Cover image for Cultures of the Jews : a new history
Cultures of the Jews : a new history
Biale, David, 1949-
First edition.
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New York : Schocken Books, 2002.
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xxxiii, 1196 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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DS102.95 .C85 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Who are "the Jews"? Scattered over much of the world throughout most of their three-thousand-year-old history, are they one people or many? How do they resemble and how do they differ from Jews in other places and times? What have their relationships been to the cultures of their neighbors?

To address these and similar questions, twenty-three of the finest scholars of our day--archaeologists, cultural historians, literary critics, art historians , folklorists, and historians of relation, all affiliated with major academic institutions in the United States, Israel, and France--have contributed their insight to Cultures of the Jews. The premise of their endeavor is that although Jews have always had their own autonomous traditions, Jewish identity cannot be considered immutable, the fixed product of either ancient ethnic or religious origins. Rather, it has shifted and assumed new forms in response to the cultural environment in which the Jews have lived.

Building their essays on specific cultural artifacts--a poem, a letter, a traveler's account, a physical object of everyday or ritual use--that were made in the period and locale they study, the contributors describe the cultural interactions among different Jews--from rabbis and scholars to non-elite groups, including women--as well as between Jews and the surrounding non-Jewish world.

Part One, "Mediterranean Origins," describes the concept of the "People" or "Nation" of Israel that emerges in the Hebrew Bible and the culture of the Israelites in relation to that of the Canaanite groups. It goes on to discuss Jewish cultures in the Greco-Roman world, Palestine during the Byzantine period, Babylonia, and Arabia during the formative years of Islam.

Part Two, "Diversities of Diaspora," illuminates Judeo-Arabic culture in the Golden Age of Islam, Sephardic culture as it bloomed first if the Iberian Peninsula and later in Amsterdam, the Jewish-Christian symbiosis in Ashkenazic Europe and in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the culture of the Italian Jews of the Renaissance period, and the many strands of folklore, magic, and material culture that run through diaspora Jewish history.

Part Three, "Modern Encounters," examines communities, ways of life, and both high and fold culture in Western, Central, and Eastern Europe, the Ladino Diaspora, North Africa and the Middle East, Ethiopia, Zionist Palestine and the State of Israel, and, finally, the United States.

Cultures of the Jews is a landmark, representing the fruits of the present generation of scholars in Jewish studies and offering a new foundation upon which all future research into Jewish history will be based. Its unprecedented interdisciplinary approach will resonate widely among general readers and the scholarly community, both Jewish and non-Jewish, and it will change the terms of the never-ending debate over what constitutes Jewish identity.

Author Notes

David Biale is the Emmanuel Ringelblum Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

This monumental work comprises essays by 23 scholars, including editor Biale, who also has written a preface and an introduction to each of the book's three sections: Mediterranean Origins, Diversities of Diaspora, and Modern Encounters. Writers from many fields--archaeology, art history, ancient Near Eastern studies, cultural history, literary studies, and folklore--address the question of Jewish identity throughout history. In his conclusion, Biale writes that "The great crises of this age are not the destruction of the Temple but the Holocaust that eradicated the cultures of Jewish Europe and, more broadly, the cultural pluralism ushered in by modernity." The extensive range of concepts and insights raised here cannot be examined in a brief review; suffice it to say that the book is truly one of the most important works on the subject ever published. --George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

