Va pensiero — a post-Covid renaissance

Dusk over the Ponte Vecchio and Uffizi in Florence, as seen from my balcony

Fly, my thoughts, on wings of gold; go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs of my native land smell fragrant!

Greet the banks of the Jordan and Zion’s toppled towers. Oh, my homeland, so lovely and so lost! Oh memory, so dear and so dead!

Golden harp of the prophets of old, why do you now hang silent upon the willow? Rekindle the memories in our hearts, and speak of times gone by!

Mindful of the fate of Solomon’s temple, let me cry out with sad lamentation,
or else may the Lord strengthen me to bear these sufferings!

(Verdi, Nabucco; Va Pensiero, also known as the chorus of the Hebrew slaves)

As performed by La Fenice in Venice, where I took in some opera

This wonderful piece of music has often been considered to be an allegory for the struggles of the Italian people against oppressive governments, both their own and those of invading forces. The words of course resonate with Jews as an echo of Psalm 137, the famous Jeremiad “By The Rivers Of Babylon.”

Of course, now we have a modern State of Israel, to which I made what we Jews call aliyah, the “going-up”, a spiritual return alongside a physical move, some eleven years ago, albeit I am a quintessential wandering Jew, spending more time outside the country than in.

First, a little context as to how the Jews ended up in Babylon (and a Verdi opera). Much like opera, there are some long-winded arias before the rousing chorus, so bear with me.

The exile of the Jewish People was, according to most historians, of their own making, due to the king ignoring Jeremiah’s entreaties against revolt, and leading Judah into an unwinnable war. The exile was also, in many ways, the making of the Jewish People.

We are a peculiar hybrid of a religion and a nation, which might be why we have our own form of religious hatred (anti-Semitism) and our own form of rejection of our right to nationhood (anti-Zionism) — and indeed this might explain why the latter is often a mere mask for the former.

Leaving behind the original state of Israel obliged us to adapt to life in exile, as a Diaspora. A careful line had to be trodden between separating ourselves enough to maintain our unique identity and practices (and to defend ourselves better), but integrating enough to be able to play a part in society.

In the 21st century, we find ourselves in a different challenge. The concept of the nation-state is under fire, easily portrayed as the preservation of an exclusive and ethnocentric club, with all of its connotations. Meanwhile, we have eroded the position of God and Faith through secularism and the easier answers provided by science.

So both pillars of Judaism appear less relevant to the concerns and daily lives of the average Diaspora Jew, whilst most Israelis are polarised over the separation of Synagogue and State, with very few working actively for solutions that give a genuine balance.

Israel is also in the middle of an ongoing political crisis, with three elections in one year and possibly another in the making, a Prime Minister indicted on three serious charges across three different cases, and the consequential stalemate from there being no clear majority of public opinion (exacerbated by a proportional representation electoral system), for or against either Netanyahu or Likud, to show a way forward.

Of course, to this is added the same pandemic as everyone else is facing, the response to which was politicised due to this context, and has duly been found severely wanting. The writing seemed to me to be on the wall quite early in this regard — you can read more about it in this article about “The Introverted War.”

But this is not just an experience peculiar to Jews and Israelis.

Covid-19 is nothing if not a test of our faith in both the religious and the secular frameworks for life. Commentators have referred to a new paradigm but I believe that Covid-19 has simply stripped away a convenient veneer we all preferred to keep in place, to some harsh realities about the fabric of our society.

On every level, we are having to come to terms with some unpalatable truths about our morality, our politics, our governance, our science, our economics, our nations, our beliefs. The past few years have allowed some of us to become extremely complacent, and even decadent, failing to seize the moment of our greatest strength to tackle major societal ills.

For the most part, sovereign states and their peoples will remain intact despite the pandemic; in the olden days, these kinds of catastrophe might have led to collapse and an exodus of people from their homeland, as happened with the Babylonian Exile. So, back to Jeremiah, and the lessons that we can still apply to other forms of separation — say, from the life we knew only a few months ago.

Interestingly, Psalm 137 did not spring straight from Jeremiah to Verdi, but evolved in meaning for the Jews over the years, as well as finding its way into Italian culture long before the libretto of Va Pensiero was conceived.

Although the psalm itself talks about exile by — and revenge upon — Babylon and Edom, later generations of persecuted and exiled Hebrews saw it as referring also to the Greeks and Romans. In many ways, I prefer the Rastafarian lyric made famous by Boney M to the usual translation:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
Yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion

There the wicked carried us away in captivity
Requiring of us a song
Now how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart
Be acceptable in thy sight here tonight

When I read it, I see it as an allegory for the rending of the moral fabric of society in Zion, and that of our hosts in the Diaspora, who mock us by asking us to sing our songs for their pleasure

The last line is in fact nowhere to be found in the original words, as it comes from Psalm 19. It is used regularly in Hebrew prayer, for example at the end of the Amidah. To my mind, this juxtaposition suggests the calling to elevate ourselves above the mockery, and to seek our own spiritual and intellectual freedoms even whilst physically restrained. This is a lesson we could all use in lockdown.

