Sara Blair on How the Other Half Looks

BlairNew York City’s Lower East Side, long viewed as the space of what Jacob Riis notoriously called the “other half,” was also a crucible for experimentation in photography, film, literature, and visual technologies. Sara Blair takes an unprecedented look at the practices of observation that emerged from this critical site of encounter, showing how they have informed literary and everyday narratives of America, its citizens, and its possible futures. How the Other Half Looks reveals how the Lower East Side has inspired new ways of looking—and looking back—that have shaped literary and popular expression as well as American modernity.

How have representations of the Lower East Side changed since the mid-nineteenth century?

In surprising and powerful ways, they haven’t. A set of complex associations—with vice, poverty, raw energy, the threat of the alien and the unassimilated—have continued to swirl around New York’s historical ghetto through its many lives and afterlives, well into our own moment. Over time, these associations have drawn image-makers and writers there to experiment with new visual technologies, new perspectives, and new media. In a real way, the Lower East Side and its received image have helped shape modern practices of seeing and imaging—not just the other way around.

What do recent representations of the Lower East Side tell us about our cultural moment?

They remind us how much cultural work we do to continue imagining the project of America, what it means to be or become an American and to have a collective future. In the 2016 Harry Potter franchise film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, for example, the unfolding of Magic as a contest between nativism and progressive aspirations (one that’s all too familiar to us IRL) depends on the Lower East Side as a space defined both by its threat to a “pure” citizenry and its promise of a more robust and dynamic nation. In a very different mode, the award-winning 2014 documentary Chasing Ice draws on images of the Lower East Side both to make real the unprecedented effects of climate change—and to hold out hope for its reversal. However unexpectedly, images of the Lower East Side continue to be a resource for apprehending the way we live now, bringing America’s histories and possible futures into view.

How did you approach the research for this book?  What surprised you?

I began this project by trying to answer a broader question: how did the Lower East Side become both a key subject of representation and a powerful force in shaping practices of representation? The problem of seeing that space—of making sense of its staggering density, heterogeneity, and energies—challenged image-makers, writers, journalists, guardians of public order, and everyday citizens alike to test new visual technologies, whose cultural uses came to reflect on-the-ground encounters with the world of the tenements and the streets. As I worked my way through a host of archives—of everyday photographs, print media, literary projects and more—what surprised me most was the range of practices that turn out to have been shaped by encounter with the Lower East Side, from the emergence of photography as an art form and the rise of the U.S. film industry to efforts to revive print culture in digital contexts. On all these and more, the Lower East Side has left its own indelible mark.

Are there instances of images that represent the Lower East Side shaping the site itself?

By all means. Early photographs of New York’s ghetto and tenements, made by Jacob Riis in the 1880s, not only codified uses of the camera as an agency of social seeing. They drove projects of slum clearance and social reform that shaped the built environment of New York’s downtown as well as hugely influential ideas about the city, its modernity, and its citizens. By the mid-1930s, in the grip of the Depression, photographers who had themselves been children of the ghetto were experimenting with new ways to represent its complex histories, using them as a vantage point to look critically at the American success narrative. Their work helped photography reinvent itself as a postwar art form—alongside the attention of urban planners who would undertake to redesign the tenement landscape in service of twentieth-century urbanism as a master plan. From lurid accounts of Bowery poverty and as-if “documentary” images of nuclear strike on the U.S., the iconography of the Lower East Side has remained vitally available, and it has continued to enter into the material life and lived experience of that generative place.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

I hope they’ll think differently about the Lower East Side, as a place of entry not just for historical newcomers to the United States but for understanding how we’ve come to view and imagine this rich, ongoing, incomplete experiment we call America. As my mother said (to my delight) when she browsed the book, this isn’t just about Jews. It’s about the way history lives and continues to shape our lives in images, and how we might learn to look back more acutely at that history, at a time when we urgently need to learn from it.

Sara Blair is the Patricia S. Yaeger Collegiate Professor of English and a faculty associate in the Department of American Culture and the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. Her books include Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century and Trauma and Documentary Photography of the FSA.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer on The Talmud: A Biography

TalmudThe Babylonian Talmud, a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia. An incomparable introduction to a work of literature that has lived a full and varied life, this accessible book shows why the Talmud is at once a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.

 

What is the Talmud?

The Talmud has been the central authoritative text for Judaism for the last millennium. An originally oral collectively authored work that was completed by the eighth century CE, the Talmud ranges across topics both sacred and mundane with a nonlinear style that replicates the feel of an intellectual conversation. People have routinely looked to the Talmud for guidance in their ritual, spiritual and legal lives even as many of the Talmud’s most studied passages are about torts like the effects of a goring ox on a neighbor’s property. This combination of sometimes profound content alongside seemingly banal material is one of the things that makes the Talmud so unique.

Is this an introduction to the Talmud? Will it teach me how to read the Talmud?

It is an introduction to the Talmud, but not one specifically designed to train someone to read this unique work. There are some pretty good print and digital resources that help new learners figure out how to make sense of a talmudic passage. This book provides an overview of how the Talmud was composed and subsequently received. More than explaining a passage or two of Talmud, The Talmud: A Biography examines the historical contexts in which the Talmud was initially produced and subsequently canonized. It attempts to highlight the unique literary and religious features that have made the Talmud so compelling to so many for so long.

The Talmud is a religious classic written by dead white men. Is it still relevant?

Despite the Talmud’s antique background, it is a surprisingly fresh text that seems to have a limitless potential for reinterpretation. One of the claims of the biography is that different factions of Judaism (Zionism, Reform Judaism, Hasidism) throughout history established themselves with a self-conscious opposition to the Talmud and its vision of Judaism, but eventually came back to reclaim the Talmud and its authority through reinterpretation. The Talmud is of a different time and place. Contemporary readers occasionally bristle at sections that are challenging by today’s ethical standards. If one can create distance as a reader from some of the text’s more challenging opinions or assumptions, one can find sections that seem to speak directly to our age. Because the Talmud is written in a conversational style with multiple opinions it invites readers to join the conversation and talk back to it. The Talmud: A Biography ends with a discussion of some artists who are talking back to the Talmud. One of the discussed artworks is featured on the book’s jacket cover.

Biographies are stories of people’s lives. You’ve written a biography of a book. What were the challenges of applying this genre to a book and what are the advantages?

We’re so used to the genre of biography that we don’t think much about the fact that it’s challenging to turn a life into a textual narrative. This book compounded the problem because I had to turn a text into a life to reduce that life to a textual narrative. The advantage of writing a biography of the Talmud rather than an introduction is that the living Talmud more naturally lends itself to a dynamic treatment that recognizes that the work changed over time. The Talmud’s cultural position and impact were not the same in the eleventh century as in the eighteenth; the Jewish diaspora is so vast that there were major cultural differences inherent to the different places in which Jews lived. 

