This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Poëma de la Reyna Ester*

The Spanish-language poet João Pinto Delgado (c. 1585-1653) is considered to by many to be one of the shining luminaries in the literature of the Conversos [or "Marranos"], the Jews who secretly tried to observe their ancestral religion under the malevolent eyes of the Spanish Inquisition while outwardly maintaining a facade of Christian orthodoxy. Delgado's claim to distinction in the realm of Jewish letters stems primarily from a volume of poems that he published in 1627 on an assortment of biblical texts: including the Exodus from Egypt, Lamentations, Jeremiah, Ruth and his "Poëma de la Reyna Ester"--a retelling of the book of Esther in Spanish verse.

Delgado's father had been born in Portugal and he returned there after a sojourn in Antwerp. He later migrated to France spending most of his creative life in the bustling commercial centre of Rouen where he declared his Judaism in a relatively open manner. He and his son the poet held distinguished offices in the civil administration of Rouen. Though the true religious allegiance of the city's Conversos was a very open secret, they were generally left undisturbed in their Jewish observances until 1632 when an internal dispute in the local Spanish and Portuguese community led to official denunciations, forcing the family to flee to Antwerp. Eventually the crisis was averted as a few generous bribes succeeded in eliciting ecclesiastical certificates of their impeccable Christian orthodoxy--all this notwithstanding the fact that Delgado was publicly known to be a Jew, and he even answered to the recognizably Hebrew name of Moses.

His respectability as a poet is attested by the fact that his collection of biblical verse was introduced with a dedication to "the most illustrious and most reverend Cardinal de Richelieu." In that dedication he humbly conceded that his literary treatment of scripture was not intended to compete with the deeply religious dimensions of the original holy scripture. Indeed, one of the author's artistic goals was to refashion the biblical stories according to the currently prevailing standards of poetic elegance. Students of Spanish letters are convinced that he succeeded wonderfully in that mission--even while avoiding some fashionable stylistic devices that were inconsistent with Jewish sensibilities, such as the allusions to classical mythology that were so prominent in conventional Christian literature at the time.

From a Jewish perspective, one of the most interesting questions regarding his oeuvre has always been the degree to which it qualifies as authentically Jewish literature, especially when we bear in mind that it was published under the cloak of the author's Christian orthodoxy. As long as they remained in Iberia, the crypto-Jews were denied access to Jewish texts other than the standard Christian translations of the Bible. Deprived of any knowledge of the Talmud, Midrash or classic commentaries, their understanding of Judaism was frequently quite shallow or skewed. Even after eluding the clutches of the Inquisition, familiarity with Hebrew was not very widespread in the Converso communities.

To be sure, the Latin "Vulgate" translation of Esther that was endorsed by the church contained extensive additions to the story that appears in our Bibles. These originated in the old Greek versions, and included explicitly "religious" motifs such as the protagonists' prayers and a prophetic dream of Mordecai. Although these elements were excluded from the Masoretic text of the Bible that was accepted by Judaism, several of their themes did find their way back into our tradition through midrashic works and other Hebrew elaborations of scripture. Therefore it is not surprising that passages of that sort appear in Delgado's "Poëma de la Reyna Ester."

However, there are sections in the poem that cannot be accounted for on that basis. A conspicuous example of this phenomenon relates to the aftermath of Queen Vashti's defiance of Ahasuerus's command to appear before the celebrants at the banquet. The Bible relates that the king consulted with his wise men about how to deal with his rebellious wife. However, in Delgado's version it was the Jewish sages to whom he turned for advice. They, in turn, declined to offer counsel, pleading that they had been deprived of their wisdom after the destruction of Jerusalem. Therefore, they suggested, it would be more profitable if the king would turn to sages from Moab and Ammon who have never suffered exile from their homelands.

When Mordecai overhears Bigtan and Teresh conspiring against the king, the poem states that they were speaking in the Tarsian language, but that Mordecai as a member of the Jewish court was able to understand them because he was proficient in seventy languages. When Mordecai refused to bow to Haman, Delgado's poem explains that the villain was presenting himself as a deity and the stalwart Jew was taking a stand against idol-worship.

Or, to cite yet another instance, in the biblical story Haman's wife Zeresh warned her spouse against antagonizing Mordecai the Jew because he would "surely fall before him." Delgado expanded the admonition as if to say that when the Jews fall, they descend to the dust, but when they rise, they ascend as far as the stars.

In all these cases, as in several other instances in Delgado's biblical poems, we may easily identify the sources of his narrative expansions in the words of the talmudic rabbis. This would seem to prove beyond any doubt that Delgado, unlike many of his contemporary Conversos, had received a solid Hebrew education that allowed him to read rabbinic works. 

However, it is probable that his erudition stemmed from a different and more interesting source. The references can be traced to a manuscript now housed in the British Library whose Latin title-page identifies it as containing the comments of Rabbi Solomon Yarchi [=Rashi] to the book of Esther, as well as some excerpts from the Talmud and the Yalkut [=Yalkut Shimoni, an important medieval anthology of midrashic interpretations]. The editor of this collection was one Louis-Henri d'Aquin. As with Delgado's book, this volume's ostensible Christian credentials are vouched for by the fact that it is dedicated to Peyrissac, Canon of Bordeaux and Agent-General for Ecclesiastical Affairs in France.

The scholar who provided this selection and translation into Latin was a Jewish convert to Christianity who had immigrated from southern Italy to France. In composing works like this that were avowedly designed to serve the interests of Catholic scholarship, it is likely that d'Aquin's true intention was to facilitate the access of Conversos to their lost heritage. Every single example of Delgado's knowledge of rabbinic tradition can be found in d'Aquin's anthology. 

There can be no question that authors like Delgado and d'Aquin, as well as their Converso readers, found profound guidance and inspiration in the stories about ancient Hebrew heroes who, in the wake of a historic catastrophe, concealed their true identities from a hostile foreign environment as they faithfully awaited divine redemption.

This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

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