Early Career Faculty Workshop // CAJS Blog

posted December 10, 2018 

The Katz Center is proud to be hosting a professionalization workshop for early career scholars in Jewish studies on May 2930, 2018, sponsored by the American Academy for Jewish Research, the oldest organization of Judaic studies scholars in North America. This year's workshop will be coorganized by Steve Weitzman, Katz Center director, and Lila Corwin Berman, director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University.

The goal of the workshop is to support the professional development of early career scholars in Jewish studies, and to help foster connection and conversation across the boundaries of specialization and discipline. It will include guidance on teaching, publishing, public scholarship, work-life balance and other issues that bear on professional life in the academy. For more information about the program and how to apply, click here.


Katz Center Fellows Reach Out through Community Partnerships // CAJS Blog

posted December 7, 2018  

Last week, current fellow Chen Bram (Hebrew University) sat down at Penn Hillel with a group of students interested in multiculturalism in Israel. In a ninety-minute discussion he offered them a taste of the graduate course he teaches in Jerusalem on the city’s complex intergroup relations. Inviting the students to comment and raise concerns as he spoke, Bram joked that as an Israeli he is more comfortable with direct confrontation than passive silence. His humor softened the possibility of fraught interaction, and facilitated an eye-opening look at trilateral, quadrilateral, and even more complex geographical and cultural divisions within the present-day city of Jerusalem. Speaking as a Jerusalem native and as an anthropologist, he took both an insider and an outsider perspective on the city’s sometimes surprising makeup and organization.

Bram’s talk was just one of the half-dozen speaking engagements that Katz Center fellows carried out in the Philadelphia area this semester. Fellows Alma Heckman, Alon Tam, and others took their expertise outside of the walls of 420 Walnut Street to meet community members in synagogues, community centers, and class rooms. Reflecting the research focus of our current crop of scholars, lectures topics ranged from the Holocaust in North Africa to the Jews of India to Mizrahi culture in Israel.

More great programs are to come. Click here for a full listing of community partnerships and for information about inviting a fellow to speak at your institution. 

As always, we gratefully acknowledge the support of the Klatt family in making this programming possible.


Katz CAJS Blog

What Do You Know? Sephardi vs. Mizrahi // CAJS Blog

posted December 5, 2018  

In the series What Do You Know?, we feature scholars’ answers to questions about Jewish history and culture submitted by our readers.

An anonymous reader asks, 

“What is the difference between “Sephardi” and “Mizrahi”?”

Current fellow Dina Danon answers: 

Although sometimes used interchangeably, the terms “Sephardi” and “Mizrahi” refer to two distinct Jewish diasporas, each one itself characterized by significant internal cultural diversity. Despite many divergences, having inhabited numerous polities in different circumstances over the ages, these groups also shared important characteristics, including some religious rites and customs. Additionally, since a majority lived for many centuries in the Islamic world, both “Sephardi” and “Mizrahi” Jews encountered the modern age facing many of the same forces, among them Western colonialism, the dissolution of empire, and the rise of nation-states.


First appearing in the Book of Obadiah 1:20, the term Sepharad came to be linked to Hispania, the Latin word for Spain. The presence of Jews on the Iberian Peninsula dates back to the Roman period, and medieval sources confirm that Jews indeed used to word Sephardi to refer to themselves. While living under Islamic rule, Sephardi Jews participated in the intellectual, artistic, and scientific achievements of the ninth and tenth centuries, a period that would later be termed a “Golden Age.” With the conquest of Spain by Christian forces, a centuries-long process known as the Reconquista, the position of Sephardi Jewry was destabilized, as the community faced increasing hostility due to efforts of the Church to eradicate heresy. After over a century of physical violence, forced baptisms, and disputations, in 1492 this hostility culminated in the Edict of Expulsion, which gave the Jews of Spain the choice to either convert or leave. The last and largest expulsion of Jews from Western Europe of the period, 1492 gave rise to multiple Sephardi diasporas. A majority of those choosing exile migrated eastward toward Ottoman lands, where they settled in cities such as Salonika, Istanbul, and later Izmir. A smaller group opted for Portugal, where they were forcibly baptized only five years later and migrated as “New Christians” in later years to cities such as Amsterdam, London, Bordeaux, and Hamburg. Still others chose North Africa, most notably Morocco, where they developed a dialect called Haketia. While Sephardi Jews reconstituted their communities in disparate locations, they experienced particularly marked longevity in Ottoman lands, where a relatively tolerant environment allowed them to maintain group cohesion. The eastern Mediterranean became home to vibrant Judeo-Spanish culture that flourished there until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.


Meaning “Eastern,” the category “Mizrahi” is a more recent phenomenon. It collapses into one catch-all term numerous Jewish sub-cultures from across the Middle East, North Africa, and central Asia, some of which date back millennia. As it is typically employed, it encompasses communities as diverse as Farsi-speaking Persian Jews, Arabic-speaking Jews of the Maghreb (western north Africa) and the Mashreq (areas east of the Mediterranean Sea), and Berber-speaking Jews of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, among others. As a classification, the term came to prominence in the early years of Israeli statehood, when Jews from these regions were described as ‘edot ha-mizrah, or “communities of the East.” This terminology was undergirded by an ideological preoccupation with the supposed “backwardness” of the “Orient.” A mere glance at the world map reveals that the categorization of Moroccan Jewry, for example, as “eastern” on the part of Jews descended from Russia and Poland is ultimately much more about a certain cultural geography than anything else. By the 1980s, mizrahim came to displace ‘edot ha-mizrah, as scholars believed it highlighted the social realities of Israeli discrimination against these communities, while activists had begun to appropriate the term and construct a new identity around it. More recently, some scholars have called for the usage of the category of “Arab Jew.” While not applicable to many different “Mizrahi” populations, it nonetheless underscores how the term “Mizrahi” was a product of a false binary between “Jew” and “Arab” that was presupposed by Zionist teleology.

Dina Danon is an assistant professor of Judaic studies at Binghamton University and the Charles W. And Sally Rothfeld fellow at the Katz Center this year.


Read the other What Do You Know? post here.

Interested in this year’s fellowship themeSubmit your own question here. If it’s answered you will receive a Katz Center tote bag and the gratitude of other readers!

Katz CAJS Blog

Laws on Walls between the Rabbis and Rome // JQR Blog

posted December 4, 2018  

The Roman Empire left many things to the West, from marble columns to an ineffectual Senate, the names of days and months, and a certain martial ideal of masculinity. Perhaps the most important imperial export, and one of pointed import for the birth of Judaism, was the law. Roman law was a marvel, and Rome was committed to both the fact and the idea of legal justice as a central component of their successful ruling strategy. But in a world lit only by fire, how did people get their laws? And how did the first rabbis, who were busily creating an alternative nomos, digest the Roman laws that surrounded them?

There were many conduits of law to the Jews in the Eastern provinces, including Roman court proceedings, which were held in plein air and were popular spectacles; accessible public archives; and martyr stories and other literary forms. (On this see Saul Lieberman’s seminal “Roman Legal Institutions in Early Rabbinics and in the Acta MartyrumJQR 35.1 [1944]—one of his most important English essays.) 

Perhaps most significant was that fact that the rabbis lived in cities in which Roman power was very literally inscribed on the walls all around them. Roman law, like biblical law, makes a point of legislating the particulars of its own dissemination. Second-century Roman jurist Ulpian emphasizes the importance of the public’s apprehension of the imperial legal will: 

By “public notice” we mean one written in clear letters, posted in such a way that it may be read properly from ground level, in front of an inn, for example, or in front of a place of business—not in a hidden place, but in the open (non in loco remoto, sed in evidenti). Should it be written in Greek, or in Latin? I think that depends on the location, lest someone be able to plead ignorance of the letters. (Digest

Jews were exposed thus to Roman enactments no less than other provincials. Indeed the rabbis are bothered by the competition posed by Roman law, and grouse about the enthusiastic attention and reverence the posting of imperial edicts caused among Jews (cf. Sifre Deuteronomy §33; Sifra, Aharei Mot 9.13; Leviticus Rabbah, 27.6; Esther Rabbah, proem 11; and see Tropper in JQR 95.2 [2005]).

These public laws communicated more than a set of do’s and don’ts, they materialized the government’s authority in a range of registers. Cities, for example, displayed civic even outdated laws on walls as a way of recounting their own idealized histories, as we see in the archive wall on the north parados in the theater of Aphrodisias (pictured here). Posted laws thus took on cultural functions and meanings beyond local regulation (cf. Rajak’s 1984 reading of Josephus’s catalogs of Roman laws concerning Jews in this vein).

Katell Berthelot’s essay “The Roman Context of Some Rabbinic Traditions Pertaining to the Revelation of the Torah in Different Languages” in the latest issue of JQR (108.4), looks at a midrashic complex that arises, she argues, precisely at this cultural nexus. The rabbis develop a well-known notion that the law at Sinai was communicated in all the languages of the world. This tradition serves a range of functions in the midrashic corpus, and is often read as a species of rabbinic universalism. Using the law of Ulpian (quoted above) and other sources as evidence, Berthelot suggests a new reading: she ties the tradition to the Deuteronomic scenes of the publication of the Torah on stone (Dt 27.2–8, Josh 8.30–35 and 4.1–10). Together the two motifs suggest their mirroring of Roman practice, and make best sense when seen as a satirical inversion of the Roman legal world surrounding them. 

Why, according to Ulpian, ought Roman edicts be made public in Greek and Latin? So their subjects cannot claim ignorance of them. Taking a page from Rome’s own legal playbook, and trumping it, says the midrash, God demands and justifies his (eventual) punishment of the nations by publishing his own Torah inscribed on stones—in clear sight of the nations and in every human language. There is no excuse for their obduracy now.

In this essay, then, Berthelot sets the rabbis firmly in a Roman world and sees imperial law as a contact zone catalyzing rabbinic creativity and galvanizing literary action and reaction. Berthelot engages other scholarly interpretations of the publication of the law, and her work is part of a rich vein of current scholarly exploration into the impact of Roman law on rabbinic culture during the high empire. Some of the best of this work appears in JQR. Keep your eyes open for forthcoming essays from scholars such as Yakir Paz, Orit Malka, and Yair Furstenberg, among others.

Natalie B. Dohrmann is an editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review.

Library Acquisition: The Photographs of Laurence Salzmann

posted December 3, 2018  

We are delighted to announce the gift by Laurence Salzmann and Ayşe Gürsan-Salzmann of the Laurence Salzmann Photography Collection.


Consisting of over twenty discrete projects, Laurence Salzmann’s interdisciplinary oeuvre of photography, films, and photo-illustrated books spans over fifty years and four continents and is both fine art and unique anthropological field-work. It covers a range of human experiences and geographical locales, from documenting indigenous people in Mexico, Cuba, and Peru, to the last surviving members of Jewish communities in Romania and Turkey, to Black-Jewish relationships in the United States, to Philadelphia local history.

Salzmann will be a featured speaker at the Katz Center's 2018 December Symposium, Jews in Muslim Contexts: Spatial Approaches.

For more information on the Library at the Katz Center, visit






Katz CAJS Blog

Jewish Legal Status under Muslim Rule: Dhimmi // CAJS Blog

posted November 30, 2018  

In the series What Do You Know?, we feature scholars’ answers to questions about Jewish history and culture submitted by our readers.

An anonymous reader writes, 

I would be interested in getting a better understanding of the ebb and flow of dhimmi status over the centuries, and how that affects the way they are treated today.