The Talmud has a reputation for being difficult to comprehend. Is the reputation deserved? What makes the work so difficult?

People sometimes think that what makes the Talmud difficult is its language—the Talmud is written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic. The language is a barrier for English readers, but there are several translations available which bridge that gap. The real challenge of the Talmud lies in its logic. Much of the Talmud’s text is about fine- grained debates around the interpretation of the Bible and Mishnah (an early rabbinic legal code). The Talmud assumes a lot about its reader (that the reader knows the bible, knows the full gamut of Jewish ritual and can process logic very rapidly). There are also many places where an attentive reader will pick up on flaws in the textual logic and even contradictions within a local passage. What makes the Talmud so difficult (but in a satisfying way) is figuring out a way to make sense of these flaws and contradictions.

When did you first read the Talmud?

I had an intense traditional Jewish education. At 8 I started competing in intra-school and inter-school competitions for memorizing Mishnayot (individual passages of Mishnah, the early rabbinic law code); for five years I averaged a hundred memorized Mishnayot a year. By the time I started studying the Talmud (in summer camp after fourth grade), I was so eager to get started because I had been exposed to story after story about the Talmud’s greatness and the satisfaction it provided to its learners. I’ll admit that I didn’t understand the satisfaction piece until a decade later, when I had the intellectual maturity to read the Talmud and understand all its complexities.

Does the book offer something for those who read Talmud regularly?

Many Talmud scholars and students rarely get the opportunity to reflect on the work’s origins, its unique qualities as a work of literature or the way the Talmud was transmitted through handwritten manuscripts and various print editions to our current digital age. The book is as interested in the life the Talmud lived off the page—as a symbol of Jews and Judaism that has been perpetually implicated in fights between religions or between competing religious factions. The Talmud: A Biography interprets two talmudic passages and sustains these examples from chapter to chapter. While designed to be understood by beginners, these interpretations will engage even the most experienced Talmud scholars.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer is associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern University and the author of Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.

Jan Assmann: Remembering the Exodus

Almost 30 years ago, friends in Jerusalem invited my family to a Passover Seder. It might be fun, they said, to have me on board as an Egyptologist to professionally depict the sufferings in the house of serfdom. As the youngest child at the Seder, my daughter Corinna had to learn and ask the question, “Ma nishtana?”,  triggering a chain of liturgical and improvised recitations. I began to think about how an Egyptologist would reconstruct and ‘remember’ the Exodus. After all, I was a complete outsider at the Seder. My only legitimation lay in the fact that it was Egypt that the children of Israel left in order to start a new form of community in Canaan. I wondered, was there a specifically anti-Egyptian gist in this narrative?

When I was asked to write a book on Exodus for Princeton University Press, I felt the time had finally come to set to work. As an Egyptologist, I knew for sure that there was no Egyptian evidence that could corroborate the historicity of the story. There was no use inquiring into what really happened in the time of Ramesses II. Instead, I asked, “How was this event remembered?” This approach allowed me to read the book of Exodus not as a historical account, but as an act of remembering in itself. It also allowed me to locate the story not in the Late Bronze Age, but rather in the time of its narration­—probably the sixth century BCE.

Re-reading the book of Exodus, I remarked with surprise that the Exodus proper—from the sufferings of serfdom to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea—fills just one part of the book. The two other parts contain the revelation of the Law at Mt. Sinai and the construction of the Tabernacle. The theme of revelation, however, is present in all three parts:

  1. First, God reveals his name to Moses at the Burning Bush and commissions Moses to lead his people to Canaan, the Promised Land (chs. 3-6). God reveals his power by hitting Pharaoh and his land with ten plagues and drowning Pharaoh’s army in the Sea of Reeds (chs. 7-15a).
  2. In the second part, God reveals himself to his chosen people, with whom he forms a covenant, and whom he instructs about the rules to remain true to this covenant (chs. 15b-24).
  3. In the third part, God reveals to Moses the structure of the Tabernacle in the cloud (chs. 25-31) and—in a scene of reconciliation after the crisis of the Golden Calf—his view from behind and his merciful or unforgiving nature.

The book’s narrative arc starts with trauma and ends with triumph: from extreme God-forsakenness to God living ‘in the midst of his people’, ‘sitting on the cherubim.’ Near the middle of the book, the text even contains God’s detailed prescription as to how this story should be remembered by future generations. This prescription is implemented and acted out in the feast of Passover, starting with the Seder night.

The book of Exodus, it turns out, is about much more than just the Israelites’ exit from Egypt. It is about the foundation of a new, revealed religion based on covenant, faith and law, and of a nation chosen to be the carrier of this religion, serving as a prototype that at the end of time will be adopted by all nations on earth.

So where, one may ask, is the “anti-Egyptian gist”? It lies in the opposition of serfdom and freedom. Egypt represents the old system of sacral kingship, where religion and state are the same and the king rules as a god on earth. This system is overturned by the religion of covenant and faith that liberates its members from serving Pharaoh into the service of God. Freedom means autonomy as a diasporic nation—forced to obey the host country’s laws, but at the same time obeying a higher authority whose laws are meant to last forever, untouched by any mundane government. This is religion in a new key, independent of state and country, religion that is able to resist oppression and persecution—religion, that is, as we understand it today. This is why I finally titled my book The Invention of Religion.

Freedom is the major theme of the Passover Haggadah. Freedom in times of exile and persecution—this is what the Seder celebrates. Yet kherût, or freedom, is not a biblical word. It became a keyword only in the Diaspora, when Egypt came to stand for any country and any period where and when the Jews were oppressed. “Wherever you live,” wrote Michael Walzer in Exodus and Revolution, “it is probably Egypt.” Remembering the Exodus means exiting Egypt.

Jan Assmann is honorary professor of cultural studies at the University of Konstanz and professor emeritus of Egyptology at the University of Heidelberg, where he taught for nearly three decades. He is the author of many books on ancient history and religion, including From Akhenaten to Moses, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization, and Moses the Egyptian.

This Passover, read PUP’s 2017 National Jewish Book Award winners!

