An ill-spent youff

“My pen is my harp and my lyre; my books [library] are my garden and my orchard.” Perhaps gentle reader has seen this on a sentimental greeting card. I did once, according to my memory; and the compacted, architectural idea of a “lyre garden” sometimes visits me in dreams. The words originate with Yehudah Halevi, poet and physician from the Hebrew “golden age,” in Iberia nearly one thousand years ago.

Today we call it “Muslim Spain”; and there is a great deal of academic bafflegab, dedicated to selling Muslim mediaeval tolerance — simplifying from a history immensely more complex.  The poet himself apparently said that he came from Christian territory, and came of age in Christian Toledo. He died a pilgrim to the Holy Land, then a (Christian) Crusader kingdom, and by legend at a gate of Jerusalem. (Although there is evidence for this, it is of course disputed by the perfessers.) Traces of his life could be reconstructed from worn documents and fragments that were in the genizot of a Cairo synagogue; within a little mountain of records going back to our (misnamed) “Dark Ages.” Materials from that storage house are now archived in universities around the Western world, thanks to the Imperialist 19th century.

It is curious how history is reconstructed. Marvellous things emerge from manuscript “middens” in unexpected places. Thanks to American soldiers, rooting the Taliban out of Afghan caves, treasures of other ancient synagogues were found. Their purchase by Israel’s national library represents a (discreet) avenue of trade between the two countries. The Jewish community in Afghanistan has been much reduced recently, from what it had been over fifteen centuries — to approximately zero. But as I learnt at firsthand in my rambling youff, there are Hebrew letters carved into mountain rock, north-east of Herat. These are relics from the prayers of travelling Jewish merchants, who came this way long-forgotten generations ago.

In his day, Yehudah Halevi also travelled widely. En route to Jerusalem he was encamped in the Jewish quarters of Alexandria and Cairo (then named “Fustat”) for extended periods. One did not need passports or identity cards in those days; only to risk one’s life. There were no trains or aeroplanes, yet with some determination, one could go anywhere that was known, by sea; and everywhere else with a walking stick. We seriously underestimate the cosmopolitanism of all worlds before our “modern” time.

Awakened, once again, by the jackhammers, from a dream in which I was in my lyre garden, I make my homage to this ancient Jewish sage. His works are recited by religious Jews today — much of his oeuvre is mystically religious — yet I know almost nothing about him. What an ill-spent youff!