New film explores Shalom Shabazi, poet and legend

 Mystery surrounds Shalom Shabazi, Yemenite Jewry’s most famous rabbi and poet. An orphan born into poverty in the 17th century, Shabazi has been elevated into a symbol and saint. A new film tries to do justice to different interpretations of his life and character. David Guedj writes in Haaretz :


Young Yemenite, early 20th century (photo:  Ephraim Moshe Lillen)

Despite his financial plight, Shabazi acquired a
very broad religious education, one that encompassed the entire universe
of Jewish tradition. He achieved extraordinary fluency in the three
languages that are the pillars of Jewish wisdom – Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Arabic – as well as classical Arabic. Hence the intercultural mosaic that underlies his writings.

poetic spirit impelled Sharazi from youth. Even though he was immersed
in the study of Judaism in all its facets, poetry was the core of his
spiritual activity, and the medium in which he was most prolifically
creative. His 850 poems (written in both Hebrew and in Arabic translated
to Hebrew) will be published next year in an academic edition, under
the aegis of Professor (Yosef) Tobi. 

The manifold
narratives of Shabazi’s life are reflected in the remarks of the film’s
interviewees. Shaer Meoded has chosen not to set forth one single story;
there are as many versions as there are speakers. Judaic studies
scholar Bat-Zion Eraqi Klorman, for example, relates that Shabazi had
three children, whereas poet Tuvia Sulami refers to four. The latter
adds that Shabazi’s father died of natural causes, but Lea Avraham, a
singer and former member of the Inbal dance troupe, describes the father
was tortured to death in the presence of his young son. The diversity
of biographical information stems from the fact that there are almost no
surviving contemporaneous, written testimonies about Shabazi. The
meager information we have derives from popular traditions handed down
from one generation to the next and from biographical tidbits
interspersed in his poetry. 

The multiplicity of
voices expressed by the interviewees is reflected in a particularly
meaningful way thanks to the various interpretations the director offers
for the poems. Thus, for example, “Ayelet Chen” (Graceful Gazelle) can
be read as a work about love between a man and a woman, according to the
bold exegesis of Lea Avraham, literary scholar Galili Shahar, and
writer and poet Almog Behar. Alternately, it can be seen as a poem of
longing for the Shekhinah – the “divine presence,” according to Jewish
mystical tradition – and for the Holy Land, according to the
conservative interpretation of Yehuda Amir, an expert in Yemenite
poetry, and Uri Melamed, a scholar of modern Hebrew. The film itself
shows no preference for either possibility. On the contrary: It creates
tension and interest precisely through the debate among speakers
characterized by different religious beliefs, age, gender and academic

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