ערב טוב אסתי,
ביליתי כמה שעות מרתקות עם הכרך הראשון של ספרך המאלף על יוסי בן יוסי ועל יניי. התוודעתי למתודולוגיה החדשה שהשתמשת בה כדי לפענח את משמעות ההבדלים באופן הבחירה של שני הפייטנים במקורותיהם המקראיים השונים, ובדרך השימוש בהם מבחינה כמותית, בבדיקה ממוחשבת של לשון הפיוטים.
שמחתי מאוד לראות שאת ממשיכה בכיוון חדש את הממד הפוליטי המובהק שהצבעתי עליו בספרי ‘מקדש ומרכבה’ בדבר המאבק עתיר המשמעות על מקור הסמכות ונושאיה, בין חכמים וכוהנים במאות אחרי החורבן, שמעט מאוד עסקו בו ביחס לספרות המיסטית השירית הקדומה, הנודעת בשם ספרות ההיכלות והמרכבה, או ביחס לספרות הפיוט. הצביון הכוהני המובהק של ספרות ההיכלות, כמו הצביון הכוהני המובהק בפיוטיו של יוסי בן יוסי, לעומת דחיקתו המודעת של ממד זה בפיוטיו של ייני, מאיר עיניים ומוסיף נדבך חשוב להבנת המאבקים הדתיים במסגרת רב-המערכת התרבותית היהודית באלף הראשון אחרי חורבן בית שני. שמחתי גם לראות את הדגש על הקריאה הפמיניסטית הביקורתית בטקסטים פטריארכליים אלה. קצת עיינתי קצת דפדפתי והרבה קראתי וממש רוויתי נחת.
מחר אעיין בכרך השני. תודה רבה
כל טוב ולילה טוב
Interview with the Author: The Book Report
The Book Report
Interview: Yosse ben Yosse by Esti Mayer
May 26, 2023
A few weeks ago, I was approached by a representative from Tellwell Talent regarding their author, Esti Mayer, and her new book, “Yosse ben Yosse” which features annotated translations of Yosse ben Yosse’s poems (piyyutim) written in 5th century Jewish Palestine. As a blogger, my mission is to feature as many books as possible. However, in a world where publishing is just a few clicks away, it can be difficult to keep up with new releases and submissions.
What made “Yosse ben Yosse” stand out was the detail and dedication of Esti Mayer as an author. She has made history by translating the poems of Yosse ben Yosse into English for the first time and providing additional insights and context in her book. After reviewing the materials, my curiosity was piqued, and I simply had to book an interview with Esti.
She was kind enough to answer a few questions to enlighten us about her process and why she chose to pen two volumes of books dedicated to Yosse ben Yosse.
What drew you to poet Yosse ben Yosse?
My encounter with Yosse ben Yosse can only be described as a coup de foudre. I was fascinated, awed, and humbled by the artistry of writing a mosaic of verses, whose building blocks are drawn from the Hebrew Bible entire. I was amazed by the manner, in which the Paytan composed new meaning from seemingly disparate verses. In an historic era in which knowledge was primarily oral, Yosse ben Yosse had the entire bible set before him, in his mind, and more than that- he was able to create recombinant meaning from the biblical raw material.
At first, I was drawn to the seemingly impenetrably archaic language. Fluent in Modern and Classical Hebrew, I had thought the liturgy of Yosse ben Yosse would present no translation challenge to me. I was quite confident. When I tried to translate the poems however, I quickly realized my self-assurance was rather ill advised. Some humility was required before I could enter the halls that Yosse ben Yosse had crafted so long ago. Indeed, the complexity of his verses is the very thing that prevented systematic exploration by scholars.
Well, I came for the art – and stayed for the history.
Scholars often tend to regard piyyut as an embellishment, a fanciful and creative divergence, even as they agree that piyyut can sometimes function as a secondary hermeneutic device, that elucidates religious concepts. Piyyut, I maintain, is more than the sum of its parts. My work rests on the presupposition, that piyyut can also record historic information, and open a window to the socio-political and religious life of the people who wrote, heard, and read piyyutic verses. As I delved into Yosse ben Yosse’s piyyutim, I discovered ensconced in them, valuable historical data. Piyyut can be a useful addition to our scholarly armamentarium, as part of our collective effort to better understand history. In our case, Yosse ben Yosse’s piyyutim shed light on some aspects of the life of Jews in late-antique Palestine, around the 5th century of the Common Era.