What does dhimmi mean, where did it come from, and is it still relevant?

Current fellow Mark Wagner answers:

In the seventh century, the nascent Arab-Islamic empire spread rapidly in a very short time. Muslims thus were forced to confront the question of how to deal with the non-Muslims in their midst from the very inception of Islam itself. Though the timing is not yet clear, a basic hierarchy between three groups emerged relatively early: at the top were (Muslim) believers, at the bottom of the hierarchy were unbelievers who should be fought, and there emerged an intermediate category of non-Muslims who had entered into an agreement with the Islamic state. Those in the third category were governed by a set of laws known as a pact, or dhimma in Arabic, and were called collectively ahl al-dhimma—literally “People of the Pact”—or just dhimmis. The term dhimmi is used interchangeably with the phrase “People of the Book,” suggesting that only Jews and Christians, as custodians of a monotheistic scripture, occupied this intermediate place between believers and infidels. However, as the Islamic empire expanded, the dhimmi category came to encompass Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists, sometimes with some rather convoluted and ingenious Muslim attestations to their monotheism.

In exchange for the protection of the Islamic state, dhimmis were expected to pay a special tax, called the jizya. A document known as the Pact of ‘Umar spelled out the details of the agreement between the Islamic state and the dhimmis in considerable detail. Though presented as a product of the mid-seventh century, the Pact of ‘Umar cannot be dated earlier than the mid-ninth century, when it became part of the substance of Islamic law. Its stipulations take for granted the densely populated and diverse urban environment of that ninth-century Iraqi milieu. The Pact of ‘Umar lays out a variety of sumptuary laws, meaning laws whose ostensible purpose was to distinguish non-Muslims from Muslims in social interactions, place limits on non-Muslim behavior, and emphasize the social superiority of Muslims.

Modernist Muslim intellectuals tended to view the jizya as a charge levied in exchange for a valuable privilege—exemption from military conscription. However, it is far from certain that dhimmis could have served in early Islamic armies even if they had wanted to do so. More generally, modern Arab and Muslim historians viewed the invention of dhimmi status as a marked improvement over the majority-minority relations that prevailed prior to Islam. This perspective goes some way to explaining the vehemence of the controversy over dhimmi status between Muslims of varying levels of religiosity and non-Muslims in the West.

One example of a sumptuary law is the stipulation that non-Muslims not ride horses. If they did ride donkeys they had to ride sidesaddle and dismount if a passing Muslim demanded it. There is some debate as to whether such laws were intended to signal social differentiation in societies where a hierarchy was taken for granted or whether they were intended to humiliate non-Muslims. Was a horse a form of military hardware? Or was it a noble animal suitable to be ridden only by a noble (i.e., Muslim) person to ride? Did the Jew ride sidesaddle so that others could tell that a Jew was coming or to make it easy to knock them off their donkey with a good shove? Put another way, were they arbitrary or were they undergirded by the logic that non-Muslims ought to be degraded? In Yemen in the eighteenth century Muslim scholars held a fascinating debate on this very question. Some held that if God wants Jews (there were no indigenous Christians in Yemen) to be humiliated, surely they should perform the most odious forms of sanitation work. Other Muslim scholars countered that the Pact of ‘Umar did not offer a license for innovative forms of cruelty but only the arbitrary rules it initially laid out.   

The Pact of ‘Umar has become a topic of controversy among scholars and outside the academic world. Some recent scholarship has emphasized that, historically, the rules were generally ignored. The fact that some new Muslim rulers re-applied the Pact of ‘Umar to prove their Islamic bona fides suggests that the rules often did fall into desuetude. Nevertheless, the Pact of ‘Umar, like the caliphate, kept its staying power as an Islamic concept of the proper relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims even after it was incrementally abolished by Ottoman decrees in 1839 and 1856, with Iran following suit in 1873.

Some combination of European ideals of political universalism and Ottoman realism about the need to widen the pool of potential military recruits likely provided the impetus for these moves. However, the Ottoman Empire did not control the whole of the Islamic world. In places like Morocco and Yemen, both of which had large Jewish communities, the Pact of ‘Umar’s rules maintained their relevance well into the twentieth century. Moreover, Istanbul’s attempts to do away with the Pact of ‘Umar, possibly as a result of the urging of European powers, stoked existing resentments of non-Muslims. The dhimmi framework of minority communities paying the Islamic state and casting a small shadow in exchange for the right to practice their own religions unmolested was the characteristic form of tolerance in Islamic civilization until the gradual breakdown of communal authority in the modern period and rise of new ideas of citizenship.

In the middle of the twentieth century the large Jewish communities in Morocco, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran left en masse for Israel, France, and elsewhere. In general, the post-colonial regimes of the Middle East and North Africa restricted the sphere of Islamic law to personal status issues and to a loosely defined source of inspiration for current law. However, among countries that underwent a period of radical secularization and subsequently experienced an Islamic reaction in the 1970s and later, the issue of dhimmis having exceeded their proper social roles arose again. Debates over whether or not Coptic Christians should pay the jizya have arisen from time to time in Egypt since the 1980s. In parts of Pakistan under Taliban influence, Sikhs are charged jizya. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh) made similar attempts in places like Mosul in Iraq and in parts of Syria where Christians lived.

Mark Wagner is an associate professor of Arabic at Louisiana State University and a Ruth Meltzer fellow at the Katz Center this year. His most recent book, Jews and Islamic law in Early 20th-Century Yemen, was a National Jewish Book Award finalist in the Sephardic Culture category.



Interested in this year’s fellowship theme of Jewish culture in modern Muslim lands? Submit your own question here. If it’s answered you will receive a Katz Center tote bag and the gratitude of other readers!

Katz CAJS Blog

The Rule of Sevens in Israel and Zionism // JQR Blog

posted November 29, 2018  

The current issue of JQR includes a set of short essays on particular years of import in the history of Israel and Zionism—all of which, as it happens, end in seven. The essays themselves, linked below, are available with a subscription. Here on the blog, we excerpt JQR coeditor David N. Myers’s introduction to the lot.

Commemorative years are, in a purely logical sense, artifices, no more consequential than the preceding or following year. And yet, they assume lives of their own through the symbolic and affective meanings that we ascribe to them, granting them a presence that is real and full of impact, and projecting an organizing or reorienting focus onto the past. Of course, commemorative years also afford us an opportunity to reflect on the import of past events and the ways in which they continue to inform the present.

The year 2017 is an example of some distinction, particularly for the history of Zionism and Israel. The idea of devoting a forum to 2017 arose, as with so many good ideas at JQR, from our late colleague, Elliott Horowitz z"l, who thought that we should try our hand at offering a fifty-year retrospective on 1967, an undeniably consequential year in the history of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As we bounced ideas around, we decided to expand the focus to include other years that end in "7" and see what came of it. And thus we came up with five key years: 1897, 1917, 1947, 1967, and 1977.

JQR asked the five forum participants to gauge the resonances of these key dates up to the present, and the result is an illuminating, if necessarily incomplete, history of the path to Jewish statehood and its multiple effects. Their critical analysis surfaces both achievements and failings of the Zionist project and Israel, as seen from the perspective of 2017.


Derek Penslar opens the forum by juxtaposing the founding meetings of the world Zionist organization and the Jewish socialist Bund, both in the year 1897. He argues that the revolutionary fervor of the Bund did not yield tangible results over time, while Zionism, for all its fractious divisions, did realize its revolutionary dream when a sovereign Jewish state was seated at the United Nations in 1949. Penslar charts some of the evolving and competing sensibilities within Zionism, as well as a number of the unforeseen consequences of the movement that would likely make Theodor Herzl, the founding father of political Zionism, both proud and disappointed if he were to see the state today.


Liora Halperin tackles the impact of the Balfour Declaration, the tersely worded endorsement by the British government on November 2 calling for "a national home for the Jewish people." One hundred years after the Declaration was announced, Halperin identifies a deeply embedded paradox in the document that was present at birth. The support of Western powers, as epitomized by Balfour, has not only been a key source of Zionism's claim to international legitimacy. It has also been a prime cause for the abiding enmity of the Arab world toward Zionism, which it regards as a "highly malevolent colonial force." As Halperin casts it, Balfour was a Faustian bargain which Zionists were in no position to refuse, but which contained the seeds of persistent—perhaps unending—discontent.


Zvi Ben-Dor Benite picks up the story of Zionism's quest for validation with United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181, from November 29, 1947, that called for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. He observes the date's hybrid and ambiguous status in Israeli public culture: it is known as "Kaf-tet be-November," a formulation that mixes Hebrew letter-numbers as used in traditional Jewish dating and the gentile month. Ben-Dor Benite then moves on to suggest that the UN Resolution belonged to a unique moment in history, the "long 1947" in which territorial partition was attempted in many different conflict zones around the world including India, Korea, Germany, and Vietnam. The results of this experiment in conflict resolution were decidedly mixed; in some cases, the partition plans were replaced by unification processes of varying degrees of success, and in others, by the continuation of tension-filled divisions of terrain (as in the Koreas). Ben-Dor Benite concludes by noting that Israel's Proclamation of Independence, declared less than six months after Resolution 181, contains some of the earlier decree's language about minority rights, whose fulfillment remains incomplete to this day.


Seth Anziska takes stock of the effects of the 1967 Six-Day War over the course of the past half-century. He recalls at the outset the prediction of the iconoclastic Israeli scientist and philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, shortly after the war's completion, that his country's lightning victory was a major step toward "the liquidation of the state of Israel as the state of the Jewish people." Leibowitz's prognostication was a cry in the wilderness, swept away by the powerful euphoria of both religious and secular Israelis in the war's aftermath. And yet, Anziska argues, there is much in Leibowitz's early admonition that merits our attention today. Israel's occupation of territories conquered in 1967 has the appearance of permanence and serves as an obstacle to the Palestinians' drive for national self-determination. The occupation has been enabled, Anziska observes, by an unbridled celebration of political and military power that is new to Jewish history. At the same time, the 1967 war echoed loudly in the Arab world, inducing an introspective critique of secular nationalism that yielded, among other unintended consequences, a powerful new Islamist voice.


Avraham Shilon explains the significance of 1977, the year of the bombshell known as the Mahapakh (upheaval) in Israeli politics. In that year, the long-time Israeli opposition leader Menachem Begin led his Likud party to an electoral triumph, thereby ending thirty years of Labor Party rule. In analyzing this highly consequential development, Shilon isolates two interrelated factors: ethnicity and religiosity. Begin's victory had everything to do with the growing support of Mizrahim, Jews of Middle Eastern origin, who increasingly felt abandoned by Labor and more and more drawn to Likud. According to Shilon, the Mizrahim's middle ground in religious matters—neither fully Orthodox nor secular but rather "traditional"—resonated with Begin's own attitude to Judaism. Their shared reverence for religious tradition was a key factor in the Mahapakh, cementing a deep emotional bond despite the fact that Begin himself was the epitome of a Polish-born Ashenazi Jew. And this shared reverence remains a key element in the fact that parties of the right have led governing coalitions in Israel for thirty-two of the forty years since 1977.


David N. Myers is coeditor of the Jewish Quarterly Review


Follow the links above or read the whole issue via Project Muse. A subscription is required; log in through your institution’s library or buy an individual subscription here.

