflects life experiences not shared by the majority of later Jewish American poets. Apocalypticism deeply impacted early American Jewish life. Jews of the Atlantic world underwent periods of radical messianism during which people "neglected their businesses, everyday affairs were disrupted, and ordinary religious observance was suspended," balanced by long periods when people "live[d] their beliefs within everyday life instead of in withdrawal from it." (8) This eschatological belief permeated early American Jews' religious and literary ethos. Many early Jewish American poems owe a debt to this messianic outlook even as their teleological vision of Jewish (American) history is at odds with later writers.

Jews in the colonies engaged in several intense religious revivals. In Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life, I argue for three early flowerings: the First Converso Migration (1600 to 1647), the Era of Shabbetai Tsvi, a prominent Jewish false messiah (1648 to 1676), and a Second Converso Migration (1720 to 1783), with an era of quotidian (everyday) messianism between the later two eras. These revivals created a certain amount of religious and cultural cohesion for Jews of the time, even if they did not bear fruit in nineteenth- and twentieth-century America. Moreover while Jewish and Protestant revivals interacted with one another, Jewish colonial messianism had distinctly Jewish influences and attributes. (9) The poets I discuss exemplify these three eras: Aboab wrote his poem during the First Converso Migration. Miguel de Barrios followed the false messiah during the era of Shabbetai Tsvi and continued to believe in the prophet after he apostatized in 1666. Daniel Israel Lopez Laguna published his verses during the Second Converso Migration. Reading each poet within the religious context of his own era allows us to highlight elements that set these poets apart from those who appear later in Jewish American literature.

Although not causally connected to later Jewish American literature, the three poets did write within a specifically Jewish tradition, and the poets' apocalypticism contains uniquely Jewish elements. While in everyday speech apocalypse means "end of the world," the original Greek means "revelation" or "lifting of the veil." Early Jewish American messianism also valued revelation and unveiling. Opening the gates of secrecy united the spiritual and physical realms, since the "messianic age is one of complete transparency, in which the gap between the concealed and revealed shall disappear." (10) Like most apocalyptic poetry, these poems ask readers to repent and to renew their relationship with God. (11) Aboab, de Barrios, and Laguna model their poetic strategies upon the biblical prophets, medieval Hebrew poetry, and Spanish Golden Age poems. Like all great poets, they adapt these traditions to meet the new ruptures they face. In order to make sense of the radical newness of the American experience, they used poetics to reveal America as contiguous with a Jewish past and crucial to a Jewish future. With these issues in mind, I turn to the three poets' work and show how their content, form, and styles reveal apocalyptic dreams. Each of the poets, I argue, "reinvents" the Jewish tradition from America's shores.


Aboab provides a useful starting point to the story of Jewish American poetry, not only because he is the earliest Jewish poet to write from and about America but also because he envisions America as crucial to Jewish world history. When Recife fell in 1654, Aboab had already served twelve years as Tsur Israel's Rabbi, during nine of which the Dutch had fought the Portuguese. Aboab came to the colonies representing Amsterdam's learned Jewish elite. The poem "Zekher asiti leniflaot El" (Reminded Was I of God's Miracles) reflects both Aboab's mystical outlook and his rabbinical training in Amsterdam's yeshivot, the educational facilities where students and scholars studied Jewish texts and law, primarily the Talmud. The poem's uniquely American subject reveals how emergent notions of race impacted Jewish American apocalypticism. Aboab's blending of old-world poetics with new-world experiences makes his poetry an intriguing start to American Jewish verse. This application of old-world poetics implies not only correlation between old and new but also a firm belief in expectancy, reinforcement, and cohesion between the past and present.

Aboab's poem reflects old-world Jewish poetic traditions revived during the First Converso Migration. This poetic tradition linked Jewish returnees to the Jewish past and empowered their speech acts to help bring about redemption. Born to a converso family in Portugal in 1605, Aboab fled to Amsterdam around 1612 to escape the Inquisition. Once there, he studied under the community's first Hakham (Rabbi), Isaac Uziel, a North African native, from whom Aboab learned both Hebrew and poetics. Sephardim in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Amsterdam placed a great value on reading, speaking, and writing in Hebrew as a way of reconnecting to God and the Jewish past that forced converts had been asked to set aside. Early Jewish education emphasized Hebrew poetics. As one Amsterdam poet explained, when writers "embellish the rabbinical parables with poetic language ... they become clothed in stylistic beauty." Moreover, poets used prosody to transform everyday language into ritualistic discourse: words became prayer. (12) Amsterdam's new religious elite recognized Aboab as a Hebrew master. By 1621 Amsterdam's Talmud Torah hired him to teach Hebrew. In 1633 he became the Hazzan (cantor) of congregation Neve Shalom, though he continued to teach Hebrew language and Talmud. The same messianism that laid the groundwork for Shabbetai Tsvi shaped Aboab's understanding of American events. Shabbetai Tsvi's promises "intoxicated" Aboab, though he renounced the messianic pretender after his 1666 apostasy." When Aboab came to Recife in 1642, European rabbis already recognized Aboab for his kabbalistic treatises on the afterlife. (14) As noted before, the congregation appears to have engaged in messianic expectation.

Aboab's poetics cohesively connected his American experiences to the Jewish past and used them to predict a brighter future. "Zekher asiti kniflaot EE reflects Aboab's extensive learning, his training in Hebrew poetics, and his messianic dreams. Medieval Hebrew piyyutim (prayer-poems) greatly influenced Aboab's style, particularly Judah ha-Levi's Andalusian school. Aboab has strong company in his interests: as Maeera Shreiber has argued, both piyyutim and ha-Levi heavily influenced twentieth-century Jewish American poetics. (15) For Aboab, ha-Levi provides a model of a Sephardic poet exiled from two homelands (Iberia and Israel) who dreamed of return to Jerusalem. Indeed, Aboab's poem opens with lines drawn from Rabbi Judah ha-Levi's "Mi Khamokha" (Who Is like Thee?). As I discuss in greater detail later, Aboab's poem borrows its form from ha-Levi's: the first section consists of an alphabetic acrostic with a brief opening followed by twenty-two quatrains; the second section includes a signature acrostic with a brief opening followed by twenty-seven quatrains. In the first part of the first section, Aboab takes the blame for what he has suffered, affirms his loyalty, and praises God (stanzas 1-5). He then proceeds to give his account of the attack on Recife in 1646 (stanzas 7-18). He concludes with a request for God's mercy and help (stanzas 19-22). In the second section, Aboab recounts how God came to pity the Jews and redeemed them from the Portuguese (stanzas 1-22). He then concludes by reminding his congregation of God's greatness (stanzas 23-27). Aboab models his poem on ha-Levi's in three key ways: generically, as an appeal for repentance; typologically, by using Persian Jewish history as a precursor for Brazilian events; and structurally, through rhyme and form. By tying America to the Jewish past, Aboab's poem seeks to enact a messianic future.

Like ha-Levi's hymn, Aboab's poem calls for repentance and emphasizes history's role in redemption. Ha-Levi's hymn uses poetics to transform the story of Purim into ritual language. Indeed, his poem belongs to the Sephardic liturgy of Zakhor, the "Sabbath of Remembrance" immediately prior to Purim when Jews are commanded to remember the nation of Amalek's aggression against the Jewish people. In the poem, ha-Levi outlines God's miracles on behalf of the Persian Jews, namely their deliverance from Haman's plot to annihilate them. Ha-Levi then calls upon contemporary Jews to thank God and repent their current transgressions. For Aboab, the story of Purim adumbrates the trauma suffered by Recife's Jewish community. The attempted destruction of the Persian Jews predicts Recife's history: Aboab refashions the Portuguese military captain as the "offspring of Amalek [who] brought me down to my knees, the scoundrel [who] revealed my secret to my enemies to deliver up my stronghold with guile, his soul will do him evil." (16) The analogy with Purim also predicts later Jewish redemption. Thus, the poem hinges on typology.