This is the first time his poems have been translated into English. What do you hope will come from having Yosse ben Yosse’s works gain a new audience in modern times?
There is no complete published anthology of Yosse ben Yosse’s works in English. Several scholars such as Michael Swartz and Joseph Yahalom translated a few poems, but they did not annotate the sources and did not independently develop their in-depth investigation. I needed to translate all his extant piyyutim, in order to facilitate a conversation with scholars across the board. Yosse ben Yosse’s liturgy has therefore hitherto been inaccessible to most researchers, both Hebrew speakers and English speakers. Its archaic structures and complex infrastructure further obfuscate and confound the reader.
As Foucault teaches, the meaning of a text ascribed to a particular author, is often only a construction of the reader. Meaning is not always situated with the author. It is the eye of the beholder, indeed the first-person I of the reader, that reveals the meaning of any text. Those meanings are as mutable as the number of readers who engage with them. The nature of human memory is to be selective, defective, corrective, elective, interpretive, subjective, creative, and… fickle. Two persons witnessing the same event will give two different reports, each from his or her perspective. If we add to the mix the yawning chasm of space-time distance, and we spice the broth with the vagaries of oral transmission, ideological inflections, and linguistic differences, the resulting potage will most probably bear little resemblance to the actual event. Language thus guides our reading about events and influences memory.
The hypogeal structure that undergirds his poetry is a brilliant, systematic mosaic approach to biblical verses. Couplets from a great variety of Hebrew Bible sources are mashed together to create new meanings. It reminded me of recombinant DNA. With a limited array of building blocks the poet was able to craft wholly new meaning. It is fascinating as it is rare.
Through textual analysis, guided by critical discourse theory, I interrogated two systems of narratives: Yosse ben Yosse’s and the narrative of the rabbinic Mishnah Yoma. I compared the texts line by line, word for word. I really thought I was going to compare apples with apples, as most scholars have consistently suggested. To my astonishment, and quite unexpectedly, some of them apples turned out to be oranges.
The painstaking comparison of the two narratives yielded a new document. It intimated that I had inadvertently stumbled upon the discourse, that raged in late antiquity, between a priestly apologist and the rabbinic class, relating to the memory of the rituals once performed in the Temple. I explored the uses of language, as I interrogated texts which were written by competing socio-religious groups that vied for ascendency and authority in late antique Jewish life. I was stunned to discover that under the beautifully crafted verses, Yosse ben Yosse’s liturgical works hid a raging power contest with rabbinic memory of the Temple, and with rabbinic claims to authority in post-destruction Jewish life.
Religious figures, of all stripes, understood the destruction to be a temporary challenge presented by God to His chosen people. Diverse responses and opinions fleeted about the Jewish world in late antiquity, but the dominant position was that the suffering of Jews should be Deuteronomically attributed to their sins. Redemption, they knew, will surely come when the people of God are deemed worthy again, if they strive to fulfill God’s every commandment faithfully. Some theologians and theodicists maintained that God went into exile with His flock, and suffered with them in the diaspora, a notion later echoed in Jewish responses to the Holocaust. Conceptually, the various responses held, that God’s covenant with Israel had not been broken, and significantly, that God had not abandoned the Jews. They trusted in future salvific redemption at God’s pleasure, and they knew exile to be merely a passing cloud in the firmament of Jewish eternity.
The priestly caste sought to unite Jewish communities through the age-old performance of ritual by God’s emissaries- the priests, who came forth as branches from the tree of Levi, son of Jacob. The rabbinic enterprise, on the other hand, fashioned a guide for a model society of Jews, as a non-sectarian, unified society of adherents to the orthopraxy of Judaism. It is plausible to consider Yosse ben Yosse a member of the priestly caste, but as yet, this remains an unprovable proposition, if we seek incontrovertible certitude. Does it matter? I do not think so. A priestly text, such as this body of work, gives voice to priestly concerns. Even if Yosse ben Yosse was not a priest, there are priestly voices audible in and behind his written words.
The effort amongst Jews to visualize and verbalize Jewish memory after the destruction, drew freely from local and trans-local artistic traditions, now inflected toward Jewish themes. Mosaic art, such as the marvelous floors recently unearthed in Huquq for instance, suggests that Jewish Galilean settlements adopted elements of the ambient language of visual expression, in order to engage with their memory of the Temple and the biblical world that had come to an end. The mosaic floor at the synagogue in Sussya is another example of synergetic artistic forces, that gave shape to religious visual art in the Byzantine period.