Katz CAJS Blog

Rabbis, Academics, and Binaries // CAJS Blog

posted November 29, 2018   

This week, the Katz Center welcomed a cohort of rabbis to begin a year-long collaboration. They are participating in the LEAP program, a partnership now in its fourth productive year with Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. This remarkable, interdenominational group will visit the Center three times this year and learn from a variety of fellows and colleagues to explore the depth of research being carried out in the area of our current fellowship theme, Jewish culture in modern Islamic contexts. 

Participating rabbis come from all over the country, and after each visit return to their congregations and constituencies to interpret and extend what they have learned. This session, featuring seminars with current fellow Yuval Evri, Penn professor (and shaper of the theme) Heather Sharkey, and Katz Center director Steven Weitzman, exploded any preconceived notions we may have had about Jewish history in the Near and Middle East, relations with Muslim neighbors there, and ripples of that history today.

One participant, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, writes a well-known blog as the Velveteen Rabbi and blogged about the experience. She wrote that Evri “invited us to think beyond easy and simplistic narratives, both the pretty story of interfaith utopia and the ugly story of inevitable persecution, as we engage with the ideas and realities of Jews in Arab lands.” Click through to read the rest of her post, “Arab Jews, and complicating our binaries.”

Barenblat’s comments encapsulate not only the content of this week’s LEAP seminar, but also its achievement in softening the boundaries that often separate academic discussions from rabbinic ones.


Anne Albert is the Center’s Klatt Family Director for Public Programs.

Katz CAJS Blog

Joel Kraemer – Death of a Scholar

posted November 28, 2018 

Below is a celebration of the life and scholarship of Professor Joel Kraemer (1933–2018) written by JQR contributor Mordechai A. Friedman (his pieces can be found here and here). Kraemer was a great pioneer of Judeo-Islamic studies, a lovely human being, and a generous teacher of many students, some of whom are currently at the Katz Center both among staff and fellows.

Professor Joel L. Kraemer died on Thursday, October 11, 2018, in Chicago. His contributions to the fields of Maimonidean, Judeo-Arabic, and Islamic studies are invaluable. 

Joel, the son of a clothier, was born in Newark, New Jersey, on June 11, 1933, and grew up in Paterson, N.J. In 1954, he completed his B.A. degree at Rutgers University, where he majored in Philosophy. He was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and graduated Magna Cum Laude. Simultaneously, he studied at the Seminary College of Jewish Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), New York, where he was awarded a Bachelor of Hebrew Literature degree. From 1954 to 1959, Kraemer attended the Rabbinical School of JTS and received a MHL degree and ordination. At JTS he studied with giants of scholarship and Jewish thought like Professors Saul Lieberman ("the teacher who had the most influence upon me and occupies the most space in my scholarly conscience"1) and Abraham Joshua Heschel. 

From 1960 to 1963, Kraemer taught philosophy of religion at JTS and began graduate studies at Columbia University. In 1963, he transferred to Yale, where he began his studies with Professor Franz Rosenthal, the eminent scholar of Arabic, Islam, Semitic languages and Greco-Arabic studies. Rosenthal supervised Joel's doctoral dissertation, which he completed in 1967. ("I plunged deeply into Arabic and Islam and did my dissertation on a Muslim philosopher, abandoning for a while Maimonides and Jewish thought.") Joel expressed his gratitude years later by recommending Rosenthal for an honorary doctorate at TAU. In his essay "My Teachers" Kraemer paid moving tribute to the scholars who inspired him. 

During 1967–1971, Kraemer taught religious studies, and Arabic and Islamic studies at Yale. In 1971, Joel and his wife Roberta settled in Israel, where they raised their daughters, Judy, Suzie and Sarah. Joel took a faculty position in the Department of Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, where he was head of the Islamic Studies Program from 1972–1992 and was promoted to full professor in 1986. After Roberta's death he moved to Chicago, where he lived with his second wife Aviva. He began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1993 and served as John Henry Barrows Professor of Jewish Studies until his retirement in 2003. 

Joel Kraemer was a Renaissance man. "The ideal type of the Jewish intellectual in the Andalusian milieu was someone possessing adab (Arabic, 'cultural refinement'; cf. Greek paideia)."2  He was at home in Greek and Latin no less than in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, as well modern languages such as French and German. His research demonstrated his uncompromising intellectual integrity, grasp of major trends in thought and historical processes, comprehensive purview, critical analysis and philological precision in reading texts. He was a perceptive auditor and skilled participant in the majlis of savants who discussed philosophy and theology and an astute observer in the Geniza market place. 

Kraemer's natural inclinations and Yale training are discernable in his companion volumes published in 1986: Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam: The Cultural Revival during the Buyid Age (2nd rev. ed., 1992) and Philosophy in the Renaissance of Islam: Abū Sulaymān al-Sijistānī and His Circle (1986; which had its origin in his doctoral dissertation). Joel's mastery of Arabic and expertise in historical writing are attested in his annotated translation of Ta'rīkh al-rusul wa'l-mulūk (The History of al-Ṭabarī), volume 34 (1989). 

The interplay between Islam and Judaism infused Kraemer's research. He had a keen interest in Maimonides, and here the classical heritage and its transmission in the Middle Ages again became leading actors. One of his first articles was "Alfarabi's Opinions of the Virtuous City and Maimonides’ Foundations of the Law" (1979). ("The central thesis of this paper is that Maimonides, in enumerating the fundamental principles in the part of The Book of Knowledge called Yesode ha-Torah [...], modelled his design upon that of Alfarabi [...] along with the Platonic, Aristotelian, and pagan Neoplatonic features of Alfarabi's thought, we must take into account the impact upon him of Christian theology, particularly of the Alexandrian Platonic school.") 

Kraemer's passion for Maimonidean studies became the major focus of his research. Maimonides's great compositions, especially the Guide (Dalāla), captivated him. After he read Leo Strauss's Persecution and the Art of Writing, Kraemer wrote: "I learned how to read with meticulous care and absolute seriousness The Guide of the Perplexed and other texts I had been studying."3 Professor Shlomo Pines had a profound influence on Kraemer as well. 

Maimonide' life and its historical setting enthralled Kraemer. In pursuing the study of the master's biography Joel saw Professor S. D. Goitein as a role model. Kraemer immersed himself in Geniza research and searched for new manuscript sources. He identified previously unknown autographs of Maimonides and other Judeo-Arabic fragments associated with the master and published many of these in exemplary editions. 

Joel began studying Maimonides' writings as a fourteen year old at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. The crowning achievement of this lifelong study, and indeed of Kraemer's academic career, was his majestic magnum opus, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds (2008, published in 11 formats and editions). The book's five chapters, written with Kraemer's typical erudition, eloquence, and precision, follow Maimonides' life and writings in geographical-chronological sequence and include topics ranging from "Did Maimonides Convert to Islam?," "Saladin and the Ayyubids," and "Zuta the Wicked," to "Epistle to Yemen," "The Treatise on Resurrection," and "Epistle on Astrology and Lunel Correspondence." 

Kraemer's Maimonides flowed from a careful reading of authenticated sources and disciplined analysis. In this, he distanced himself from many who wrote on Maimonides. "Where there are gaps in Maimonides' biography, they are often filled with legend and surmise, so that his life is surrounded by a halo of myth. Unfortunately, most biographies are derived from secondary literature and fail to distinguish between fact and fiction" (Maimonides, p. 6). He delineated this divide not only in the past but also in relation to contemporary biographers and did not hesitate to take to task students of Maimonides who in his opinion did not use sound philological methods and rigid reasoning. Kraemer's sharp criticism resonates in his papers "How (Not) to Read The Guide of the Perplexed" (2006) and "Is There a Text in This Class?" (2008). 

Joel credited Goitein for planting the seed from which the book blossomed. "When I invited Professor Goitein to give a lecture on Maimonides' life at a conference on Maimonides in Egypt, he excused himself for health reasons, suggesting that I give the lecture instead. He had uncanny insight into what people should be doing, and his idea inspired me to write this biography" (Maimonides, p. xi). The research entailed reviewing an extensive bibliography and list of manuscripts. These covered 88 pages, omitted from the printed volume but available online

Kraemer's Geniza research engendered two grand projects to edit, translate, and analyze texts, which remain incomplete. He titled one "More Precious than Rubies: Women's Letters from the Cairo Geniza." In his view, the scholarly publication of these letters was a step toward redressing the historical silencing of women by men. Joel collected more than 180 letters, mostly from the tenth through the thirteenth centuries, written in Judeo- Arabic and Hebrew, some as late as the seventeenth century, written in Judeo-Spanish and Yiddish. He presented an overview and master plan in his panoramic articles "Women's Letters from the Cairo Geniza: A Preliminary Study" (Hebrew, 1995) and "Women Speak for Themselves" (2002). An enlightening and unique sample appears in "Spanish Ladies from the Cairo Geniza" (1991). More than a decade ago, Kraemer concluded that the completion of this project would be beyond his reach. Rather than relegate the material to the stockpile of unfinished works of Geniza researchers, he sought a competent scholar who might undertake the project. Renee Levine Melammed's willingness to do so and the progress she has made gave him much satisfaction. 

The second project, the publication of Maimonides' personal correspondence and other relevant documents from the Geniza, was an integral part of a comprehensive undertaking to publish a scholarly translation of Maimonides' epistles with detailed annotation and introductions. The Yale Judaica Series commissioned this book, and Kraemer worked on it for several decades. It has progressed to an advanced stage of preparation and when published will comprise more than a thousand pages. After years of poor health, Joel looked for a younger scholar, familiar with Judeo-Arabic and the Geniza, who would assist him in completing the project. He was most pleased that Zvi Stampfer agreed to join him in this endeavor and praised his contribution. 

"He never wavered, and his life trajectory never departed from its course. He was ultimately committed from start to finish to a passion, a labor of love—to philology, meaning the study of ancient texts, editing, translating and interpreting as a way of discovering new knowledge about human civilizations. He was devoted single-mindedly to learning, craving no other ambition. He was an authentic scholar in the great tradition of Orientalism." Kraemer wrote these words as a tribute to the late Paul Kraus but admitted that he was thinking of Franz Rosenthal as he was writing (Kraemer, "Death of an Orientalist," 1999; "How [Not] to Read"). As often is the case when one writes an encomium, Kraemer almost certainly gave expression in these words to his own passion for scholarly authenticity as well. 

Kraemer's outstanding contributions to scholarship were recognized by prestigious awards, grants and guest lectureships. In 1998, he was elected Fellow of the American Academy of Jewish Research. A Festschrift in his honor, Adaptations and Innovations: Studies on the Interaction of Jewish and Islamic Thought and Literature from the Early Middle Ages to the Late Twentieth Century (edited by Y. T. Langermann and J. Stern) appeared in 2007. (It includes an encomium to Kraemer in Langermann's preface, and a biographical sketch by Stern, and Kraemer's "My Teachers.") 

Joel was a warm, affable man, who often gave freely of his time, sound advice and unwavering support. He was active in the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies and served as its Vice President for eight years (1997–2005). 

In an email of March 30, 2018, Joel wrote me: "I am making good progress incorporating Zvi Stampfer’s comments into my text of the Yale book and updating and polishing it. I would have drawn a line and omitted information that came available after a certain date. However, some books and articles had such direct bearing on my presentation that I simply could not ignore them. So I’m in a race with מלאך המוות .”

Joel lost the race. His death leaves unfillable emptiness. The loss to Maimonidean, Judeo-Arabic and Islamic Studies is immense. The personal loss is painful. His family, loved ones, friends, colleagues and students will sorely miss him. 





