In the year 1102 C.E., a remarkable man known as Johannes of Oppido, a Norman-Italian monk, converted to Judaism. Henceforth he would be known as Obadiah the Proselyte, or in Hebrew, עבדיה הגר. All that we know about his life and career derives from documents discovered in the Cairo Geniza, prime among them his memoir, known in the scholarly world as the Obadiah Memoir. Though we also have other documents either written by him or for him.
In sum, the Cairo Geniza has yielded the following documents, all of them in Hebrew:
- Obadiah Memoir (7 folios = 14 pages)
- Musical Compositions (3 separate items)
- Siddur (1 folio, with introduction and a single prayer)
- Epistle of R. Barukh of Aleppo (1 folio, with a rather lengthy text)
The present website brings all of this material together into a single platform, in order to allow the scholar and the interested layperson to view these precious texts in most convenient fashion. This is especially beneficial for the memoir, since different folios of the same composition are housed in Budapest, Cambridge, and New York.
The basic outline of the life of Johannes = Obadiah is as follows. He was born c. 1075 in Oppido, in southern Italy, to a Norman-Italian family, and he became a monk. Following the inspiration of Andreas, the archbishop of Bari, who had converted to Judaism during the 11th century, Johannes followed suit and took the name Obadiah.
His travels took him to Constantinople, to various cities in Iraq, including Baghdad, thence to Aleppo, Damascus, Banias, and Tyre, and finally to Egypt. It is unclear if Johannes = Obadiah visited Jerusalem during his travels. Since the city was controlled by the Crusaders during this time period, it is possible that Johannes = Obadiah simply passed through the northern reaches of Eretz-Israel en route from the Seljuk realm of Iraq and Syria to the Fatimid realm of Egypt.
The memoir breaks off with its author arriving in Tyre, after which we learn no more. The author indicates that he was headed to Egypt, and one can assume that he wrote his memoir there. At some point, like so much other fascinating material concerning medieval Jewry, the composition was deposited in the storeroom (or Geniza) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo) - where the folios would remain until they were found along with tens of thousands of other manuscripts c. 750 years later by modern scholars, most prominently Solomon Schechter (Cambridge).
We should mention here that the genre of memoir or autobiography was still uncommon within world literature, especially when the author was a relatively ordinary person, as opposed to a major political, military, or religious leader. For while individuals such as Nehemiah, Julius Caesar, Josephus, Augustine, et al., along with Abdallah ibn Buluggin (closer to Johannes’s day), had written memoirs, their compositions tend to be discourses about the larger affairs of state or faith.
With Johannes = Obadiah, notwithstanding his very unusual religious path, we gain the insights of someone who observed current events (for example, the Crusades), but who himself was not involved therein. To be sure, the Obadiah Memoir is almost undoubtedly the first such composition in the Hebrew language in more than 1500 years (reaching back to Nehemiah).
The Obadiah Memoir describes in vivid detail the author’s life and travels, including his upbringing in the Catholic Church, his conversion to Judaism, his understanding of the Crusades, his memorable meeting with a Karaite who implied that he was the long-awaited Messiah, and much more.
The musical compositions are exceptional, for they are the only known examples in all of Jewish history of Hebrew prayers set to Gregorian chant. Clearly, Johannes = Obadiah knew the musical traditions of the Church well, and he saw no reason why Gregorian chant could not be used for Jewish liturgy as well. The result is simply stunning, as this recording from an album produced in Hungary in 1977 demonstrates:
Other renditions, in a more Middle Eastern key, are available at the Jewish Music Research Centre (Hebrew University): https://jewish-music.huji.ac.il/searchs?keys=obadiah
The same link provides more detailed information about Johannes’s musical traditions and compositions.
Unfortunately, we have only a single page of the siddur written by Johannes = Obadiah in his own hand. From the introductory material, one can assume that this single page was followed by many more pages of Jewish liturgical material, copied by Johannes = Obadiah for his personal use.
The fourth and final document is the Epistle of Rabbi Barukh of Aleppo. Most of this composition is a poem about the fate of the people of Israel, which serves as a prelude to his mentioning Obadiah’s conversion to Judaism. In addition, he instructs Obadiah to carry the document with him at all times, in order to show it to anyone who might question the sincerity of his conversion.
The result of all this material is the reconstruction of an extraordinary life. We invite you to peruse the manuscripts, admire the penmanship, read the translations and the transcriptions, click on the links provided, and simply marvel at the recovery of a piece of history.
A note about two of the folios: The manuscript pages in the Kaufmann collection in Budapest, which were published by Alexander Scheiber in Acta Orientalia 4 (1954), have gone missing; and there are no color photos available. Fortunately, Prof. Scheiber included serviceable black-and-white images of the manuscript pages in his article, and thus we have used those here at the website.
