"Topsy Turvy" is a bittersweet term. It evokes frivolous associations, yet also intimates a world gone askew, a world of perpetual night where right and wrong have no meaning, where pain and loss upturn rules and routines.

The Spanish poet and philosopher Solomon Bonafed (died after 1445) is distressed by his world gone awry; this is a period of mass defection to Catholicism and Bonafed finds it difficult to integrate that "scholars who were precious beyond words, who girded themselves with valor... now are gone."

The defection of many of his friends to Christianity, the deterioration of the Jewish community, combined with his own suffering and that of the Jewish people, filled him with a sense of futility which is expressed in his personal poetry. Bonafed excelled in satirical verse, and developed many enemies, perhaps because he tended to settle accounts in his biting poems and epigrams. He engaged in bitter polemics with his opponents, and in old age was forced to flee to the town of Belchite, where he wrote a scathing satire in rhymed prose against the notables of Saragossa. His compositions include outspoken love lyrics, philosophical poems and reshuyot (a type of liturgical poem), some of which are set to Spanish melodies. Although Bonafed mocked the excessively severe rabbinical rulings and many prevalent superstitious customs, he remained strictly observant and zealous for the Jewish faith.

It has been suggested that the Hebrew poem "See how horses" (translated "Topsy-Turvy") was written to a friend who had lost his fortune. Bonafed describes a world in which people are valued for their money rather than their wisdom, where self-pride makes "the tailor deem himself a giant-killer" and where "the weaver think his loom a lyre." His response to this topsy-turvy world is in an affirmation of love and friendship.

See how horses streak through the sea like lightning bolts,
and ships sail though the marketplace.
A thread of linen splinters a bar of iron,
and water blazes like wood.
Leopards flee before kids and foxes give chase to lions.
Nor should you marvel that the world is turned topsy-turvy
and the times have strayed from their natural course.
Believe all this when you behold how man perverts his ways.
Oppression grows from day to day.
Wisdom, like a dead man, is put out of mind;
it is the sport of babes and infants.
And when they marry off their daughters they do not ask if
the bridegroom is wise, but how much money pours out of him!
The tailor, stepping forth with his needle in hand,
deems himself a giant-killer.
The cords of cloth, hung round his neck he takes for necklaces,
and his threads are sweeter to his tongue than honey.
The goldsmith's beard is singed in the crucible
and his eyes bloodshot from fire and sparks,
and still he is prized for his silver or gold —
though none of it be his!

Let us sport like brothers in thicket and meadows,
in soft gardens, not in rocky crevices.

We shall surround our tents with beds of lilies and roses.
All birds of grace, the teeming life of the fields,
doves besides brooks of water — these shall be our playmates.
And there we shall not see the vagaries or time
nor pay heed to wicked betrayers.

Nor we shall laugh time to scorn
and now we shall delve into deep mysteries.
Slowly, eagerly, we shall drink the wine of wisdom
and feed on wafers of choice melodies — until time mend again
what it had twisted and restore all it has ruined;
until time set apart the lead from the gold,
and the grasshoppers from the giants.

Draw near, my fair companion, and I shall break into song,
and the mouths of the dumb will shout for joy,
and all distress will vanish.
Draw near, lest the jealous ones, who love to put lovers to scorn,
string their bows against us.
But whether you draw near or go afar, my cherub,
all my days are given over to your friendship.
And should you ever see me exchanging you for another love —
you will also see horses streaking through the sea
like lightning bolts!

(Translation by T. Carmi)

TOPSY TURVY Table of Contents




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