Jewish history

The First of Nisan, The Forgotten Jewish New Year, Part II

By guest contributor Joel S. Davidi

In my last post on the history of the first of Nisan as a Jewish new year I discussed the history of this now mostly forgotten holiday into the tenth century. Until this point, this festival was celebrated among the Jews of Eretz Israel as well as their satellite communities across the Middle East (including a small “Palestinian-rite” contingent in Iraq itself). Over the next one hundred years, however, the celebration of the first of Nisan became the domain of only a very small minority of Jews. In a large measure, this was due to the long standing disagreements between the two great centers of Jewish learning at the time, Eretz Israel and Babylonia/ Iraq.   

All in all, the competition between Babylonia and Eretz Israel ended in a decisive Babylonian victory. This was due to several factors not least of which is the fact that Babylonian Jewry experienced much more stability under Sassanian and later Islamic rule while its Eretz Israel counterpart was constantly experiencing persecution and uprooting. The final death knell for Minhag Eretz Yisrael was delivered in July of 1099 when an army of Crusaders broke through the walls of Jerusalem and massacred the city’s Jewish inhabitants, its Babylonian-rite,  Palestinian-rite communities and Karaite communities. With the destruction of its center began the decline and eventual disappearance of many unique Eretz Israel customs. It is only due to the discovery of the Cairo Genizah that scholars have become aware of many of those long-lost traditions and customs. At this time Babylonia’s prominence began to decline as the Sephardic communities of the Iberian Peninsula and the Ashkenazic communities of France and Germany were increasingly on the ascendancy. Both of these communities, however, maintained the Babylonian rite. (As Israel Ta Shma points out in his book on early Ashkenazic prayer, both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic rites have Eretz Israel elements. These are more evident in the Ashkenazi rite, probably due to the ties between the proto Ashkenazim and the Palestinian academy Academy in Byzantine Palestine.)

The latest evidence the celebration of the first of Nisan comes to us from the 13th century and it would seem that even by this time it was all but stamped out by those who were determined to establish the primacy of the Babylonian school. This period coincides with the increased activism of Rabbi Abraham Maimonides, the son of Moses Maimonides, the great Spanish codifier of Jewish law. Rabbi Abraham, who championed standardization based on his father’s codification, exerted great pressure against the Synagogue of the Palestinians in Fustat, Old Cairo to bring their ritual into line with Babylonian standards. He was for the most part successful but, as we have already seen, this unique  custom was retained (albeit in diminished form) among Egyptian Jews to this very day.

In an April 20, 1906 article for the English  Jewish Chronicle, Herbert Loewe provides an eyewitness account of an Al-Tawhid ceremony in the fashionable Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo. Two years later, a more detailed description was recorded by the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, Refael Aharon ben Shimon in his book Nehar Misrayim (p. 65-6).

I reproduce it here (courtesy of Hebrewbooks.org):

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After extolling this “beautiful custom”, ben Shimon laments how the custom had become so weakened and how so many had become lax in keeping it. He states that this was largely due to the fact that the city had experienced such large scale expansion and many members of the Jewish community had relocated to the suburbs. He concludes on an optimistic note with the hope that the custom will experience a renaissance in the near future.

Two other North African Jewish communities that I know of retain more pared-down versions of the celebration of the first of Nisan. In the communities of Tunisia and Libya, the ceremony is referred to as bsisa (and also maluhia). Bsisa is also the name given to a special dish that is prepared for this day which is made of wheat and barley flour mixed with olive oil, fruits and spices. Several prayers for the new year are recited whereupon the celebrants exchange new year greetings with each other. Many of these prayers contain similar themes to the Egyptian-Jewish Tahwid prayers I discussed in part I of this article. (For example: “Shower down upon us from your bounty and we shall give it over to others. That we shall never experience want– and may this year be better than the previous year.”) As in the Egyptian community, however, the new year aspect of the celebration is not especially stressed. As the eminent historian and expert on North African Jewry Nahum Slouschz points out in an article in Davar (April 7, 1944), “It is impossible not to see in these customs the footprints of an ancient rosh hashanah which was abandoned with the passage of time because of the tediousness of the Passover holiday and in favor of the holiness of the traditional [Tishrei] Rosh Hashana.”

(For more on the roots and contemporary practice of bsisa and maluhia see here, here, here, and here. For videos of the bsisa/ maluhia ceremony see here, here, and here.)

Although the observance of the First of Nissan is no longer as prominent as it once was in rabbinic Judaism, the two most prominent non-rabbinic Jewish communities, the Karaites and the Samaritans, have maintained the holiday into recent times. The Cairo Genizah contains leaves from a Karaite prayer book containing a service for the first of Nisan. This custom eventually fell out of the Karaite textual record as Karaite traditions fell in line with Rabbanite ones over the later middle ages. In his monumental study of the now extinct European Karaite community, historian Mikhail Kizilov discusses how Eastern-European Karaites underwent a gradual process of “dejudaidization” and “turkification” in the 1910s-20s. This was largely due to the work of their spiritual and political head, Seraya Shapshal, who, aware of growing  Anti-Semitism in Europe, was determined to present his flock as genetically unrelated to the Jews (claiming instead that they were descendants of Turkic and Mongol tribes). He likewise sought to recast Karaism as a syncretistic Jewish-Christian-Muslim-pagan creed. Among the reforms instituted by Shapshal was the changing of the Karaite calendar. Although the Karaites of old began the calendar year on Nisan, as per Exodus, they had long assimilated the Rabbinic custom of beginning the year in Tishrei. Shapshal sought to avoid a lining up of the Karaite and Rabbanite new years which is why he switched the Karaite new year to March-April, thereby ironically reverting back to the ancient Karaite custom. This particular reform never took off and the community continued to celebrate the new in year in Tishrei. Even the official Karaite calendars printed that date (which like the Rabbanites they called “Rosh Hashana”). Currently, Karaites do not actually celebrate this day or recite any special liturgy, however they do nominally recognize this day as Rosh Hashanah and they will exchange new year tidings.

Samaritans preserve the most extensive observance of this day. According to the Samaritan elder and scholar Benyamim Sedaka, the Samaritans celebrate the evening of the first day of the first Month – The Month of Aviv – as the actual Hebrew New Year. They engage in extended prayers on the day followed by festive family gatherings. They likewise bless one another with the traditional new year greeting “Shana Tova” and begin the observance, as the followers of the Palestinian rite once did, on the Sabbath preceding the day. The entire liturgy for the holiday is found in A. E. Cowley’s “The Samaritan Liturgy.” The fact that the Samaritans, who have functioned as a distinct religious community from Jews since at least the second century BCE, observe this tradition is the greatest indicator of its antiquity. The antiquity of this custom is also suggested by the fact that the springtime new year is likewise celebrated by many other ethnic communities from the Middle East including the Persians and Kurds (who call it Nowruz) and also, much closer to Jews linguistically and culturally, the Arameans and Chaldeans/Assyrians who call their New Year Kha (Or Khada) B’nissan (the first of Nissan) .