Typology connects America to prior Jewish history in order to emphasize cohesion, causality, and expectation. Typology refers to the use of biblical figures and events to prefigure subsequent Jewish history. Although early European Jewish poems occasionally use typology, early American Jews relied even more heavily on typology to explain America's place in world history. In the poem, Haman's attempt to kill the Persian Jews becomes the "type" for the later deception of Recife's Jews (the "antitype"). (17) Similarly the Persian Jews' triumph over Haman (Amalek's descendent) prefigures the 1646 redemption of Recife's Jews. By connecting current events to biblical narrative, typology cohesively cements the past, present, and future. The cohesion also implies a causal vision of time rife with expectation. As historian Marc Saperstein explains, the larger Jewish story of exile and redemption was "not merely part of an ancient past, but ... bore a historical message for the present and the future." (18) By inserting contemporary Jews into this larger story of redemption, typology helps the poet reveal the relationship between the self and the community, between the present and the past, and between Israel and God. Consequently, community is focalized in early Jewish American poetry. This communal focus may strike modern readers as discordant with the majority of later Jewish American poetry, since most Romantic, modern, and postmodern poems rely on a "lyric I" not a "lyric we." Whereas post-Romantic poets revel in and nourish the self, early American Jewish poetry exposed individual selfhood as deficient and desperate for connection. (19) Indeed, Aboab offers communion with God and other Jews as the cure for recent traumatic events. Over the course of Aboab's poem, the speaker shifts from an individual relationship with God (ti suffix in Hebrew)--"I shall pay tribute," "Due to my sins, I was thrown into a distant land"--to an emphasis on our relationship with the divine (nu suffix).

Just as Aboab's heavy use of allusion--a strategy he borrows from ha-Levi and other Hebrew poets--connects Recife's Jews to the larger Jewish narrative of reunion with God, so too Aboab's poetic allegiances to the old world connect him and his audience to the larger Jewish people and the divine. By closing each line with a biblical quotation ending in the word "Him," ha-Levi and Aboab emphasize God as the ultimate telos. (20) Every line of Aboab's poem alludes to a previous work in Hebrew, primarily the Five Books of Moses, Psalms, Lamentation, Proverbs, and the Prophets; thus, his words recall previous communally shared texts. This continual intertextuality reminds the reader that Aboab story's echoes Jewish history. Aboab's "thick language" typifies Hebrew literature of the time. When later Jewish American writers seek to make English a "Jewish language," they too often resort to "thickening" their language with forms, allusions, and subject matter that reference Jewish history. (21)

Indeed, the poems' parallels and genre mystically connect the present and past. Ha-Levi's poem breaks into four parts: an alphabetic acrostic (a form ha-Levi borrows from Psalms and Proverbs), an acrostic on ha-Levi's name, (22) a second alphabetic acrostic, and an acrostic on the words "ani Yehudah" (I am Judah). Aboab's poem's two parts mimic the first two sections of ha-Levi's poem: an alphabetic acrostic and an acrostic on Aboab's name. (23) This allusion goes beyond imitation. Acrostics are a revelatory form that consistently reveal what they purport to conceal, such as the poet's name or the alphabet. (24) Moreover, Hebrew acrostics are deeply mystical, as Peter Cole and Aminadav Dykman have argued. Alphabetic acrostics embody the cosmic order because they recount the twenty-two letters that comprise the sefirot's channels. Likewise in both poems, the name acrostic signals the poem's register: "only liturgical or sacred poems bore acrostic signatures." (25) The borrowings reveal the deeper connective tissue between Recife's history and Persian history, and place Aboab alongside not only ha-Levi and other medieval poets but also the biblical poets King David and Solomon, who used acrostics in Psalms, Proverbs, and Lamentations. (26) Aboab reinforces the analogy between his poem and ha-Levi's by beginning each section with a quote from ha-Levi's poem: "Who is like Thee? There is none like Thee! Who can be compared to Thee? None can be compared with Thee" (first section) and "After all these things" (second section). Such borrowings become what Cole and Dykman call a "tuning fork" that "sets the thematic and prosodic tone for the poem as a whole." (27) The opening mi khamokha (Who Is like Thee?) also tunes the poems typologically, since ha-Levi himself had borrowed the phrase from the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18), a song found in the Jewish liturgy. In this web of thick language, Recife's Jews' redemption reenacts the story of Purim, just as Purim had reenacted the Jews' salvation at the Red Sea. All three become reiterations of the same story of redemption.

By borrowing ha-Levi's form and poetic strategies, Aboab not only places himself in a Sephardic poetic and liturgical tradition but also seeks allegiance with the universe's sacred order. If the 1646 crisis could potentially rupture the community's faith, Aboab's extensive allusions to Hebrew poetics "reestablish and renew the fundamental relationship of ... people with God." (28) Aboab displays his indebtedness to God and ha-Levi's poem in the rhyme scheme. Throughout the poem, Aboab and ha-Levi use the same rhyme scheme: aaaX bbbXcccX, where X is the word lo ("to Him," i.e., God). The poem thematically attempts to reconnect Recife's Jews to the divine, and, hence, the poem literally structures itself around God.

Just as Aboab incorporates America into world history through typology and poetic alliances, so too his poem is echoed in but does not predict an American tradition of Jewish self-understanding vis-a-vis racial others. (29) Although indebted to medieval Hebrew poetics, the poem updates the Hebrew apocalyptic tradition and racializes the Purim story. The Dutch and Portuguese valued Recife for its pivotal role in the triangle trade. By 1620, Brazil produced about a million arrobas (over 14,250 tons) of sugar a year; Recife alone loaded approximately 170 ships with sugar annually. (30) Enslaved Africans produced this sugar and populated the town. Both the Dutch and Portuguese recruited caboclo (mixed-race) and black militiamen, who often used the militia to surmount the slave system's classifications, either through privileges the military bestowed or through symbolic honors, such as heroic portraits of military leaders. Indeed, some scholars have argued that the need to recruit free men to fight reshaped the colony's racial structure. (31) Not everyone favored the structure's transformation: at one point 500 Portuguese soldiers refused to fight under black leader Henrique Dias. Although their previous commander was a caboclo, apparently some boundaries they refused to cross. (32)

The conflict's racial subtext also filters through Aboab's poem. The Portuguese assault on Recife was complicated by a rebellion of Portuguese sympathizers within the city. Aboab transforms Joao Fernandes Vieira, the mixedrace leader of this 1646 internal rebellion, into Haman. Aboab describes him as, a "haughty man a plotter, a reputed villain, His mother was of Ethiopian extraction, as for his father, he did not know if he was his son, hence he deemed it a curse on himself." (33) On the one hand, Aboab's complaint resembles old slander: the biblical narrator ascribes Haman's cruelty to his descent from Amalek. Likewise Josephus disparages Amalek as a bastard. (34) On the other hand, Aboab also attributes Fernandes Vieira's villainy to the legacy of slavery and his "Ethiopianness"--a term that at the time signaled blackness. This slander arises from the city's racial tensions. Prior to the 1646 revolt, Dutch Calvinists increasingly blamed Jews for the colony's problems; thus, Aboab may have felt a need to redistribute this blame to an even more disenfranchised group. (35)

Aboab's presentation of Jews vis-a-vis racialized others contributes to our understanding of the history of Jewish American identity. As Joyce Chaplin and others have argued, "Racism in its present form is a specific product of Atlantic history. That is, if race is a perceived physical difference that is assumed to be inherited, is strongly associated with color, and is crafted to support systems of human subjugation, this idea was peculiar to the Atlantic world created by European colonization." (36) Indeed, black-Jewish tensions reappear in later Hebrew poems from the colonies, including Abraham Gabai Isidro's Sefer Yad Avraham (1763). (37) While Aboab's views on race may "unsettle us," they do provide a means for diversifying our understanding of the world in which early American Jews lived.

