Ancient Jewish Love Songs

ancientjewishlovesongs

Our ancestors’ narrative songs, once considered insignificant love poems, can teach today’s Jewish women powerful lessons.

By Vanessa Paloma

Note: Click here to see Vanessa singing one of the ancient love songs discussed below.

My fascination with North African Romances—epic-poem narrative songs—took me to Morocco in 2007, where, as a Fulbright scholar, I was able to live in the old, walled city of Tangier for a year, on a street where Jewish families had lived 100 years. My windows, with views of the strait of Gibraltar, Spain, the Bay of Tangier, and the new and old cities were perched high across from the old Jewish cemetery where the great sages of Tangier were buried. While living there, I felt the pull of the wisdom of generations. I believe that these songs carry within them messages to us from our ancestors on how to be women—powerful, theurgic women—through tradition, love, humor, and narrative.

I had learned some of the songs before my arrival from previous ethnomusicologists’ work and publications, but being in Morocco and living within the community brought me to new levels of understanding. Some of the women sang and recorded songs for me; others gave me different versions or texts for songs I already knew. Of course, there were comments, reactions, stories, and occasional tears surrounding the songs. During the year, I performed throughout Morocco, even introducing other Moroccans to this repertoire; many people are unaware of its existence. Some of these Romances have texts that are more than 600 years old, and I see them as information capsules with metaphors and meaning handed down to us. In my work, I explore potential lessons we can glean from this ancient women’s wisdom. I believe that if we understand the power and depth behind what has been seen previously as insignificant little love poems, we can understand how women throughout generations have consolidated their role as alchemists and forces of creation and vitality within Judaism. Below are some of my favorite love songs…

¿Porqué no cantáis, la bella? (Una Hija Tiene el Rey)
This song is also called “The Warrior Maiden.” It is from Tetouan, which was the capital of the Spanish Protectorate until Morocco’s independence in 1956. It talks about a young woman who, while secluded in a tower by the sea is planning to release her lover from captivity. Erotic imagery like the sparrow-hawk flying in and out of an opening (a window) and her embroidery of an intimate garment for him establish their physical connection to one another. She can be seen as a personification of the Shechina (the Divine feminine) with her lover as the soul, imprisoned in the battles of life. This is one of my favorite songs because of the metaphoric imagery and her resolve to use her own woman’s body (braids, arms, body) as instruments for powerful release.

The king has a daughter a very dear one
Her father, to protect her, built her a castle
With windows towards the sea, for air to blow in
Through one, the sun shone in and the morning breeze;
Through the smallest one a sparrow-hawk flew in and out
With open wings  and does her no harm
She is embroidering a shirt for the Queen’s son
She is embroidering with gold working it with silk
And, with every stitch adding a jewel and a pearl.
Why don’t you sing, my dear? Why don’t you sing oh beautiful one?
I don’t sing and I won’t sing, my beloved is at war.
I will write a letter in my own hand
Asking my beloved to be brought to me safe and sound and without chains
And if they don’t bring him to me I will wage a great war
Of boats on the sea and warrriors on land.
If there are no sails,  I will give my own braids
If there are no oars I will put my own arms
If there is no captain I will be on the mast
So people may say: “Long live this maiden,
Who threw herself into the storm to save her beloved!”

Diego León
Diego León is popular throughout northern Morocco. It is the story of true love between Diego León and Doña Juana. The young couple is in love but her father wants to make a match that will be financially lucrative. With great wisdom and maturity, Doña Juana tells her father, money comes and goes by Divine command, please let me marry him. This song reiterates that love and idealism can trump other concerns, but not without resistance from the establishment!

In the City of Toledo, in the City of Granada
Was raised a young man by the name of Diego León.
He had a tall body and a dark face
A thin waistline, and was raised among women.

Once he fell in love with a beautiful young woman
They see each other from a balcony, also through the window.
The day they don’t see each other they have no appetite for anything
No appetite for bread nor for water drawn (from a well) in the morning.

Nor do they have appetite for the money that León dealt with.
On a Monday morning he saw Don Pedro.
He fell to his knees and bid him a good morning
Don Pedro, give me your daughter, your daughter Doña Juana.

My daughter is not of marrying age, she is still small and a young girl
He who will be my son-in-law must bring
100,000 ducats from his home and some others in gold and silver.
And some more I will give, my daughter of my soul.

And as he makes mockery of the story while telling his daughter
Father marry me with him even though you never give me anything
Because the riches of this world are sent by God and taken away by God
Pedro heard this and knew she was in love.

He armed four courageous ones, the biggest from the Plaza
That they should kill León and take out his soul
León killed three and left one wounded
After three days León was at the Plaza.

He picked three oranges from the ground throwing them up to the window
The maiden doesn’t answer, it seems like she has changed
I haven’t changed León I stand on my word, my soul
She ran down the stairs like a raging lioness.

She put her arms around his neck, her pretty arms on him
They married and left and lived happily.

Aunque le di la mano
This song from Tetouan comes from a recording of Flora Benamor made in 1956 by Henrietta Yurchenco. It talks about a woman’s feelings after having married. She made her decision and he sealed it by placing a golden ring on her. She then talks about an admirer who gave her another golden item: apples. Apples allude to the Tapuchin kadishin (holy apples), a mystical reference to the Shechina. The golden ring, the golden apples, the Shechina, the fruit, her fruitful womb are intertwined in compact, oblique references. She concludes still desiring the experience of being courted and loved.

Even though I gave him my hand
My hand I gave him
Even though I gave him my hand
I did not have regrets.

Even though I gave him my hand
To the gentleman
A little golden ring
He put on my finger.

Even though I gave him my hand
To the son of someone
A gold ring
He put on my hand.

A love that I had
Used to sell little golden apples
Four, five on a stalk
The best of them he kept for his friend (me).

A love that I loved
Gave me golden apples
Four, five on a branch
The best of them for my beloved.

Who saw you and will see you
And will place you in a good position
Look at me my love and court me.

About the Author

author_vanessaVanessa Paloma is active as a soloist, performance artist, writer, and lecturer. She is currently a Scholar-in-Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at the Women’s Studies Research Center of Brandeis University. Ms. Paloma was a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar for 2007-2008 in Morocco, and founded and codirects Flor de Serena, a Judeo-Spanish ensemble based in Los Angeles. To find out more, visit http://vanessapaloma.blogspot.com.

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