We’re proud to announce that four Princeton University Press titles were winners and/or finalists for the 2017 National Jewish Book Awards. These four books examine the lives of Jewish women in medieval Islamic society, a famous case of anti-Semitism in eighteenth-century Germany, the origins of Jews as a people, and the meanings of the Hebrew language.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies (Barbara Dobkin Award)

Finalist for the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Scholarship (Nahum Sarna Memorial Award)

Much of what we know about life in the medieval Islamic Middle East comes from texts written to impart religious ideals or to chronicle the movements of great men. How did women participate in the societies these texts describe? What about non-Muslims, whose own religious traditions descended partly from pre-Islamic late antiquity?

Coming of Age in Medieval Egypt approaches these questions through Jewish women’s adolescence in Fatimid and Ayyubid Egypt and Syria (c. 969–1250). Using hundreds of everyday papers preserved in the Cairo Geniza, Eve Krakowski follows the lives of girls from different social classes—rich and poor, secluded and physically mobile—as they prepared to marry and become social adults.

Krakowski also suggests a new approach to religious identity in premodern Islamic societies—and to the history of rabbinic Judaism. Through the lens of women’s coming-of-age, she demonstrates that even Jews who faithfully observed rabbinic law did not always understand the world in rabbinic terms. By tracing the fault lines between rabbinic legal practice and its practitioners’ lives, Krakowski explains how rabbinic Judaism adapted to the Islamic Middle Ages.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in History (Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award)

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer—”Jew Süss”—is one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the “court Jew” of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified “misdeeds.”

The Many Deaths of Jew Süss is a compelling new account of Oppenheimer’s notorious trial. Drawing on a wealth of rare archival evidence, Yair Mintzker investigates conflicting versions of Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in the criminal investigation, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.

The Many Deaths of Jew Süss is a masterfully innovative work of history, and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity.

Winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in Education and Jewish Identity (In Memory of Dorothy Kripke)

In The Origin of the Jews, Steven Weitzman takes a learned and lively look at what we know—or think we know—about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be.

This is the first book to trace the history of the different approaches that have been applied to the question, including genealogy, linguistics, archaeology, psychology, sociology, and genetics. Weitzman shows how this quest has been fraught since its inception with religious and political agendas, how anti-Semitism cast its long shadow over generations of learning, and how recent claims about Jewish origins have been difficult to disentangle from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He does not offer neatly packaged conclusions but invites readers on an intellectual adventure, shedding new light on the assumptions and biases of those seeking answers—and the challenges that have made finding answers so elusive.

Finalist for the 2017 National Jewish Book Award in History (Gerrard and Ella Berman Memorial Award)

The Story of Hebrew takes readers from the opening verses of Genesis—which seemingly describe the creation of Hebrew itself—to the reincarnation of Hebrew as the everyday language of the Jewish state. Lewis Glinert explains the uses and meanings of Hebrew in ancient Israel and its role as a medium for wisdom and prayer. He describes the early rabbis’ preservation of Hebrew following the Babylonian exile, the challenges posed by Arabic, and the prolific use of Hebrew in Diaspora art, spirituality, and science. Glinert looks at the conflicted relationship Christians had with Hebrew from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation, the language’s fatal rivalry with Yiddish, the dreamers and schemers that made modern Hebrew a reality, and how a lost pre-Holocaust textual ethos is being renewed today by Orthodox Jews.

The Story of Hebrew explores the extraordinary hold that Hebrew has had on Jews and Christians, who have invested it with a symbolic power far beyond that of any other language in history.

Illustrating the Passover story: Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink

One of the most beloved books in the Jewish tradition is the Haggadah. This is the text used to conduct a Seder, a Jewish gathering of family and friends that celebrates the holiday of Passover by retelling in story, prayer, and song the biblical account of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Modern observers have a diverse array of Haggadot available to them—from political to comic, from juvenile to literary, and from Broadway-inspired to online dating-themed. But this diversity of Haggadot isn’t unique to our century. As early as the fourteenth century, scribes and artists were producing unique and beautifully illuminated Haggadot for use at Passover. Over subsequent centuries, much of the Jewish visual tradition found its most creative expression in exquisitely illustrated editions of this narrative.

The following examples of illuminated Haggadot (and one page from a hand-illustrated Pentateuch, or collection of the first five books of the Bible) are taken from Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Marc Michael Epstein. This sumptuous volume offers the first full survey of Jewish illuminated manuscripts, ranging from their origins in the Middle Ages to the present day.

A community of scholars: the Five Rabbis at B’nei Brak. Haggadah, German rite with the commentary of Eleazar of Worms and illustrations by Joel ben Simeon Feibush (The Ashkenazi Haggadah). South Germany, perhaps Ulm, ca. 1460. London, British Library, MS Add. 14762, fol. 7v.

Joseph’s dreams. Haggadah (The Golden Haggadah). Spain, Barcelona, ca. 1320. London, British Library, MS Add. 27210, fol. 5rb.

Decorated opening world. “And these [are the names] . . . ,” the first word of the book of Exodus. Pentateuch with targum intercalated (Aramaic translation inserted after the Hebrew line by line) (The Duke of Sussex Pentateuch). Germany, Lake Constance region, early 14th century. London, British Library, MS Add. 15282, fol. 75v.

The Four Children in the full spectrum of contemporary male dress. Haggadah written and illustrated by Joseph Bar David of Leipnick, Moravia. Altona, 1740. London, British Library, MS Sloane 3173, fol. 6v.

Israelites building store-cities for Pharaoh. Haggadah illustrated by Joseph Bar David of Leipnick, Moravia. Germany, Altona, 1740. London, British Library, MS Sloane 3173, fol. 11v.

Observing Passover throughout history: A History of Judaism

This week, Jews all over the world are celebrating Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from enslavement in Egypt. What is the history of this ancient festival, and how has it been observed over the centuries? Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism, a sweeping history of the religion over more than three millennia, includes fascinating glimpses of how Passover has evolved through the various strains, sects, and traditions of Judaism.

While the Second Temple stood, Passover (or Pesach in Hebrew) was one of three annual pilgrimage festivals. Every adult Jewish male was obligated to journey to the Temple for the festival. On the first night of Pesach, men, women, and children enjoyed a huge barbecue of roasted lamb along with a narration of the exodus story. For the following seven days, they abstained from leavened foods. Jews who couldn’t make it to the Temple ate roasted lamb and retold the exodus story at home. In the late fifth century BCE, the Jews of Elephantine, on the island of Yeb in the Nile river, received the following instructions in a letter from Jerusalem:

  • On the 14th day of the month of Nisan, observe the Passover at twilight.
  • Observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread from the 15th of Nisan to the 21st of Nisan, eating only unleavened bread for these seven days.
  • Do not work on the 15th or 21st of Nisan.
  • Do not drink any fermented beverages during this period.
  • Remove and seal up any leavened products, which must not be seen in the house from sunset on the 14th of Nisan until sunset on the 21st of Nisan.