In the original text, the middle verses have been used to express the need not to “forget Jerusalem”, and are still sung at Jewish weddings today, even though we have returned to Zion:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget [its skill]. May my tongue cling to my palate, if I do not remember you, if I do not bring up Jerusalem at the beginning of my joy.

Thus it occurs to me that Psalm 137 is not just about mourning the physical destruction of the Temple and consequent exile. It is about spiritual return too, and particularly is used in the modern day to express the necessity of making that higher level of connection to the idea of Jerusalem even when a personal one, permanently or temporarily, is impossible.

This notion of Jerusalem is seized upon in particularly grandiose manner in William Blake’s poem, turned into the bombastic eponymous English hymn by Parry and Elgar, to refer to England rather than Israel.

Returning to the less-read final stanzas of Psalm 137, we find a call to avenge our treatment at the hands of our captors, but I prefer to consider this in the light of the more metaphorical interpretation of the whole piece, that it is also a call to destroy the tools of our mental and spiritual enslavement.

Psalm 137 has its own remarkable Italian history. The medieval Jewish community left us the beautiful Parma Psalter, an illustrated book of psalms:

Credit: Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO) SA

Three centuries later, during the Renaissance, Salomone Rossi, a Jewish composer at the court of Mantua, would set the psalm to music that was used for secular performances. This is particularly noteworthy both for the general acceptance of Jewish liturgy in wider society, and the specific use of this psalm, which had been outlawed due to its call for revenge and rebellion, understood quite clearly by the Romans and their descendents to be referring to them.

From here, it is easier to see the path of Psalm 137 into the hands of Temistocle Solera to create the libretto, and Verdi’s instinctive understanding of its central place in Nabucco.

This summer, my instinct was that in the midst of this global crisis, one that sometimes feels almost existential in nature, or at least immensely disruptive to our current modes and means of existence, I needed to go back to the roots of modern society. That meant Greece and Italy.

I began in late June with two weeks in Athens, exploring more of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, and the Stoics, to whom I feel particularly connected. Perhaps I will come back to them in a future article.

I finished my summer travels with two glorious weeks in Florence, Siena, Bologna and Venice, places I wanted to visit not just for the obvious, but because the Italian city-states in so many ways shaped our ideas of modern society, politics, economics, diplomacy, faith and culture, and provided us with a fascinating array of examples of how they inter-relate.

Florence was arguably the seat of the Renaissance, far more than merely an artistic endeavour and incorporating scientific and intellectual advances, funded by the Medici dynasty, whose origins were in banking but also ended up producing four popes.

Siena was remarkable in achieving a clear separation of Church and State in medieval times, with a strong emphasis on the notion of “good government” through transparency and governance structures, and a clear idea of the result of allowing “bad government” to fester.

Bologna recovered from years as an economic and political backwater to become one of Italy’s industrial powerhouses, coupling the affluence obtained through this with strong left-leaning tendencies, leading to some 30% of its workforce being employed through cooperatives. Its university is often cited as the world’s oldest, but in fact it was much more of a vocational college, far ahead of its time in terms of the social mobility it provided. Radicalism and capitalism, decadence and tradition, sit alongside each other — the Bolognese equivalent of a champagne socialist is, apparently, a “Ferrari Communist”!

Venice’s system of doges and their advisory councils ensured a combination of continuity, accountability and representation, whilst their penal code included the death penalty for harming the water, the city’s lifeblood — an interesting lesson in environmental policy that sometimes modern Venice might heed.

Each of these forms of government, so far ahead of their times, gives us some insight on values that we should be seeking to rediscover today as we strive to rebuild our societies in the post-Covid era. In each of these cities, too, one could feel palpable energy as the local community draws directly on their own heritage in shaping their unique path to a much-needed second rinascimento.

They seem to understand that, having largely defeated the physical virus, there must be a collective and personal conscious effort to not only heal the psychological scars but come out stronger than before. I would go so far as to say that what I saw was defiance. This is the spirit in which Va Pensiero is sung in modern-day Italy.

That energy— I hope — is transferable, to individuals and to other cities and states who could benefit from it. As Mark Twain once said, history doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme. That can be for good and for bad — it’s actually up to us to shape, of course.

As we draw towards the close of such a peculiar year, we have the chance to ensure hindsight really is 2020, and to reach back for the fortitude shown by our forebears during the years where society was forced to take one step back, that laid the foundations for it to rebound with two steps forward.

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Michael Freedman

Michael Freedman

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Flâneur, gourmand, dilettante, francophone. Prophet, therapist, egomaniac, wandering Jew. I like to say entrepreneur too but that’s just French for unemployed.