This insightful collection of essays by today's leading Judaica scholars (such as Ilana Pardes and Isaiah Gafni) transports the reader from the nascent Jewish nation first emerging from bondage in Egypt through both its cultural and religious decline and efflorescence in the Middle Ages to modern-day Israeli and American Jewish culture. Divided into three sections, "Mediterranean Origins," "Diversities of Diaspora" and "Modern Encounters," the compilation provides an array of creative perspectives. Objects of material culture a map, an amulet, a ketubbah (a Jewish marriage contract) are used as lenses through which to examines various aspects of Jewish life in a given time and place; e.g., a menorah topped by an eagle symbolizing Polish sovereignty opens Moshe Rosman's study of Polish-Lithuanian-Jewish culture. The contributors assume that Jewish history did not develop in a vacuum, but that Jewish culture and religion were at times influenced by the surrounding cultures, and that Jews incorporated elements of what they saw around them while striving to refashion them as distinctly Jewish. Furthermore, if Jewish identity changed according to differing historical contexts, editor Biale (a professor of Jewish history at UC-Davis and author of Power and Powerlessness in Jewish History) suggests, referring to Jewish culture in the singular is inadequate and oversimplified. The authors raise questions central to the understanding of Judaism and Jewish life, and propose answers that try to reconcile ideas with their historical realities. Intellectually stimulating, articulately written and extensively documented, this collection is sure to raise excitement in aficionados looking for something to whet their historical appetite. (Oct. 15) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Biale (Univ. of California at Davis) has created a text that updates Jewish historiography in a highly accessible and readable style. The book is split into three main sections: "Ancient Mediterranean Origins," "Diversities of Diaspora," and "Modern Encounters." Within this framework, leading scholars such as Isaiah Gafni, Aron Rodrigue, and Stephen Whitfield contribute broad essays examining the development of Jewish culture in different contexts. Interactions between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures form an important subtext for the essays, as scholars outline the latest thinking about gender, language, religion, drama, and literature in Jewish history. The book pays equal attention to the Sephardic and Ashkenazic experiences and finishes with significant essays on American, European, and non-European Jewries. This important contribution to the study and teaching of Jewish history will prove useful to undergraduate and graduate students interested in the main cultural questions of Jewish history and to university instructors looking for assignment-length overviews of specific historical periods. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. General readers, undergraduate and graduate students, and faculty. J. Haus University of North Carolina at Greensboro