Aboab's complicated poem suggests how early Jewish American poets incorporated American experiences into a Jewish literary tradition, and how America changed that tradition. Poetry connected early American Jewish writers like Aboab to a Jewish past even as it presented a means to achieve the world's end. Aboab's poem provides echoes of later Jewish American poetic techniques like thick language and the use of traditional genres like piyyutim (prayer-poems). At the same time, his insistence on the power of "we" over "I" and his denigration of people of African descent underscores emergent racial tensions in colonial America. Aboab's poem contains echoes of strategies used by later Jewish American poets and issues that they too would face. These echoes represent unintentional variants on a common theme.


The poetry of Miguel de Barrios similarly uses messianic expectation to create a causal and cohesive vision of Jewish history and to make sense of American tragedies. By the time Recife fell and Aboab returned to Europe, apocalyptic fervor blazed all over Amsterdam and focused on one man: Shabbetai Tsvi (1626-76). Shabbetai Tsvi had gained a wide following after he declared himself the messiah in 1648, yet he ultimately converted to Islam (1666) and died an apostate (c. 1676). Writers used poetry to express their dreams and fears in the years surrounding Shabbetai Tsvi s apostasy. During this era, one man emerged as the Amsterdam community's poetic leader: Miguel de Barrios. In addition to living in Spain, Italy, and Amsterdam, de Barrios escaped the Inquisition's flames to the Caribbean island of Tobago, where he lived briefly with his first wife. (38) After he returned to Europe, he took up the subject of Jewish American experiences in his poetry. Of the three writers I discuss, his poetic influence was the greatest. A prolific writer, he helped found two literary societies in Amsterdam: Academia de los sitibundos (1676) and Academia de los floridos (1685). (39) Amsterdam's Jewish community lauded his baroque style, and his elegiac verses decorated Jewish tombstones in the Netherlands and the colonies. His poems revision Mexico and the Americas as a site of Jewish redemption. Rather than making this argument solely through Hebrew poetics as Aboab did, de Barrios reformulates baroque Spanish and reclaims it as a Jewish language and positive part of Sephardic history and identity.

Like Aboab, de Barrios combines old world poetics with new world themes in order to make sense of experiences that might rupture a providential vision of the cosmos. I focus here on de Barrios's use of American heroes, particularly in his 1683 elegy for Tomas Trevino de Sobremonte, a New Christian burned at the stake in Mexico City in 1649. The horrors suffered by Jews during the Inquisition would continue to plague and inspire de Barrios. The Inquisition's challenge was both religious and linguistic, in that Inquisitors used an elevated Spanish discourse to condemn and persecute Jews. De Barrios's poem to Trevino forms part of an apocalyptic sonnet sequence for the Inquisition's martyrs, and in this sequence de Barrios reaffirms the importance of Spanish and Spanish poetics for Jewish identity and redemption. A supporter of Shabbetai Tsvi long after he apostatized, de Barrios interweaves into his poems both his dreams for the lost messiah and his dreams for America. Indeed, as we will see, transformation amid violence becomes a key motif of de Barrios's sonnet for Trevino, in which the poet turns the intense "desgarron afectivo" (emotional ripping) of Spanish baroque poetics against Trevino's oppressors by using it to highlight Jews' crucial and positive role in redemption. De Barrios's sonnets thus provide solace for the loss of the Inquisition's martyrs and Shabbetai Tsvi. (40)

De Barrios ultimately seeks transcendence for Trevino, Amsterdam's community, and America. Miguel de Barrios included his poem for Trevino in a sonnet sequence in Triumpho de govierno popular (1683-84), a "rambling, diffuse work" lauding Amsterdam's Jewish community. As Miriam Bodian notes, Triumpho de govierno popular tells an eschatological foundation story. More specifically, it frames the community's history as "the fulfillment of dreams and expectations that had been harbored secretly in the [Iberian] Peninsula ... and a return to the true ancestral faith." (41) American martyrs like Trevino play an important role in this myth. As the leader of Mexico's crypto-Jewish community, Trevino captured the hearts of European Jewry for his death as an unrepentant Jew. (42) De Barrios makes sense of Trevino's sacrifice and loss. Like the phoenix--a popular symbol for the Amsterdam community--those destroyed in the Inquisition's autos-da-fe would be reborn out of their own ashes. The setting of Trevino's transformation is equally important: America becomes the place where Jews are redeemed rather expunged.

To create Jewish transcendence, de Barrios uses the poetics of the Spanish baroque. Although usually associated with Catholicism and the counterreformation, the baroque becomes a Jewish and anti-inquisitional form in de Barrios's hands. De Barrios's poem aims to create a feeling of "el desgarron afectivo" (emotional ripping) in the reader. He achieves this end through the classical elements of Spanish baroque poetics: metaphysical conceits, sensory imagery, vivid description, hiperbaton (Latinate word inversion), imitation, "ingenio" (witty ingenuity), and "conceptismo" (the cultivation of rhetorical refinement and complexity). (43) My translation aims to provide a sense of de Barrios's use of form, conceit, and inversion:

   Anos catorce en carcel rigurosa
      por defender de Dios la verdad pura
      Tremino, arrastra a la cadena dura,
      que le da el ser la sacra Ley su esposa:

   Tolera Job segundo, ira enganosa,
      con gran constancia en la miseria obscura:
      porque la luz que al cielo le apresura
      guia su aliento en senda tenebrosa:

   El fuego a que le arrojan no le espanta,
      con la lena que Ishak, lleva en su zelo,
      por seguir del gran Padre la Ley santa.

   Ya Indiano Ellas, por subir al cielo
      en el carro voraz que lo levanta,
      dexa la capa de su polvo al suelo. (44)

   Fourteen brutal years in prison's bed
      to show that God's pure truth still reigns,
      Tremino drags the thick, hard chains
      given life by the sacred Law he wed.

   A second Job, he bears deceitful wrath,
      constant amidst dark destitution;
      the light that the sky speeds to him
      guides his courage along the gloomy path.

   Unafraid they'll throw him on the pyre,
      Isaac, zealous, brings wood all trussed
      to follow his father's laws up higher.

   Now Elijah of the Indies is heaven thrust;
      ascending on his chariot of fire,
      behind him falls his cloak of dust.

De Barrios's choice of a Petrarchan sonnet {abbaabbacdcdcd in Spanish) showcases de Barrios's refinement and complexity and helps him elegize Trevino. Spaniards like Gongora ranked sonnets as the epitome of elegant, cultivated lyrics. Yet they also prized the form for its ability to "refine" emotions--that is, to make emotions more rarified and intense. (45) Although he employed other forms, de Barrios favored the sonnet. Here the form becomes a vehicle for religious belief and Jewish redemption. Conventionally elegies traverse the mourning process to console the poet for the loss of a loved one and for his own mortality. The auto-da-fe potentially creates a greater spiritual void, since it questions why God has forsaken his people. De Barrios's sonnet guides the reader toward Jewish redemption and ultimately heals the "emotional ripping" that his sensuous Spanish instills in the reader.

The sonnet's form frames this deliverance. The number fourteen becomes the poem's mystical center. In the opening section, we find Trevino jailed for his beliefs, he "drags the thick, hard chains / given life by the sacred Law he wed." Although the Inquisition jailed Trevino for seven years, (46) de Barrios changes the number to fourteen, which he symbolically encodes in the sonnet's fourteen lines. Just as the "fourteen" years of jail remake and redeem Trevino, so too the poem's fourteen lines transform Trevino. The mystical circles de Barrios frequented reveled in numerology, and his poem relies on number symbolism.

