Immanuel of Rome: The Jewish Dante

Immanuel was a source of inspiration to Baroque Hebrew poet Jacob Frances (1615-67) who called him the emperor of poets in praise of his satiric verse.

AT THE bustling fair: The demand for literature rose during the pandemic. (photo credit: Courtesy)
AT THE bustling fair: The demand for literature rose during the pandemic.
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Known to his Christian friends as Manuello Giudeo, history and poets and the lovers of Hebrew literature will always remember him as Immanuel of Rome. This title for the superior Italian Renaissance poet is deceptive. Born in 1261, serving as the Jewish community scribe and sometime cantor in Rome, he wandered through Italy after being expelled from Rome after a financial scandal.

Historian Cecil Roth states that Immanuel “seems to have been a rolling stone, wandering from place to place to earn his living, presumably as a house-tutor for the children of the wealthy Jewish loan-bankers who were establishing themselves throughout central Italy at the time.” Roth concludes, “generally speaking one receives the impression of the familiar type of the seedy, down-at-the-heels literary genius drifting aimlessly from town to town and from protector to protector, trying his hand at all things in turn, and never quite fulfilling his early promise.”

According to translator T. Carmi in his Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (1981), Immanuel was a source of inspiration to Baroque Hebrew poet Jacob Frances (1615-67) who called him the emperor of poets in praise of his satiric verse. Two celebrated Hebrew poets of the 20th century – Shaul Tchernikovsky and Natan Alterman – were influenced by the Renaissance poet. While he spent much time in his wanderings writing biblical commentaries, he will be remembered as a Hebrew poet who employed the Holy Tongue in composing earthy and provocative verse. Italian literature and the great Hebrew poets of Muslim Spain influenced his work. Let me give you an example of his poetry:

“Deep in my heart, I have resolved to spurn the Garden of Eden in favor of Hell/ for there I shall find dripping honey and nectar: all the graceful does and lustful ladies.

What is there for me in Eden? There are no loves there/only women blacker than soot or pitch/and crones covered with lichen/ My spirit would droop in their company.

 Bookshelf (credit: Wikimedia Commons) Bookshelf (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Eden, what are you to me?/ You assemble all the maimed women and infamous men/ That is why I think of you with contempt.

Hell, I consider you excellent in charm and grandeur/ for you house all the girls in their elegant dresses/ It is you who have assembled all the delights of our eyes.”

How irreverent! How refreshing! And how Jewish! Immanuel was not a pagan rabbi. Immanuel was not an apikores (a heretic). He was a traditionalist, a Tanakh commentator and a cantor. He lived 700 years ago. While there were rabbis who banned Immanuel’s poetry from being read, his candor and power of satire are inherited both from the great Sephardic secular poetry and the atmosphere of the looser morals of Renaissance Italy. For those today who refuse to use Hebrew for non-religious purposes, Immanuel’s verse is a reminder that Hebrew is a living and vital language, able to express satire and sexuality. It is worth reading this poet in the original or in translation. His other poems are even more provocative. They were collected in his twenty-eight volumes of the Compositions of Immanuel.

Dante Alighieri was born in 1265, four years after Immanuel. Dante was an amazing man – a soldier, politician and idealistic lover, a man of affairs, a lyric poet and a philosopher. He was reared in Florence but was the victim of its power politics and forced into exile. Like Immanuel, his contemporary, he was condemned to wander. His masterpiece is The Divine Comedy. It was completed shortly before his death in 1321 (Immanuel outlived Dante by seven years). The poem is the poet’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. The poem is complex – the reader has to have knowledge of medieval and renaissance religion and politics and the poet’s theology of punishment and reward. The Reader’s Companion to World Literature (second ed. 1973) states that “No other writer demands from his reader such strict and unflagging concentration, and no other writer deserves it.”

Immanuel respected Dante and was influenced by him. In 1328, the Jewish poet found refuge in Fermo with a wealthy patron Daniel. This allowed him to gather his work at the end of his life and devote himself to poetry. Poem 28 of his collection, the final composition, was a poetic vision entitled “HaTofet ve HaEden” (Hell and Paradise). It lacked Dante’s brilliance. Still, it is an accomplishment. Led by a recently deceased friend – as the ancient Latin poet Vergil accompanied Dante – Immanuel paints a portrait of the Afterlife that is Jewish and doesn’t include a Purgatory. As in Dante, not only are those who are well-known included but those Jews who impacted Immanuel’s life.

Immanuel of Rome composed poems in Italian and exchanged sonnets with his Italian colleagues. His compositions were among the first Hebrew books published in 1491 in Italy. His mastery of the Hebrew language and his use of wordplay establish him as an important Hebrew poet. While he did not achieve the greatness of Dante, his work should be remembered for its love of life and its humor.

The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida.