I’m still reading the Ammiel Alcalay book (see Levantine Culture I), and have just come across the following passage, a nice counterpoint to the preceding Xenophobia entry:

Examples of the persistence of the Arabic element in Hebrew poetry abound. In Egypt, for instance, the Laylat al-Tawhid (the custom of studying the Torah on the eve of the ancient New Year) assumed a particular form. Hebrew liturgical poems were sung to Egyptian tunes before being translated, verse by verse, into Arabic. The climactic text—all in Arabic and recited at midnight—contained many Islamic formulas. Beginning with the Muslim invocation (B’ism Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim), it invoked the ninety-nine divine attributes in the Sufi manner and used Koranic epithets for biblical figures: Abraham as al-Khalil, Aaron as al-Imam and Moses as Rasul Allah. Kept intact as long as there was an active Jewish community in Egypt—until, in fact, the period during which Jabès emigrated—this solemn service that “renders the heart and fills the soul with terror” seems to have been originated by the Nagid Avraham, son of Maimonides. Remarkably enough, the ceremony has continued in the Egyptian Jewish community of Brooklyn, where even during the Gulf War Egyptian musicians (former members of Umm Kulthum’s orchestra) shared the stage with rabbis and cantors as they celebrated the ancient expressions of common unity.

A few pages later:

Many of the most important poets remain completely out of print while even classical Andalusian poets like Samuel Hanagid, Yehuda Halevi, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, and Moses Ibn Ezra can only be gotten whole in expensive scholarly editions. Dozens of poets and thousands of poems remain in manuscript, within the vocabulary of a few specialized scholars, remote from most readers of poetry and completely beyond the scope of even an imaginable curriculum. The revision of such a curriculum in Israel, even more radically than in the case of Europe, would entail an unequivocal recognition of the centrality of Arabic—in all its nuances—for the formulation of a great part of modern Jewish thought and culture.


  1. The influence, of course, went both ways; the Egyptian government claims Maimonides as an Arab scholar, and Arab poets sometimes praised Jewish holy men. Trying to separate Arab and Mizrahi heritage is an exercise in futility.

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