IMAGINING THE BIRTH OF ANCIENT ISRAEL: National Metaphors in the Bible The Bible begins not with the culture of the Hebrews but with the origins of culture as such. The initial concern with the origin of civilization is already evident in the story of the Garden of Eden, where Eve and Adam acquire the first taste of "knowledge," but it is only in the account of the bold building of the Tower of Babel, East of Eden, that we get a fuller consideration of human culture. Humankind was once one, we are told, and "everyone on earth had the same language and the same words" (Genesis 11:1). But this era of cultural unity does not last for long. One day the people say to each other "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world" (11:4). In response to this challenge against heaven, God shatters the builders' dream of grandeur, confounds their language, and scatters them in all directions. Culture, however, is not destroyed. Rather, it assumes a different form. From now on its distinguishing mark is diversity and dispersion. From now on, its distinct site becomes the nation. Of the many nations that "branch out" in the vast expanses of the earth, Israel is singled out. In the episode following the Tower of Babel, God demands that Abraham leave his birthplace (Ur of the Chaldeans) and go forth (lekh lekha) to the land shown to him. There, God assures him, "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great" (Genesis 12:2). Abraham's migration to Canaan offers a new departure. Whereas the sinful homogeneous community of Babel failed, Abraham's descendants, the people God has chosen from a multitude of peoples, seem to hold much promise, destined as they are (unlike the builders of the Tower) to acquire a "great name." The primary exile of the first patriarch, his capacity to part from his cultural origins, is construed as an essential rift, a prerequisite for the rise of the nation. Later, in Exodus, the people as a whole will follow a similar route, moving out of Egypt, wandering in the desert, and fashioning the cultural contours of the nation on their way to the Promised Land. Dispersion and exile, however, do not lead to clear-cut borders between cultures. Languages intersect in unexpected ways. The very name "Babel," which commemorates the primary linguistic splitting, is also a cross-cultural product. Its meaning in Akkadian is presumably "the gate to the gods" (bab iley), but in the course of the biblical story it is Hebraized via a pun when it is linked to the Hebrew root blbl (to confuse). Perhaps this interpretation of "Babel" is an attempt to mock the pretentious temples of Mesopotamia: the tower that was meant to lead to the gods leads only to confusion. But what turns out to be far more confusing is the lack of clear demarcation between the chosen and the non-chosen. As the history of the children of Israel unfolds, we discover that the rebellious quality of primeval culture does not dissipate once we move into the realm of the chosen ones. Quite the contrary: rebellion is one of the salient features of the chosen nation. The Israelites do not venture to construct brick temples whose tops reach heaven, but their idolatrous cravings betray a similar tendency to transgress sacred boundaries. The question of national identity--the attempt to fathom the entangled relations between Israel and God, between Israel and other nations--is one of the most resonant and unresolvable questions in the Bible. In tackling it, the biblical text relies not on philosophical contemplation but rather on narrative. More specifically, it offers a narrative in which the nation is personified extensively. Any attempt to understand the history of the children of Israel, to fashion a conception of national identity, to grasp communal motives and fantasies, collective memories and oblivions, the Bible seems to suggest, requires a plunge into the intricate twists and turns of the individual life. The nation--particularly in Exodus and Numbers--is not an abstract detached concept but rather a grand character with a distinct voice (represented at times in a singular mode) who moans and groans, is euphoric at times, complains frequently, and rebels against Moses and God time and again. Israel has a life story, a biography of sorts. It was conceived in the days of Abraham; its miraculous birth took place with the Exodus, the parting of the Red Sea; then came a long period of childhood and restless adolescence in the wilderness; and finally adulthood was approached with the conquest of Canaan. To be sure, a collective character is necessarily more heterogeneous and less predictable. The Pentateuch's account of national formation resists fixed definitions of the various phases in the nation's life cycle. Roughly speaking, chronology is maintained, and yet images of birth, youth, initiation, and suckling intermingle throughout. Thus, the distinct manifestation of national suckling appears only in Numbers 11, where Moses likens the people to a suckling infant in the wilderness, long after the grand-scale initiation at Sinai. But, after all, such boundaries are never that clear in individual biographies either. Infantile dreams may linger on and initiation is rarely exhausted in one rite. National literatures were not common in the ancient world. Israel's preoccupation with its reason for being is exceptional in the ancient Near East. In Greece and particularly in Rome, however, narratives concerning national origins are equally important. Israel's history bears resemblance to the Roman one. It too involves a divine promise, individuation from a major civilization, a quest for lost roots, a long journey to what is construed as the land of the forefathers, and a gory conquest. What makes the Bible unique is the extent to which the nation is dramatized. In the Aeneid, by way of comparison, the plot revolves round Aeneas. The wanderings between Troy and the promised new land are primarily Aeneas's wanderings: the people remain a rather pale foil. They engage in no conflict--either with Aeneas or the gods--that would grant them access to the central stage. The biblical text is significantly different in its rendering of national drama. Israel is a protagonist whose moves and struggles determine the map--so much so that 40 years of wanderings in the desert are added to the itinerary as a result of the people's protest against the official preference of Canaan over Egypt. The fashioning of Israel as a character is a forceful unifying strategy, but the metaphor does not yield a homogeneous account of national formation. The biblical text reveals points of tension between different traditions regarding the nation's history and character. Even the nation's sexual identity is not stable. Although the Pentateuch shapes a male character, referring to the people as am (singular masculine noun), the Prophets, more often than not, represent Israel as female, using "Jerusalem" or "Zion" (feminine nouns) as alternative designations. This essay focuses on the intricacies of national imagination in the Pentateuch, and as such it is concerned with the fashioning of a male character who is marked as God's firstborn son. Double personification is at stake--of God and the nation--creating a familial link between the two. If Rome's sacred origin is assured through the divine blood of its founding fathers--Aeneas