January 28, 1549, is the day on which Elijah Levita, the great Renaissance-era Hebrew grammarian and poet, died. Aside from his many scholarly works, Levita is remembered for his translation into Yiddish of the Medieval chivalric romance of Sir Bevis of Hampton – called the “Bovo Bukh” in Yiddish.
Levita, also known as Eliahu Bakhur (“Elijah the Kid”), was born in Neustadt, Germany, on February 14, 1469. When the Jews were expelled from this region, he moved to Italy, first to Padua and then Rome, where in 1514, he took up residence in the palace of Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo. He served as a Hebrew tutor to the humanist priest, and also copied Hebrew manuscripts – mainly connected to Kabbalah – for his library. It was during this period that he wrote his legendary Hebrew grammar, known as “Sefer Habakhur” – named for him but dedicated to the cardinal. In 1527, when the mutinous troops of the Holy Roman Emperor invaded Rome, he moved to Venice, where he took up employment as a corrector in the printing house of Daniel Bomberg, and also continued his work as a Hebrew tutor.
Other scholarly works by Levita included one on cantillation (Sefer Tuv Ta’am), a concordance of the Masoretic text of the Bible (Sefer Hazikhronot) and another one about vocalization in the Masoretic text (Masoret Hamasoret). In addition to his writings, he is important for introducing various influential Christians to Hebrew during the Reformation, when study of the language came into vogue. One of his students, Sebastian Muenster, translated Levita’s grammatical works into Latin.
Levita translated the Bovo Bukh early on, in 1504, but only saw it printed around 1540. He worked from the popular Italian translation, called “Buovo d’Antona.” As Yiddishist Michael Wex describes the work in his book “Born to Kvetch,” “the story of Bove is basically Hamlet meets Mickey Spillane – on a horse.” The mother of Bove, a prince, has his father, the king, killed, and then marries the murderer. Worried that the son will grow up to avenge his father’s death, they try to eliminate him as well. He escapes but is sold into slavery in Flanders, before saving the Flemish from invasion by the Babylonians, no less. He is aided by a magic horse, Rundele, and he marries the daughter of the Flemish king, Druziana, with whom he lives happily ever after, once he has taken care of his father’s killer and sent Mom to a convent. And all of this in Yiddish.
The Bovo Bukh was a perennial Yiddish favorite, remaining in print for nearly half a millennium; the most recent edition was published in 1909. Through a complex linguistic process, described by Wex in his book, its description in Yiddish as a “Bove mayse” – a tale about the knight Bevis – was transformed into the phrase “bobe mayse,” which is roughly an old wives' tale, though that is in no way an accurate description of the original book.
Elijah Levita died in Venice at the age of 80. British Prime Minister David Cameron is apparently a distant descendant, through his great-great grandfather Emile Levita, whose line can be traced back to the Hebraist. This would also mean that Cameron is a descendant of the tribe of Levi.
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