-paraphrased from B. Porten, Archives from Elephantine: The Life of an Ancient Jewish Military Colony (Berkeley, 1968), 128-33

Over two thousand years after the Elephantine Jews received their instructions from Jerusalem, rabbis and students were still discussing the exact meaning of the festival’s proscriptions. In this passage, Aryeh Leib b. Asher Gunzberg, a Lithuanian rabbi who died in 1785, weighs in on a disagreement between the Talmud commentaries of Rashi and those of the tosafists, medieval commentators writing after Rashi:

“The Talmud says that the search for and removal of leavened matter on the eve of the Passover is merely a rabbinical prescription; for it is sufficient, according to the commands of the Torah, if merely in words or in thought the owner declares it to be destroyed and equal to the dust. Rashi says that the fact that such a declaration of the owner is sufficient is derived from an expression in Scripture. The tosafot, however, claim that this cannot be derived from the particular expression in Scripture, since the word there means ‘to remove’ and not ‘to declare destroyed’. The mere declaration that it is destroyed is sufficient for the reason that thereby the owner gives up his rights of ownership, and the leavened matter is regarded as having no owner, and as food for which no one is responsible, since at Passover only one’s own leavened food may not be kept, while that of strangers may be kept. Although the formula which is sufficient to declare the leavened matter as destroyed is not sufficient to declare one’s property as having no owner, yet, as R. Nissim Gerondi, adopting the view of the tosafot, explains, the right of ownership which one has in leavened matter on the eve of Passover, even in the forenoon, is a very slight one; for, beginning with noon, such food may not be enjoyed; hence all rights of ownership become illusory, and, in view of such slight right of ownership, a mere mental renunciation of this right suffices in order that the leavened matter be considered as without an owner. R. Aryeh Leib attempts to prove the correctness of this tosafistic opinion as elaborated by R. Nissim, and to prove at the same time the incorrectness of Rashi’s view, from a later talmudic passage which says that from the hour of noon of the eve [of Passover] to the conclusion of the feast the mere declaration of destruction does not free a person from the responsibility of having leavened matter in the house; for since he is absolutely forbidden to enjoy it, he has no claim to the ownership, which he renounces by such a declaration.”

-Excerpted and adapted from the article on pilpul by Alexander Kisch in I. Singer, ed., The Jewish Encyclopaedia, 12 vols. (New York, 1901-6), 10:42

More pragmatic concerns were also on the agenda for nineteenth-century thinkers. In a discussion unimaginable to their Second Temple forebears, Solomon Kluger of Brody and Joseph Saul Nathansohn of Lemberg clashed in 1859 over whether matzo-making machines were allowable. Even today, handmade is often preferred to machine-made matzo.

The millennia of discussion over Passover and its observance are reflected – and predicted – by this timeless story from the Mishnah:

“‘It is related of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon that they once met for the Seder in Bnei Brak and spoke about the Exodus from Egypt all night long, until their disciples came and said to them: ‘Masters! The time has come to say the morning Shema!’”

-Ch. Raphael, A Feast of History (London, 1972), 28 [229]

Forget speaking about the exodus all night long – we could speak about speaking about the exodus all night long! To learn more about the diversity of practices and opinions in Judaism through the ages, check out Martin Goodman’s A History of Judaism.

Michael Brenner explains why a Jewish State is “not like any other state”

BrennerIs Israel a state like any other or is it unique? As Michael Brenner argues in In Search of Israel, the Zionists attempted to put an end to the millennia-old history of the Jews as the archetypical “other” by creating a Jewish state that would be just like any other state, but today, Israel is regarded as anything but a “normal” state. Instead of overcoming the Jewish fate of otherness, Israel has in fact become the “Jew among the nations.” Israel ranks as 148th of the 196 independent states in terms of geographical area, and as 97th in terms of population, which is somewhere between Belize and Djibouti. However, the international attention it attracts is exponentially greater than that of either. Considering only the volume of media attention it attracts, one might reasonably assume that the Jewish state is in the same league as the United States, Russia, and China. In the United States, Israel has figured more prominently over the last three decades than almost any other country in foreign policy debates; in polls across Europe, Israel is considered to be the greatest danger to world peace; and in Islamic societies it has become routine to burn Israeli flags and argue for Israel’s demise. No other country has been the target of as many UN resolutions as Israel. At the same time, many people around the world credit Israel with a unique role in the future course of world history. Evangelical Christians regard the Jewish state as a major player in their eschatological model of the world. Their convictions have influenced US policies in the Middle East and the opinions of some political leaders in other parts of the world.

Why does Israel attract so much attention?

The answer lies in history. Many people call Israel “the holy land” for a reason: it is here where the origins of their religions were shaped. The Jewish people too are regarded as special: they played a crucial role in the theological framework of the world’s dominant religions. In Christianity and in Islam, Jews were both seen as a people especially close to God and at the same time uniquely rejected by God. While over the last two hundred years these ideas have become secularized, many stereotypes have remained. That the Jews became victims of the most systematic genocide in modern history lent them yet another mark of uniqueness. After two thousand years in exile, the fact that Jews returned to their ancient homeland to build a sovereign state again surrounded the people and place with additional mystique.

Did the Zionists view themselves as unique?

The irony is that the Zionist movement was established at the end of the 19th century precisely in order to overcome this mark of difference and uniqueness. Many Zionists claimed that they just wanted to be like anyone else. Chaim Weizmann, longtime leader of the Zionist movement and Israel’s first president, was quoted with saying: “We just want to be another Albania,” meaning a small state that nobody really cares about. Even Israel’s founding document, the declaration of independence, says that Israel has the right to be “like all other nations.” But at the same time the notion of being different, perhaps being special, was internalized by Zionists as well. Many of its leaders argued that a Jewish state has a special responsibility. Even the most secular among them regarded Israel’s serving as “a light unto the nations” as a crucial part of a prophetic tradition.

Does this mean that Zionism was a religious movement?

Not at all. Most of its early leaders were strictly secular. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, knew no Hebrew and in fact very little about Jewish traditions. But he wanted to establish a model state for humanity, and saw the formation of Israel as an example for the liberation of African-Americans. Long before any other state granted voting rights for women, he let women be active participants in the Zionist congresses. He drew a flag for the future Jewish state that had seven stars, symbolizing a seven-hour-workday for everyone. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was a Socialist and rejected organized religion. But just like Herzl, he believed in the mission of a model state that could spread the prophetic ideals of universal peace and equality among the nations.