Number symbolism makes the sonnet a particularly effective elegy and embodies the martyr's redemption. Renaissance poetry and Jewish mysticism favored number symbolism. Since all letters in Hebrew double as numbers, Hebrew poetry is inherently numerical (x = one; 3 = two, etc.). Fourteen, for example, is the sum of the letters in the name David, the biblical figure most strongly associated with poetry and the messianic line. (47) Likewise fourteen is the double of seven, a number associated with perfection and completion. Seven lies at the sonnet's core, particularly the movement from four to three. Since four represents the physical world and three represents the spiritual, (48) the movement from the octave to the sestet parallels the transformation from physical to spiritual. The 8:6 division of the sonnet (the octave and sestet) is an extension of a 4:3 ratio. Indeed many early Italian poets wrote sonnets in seven longer lines, thereby emphasizing the 4:3 transition. The movement from four to three suggests a trajectory toward salvation, thereby making the sonnet, as critic S. K. Heninger argues, "unrelentingly optimistic." (49) By using a sonnet, de Barrios underscores his belief in Jewish Providence and redemption.

Jewish typology undergirds Trevino's redemption. As in Aboab's poem, de Barrios's use of typology emphasizes cohesion, causality, and expectation, particularly the expectation of Jewish redemption. Throughout the poem, de Barrios compares Trevino to three biblical figures: Job, Isaac, and Elijah. Two of these reflect Trevino's Hebrew names: Isaac and Elijah. Through these figures we move from seeing Trevino's sufferings as a test, to a covenantal sign, and finally as a vehicle for transcendence. First de Barrios compares Trevino to a second Job, who remains constant amid misery, guided by a heavenly light. Then in the first half of the sestet, Trevino takes on greater agency and lives up to his Hebrew name, Isaac. Here the auto-da-fe becomes a re-instantiation of the Akedah scene of Genesis 25:5-8. The Akedah symbolizes the Jews' covenant with God and hence became one the most popular biblical scenes carved on Jewish tombstones in Amsterdam and the colonies. Through the Akedah motif, de Barrios reveals Trevino's willingness to sacrifice himself. While in actual life the jailers forced Trevino to provide the wood for his own execution, in the poem Trevino provides the wood with zeal in order to follow his father's command [law]: "Unafraid they'll throw him on the pyre, / Isaac, zealous, brings wood ... to follow his father's laws up higher." As in the original Akedah, Isaac's sacrifice signals his people's covenant with God. Yet the comparison also feels painful: unlike in the Akedah, no ram will be substituted for Trevino. Poetically, however, a transformation does occur. In the final three lines of the sestet, Isaac becomes Elijah, and the flames of the auto-da-fe become those of the kabbalistic merkavah (chariot):

   Now Elijah of the Indies is heaven thrust;
   ascending on his chariot of fire,
   behind him falls his cloak of dust.

Elijah was a popular figure in both Amsterdam and the colonies, and his merkavah became an important symbol on gravestones (fig. 1). (50) By figuring Trevino as Elijah, de Barrios transforms Trevino's ashes ("dust") from a symbol of despair and loss into Elijah's cloak, a mantle the prophet Elisha takes up as a symbol of hope and future redemption.

Although de Barrios died in 1701, his poetry continued to hold great meaning for the colonies. Indeed several of the men praised in his poems in Triumpho del govierno popular would become central to Curasao's religious elite, including Isaac de Marchena (d. 1711), Hakham Elijah Lopes (d. 1713), and David Senior (d. 1749). Likewise the poet's grandson and namesake had moved to the island by 1760. (51) During the 1720s and 1730s, typological scenes of biblical figures like Elijah, Isaac, and Mordecai would reign on the island's tombstones. His verses would be imitated on epitaphs throughout the Atlantic world. In this sense, de Barrios's poems parallel the Hebrew poetry of Solomon de Oliveyra (d. 1708) and David Franco Mendes (1713-92), whose verses also graced gravestones in the colonies. On a certain level, de Barrios's interest in making sense of trauma and his use of Renaissance forms makes him a useful precursor to Emma Lazarus's "1492" and "The New Ezekiel." (52) Importantly, however, de Barrios uses sonnets to weave himself and the Jewish people into the tradition of the Spanish baroque, whereas Lazarus writes herself in an English sonnet and poetic tradition. In this sense their disparate use of poetic form represents a larger shift among American Sephardim from the seventeenth to early nineteenth century in what would become the United States, in which English supplanted Spanish as the primary language of religio-literary identity. This shift toward English would be reversed in the early twentieth century when Eastern Sephardim brought a vibrant Ladino literary tradition with them to America's shores.

Through his sonnet to Trevino, de Barrios restyles Mexico and the Americas as the site of Jewish redemption. Rather than a reason for despair, the Inquisition becomes part of the providential plan to redeem Jews and return them to God. Even the baroque poetics favored by Catholicism become Jewish in de Barrios's hands. His poem highlights how early Jewish American poets elegantly wedded form and content, and how they used typology to signal revelation.


Like de Barrios, Daniel Israel Lopez Laguna connects American experiences to a Jewish past and an apocalyptic future by using Spanish as a Jewish language. Lopez Laguna lived in an era of great ruptures, and his verse makes sense of these sea changes and shows their utility for providential history. Although a quieter, quotidian messianism had reigned in the years following Shabbetai Tsvi's fall, a second radical religious renaissance burst forth in the 1720s and didn't fade until the Revolutionary War decimated the early Jewish American trade routes. Earlier poets like Aboab, de Barrios, and other Amsterdam poets served as important models for a new flowering of apocalyptic verse during this revival. (53) Daniel Israel Lopez Laguna (c. 1653-c. 1730) inherited this legacy. Like de Barrios, Laguna wrote his verses in an elegant, elevated Spanish. In Espejo fiel de vidas (Life's True Mirror, 1720), Laguna moves beyond translating the Psalms and instead rewrites them to account for the messianic dreams and traumatic experiences of American conversos. Laguna's poetic masterpiece seeks to change a tumultuous era.

While earlier Jewish religious verse influenced Laguna, Espejo fiel reflects the era's volatility. By 1720, several new waves of conversos from Iberia metamorphosed the Atlantic world's Jewish communities. The Inquisition pushed conversos out of Iberia, even as the promise of riches drew the exiles to Caribbean sugar colonies like Jamaica. Some ports' Jewish populations swelled by over 250 percent in little over a decade. (54) These immigrants brought to the colonies a deep education in Iberian literary traditions as well as a new fervency. Many saw the Inquisition's persecutions as a portent of the messianic age, and dreams of the messiah's eminent arrival helped assuage wounded identities. Laguna was one of these immigrants. Laguna began his life in Portugal around 1653, the child of conversos. Although his parents had moved to France, Laguna returned to study the sciences in a Spanish university, where the Inquisition promptly incarcerated him. Ultimately he escaped to the Caribbean, and when he reached Jamaica he openly embraced Judaism. There he wrote his masterpiece, Espejo fiel de vidas, a Spanish version of the Psalms that he published in London in 1720."

Whereas Aboab and de Barrios favored typology to reveal the connections between the past and present and between God's time and our own, Laguna favors the motif of the mirror to reveal the cohesion between sacred and secular. Indeed, the messianism and mysticism converses brought with them to the Americas is reflected in the "mirror" of Lagunas title. On the one hand, the mirror in Lagunas work is the Psalms themselves, which he rewrites to reflect the dispersed conversos experiences. Yet Espejo fiel is not faithful (fiel) in the sense of a "faithful translation" of the Psalms. Thus on the other hand Laguna's "mirror" is his own book, which paraphrases or "reflects" the original Psalms. Imitations of Psalms were common in Amsterdam's Jewish community and often carried messianic resonances. Psalms had a particular appeal for Western Sephardim: as early as 1626 the community had published a rhymed Spanish paraphrase. (56) Miriam Bodian notes, "Psalms were central prayers among crypto-Jews in the Peninsula.... The direct emotionalism of the many psalms dealing with suffering at the hands of an enemy and eventual redemption must have seized converso attention." (57) Indeed Laguna's book innovatively adapts a 1671 translation of the Psalms by Jacob Judah Leon de Templo, a rabbi best known for his mystical works. (58) Yet whereas Leon de Templo's work sought to make the original Hebrew more accessible through a bilingual edition with scholarly apparatus, Laguna replaces the Hebrew with a loose and literary Spanish reflection aimed at poetic transcendence. Such innovations were highly charged. Particularly during the 1720s and 1730s, Western Sephardim interpreted the desire to rework the Psalms as evidence of messianic predilections. Prior to immigrating to Amsterdam in the 1730s, Rabbi Moses Hayyim Luzzatto was accused of creating new psalms to "replace the canonical Psalms of David at the time of Redemption." For Luzzatto's critics, these psalms helped prove that the kabbalistic master had declared "himself to be a messiah, a prophet, and a poet laureate equal to David." (59) Since King David begat the messianic line and authored the Psalms, styling oneself as a "new David" carried eschatological resonances. Not coincidentally King David sits enthroned on Laguna's title page.