I have collected a small sample-set of mosaic images from Jewish and Christian Byzantine sites, from Israel and from Syria. Stylistically and thematically, these mosaics are almost indistinguishable from one another. I noted the religious tradition and geographic location at the bottom of each image, but without these notations you would be hard pressed to tell one from the other. This attests to the free flow of visual artistic practices in and around the Mediterranean basin. It suggests that currents of cultural exchanges flowed across borderlines surrounding religious and geographic communities. There is little doubt that similar inspirational and practical synergies occurred in the field of liturgical poetry. The challenge is to find the key to this labyrinthine cross-fertilization, which I suggest here may be achieved through textual analysis that is guided by discourse theory. We need to ask more questions regarding the direction of influence, and regarding the power relations between and amongst faith communities in late antiquity.
What aspect of the book do you think will surprise audiences most?
I think readers of all stripes would be surprised to learn that power struggles that raged in the fifth century can resonate with contemporary power struggles. As my students want to say, “people are people”. Fifth century, twenty first century, we are all still the same human beings with similar concerns and aspirations. Fifth century socio-political contests between groups vying for power and influence, sound and look very much like twenty first contests. Not only are the undercurrents of political competition for public support similar, so are the methods used to garner support from the public. Speaking to people in terms they easily understand and can relate to, enhances the ability of speakers to convey their message.
Historical narratives are objects of woven cultural sensibilities and memories of the past, that are valued and shared by a group of people over time. Language, words, and syntax can craft reality, they can influence thought patterns, ethical systems, and cognitive abilities. Language is the cognitive template which affords us, as humans, multiple conceptual universes.
The role of language is to transmit thoughts across space and time. People tell themselves and their kin, stories about who they are, where they come from, how they arrived at their present station, and where their future will take them. People thus place themselves on their historical continuum and find meaning and purpose in their existence. The ethical position of the social entity is based on the group’s ontological parameters, and on the stories that affirm these notions. This was as true in piyyutic works from late antiquity, as it is in today’s social network, with its public opinion shaping bots, and fake news.
Yosse ben Yosse’s liturgy offers a snapshot glimpse into the contours of the battleground, upon which there raged a contest for power in the political vacuum left by the destruction of the Second Temple. The destruction of the Second Temple was such a cataclysmic paradigm-shift in the fortunes of Jews. It sent shock after aftershock into the bedrock of Jewish practice and theology, driving a comprehensive restructuring of Jewish life at the tectonic level. We can forgive the ancients for thinking that with the destruction of the Temple, the world had come to an end. In a sense their world did end. We now know that what they construed as the end was a beginning of a 2000+ year journey, of a people that sees itself rooted in the mythic past but is always forward looking as well. We continue to add brick after brick to the edifice that our ancient fathers and mothers had founded. They could not have imagined us, but we can try to imagine them, and hold hands with our ancient kin.
We train our ears to listen to these faint echoes. Jewish life in 5th century Palestine stood poised at the cusp between the Jewish past and the Jewish future, a religious and political crossroads between old traditionalists, and a coterie of relatively new claimants to socio-religious leadership. Jewish piyyut after Yosse ben Yosse transitioned from emphasis on Temple rites and priestly ceremonies, to new conceptual ideas that centered on future redemption and on the preservation of Jewish memory and Jewish life, in accordance with rabbinic systems of thought, and with the halachic regulation of Jewish life. We know of course who won this historic contest, but we as students of Jewish history, would be remiss to ignore the other side of the debate.
Do you need to be an academic to read/understand this book?
Once can enjoy these works at several levels. Indeed, scholars can study the verses from perspectives as far apart as literature, Byzantine liturgy, Late Antiquity Jewish history, linguistics, critical discourse theory, religious studies, and even feminist theories. Casual readers may also enjoy untangling the verses, following the innumerable strings of ideas and concepts that are woven into the piyyutic works presented here. One can derive great pleasure from unraveling the secrets ensconced in words. Even knowing which biblical sources were cited in each couplet can add meaning to the reader. It is akin to literary detective work. Try it. It’s really fun!
Piyyut is a marvelous art-form of sheer verbal acrobatics, featuring dexterity, agility, balance, and coordination, but not as a high-wire circus act. As poetic dexterity, agility, balance, and coordination go, Yosse ben Yosse was a master of this art.