Mordechai Akiva Friedman, Tel Aviv University

1 Kraemer’s essay "My Teachers" can be found in a Festschrift in his honor: Adaptations and Innovations: Studies on the Interaction between Jewish and Islamic Thought and Literature from the Early Middle Ages to the Late Twentieth Century, ed. Y. Tzvi Langermann and Josef Stern (Paris 2007)
2 Kraemer, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds (New York, 2008), 5.
Maimonides, ix.

The Convert and the Concubine: A Story of Love, Islam, and Halakhic Flexibility // Alan Verskin // CAJS Blog

posted November 26, 2018 

This year at the Katz Center the fellows have spoken about how little research has been conducted on modern Jewish legal sources from Islamic lands. With this in mind, I’m presenting one such source to show the promise that legal texts have for shedding light on both social and intellectual history.

The text below* is a legal question sent to Rabbi Raphael Berdugo (1747–1821) of Meknes (Morocco), a prominent rabbinic authority, and his response. The question deals with a particularly delicate case concerning the marriage of an outwardly Muslim crypto-Jew. We know of this individual and his wife from no other sources, since their precarious existence depended on great secrecy. Each section of the responsum is followed by my own explanatory commentary.

Reuben had been married to Dinah for several years when he became defiled [i.e., converted to Islam], exchanging good for evil. Despite this, however, he still safeguarded himself from all evil things—he neither ate their bread nor drank from their cups. Moreover, he remained married to his wife Dinah who observed with him all the laws of menstrual and post-partum purity, as do the daughters of Israel.

Commentary: Reuben and Dinah (pseudonyms for a Jewish husband and wife) remained married even after Reuben’s conversion to Islam, an arrangement permitted by Islamic law. We don’t know why or under what circumstances Reuben converted to Islam, but it is clear that, despite the conversion, he kept himself apart from Muslims by avoiding eating with them and secretly observing Jewish law. By continuing to practice Judaism, Reuben placed himself in a risky position, because Islamic law regarded conversions to Islam as permanent and imposed the death penalty on converts who reverted to their former religion. 

Question, continued:
But then the aforementioned husband and wife quarreled and he gave her a bill of divorce. She left and was betrothed to Simon—that is, there was “marriage but not intercourse.” On the very next day, the aforementioned woman did not find favor in Simon’s eyes and he gave her a bill of divorce. And the woman “remained without her two sons” [i.e., without her two husbands; see Ruth 1:5], the aforementioned Reuben and Simon. She wandered in search of bread, bereaved and desolate.

Commentary: The couple fought and Reuben divorced Dinah. The consequences of the divorce for her were serious. Life was difficult for an unattached woman in this period, and it therefore comes as no surprise that she attempted to remarry. Yet, despite the engagement, the new marriage was never consummated. Dinah was divorced and left in a situation of extreme precariousness, one that is compared to the biblical Naomi’s bereavement of her two sons. 

Question, continued:
Then came the day when Reuben wanted to take back his former wife, the aforementioned Dinah, because he felt  that the gates of light had been locked  for him and that all of the world was dark since the day he divorced his wife. He wandered the wandering of a man [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 26a: “The wandering of a man is more difficult than that of a woman”], and remained wandering, finding no rest for his feet. Soon he would he would stumble, falling in with a nashgaz [a menstrually-impure woman, bondmaiden, non-Jew, or prostitute], and all his efforts and safeguarding of himself would be for nought.

He was unable to marry anyone, Jew or non-Jew. Any wife other than Dinah, who was already known to all the non-Jews and Jews as having been his wife while he was still Jewish, would be a danger to all the world. Were he to marry another woman, there is no doubt that they [the Muslims] would raise an outcry against him against which there is no remedy… 

Inform us, oh teacher, what the judgement is for this man, weak and thin. Perhaps an Israelite soul will be saved if he is able to make her his concubine without a marriage contract (ketubah) and without a marriage ceremony (kiddushin), because to reunite with her by means of a marriage contract and ceremony is against the law since scripture says: “Her first husband, [who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled” (Deuteronomy 24: 4)].

Commentary: This part of the question describes the legal crisis in which Reuben and Dinah find themselves. Reuben wants to remarry Dinah, but Jewish and Islamic law render opposing judgments on this issue. Jewish law forbids a man from remarrying his ex-wife if she has married someone else in the interim. In contrast, Islamic law allows a man to remarry his ex-wife only if she has married someone else in the interim. Thus, to the extent that Reuben is Jewish, he cannot remarry Dinah. Abandonment of Judaism must therefore have been a very great temptation for this couple given that only Islamic law facilitated their reunification.

The author of the question to Rabbi Berdugo has additional concerns. If Reuben does not marry Dinah, two undesirable outcomes are possible. If he were to marry a Jewish woman, he would place her in danger of converting to Islam, and would perhaps add to doubts among Muslims regarding the sincerity of his conversion. If he instead sought non-Jewish sexual companionship, he would violate the Jewish prohibition against cohabiting with a non-Jewish woman. All potential solutions to Reuben’s problem are thus Jewishly and socially problematic, and there is also the concern that Dinah lacks the protection that comes from family. 

Berdugo’s answer is long and will be given here only in summary. First, he emphasizes the explicit scriptural prohibition on the remarriage of such a couple: “Her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled” (Deuteronomy 24:4). The fact that Dinah’s second marriage was not consummated does not offer a loophole. Reuben’s distressing circumstances and the imminent danger of his cohabitation with a non-Jewish woman does, however, impact Berdugo’s decision. He values Reuben’s efforts at “safeguarding himself” and is concerned that if nothing is done, “a soul will be lost from Israel.” Quoting the Talmud, Berdugo notes that the prohibition of remarriage only applies to formal remarriage (kiddushin). A loophole is thus opened. Reuben may take his wife back as a concubine (pilegesh), an institution which, although prohibited by most rabbinic authorities, was permitted by some medieval Andalusian rabbis. Any concerns about violating rabbinic prohibitions of concubinage, Berdugo says, are outweighed by the value of saving a Jewish soul and he thus allows the couple to be reunited. 

Berdugo’s solution was to reunite Reuben and Dinah in a sexual relationship that was not acknowledged as a marital one. The requirements of family law are sublimated to concerns about practical safety and family happiness. To accomplish this, Berdugo reached back into his own Jewish Andalusian heritage to search for a legal precedent that might justify his own sense of justice, and found it in the Andalusian Jewish practice of concubinage. Through the application of this obscure and unlikely precedent, Berdugo created a halakhic framework that ensured that this vulnerable Jewish couple could provide companionship and solace to one another amid the clashing laws of Judaism and Islam. 

*Source: Raphael Berdugo, Mishpatim Yesharim (Krakow, 1891), no. 170.

Alan Verskin is an associate professor at the University of Rhode Island and the Louis Apfelbaum and Hortense Braunstein Apfelbaum Fellow at the Katz Center this year. His most recent book is A Vision of the Yemen: The Travels of a European Orientalist and His Native Guide.

Katz Center Fellow Alma Heckman on Moroccanness and Jewishness // CAJS Blog

posted November 21, 2018 

This blog post is part of a series focused on the research of current fellows. In this edition, Steven Weitzman sits down with Alma Heckman to explore her research project, "Radical Roads Not Taken: Moroccan Jewish Trajectories, 1925–1975." Heckman is the Neufeld-Levin Chair in Holocaust Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz and assistant professor in the Department of History. She received her PhD from UCLA.



Steven P. Weitzman (SPW): Can you tell us a bit about how you came to your scholarly interests?

Alma Heckman (AH): I majored in Middle Eastern Studies and French at Wellesley College. One fateful semester, I took Professor Frances Malino's HIST 219: The Jews of Spain and the Lands of Islam. This course, and Fran's mentorship, launched my career trajectory. I also had fantastic mentors in Professors Anjali Prabhu and Rachid Aadnani, who taught me to critically examine Jewish exilic experience in Francophone Maghribi literature and taught me Arabic, particularly Arabic literature in Morocco, respectively. After graduating from college, I had a Fulbright to study all manner of Jewish subjects in Morocco. I volunteered at the Jewish Museum in Casablanca as part of my Fulbright, where I met the late great Simon Lévy, who inspired my doctoral dissertation and current book project. Simon Lévy was the founder and director of the Jewish Museum in Casablanca; he was also an ardent Communist militant and nationalist who saw Jewishness as an integral part of Moroccanness. My interactions with Lévy and many of my experiences during my Fulbright in Morocco, combined with a pre-existing interest in exile literature from the Maghreb, led me to questions regarding Jewish participation in Morocco's anti-colonial struggle and Jewish political belonging in the post-independence Moroccan state. 

SPW: What project have you been working on here at the Katz Center?

AH: I have been working on my book manuscript, tentatively entitled Radical Nationalists: Moroccan Jewish Communists and the Politics of Belonging. I am interested in the Jews that stayed in Morocco after independence and their political activism in the crosshairs of Zionism, colonialism, and Arab nationalism. The chapters extend from the very beginning of leftist movements and demographic upheaval in the 1920s, through the high point of political activism in the immediate post-World War II period, to Morocco’s repressive post-independence political history in the 1970s, concluding with a discussion of the 1990s and the Moroccan state’s lionization of its Jewish past. This bracket connects the enormous demographic and ideological shifts within Morocco’s Jewish population, Moroccanized Communism, and the power of the Moroccan state in both the colonial and Cold War contexts. I structure the book's chapters around several major Jewish figures in the Moroccan Communist Party, including Simon Lévy. The source base is multilingual and wide-reaching — I use French, Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, and English language sources that I have gathered across personal, organizational, and state archives between Morocco, France, Israel, the UK, and the USA. I make use of a number of genres of document, including French and Spanish Protectorate documents, newspapers and documents from the Moroccan Jewish community and a number of political organizations, personal papers belonging to Jewish members of the Moroccan Communist Party members, oral histories, novels, and more. 


SPW: During an excellent seminar that you led, you introduced the fellows to some of the Moroccan radicals that are the subject of your research. Since these figures all seemed secular, communist, and cosmopolitan in their orientation, what makes their story a Jewish story? 

AH: All of the figures I write about identified as Jewish, and saw their Jewishness as somehow intrinsic to their Moroccanness and political activism. However, that does not mean that they identified Jewishly consistently  a few of the figures I write about sought "true human emancipation" in the Marxist sense, seeking to surpass their Jewishness, only to return to it later in life, exemplified in the palimpsestic historical writing of Edmond Amran El Maleh, another prominent Jewish figure in the Moroccan Communist Party. I am interested in a number of theoretical frameworks for addressing this point of "what is Jewish about this"  not least of which is Isaac Deutscher's famous formulation of the "non-Jewish Jew"  and the way in which some of the "non-Jewish Jews" become more akin to "State Jews" in the manner of Pierre Birnbaum, or, in a different vein, Daniel Schroeter's writing on "the Sultan's Jew." Fundamentally, what makes their story a Jewish story is that it sheds light on modes of Jewish nationalism and patriotism in the 20th century in ways that have often been overlooked, that they identified and were identified by others as Jews, and that the Moroccan Jewish Communists I write about shared the same historic upheavals as the mass majority of Moroccan Jews who chose to leave Morocco during the 1950s and 1960s but, quite interestingly, decided to stay. 

SPW: What makes their story a distinctively Moroccan one?