Yet rather than merely reflecting conversos messianic dreams, Espejo fiel teaches readers how to read the world symbolically; in doing so, the book prepares them for when the messiah will make visible the world's true meaning. The front matter to Espejo fiel instructs the reader in how to read. The book's opening pages contain approbations, dedications, and praise of the poet, but also several geroglificos (hieroglyphs) such as the one below (fig. 2). Hieroglyphs owed something to their popular cousin, the emblem book: the Spanish Golden Age curriculum prized both emblems and hieroglyphs as didactic puzzles that linked sight and insight. (60) Similar to a mirror's reflection, hieroglyphs resemble the thing they reference yet are not it at the same time.

Through hieroglyphs, the reader sees the world as metonymic: a tree becomes life, a candle signifies light, a dolphin becomes the messianic heir to the throne, and Joseph wrestling with an angel embodies the people Israel. (61) As if to train his readers, Laguna explicates the hieroglyphs in the poems above and below the images, yet even these explanations are cryptic. "D," he explains, "is a burning fence that does not burn the sacred salamander but ignites the ardent Phoenix in glorious flames." (62) While Laguna accurately describes the visual depiction of "d" in the hieroglyph (a salamander inside of a flaming D), his explanation hardly provides the final word on what the symbol means. Like Aboab's acrostics, Lagunas hieroglyphs reveal and conceal simultaneously. Indeed, as the explanatory poems demonstrate, even the hieroglyph's explications require commentary. The book's front matter schools the reader in the reading strategies Laguna's poems require.

Thus armed, the reader might begin with the title itself, since the mirror continues to be a crucial symbol of messianic expectation throughout the book. The "looking glass" (mirror) of the title probably alludes to Exodus 38:8, when the Israelites used the women's bronze mirrors to create a washbasin for purifying the Israelites. For Laguna, psalms--like the women's mirrors--reflect and purify the devout. Laguna's title may also reference the kabbalistic masterpiece Sefer Mar'ot ha-Zove'ot (The Book of Mirrors). In this work the ten dazzling lights (tsahstahot) inherent in the keter (crown) that precede the ten sefirot mirror the glory to come. A light that predicts a greater light becomes crucial for Laguna's work and messianic thought more generally. Just as David mirrors his descendent the messiah, so too David's psalms mirror the songs that accompany redemption. Moreover, the tsahstahot actively enable redemption. As Solomon Ibn Gabirol explains, the tsahstahot "enable elevated souls to see and be seen by God. They are mirrors reflecting visions of the soul and God back and forth to each other." (63) Like the tsahstahot, Laguna's psalms enable connection, in that they "form a crown for the end of Israel" (fragua corona delfin Israel). The crown is a common metonym for the messiah, and here Laguna surely intends delfin as a triple pun: the messiah is the delfin (dauphin)--Israel's heir apparent. But the messiah is also the end {delfin) of Israel in both in the sense that he is "for the sake of" and the culmination of the Jewish people. The mirror {espejo) of the title helps us gaze in multiple directions at once.

The psalms use typology, but as a mirror that reflectively predicts the experiences of early American conversos and thereby weds the past and present. As mentioned previously, Laguna's psalms mirror the present rather than merely faithfully rendering the Hebrew. At times Laguna translates faithfully and suggests later echoes: for example, in Psalm 46, Laguna reworks Leon de Templo's "faithful" paraphrase translation of Korah's sons' prophesy regarding the earthquake that destroyed Korah in the book of Numbers. While Laguna's version is more poetic, it adheres fairly closely to Leon de Templo's word choice. Yet, through subtle changes, Laguna adapts the depiction of the earthquake so that it reflects the Jamaican earthquake from the 1690s. The new emotional charge of Laguna's description of how the "earth slid into the sea and the mountains trembled from the waves' roar" recalls for example the trauma suffered by islanders when the Jamaican earthquake submerged Port Royal and the subsequent tsunami swept loudly inland to the island's still-shaking hillsides. (64) In other psalms, however, Laguna changes the verses to emphasize parallels between David's world and the trials conversos faced. For example, in Psalm 10's opening lines he speaks of how,

   arrogant Evil frightens the poor,
   persecuting him with councils
   of the tribunals that infidels call holy.

Here the original's nonspecific [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ("caught in the devices they have contrived") becomes the more specific specter of the Inquisitional tribunal. (65) At moments like these, Lagunas work moves beyond mere "translation" and sings the Psalms anew. As we saw in the ire Luzzatto engendered, singing the Psalms anew moves beyond adumbrative typology into realized eschatology.

Laguna also reworks the Psalms at the level of language and form, and his formal innovations bespeak his sense of Spanish as always already a Jewish language. In London, Jamaica, Amsterdam, Barbados, and other ports, local inhabitants often saw the use of Spanish and Portuguese as marking speakers as "Jewish." Whereas Portuguese was often used for Sephardic records and everyday speech, Spanish was most commonly used for prayer books, Bibles, and other "elevated" religious discourse. Indeed, Lagunas epilogue explains he seeks to make " Quezaab [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] como el Orothat is, to make the "purified gold" of the Hebrew psalms like the gold of Spanish poetry. The volume achieves this end in part through forms. Golden Age writers took poetics seriously--particularly the ability to write in a variety of forms. Poetic academies flourished in Iberia. Poetics contests displayed publicly one's formal training. A 1665 competition at the University of Oviedo, for example, presented awards in ten areas, "the first three for poetry in Latin, followed by sections for the sonnet, the cancion real, the glosa, octavos, decimas, epigrams, and finally the romance." (66) Indeed Espejo fiel feels a bit like a primer of Golden Age poetics, since it includes most of the era's significant forms. (67) Thus, even as the volume educated the reader spiritually, it uplifted him culturally. Yet for Laguna, Spanish culture and Jewish religion were not opposed. Indeed, Laguna intriguingly employs his "golden" forms for their religious message. Laguna's interest in numerology, particularly the number ten, reflects this dual purpose.

Laguna uses numbers to mark his Spanish as Jewish. In addition to helping us read symbolically, the opening of Laguna's work instructs us in Hebrew numerology. We often find, for example, gematria (numerical value) below the Hebrew words: on page four, we learn that the gematria is 613 for both [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (De Daniel Lopes Laguna) and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (Israel hesed, the grace or loving-kindness of Israel). Jewish tradition associates 613 with the commandments. Laguna explains that when the faithful perform these commandments, the Gates of Heaven will open. (68) This numerical instruction teaches the reader to notice other numbers, including those of the poems' forms.