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Siddur Eretz Yisrael, published by Machon Shiloh

Minhag Eretz Israel is now effectively extinct. Today, however, there is a small community of predominantly Ashkenazic Jews in Israel who seek to reconstruct this rite. Using the work of scholars who have labored to piece the Palestinian rite together based on the Cairo Genizah, this community endeavors to put it back into practical usage. Among many other customs, they celebrate the First of Nisan. The flagship institution of this movement is called Machon Shiloh and its founder and leader is an Australian-Israeli Rabbi named David bar Hayyim. In correspondence with me, Yoel Keren, a member of Machon Shilo, stated that his community observes the festival in the manner prescribed by the Geniza fragments. On the eve of the first of Nissan, the community waits outside to sight the new moon, then recites the kiddush prayer and finally sits down to a festive meal. The community has also recently published a prayer book called Siddur Eretz Yisrael, which is based on the ancient rite. You can listen to some prayers recited in this rite here, here, and here.

For an interesting interview with Rabbi Bar-Hayyim about the rite and its contemporary usage see here.

 

Appendix to Part I

Since publishing my original post about the first of Nissan’s history as a Jewish holiday a few other sources have come to light about the history of the day’s significance. Here are a few of the earliest sources that mention the day as a holiday (my thanks to Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein for bringing some of these to my attention).

The earliest of these comes from the  book of Ezekiel (45:18-19):

Thus saith the Lord GOD: In the first month, in the first day of the month, thou shalt take a young bullock without blemish; and thou shalt purify the sanctuary.

Ezekiel contains numerous laws and festivals that are not found in the Pentateuch. Many interpret these as being meant for a future (third) Temple. Ezekiel does not explicitly describe the first of Nissan as a celebration of the new year per se but this description is nonetheless the earliest evidence of the day having special significance.

We find a similar reference in the Temple Scroll (11Q19) of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Temple Scroll describes the ideal Temple of the Qumran sectarians. The Festival of the first day of the first month (Nissan) is one of three additional extra-biblical festivals that are mentioned in this work:

On the first day of the [first] month [the months (of the
year) shall start; it shall be the first month] of the year [for you. You shall
do no] work. [You shall offer a he-goat for a sin-offering.] It shall be
offered by itself to expiate [for you. You shall offer a holocaust: a
bullock], a ram, [seven yearli]ng ram lambs [without blemish] …
[ad]di[tional to the bu]r[nt-offering for the new moon, and a grain-
offering of three tenths of fine flour mixed with oil], half a hin [for each
bullock, and wi]ne for a drink-offering, [half a hin, a soothing odour to
YHWH, and two] tenths of fine flour mixed [with oil, one third of a hin.
You shall offer wine for a drink-offering,] one th[ird] of a hin for the ram,
[an offering by fire, of soothing odour to YHWH; and one tenth of fine
flour], a grain-offerin[g mixed with a quarter of a hinol oil. You shall
offer wine for a drink-offering, a quarter of a hin] for each [ram] …
lambs and for the he-g[oat] .

Joel S. Davidi is an independent ethnographer and historian. His research focuses on Eastern and Sephardic Jewry and the Karaite communities of Crimea, Egypt, California and Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming book Exiles of Sepharad That Are In Ashkenaz, which explores the Iberian Diaspora in Eastern Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He blogs on Jewish history at toldotyisrael.wordpress.com.

The First of Nisan, The Forgotten Jewish New Year

by guest contributor Joel S. Davidi

It is late March and the weather is still cold. The sounds of Arabic music and exuberant conversation emanate from an elegant ballroom in Brooklyn New York. No, it’s not a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah. A Torah Scroll is unfurled and the cantor begins to read from Exodus 12: 1, “And God spoke to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, ‘This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.’” The reading is followed by the chanting of liturgical poetry based on this Torah portion, “Rishon Hu Lakhem L’khodshei Hashanah”… Yom Nisan Mevorakh….” “The first month shall it be for you for the months of the year… the month of Nisan is blessed.”As they leave the event, men and women wish each other “Shana tova,” happy new year.

Something seems off. It is a Monday night and Rosh Hashanah, the traditional Jewish new year, is still six months away. Why the celebration and talk of a new year? This ritual is very familiar, however, to the members of Congregation Ahaba Veahva, a Synagogue that follows the Egyptian-Jewish rite. It is a vestige of a very ancient, almost extinct Jewish custom called Seder Al-Tawhid (Arabic, Seder Ha-Yikhud in Hebrew, the ritual of the unity). This ritual takes place annually on the first of Nisan. The name denotes a celebration of the unity of God and the miracles that he wrought during this month surrounding the Exodus from Egypt. The way the congregation celebrates it and how this custom survived illuminates important dynamics of how Jewish ritual has been standardized over time.

Ahba Veahva’s members celebrate Rosh Hashanah in September like other rabbinic Jews. The Seder al-Tahwid, however, is a remnant of an ancient custom of the Jews of the near East (variably referred to as Mustaribun or Shamim) to commemorate the first day of the Jewish month of Nisan as  a minor Rosh Hashanah as per Exodus 12:1. On their website, Congregation Ahaba Veahva explains the celebration as follows:

The Great Exodus of Egypt:
On Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month of Nisan), beni Yisrael (the children of Israel) heard the nes (miracle) that they were going to be redeemed on the night of the 15th, later in that very month. We hold this evening to remember the miracles and the hesed (kindness) that Hashem (God) does for His nation.
“In Nisan we were redeemed in the past, and in Nisan we are destined to be redeemed again.” (a midrashic quote (Exodus Rabbah 15:2) asserting that just as the Exodus from Egypt took place in Nisan so too will the ultimate messianic redemption)
We hold this evening to put everyone in the correct spiritual mindset- to realize with all their might that this could be the month of the Geulah (messianic redemption).

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The Alexandrian pamphlet describing the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy.

The only printed version of the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy is found in an anonymous 10 page pamphlet printed in Alexandria. The prayers focus on many themes found in the Rosh Hashana prayers such as blessing, sustenance and messianic redemption in the year to come. The liturgy is found in a somewhat longer form in a tenth century manuscript fragment from the Cairo Geniza, the  repository of documents found in the late nineteenth century in the synagogue in old Fustat.

The celebration of al-Tahwid begins with special liturgy on the Sabbath closest to the day and on the day itself the community refrains from unnecessary labor similar to intermediate days of Jewish holidays. They also recite a Kiddush (a prayer that sanctifies a day, recited over a cup of wine) followed by a festive meal and the recitation of liturgical poetry. One such poem presents a debate among the twelve months to determine which one will have primacy. In one stanza, for example, Nisan argues that the following month of Iyyar cannot be chosen since its zodiacal sign is Taurus, the same species as the golden calf that Israel made in the wilderness. The concluding stanza is a triumphal declaration from Nisan: שליט אנא וריש על כול”ן”
literally, I am the ruler and the head of all of you.
תקיפה עבדי פרוק לעמיה ובי הוא עתיד למפרוק יתהון
or, “A deliverance of slavery did I [Nisan] impart upon the nation and in me [Nisan] is he [God] destined to deliver them [again]” (as per BT Rosh Hashanah 10B). Other prayers more explicitly cast the day as the beginning of the new year. One liturgical poem begins:  יהי רצון מלפניך ה אלוהינו ואלוהי אבותינו…שתהיה השנה הזאת הבאה עלינו לשלום, translated as, “May it be your will lord our god and the god of our fathers…that this coming year should come upon us in peace.”