AH: While Jews were members of Communist Parties across the Middle East and North Africa, the Moroccan case is different for a few reasons. One is the long standing of the Alawite dynasty in Morocco, that preceded and survived colonial rule. Another is the historic relationships Jews had to Moroccan governing authorities in Morocco; another still is the more familiar story of Gallicization via the Alliance Israélite Universelle. A crucial factor in Morocco's story with Communism is the connection to the Spanish Civil War, Spanish Civil War refugees, the Vichy years, and the post-independence Moroccan state's navigation among Cold War powers and regional politics. The Moroccan state also has had quite a different relationship to Israel than its neighbors, complicating the story of Jewish outmigration, citizenship, and identification in fascinating ways. These are just a few distinctive things that render this project particularly Moroccan.


SPW: Another project you've been working on involves transcribing and digitizing the testimony of Jewish refugees who fled to North Africa to escape the Holocaust. What has that experience taught you about the Holocaust that may be less familiar to readers only familiar with the experience of those who migrated to America or Israel?

AH: In an attempt to be succinct, I will say that the Holocaust had expansive and diverse implications for Jews in the Middle East and North Africa. At the same time as European Jewish and political refugees sought safe haven and ultimately transport to the Americas through North Africa, Vichy authorities established anti-Semitic legislation, stripped Algerian Jews of their French citizenship (which had been established by the 1870 Crémieux decree), and pre-existing political tensions developed into more radicalized trajectories that would bear fruit in the post war period and the struggles for national independence. It is important to consider the overlap of European Jewish refugee populations with local North African Jewish populations, their social and political interactions, all of which ultimately did a great deal to shape American Jewish philanthropic interventions in the post-war period in North Africa, up until today in the case of Morocco.


Katz CAJS Blog

New Issue of the Jewish Quarterly Review: Fall 2018

posted November 19, 2018 

Just in time for Thanksgiving, JQR 108.4 is now available, online* and in print. This issue features essays on Roman and rabbinic law, the Cairo genizah, and Solomon Schechter, plus a cornucopia of short-form scholarship. Read up now, and have something fascinating to talk about around the holiday table.


Katell Berthelot examines a rabbinic tradition about the translation of the Torah into seventy languages. Against a universalist reading, Berthelot argues that the rabbis developed an image of Torah made available to the nations as a way to justify holding Rome accountable—and punishable—for its failure to maintain the laws of Torah. She underscores the subversion in this move by tracing where the midrash borrows and repurposes Roman norms for the dissemination of laws.

Rebecca Jefferson turns a careful eye on early accounts of the discovery and distribution of documents from the Cairo genizah, to show that the understanding that has come down to us of a single genizah discovered all at once does not reflect the real course of events. Multiple relocations and reorganizations of this material cast the provenience of many Cairo manuscripts in a different light.

David Starr and Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern reveal a new side of the larger-than-life Solomon Schechter—Romanian Hasid turned Cambridge professor, master of the Cairo genizah, and founder of American Conservative Judaism. His earliest extant work, published anonymously, is a parody of contemporary hasidic life and shows Schechter as a writer of extraordinary creativity, humor, iconoclasm, and religious complexity.

Notes: Short Essays

In an essay we have made available for free without a subscription, Jonathan Klawans calls out the element of deception in ancient source material making false claims of authorship. He sets such “pseudepigraphic” literature among other sorts of forgeries, asking why we tend to exempt it from moral condemnation. Klawans suggests that grappling with ancient lies may also help us recognize modern ones.

Taking up the question of forgery from another angle, Matan Orian dissects a purported letter from the Seleucid king Demetrius I reproduced in the first book of Maccabees. Orian observes that the letter is usually viewed as a fake, but may actually have been intended as ironic. 


Coeditor David N. Myers curates a forum on 2017 as a commemorative year in the history of Israel and Zionism. With contributions from Derek Penslar, Liora Halperin, Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Seth Anziska, and Avi Shilon, it acknowledges the complexity of each moment: the first Zionist congress of 1897, the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the 1947 UN Security Council resolution that paved the way for Israeli independence, the 1967 war, and the 1977 mahapakh, or upheaval within the Israeli electorate.

Review Forum

Finally, two art historians weigh in on the monumental exhibition on medieval Jerusalem mounted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2016–17, and its published catalogue. Lawrence Nees and Cathleen Fleck write about the catalogue’s accomplishments and drawbacks in capturing the city’s cultural multiplicity, sometimes at the expense of deeper engagement. 

Finally, we also have our annual listing of books received by JQR for review, available online only. 


Check back here on the JQR Blog for more content related to these pieces in the coming weeks.


*The most recent four years of JQR are distributed online exclusively by Project Muse, where most articles are available to subscribers only. Log in through your home library for institutional access or see for individual subscriptions.

Katz Center Fellow Yuval Evri on Arab-Jewish Thought and Modern Hebrew & Arabic Literatures // CAJS Blog

posted November 8, 2018 

This blog post is part of a series focused on the research of current fellows. In this edition, Steven Weitzman sits down with Yuval Evri to explore his research project, "Between Partitions and Translations: Arab-Jewish Cultural Visions at the Turn of the Twentieth Century." 

Steven P. Weitzman (SPW): Your work is remarkable for the way it is able to move between Jewish and Palestinian or Arabic culture in the early twentieth century. Can you share with us what led you to your interest?

Yuval Evri (YE): The turn of the twentieth century in Palestine is usually portrayed from a nationalist perspective in historical literature. It is perceived as a period dominated by national, ethnic, and religious separations; as a time of emerging national movements—Zionist and Palestinian—as empires waned; and as the starting point of the Israeli-Palestinian national conflict. The dominant scholarly literature focuses mainly on the creation of separate and hostile national entities, emphasizing the partition mechanisms that created cultural, social, and political boundaries between Jews and Arabs. In this context, partitions apply not only to division of the land but also to the separation of disciplines, traditions, histories, and languages: between Hebrew and Arabic, Judaism and Islam, Jewishness and Arabness, East and West, Israel and Palestine. 

I wanted to propose a different approach towards this dramatic era, focusing on the Arab-Jewish perspective. By exploring the cultural activities of a group of Arab-Jewish intellectuals in early twentieth-century Palestine, my work seeks not only to reveal forgotten voices, but also to open up new political and cultural horizons and opportunities that transcend existing national and disciplinary divisions. 

Focusing on the Arab-Jewish perspective opens new horizons beyond simply revealing "missing stories" or "missing figures" in modern Jewish history. It has enabled me to engage the history of Israel/Palestine through the lens of the contact zones and borderland, and with historical events from multiple approaches and prisms, drawing on multiple geographies and loyalties. The approach can also challenge and problematize some of the basic assumptions, categorizations, and terminology that organize official (Jewish and Arab) historiographies. It destabilizes the clear-cut separations between Jews and Arabs; Hebrew and Arabic; Israel and the Middle East; West and East that are placed at the core of the official political and historical discourse. The Arab-Jewish perspective also challenges the imaginary geography which positions Jewish history mainly as an integral part of Europe and Western civilization while disassociating itself from the Middle East and the Arab world. It reveals a different set of geographies that position Jewish history also in the context of Middle Eastern history. Instead of imagining purified national territories and societies with clear border lines, an Arab-Jewish perspective draws a different map with thick borderlands which represent complexed and intertwined spatial connections, showing how the story of Jews and Arabs in Palestine is embedded in, shaped by, and reacts to complex historical contexts. Moreover, this approach enables us to downplay the dominance of the nationalistic elements in the story of Palestine during the mandate era and introduce new social and cultural dimensions such as: class, gender, language, cultural orientation, social status, geographical location, which usually cross the national boundary lines.


SPW: Can you tell us about the project you are here to advance at the Katz Center this semester?

YE: The research project that I am working on during my fellowship at the Katz Center focuses on the cultural visions and activities of a group of Arab-Jewish intellectuals in early twentieth-century Palestine. At the center of the cultural work of this group of intellectuals is a vision of a seemingly lost world: Islamic “al-Andalus” or “Sefarad” of the tenth–twelfth centuries. This was the famous “Golden Age” of Jewish intellectual life, the age of great thinkers and poets such as Maimonides, Moses Ibn-Ezra, and Yehuda Halevi, who were inextricably linked to Arabic poetry and Islamic philosophy while advancing the study of Jewish law and Hebrew philology and poetry. In light of this intertwined cultural heritage, the Arab-Jewish intellectuals in Palestine viewed their time as an “Andalusian moment” in which Jews and Muslims came together in a shared homeland, as they did in medieval Iberia before the expulsion. They tried to revive this medieval vision as a social and political platform for modern Jewish-Arab coexistence in Palestine.

The prominent members of this intellectual group were Yosef Meyouhas, Abraham Shalom Yahuda, David Yellin, Isaac Benjamin Yahuda, and Abraham Elmalih. Born in Palestine in the second half of the nineteenth century, they were part of a growing circle of native scholars whose intellectual activities encompassed ethnographic research, philology, translation, journalism, and education. During the late Ottoman Era, they were active members in both Hebrew and Arabic revival movements. While the increasing hostility between Jews and Arabs opened a linguistic breach between Hebrew and Arabic, they insisted on holding on to both languages, positioning themselves in the borderland between them, and using translation as a political and cultural tool. They published hundreds of essays, political commentaries, translations, short stories, and poems, mostly in local Hebrew and Arabic newspapers and journals, marking the first modern phenomenon of Arabic-Hebrew literary bilingualism since the great Arab-Jewish poets of medieval al-Andalus. Their perception of al-Andalus led to fierce disputes with leading European Jewish scholars over the interpretation and representation of the Andalusian Jewish "Golden Age." While European scholars emphasized Hebrew separatist elements, they emphasized its multilingual, translational, and interreligious aspects.

My research focuses on four of their major translational projects, all translations from Arabic to Hebrew: Yalde Arav (Children of Arabia), a collection of biblical tales from the Arab-Palestinian oral tradition by Yosef Meyouhas (1927); Mishle Arav (Tales of the Arabs), a comprehensive collection of Arabic proverbs by Isaac Benjamin Yahuda (1932); Kalila wa Dimna (Kalila and Dimna), a famous collection of animal fables that were translated from Sanskrit to Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew by Avraham Elmalih (1927); and Ha-Melekh Umar al Na’man u-Vanav (King Umar al Na’man and his Sons), a section from the Thousand and One Nights by David Yellin (1930).

These translations stand out because they do not belong to a uniform religious, national, geographic, or linguistic tradition. They traverse languages, time, space, and culture, providing unique case studies of translations without original written sources. They combine oral and written traditions, thus blurring distinctions between author and translator, original and copy. They present a unique linguistic mix of Hebrew and Arabic which challenges national distinctions, offering exceptional evidence of modern Hebrew-Arabic hybridity. These translations are not merely literary exercises; they embody an alternative political possibility of shared Hebrew-Arabic culture, against the mainstream Zionist separatist approach.

My research on these translations has three axes: (1) textual analysis, focusing on linguistic, structural, and thematic aspects that reflect the turbulent Palestinian politics of the 1920s and 1930s; (2) their public reception compared to other literary projects in Hebrew and Arabic circles; and (3) the broader political context and implications—the translation strategies, selection of texts, and the translators’ cultural and political motivations as stated in prefaces, interviews, and private correspondence.


SPW: Many of us think about the categories of "Jew" and "Arab" as very different categories of identity, even opposed categories. What has your research taught you about these categories and their relationship to each other?

YE: The dominant approach in the modern Jewish and Arab historiographies tends to emphasize the raptures and divisions that divided the Jew and the Arab in the modern-national era. This binary historical perspective, and its distinction between Arabs and Jews as opposing identities, leaves no room for hybrid identities such as “Arab-Jewish,” and so overlooks the native Middle Eastern Jews of the period, who simultaneously embodied Arab and Jewish histories, traditions, and identities. The story of the Arab-Jews is largely ignored in the official national narratives, despite their deep involvement in the cultural and political movements of the time. When mentioned, they are usually portrayed as passive actors or bystanders who were led by mainstream forces.