is Venus's son, and Romulus and Remus are the offspring of Mars--in the case of Israel, the nation as a whole, metaphorically speaking, is God's son. On sending Moses to Pharaoh to deliver the people, God proclaims: "Israel is My first-born son. I have said to you [Pharaoh], 'Let My son go' " (Exodus 4:22-23). The priority given to Israel by the Father represents a translation into national terms of the reversal of the primogeniture law--a phenomenon so central in the lives of the patriarchs. The late-born nation that came to the stage after all its neighbors had assumed their historical roles is elevated by God to the position of the chosen firstborn. Israel is a chosen nation, God's nation, but the reason for its chosen-ness remains obscure. It does not succeed in following traditional norms of male heroism, nor does it become an exemplary nation with high moral and religious standards. The more mature Israel, in the plains of Moab, on the threshold of Canaan, is far more established a community than the nascent nation on the way out of Egypt, but this by no means suggests that biblical historiography relies on the principle of progress. Whereas in the initial stages of the journey the children of Israel worship a Golden Calf in a carnivalesque feast, at the last station, just before crossing the Jordan river, they "cling" to Baal Peor (under the influence of Moabite women), adopting Canaanite religious practices with much enthusiasm. The Song of Moses, with its synoptic presentation of Israel's history, regards the nation as an ungrateful son whose conduct fails to improve over time: "Do you thus requite the Lord, O dull and witless people? Is not He the Father who created you, fashioned you and made you endure!" (Deuteronomy 32:6). Instead of appreciating God's vigilance, Moses claims, once the nation "grew fat" it used its new powers to "kick" (Deuteronomy 32:15). What is most fascinating in the primary biography of ancient Israel is the ambivalence that lies at its very base, an ambivalence that is expressed so poignantly through the intense struggles between the Father (or Moses) and His people. The nation is both the chosen son and the rebel son, and accordingly its relationship with the Father is at once intimate and strained. The fictional quality of the struggle between God and the nation does not preclude the historicity of the text. Israel's beginning is situated in historical times--in the days of the Exodus--rather than in a mythical "in illo tempore." Similarly, God defines Himself, at Sinai and elsewhere, as the one who brought Israel out of Egypt--not as the Creator of primeval times. Even at moments when the biography of ancient Israel relies on mythical materials--primarily, on the myth of the birth of the hero and the myth of the hero's return--these are inextricably connected with a historiographical drive to record memorable past events and question their meaning. In the Bible, history and literature go hand in hand, more explicitly than in modern historiography, which is why it serves as a paradigmatic case for the examination of the narrative base of national constructions. National Birth The metaphor of birth is probably the most resonant anthropomorphic image in national narratives from antiquity to modern times. In fact, it is so resonant one tends to forget that nations are not born literally but are, rather, imagined in these terms. Every nation, however, has its own birth story, or birth stories. The book of Exodus provides an intriguingly complex representation of Israel's birth in keeping with the preliminary imaginings of the nation in Genesis. The opening verses of Exodus 1 make clear that God's reiterated promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob--the grand national annunciation scenes of Genesis--are finally realized. The descendants of Jacob, whose names are listed solemnly, multiply at an uncanny pace and turn into a "mighty" nation: the nation of the "children of Israel." "Israel" for the first time is not merely Jacob's second, elevated, name but rather a collective designation of a burgeoning community that "fills" the land. But then we discover that God's darker prophecy, in the covenant of the parts (Genesis 15:13), is equally fulfilled: Israel is born in a prolonged exile, against Pharaonic bondage. Representing the birth of a nation is not a simple task. The imagining of this dramatic event in Exodus is facilitated by the interweaving of two biographies: the story of the birth of Moses, and that of the nation. The fashioning of Israel as character, here as elsewhere, is inseparable from a complementary narrative strategy: the marking of individuals whose histories are paradigmatic. The nation's life story, in other words, is modeled in relation to the biographies of select characters. Abraham, whose departure from Ur serves as prefiguration of the nation's exodus, is only the first exemplary figure. The heterogeneity of national imagination in the Bible depends on a variety of representatives. Fragments of the biographies of Isaac, of Jacob, the eponymous father, and even of Hagar, the Egyptian handmaid, whose affliction foreshadows the nation's enslavement in Egypt, are also linked in different ways to the nation's biography and take part in its construction. On the question of birth, Moses' story is of special importance. The analogy between the one and the multitude in this case is more immediate. Unlike the patriarchal biographies that pertain to a distant past and flicker over the chasm of time, Moses' birth occurs within the same historical setting. Moses is a national leader whose history blends with the history of the nation. He is one of many Hebrew babies persecuted by Pharaoh. His story, however, is marked as the exemplary account that sheds light on the collective birth story as it prefigures the deliverance of the nation as a whole from bondage. Moses' birth story shares much in common with mythical birth stories. What characterizes the birth of a hero? The conception of the hero is usually impeded by difficulties such as abstinence or prolonged barrenness. During or before pregnancy there is a prophecy, or an oracle cautioning the father against the hero's birth; the father tries to shape a different future and gives orders to kill his new-born son; the babe is then placed in a basket or a box and delivered to the waves. Against all odds, however, the hero is saved by animals, or by lowly people, and is suckled by a female animal or by a humble woman. When full grown, he discovers his royal parents, takes revenge on his father, and, recognized by his people, finally achieves rank and honors. Moses' story is indeed compatible in many ways with this model: a threatened child, the exposure in the basket, the miraculous deliverance of the foundling, the two sets of parents, and the final acknowledgment of the hero's power. But there is a significant difference: Moses' true parents are not the royal ones but rather the poor Hebrew slaves. At a moment of national birth, the inversion of the two sets of parents is not without significance. Moses' "true" parents are higher in rank despite their lowly position precisely because they are members of the chosen nation-to-be. Excerpted from Cultures of the Jews: A New History by David Biale All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

