Catford Cantor Gives 13th Century Tosafist a Modern Touch
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Monday 1st July 2013

On Thursday 20th June we were treated to a unique and moving event as part of the Worlds 2013 festival: the launch of the first English translation of the poems of Meir Ben Elijah, medieval England’s only known Hebrew poet.

The medieval setting of Dragon Hall was perfectly suited to the collection and as the music of Cantor David Rome and Cantor David Shine together with the London Cantorial Singers floated up to the ancient rafters, the audience were taken back to a time of great division and persecution, but also of hope and of faith. 

WCN chief executive Chris Gribble introduced the event and illustrated how little we still know about Meir the poet, the only information about him being conveyed in these beautiful poems, signed by Meir through hidden acrostics within the poems.

After Chris’ introduction Cantor David Rome and Cantor David Shine, together with the London Cantorial Singers led by David Druce, huddled together and sang a very moving Hebrew piece which translates into ‘Yearning for Light’ in English. The music which followed had all the bitter-sweetness in it that I saw in the poetry, the soft low moments reflecting the sombre tone of many of poems, while the powerful swells in the singing reminding me of the strength of Meir’s faith in God, and his belief in the ‘light’.

After two other songs, Keiron Pim the man who made this project possible, took to the lectern and talked passionately about Meir’s work and the work he, the translators, benefactors, and project supporters have been doing for the last two years. Keiron pointed out how they had decided to start the challenging project at ‘the worst possible moment to look for arts funding’ which provided an understanding of just how much effort and passion had gone into the creation of this book. Keiron gave a brief overview of the Jewish history of medieval Norwich, a city he said ‘which sits heavy with history.’ He explained that while the medieval Christian community is very present in Norwich’s numerous churches, the Jewish medieval community’s presence is noticeable by its ‘absence’.

Keiron cautioned the audience not to consider the poems as “lost” for 600 years as to those who could read Hebrew (and knew where to look) the poems were always available. Perhaps a better way to think about it is that for those of us unable to read Hebrew these poems have until recently been shrouded in darkness and mystery, and now, thanks to Kerion and numerous others, have come into the light.

Keiron also mentioned that Meir stood out from his peers as he was more than a devotional poet because his poems describe ‘the social conditions of the time.’ This is no more apparent than in the poem ‘Who Is Like You?’ where Meir likens the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden to the expulsion and persecution of Jews in Medieval England:

                                     Forced away from where we dwelt 
                         we go like cattle to the slaughter.
                        A slayer stands above us all.
                        We burn and die. 

Meir’s poetry is by no means an easy read, both linguistically and emotionally, but this is what makes it so powerful; it is poetry that is unafraid to tell the truth and to question faith. It is poetry of persecution but also of hope.  

After Keiron’s speech he welcomed the translators onto the stage. First to speak was Ellman Crasnow who emphasised the ‘gloomy’ and questioning voice of Meir’s poetry. Ellman spoke with authority on the history of Jewish persecution in England, telling us about a specific incident in 1144 involving the death of a young boy called William in the outskirts of Norwich, and the accusations and persecution of Jews that followed.

Bente Elsworth, the other translator, then stepped up to the microphone and explained how the poem ‘Who Is Like You?’ was perhaps an effort by Meir to comfort his fellow Jews by retelling the Torah in verse form. This poem reads almost like a story and after hearing Bente speak, the poem took on even deeper sense of faith and community for me, and cemented the complex feelings of hope and despair that echo throughout Meir’s poetry.

Bente also explained the difficulty of translating from Hebrew into English as the two are ‘very different languages.’ The translators’ note at the beginning of the book explains how ‘the Hebrew language is very compact compared to English’; something evident in the book’s parallel text form as the Hebrew side always at least half a page shorter than the English.

One of the most fascinating things Bente said was that Meir’s name means ‘one who brings light’. It seems incredibly apt if one considers the constant references to, and images of, light and dark in Meir’s poetry; the dark representing the ‘dark times’ and the persecution he must have faced, while the light, which is always there, though sometimes faint or only visible through a crack, represents God and the love he has for his people. It also seemed to me that the meaning of Meir is suited to my experience of his poetry as he shone a light on a piece of history I knew nothing about, for which I am very grateful. 

As the evening moved on George Szirtes gave a reading of the poems in English. His reading was both at once energetic and restrained, which to me seemed to reflect the voice of Meir’s poems which at times cries out in rage but also bears down in prayer.

The London Cantorial Singers sang once again and drew the ethereal evening to a close and as the audience members stumbled out some almost seemed dazed from what had been quite a dreamlike experience.