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Frivolous, Ironic and Erotic Like the Bible: The Poetry of Immanuel da Roma

22Oct6:30 pmFrivolous, Ironic and Erotic Like the Bible: The Poetry of Immanuel da Roma6:30 pm(GMT+00:00) Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16 Street, New York, NY 10011

Event Details

Frivolous, Ironic and Erotic Like the Bible: The Poetry of Immanuel da Roma.

Ann Brener, Library of Congress, Isabelle Levy, Columbia University.

Free and open to the public.


Born around 1261 to a notable Jewish family in Rome, Immanu’el ben Šelomoh (Immanuel Romano) might have been a physician and is considered one of the most innovative (and perhaps controversial) Hebrew authors of all ages. He wrote in Hebrew and vernacular Italian and was part of a vibrant circle of Jewish intellectuals who lived in Rome in the 13th and 14th centuries. He became known to posterity for his Hebrew composition Ha-Tofet ve-ha-Eden (Hell and Paradise), modeled after Dante’s Divine Comedy, a text that is the final chapter in his Hebrew collection the Maḥbarot Immanuel.

Scholars consider Immanuel’s use of Hebrew unique. In addition to composing extensive biblical commentaries, Immanuel also composed a collection of Hebrew stories and poems, titled the Maḥbarot Immanuel. This composition is filled with parodies of biblical and talmudic passages along with episodes of Jewish life:at once frivolous, ironic and erotic. He explores human nature, expressing amusement at different beliefs and customs. Having been exiled from Rome, he drew on tropes from Medieval Hebrew and vernacular Italian poetry, in which personal vicissitudes were often shaped by political turmoil and wars.

The Maḥbarot Immanuel , was published several times and – as Jewish life in the peninsula became more difficult and ghettos were established – it was banned by Yosef Caro in his Shulchan Aruch. It then remained a memory of the past.

This evening of reading and commentary features selections from Immanuel’s fictional writings with Ann Brenner, Isabelle Levy and Joseph Englesberg.

The first piece is something out of Boccaccio with all the elements of an early Italian novella: a town square in medieval Italy, a holy man plodding along on his mule, a group of young gallants ripe for mischief. Only, in this case it is not a fat friar who comes to town but a learned Jewish scholar – one Rabbi Aaron of Toledo – and our story is written not in Italian but in Hebrew: the inimitable rhymed Hebrew of Immanuel of Rome. The story, fully translated into rhymed English patterned after the Hebrew original, takes us into the heart of Jewish and Christian book-culture in late medieval Italy and touches on important topics such as the availability of books in the medieval world, the rage for Aristotelian philosophy, and the flow of knowledge from Spain to Italy.

The second piece takes a look at Immanuel’s Italian writing to see how the author negotiated his Jewish identity amid his Italian Christian poet companions. Isabelle Levy will read some of Immanuel’s Italian poetic compositions, and will discuss Immanuel’s embracing both Hebrew and vernacular Italian during the era of Dante and the development of Italian poetry.


Ann Brener received a doctorate in Medieval Hebrew Poetry at Cornell University in 1999 and completed her undergraduate studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She is the author of two books on medieval Hebrew poetry in Spain as well as an historical novel set in the Talmudic period, Samuel’s Daughter.  She taught in the Department of Hebrew Literature at Ben-Gurion University for 6 years, and is currently the Hebraic Area Specialist at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Notwithstanding his Thespian talents, Joseph Englesberg had a career as an industrial chemist having worked in England, Israel and the United States. Born in Manchester, England prior to the Blitz, he lived in Israel between 1960 and 1981 before moving to Elkhart, Indiana where he served as Quality Assurance Manager for Bayer Corporation (formerly Miles Laboratories Ltd.) until his retirement in 1997.  When not traveling abroad to visit his extensive network of family and friends, he lives in Washington DC where he volunteers in the Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress.

Isabelle Levy is a lecturer at the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies (IIJS)/Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (LAIC) at Columbia University where she also completed a year as the Stanley A. and Barbara B. Rabin Postdoctoral Research Fellow (2016-2017). She will be a Fellow at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University in Winter/Spring 2018. Her research focuses on the relationships among the Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and Italian literary traditions of the medieval Mediterranean. She earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University (2014) and has held positions as Lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia (2015-2016) and Medieval Fellow at Fordham University (2014-2015).


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