Ten is the volume's most significant, mystical number. As we saw, ten references the ten tsahstahot--the dazzling lights that precede the sefirot and mirror the glory to come. Yet ten also echoes the sefirot themselves, God's ten attributes that connect the spiritual and physical realms. (69) The most popular form in Laguna's collection--the decima--reflects this interest in ten, a number he uses to structure both the "dezima muda" of the hieroglyphs and nearly a quarter of his poems. A popular Spanish form, the decima consists of one or more octosyllabic ten-line stanzas. (70) Despite a wide choice of possible rhyme schemes, Laguna favors the "mirror" decima-. abbaaccddc. (71) In the mirror decima, the rhyme scheme of the stanzas second half reflects back ("mirrors") that of first half (fig. 3). (72) Laguna, for example, uses five mirror decimas to recreate Psalm 20. By employing an odd number of decimas, Laguna effectively forms a larger mirror comprised of smaller ones, since the complete rhyme scheme splits and reflects itself in the middle of the fifth stanza. Although the Hebrew form differs, the mirror decima nicely reflects the original's use of call and response. In the original ten lines, the Israelites petition God six times with "may he" (verses 1-6), after which they affirm their trust--"now I know" (verses 7-10). Indeed, Laguna's line of symmetry falls exactly at the transition between petition and affirmation: "Tus peticiones confirme" (may He [God] confirm your petitions). Thus God's response mirrors the Israelites' request, and God and the Israelites reflect one another. In Laguna's telos, God and his people meet: the psalms both give the Israelites a language with which to speak to God, and they open the door to Heaven.

Laguna's poetics demonstrate how early Jewish American writers envisioned poetry as efficacious in bringing about the messianic age. Other poets also used poetry to help "purify" co-religionists and "open the gate of Heaven." Abraham Gabai Isidro (c. 1680-1755), the Hakham of Suriname and Barbados, similarly believed poetry and the "613 precepts" could help Israel merit the mercy of the "Eternal Judge." While in the colonies, Gabai Isidro wrote YadAbraham, a poetical version of the 613 mitzvot with a commentary, which his widow published in London shortly after his death. (73) As with Laguna's verse, Yad Abraham reveals how certain American experiences imprinted upon the poets: for example, Gabai Isidro--the leader of two sugar-colony Jewish congregations--felt the need to sanction blacks' perpetual enslavement in his verse. (74) Although black-Jewish tensions would continue to haunt Jewish American literature, for most Gabai Isidro's racism signals a dead end.

Laguna's elegant Golden Age poetics may seem hard to reconcile with twentieth-century Jewish literature from the United States, yet it reminds us of the importance of thinking past national boundaries. Laguna's work remains significant beyond his Jewish context: indeed, by adapting the decima form, Laguna takes part in an important American literary tradition. Americo Paredes and Luis Torres show how the decima played a crucial role on the Mexican American frontier. Border poets adapted the decima orally and in writing to discuss love, death, satires, and humor. Likewise, Latin America and the Spanish Caribbean have used the decima extensively, whether in Cuba, Chile, Colombia, or Puerto Rico. (75) Laguna reminds us that many early Jewish American writers helped create both Jewish American and Latino literary traditions. By beginning a Jewish American poetic tradition with writers who claim Spanish as the essential Jewish language, we not only denaturalize the concept of America as ending at the borders of the United States but also challenge the notion that English, Yiddish, and Hebrew have always already been at the natural center of a Jewish American experience. Ashkenazi writers who came during the Great Migration of the 1880s and their descendants are as much an example of drift and variation within the Jewish American tradition as the more commonly marginalized later Sephardic writers.


In this article I have argued that early American Jews embedded their eschatological dreams in the structure and content of their poems. Although indebted to the classical Hebrew canon and Spanish Golden Age poetry, early Jewish American poets adapted old world forms to meet American crises, whether natural disasters, the Inquisition, or the legacy of the triangle trade. The best early Jewish American poets lived in the Caribbean because until the 1820s the Caribbean had the largest, best educated, and wealthiest Jewish American communities. Rethinking where and when we start the canon of American Jewish literature can help us better understand scholars' own stories about the past, and those whom scholars have had to exclude to tell these stories.

Back in the 1920s, historian Perry Miller had an epiphany about the origins of American culture. Miller realized that to tell America's story correctly, he must "begin at the beginning, not the beginning of a fall ... but the beginning of a beginning ... what I wanted was a coherence with which I could coherently begin." (76) For Miller, this "coherence" was the Puritans, rather than the false start of Roanoke. By beginning with the Puritans, Miller cast Virginia, slavery, and American Jews to the side of the main American story. To a certain extent, all scholars in the field of Jewish American studies have been struggling to undo Miller's epiphany and reinsert Jews back into the national narrative. Yet ironically Miller's politics of exclusion also encouraged Jewish American studies to seek its own "coherent" beginning--an origin that would signal that Jews were "American"; that is, that Jews helped found the United States and, whenever possible, were patriots. Cold war politics and the fear of Jewish communism exacerbated this struggle. Yet even today, Jewish American history often begins in 1654 when Sephardic refugees landed in New York seeking religious freedom, in neat imitation of their Puritan neighbors to the north. Likewise Emma Lazarus has provided an important origin for Jewish American poetry that emphasizes Jews' dual roles as founders of and grateful newcomers to the United States: poems such as "In the Jewish Synagogue at Newport" and "1492" emphasize early Sephardic founders, while "The New Colossus" welcomes the "wretched refuse" of great migration immigrants to Americas "teeming shore." Lazarus's mastery of English and Anglo-American forms underscored Jews' assimilation into and mastery of mainstream U.S. culture, yet to "coherently begin" Jewish American poetry with Emma Lazarus is to engage in an act of forgetting. Just as Miller had to cast aside Virginia, slavery, and Jews, so too scholars who begin Jewish American poetry with Emma Lazarus must forget about earlier Jewish American poets who lived and wrote in the Caribbean before Lazarus was born: writers like Aboab, de Barrios, and Laguna, as well as others I haven't analyzed in great length in this article, such as Abraham Gabai Isidro.

When we start the Jewish American poetic tradition with Aboab's work, we question who and what counts as an American Jew and hence engage in one of the major discussions plaguing the field of Jewish American literature. In the "reboot" issue of Studies in American Jewish Literature (Spring 2012), critics questioned both what Jewish American Literature is and what scholarship on it hopes to achieve. For Dalia Kandiyoti, the field has been impoverished by "Ashkenazi-centrism" and a vision of America that ends at the U.S. border. As Michael Kramer astutely observes, such limits probably speak more to critics' own sense of "personal and critical genealogy ... than scholarly and aesthetic concerns." (77) If we want to think of Jewish American literature as a family history, then we need to realize that the family is large and at times seemingly incoherent. Moreover, the current canon fails to account for many branches in the family tree. Prior to 1820, most Jews in the Americas did not try to insert themselves into the English canon: they wrote in Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, and Dutch more often than they wrote in English. They proved their artistry through indebtedness to Hebrew and Spanish poets, not Shakespeare, Milton, or Herbert. Although most Jewish American poets do not use the decima today, the form endures in Latin American and Chicano poetry. As such, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, Miguel de Barrios, and Daniel Israel Lopez Laguna help us rethink both Jewish American literature's origin and telos, and how we might free literary history's beginnings from the search for a predictable, cohesive end.



I would like to thank the following people for their comments on drafts of this article: Monique Balbuena, Kara Becker, Walter Englert, Ariadna Garcia-Bryce, Rebecca Gordon, Michael Hoberman, Michael Kramer, Julie Maxfield, Hugo Moreno, Ronnie Perelis, and Gail Sherman. All mistakes are, of course, my own. Funding for the research for this article was provided by the Mellon Foundation, the Fulbright Program, and Reed College.

(1.) Tsur Israel is a prophetic phrase from second Samuel predicting the messiah through the Davidic line (2 Samuel 23:2). Laura Arnold Leibman, Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2012), 40.

(2.) Arnold Wiznitzer, Jews in Colonial Brazil (New York, Columbia University Press, 1960), 101-3. Wim Klooster, "Networks of Colonial Entrepreneurs: The Founders of the Jewish Settlements in Dutch America, 1650s and 1660s," in Atlantic Diasporas: Jews, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews in the Age of Mercantilism, 1500-1800, ed. Richard L. Kagan and Philip D. Morgan (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 34.

