On the Bookshelf
Nicholas de Lange is best known as a translator of Israeli novels; the literary critic Dan Miron has praised him for “presenting the world with an Amos Oz who is by far more mature, restrained, and precise than the Hebrew writer actually was.” When he’s not translating, he has plenty of other scholarly commitments to keep him busy. One such commitment is a 2001 volume of essays he edited, out soon as an affordable paperback (a steal at $36, next to the $104 hardcover). Titled Hebrew Scholarship and the Medieval World (Cambridge, December), the book includes articles by a variety of international scholars, addressing the place of Hebrew in the thought and culture of the medieval world, including its use in poetic and liturgical writings and questions about the degree to which the language was known and influenced by Christian and Muslim intellectuals. Most compelling, perhaps, are essays surveying recent developments in the study of medieval Hebrew, including de Lange’s own piece on Hebrew scholarship in Byzantium.
Another collection of academic essays—Late Medieval Jewish Identities: Iberia and Beyond (Palgrave, November)—shows how intent Spanish scholars are to advance research on Jewish culture, in all its myriad forms, during the historical period when Jews were still present in large numbers in Spain and Portugal. Edited by a pair of academics based in Madrid and Granada, the book includes contributions from an impressive sampling of American, European, and Israeli scholars and emphasizes the linguistic, cultural, and geographic complexities of Jews’ experiences in the years both before and after the Inquisition. Given the dolorous history, that Spanish universities are now becoming centers for scholarship in the field of Jewish Studies feels rather satisfying: Roll in your grave, Torquemada, you mamzer, roll!
Having escaped the Inquisition, many Sephardic Jews were by the beginning of the 16th century already scattered throughout a variety of locations in Asia, Africa, and Europe. And, as we know from more recent immigrations, it isn’t always easy for newcomers to get along with the local bigwigs who have their own established ideas about how to run things. The six academic essays collected by Julia Lieberman in Sephardi Family Life in the Early Modern Diaspora (UPNE, December) explore the day-to-day lives of these far-flung Jews as their practices and traditions clashed with those of the Jews who were their new neighbors in the Ottoman empire. Meanwhile, Harry Toledano declares in The Sephardic Legacy: Unique Features and Achievements (Scranton, November) that as challenging as that dispersion was for the exiled, these Jews carried with them key influences and traditions from the Golden Age in Spain that would form the basis of Sephardic identity and pride.
Meanwhile, back in Ashkenaz … The city focused on by Nils Roemer in German City, Jewish Memory: The Story of Worms (UPNE, December) was one of many where Hebrew flourished in the Middle Ages, at least in the work of its local celebrity. Roemer’s interest is in the continuities between the medieval city and its modern instantiations, and relations between Jews and Germans, before and after the tragedies of the Holocaust.
In German cities like Worms and elsewhere in Mitteleuropa, having a few Hebrew books kicking around on your shelves could, at times, be a downright dangerous proposition. At the beginning of the 16th century, for one shocking example, a push was made by some Christians to destroy all extant Jewish literature, which was thought to be corrupting and offensive. (And this, centuries before Al Goldstein’s birth!) Led by a Jewish apostate, Johannes Pfefferkorn, the campaign—already familiar from the early chapters of Sander Gilman’s Jewish Self-Hatred (1990)—gets retold in detail in David Price’s Humanism and Judaism: Johannes Reuchlin and the Campaign to Destroy Jewish Books (Oxford, December), on the basis of new archival findings. Reuchlin, a leading Christian Hebraist, paid dearly for his attempts to defend Jews and found himself accused of having been bamboozled by Jewish bribery.
If they wanted some really freaky Jewish books, those sourpuss Germans should have learned a little Yiddish; that’s one message to take away from Tablet contributing editor (and author of an eagerly anticipated Nextbook Press book on Sholem Aleichem) Jeremy Dauber’s In the Demon’s Bedroom: Yiddish Literature and the Early Modern (Yale, December). Offering an insightful tour of the neglected, rich Old Yiddish literature that preceded the quintessentially modern tales of Mendele and Pertez, Dauber’s book is also a reminder that Isaac Bashevis Singer had key precedents for his Yiddish tales of crotchety devils.
Several hundred miles northwest, across the channel, early modern Englishmen under Queen Elizabeth I and her successors had their own reasons for fretting a whole lot about Jews. The Reformation was a good excuse for rethinking the relationship of Christianity to its progenitor, and the question of whether Jews should be allowed to return to live in England or not was up for debate. Addressing these developments and many others, Achsah Guibbory’s Christian Identity, Jews, and Israel in 17th-Century England (Oxford, November) illustrates that these are crucial contexts in which we can read poets like Herrick, Milton, and Dryden, especially when their poems include lines like the latter’s apt question, “When will our reason’s long-charm’d eyes unclose, / And Israel judge between her friends and foes?”
Black Swan and Barney’s Version can both be seen as grappling with how to portray Jewishness onscreen. One succeeds; the other fails.