Why then is Israel seen by many today not as a model state but as a pariah state?

Herzl discussed other potential destinations, such as Argentina and British East Africa, as refuge for the persecuted European Jews. But the only place Jews had an emotional connection with was the territory they had originated from. Over centuries, Jews prayed for their return to the land of Israel. But it was not an empty land. The Arab Palestinians soon developed their own ideas of nationhood and rejected the growing Jewish immigration. In the meantime, antisemitism increased in Europe and other countries closed their doors to Jewish refugees. The establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 came too late to save the lives of millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust. But by then, most of the world recognized the Jews’ right to their own state in their ancient homeland, as reflected in the 1947 UN partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. Yet the Arab world did not see why they should pay the price for the sins of the Europeans. The situation reflected the parable of a person (the Jews) jumping out of the window of a burning house (Europe) and hitting another person (the Palestinians) on the street in order to save his own life. The ongoing conflict of two peoples over the same land, combined with the special significance of this land in the eyes of the world, led to a situation where even outsiders have strong opinions. For Evangelical Christians, Israel fulfills a divine mission, while for others, especially in the Arab world, Israel is regarded as a foreign intruder in the tradition of the medieval Crusaders and modern Imperialists.

So, can Israel one day become just a “normal state?”

To begin with, let me qualify this question. The idea of a “normal state” is a fiction altogether. Every state sees itself as special. But it is true that some states receive more attention from the rest of the world than others. Can Israel just be another Albania in the eyes of the world, or relegated in our attention to its place among the nations between Djibouti and Belize? I do not believe so. The history of Jerusalem is different from that of Tirana (Albania’s capital), and the Jews have attracted so much more attention than nations of comparable size. Thus, Israel will most likely always remain in the limelight of media attention. However, let us not forget: The people in Israel live their everyday lives just like everywhere else. They worry about their jobs and about their sports teams, they want their children to be safe and successful in school, and they dream of a peaceful future. In this deeply personal sense, Israel has become a state just like any other.

Michael Brenner is the Seymour and Lilian Abensohn Chair in Israel Studies and director of the Center for Israel Studies at American University and Professor of Jewish History and Culture at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. His many books include A Short History of the Jews.

A History of Judaism: Nineteen Jewish Groups You’ve Never Heard Of

This month, PUP is publishing the U.S. edition of Martin Goodman’s new History of Judaism. Goodman sifts through thousands of years of historical evidence, archaeological records, and theological debates to present a history of Judaism as a multifaceted and ever-changing belief system.

It comes as no surprise that throughout millennia and across continents, Judaism’s adherents have interpreted the religion’s teachings in myriad ways, living out their faith and articulating their religious identity accordingly. But have you heard of these 19 groups?

 

1. The Therapeutae, a contemplative sect of the late Second Temple Period, were said to live in isolation six days a week and to eat and drink only after sunset.

2. The Ebionites were an ascetic group who lived east of the River Jordan in the second to fourth centuries CE and believed in elements of both Judaism and Christianity.

3. The Nazoraeans lived in Syria in the 400s CE and used an Aramaic gospel. While following much of the Torah, they also practiced elements of orthodox Christianity.

4. The ruling dynasty of the Khazars, a Turkish kingdom in the Lower Volga region, adopted Judaism in the eighth century, probably for geopolitical reasons. It is not known to what extent the general Khazar population did as well.

5. The Romaniot Jews in Greece and the eastern Mediterranean are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardic, but took their liturgical rites from the Byzantine Empire. They used Judaeo-Greek (Greek written in the Hebrew alphabet) for religious purposes through the Middle Ages.

6. Nazirites took a temporary or permanent vow (described in the Septuagint as “the great vow”) to avoid wine and grapes, let their hair grow long, and avoid contact with corpse impurity.

7. Beginning around the eighth century, the Karaites denied the authority of the Talmud and rejected rabbinic interpretation of biblical law. For example, they fixed their calendar by celestial observation rather than mathematical calculation, did not observe Hanukkah, and discarded rules about menstrual impurity.

8. The Yudghanites were Karaites who believed that Abu ‘Isa, an eighth-century figure, was the Messiah. They did not drink alcohol, eat meat, or observe the Sabbath.

9. The Szombatos in 17th-century Transylvania were a breakaway Christian group who insisted that all Christians should observe the Old Testament laws literally.

10. The Jedid al-Islam, or “New Muslims,” were Persian Jews who were forced to convert to Islam in 1656, but secretly maintained Jewish practices.

11. Sabbatians were various groups of Jews who believed that 17th-century kabbalist Sabbetai Zevi was the messiah. Zevi lived in Turkey, but Sabbatians as far away as Germany heeded his call and sold all their possessions to prepare to join him in Jerusalem.

12. The Dönmeh were Sabbatians from Salonica who converted to Islam but secretly practiced Judaism. One sect of the Dönmeh believed that messianic Torah required all sexual prohibitions to be reversed and treated as positive commands.

13. The Frankists believed that 18th-century leader Jacob Frank was the reincarnation of Sabbetai Zevi. Some Frankists also believed that Frank’s daughter was a Romanov princess. The Frankists were baptized as Christians in Poland.

14. The Subbotniki, a breakaway Christian group in late 18th-century Russia, advocated adherence to certain Jewish laws and rituals and were exiled to Siberia.

15. The Bratslav Hasidim still make regular pilgrimages to the grave of their 18th-century leader, Rebbe Nahman, in Ukraine, chanting the syllables of his name, “Na Nah Nahma Nahman.”

16. The Status Quo Ante were communities of traditionalist Jews in mid-19th-century Hungary who chose to align themselves neither with orthodox groups nor with reformists.

17. The Bund, a Jewish socialist party founded in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, was devoted to a secular, Yiddish-speaking eastern European Jewish nationalism.

18. The Kach was an Israeli political party, formed in 1971, that advocated the mass expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the occupied territories.

19. The Neturei Karta, or Guardians of the City, are Orthodox Jews who refuse on religious grounds to recognize the existence of the secular State of Israel.

 

David Biale on Hasidism

Hasidism is the first comprehensive history of the pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism. The book’s unique blend of intellectual, religious, and social history offers perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers, and demonstrates that, far from being a throwback to the Middle Ages, Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world. Recently David Biale took the time to answer questions about his new book, co-authored with David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński.

What is Hasidism and why is it important?