The celebration of the first of Nisan as the beginning of the new year is rooted both in Biblical and Talmudic sources. Exodus 12:1-2 states that Nisan is the first month in the intercalation of the new year and the Mishnah in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1 describes the First of Nisan as one of the four beginnings of the Jewish New Year:

There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of cattle. … On the first of Tishrei is the new year for years, for release and jubilee years, for plantation and for [tithe of] vegetables…. On the first of Shevat is the new year for trees…

In an article on the Seder al-Tahwid liturgy, liturgical scholar Ezra Fleischer postulates that the Kiddush ceremony on the holiday was based on an earlier Mishanic-era institution. The Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah 2:7 describes how the Sanhedrin, the high religious court of Talmudic-era Israel,  consecrated the new month by declaring “it is sanctified”, at which point the entire assemblage would respond in kind, “it is sanctified, it is sanctified”. This declaration was performed with pomp and publicity in order to make it clear that the final word in the intercalation of the Jewish calendar belonged to the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael and no one else. In the context of the Seder al-Tahwid this ritual serves to highlight Nisan’s role as the first month of the Jewish lunar year, the beginning of this process of sanctifying the new moon.

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If the first of Nisan is such an important date to both the Bible and Talmud then, why is the day celebrated today only by this small Jewish community? To answer this question we must look to the Geonic period of jewish history, corresponding roughly to the second half of the first millennium. Over  the past decade, historians increasingly see this period  as one in which a number of variations of Judaism were vying for supremacy. These included several schools of Jewish jurisprudence based in different geographic constituencies across the Mediterranean Diaspora. Two of the most prominent were the Babylonian (Minhag Babhel, based in Baghdad) and Palestinian (Minhag Eretz Yisrael) rites, as well as Karaite Jews who did not follow the Rabbis at all but formed their own, non rabbinic madhab or creed.

The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was abolished in the 5th century by Byzantine decree. Its various successors could not recapture its prestige and the Rabbis of Eretz Yisrael gradually lost their power to sanction the new moon. The Karaites developed their own system of intercalation but within the rabbinic tradition, in the absence of the Sanhedrin, the Babylonians and Palestinians often found themselves at odds.

The most notorious controversy between the two schools involved the often-confrontational Saadiah ben Joseph Al-Faumi, the head of the Babylonian Academy better known as Saadiah Gaon, and Aharon ben Meir, the head of the Palestinian Academy. In 921-923, the two engaged in an extended and very public argument regarding the sanctification of the Hebrew year 4682 (921/22). While the core of this debate surrounded the complicated methods of calculating the Jewish calendar, it became a referendum on which academy and by extension rite would become authoritative in the diaspora. Saadiah emerged victorious (historians Marina Rustow and Sacha Stern argue that his authority on these matters may have resulted from his mastery of Abbasid advances in astronomy).

In Palestine, however, the Jewish community, based in Jerusalem, continued to follow the Minhag Eretz Yisrael, which also exerted influence on other Near Eastern Jewish communities such as Egypt. The heads of the Jerusalem academy still often insisted that the right to intercalate the year rested solely with them. As late as the 11th century, Rabbi Evyatar Ha-Kohen, the head of the Palestinian Academy (partially in exile in Cairo) would declare:

The land of Israel is not part of the exile such that it would be subject to an Exilarch (a title often applied to the head of the babylonian academy) and furthermore one may not contradict the authority of the Prince (a title at times applied to the head of the palestinian academy), on the word of whom [alone] may leap years be declared and the holiday dates set according to the order imposed by God before the creation of the world. For this is what we are taught in the secrets of intercalation.

ארץ ישראל אינה קרואה גולה שיהא ראש גולה נסמך בה, ועוד שאין עוקרין נשיא שבארץ ישראל, שעל פיו מעברין את השנה וקובעין את המועדות הסדורים לפני הקב”ה קודם יצירת העולם, דהכי גמרי בסוד העיבור

In a continuation of this post, I will elaborate as to how the Seder al-Tahwid was likely maintained as well as suppressed during the geonic period, similar practices that are preserved among non rabbinic communities and the ritual’s reception today.

Joel S. Davidi is an independent ethnographer and historian. His research focuses on Eastern and Sephardic Jewry and the Karaite communities of Crimea, Egypt, California and Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming book Exiles of Sepharad That Are In Ashkenaz, which explores the Iberian Diaspora in Eastern Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He blogs on Jewish history at toldotyisrael.wordpress.com.

An Anti-Anti-Lachrymose Approach to Jewish History?

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

In his seminal 1928 essay, “Ghetto and Emancipation: Shall We Revise the Traditional View?,” historian Salo Wittmayer Baron argues against what he refers to in his later work as the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” In the essay, Baron, at the time a young historian (albeit one with three doctorates), argues that his forbears in the Jewish academy, men such as Heinrich Graetz and Leopold Zunz, had overstated the extent of Jewish suffering in the premodern world. Although the Jews had faced certain disadvantages during the medieval and early modern periods, Baron argues, their status reflected that of a corporate community in a society of corporate communities, each with its own disadvantages and privileges. Baron would go on to become the most influential Jewish historian of the twentieth century, and perhaps even in the entire history of the field. His anti-lachrymose approach, codified in his own 18-volume “Social and Religious History of the Jews,” has framed the subsequent near-century of Jewish historical scholarship, leading scholars of Jewish history to focus on coexistence over conflict and on the positive over the negative in the Jewish past and Jewish-dominant-cultural relations.

Historian Salo Baron testifies at Adolph Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem.

Historian Salo Baron testifies at Adolph Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem.

In the last decade, however, Baron’s model has come into question, as several scholars have argued that Jewish historians have gone too far in trying to paint a non-lachrymose picture of Jewish past. The first scholar I am aware of to explicitly challenge this model is historian David Engel. In his 2010 Historians of the Jews and the Holocaust, Engel tackles the question of why Jewish historians rarely incorporate the Holocaust into their narratives and theories of Jewish history. This remains the case even as it is central to German and European history and has generated the field of Holocaust Studies. Engel traces this puzzling reality to Baron’s anti-lachrymose model, which has resulted in Baron’s intellectual heirs painting the Holocaust as a “black box” in Jewish history, an aberration that they do not allow to color how they see the Jewish past before and after it. Indeed, Engel demonstrates, many Jewish historians are very frank about this and explicitly argue that the Holocaust ought not to color our non-lachrymose view of Jewish history, citing Baron as their inspiration. This is despite the fact that Baron himself urged—as both Engel and Baron’s biographer historian Robert Lieberlis note—that the Holocaust necessitated acknowledgement of the darker sides of the Jewish past.

In a 2012 essay, historian Steven Fine makes a similar argument for a less anti-lachrymose approach to Jewish history, specifically with reference to late antiquity. In the article “The Menorah and the Cross: Historiographical Reflections on a Recent Discovery from Laodicea on the Lycus,” Fine uses a column fragment found among the ruins of this ancient Roman city to question the anti-lachrymosity not just of Jewish history, but of late antique studies as well. The fragment features an etching of the menorah flanked by a palm frond and shofar, a common Jewish visual trope in the Roman Empire. Superimposed over the upper portion of the menorah is a large cross—evidence that at some point, in some reuse of this stone fragment, someone made an effort to Christianize it. Fine argues that this object speaks to a subject carefully avoided by most ancient Jewish and late antique historians, namely the violence that accompanied Christianization during this period. On the Jewish end, Fine traces this approach to Baron’s forceful arguments in his Social and Religious History for the goodwill between Christians and Jews in late antiquity, a perspective Fine sees as reflecting mid-twentieth century efforts to create a place for Jews in the American consensus.

The latest installment in this debate had the unlikely departure point of a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition, Jerusalem: Every People Under Heaven, 1000-1400, on which I worked as an intern in the planning stages, showcases the role of the city in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim visual arts of this period. Praise for the exhibition has been almost universal. In the weeks since it came down on January 8, a debate about its presentation of Jewish history has been ignited in an article published in the Jewish monthly Mosaic Magazine by Wall Street Journal and former New York Times critic-at-large Edward Rothstein. Rothstein is already well known to students of Jewish art history for his critical essay on Jewish museums’ curatorial approaches, published in Mosaic last year. In his essay on the Jerusalem show, Rothstein argues that its curators go too far in painting a picture of the city as a place of harmonious coexistence of Jewish Christian and Muslim cultures, especially with regard to Jews. Rothstein argues that although the exhibition assembles many artifacts that evoke the importance of Jerusalem in Jewish life, Jews were an extremely persecuted group during this period whose experience, especially in Jerusalem, dramatically undermines the exhibition’s narrative of diversity.

This page from a fourteenth-century illuminated Jewish prayerbook features a frame surrounding the plea from the Yom Kippur liturgy, “He who opens the Gates of Mercy” that evokes the gates of heaven and of the heavenly Jerusalem. Inasmuch as this work of art evokes a flourishing Jewish culture and Jewish longing for Jerusalem, however, it reflects the harsh realities of Jewish exile from the holy land.

In two responses to the article solicited by Mosaic, Fine and Robert Irwin, Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement, echo Rothstein’s assessment of the exhibition’s approach to its Jewish subject matter. Drawing from medieval traveler accounts, Irwin notes the obstacles Jews faced in the holy land during the middle ages and the difficulty many even had accessing Jerusalem. Fine traces the approach to art history evinced by Jerusalem to the work of eminent art historian Kurt Weitzmann, a dissident scholar who left Nazi Germany and settled at Princeton. In Fine’s reading, Weitzman’s 1979 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum  The Age of Spirituality was one of the first to depict a harmonious coexistence of differing religious communities during the late antique period in galleries showcasing “The Jewish Realm,” “he Christian Realm,” “The Classical Realm” and so forth. To what degree was Weitzmann’s harmonious understanding of late antiquity, then, influenced by his own reality in postwar New York and his longings for Wiemar Berlin, Fine asks? To Fine, both Weizman and Baron’s visions, as well as those of many of their proteges in the curatorial and Jewish-historical professions respectively, have been deeply colored by their desire to create a more tolerant and multicultural society in their own times.

The debate over the role of lachrymosity in Jewish history should hold a lot of interest for Jewish historians. Although its been several years since Fine and Engel’s critiques of the anti-lachrymose approach, I do not know of any scholars that have followed their lead and worked to construct a post-anti-lachrymose narrative. What would such a narrative look like? Thinking of my own area of American Jewish history, such an approach to things might lead us to ask more questions about how anti-Jewishness has impacted American Jews, their senses of community, religious lives, and senses of themselves. This is a kind of question that is rarely asked in the field—indeed, as organizer and writer Yotam Marom points out in a recent article, it is almost a taboo subject in Jewish public discourse in general. The possibilities for a less, if not anti anti-lachrymose, Jewish history are many. As tempting as it is in politically trying times to use the past as a role model, the actual picture is perhaps much more rich and nuanced, even as it perhaps raises some troubling questions and realities.

American Zionism: A Mass-Cultural Movement?

by guest contributor Kyle Stanton

Noah's book "Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, in the Years 1813-14 and 15." Wikimedia Commons.

Noah’s book “Travels in England, France, Spain, and the Barbary States, in the Years 1813-14 and 15.” Wikimedia Commons.

Mordecai Noah was one of the first Jews to reach national prominence in America. A politician, newspaper publisher, and man of letters, Noah was notoriously dismissed from his post as Consul of Tunisia by Secretary of State James Monroe in 1815. Monroe cited Noah’s religion as having been a hindrance to his professional duties. The event spurred widespread public outrage and criticism from prominent politicians who saw it as an outright display of religious intolerance. A decade later, the Sephardic Jewish playwright entered the national spotlight again through his plan to offer persecuted European Jews a refuge on an island near Buffalo, New York. Although this plan had enthusiastic support from local Christians and some Jews at its inauguration, the project failed within days. Noah then devised plans to settle Palestine with Jews, once again earning himself large-scale notoriety, becoming one of the first American proto-Zionists.

Noah’s story reflects elements of both of the two dominant explanatory approaches taken by scholars to the relationship of America to proto-Zionism/Zionism. Scholars studying this relationship generally approach it either from the field of religious cultural history or the history of American public policy. Thus, the United States’ contemporary support for Israel can be characterized either by the philo-Semitic Protestant religious tradition, often referred to as Christian Zionism, or through a study of the public policy and diplomatic history of the United States. However, Noah’s story also hints at another, usually overlooked arena that has often fueled American support for Israel: pop culture. Noah received support largely from sympathetic Christians but he also drew support and clout on the basis of his role as a State Department functionary. By all accounts, however, much of the attention Noah’s schemes received was based on the celebrity they earned him and the intrigue they generated beyond the small ranks of dogmatic Christian Zionists.

The pop-cultural dimension of the American–Israel relationship is absent from both religious-cultural and public policy-based accounts of the subject.  Scholars who take the religious-cultural approach see the relationship as embedded in Christian Zionism, which in America is rooted in the religious tradition of premillennial dispensationalism. This eschatology maintains that Jesus will physically return to earth to bring his true followers to heaven before the rapture occurs. Jesus’s return is to be followed by a 1,000-year period of earthly peace. It differs on this point with the more mainstream postmillennialism, according to which the 1,000-year period of earthly peace is to take place before the Second Coming. Premillennial dispensationalists place an emphasis on a Jewish return to the Holy Land to trigger the cataclysmic Second Coming of Christ. This has been encouraged by the fact that some dispensationalists have seen Jews as being proto-Protestants due to their dogged resistance to Catholic conversion. The widespread circulation of the dispensationalist Scofield Reference Bible (first published in 1909) after World War I was particularly influential in transmitting premillennial beliefs in Anglophone countries.

A couple notable examples of religious-cultural approaches to the American relationship with Zionism are Fuad Sha’ban’s, For Zion’s Sake: The Judeo-Christian Tradition in American Culture and Stephen Spector’s Evangelicals and Israel: The Story of American Christian Zionism. While the two scholars of literature are far apart politically, they take similar approaches to the topic. They both argue that many Protestant Americans are inclined to be supportive of the State of Israel because of their evangelical thinking.  Shaban argues that this relationship has been made even more important to many evangelicals because they see America itself as representing a New Zion (Sha’ban, 14-19). These accounts are both compelling, but, like most works of the religious-cultural school, they never draw a direct line from these trends to American policy.

Scholars who take public policy approaches to the question of American Zionism generally see the latter as a result of special interests and focus on the political interactions between Congress, the State Department, the executive branch, and lobbyist groups. Many of these scholars see the State Department of the past as a foil to the current America-Israel relationship because of its perceived history of anti-Semitism. Certainly the case of Mordecai Noah provides can provide an opening salvo for this argument. They argue that the State Department should be a rigid guarantor of American interests without regards for back room politics and they urge the State Department to return to the strict protection of purely American interests. Some representatives of this realpolitik line of thinking like John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, George Ball, and Clifford Kiracofe, argue that the relationship between Israel and the United States is one which subverts domestic democracy, tarnishes America’s image in the world, and returns no tangible benefits. These studies largely focus on the political interactions between Congress, the State Department, the executive branch, and lobbyist groups. Many scholars may be understandably averse to discussing the influence of a particular ethnic or religious group’s lobby on American politics. However, these works generally provide a fierce criticism of both Jewish and Christian Zionist politics. They argue that organizations such as these stifle criticism and debate about American/Israeli relations and American foreign policy in the greater Middle East. In these analyses, members of Congress are not animated so much by a philo-Semitic Zionism as they are by campaign contributions. A major drawback of this approach is that it often delegates too much primacy to lobbyist groups on Capitol Hill.

Both of these approaches are helpful in understanding the American-Israeli relationship, and scholars are increasingly adopting elements of both in their analyses of the subject. For instance, Robert O. Smith persuasively argues that the Cartwright Petition of 1649 to have Jews readmitted to England was one of the first Zionist political actions, in that it was advocated by Messianic Puritans (Smith, 96). He uses this argument to highlight the Christian roots and incubation of the idea of Zionism, contextualizing the pre- and post-Herzlian political history of Zionism. Smith goes on to demonstrate the influence of Christian Zionist ideas on important actors in the political history of Zionism, from Lord Balfour to Ronald Reagan (although the impact of these ideas on Jews, who took ownership of Zionism by the end the nineteenth century, remains to explored).

However, in the era of mass consumption, the impact of novels and other works of literature for didactic or propaganda purposes should not be discounted. For instance, the scholarly attention paid to Leon Uris’s best-selling 1958 novel Exodus has been scant in comparison to its impact. More attention has been given to specifically Christian Zionist literature in this regard, such as Tim Lahaye’s best-selling Left Behind series of novels and Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. These works were the product of a growing confidence among pre-millennialists who saw in the Israeli military victory of 1967 a confirmation of their worldview. The growing acceptance of these beliefs in American society can be seen as a reflection of the Cold War threats of nuclear annihilation, which to many premillennial Christians further seemed to indicate that the end-times were near. These phenomena all led many members of mainstream American society to begin sharing a similar apocalyptic outlook with that of pre-millennial dispensationalists. However, most of those who were influenced by these ideas never became premillennialists themselves. Rather, these ideas impacted them as a part of popular culture of the day.

After World War II, newsreels featuring images of emaciated Holocaust survivors and victims were viewed by large audiences throughout the United States. While viewers of the images were shocked and horrified, no mass mobilization for a Jewish state materialized based on American’s knowledge of the Holocaust, even as Jewish organizations cautiously lobbied for the creation of a Jewish state behind closed doors. Similarly, there was not widespread support for Zionism on the part of American Christians between the end of the war and the Eichmann Trial, and it is unclear what exactly gave Zionism legitimacy in the state department after the war. Rather, it was only between Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948 and the 1967 war—after the appearance of major pop-cultural works that cast Zionism in a positive light—that the US saw growing popular enthusiasm for Israel and Zionism.

Kyle Stanton is a PhD student in history at the University at Albany-SUNY. His research interests include Judaic Studies, nationalism, and the history of tourism.

From American Jewish History to American Jewish Studies: Advice for a Complicated Relationship

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

In her 2000 Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies article on American Jewish history, historian Hasia Diner notes a new trend in the field in which a growing number of works were focusing on Jews’ self-understanding and self-presentation. Today, such works seem to have taken over the field, displacing older social and intellectual historical narratives and approaches. These works reflect approaches to social history that gained popularity during the 1990s, trends most frequently found in scholarship that identifies with ethnic or cultural studies. They generally seek to analyze a specific sub-culture, in this case American Jews, rather than situate the same within broader narratives of American cultural history. Research taking this approach in American Jewish Studies generally interests itself in how American Jews created a hybrid identity through processes of selectively acculturating into the middle class. Scholars working in this framework also have a strong interest in how American Jews resisted acculturation and American bourgeois norms. This approach bred important scholarship in the field. Today, however, it dominates the field to such an extent that it severely limits how American Jewish historians approach their subject matter.

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This monument to Religious Liberty was erected in Central Philadelphia in 1876 by the Independent Order of Bnai Britth.  It asserted its Jewish sponsors’ identity as patriotic citizens but it also served to publicly associate Judaism with values of religious liberty, reflecting liberal understandings of Judaism embedded in the intellectual climate of the time. It now stands outside the National Museum of American Jewish History on the Independence Mall (image via Wikipedia)

Since the Second World War, social-historical approaches have dominated American Jewish history. As historian Jeffrey Gurock documents in an article on the history of the American Jewish History journal (published under various titles from 1896 until the present), postwar scholars saw social history as a means of inserting Jews into the larger sweep of American history. A classic example of this kind of mid-century social historical work can be found in Moses Rischin‘s 1964 Promised City, a history of Jews in New York. Rischin’s book explores how the Eastern-European Jews of New York became acculturated into the American middle class. Like other practitioners of the new social history, he presents Jewish immigrants as having been full participants in creating American society despite the formidable obstacles they faced, a narrative that ultimately suggested, as Oscar Handlin puts it in his The Uprooted, that “immigrants were American history.” To answer his question, Rischin offers a detailed and carefully reconstructed description of this process that considers, among other things public school education, residential patterns, moves to second settlement areas and changes in occupational patterns.

The 2012, three-volume history of the Jews of New York City of Promises, on the other hand, asks a different kind of question, namely how did Jewish immigrants to America and their children create a new identity as American Jews that in turn led them to see themselves and their religion in new ways. The three books in the series accordingly look to how experiences such as immigration to New York, adjustment to American social realities, and so forth—the same historical vectors analyzed by Rischin—were experienced by New York’s Jews and how they came to think about their Judaism. Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer’s narrative of German Jews in New York during the mid-to-late nineteenth century in City of Promises’ second volume markedly differs from older works on this period. Polland and Soyer describe German Jewish immigrants to New York City as striving to simultaneously reconcile and integrate their identities as Jews with their newly-assumed identities as Americans. For example, they describe how upwardly mobile members of this group erected grand Moorish synagogues that at once inscribed their members status as prominent and wealthy Americans in the public sphere even as they articulated their Jewishness through such an unique and highly visible style that was popularly associated with eastern peoples.

City of Promises provides a fresh approach to a well-traversed subject, but its central framework, the notion of identity, seems limiting at times. The way in which Polland and Soyer’s volume approaches American-Jewish religion and religious thought is a good example of how this is the case. Polland and Soyer present Reform and its architecture as a means of reconciling American and Jewish identity,  but how did these developments relate to larger developments in American religion at the time?  Considering that Reform Judaism developed in the United States at the same time as a much larger liberal religious movement perhaps an intellectual historical approach would enrich our understanding of this period in American Jewish history.

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Social histories like Handlin’s The Uprooted sought to locate the exotic immigrants depicted on the original dust jacket as integral parts of, not outsiders to, American history. Identity and opposition, however, have only become interests in the field in the last twenty to thirty years.

In his 2006 Immigrant Jews and American Capitalism, economic historian Eli Lederhendler levels a more general critique of the identity paradigm, arguing that it often discourages historians from digging deeper and uncovering structural causes for the phenomenon they discuss. In particular, Lederhendler challenges the oft-repeated idea that Jewish participation in left-wing political and labor movements was a result of a deep, pre-immigration Jewish identification with left-wing politics. Rather, he argues that Jewish union politics ought to be understood primarily as an effort to achieve upward mobility. Lederhendler sees his approach as explaining why Jews so often left the labor movement once they achieved middle class status. I would add that American-Jewish historians might also be well-served to situate this history in the context of the intellectual-historical literature on American liberalism. Lederhendler sees the popularity of the identity-driven models of writing American Jewish history more as the result of the post-1960s development of a pan-American Jewish ethnic identity than of the way Jews in the early twentieth century actually identified themselves, which was far more multifarious. Lederhendler’s book has been well-received by many in the field, but few practitioners have responded to his challenge to move way from identity-driven approaches to American Jewish history.

Another related tendency in cultural studies-inflected works on American Jewish history that at times leads to a flattening of its subject matter is its celebration of opposition to integration into the American mainstream. The field of American Yiddish studies in particular often approaches Jews as an oppositional culture. The radical nature of some of the most prominent voices in the early twentieth century Yiddish press and Jewish mass politics renders this an immediately attractive approach.The most influential work in this vein likely remains Tony Michels’ 2009 A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York, which explores the unique socialist-Jewish identity forged by Jewish socialists in New York. Ultimately, the story ends in tragedy as Jews forsook radical politics and were absorbed into the middle class.However, Yiddish Studies over the course of the last twenty years engages almost exclusively with these radical and leftist elements in the Yiddish community. One only has to peruse the recent Oxford Bibliography of Yiddish to see that the study of Yiddish literature and social movements has ballooned since 2000, before which most of the studies cited in the bibliography are of a linguistic nature. 

In his All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism (2011), Daniel Katz traces the Jewish-dominated International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union’s (ILGWU) efforts to incorporate black and other racial minorities. He argues that the immigrant Jewish women of the ILGWU  espoused an early cultural pluralism and were forerunners of multiculturalism’s emergence on the American scene. Other work on Yiddish theater, literature and politics likewise stresses the Jews’ proletarian and outsider status in America. They suggest that American Jews’ history matters not only vis-àvis Jews and Americans, but in the history of multiculturalism and oppositional cultures at large. However, these studies leave unexplored the vast swaths of Yiddish language culture in the United States that were more accommodating to middle class norms. An intellectual historical approach might help clarify what exactly Yiddish socialists thought and how they fit into larger intellectual trends at the time, both Jewish and American.  

This last point reflects another problem engendered by the cultural studies approach’s dominance of American Jewish history, that there is less of much-needed, broader social and intellectual historical works being published in the field.  Scholarship in cultural studies often seeks to illuminate strands within the history of a group that are tied to its concerns of identity formation and resistance rather than present larger picture histories. However, in many areas of American Jewish history there is a dearth of such work—work that remains a necessary foundation for cultural studies scholarship.

For example, a great deal of recent scholarship looks to how Jews crafted a public and communal identity as white. They draw in particular on Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1999). In his The Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews and American Popular Song, American studies scholar Jeffrey Melnick finds Jewish involvement in jazz and blues, musical genres originating in African American contexts, as expressing Jews identification with black culture as well as their efforts to distance themselves from blackness. He argues that Jews performed black music so as to avoid being considered actually black. In his review of this book, social historian Andrew Heinze first notes that this book did not deliver on its promise to provide the “much-needed” history of “Jews and American popular song,” even as it did provide “an instructive analysis” of parts of that history. Heinze further notes that like Melnick’s monograph replicates a weakness of many works in whiteness studies more generally, that it assumes without sufficient evidence that Jews ever actually faced a significant threat of being characterized as “black” even as they were certainly considered less than “white.” Melnick thus infers broader claims from his readings of song lyrics and black and Jewish discourses about their music than may be warranted given the social and intellectual realities of the time. A stronger social history of Jewish-black relations would prove necessary before a historian could make such larger conclusions. Similarly, Aviva Ben Ur’s Sephardic Jews in America (2009) yields the the first discrete narrative of Sephardic-Jewish-American history. However, this monograph actually comprises a series of studies focusing on Sephardic identity in the United States. The book is an extremely strong scholarly contribution to the field and provides compelling “close readings” of facets of American-Sephardic history. Yet who will write the much-needed social and intellectual histories of topics like Sephardic Jews in America?

 

Censoring Early Modern Hebrew Texts: A Review of The Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop in the History of the Hebrew Book at the University of Pennsylvania

by Yitzchak Schwartz

Each year, The Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop at the University of Pennsylvania brings together enthusiasts of the Hebrew book to study topics in Hebrew book history with leading scholars in the field. Housed at the Katz Center for Jewish Studies in downtown Philadelphia, the workshop is a rare event that brings scholars, professionals and laymen together for in-depth learning and conversation. Participants generally include academics, graduate students, book collectors and museum, library and auction house professionals. Topics range across various disciplines but the workshops are generally grounded in careful material study of books. Recent past topics have included the implications of processes of printing (misprints, for example) on Jewish law and late medieval Hebrew manuscript illumination.

A censored page from a 1546 edition of Isaac ben Moses Arama's commentary on the Bible Akedat Yitshak, The Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. A signature by the censor reads: "Revisto p[er] me Antonio Fran[cesco] Enrique Alessandria, 1688."

A censored page from a 1546 edition of Isaac ben Moses Arama’s commentary on the Bible Akedat Yitshak, The Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. A signature by the censor reads: “Revisto p[er] me Antonio Fran[cesco] Enrique Alessandria, 1688.”

This year’s workshop, held May 8-9, was led by Dr. Piet van Boxel and focused on the censorship of Jewish books during the early modern period. Professor van Boxel is Distinguished Professor at the Oxford University Oriental Institute and is the former Curator of Hebraica and Judaica Collections at the Oxford University Libraries. In 2009, he curated the landmark exhibition of the Bodleian Library’s Hebrew manuscripts Crossing Borders: Hebrew Manuscripts as a Meeting-place of Cultures, which examined medieval Hebrew manuscripts as a site of cooperation and cultural exchange among  Jews and Christians. The exhibition brought together some of the highlights from the Bodleian’s collection of medieval illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, which is the largest in the world, and a version of it traveled to the Jewish Museum in New York City in 2012-2013.

Over the two days of the workshop, Dr. van Boxel traced the history of censorship of Jewish books in the early modern Papal State. It has long been known that Jewish texts were censored during the early modern period, but the Church policy that informed this censorship and the realities of its implementation remain murky. Dr. van Boxel’s presentations aimed to elucidate both the theory and practice of early modern censorship of Jewish texts through research that draws on the history of the Catholic Church’s policies and examination of censored books housed in libraries around the world.

He began by discussing the infamous burning of the Talmud in Rome, which occurred during the Council of Trent in 1553. The 1553 burning was not the first time the Church had burned the Talmud: In 1244, after a disputation in Paris in which four Rabbis were forced to defend the Talmud against accusations that it contained blasphemous statements, twenty-four carriage loads of Talmudic manuscripts were burned. However, it represented a shift in Church policy: Prior to the Counter-Reformation, Jewish texts had for the most part been protected by the Papal decree. In particular, the bull Sicut Judaeis, issued by Pope Callixtus II (1065-1124) in 1120, states that suasion, not violence, is the only proper means to evangelize to Jews to and that it is forbidden to take their property as a means of encouraging conversion. The burning of the Talmud contradicted this Papal decree but was made possible, Van Boxel argues, because Cardinal Gian Pietro Carafa (1476-1559), the head of the Roman Inquisition, argued that the blasphemous teachings of the Talmud would lead Christians into the arms of Luther. Carafa used his power to compel local rulers and Bishops to collect copies of the Talmud and punish individuals who did not forfeit their copies. The books were collected and taken to Rome, where they were publicly burned.

Shortly after he burned the Talmud, Carafa planned to order the burning of other Jewish texts that contained blasphemous statements. However Pope Julius III (1487-1555) intervened and ordered that henceforth such texts merely be expurgated, that their blasphemous sections be blacked out by Church-appointed censors. Julius III’s decree made official Church policy harsher than it had been before the Council of Trent but van Boxel argues that the implementation of his decree was highly inconsistent and varied by location and by censor. At times censors, who were paid per book by Jewish communities, would expurgate a few lines at the beginning and end of a book and leave the rest. At other times they went far beyond protocol and blacked out words that had any association with blasphemous Jewish teachings.

Moreover, the professionalization of censorship necessitated the preservation of heretical portions of texts: Both the Church and Jewish communities created indices for expurgation, which excerpted heretical portions of Jewish and Christian texts to be expurgated. These were intended only for the eyes of censors but in the wrong hands they are veritable encyclopedias of heresy. The inconsistency of censorship also aided text’s survival in that many publishers, knowing that only some copies of a given edition of a book would be censored, continued to print texts in full. Other Christian and Jewish publishers collected all offending portions of texts they were printing on separate pages meant to be appended to the censored books, allowing their owners to dispose of these in the event of a censor visiting them and keep them otherwise.

One of the arguments Professor van Boxel made that I found most interesting was that because of the inconsistency of censorship very little if anything was lost to posterity because of it. Many uncensored copies of books survive today and it is hard to say if expurgation ever led to the complete disappearance of the original version of a text. I personally have often been taken by the romance of the notion that there might be countless early modern texts that vanished because of censorship, but that sentiment illustrates precisely what was so informative about the workshop: Equipped with a careful understanding of the process of censorship of Jewish books in the early modern period that penetrates the myths surrounding the subject, scholars can begin to consider this widespread phenomenon’s actual social and intellectual-historical implications.

The Jewish Musical Pioneers: Salamone de Rossi and Rabbi Leon of Modena

by guest contributor Elad Uzan

One of the ways in which the history of the Jewish people reveals itself is through music. The Torah, Writings [Ketuvim], and the Psalms contain over eight hundred references to the spiritual and religious usages of music. Yet the Great Revolt against the Roman emperor Vespasianus also led to the termination of the use of music for religious practices in the Temple, defining the Jewish musical reality for centuries to come.

We know of Jewish musicians before the Renaissance; however, most of their works have been lost, and information regarding Jewish musicians living before the sixteenth century is very scarce. The greatest Jewish composer of the late Renaissance—in fact, until the beginning of the nineteenth century—was Salamone de Rossi. Rossi was an innovative composer and a virtuoso violinist who was active from the late Renaissance to the early Baroque. He was a contemporary of Monteverdi, and served with him in the court of Duchess Isabella d’Este Gonzaga in Mantua, North Italy.

In 1589, at only nineteen years old, Rossi published his first work, a collection of canzonets, followed by a collection of more serious madrigals for two voices and basso-continuo. Later, he published five volumes of madrigals for five voices, and an additional volume for four voices. His further accomplishments included four collections of symphonies (instrumental introductions), canzonets, sonatas, trio-sonatas, and a variety of additional melodies, as well as music for theater and comedy productions. His instrumental compositions for chamber ensembles, among the first to be published in print, truly display his greatness as a revolutionary composer.

The young and ambitious Rossi marketed his work to a primarily non-Jewish audience and faced the limitations resulting from the divisions between the Jewish and Gentile worlds. But his creations also benefited from being influenced by both worlds, as different compositions were intended for different audiences, with fundamentally different tastes and demands, which enriched the texture and shaped his style.

The title page of Rossi's 'Songs of Solomon'

The title page of Rossi’s ‘Songs of Solomon’

Rossi made the first forays into liturgical Jewish music, which he initially introduced with his work The Songs of Solomon. This work is the cornerstone of liturgical Jewish music: the first of its kind, written by a Jewish composer, with the text written in Hebrew and taken from the original Hebrew sources. This composition provoked community opposition from the traditional Jewish establishment, which was against the use of music in liturgy. The Songs of Solomon (Ha’Shirím ashér Li’Shlomó) is a collection of thirty-three songs, most of which contain texts from the Book of Psalms. One song was taken from the book of Leviticus, another from Isaiah, five from Jewish non-Biblical sacred and secular literary sources, and one from a wedding ode. Recently, these compositions have been performed by Profeti Della Quinta, a male vocal ensemble of Israeli musicians specializing in Renaissance and Baroque music, currently based in Basel.

Rossi named his composition The Songs of Solomon, presumably to link it to the legacy of the Song of Songs, traditionally believed to have been written by King Solomon. Alternatively, the title also might make the reader assume that Rossi dedicated his work to King Solomon (in fact, however, he dedicated this collection of songs to himself). The choice of the Psalms also links the work to king David, traditionally believed to be their author, who was known in Jewish tradition to possess great musical talent: the “pleasant singer of Israel” (Ne’im Ze’mirot Israel).

Rossi faced three obstacles in composing his songs. The first was the opposition of the rabbinical community in Mantua to changes—especially to significant change, such as Rossi’s songs—concerning anything related to the liturgy of the synagogue. The second was the absence of a Jewish compositional tradition of polyphonic music. The third was the problematic technical issue of printing music with a Hebrew text.

A number of introductions precede the musical scores. These serve as a preemptive apologia against possible critics. They survey various historical, sociological, artistic, and religious issues that concerned the Jewish community of that time, questions would later be reflected in the texts used by Rossi in his polyphonic composition. The title page includes a long dedication by Rossi to Moses Sullam, his patron and benefactor.

The first piece from Rossi's liturgical cycle: the kadish prayer arranged for three voices.

The first piece from Rossi’s liturgical cycle: the kadish prayer arranged for three voices.

Following the title page is an introduction by the most important figure involved in the compilation and organization of The Songs of Solomon, who later helped Rossi to publicize his creations: Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh (Leone) Modena. A rabbi, sermonizer, adjudicator of Halacha, poet, musician, and sharp debater, Modena declared that at age ten, he had learned enough to “play an instrument, sing [and also] dance” (Daniel Carpi, R. Yehuda Aryeh Mi-Modena’s “Chayye’ Yehuda” (Hebrew; Tel Aviv, 1985), 41). In 1605, at the age of 34, Modena involved himself in the controversy that took place in northern Italy’s city of Ferrara regarding the presentation of Jewish music in synagogue and later published two sermons arguing for the legitimacy of using artistic music in Jewish liturgy.

The manuscript starts with an oration by Rabbi Modena that praises Rossi’s work. From there on, it deals solely with questions of religion and music. The next page includes a sermon by Rabbi Modena in which he presents the Halachic foundations of his position on a question, addressed to him in the year 1605, regarding the appropriateness of music as a component of holy activities in the synagogue. He makes use of Ketuvim, the Talmud, and additional sources in order to prove that the Halacha does not forbid—nor is there proof that there was ever a prohibition upon—the liturgical use of music: “Is it conceivable that those whom God has bestowed [the musical] wisdom and strive to honor the almighty be considered as sinners? God forbids! We would sooner condemn the shaliach tzibbur [Chazzan, Cantor] to bray like an ass rather than pleasantly sing: should they sing, it will be said about them ‘she has lifted up her voice against me’ (Jeremiah 12:8). And we, who are musicians in our prayers and praises, will now be a mockery to other nations who will claim wisdom has abandoned us, and we shall cry out to the Lord of our fathers as a dog and a raven […]”. (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Modena, She’elot u-Teshuvot Ziqnei Yehudah [Questions and Answers the Elders of Judea], indicator 101, 36, (Shelomo Simonson edition, 1955), 18).

All this shows that the introduction of artistic music in prayer, which changed the customary liturgical tradition in synagogue, presented the biggest challenge Rossi had to face in his career. Music was associated with Christian liturgy—or, at least, with forbidden secular music. The only way in which Rossi and Modena could promote tolerance of music in synagogue was by connecting its essence to the ancient musical practice of the Levites during the time of the Temple, as Rossi did by referring back to the founders of that tradition: David the Psalmist, and Solomon the builder of the Temple and the author of the Song of Songs. Thus, Rossi could characterize The Songs of Solomon as a return to Jewish origins, defined as “to return the crown to the glory of old” (le’hahzir atara l’yoshna), rather than as a suspicious incorporation of music which has no Jewish affiliation.

Elad Uzan is a Ph.D. candidate in international law & philosophy at Tel-Aviv University’s Faculty of Law, a doctoral fellow at the ERC-funded GlobalTrust – Sovereigns as Trustees of Humanity project at Tel Aviv University, and the classical music critic of Yedioth Ahronoth.

Moses Gaster: Folklore, ‘Medieval’ Judaism and Turn-of-the-Century Jewish Historiography

by guest contributor Yitzchak Schwartz

Historians have a very specific idea of how Jewish intellectuals understood their history at the turn of the twentieth century. Most see Jewish historiography of the period as centered around the German Wissenschaft des Judentums (roughly ‘Jewish studies’). Such prominent practitioners in this school as the philosophical historians Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger, Heinrich Graetz for instance saw the Judaism of their day as stuck in the rut of a medieval past characterized by suffering and superstition.  Many of them portrayed ancient Jewish history as pointing the way towards a reflowering of Jewish civilization in the modern period.  They imagined classical Jewish history as a time before medieval Jewish legalism, the proliferation of Jewish mysticism and the institution of legal and social barriers to Jewish participation in general society.

Moses Gaster in 1904

Moses Gaster in 1904

Moses Gaster (1856-1939), a Romanian-English Jewish intellectual, might serve as a model with whom we can broaden this narrative of Jewish historiography and explore alternative turn-of-the-century metanarratives of Jewish history. Gaster was both a popular and academic historian even as his work took place at the borders of academic scholarship of the period. Using the emerging discipline of folklore, his work trumpeted medieval Jewish life, legends and folklore as containing rich lessons for the Jews of his own day and as a valuable means of accessing Jewish folk culture.

Gaster was born in Bucharest in 1856 to a wealthy Romanian-Jewish Family of Austrian descent. He attended gymnasium while receiving a classical Jewish education from private tutors. Later, Gaster completed his first degree in Romania at the University of Bucharest and pursued a doctorate at Breslau, where he also studied under Zunz and Graetz at the Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary. Gustav Gröber, Gaster’s mentor at Breslau, was a philologist and pioneer of scientific comparative textual criticism in the service of philology. Gaster’s dissertation traced the history of the Romanian phenome k from its Slavic and Latin roots, incorporating folkloric materials as a means of discerning its development. During his time in Germany, he also began corresponding with Bogdan Petriceicu Hasdeu (as Măriuca Stanciu documents in a biographical essay on Gaster (82), the first scholar  to apply the structural and comparative methods of Jakob Grimm and Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl to Romanian folklore. Before completing his doctorate, Gaster began to publish in Hasdeu’s journal Trajan’s Column (Columna lui Traia), and began authoring studies on the structure of folktales along the lines of Hasdeu’s work in various Romanian and German-language publications.

Returning to Romania in 1882, Gaster took a position at the University of Bucharest. Applying Hasdeu’s methods, Gaster began to argue what would become a major theme of his work: the idea that Jewish folklore and legends as preserved in the Talmud constituted a lost link between Romanian legends and the literature and folklore of the classical world. (A convenient summary of his work on this topic appeared in an honorary volume published for his eightieth birthday, in an article by Bruno Schindler (21-23). In 1885, after he was exiled from Romania because of his proto-Zionist activities, Gaster settled in London and was appointed Hakham (Rabbi) of London’s Sephardic-Jewish community and Lecturer of Slavonic Literature at Oxford. In England, he encountered a very different field of folklore than he had known in Central Europe. There, folklore was less established a discipline, and was primarily the province of educated laypeople organized around the Folklore Society in London. In this atmosphere, Gaster became increasingly omnivorous in the source material he analyzed, and functioned increasingly independent of any established discipline, even folklore. He also began to focus more on Jewish subjects, which became the primary thrust of his research, writing on topics as diverse as Biblical archeology, the history of the Samaritans and Jewish mysticism. He heavily involved himself in the society, serving from 1907 to 1908 as its president and publishing extensively in its journal, which featured contributions from gentlemen scholars as well as academics working in other fields.

What unified Gaster’s work was an interest in the history and ways of life of ‘medieval’ Jewry, defined as the Jews of the post-Roman to modern periods. His scholarship was revolutionary in arguing for the importance of medieval Jewish texts and practices, and especially so in its retreatment of Jewish mysticism. His interest in folk practices as sources of value in and of themselves paralleled Central European nationalist folklore studies even as it comprised a new approach in the historical study of Judaism. Gaster’s revisionist narrative of medieval Judaism is perhaps best expressed in a public lecture delivered before the Jews’ College Literary Society shortly after his initial arrival in London in 1886. In it, he expressed the idea that medieval Judaism contained treasures for the Jews of his own day, and that “This youngest among the sciences… the science of Folk-Lore…” was the means to access this rich past. He begins with an explicit challenge of the Graetz-Zunzian picture of Jewish life in medieval times, one that also challenges its focus on elite levels of Jewish society:

When we look back at bygone times and try to picture the life of the Jews within the walls of the ghetto … we see only the gigantic towers lifting their heads to the sky above… whilst all beneath them is plunged into night and darkness…. Such is the picture presented our minds when we attempt to realize the life of the ghetto. Is this picture true? The science which endeavors to answer these and similar questions is a new one… The science of Folk-Lore…. Thanks to this science we now recognize as mere legends matters which we considered as facts for centuries, and, on the other hand, many a poetical fiction… is reinstated in its rights. We look with other eyes on the heaped up treasures of Jewish aggadah [the legends and ethical teachings of the Talmud]… Brought under this new light cast on them they glitter and gleam in a thousand colors.

Gaster’s disciplinary independence allowed him to open up new directions in the study of Judaism. His acknowledgement of the importance of mysticism in Jewish life and of the vitality of the Middle Ages presaged the revolution wrought by the scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem’s scholarship decades later. Likewise, the attention to Jewish Law as a historical source evinced in much of his work would only become mainstream in Jewish-historical scholarship after the work of Jacob Katz in the 1950s.  Taken as a whole, his work suggests some exciting new directions for the study of Jewish historiography.

Yitzchak Schwartz is a doctoral student in modern history and Jewish Studies at New York University. He studies the role of popular ideas in religious and intellectual movements and narratives of history. He can be reached at yes214@nyu.edu