David BialeDavid BialeIlana PardesRonald S. HendelErich S. GruenEric M. MeyersOded IrshaiIsaiah GafniReuven FirestoneDavid BialeRaymond P. ScheindlinBenjamin R. GampelIvan G. MarcusMoshe RosmanElliott HorowitzYosef KaplanShalom SabarDavid BialeRichard I. CohenDavid BialeAron RodrigueLucette ValensiYosef TobiHagar SalamonAriel HirschfeldEli YassifStephen J. WhitfieldDavid Biale
List of Contributorsp. xi
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Preface: Toward a Cultural History of the Jewsp. xvii
Part 1 Mediterranean Origins
Introductionp. 3
1 Imagining the Birth of Ancient Israel: National Metaphors in the Biblep. 9
2 Israel Among the Nations: Biblical Culture in the Ancient Near Eastp. 43
3 Hellenistic Judaismp. 77
4 Jewish Culture in Greco-Roman Palestinep. 135
5 Confronting a Christian Empire: Jewish Culture in the World of Byzantiump. 181
6 Babylonian Rabbinic Culturep. 223
7 Jewish Culture in the Formative Period of Islamp. 267
Part 2 Diversities of Diaspora
Introductionp. 305
1 Merchants and Intellectuals, Rabbis and Poets: Judeo-Arabic Culture in the Golden Age of Islamp. 313
2 A Letter to a Wayward Teacher: The Transformations of Sephardic Culture in Christian Iberiap. 389
3 A Jewish-Christian Symbiosis: The Culture of Early Ashkenazp. 449
4 Innovative Tradition: Jewish Culture in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealthp. 519
5 Families and Their Fortunes: The Jews of Early Modern Italyp. 573
6 Bom Judesmo: The Western Sephardic Diasporap. 639
7 Childbirth and Magic: Jewish Folklore and Material Culturep. 671
Part 3 Modern Encounters
Introductionp. 725
1 Urban Visibility and Biblical Visions: Jewish Culture in Western and Central Europe in the Modern Agep. 731
2 A Journey Between Worlds: East European Jewish Culture from the Partitions of Poland to the Holocaustp. 799
3 The Ottoman Diaspora: The Rise and Fall of Ladino Literary Culturep. 863
4 Multicultural Visions: The Cultural Tapestry of the Jews of North Africap. 887
5 Challenges to Tradition: Jewish Cultures in Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Bukharap. 933
6 Religious Interplay on an African Stage: Ethiopian Jews in Christian Ethiopiap. 977
7 Locus and Language: Hebrew Culture in Israel, 1890-1990p. 1011
8 The "Other" Israel: Folk Cultures in the Modern State of Israelp. 1063
9 Declarations of Independence: American Jewish Culture in the Twentieth Centuryp. 1099
Conclusionp. 1147
Indexp. 1151