DB: Hasidism is a movement of Jewish religious orthodoxy that originated in the southeastern corner of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the middle of the eighteenth century. From very modest beginnings, it grew by the nineteenth century into perhaps the most dynamic and influential religious movement among Eastern European Jews. Hasidism developed some striking theological ideas, including the value of joy in the worship of God and ecstatic union with the divine. But it also created a social innovation: communities of Hasidim (pious followers) of a tsaddik or rebbe, a wonder-working, charismatic leader whose court became the center of a network beyond the traditional Jewish communities.

While secularization, the Bolshevik Revolution and, finally, the Holocaust decimated the Hasidic communities of Eastern Europe, after World War II, the movement enjoyed an extraordinary renaissance in North America, the State of Israel and (to a lesser degree) elsewhere in the world. We estimate that today there are roughly 700,000 Hasidim throughout the world. They continue to be divided, as they have for most of their history, into groups affiliated with their characteristic leaders. Many of these groups have outposts in different parts of the world such that the movement, which was originally limited to a certain area of Eastern Europe, has now become truly global.  Hasidism is, without question, one of the most important movements in modern Jewish history and in Jewish life today.

What is new about Hasidism: A New History?

DB: The title of our book conceals something surprising. There really isn’t an old history of Hasidism, so our book is really the first history of this highly influential religious movement. We try to tell a sweeping story that encompasses Hasidism’s full history from its origins to the present day. Most of the earlier literature on Hasidism focused on the movement’s eighteenth-century origins, with less attention paid to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This literature often argued that Hasidism’s golden age was in the eighteenth century and that the movement declined afterwards. We argue, on the contrary, that the movement only really became a mass movement in the nineteenth century and that it was in that century that one can find its golden age.  A second golden age was after World War II when Hasidic communities rebuilt themselves in the wake of the Holocaust. What is new, then, about our book, besides many specific arguments, is its comprehensive nature.

Can you describe some of these new arguments?

One very important claim in the book is that the putative “founder” of Hasidism, Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, in fact never set out to found a movement. He was a part of the communal establishment in his town and he gathered around him a circle of pietists.  It was only two generations later, after the death of one of his main disciple, Dov Ber of Mezritsh, that a movement began to form by disciples of Dov Ber. The process by which Hasidism started as a small conventicle and later became a mass movement has certain resemblances to early Christianity. It seems unlikely that Jesus intended to found a new religion, but later Christians turned him into their movement’s founder. So, too, with Israel Ba’al Shem Tov.

Another set of arguments focuses on how Hasidism functioned on the local level in the nineteenth century. Although many of the Hasidic courts in this period were opulent and resembled royal or noble courts, most Hasidim visited the courts only once or twice a year. At other times, they operated in their home towns.  Recent research by one member of our team demonstrates how Hasidism struggled for power in these towns. The local Hasidim were often relatively well-off merchants, such that the movement was anything but a marginal phenomenon.

You argue that Hasidism is modern movement, but isn’t its ideology expressly anti-modern?

We understand modernity as something more complicated than just movements of secularization. The resistance to secularization is itself modern and Hasidism has to be understood in that context. It is a traditionalist movement, meaning that it constructs a certain image of tradition to use in its war against modern secularism. In fact, Hasidism is highly innovative, no less than modern movements of reform: its social structure and its charismatic leadership have never been seen before in Jewish history. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hasidism embraced modern politics in order to advance its agenda. In all these ways, Hasidism is a part of Jewish modernity.

Your book is unusual in that it has eight co-authors.  Why is that and what was the process with which you produced the project?

Because Hasidism consists of dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of “courts” located in many different places (and even continents), its history is too complex to be written by one person. It requires the expertise of a team. We decided very early on that instead of producing an edited volume, we wanted to write a seamless narrative.  We resolved to write collaboratively. In order to do so, we arranged to spend four summer residencies at the Simon Dubnow Institute in Leipzig, Germany. The institute provided wonderful accommodations for us to work together free from the distractions of our home environments. We were fortunate to receive grants from the Thyssen Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities to support these residencies.

In Leipzig, we devoted the first summer to producing a highly detailed table of contents. The next two summers were involved with the actual writing (of course, we all worked on the project individually during the academic year). The final summer involved collective editing of the manuscript. So, even though each member of the team wrote their own chapters, other team members provided intensive feedback throughout the writing and editing process. In this way, the book reflects the input of the whole team, a kind of peer review even before the manuscript went out to readers. We hope that in addition to the content of our book, this kind of collaborative authorship can offer a model to other scholars in the humanities.

Do you think that the Hasidim themselves will read your book and what do you think their reactions will be?

Several years ago, the Israel Museum staged a fascinating exhibition on Hasidism. What was most striking was how many Hasidim came to see the exhibition. They were evidently intrigued by how they are portrayed by the outside word. We anticipate a similar response to our book. They will no doubt take issue with some of our arguments, which go against the grain of their own conception of their history. But they will certainly buy the book.

BialeDavid Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis.

Steven Weitzman: The Origin of the Jews

WeitzmanThe Jews have one of the longest continuously recorded histories of any people in the world, but what do we actually know about their origins? While many think the answer to this question can be found in the Bible, others look to archaeology or genetics. Some skeptics have even sought to debunk the very idea that the Jews have a common origin. In The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age, Steven Weitzman takes a learned and lively look at what we know—or think we know—about where the Jews came from, when they arose, and how they came to be. Weitzman recently took the time to answer a few questions about his new book.

Isn’t the origin of the Jews well known? The story as I learned it begins with the Bible—with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. What is it that we do not understand about the origin of the Jews?

SW: Arguably, modernity was born of a recognition that things did not originate in the way the Bible claims. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the intellectual elite in Europe began to realize that the Bible could not be relied upon as an origin account, they turned to science, to critical historiography, to archaeology and to other scholarly methods to try to answer the question of where things and people come from. The result of their efforts include Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Bing Bang theory and other enduring theories of origin, along with a lot of theories and ideas that have since been discredited. The same intellectual process unsettled how people accounted for the origin of the Jews. Scholars applied the tools that had been used to understand the origin of language, religion and culture to the Jews and in this way developed alternative accounts very different from or even opposed to the biblical account. This book tells the story of what scholars have learned in this way and wrestles with why, despite centuries of scholarship, the question of the origin of the Jews remains unsettled.

So what have scholars learned about the origin of the Jews?

