Moses ibn Ezra: The Wandering Jew

by Henry Rasof

Born in Granada somewhere between 1055 and 1060, Moses ibn Ezra was destined to wander Spain after the conquest of Granada in 1090 by Berber invaders. He died after 1138. As with some of the other medieval poets, there is no consensus on the dates. (Quotations below are from the poems in the Moses ibn Ezra section of this web site; sources can be found with the poems in that section.)

He is forced to leave his friends and family.

Circumstance has estranged my friend. (1)

Exile is especially hard on him.

For exile, and for love, they [tears] flow—
Exile and love, that rend the frame
Of them who dwell from friends apart. (2)

Yet along the way not everything is gloomy.

The new blossoms all came forth in honour of Time renewed, came gaily to welcome him. (3)

At the same time, he seems to feel that in his exile he is being led by a greater force, and thoughts of death seem to press upon him from every direction.

Let man remember all the days of his life that he is being led to death. (4)

Sometimes these thoughts become visions in which past becomes present.

I behold graves of ancient time, of days long past,
Wherein a people sleeps the eternal sleep. (5)

Yet even these visions cannot stop him from forgetting the horror of being wrenched from his beloved city, friends, and family. And so he asks:

Is there vengeance for a lover’s blood? (6)

The answer is no, and so the nightmare, like many nightmares, repeats and is without end.

My night is plunged into a silent sea of darkness. (6)

Will there be hope in the next world? After all, Ezekiel envisions the resurrection of the dead. Ibn Ezra sees a different future.

Grave tunnelling into grave,
Headstone and obelisk crumbled into one dust,
Bodies heaped upon bodies, in motionless orgy—(7)

Surely this is not paradise as imagined by the prophets. If anything, it is hell. Is the poet seeing the future, when the Jews are killed, forced to convert, or expelled from Spain?

[Y]et God has set eternity in my heart. (8)

In spite of the anguish and horrific visions, the poet remains a believer, a believer in eternity, and a believer as well in the power of joy. All is not lost. He is not down for the count. Bring the smelling salts.

Drink, my friend….
and if you see me going under
revive me with your minstrelsy. (9)

How does the poet survive his misery and adversity? Not only with physical wine but with spiritual wine, trust in God.

I rose at dawn to praise Thy name,
My sins o’erwhelmed my soul with shame,
But comfort after penance came,
For all my hopes are set in Thee. (10)

How can someone in Ibn Ezra’s position and state continue to believe, even when God seems to have turned away, hidden his face?

Yet verily, though He slay me
Still will I trust in Him;
And if He hide His face,
I will bethink me of His tenderness, and turn thereto. (11)

In the desolation, in the ruins of his life, the poet can still imagine himself somewhere else, somewhere permeated with the scent and taste of his beloved. And so he can imagine himself, in spite of all, resurrected in spirit.

[B]ring/With sweets of love, my soul to life again! (12)

Not only does Ibn Ezra have faith in God and believe that God’s love of him can bring him to life, but he can transcend his personal pain and plead as well for the restoration of the land of Israel and the deliverance of the Jewish people from its suffering.

Oh, hear the cry of Thy people
And incline unto their plea—
In their misery. . . . (13)

The poet can now hear or perhaps just imagine God’s replies to his pleas.

My son, yea, I will send thee aid,
Bend thou thy steps to me, be not afraid.
No nearer friend than I am, hast thou made,
Possess thy soul in patience one more night. (14)

I do not say that Moses ibn Ezra’s life followed a neat and tidy trajectory from the good life to suffering and then via faith and belief to some sort of transcendent equanimity. Certainly he may have had such an experience, but more likely, I would imagine, would be a cycle of ups and downs.

In the courtyard of the Jewish Museum in Toledo, Ibn Ezra’s poem “I Behold Ancient Graves” is engraved in stone in both Hebrew and Spanish. In the courtyard are stone memorials that resemble sarcophagi.

To reach this museum many travelers will dock at the train station and walk up and through steep winding streets to the top of the hill which is Toledo.

On a hot day in late August this walk is murder. There are no thoughts of long-dead Jewish poets, El Greco, steel knives, or anything except finding a hotel room and something ice cold to drink, and a lot of it. The traveler without reservations wanders from full hotel to full hotel until finally he comes across an available room, checks to make sure he has his credit card, and plunks down shekels well over his budget, for a room with two beds more than he needs. No matter. Ibn Ezra, had he the means to combat his traveler’s exhaustion, might have stayed in that hotel too, or what was in its place 900 years before.

The view from the room is of the Plaza San Tome, the dead center of the medieval Jewish quarter. How fortunate! Shops selling Toledo knives, tchotchkes with stars of David, and other curios line the narrow streets. There’s the El Greco house, which once belonged to a rich Jew named Halevi, no relation to the poet. El Greco himself, according to the guidebook, might have been Jewish or descended from Jews. And nearby is a square festooned with Coca Cola umbrellas–this might have been the marketplace. Across town somewhere is the old Jewish graveyard, too hot to try to locate, let alone visit.

And here, finally, is the Jewish museum and the two synagogues—one restored, one still a church. Did Moses ibn Ezra, or Yehudah Halevi, someone from the Ibn Tibbon family of famous translators, or perhaps El Greco’s ancestors pray here? Maybe the king dropped by for intellectual discussions. But what is this? Right near the synagogues and museum is a Jewish bookstore filled with books in Hebrew, English, and Spanish as well as music CDs and other goods.

Who are the owners? Joseph and Mary are their Judeo-Christian names, but they are descended from conversos and have lived and studied in Israel. The man wears tzitzit (Jewish ritual fringes) when I first meet him. According to his wife, who speaks better English, they still attend church. Their friends are Catholics. When possible, they go to Madrid to attend synagogue. There are no other Jews in Toledo, or very few. I buy a bilingual edition of the poems of Yehudah Halevi and a number of CDs of Sephardic music. The next evening I attend a poetry reading in Spanish at the store. I do not understand a word the poets or anyone else is saying, so I slip out, pleased at my discovery but disappointed I cannot particulate more fully.

This is my experience as well with medieval Hebrew poetry and with Moses ibn Ezra and his poems: I am pleased at my discovery but disappointed because I lack the Hebrew and other skills required to more fully penetrate his life and work. Still, it’s better than nothing, and so I’ll take the room, even if it exceeds my budget, in order to have a prime view of the scene and a secure base for my wanderings through the streets of Toledo and the poetry of Moses ibn Ezra, for

I behold graves of ancient time, of days long past,
Wherein a people sleeps the eternal sleep. (5)


Titles of Poems Quoted from Above

1. “Song.”
2. “O Brook.”
3. “The Rose.”
4. “The Journey.”
5. “I Behold Ancient Graves.”
6. “A Night of Grief.”
7. “Graves.”
8. “Meditation.”
9. “Drinking Song.”
10. “Dawn.”
11. “Why Is My Loved One Wroth.”
12. “Come Let Us Seek the Spots.”
13. “Thou That Graciously Attendest.”
14. “In the Night.”

go to Moses ibn Ezra page