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Medieval music unmasked

He has celebrity status in his southern Italian birthplace, Oppido Lucano. Since 1970 a street in the town has been known by his name. This past spring an international conference convened in his honor, an ensemble performed his music, and the local newspapers provided in-depth coverage. Not bad for a once-forgotten medieval convert.

Obadiah the Proselyte, a Christian who adopted Judaism in 1102, owes much of his modern-day fame to Norman Golb, the Ludwig Rosenberger professor of Jewish history and civilization. Golb brought Obadiah’s music to light in the 1960s and made full translations of the convert’s memoir available this year in English and Italian.

IMAGE: In his memoir Obadiah the Proselyte included the attribution, “written with his own hand,” magnified in the inset above.
Courtesy Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives

“Now as it happens,” Golb writes in papers prepared for the Oppido Lucano conference, “no other figure of precisely this type is known in the annals of the First Crusade.” Thus investigating Obadiah’s writings, he continues, “might yield valuable information on Crusade history, on the Jews of the Middle Ages, on proselytism,” or conversion, “and on other subjects of salient interest,” such as music and multiculturalism.

Despite such pronouncements, as a young Judaic and Semitic studies scholar Golb hadn’t planned to put the spotlight on Obadiah, who was headed to the priesthood before he converted. “I didn’t ever think I would be studying this personality,” Golb admits at his Oriental Institute office. “There were only fragments of his papers. I was simply acquainted with him.”

In the early 1960s, as part of a general exploration into Jewish history, Golb turned to the Cairo Genizah, a massive collection of medieval documents, largely housed at Cambridge University Library. After working his way through materials there, using a magnifying glass and ultraviolet light, he recognized the penmanship on an unattributed piece of the oldest known Hebrew musical manuscript, appearing in a catalog of works acquired by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Certain that he’d seen the scrawl before in Obadiah’s memoirs—which the convert signed “written with his own hand”—he did a comparison with Obadiah’s papers. His hunch was right.

Matching the medieval man with the music meant more than assuring a minor composer’s place in history. Golb’s 1965 discovery had musicological implications too. Because the manuscript blends Hebrew verses with melodies akin to Gregorian chant, some musicologists had taken it as evidence that such chants originated with the Jews. Learning who authored the piece caused a rethinking: scholars now surmised that Obadiah, who spent time in a monastery before converting, used his knowledge of Christian liturgical music, Golb explains, “to add beauty to [Hebrew] poetry.”

Why he and some of his Christian peers, including the Archbishop of Bari, a proselyte from southern Italy, converted is open to speculation. In his memoir Obadiah, neé Johannes son of Dreux, wrote about Bari’s conversion, which preceded his own, as well as Jewish persecution during the First Crusade. With those accounts and a document describing another 11th-century convert, Golb says, it’s tempting “to look for possible causes,” such as, perhaps, they found Christianity idolatrous or the Crusade violence upsetting. Obadiah, who fled to Syria to escape harassment, doesn’t provide any concrete answers. “He just describes the events in his life,” Golb says. But “he’s part of a larger picture.”

For that reason Obadiah has continued to fascinate scholars specializing in the Middle Ages and in religious conversion—as well as the people of Oppido Lucano. In March a group of Obadiah fans gathered there, with local and regional government officials and other dignitaries, to pay tribute. As honorary president of the International Conference on Chronicler-Musician Obadiah the Proselyte, Golb took the opportunity to share 40 years of research and to tackle some unfinished business.

After solving the music mystery and penning a handful of articles on Obadiah in the mid- to late-’60s, Golb moved on to other topics, including the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Jews of medieval Normandy—subjects that grew out of his Cairo Genizah probing and on which he has done groundbreaking work. But countless files on Obadiah stored in his University office awaited another look. With the conference approaching, they finally received their due. “I had to get busy,” Golb says. Having previously published Obadiah’s memoir fragments in Hebrew, he now produced English and Italian versions, collaborating on the latter with Davide Papotti, a graduate student in Romance languages and literatures.

Editing and preparing Obadiah’s music proved an emotional exercise. Shortly after identifying the manuscript, Golb had worked with the University of Illinois’ Royal MacDonald to bring it to the public. But MacDonald died in the midst of deciphering and transcribing the score (Golb handled the words). With the assistance of music graduate student Michael Anderson, AM’04, this year the job was at last done. At the Oppido Lucano conference vocalists performed all three known Obadiah musical pieces, “The Praise of Moses,” “Teach, that I Might but Know,” and “Trust in the Lord.”

Golb also handed over a copy of his personal archive on the convert to the town’s mayor. “You live with a subject so long, you don’t think it’s ever going to [reach] closure,” he says. Indeed, Obadiah may not have sung his final note. Golb predicts he’ll reappear in his own future writings.—M.L.


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