In my work I try to suspend this monolithic and Eurocentric approach and to broaden the historical and geographical analytical scope to several centers and set of relations and contacts between Jews and Arabs in different political and cultural contexts. This broader framework opens pathways to discover new intellectual and cultural connections. My research at the last decade focuses on Arab-Jewish/Sephardi intellectuals during the turn of the twentieth century. Tracing their intellectual activities throughout several decades not only opens a door to a rich and diverse intellectual world, but also, and maybe more importantly, opens new horizons of political and cultural realities and opportunities beyond the existing political and disciplinary divisions.

One of the aims of my research project is to position Arab-Jewish thought at the forefront of scholarly discourse on the modern history of Palestine/Israel, highlighting options that were marginalized and forgotten. It also wants to restore an essential element of modern Hebrew and Arabic literatures—the first Hebrew-Arabic literary circle—which has been, and still is, overlooked in literary historiography. 

More specifically, in the context of Sephardi/Mizrahi history, my work aims to transcend the existing disciplinary divisions that limit a Mizrahiness to a movement that is framed within the modern Jewish national project informed by Westernization and Europeanization. Instead, I place it within a landscape of multiple locations, loyalties, and collectives, embodying broad and complex spatial, cultural and historical contexts.


Yuval Evri is a sociologist and cultural researcher in the Department of the Languages and Cultures of Near and Middle East at SOAS University London. He received his PhD from Tel Aviv University.



Katz Center Scholars Respond to Pittsburgh

posted November 2, 2018 

Past Katz Center fellows and affiliates have been reflecting on the anti-Semitic attack in Pittsburgh since it happened on Saturday, October 27. We are collecting their work here; it is testimony to the thoughtful social engagement of our community.

The Katz Center has also issued this statement in response to the attack, and JQR has issued this one.

Please email Communications Coordinator Becky Friedman to share your own or other fellows' writings catalyzed by the Pittsburgh shooting. 


Katz CAJS Blog

In Memory of an Oxonian Yeshiva Bocher // Stuart Schoffman // JQR Blog

posted November 2, 2018 

The current issue of JQR features a forum devoted to the scholarly legacy of its past editor Elliott Horowitz, who died last year. Contributions from Horowitz’s collleagues Natalie Zemon Davis, Javier Castaño, and Francesca Bregoli—historians of early modern Jewish culture all—are complemented by one from a journalist and kindred spirit, Stuart Schoffman, in which Schoffman reflects on the meaning of scholarship for Horowitz the man and for Jewish learning more broadly. This post is an excerpt of Schoffman’s piece.

My friend Elliott Horowitz reveled in irreverence. We first met early in the century, when I was a columnist at the Jerusalem Report and he was completing Reckless Rites, his masterwork on Purim and Jewish violence. As Yale-trained yeshivah boys from Queens and Brooklyn and fellow “Anglo-Saxon” immigrants to Israel, we had much in common. We shared a fascination with Jewish history, he as a polished and prolific scholar and I as a fellow traveler. Every second Friday, we would meet for breakfast at a café in the German Colony, or else at Carousela, a student hangout near Elliott’s book-stuffed home on Rehov Molkho. He was a solid Orthodox Jew. He wore a knitted kippah, prayed thrice daily (in a minyan if possible), and drank only kosher wine. But he favored Carousela, meatless and closed on Shabbat, because its kashrut certificate was not authorized by the Chief Rabbinate. 

As a specialist in early modern Jewish history (and aficionado of iconoclasm), it suited Elliott well to live on the Jerusalem street named for Solomon Molcho, the sixteenth-century Portuguese converso and false messiah who was burned at the stake for heresy. Some recipients of his emails got a chuckle from his satirical professional signature: “Molkho Institute for Absurdly Abstruse Research,” [an alliterative mouthful also in its Hebrew version, Makhon Molkho Le-chokhmologia Mitkademet.] Others surely found it unfunny; to him it mattered not. ... Nowhere, as I search through thousands of undeleted emails (my bad but useful habit), do I find any sign-off by him as a Bar-Ilan University professor. He taught there for many years, but it never defined (or confined) him. He did not share its priorities. Israeli professors often find refuge in local research centers, but not the nonconformist Elliott: preceding his invention of the Molkho Institute, his emails simply appended, in Hebrew, “I am not a fellow of the Hartman, Van Leer, or Shalem Institutes.” 

Following his early retirement from Bar-Ilan, he spent three terms at a haven he found more congenial: Oxford’s Balliol College, an academic stronghold founded in 1263, whose men, in the words of a typical alumnus, the British prime minister (1908–16) Herbert Asquith, were graced with “the tranquil consciousness of an effortless superiority.” According to the official Balliol obituary, Elliott was the “Oliver Smithies Visiting Fellow and Lecturer from Trinity Term 2015 to Hilary Term 2016.” ... Now, at last, Elliott could proudly announce his true affiliation in his email signature. But he added a devilish twist: careful readers of the Hebrew transliteration [noted] the eccentric choice of ‘ayin and not alef, spelling the biblical word belia‘al, meaning “evil.” He relished every moment of his too-short time at Oxford, but could not resist—ever the prankster—ironizing it too. 


Read the rest of Schoffman’s essay remembering Elliott Horowitz via Project Muse with no subscription needed for six months. (The rest of the forum is accessible there with a subscription.)

See also the In Memoriam penned by JQR’s editors.

Stuart Schoffmana journalist and translator, has lived in Jerusalem since 1988. His translations from Hebrew include books by A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, and Meir Shalev.  


Notes from the 2018 Meyerhoff Lecture // CAJS Blog

posted October 31, 2018 

The Katz Center used the 2018 Meyerhoff Lecture as an opportunity to reflect on the field of Sephardi studies by inviting field pioneer Aron Rodrigue (Stanford University) to discuss his own fascinating intellectual biography, and to trace its legacy through the work of three influential students of the next generation.

Julia Phillips Cohen, (pictured left) one of Rodrigue’s students, now associate professor of History at Vanderbilt University, ended her reflections with the following:

I wanted to conclude my remarks today with some reflections drawn from a translation I’ve been working on together with Gila Hadar for a forthcoming anthology titled The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, which is being published in ten volumes by Yale University Press. 

The source in question is the 1908 autobiography of a Salonican Jewish woman named Reina HaCohen.

In her published work from the 1890s, HaCohen had railed against the attempts of Ottoman Jewish women to become “modern” alafranca—or in European fashion. This earlier, published body of her work might lead us to place her in a “traditionalist” camp—that is, among those Ottoman Jews who opposed westernization and looked askance at their coreligionists’ attempts to rush head first into modern life.

Yet her 1908 unpublished autobiography shows the extent to which HaCohen was herself immersed in and enamored of European culture. She not only attended a Protestant missionary school, but also wrote about Europe as the world’s intellectual and culture anchor. Without knowing of her publications from the late nineteenth century, all of this might have led us to consider her a “westernizer.”

The little we know about HaCohen’s life suggests that the dichotomies that have for so long structured discussions of modern Ottoman Jewish life only go so far. Indeed, HaCohen’s story does not fit well into any existing narrative of Ottoman Sephardi modernity. She was deeply committed to Judaism and wrote of her mystical experiences of spirit possession at the same time that she described herself as a modern intellectual committed to the world of European letters.

What to make, then, of Reina HaCohen—this Salonican, Ottoman Jewish woman who wrote and published in Ladino about both the dangers and the allure of Europe, societally and personally? Was she a westernizer or traditionalist? It is precisely the fact that her story doesn’t fit that is so exciting, because it means that the story is still being written, including by many people in this room.


Julia Phillips Cohen (Vanderbilt University) is a Katz Center affiliated fellow and was also a fellow in 2011–2012 (Travel). She spoke on the panel of the 22nd Annual Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff program, “Jews, Muslims, and Modernity,” which included, in addition to Rodrigue and Cohen, Jessica Marglin (University of Southern California) and Lital Levy (Princeton University). 



Katz CAJS Blog

This Moment in America // JQR Blog

posted October 29, 2018 

It is unclear what scholarship can do to ameliorate the voracious momentum of hatred, nor how inhumanity is tempered by the humanities, but at the core of the work of scholarship is a profound and enduring optimism in the worth of being human.

A mystery I have long contemplated is the near absence from JQR of mentions of the Second World War—either while the war was being waged (and keeping in mind that many of our authors lived through the war, and did not live through it, at close range) or in the decade or two of its aftermath. I had an unexamined sense that this was a failing, both of the journal and of the scholars whose archival activities seemed to occlude the ethical imperatives of real history (and I do not exempt myself). But today I have a different sort of sympathy for the task—the task of doing and shepherding Jewish scholarship in an age of increasing threat and periodic barbarism, as occurred this weekend in Pittsburgh. That the Jewish Quarterly Review has published extraordinary learned scholarship continually since 1889—even and especially through the twentieth century’s most cataclysmic events—may be its own sort of consolation.

Activists (though some are scholars) will intervene on the field of politics and policy; scholars (though some are activists) will persist in the work of the human, the Jewish, and the longue durée. We remain committed to the task.

Signed with heavy heart

Natalie Dohrmann (Coeditor), with Anne Albert (Managing Editor)


Katz CAJS Blog

Responding to Pittsburgh

posted October 29, 2018

Saturday's mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the most deadly antisemitic attack in U.S. history, was meant as an attack against Jews in general, their place as a part of American society, and the work of the refugee agency the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). The attack has occurred at a time when hate crimes in general have increased for the fourth straight year in the country's largest cities, and antisemitism in different manifestations has been newly emboldened in the United States and abroad.

The Katz Center wishes to express its deepest condolences to those directly affected by the violence, the families of the victims, and the police who were injured while trying to stop the shooter.

As a research center devoted to the study of Jewish history, the Katz Center responds not only with grief and condemnation but with a recommitment to its mission of promoting understanding and cooperation across borders. For Jews, the "Tree of Life" has long symbolized a commitment to knowledge and study. In the face of the ignorance and xenophobia that fuel antisemitism, the Katz Center holds fast to the pursuit of truth, to its mission to disseminate knowledge about the Jews within the broader public, and to the embrace of the other across religious and ethnic differences.


Katz CAJS Blog

Karaites and Science // JQR Blog

posted October 24, 2018

Mathematics, physics, chemistry, logic, music, and astrology share an ability to speak to humans across borders, moving more easily between cultures than do cuisine, clothing, or dogmatics. For this reason, throughout history we see evidence of scientific learning serving as a common language between otherwise diverse groups, opening doors to a broader exchange of ideas. However, it must be said, for these reasons (and others) science has sometimes been shunned by religious conservatives. It arouses suspicion precisely because of its apparently anti-ideological posture, and based on worries that it will import foreign values, strengthen counter-cultural hierarchies of authority, and erode, by its very common-argot, the meaning-laden particularities by which a religion defines itself and upon which it grounds its truth. Thus we are primed to anticipate that early Judaism will be mistrustful of science, and will not be surprised to encounter antiscientific voices throughout Jewish history.