SW: A lot and a little at the same time. There has been a tremendous amount of scholarship generated by the question. The Documentary Hypothesis, the famous theory that the Five Books of Moses reflects the work of different authors in different historical periods, was originally intended as an effort to explain how the people of the Old Testament became the Jews. Focusing on different textual sources, Assyriologists have uncovered evidence of a people in Canaan known as the Habiru that are believed to be the ancestors of the Hebrews, and others would trace the Jews’ origin to Egypt or see a role for Greek culture in their development. Every theory can cite facts to support its account; and some are quite pioneering in the methods they deploy, and yet even as someone conversant in this scholarship, I find that I myself cannot answer the question of what the origin of the Jews is. It is actually the difficulty of answering the question that fascinates me. From within my small field, I have always been drawn to questions that lie at the edge of or just beyond what scholars can know about the world, questions that appear to be just beyond reach, and the origin of the Jews represents one of those questions, lying inside and outside of history at the same time.

Can you explain more why the origin of the Jews is so hard to pin down?

SW: Partly the problem is a scarcity of evidence. If we are looking to prehistory to understand the origin of the Jews—prehistory in this context would refer to the period before we have written accounts of the Israelites—there just isn’t a lot of evidence to work with. We know that at some point a people called Israel emerged, but we have very little evidence that can help us understand that process—a lot of theories and educated guesses but not a lot of solid facts.
Origins are always elusive—they always seem to be buried, hidden or lost—and scholarship has really had to strain to find relevant evidence to base itself on.
But for me at least, the biggest challenge of all was the problem of pinning down what an origin is. The term covers a range of different ideas—continuity and novelty, ancestry and invention. An origin can refer to lineage, to whatever connects a thing to the past, but it can also refer to a rupture, the emergence of something fundamentally discontinuous with the past. I came to realize that one of the main reasons scholars explain the origin of the Jews so differently is that they begin from different conceptions of what an origin is. This project forced me to recognize that I didn’t understand what an origin is or sufficiently appreciate all the different assumptions, beliefs and questionable metaphors that lay hidden within that term.

Not only are there conceptual difficulties inherent in the search for Jewish origin, but there are political problems as well. The effort to answer the question of the origin of the Jews has had devastating consequences, as the Nazis demonstrated by using the scholarship of origin to rationalize violence against the Jews. Of course, more recently, the question has gotten caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well, and is entangled in various intra-communal and interfaith debates about the nature of Jewish and Christian identity. There were many reasons to avoid this topic, intellectual, political and arguably even ethical, but not pursuing it also has its costs. There are lots of ideas circulating out there about how the Jews originated, along with a lot of misstatements, unexamined assumptions and confusion, and I felt it would be helpful to describe the challenges of this question, why it is difficult to address, what we know and don’t know, and what is at stake.

The book surveys several different approaches—various historical approaches, archaeology, social scientific approaches, even psychoanalysis has been used to address the question—but the research most likely to interest many contemporary readers comes from the field of genetics. What does DNA reveal about the origin of the Jews?

SW: First of all, I should say up front that I am not a geneticist and much of what I present in the book is based on what I learned from geneticist colleagues when I was a faculty member at Stanford or read at their suggestion. But we happen to be in a period when geneticists are making great strides in using DNA as a historical source, a way to understand the origin, migration history, and sexual and health history of different populations, and Jews have been intensively studied from this perspective. Even though the science was new to me, I felt I could not write a book on this subject without trying to engage this new research. As for what such research reveals, it offers a new way of investigating the ancestry of the Jews, the population(s) from whom they descend, and potentially sheds light on where that population lived, its size and demographic practice, and its mating practices. It can even help us to distinguish distinct histories for the male and female lineages of contemporary Jewish populations. All fascinating stuff, but does genetics represent the future of the quest to understand the origin of the Jews? The research is developing very rapidly. The data sets are expanding rapidly; the analysis is getting more nuanced; studies conducted a decade or two ago have already been significantly revised or superseded; and it is hard for non-geneticists to judge what is quality research and what is questionable. What is clear is that there has been criticism of such research from anthropologists and historians of science who detect hidden continuities with earlier now discredited race science and question how scientists interpret the data. I tried to tell both sides of this story, distilling the research but also giving voice to the critiques, and the book includes bibliographic guidance for those who want to judge the research for themselves.

Has this project gotten you to think about your own origin differently?

SW: Yes, but not in the way one might expect. Of course, as a Jew myself, the questions were not just intellectual but also personal and relational, bearing on how I thought about my own ancestry, my own sense of connection to my forebears, to other Jews, and to the land of Israel and to other peoples, but what I learned about the history of scholarship just didn’t reveal the clear insight one might have hoped for. To give a minor and amusing example, I recall being impressed by a genetic study which uncovered evidence of a surprising ancestry for Ashkenazic Levites. A Levite is a descendant from the tribe of Levi, a tribe with a special religious role, and I inherited such a status from my father. I never put any real stake in this part of my inheritance, but it was a point of connection to my father and his father, and I admit that I was intrigued when I read this study, which found that Ashkenazic Levite males have a different ancestry than that of other Ashkenazic Jews, perhaps descending from a convert with a different backstory than that of the other males in the tiny population from which today’s Ashkenazic Jews descend. But then a few years later, the same scientist published another study which undid that conclusion. So it goes with the research in general: it tells too many stories, or changes too much, or is too equivocal or uncertain in its results to demystify the origin of who I am. But on the other hand, I did learn a lot from this project about how—and why—I think about origins at all, and the mystery of who I am as a Jew—and of who we all are as human beings—runs much deeper for me now.

Steven Weitzman is the Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures and Ella Darivoff Director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Solomon: The Lure of WisdomSurviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity, and The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age.

Yair Mintzker: The Many Deaths of Jew Süss

Joseph Süss Oppenheimer—”Jew Süss”—is one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the “court Jew” of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified “misdeeds.” On February 4, 1738, Oppenheimer was hanged in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through several works of fiction, chief among them a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made in 1940 at the behest of Joseph Goebbels. The Many Deaths of Jew Süss by Yair Mintzker is a compelling new account of Oppenheimer’s notorious trial.

You have chosen a very intriguing title for your book—The Many Deaths of Jew Süss. Who was this “Jew Süss” and why did he die more than once?

YM: Jew Süss is the nickname of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. Originally from the Jewish community in Heidelberg, Germany, in 1732 Oppenheimer became the personal banker (“court Jew”) of Carl Alexander, duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly in 1737, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and eventually hanged him in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made about him at the behest of Joseph Goebbels.

Why is Oppenheimer such an iconic figure in the history of anti-Semitism?

