Seven hundred years after his lifetime, the extraordinary Hebrew poet Immanuel of Rome reappeared in New York to meet Fabrizio Lelli, a scholar of his work from the University of Rome La Sapienza.
The occasion of this encounter was the book launch of “Mine Is the Golden Tongue: The Hebrew Sonnets of Immanuel of Rome”, translated and annotated by Yehudah Cohn (CPL Editions, 2023 link: https://primolevicenter.org/7808-2-2-3-4-3-2-2-3-4/). The presentation took place on Monday, October 30th, at the New York Public Library Stavros Niarchos Foundation branch, organized by the Primo Levi Center of New York in collaboration with the Jewish Museum of Rome and the Casa Italiana Zerilli Marimò at NYU.
A contemporary of Dante, Immanuel lived in Rome during the communal turmoil in which the city was, at the same time, a theater of conflict and a magnet of cultural and intellectual life. A short video of images, music and open questions offered a glimpse of the Roman Jewish world from the early centuries of the first millennium to the segregation in the ghetto in 1555.
Impersonating the poet and the scholar were Ronald Guttman and Fabrizio Lelli.
For theater and cinema fans, Guttman needs no introduction. Born in Brussels and fluent in many languages, he has starred in many successful films such as The Duel and All You Need Is Blood, in television productions such as Hunters with Al Pacino, and in many theatrical performances not only in the United States, but also in France, and Belgium.
In front of a large and intrigued audience, the actor played the part of Immanuel returning to the world of the living in 2023, wittily conversing with the scholar about his story, culture, anxieties, fears, and remorse, partly in words and partly through his verses.
Puzzled by the encounter, Fabrizio Lelli played himself, a professor of Jewish Language and Literature. In medieval Jewish studies, Lelli needs no introduction as he is well-known internationally. Over the last twenty years, he has researched medieval Hebrew manuscripts from Puglia and published widely on the subject.
The dialogue between the two introduces a poet whose writing mirrors different facets of the Italic Medieval world and shows how the reaches and connections between the North and the South are far more expansive and complex than is usually imagined. The breadth of his influences and the beauty of his poetry resonated through centuries and, in the 20th century, were embraced by Hebrew and Italian poets who chose him as an inspiration and model, including Shay Agnon, Shaul Tchernichovsky, and Edoardo Sanguineti.
A poet and biblical commentator with a prodigious wit, Immanuel, or Manoello Giudeo, was well-known in the cultural world of his times. He was widely published and anthologized, admired by Jewish and Christian scholars. For many different reasons, however, his name never entered the 19th and 20th-century Jewish literary canon. His most famous work, Machbaroth, a collection of twenty-eight tales written in Hebrew and combining biblical poetry, the Arabic parodic style called maqama, and the sonnet form inherited from the Sicilian Giacomo da Lentini, has never been fully translated.
Little is known of his life, apart from what he narrated in his own writings. He was born between 1261 and 1270 and lived at a time of profound political and social changes after the death of Emperor Frederick II and the shift of the Imperial center from Sicily to Provence. During his lifetime, the Popes lived away from Rome, first in nearby cities and then in Avignon.
Immanuel was the son of a rabbi, an active member of the local Jewish community, and a profound interpreter of the Bible. Until his death, which occurred between 1335 and 1350, despite the political and social unrest of a rapidly changing world, Rome was still a crossroad of Mediterranean cultures.
Almost two centuries before the segregation of Roman Jews in the ghetto, Immanuel was not only a Jewish sage but was also an enthusiastic connoisseur of Hebrew poetry from al-Andalus, Arabic Neoplatonic text, and Greek and Latin literature. He became a protagonist of the early literary experimentation with vernacular and the flourishing of the Dolce Stil Novo. This multifaceted background led him to write not only biblical commentaries and Hebrew poetry but also secular comic-allegorical poetry reminiscent of the Novellino and the Decameron. One of Immanuel’s poems, Bisbidis, is dedicated to Cangrande della Scala, a supporter and friend of Dante, whose court in Verona was a major Ghibelline stronghold.
After seven centuries, thanks to Yehudah Cohn’s translation from Hebrew into English, Ronald Guttman’s talent, and the Centro Primo Levi, not only scholars but the public at large will be able to appreciate Immanuel’s poetry and a medieval world that still holds secrets and treasures.