However, an essay by Ofer Elior in the current issue of JQR (108.3) introduces one compelling chapter of a counter history—recovering the story, sources, ideas, and relationships that fed the commitment to scientific learning among a population of Karaites in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. By focusing on the science-positive curriculum of sixteenth-century Turkish Karaite Joseph Beghi, Elior traces a Jewish genealogy of active scientific learning that weaves in and through not only curricular debates, but also Karaite-Rabbanite relations, and the boundaries of the “Jewish” library, adding another facet to our understanding of late medieval and early modern Judaism.

Read Elior’s essay “Attitudes toward Science in the Karaite Community of Istanbul: The Case of Joseph Beghi” in the most recent issue of JQR, and see how his findings add to the larger discussions happening at the Katz Center this year (Jewish Life in Modern Islamic Contexts) and last (Nature between Science and Religion).


Katz CAJS Blog

Travel Documents before Modern Passports // JQR Blog

posted October 15, 2018

Passports and visas are part of the familiar apparatus of modern day travel, essential for maintaining the boundaries of the sovereign nation state. How did individuals cross borders in the past? Early Modernity—a time of heightened mobility—marks the period in which travel documents come into widespread use. During the late fifteenth century political authorities began to demand that all travelers carry documentation. Unlike modern day passports or visas, which are issued by a nation state, early modern travel documents (often referred to as “safe conducts”) were issued by the authorities of a particular region. Travelers carried these documents and showed them to the guards posted at the border, to prove that the bearer had permission to travel within a given area.

In addition to their value for understanding the day-to-day realities of early modern travel, such documents can help us understand how people understood membership and state, minority-majority relations, and more. Yet the paperwork that enabled people to travel from one region to another remains relatively unstudied. One reason for this is that such documents were ephemera, useless to the bearer after their period of validity, and thus haven’t survived or haven’t sparked historiographical attention. But among the papers of the Worms Jewish community in Israel’s Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People I uncovered several examples of these geleiten (“safe conducts”), used by Jews to pass through the Electoral Palatinate, one of the territories of the Holy Roman Empire, and they sparked my interest.

In the current issue of JQR I examine these passes and their use. The ones issued to Jews differed from those issued to individual Christians in that the Jews of Worms paid a flat tax to the Elector, in exchange for which all Jews received the right to travel. The document granting Jews the right to travel was a large, multipage document, to which the large wax seal of the elector was affixed. Of course, individual travelers couldn’t carry such a document. Instead, this communal “privilege” was locked up along with other important papers belonging to the community, and individual travelers purchased Tachengeleiten, pocket-sized preprinted documents, subsequently filled in with the traveler’s name. Tachengeleiten were only valid for one year, and most travelers likely disposed of them after that time. These small sheets of paper, and the multiple communal records documenting their use, shed new light on the individual mechanics and communal dynamics regulating how early modern Jews traveled.


Debra Kaplan is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at Bar-Ilan University. She is the author of Beyond Expulsion: Jews, Christians, and Reformation Strasbourg (Stanford, 2011) and her essay, “Crossing Borders: Safe Conducts and Jews in Early Modern Germany,” appears in JQR 108.3 (Summer 2018).



Katz CAJS Blog

Opening Seminar: Some Notes on the Idea of Modernity in the MENA

posted October 5, 2018

The Katz Center 2018–19 fellowship year kicked off last week with a panel discussion.

Orit Bashkin (University of Chicago), Heather Sharkey, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, and Benjamin Nathans (all of Penn) were asked to reflect on the idea of “modernity,” paying special attention to its analytical and descriptive utility in a range of non-European contexts.

Modernity is a term that was coined polemically in Western Europe as a way to contrast new thinking with classical modes. It has come to describe not only a period, but a fluid yet recognizable set of concepts: among them the emergence of the citizen and nation state, the self-determined individual, urbanization and industrialization—and along with that, new economic paradigms such as capitalism and Marxism, print and the rise in literacy, social mobility, and more. The term is a broadly useful descriptor for aspects of global change in the past three centuries. However, as Ben Nathans reminds us, it eludes careful definition, threatens to occlude nuanced readings of historical phenomena, and doesn’t always easily transplant out of its European seedbed.

The panelists in turn discussed ways that modernity functioned as a heuristic in analyzing the Jewish experience in modern Muslim-majority contexts, and also the many ways that it should be approached with caution. At the same time, modernity can serve as a lever for revealing what the cultures and peoples of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) in particular, and Islamic lands more broadly, have shared.

To list but a few provocations culled from the panel and subsequent discussion:

  • How does the binary East and West work in a range of interlocking contexts?
  • What count as center and periphery when speaking of minority cultures that already occupy peripheral locations within empires, nation-states, and regions?
  • How might we discuss not just the exportation and importation of the modern, but a “circulation of modernities”?
  • How can we avoid overly privileging “Western” influences on “Eastern” societies, while recognizing agency and autonomy in Islamic lands?
  • How do we account for the longstanding diversity of Jews within Islamic lands while also recognizing modern historical constructions of Jewish communities, as reflected, for example, in the idea of the “Mizrahim”?
  • How can we reconcile our histories of Jewish peoples in Islamic lands vis-à-vis shifting imperial, colonial, and national structures?
  • How do we manage the collateral realities of modern state formation, such as refugee crises and mass migrations?
  • What challenges do languages and access to sources pose to scholarship on the diverse Jewish communities of Islamic lands; what skills have been abundant and lacking among researchers; and how have these issues of accessibility affected scholarship to date?
  • When Christianity is also a minority religion, as under the Ottomans, how does this change our approach to theological and social relationships between Jews and Christians on the one hand, and Jews and Muslims on the other?
  • Why did the prophets of the modern so utterly fail to “predict the trajectory of religion in the 20th century?”
  • Is religious identity overly privileged in the analysis of social action? How can individual, economic, gender, and other factors be brought into balance with the religious analytical lens?

A wonderfully complex challenge emerged from the afternoon—how to see the case studies brought by this extraordinary group of incoming scholars, and use this variegated evidence and expertise to open new vistas on the landscape of the “modern.”

Our work is just beginning.


Blog Editors

Katz CAJS Blog

Introducing: “What Do You Know?”

posted October 4, 2018

  • What was Jewish life like in Jerusalem under Ottoman rule?
  • Did Jewish men in Morocco and Turkey wear fezzes?
  • What is the lingua franca of Mexican Syrian Jews?
  • When and why did all the Jews leave Iraq (or Egypt, Yemen, Iran...)? Are there communities there today? 


What do you know? What do you want to know?

From Tangier to Jerusalem, Cairo to Istanbul, over the last two and a half centuries Jews lived in large, stable communities within the Islamic world, producing rich literary and artistic cultures, and experiencing the onset of modernity in ways that differ from those of European and American Jews. Most westerners simply do not know much about this vast and diverse portion of Jewish cultural history. Indeed we may need to learn more to know what we don’t know!

This year the Katz Center is trying out a new way of connecting scholars with learners: we’re taking questions directly from online readers, and asking experts to respond. Think of it as a historical advice column—but instead of advice, you get answers to your questions about anything and everything related to this year’s fellowship theme, “Jewish Life in Modern Muslim Contexts.” More about the theme and our fellows’ questions is here but this is your chance to ask your own questions.

You can ask pretty much anything about the topic, big or small, basic or obscure. Each month we’ll pose your questions to our resident scholars and publish their answers on our blog.

It couldn’t be easier. Just go this page and submit your question. If yours is selected you’ll receive a thoughtful and well informed answer—and a free Katz Center tote bag (unless you choose to remain anonymous).


Katz CAJS Blog

New Issue of the Jewish Quarterly Review: Summer 2018

posted October 1, 2018

JQR 108.3 is now available, online* and in print. It features a forum on the scholarship of Elliott Horowitz, coeditor of JQR until his passing last year, with contributions from an all-star group of scholars: Natalie Zemon Davis, Javier Castaño, Francesca Bregoli, and Stuart Schoffman. (We’ve made Schoffman’s essay available without a subscription.) 

Also in this issue, Marc Herman examines how the medieval master Saadia Gaon treated the question of prophetic authority with respect to Jewish law. Contrary to a received view that Saadia emphasized divine authority in order to parry Karaite claims, Herman argues for the decisive influence of contemporary Islamic depictions of religious law. 

Ofer Elior spotlights the little-known testimony of Joseph Beghi, an early modern Karaite scientist in Istanbul. His essay reveals an active and enthusiastic Karaite reception of contemporary science, and also shows something of relations between the Karaite and mainstream Jewish communities of the era.

Through attention to social history and material texts, Debra Kaplan shows how safe conduct passes—something like visas or passports for the early modern world—were made and traded among Jews in sixteenth-century German-speaking lands. She discusses the extensive communal organization that developed to regulate these documents, administering their sale, distribution, and sometimes even forgery, in an age obsesssed with identity verification.

Finally, this issue’s attention to medieval and early modern contexts is rounded out by Frank Felsenstein’s review essay treating several recent books about the medieval European conception of Jews.

Online, we also have our semiannual listing of recently completed dissertations in the field.

Check back here on the JQR Blog for more content related to these pieces in the next few months.

*The most recent four years of JQR are distributed online exclusively by Project Muse, where most articles are available to subscribers only. Log in through your home library for institutional access or see for subscription information.


Katz CAJS Blog

What to Read Now

posted September 25, 2018

Incoming fellows have ambitious goals for their time at the Katz Center: new research projects, books to write, colleagues to meet and mine for knowledge. As they settle in and get started, we take this moment to celebrate the work that has already been done.

Here is a roundup of recent books by members of the current fellowship cohort, offering a taste of their scholarship. It might also serve as a reading list for those who are only just beginning to explore the year’s topic.


Three books offer in-depth studies of the modern experiences of Jews in particular Muslim contexts: Yemen, the Ottoman Empire, and Iraq. They differ in approach but share in common nuanced attention to the surprising ways Jews were politically integrated in majority-Muslim states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Mark Wagner’s 2014 Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen (a finalist for a 2015 Jewish Book Award) explores how Jews and Muslims came to know each other’s laws and traditions. The specific laws imposed on Jews by the Muslim state made some Muslim jurists familiar with Jewish life, law, and lore; and at the same time some Jews saw social value in acquiring extensive knowledge of Islamic law.


Julia Phillips Cohen’s 2014 Becoming Ottomans: Sephardi Jews and Imperial Citizenship in the Modern Era (pb 2016) tells the story of Jewish political integration into a modern Islamic empire, showing that it was possible for more than just small Muslim elite to be seen as “Ottoman.” Imperial citizenship was more complicated than a simple, fixed legal identity—it was constituted by a series of political acts, or performances.

A third book looks at political integration from the opposite perspective. Orit Bashkin’s 2017 Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel looks at the experiences of Jews who left Iraq en masse around 1950 and immigrated to Israel. She calls attention to the “long, painful” process of their integration into the Israeli state, where they were at first relegated to camps, left in poverty, and denied equal civil rights.


Several other works reveal the breadth of interests of this year’s scholars, expanding out, for example, to look at language, law, commerce, and politics as cultural drivers within and across religious and national groups.

In light of changing Jewish identities and attitudes toward Israel and Zionism, what does Hebrew do for us? In What We Talk about When We Talk about Hebrew (and What It Means to Americans) (2018), editors Nancy Berg and Naomi Sokoloff bring together perspectives from teachers, writers, and translators on the place of Hebrew in American Jewish culture today.


Reuven Snir, a recognized master of modern Arabic literature and literary theory, offers a comprehensive approach for scholars to map and study different genres, their changes over time, and how they have been affected by non-Arabic literary developments in his major Modern Arabic Literature: A Theoretical Framework (2017).