(3.) Indeed few scholars have written on the poets' work as exemplars of early Jewish American poetics. Scholars have studied Miguel de Barrios the most of the three poets, primarily as a example of Spanish or marrano poetics: Inmaculada Garcia Gavilan, Poesia amorosa en el Coro de las musas de Miguel de Barrios (Cordoba, Spain: Servicio de Publicaciones de la Universidad de Cordoba, 2002); Kenneth R Scholberg, La poesia religiosa de Miguel de Barrios (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962); Jose Luis Sanchez Fernandez, Poemas mitoldgicos de Miguel de Barrios (Cordoba: Instituto de Ha. de Andelucia, 1981); Timothy Oelman, Marrano Poets of the Seventeenth Century (Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007); and Matthew Warshawsky, "Trans-Adantic Crypto-Judaism and Literary Homage: Tomas Trevino de Sobremonte and the Women in His Life," The Journal for the Study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry 2, no. 1 (2008): 65-94. Previous analyses of Aboab's and Laguna's work include Ronnie Perelis, "Daniel Israel Lopez Laguna's Espejo fiel de vidas and the Ghosts of Marrano Autobiography" in The Jews in the Caribbean, ed. Jane S. Gerber (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, forthcoming); Meyer Kayserling, "Isaac Aboab: the First Jewish Author in America," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 5 (1896): 125-36; Meyer Kayserling, "The Jews in Jamaica and Daniel Israel Lopez Laguna," The Jewish Quarterly Review 12, no. 4 (1900): 708-17; Moises Orfali Levi, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca: Jewish Leadership in the New World (Brighton: Sussex Academic, forthcoming); and David Weitman, Bandeirantes espirituais do Brasil (Sao Paulo: Maayanot, 2003).

(4.) Kai Mikkonen, "The 'Narrative Is Travel' Metaphor: Between Spatial Sequence and Open Consequence," Narrative 15, no. 3 (2007): 286.

(5.) Romashevsky cited in Mikkonen, "The 'Narrative Is Travel' Metaphor," 290.

(6.) Norman Finkelstein, Not One of the Them in Place (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001), 1-16; Jonathan N. Barron and Eric Murphy Selinger, Jewish American Poetry (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000); Steven J. Rubin, Telling and Remembering (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 2-3. A major exception to this trend is R. Barbara Gitenstein, Apocalyptic Messianism and Contemporary Jewish-American Poetry (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986).

(7.) Maeera Y. Shreiber, Singing in a Strange Land (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), 2-4.

(8.) Joel Robbins, "Secrecy and the Sense of an Ending: Narrative, Time, and Everyday Millenarianism in Papua New Guinea," Comparative Studies in Society and History 43 (2001): 528-30.

(9.) Leibman, Messianism, Secrecy and Mysticism, 287-300.

(10.) Ibid., 16. Moshe Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation, trans. Jackie Feldman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 33.

(11.) William Franke, Poetry and the Apocalypse (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 9-10.

(12.) A. van der Heide, "Dutch Hebrew Poetry of the 17th Century," in Dutch Jewish History, ed. Joseph Michman (Maastricht, the Netherlands: Van Gorum, Assen, 1989), 2:137, 139-40. Van der Heide quotes poet Solomon de Oliveyra.

(13.) Amoetat Akevoth, "A Short Description of the Life and Works of Chacham Isack Aboab da Fonseca," 2006-2010,

(14.) Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, Nishmat Hayyim (Amsterdam, 1648), Ets Haim Library, Amsterdam, MS 47 C25, MS 47 C3.

(15.) Shreiber, Singing in a Strange Land, 4, 20-26, 32, 43,108,179-80,182, 208, 216; Meera Y. Shreiber, "None Are Like You, Shulamite," Prooftexts 30 (2010), 35-60.

(16.) Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, "Zekher asiti leniflaot El," trans. Salomon Truzman, in Jews in the Americas, 1620-1826, ed. Michael Hoberman, Laura Leibman, and Hilit Surowitz-Israel (London, Pickering & Chatto, forthcoming). Volume 1. Stanza 36. I would like to thank Salomon Truzman for first pointing out to me that the poem echoed ha-Levi s poem and that Sephardim use ha-Levi s poem on Shabbat Zakhor.

(17.) I explain and define early Jewish American typology at greater length in Leibman, Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism, 148-49, 152, 155-56. For a different view of Jewish American typology, see Michael P. Kramer, "Biblical Typology and the Jewish American Imagination," in The Turn around Religion in America: Literature, Culture, and the Work of Sacvan Bercovitch, ed. Nan Goodman and Michael P. Kramer (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), 199-222.

(18.) Marc Saperstein, "Your Voice like a Rams Horn": Themes and Texts in Traditional Jewish Preaching (Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union College Press, 1996), 23-35.

(19.) The value Aboab places on "we" contrasts with the later Jewish American shift from "we" to "I" in piyyutim. Shreiber, Singing in a Strange Land, 21.

(20.) For the text, prose translation of, and commentary on ha-Levi's poem, I am indebted to Solomon Gaon, Book of Prayer of Spanish and Portuguese Jews' Congregation, London (Oxford: University Press for the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, 1965), 164-70.

(21.) For example Dara Horn, "The Uses of History in American Jewish Fiction: A Conversation with novelists Dara Horn and Anna Solomon," AJHS Scholars Conference, New York, 2012. For more on thick language see Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 374-75; and Patrick Lee Miller, "On the Very Idea of a Metaphorical Scheme," 15.

(22.) "Ani Yehudah ha-Levi hakatan, b'Rabbi Samuel ha-Levi."

(23.) "I am Isaac Aboab son of David--Hazak [be strengthened]!" Kabbalistic poet Abraham ben Maimon uses a similar signature. Peter Cole and Aminadav Dykman, The Poetry of Kabbalah: Mystical Verse from the Jewish Tradition (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 380.

(24.) The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 8.

(25.) Cole and Dykman, The Poetry of Kabbalah, 301, 385.

(26.) Acrostics occur in Psalms 25, 34, 37, m, 112, 199, 145; Proverbs 31:10-31; and Lamentations 1-4. J. A. Motyer, "Acrostic," in The New International Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), 12.

(27.) Cole and Dykman, The Poetry of Kabbalah, 301.

(28.) Franke, Poetry and the Apocalypse, 9-10.

(29.) Hasia R. Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977); Eric J. Sundquist, Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005); Milly Heyd, Mutual Reflections: Jews and Blacks in American Art (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999); and Strangers&Neighbors: Relations Between Blacks&Jews in the United States, ed. Maurianne Adams and John H. Bracey (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).

(30.) Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: from the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (New York: Verso, 1997), 172,192.

(31.) Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery, 12, 20 6. Portraits of mixed-race and colored militiamen from Recife include Albert Eckhout, Mulatti Man (ca. 1643); Anonymous, "Portrait of Henrique Dias" (1600s); and Anonymous, "Portrait of John Fernandes Vieira" (1600s).

(32.) David Marley, Wars of the Americas: A Chronology of Armed Conflict in the Western Hemisphere, 1492 to the Present, Vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008), 207.

(33.) Aboab, "Zekher asiti leniflaot EIJ stanza 11.

(34.) Louis H. Feldman, "Remember Amalek!": Vengeance, Zealotry, and Group Destruction in the Bible (Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew Union College Press, 2004), 8.

(35.) Wiznitzer, Jews in Colonial Brazil, 100-101. Jonathan Schorsch, "Jewish Historians, Colonial Jews and Blacks, and the Limits of 'Wissenschaft': A Critical Review J Jewish Social Studies 6, no. 2 (2000): 113.

(36.) Joyce E. Chaplin, "Race," in The British Atlantic World, 1500-1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 154.

