by Karen Casey Casebier, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Although my background is in Old French literature, and the devotional works, miracle tales and saints’ lives that I study rarely concern themselves with issues pertinent to medieval Jewish studies, I was naturally intrigued to find a conversion miracle in which a Jewish woman becomes a Christian saint. More importantly, I began to consider how this miracle of the Virgin Mary might shed light on the relationship of Jews and Christians in medieval society, since they often shared the same communities and cultures, even if they did not share the same religious values.
Adrienne Williams Boyarin discusses her new project which seeks to make the lives of medieval England’s Jews accessible.
Cultural and biographical study of Anglo-Jewish women is difficult. Scarcity of women’s voices, gendered divides in literacy and religious practice, marriages, name changes — all can make medieval women difficult to find let alone assess, and this is of course true across religious lines. As Charlotte Newman Goldy has put it, “Even Christian women’s lives most often need to be examined in aggregate, and that can obscure both the humanity of their stories and their variations.”[i] Further, all scholarship on medieval Anglo-Jewish women must cope with a primary methodological problem that scholarship on Anglo-Jewish men does not necessitate: the vast majority of the evidence for Jewish women in England comes from Latin legal and financial records. There are many thousands of Latin records of many hundreds of Jewish women in medieval England—dispersed through the Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, Close Rolls, Patent Rolls, Liberate Rolls, Fine Rolls, Tower of London receipts, endless writs, and more—but all are filtered through an oppressive (Christian) bureaucracy. At the same time, these records provide historically verifiable information; they allow us to see English Jewish women whom we could not otherwise see, and they allow us to reconstruct some (fragmentary) part of their lives. But can we tell Jewish stories with this material?
Torah scrolls as a codicological, theological, and sociological phenomenon of Jewish scribal culture in the Diaspora
ToRoll: Materialized Holiness is a collaborative research project examining the production of Torah scrolls as an extraordinary codicological, theological, and sociological phenomenon of Jewish scribal culture. Exploring Torah scrolls, special letters and decorative traditions (tagin and otiyyot meshunnot), scribal literature from Jewish antiquity until the 19th century, as well as contemporary notions of scribal tradition, ToRoll: Materialized Holiness is a 4-year project supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Researchand based at the Freie Universität Berlin. This project combines Jewish Studies research with Digital Humanities, Material and Social Sciences and looks at the meaning and significance of Torah scrolls from an interdisciplinary perspective.
Although Muslim spaces were objects of frequent confiscation and conversion in 13th century Iberia, the conversion of synagogues was, with a few exceptions, by that time only theoretical. With the conquest of Sevilla in 1248, however, king Ferdinand III allowed the local Jewish community to convert three mosques into synagogues. The transfer of those synagogues is an exception; still, it fits into the discernible political strategy of the time which supported Jewish communities during the Christian campaigns of war against the Muslim territories. This changed by the end of the 14th century, when the Christian conquest of the Peninsula had been completed for the most part: clerics explicitly called for the destruction and transformation of the synagogues in the persecutions of 1391–92, and the laws of Ayllón (1412) created a legal basis that encouraged and evoked these transformations. Meanwhile, the Disputation of Tortosa (1413–14) once again provided theological fuel for the persecution and conversion of Jews and the attack on their places of worship. All of that is reflected in the conversion of 42 synagogues that I have found as part of my research. I argue that this makes the period a turning point not only in the attitudes towards Iberian Jews, but also towards their synagogues.
“Ritual Echoes”, filmed from May 9-11 2022 and recently published on YouTube, is the result of the 2022 ShUM (Hebrew acronym for Speyer, Worms, and Mainz in the Rhineland) cities Artistic Residency program. The project features artistic reconstructions of 12th and 13th century piyyutim (Hebrew liturgical poems) as well as songs dedicated to joyous occasions. The idea to perform medieval music and poetry within the mikve (the Jewish ritual bath) and the ruins of the women’s synagogue at Speyer came from conversations in pre-covid Oxford between Avery Gosfield, specialist in medieval and Renaissance music, and Neta Bodner, Lecturer and art historian at the Open University of Israel working on medieval mikvaot. The idea of enlivening the Speyer mikve with a performance of medieval music and poetry came in answer to a call for ‘artists in residence’ in the ShUM cities (which soon thereafter were granted UNESCO World Heritage Status) which, with Neta’s help, Avery applied for and received.
In 2007 I published an edition of the Dīwān of the Baghdadi poet and paytan, El‘azar ha-Bavli, on the basis of two larger manuscripts. The first of these, containing 67 folios, is in New York and catalogued as EN Adler No. 881 and was edited by Hayyim Brody in 1935. The second, with 51 leaves, is in St. Petersburg and is catalogued as Firkovicz Heb, IIA, 210.1, This manuscript was used by Jacob Mann in his renowned Texts and Studies, Volume One, in 1931. The latter is the better example of the two, but the two of them supplement each other, offering us a fair idea of El‘azar’s productivity. Their study is important for our reconstruction of Jewish poetry in the East, especially in Baghdad during the first half of the thirteenth century, shortly before the invasion of the Mongols in 1258.
Thanks to the many decades of work by many wonderful scholars, we know a great deal about the recurring expulsions of Jews that scar the history of late medieval Europe. Several monographs have been devoted to the circumstances and aftermaths of particular expulsions, while other fine studies have explored the dynamics of the successive expulsions within the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. Historians studying the Jewish diaspora have meticulously retraced the pathways of exile and the destinations of refugees, while specialists in literature and liturgy—here I’m thinking especially of the work of Susan Einbinder—have movingly evoked the impact of these forced dislocations on the shared rituals and cultural life of Europe’s Jewish communities.
Most readers of this blog know what the haggadah is: a small book, oftentimes illustrated or at least decorated, kept in Jewish households in numerous copies, which contains the liturgy to be recited during the Passover seder. Nowadays, every participant will hold one of these books during the annual evening ritual. Those who do not know Hebrew will have a copy that includes the text in transliteration together with a translation. The Hebrew word haggadah (הגדה) means an act of telling. At some point, the term began to be used to refer to a more or less standardized text to be recited during the ceremony, but it was only in the early modern period that the word “haggadah” began to mean a book, an object.
In principle, according to the Jewish faith, burials take place for eternity and graves are only to be reopened if a reburial of the dead to Israel is planned. The integrity of the buried is also very important. Accordingly, archaeological investigations of Jewish cemeteries are rarely carried out.
In Erfurt, a rescue excavation was necessary in 2013 at the medieval Jewish cemetery, as construction machinery had already disturbed the ground. In close consultation with the Jewish Community of Thuringia, anthropological investigations were also arranged after the excavations were completed. Due to various circumstances, these investigations were delayed longer than expected, so that the skeletons were still in storage at the Thuringian State Office of Archaeology in Weimar when, in 2017, the Israeli geneticist Shai Carmi made a request to also conduct genetic investigations. There are very few Jewish cemeteries worldwide where this was possible.
This communication follows closely upon a consequential moment in my career, or in anyone’s career, that of retirement from one’s university position. Six months after having finished teaching my final university course, I am finishing a project that has both professional and personal meaning for me.