YM: Though Oppenheimer was executed almost three centuries ago, his trial never quite ended. Even as the trial was unfolding, it was already clear that what was being placed in the scales of justice was not any of Oppenheimer’s alleged crimes. The verdict pronounced in his case conspicuously failed to provide any specific details about the reasons for the death sentence. The significance of the trial, and the reasons for Oppenheimer’s public notoriety ever since the eighteenth century, stem from the fact that Oppenheimer’s rise-and-fall story has been viewed by many as an allegory for the history of German Jewry in general. Here was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to for a time, but was eventually rejected; a Jew who enjoyed much success but then fell from power and met a violent death. Thus, at every point in time when the status, culture, past and future of Germany’s Jews have hung in the balance, the story of this man has moved to center stage, where it was investigated, novelized, dramatized, and even set to music. It is no exaggeration to say that Jew Süss is to the German collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to the English-speaking world.

Your book is about Oppenheimer’s original trial, not about how this famous court Jew was depicted later. Why do you claim that he died more than once?

YM: We need to take a step back and say something about the sources left by Oppenheimer’s trial. Today, in over one hundred cardboard boxes in the state archives in Stuttgart, one can read close to thirty thousand handwritten pages of documents from the time period of the trial. Among these pages are the materials collected by the inquisition committee assigned to the case; protocols of the interrogations of Oppenheimer himself, his alleged accomplices, and many witnesses; descriptions of conversations Oppenheimer had with visitors in his prison cell; and a great number of poems, pamphlets, and essays about Oppenheimer’s final months, days, hours, and even minutes. But here’s the rub: while the abundance of sources about Oppenheimer’s trial is remarkable, the sources themselves never tell the same story twice. They are full of doubts, uncertainties, and outright contradictions about who Oppenheimer was and what he did or did not do. Instead of reducing these diverse perspectives to just one plot line, I decided to explore in my book four different accounts of the trial, each from a different perspective. The result is a critical work of scholarship that uncovers mountains of new documents, but one that refuses to reduce the story of Jew Süss to only one narrative.

What are the four stories you tell in the book, then?

YM: I look at Oppenheimer’s life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in Oppenheimer’s trial, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer’s final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer’s earliest biographers.

What do we learn from these stories?

YM: What emerges from these accounts, above and beyond everything else, is an unforgettable picture of Jew Süss in his final days. It is a lurid tale of greed, sex, violence, and disgrace, but one that we can fully comprehend only if we follow the life stories of the four narrators and understand what they were trying to achieve by writing about Oppenheimer in the first place.

Is the purpose of this book to show, by composing these conflicting accounts of Jew Süss, that the truth is always in the eye of the beholder, that everything is relative and that there is therefore no one, single truth?

YM: No. The realization that the world looks different from different perspectives cannot possibly be the bottom line of a good work of history. This is so not because it’s wrong, but because it’s obvious. What I was setting out to do in writing this book was different. I used the multi-perspectival nature of lived experience as my starting point, not as my destination; it was a belief that informed what I did rather than a conclusion toward which I was driving.

And the result?

YM: A moving, disturbing, and often outright profound account of Oppenheimer’s trial that is also an innovative work of history and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity.

MintzkerYair Mintzker is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Defortification of the German City, 1689–1866 The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew.

Yair Mintzker: Court Jews, Then and Now

“Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer” is a delightful movie. Directed by Joseph Cedar (“Beaufort,” “Footnote”), it tells the story of Norman Oppenheimer, a gentle if somewhat overbearing middle-aged man, who operates as a wheeler-dealer on the fringe of New York Jewish society. Oppenheimer has a murky past and a gloomy present. He does not seem to have much of a family, a physical office, or even a home. But one day he runs into Micha Eshel, a rising star in Israeli politics, and in the spur of the moment buys him a pair of expensive shoes as a gift. Eshel is touched by the unexpected gesture, and three years later, when he becomes Israel’s prime minister, the two reconnect. What follows is a series of tragicomic events that change both men’s lives forever.

“Norman” has an impressive cast, including Richard Gere in the main role, Lior Ashkenazi as the Israeli politician, and Steven Buscemi, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Michael Sheen, and Hank Azaria. The exaggerated Jewish characters, the over-the-top accents, the Woody Allen-like dialogues, and even the soundtrack, all place “Norman” firmly within contemporary American Jewish culture. This, together with the movie’s many subtle criticisms of Israeli politics, makes it a natural American sequel to Cedar’s wonderful previous film, “Footnote,” which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2012 in the category of Best Foreign Film (Cedar is Israeli).

And yet there is more  to “Norman” than immediately meets the eye. Three hundred years ago, there lived another Jewish “fixer” named Oppenheimer whom “Norman” is clearly referencing. His full name was Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, though he is better known today as “Jew Süss.” Just like Cedar’s fictional character, the historical Oppenheimer started too as a small time operator, befriended an up-and-coming politician, and quickly rose to power. And just like his modern namesake, Joseph Süss Oppenheimer eventually also fell from power in scandal and disgrace.

Süss Oppenheimer was born in Heidelberg in 1698, and became in 1733 the “court Jew” (personal banker and advisor) of the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. He quickly became rich and powerful. But when the duke died unexpectedly in 1737, the local authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and finally executed him for a series of made-up charges, including treason and sexual transgressions against Christian women. Extremely well known in other parts of the world, in the United States “Jew Süss” is remembered today mainly through a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made about him in 1940 at the behest of Joseph Geobbels. In a recent interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’haretz, Cedar acknowledged the influence of this background story on “Norman.”

What does Cedar gain or lose by drawing a parallel between Norman Oppenheimer and “Jew Süss”? This much is clear: though the historical Oppenheimer was executed nearly three centuries ago, his trial never really ended. Already during his trial, it was clear that what was being placed in the scales of justice was not any of the accused’s supposed crimes. Rather, the significance of his story is to be found in the role it came to play as a parable about Jews’ attempts to integrate themselves into modern, non-Jewish society. Here was a man who tried to fit in, and seemed to for a time, but who was eventually rejected; a Jew who enjoyed much success but then faced extreme prejudice, prosecution, and eventually death. Thus, at every juncture when Europeans addressed the “Jewish Question,” the story of this man moved to center stage, where it was investigated, dramatized, and even set to music. It is no exaggeration to say that “Jew Süss” is to the European collective imagination what Shakespeare’s Shylock is to educated Americans today.

Therein lies “Norman’s” ultimate weakness. Tying it to the story of “Jew Süss” without ever mentioning anti-Semitism is to flatten a three-dimensional story. It’s akin to claiming that the Merchant of Venice is only about Shylock’s relationship with other Jews. Modern Jewish history, in the eighteenth century as well as today, is more than just the story of machers and more, too, than how Jews treat themselves. In that respect, and though it is really quite delightful, “Norman” is an unsatisfying movie. It is not a good retelling of the story of the legendary “Jew Süss.”

 

MintzkerYair Mintzker is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew.