Modern Love: A 12th-Century Liturgical Poem

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April 1, 2011
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Channa Pinchasi

A small change of context significantly changes the meaning of both metaphor and allegory. “Yedidi, hashachachta?” (“My friend, have you forgotten?”) is a piyut, a liturgical poem, written by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi in the 12th century in Spain, recently set to music and sung by Israeli composer and singer Etti Ankari. Ankari’s deep, warm voice carries the song, refreshes its allegorical meaning and breathes fresh life into its metaphorical language. Ankari’s voice directs the poem closer toward what Halevi dared to say.

This piyut, originally written for Passover, is saturated with images from the Song of Songs:

My friend, have you forgotten your being between my breasts/and why did you sell me as vassalage forever to my masters?

Did I not chase after you in a land not sown/and Sair and Mount Faran and Sinai and Sin adai?1

And you had my love…

The classic interpretation of the passage speaks of a historic bond between the nation and God. Knesset Yisrael, the assembly of Israel, asks God, her beloved: “…have you forgotten?” Hearing Ankari sing these words with her warm and mellow music, one hears once again all the desire, longing, and love: This is a woman, a wife, who perhaps asks, perhaps reminds her lover: “My friend, have you forgotten…?” The listener imagines the eroticism of this picture in its full strength and humanity: “your being between my breasts.”

The friend, or lover, is spoken to immediately and movingly about their very intimate shared moment. The direct speech about their past sexual connection further emphasizes the painful distance of the present. She speaks directly, but doubt creeps into her words: Perhaps he forgot?

This doubt is linked to a sweeping reminder that comes later in the piyut. The doubt reminds the reader of all the diasporas, all the angst of the generations. Ultimately, the beloved returns from the historic and geographic expanses to the intimacy of woman and her lover and she requests: “Give me your strength; I will give you my love,” articulating a connection both equal and bold. “Give me… and I will give you.”

The last syllable of each line of verse, “dai,” echoes Shaddai (one of God’s names, and also the Hebrew word for breast); from the opening line, we are brought back to the audacious opening picture. The repetition of the sound also highlights the tragedy of the distancing between the loved one and the beloved, which is a blend of anger and sadness: “And why did you sell me as vassalage to ma’avidai (my employers)? “Ve’eich tachlok kvodi lebiladai?” (How will you divide your attentions with another?) Folded into the rhyming of ma’avi-dai and lebila-dai with sha-dai is the lover’s pain and the path of a whole people.

The anguished voice of loss intermingles with the determined voice bequeathed by Halevi to the woman; hers is an insistent voice of a woman sure that she is right: “Did I not chase after you …” Unlike the depiction from Jeremiah, “How you followed Me in the wilderness/In a land not sown,” the tone is assertive and definitive.

In addition to saying redafticha, “I chased after you,” this piyut also has the woman expressing her desire: “And you had my love and desire within me.” Halevi’s formulation is even bolder than Song of Songs. There, the lover tells of her partner’s desire. She presents herself as passive: “Oh, give me the kisses of your mouth/ For your love is more delightful than wine.” Here, it is not only “your love,” but “my love.” This 12th-century piyut, sung by a woman in the 21st century, challenges us all. It represents not merely an image of a people, a thinly veiled allegory of a male community in which the woman is a rubbed-out embodiment, but a rich metaphor of a whole woman: loving, yearning, hurting, and desiring. We recognize her in ourselves, and strive to understand her in her day.

Etti Ankari’s rendition of the piyut suggests two possibilities: First, women today can find ancient models of passionate women who voice their desires; and second, the reverberation between the piyut’s portrait and contemporary reality transforms our understanding and identification with Knesset Yisrael, men and women alike, into one that is full and present, here and now.

This article was translated by Felice Kahn Zisken.

Listen to Etti Ankari’s recording of this piyut at www.piyut.org.il/tradition/3030.html?currPerformance=4121

1 This refers to places where God had approached other nations to offer His Torah.

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