(37.) See Abraham Gabai Isidro, Sefer Yad Avraham (Amsterdam, 1763), trans. Salomon Truzman, in Jews in the Americas, 1620-1826, ed. Michael Hoberman and Laura Leibman (London: Pickering&Chatto, forthcoming). One might also contrast Aboab's vision of the tensions between blacks and Jews with later Yiddish American poets of the 1930s who sympathized with lynched blacks and criticized the Scottsboro Boys Trial. Berish Weinstein, "Lynching," in Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, ed. Jules Chametzky et. al. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2001), 412-13. Liati Mayk-Hai (Jewish Theological Seminary), "The 'Zikh-Witness' and African-American Victims: Lynching and Radical Injustice in Yiddish American Poetry of the 1930s," AJHS Conference, 2012.

(38.) Garcia Gavilan, Poesia amorosa, 15-26.

(39.) Oelman, Marrano Poets of the Seventeenth Century, 219; Richard Gottheil and Meyer Kayserling, "Barrios, Daniel Levi (Miguel) De," in Jewish Encyclopedia (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1901-1906).

(40.) Oleman, Marrano Poets of the Seventeenth Century, 219-21. Gottheil and Kayserling, "Barrios, Daniel Levi (Miguel) De."

(41.) Miriam Bodian, Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 20-21.

(42.) For a fabulous biography of Trevino, see Matthew Warshawsky, 'Trans-Atlantic Crypto-Judaism and Literary Homage," 65-94.

(43.) Mary Malcolm Gaylord, "The Making of Baroque Poetry," in The Cambridge History of Spanish Literature, ed. David T. Gies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 226-27.

(44.) Miguel de Barrios, Triumpho degovierno popular (Amsterdam, 1683-84), 103 [569].

(45.) Gaylord, "The Making of Baroque Poetry," 230-31. Willis Barnstone, Six Masters of the Spanish Sonnet (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993), 1-15. I would like to thank Ariadna Garcia-Bryce for her observations about the Spanish baroque.

(46.) Here I disagree with Matthew Warshawsky, who reads fourteen as an error. Warshawsky, 'Trans-Atlantic Crypto-Judaism and Literary Homage," 86.

(47.) David = [??] (four) + [??] (six) + [??] (four) = 14.

(48.) For Christians, three represents the Trinity; for Jews, the three parts of the soul: neshama, nefesh, and ruah.

(49.) S. K. Heninger, The Subtext of Form in the English Renaissance (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 73-80.

(50.) Examples from Curasao include the gravestones of Elijah Namias de Crasto (1717) and Hakham Elijah Lopes (1713). Isaac S. Emmanuel, Precious Stones of the Jews of Curasao (New York: Bloch, 1957), 216; Isaac S. Emmanuel & Suzanne A. Emmanuel, History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles (Cincinnati, OH: AJA, 1970), 64-65.

(51.) Barrios, Triumpho de Goviemo Popular, 193, 230, 350; Emmanuel, Precious Stones of the Jews of Curasao, 191, 195, 215, 217, 274, 284, 304, 323, 355, 481; Emmanuel and Emmanuel, History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles, 777.

(52.) Moreover, his interest in Isaac, Elijah and Job as types for American Jews would find unintentional echoes in later Jewish American poets such as Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky; Shreiber, Singing in a Strange Land, 55-57, 92, 94, 99, 112, 129, 137, 138, 190, 195-99, 202, 214

(53.) Other important influences include Jacob Judah Leon de Templo (1603-75) and Solomon de Oliveyra (d. 1708).

(54.) Todd M. Endelman, The Jews of Georgian England, 1714-1830: Tradition and Change in a Liberal Society (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1979), 168.

(55.) Mordechai Arbell, The Jewish Nation of the Caribbean (New York: Gefen, 2002), 255-56; Marilyn Delevante and Anthony Alberga, The Island of One People: An Account of the History of the Jews of Jamaica (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2008), 102-03.

(56.) David Abenatar Melo, Los CL Psalmos de David en lengua espahola, en varias rimas (Amsterdam, 1626).

(57.) Miriam Bodian, Hebrew of the Portuguese Nation, 176-77.

(58.) Las Alabangas de Santidad (Amsterdam, 1671). Kayserling notes that Laguna "borrows heavily" from Leon de Templo s work. While there is clearly a debt, their purposes and methods are so different as to make such a statement somewhat deceptive. Kayserling, "The Jews in Jamaica and Daniel Israel Lopez Laguna," 714.

(59.) Elisheva Carlebach, The Pursuit of Heresy: Rabbi Moses Hagiz and the Sabbatian Controversies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 233-34.

(60.) John T. Cull, "The Baroque at Play: Homiletic and Pedagogical Emblems in Francisco Garau and Other Spanish Golden Age Preachers," in Writing for the Eyes in the Spanish Golden Age, ed. Frederick A. de Armas (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2004), 237-40, 254.

(61.) I would like to thank Monique Balbuena for pointing out this sense of delfin.

(62.) Lopez Laguna, Espejo fiel, front matter. All translations are mine.

(63.) Daniel Chanan Matt, ed., The Book of Mirrors: Sefer Mar'ot ha-Zove'ot, by R. David ben Yehudah he-Hasid (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982), 8, 23.

(64.) Lopez Laguna, Espejo fiel, 84.

(65.) Ibid., 13. Kayserling, "The Jews in Jamaica and Daniel Israel Lopez Laguna," 714.

(66.) Jeremy Robbins, Love Poetry of the Literary Academies in the Reigns of Philip LV and Charles LI (London: Tamesis, 1997), 48-49.

(67.) He uses these forms the following number of times: alphabetic acrostics (3), cancion (10), cancion real (4), coplas (1), cuartetos (quatrains) (3), decimas (29), decimas depie quebrado (6), endechas (3), endecha de endecasilavo (4), esdnijulos (7), liras (5), madrigals (16), octavos (octaves) (15), quintillas (2), redondillas (15), romance (25), romance lirico (i), soneto (2), tercetos (tercets) (3), verso heroic (1).

(68.) Lopez Laguna, Espejo fiel, 3-4.

(69.) Halbertal, Concealment and Revelation, 1; Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1974), 57, 102-5, 118-20, 172-73.

(70.) The meter of Spanish poetry is based on syllable count, not feet.

(71.) Sometimes called an espinela after Vicente Epinel, the Golden Age poet famed for inventing the form.

(72.) Americo Paredes, "The 'Decima' on the Texas-Mexican Border: Folksong as an Adjunct to Legend," Journal of the Folklore Institute 3, no. 2 (1966), 154; Philip Pasmanick, "'Decima' and 'Rumba': Iberian Formalism in the Heart of Afro-Cuban Song," Latin American Music Review 18, no. 2 (1997): 252.

(73.) Cecil Roth, "The Remarkable Career of Haham Abraham Gabay Yzidro," The Jewish Historical Society of England 24, Miscellanies 9 (1970-73): 211-13.

(74.) Jonathan Schorsch, Jews and Black in the Early Modern World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 236, 250, 293.

(75.) Paredes, "The 'Decima' on the Texas-Mexican Border," 154-167; Americo Paredes, Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border, ed. Richard Bauman (Austin: University ofTexas Press, 1993), 236. Luis A. Torres, The World of Early Chicano Poetry, 1846-1910 (Encino, CA: Floricanto Press, 1994), 168-77, 226-31. Philip Pasmanick, "'Decima' and 'Rumba,'" 252-77. La decima popular en la tradicion hispanica, ed. Maximiano Trapero (Evora, Portugal: Camara Municipal de Evora, 2001).

(76.) Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), viii.

(77.) Dalia Kandiyoti, "What Is the 'Jewish' in 'Jewish American Literature'?" Studies in American Jewish Literature 31, no. 1 (2012): 50-51; Michael P. Kramer, "The Wretched Refuse of Jewish American Literary History," Studies in American Jewish Literature 31, no. 1 (2012): 70.
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Author:Leibman, Laura Arnold
Publication:Studies in American Jewish Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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