An Additional Mention of Obadiah:
Above we intimated that all that we know about the life and career of Johannes = Obadiah derives from the Cairo Geniza. That statement remains true, but there is one additional mention of Obadiah in a later text, to wit, the commentary of Rabbi Shemaria (1275‒1355) to Proverbs 19:14. Although the author was a Rabbanite Jew, his comment was included in a 17th-century Karaite miscellany written in the Crimea, now housed in the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (Cincinnati) = MS 839, fol. 227r (specifically line 12).
All that we learn from this document is that Obadiah the Proselyte posed a question to a certain sage, but unfortunately we do not learn the name of the sage nor the whereabouts of Obadiah at this point. Given his travels throughout the Near East, the question could have been posed in Baghdad or in Aleppo or in Cairo or basically anywhere.
The manuscript page is included at the website alongside the Cairo Geniza documents.
Credit for this discovery goes to Philip E. Miller (1982), while Mauro Perani (1991) provided further analysis. See the special section at the end of the Bibliography for details.
A Debt of Gratitude to Professor Norman Golb:
We here express our deepest gratitude to Professor Norman Golb (University of Chicago), the unsurpassed maître of Johannes of Oppido = Obadiah the Proselyte studies. He has graciously allowed us to use his Hebrew transcriptions and English translations, produced over the course of a lifetime of study. The seminal articles (the former in Hebrew, the latter in English) are as follows:
Norman Golb, “Megillat Ovadya ha-Ger” (in Hebrew), in Shelomo Morag, et al., eds. Shelomo Dov Goitein Jubilee Volume = Folklore Research Center Studies, vol. 6 (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1980), Hebrew volume, pp. 77‒107.
Norman Golb, “The Autograph Memoirs of Obadiah the Proselyte of Oppido Lucano, and the Epistle of Barukh B. Isaac of Aleppo,” prepared for the Convegno internazionale di Studi Giovanni - Obadiah da Oppido: proselito, viaggiatore e musicista dell’età normanna, Oppido Lucano (Basilicata) 28‒30 Marzo 2004 – available online at https://oi.uchicago.edu/research/individual-scholarship/autograph-memoirs-obadiah-proselyte-oppido-lucano-and-epistle-barukh
For additional articles, by Golb and by others, see the Bibliography.
In recognition of his lifetime of engagement with Johannes = Obadiah, Professor Golb was granted Cittadinanza onorario per meriti scientifici by the commune of Oppido Lucano (Basilicata) in 2006.
Enumeration, Translation, and Transcription:
Regarding the enumeration of the documents, especially those which comprise the Obadiah Memoir: each document has been assigned a Roman numeral and a recto and a verso, hence: I recto, I verso, II recto, II verso, etc. In each instance, we also provide the specific shelfmark of the host library collection.
Regarding the transcriptions: Note that Professor Golb created a complete transcription, including the Hebrew niqqud (vowel pointing). For the sake of simplicity, we have decided to use a transcription without the niqqud, especially since the images appear side-by-side for easy reference.
Regarding the translations: We have retained Professor Golb’s rendering throughout, with one exception; the English has been updated in a few instances, e.g., ‘cometh’ > ‘comes’, ‘thou’ > ‘you’, etc.
We are grateful to the following individuals who have kindly granted us permission to display the Johannes = Obadiah documents available at the present website:
- Kinga Dévényi (Kaufmann Collection of the Oriental Collection of the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest)
- István Vásáry (Editor-in-chief of Acta Orientalia Hungarica, Budapest)
- Rahel Fronda (Bodleian Library, Oxford)
- Ben Outhwaite (Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge University Library)
- Jerry Schwarzbard (The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York)
- Jordan Finkin (Klau Library of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati)
For technical support, we are indebted to Jacob Binstein (Rutgers University alumnus, double major in Jewish Studies and Information Technology and Informatics).
We are most appreciative of the generous research support provided by the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University, without which this project would not have been possible.
We encourage you to communicate with us if there are questions, comments, and/or suggestions for improvement.
Finally, I (G.A.R.) add the following. My maternal grandparents, along with my aunt and cousin, survived World War II in southern Italy, specifically in Potenza, one of the cities mentioned by Johannes = Obadiah in folio I verso. I have no doubt that this personal connection to the region, and the stories of Potenza which I heard while yet a lad, have influenced my decision to bring the remarkable story of Johannes of Oppido = Obadiah the Proselyte to greater public awareness via this website.
For photos of Oppido, from our recent visit to the town (February 2019), click on the large button below. All photos © Melissa and Gary Rendsburg.
Gary A. Rendsburg and Peter M. Shamah