My research points to a suggestion, that Yosse ben Yosse’s contribution is both liturgically material and historically significant. The only tools historians have are words, and the silences between them. Collective memory, of which historians are the acting custodians, is as malleable as wet clay. We study peoples’ memory. We can, with our ex-post facto, 20:20 vision, identify occasional historical instances of myopic perceptions, as we study the different reports of salient events, and as we extract a measure of that which captures the inherently complex reality of the times. My research developed a new approach to the appraisal of piyyut, as a literary witness to the evolution of Jewish social, political, and religious structures in late antiquity. It suggests we re-examine liturgical works that have survived the vicissitudes of time, with an eye for extracting possible historical nuggets from the veins of their verse. We can revisit piyyutim, and mine them systematically, in a manner that may yet reveal historically significant information about Jewish life in bygone centuries.
Your bio mentions that you are a painter and your works are showcased internationally. How long have you painted?
I am a creative person. For the first forty years of my life my creativity flowed as poetry, mostly in modern Hebrew. I published a few poetry books in Hebrew, and a couple of childrens’ books in verse. In my early forties I found myself apprenticing at a professional etching studio in Old Montreal, where my love affair with visual art suddenly exploded into being. Since then, I have been immersed in art. I earned a degree in visual art at Concordia University in Montreal. I afforded me wholly new avenues of expression which I had hitherto imagined beyond my abilities. Both my parents are gifted artists, as is my younger sister. And then, all of a sudden, so was I.
What subjects do you feel drawn to paint?
Initially, my self discovery as an artists opened up deep wells of pent-up emotions regarding the Holocaust. In 2006 I painted a series of 51 paintings depicting my personal conversation with my national and family history. It was an exorcism of sorts. The paintings burst forth from my person like a torrent.
My Holocaust Suite toured Israel, exhibited in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa among other venues. I published a book of the suite and gave over a hundred lectures on the topic in Israel and in Canada. And then I was finally able to move on from my life-long obsession with the most violet event in human history, from the life-long sorrow held in every cell of my being.
And moved on I did. I now paint abstract impressionist paintings, filled with vibrant colours and bold strokes. I paint quickly, emotionally, passionately. My teacher of abstract painting, the world renowned Françoise Sullivan, called it “dancing”. She urged us, her students, to dance with the colours, with the shapes our passions forged on the canvas before us. It took me years to understand, but I finally do. I dance my paintings even as they dance before my eyes.
As a writer, how do you get started on a project? And how do you see it through to completion?
I write. I paint. I sew and knit. I conceptualize sculpted works. I work with craftspeople to create unique pieces that defy categorization. I am always creating. The impulse bubbles up from within. At first it is a whisper, a whiff of a vision that fleets across my mind. It gradually gains momentum, as a bubbling brook flows into a stream, then into a river, even as it reaches the seas as a torrent. Once an idea gets hold it takes over me. Completely. I am dogged, indefatigable. I cannot stop, I do not stop, until my vision is realized. Every new project consumes me. It does not deplete me. Rather, it energizes me, it fills me with energy and verve. It excites me and it animates everything in my life. It is a marvelous love affair with imagination and art.
You have published many academic and non-academic books, do you have a favorite work so far?
My favourite book, by far, is this one. I am most proud of it. It took a decade of my life to bring to print, and it signifies a personal and professional triumph. I have always wanted to make an indelible mark on the sands of time, to make a contribution that matters, that will outlive my mortality. I think this book is one such contribution. I have here offered a meaningful addition to the field, to the Jewish book-case, and it feels very very good indeed. Now. As I launch this creature into the world at large, I hope my work resonates and finds favour with my readers.
For more visit www.estimayer.com
Books, Jewish Culture
indie books, jewish history, piyyutim, women’s literature, yosse ben yosse
« Previous Post
The Book Report
Blog at WordPress.com.Do Not Sell or Share My Personal Information
Beautiful and well contextualized translation
In these two volumes, Esti Mayer presents a comprehensive and insightful study of Yosse ben Yosse, a Jewish liturgical poet of the fifth century C.E. She gives the reader the tools necessary to contextualize and fully understand Yosse’s liturgical poems [piyyutim]. In particular, her beautiful translation of the piyyutim takes them out of their obscurity and gives us the access necessary for our appreciation of Yosse’s absolute mastery of the genre of Jewish liturgical poetry.
Here are two ways that you’ll be able to share what you think of “Yosse ben Yosse: An Annotated Translation”:
- Write a review on Amazon.
- Share a comment right on my website!
Thank you for your support.