Joseph Sassoon’s  Anatomy of Authoritarianism in the Arab Republics (2016) examines the authoritarian regimes of eight Arab republics between the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 and the Arab uprisings of 2011, looking at politics, economics, and security practices to show how leaders created enduring coercive systems and what led to their eventual collapse.


In Revolutionary Justice: Special Courts and the Formation of Republican Egypt (2016), Yoram Meital looks at the use of special tribunals in the aftermath of the 1952 revolution, when the new Egyptian regime was in conflict with the Muslim Brothers. He highlights the place of democracy and social justice in Egyptian courtrooms at that time, countering those who would claim that the Muslim world is inherently inimical to liberal values.


A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East (2017), by Heather Sharkey, a Penn faculty member who participated in the shaping of this year’s fellowship theme, examines the history that Muslims, Christians, and Jews once shared. Sharkey shows how, amid the pivotal changes of the modern era, efforts to both maintain and dismantle aspects of Islamic legal tradition regarding religious minorities, heightened tensions and set the stage for the twentieth-century Middle East.


Finally, special mention for a book by a Katz Center alumnus, Mark R. Cohen, who gives the current year’s work some back history in his Maimonides and the Merchants: Jewish Law and Society in the Medieval Islamic World (2017; a finalist for a National Jewish Book Award). Cohen shows that Maimonides inscribed the standards and needs of his own present-day commerce into Jewish law (in the Mishneh Torah), providing Jewish merchants with alternatives to Islamic law and the Islamic judicial system as they arranged commercial collaborations or litigated disputes.


This list—just a sampling of the most recent books by some of our fellows—embodies the breadth and depth of the questions that arise from scholarship on Jews and Jewish culture in the varied, rich, and complex contexts of the Islamic world.


Katz CAJS Blog

Tobit’s Dog: Short Form Scholarship // JQR Blog

posted September 20, 2018

In fewer than 200 words in the journal’s third issue, Israel Abrahams made a mockery of a long beloved motif of western art, scriptural interpretation, indeed Scripture itself, when he informed the reader—summarily, and without footnotes or citation—that pseudepigraphical Tobias did not have a dog! (JQR 1.3 o.s. [1889]: 288)

The dog appears in Tobit 6:2 and 11:4, accompanying our hero in his quest to gather materials with which to exorcize his possessed beloved. But it is in fact a solecism, the perdurable product of a rather clumsy copyist’s mistake. Instead of loyal canine (kelev), what Tobias had with him on his walk was a fish’s heart (ha-lev). (Easy mistake to make, we make it all the time.) Along the way he casually undermines Prof. Nöldeke and asserts the Semitic origins of the preserved Greek work. Quod erat demonstrandum.


The short scholarly “note” was a ubiquitous genre in early JQR. In volume 4 no. 3 (1892) alone, there are no fewer than seven authored notes between pages 498 and 512: an addendum to a published bibliography of Graetz, a foray into the pronunciation of the letter ‘ayin, a report of a fourteenth-century rumor about the ten tribes, and more. They are tasty orts of erudition, but not enough to sustain a whole article. The stuff of the early “note” is the sort of wonderful discovery that distracts us daily from our main topic of research. The little “aha!”s that cause us to look up and relate the revelation to our spouse and then jot it in a margin soon to be lost, or the “oh, no!”s in a response to a nagging error or omission in published scholarship.

Sometimes a scholarly finding needs only 1500 words to express itself fully; others want 18,000. Yet the field makes little space for idea arcs of these lengths.  In such cases, conforming to the 10K-or-so-word article standard happens through padding or amputation.  Though the editors have continued to resist the long, law-review length essay, readers of the current JQR will know that we have sought in our own way to resurrect short form scholarship. Though we have failed to-date to achieve the pith that Abrahams has here (he reduces even his own name to initials) we find great opportunity in playing with scholarly genres that get to the point.

The note in JQR serves many functions. At times a note represents an learned aside à la Abrahams; but others nod aspirationally to Solomon Schechter’s sparkling essays. Some are delivered in the form of the review essay, which we find generally more substantive than reviews of single books. Our forums are collected notes on a shared theme, gathering essays of anywhere between 1500 and 4500 words into a single conversation. Ideally, each of these genres makes space for the scholar to be an intellectual. 

We are also opening a new subset of the note devoted to Jewish letter-writing. Inspired by our two-part forum on the correspondence of Jewish intellectuals (JQR 107.3 and 108.1), we invite one-off essays that engage a significant letter or epistolary exchange amplified by some sparkling commentary or contextualization. 

The best short form piece is readable and provocative, erudite and expansive, and is in some ways the forerunner of the blog post, but with more heft and staying power. We do not see short form scholarship as an accession to the attention spans of the internet age, but rather as a celebration of the excesses of research, the overflow of the archive, the footnote given its day in the sun, and the connections made possible when academics’ minds are given a bit of freedom to roam. 

The current editors have used the short essay to mark their inaugural issue (JQR 94.1 with essays by Daniel Boyarin, Suzanne Last Stone, R. B. Kitaj, Jeffrey Shandler, and others) and to celebrate our hundredth birthday (JQR 100.4 with pieces by Galit Hasan-Rokem, Moshe Idel, Daniel R. Schwartz). Peruse our tables of contents, beginning in the 19th century, and moving until our current issue (JQR 108.3.) for an extraordinarily wide range.

Happy reading.
Natalie B. Dohrmann is an editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review.

In Memoriam: Dr. D. Walter Cohen

posted September 14, 2018

This summer, the Katz Center lost a member of its board of overseers, Dr. D. Walter Cohen, who was an extraordinary person. A pillar of the Philadelphia community, Walter was internationally renowned for his scientific and educational contributions. He was a founder of Penn's department of periodontics, revitalizer of its dental school in his tenure as dean, and served as an equally effective chancellor of the Medical College of Pennsylvania, now a part of Drexel University. 

Authoring 22 books and more than 130 articles—and considered the world's foremost expert in periodontics—Walter contributed to science, health, and education in too many ways to enumerate. His contributions have been recognized with countless honors, including the naming of the D. Walter Cohen Middle East Center for Dental Education at The Hebrew University, and yet they do not suffice to convey the impact Walter made on the lives of all those who benefitted from his research and educational efforts, or the pleasure of being able to interact with him directly.

Inspired by his affection for fellow overseer Garry Rayant, an appreciation for Dropsie College, and an enduring commitment to Jewish education and research, in 2016 Walter joined the Katz Center’s board of overseers. His exceptional commitment to education and intellectual vitality were undiminished to the end. It was an honor to have had the chance to meet Walter, and his research, leadership, teaching and generosity will continue to be a blessing to untold numbers of people for many generations to come

Steven Weitzman is the Ella Darivoff Director at the Katz Center and Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at Penn.



Katz CAJS Blog

Jewish Life in Modern Islamic Contexts // CAJS Blog

posted September 12, 2018

When it comes to Jewish history, many of us know about the West. What about the rest?

Jewish modernity is usually seen in terms unique to Christian Europe—Emancipation, assimilation, and anti-Semitism; shtetl dwellers, court Jews, and department store magnates; pogroms, enlightenment toleration, and the Holocaust. These are all elements of a familiar narrative of modernization. But the vast majority of Jews lived in the Near and Middle East and across North Africa in the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Though there are few Jews left there now, they once formed the center, and not the periphery, of global Jewish culture. How is their story different?

This year, the Katz Center is delving into Jewish life beyond Europe, America, and Israel, looking instead to North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and Central and South Asia—all contexts with Muslim majorities and/or governments in the last few centuries. Our international cohort of fellows is exploring the complex relationships between Jews and their neighbors, whether Muslim or members of other minority groups. Research topics include journalism and film, literature, gender relations, economic behavior, cultural expression, and religious life as these developed across diverse Islamic contexts, under the unifying question of what might be seen as “modernity” in this very different world.

Follow our activities over the course of the year as fellows lecture and teach in the community, engage the scholarly community in seminars and conferences, and publish reflections online, including answering reader questions. Our weekly seminars kick off on September 26 with a panel discussion featuring Orit Bashkin, Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, Benjamin Nathans, and Heather Sharkey. In the meantime, we invite you to read more about the fellows and their research projects here

To keep up to date, subscribe to our mailing list, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. If you are interested in bringing a fellow to speak in your community, check out our public programs page.



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Matchmaking: Scholars & Artifacts // CAJS Blog

posted August 13, 2018

The Center has once again partnered with the Penn Libraries to create a web exhibit, this one highlighting works related to last year’s fellowship theme, “Nature between Science and Religion: Jewish Culture and the Natural World.” It is the twenty-third exhibit of its kind, showcasing the relationships developed between the Katz Center visiting fellows and the library’s collections.

The fellows and the libraries make up the twin pillars of the Center’s resources. Each year, Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections Arthur Kiron asks the fellows to caption something from Penn’s collection—to speak of its significance broadly and/or to their own research. Over the many years of exhibits several hundred artifacts, manuscripts, books, and images from Penn’s vast Judaica holdings have been highlighted by some of the world’s finest scholars of Jewish studies. It is a trove worth exploring.

To peruse all of the exhibits, click here.


Katz CAJS Blog

Professor Yaakov Elman z”l (1943–2018)

posted August 6, 2018  

We are deeply sorry to hear of the death of Yaakov Elman. Professor Elman, the Herbert S. and Naomi Denenberg Chair in Talmudic Studies at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, was a fellow at what was then the Center for Judaic Studies at Penn in 1995–1996 on the topic of Learning and Literacy: The Transmission of Tradition and Knowledge from Antiquity to the Present. Together with Israel Gershoni, he edited the well-received volume connected to the year, titled Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and Cultural Diffusion (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000). As a short-term fellow, Professor Elman was also a valued member of the 2007–2008 year, Jewish and Other Imperial Cultures in Late Antiquity. A voraciously curious and generous scholar, Elman produced a wide-ranging body of published work that reflects his many areas of expertise. His original and field-changing research situating the Babylonian Talmud in its Sasanian context opened the field now known as Irano-Talmudica.

Elman’s erudition and singular intellect endure in the legacy of his many publications. A selection is available at

He will be missed.


Katz CAJS Blog

Sanctifying the Secular: Associations // JQR 108.2 // JQR Blog

posted July 23, 2018  

In the current issue of the Jewish Quarterly Review (108.2), Soli Shahvar chronicles the intertwined oppression of Jews and Baha’is in late nineteenth-century Iran, noting the fascinating ways that the new technology of the telegraph became a rich site of cultural adaptation. In times of pogrom, locals sought refuge in the telegraph offices, believing them to be outside of the economy of cultural tensions around them. This put us in mind of another scene of the physical imaginary of asylum, an episode set in Athens in the seventh century BCE as described by Plutarch.


“Some local Jews, who apparently took bast (refuge) in the local telegraph office (from which they seem to have also sent telegrams asking for help), were caught and forced to convert to Islam. This brings to light the issue of the electric telegraph, both as a speedy means for seeking help from the provincial and higher authorities and as a place of taking refuge or immunity (bast). Established in the late 1850s on a very small scale by connecting few places in Tehran, and later the capital with Tabriz, by the mid-1860s Iran was already connected to the Indo-European telegraphic communication, which not only connected Iran to the world, but brought the capital much faster and closer in time to major urban centers as well as the villages in between. While the telegraph was, at first, used only by the Iranian government, local authorities, and the wealthy, by the 1890s, with the gradual reduction in the cost of telegrams, it had become much more popular. As the Indo-European telegraph was a foreign concession given to the British government’s Indo-European Telegraph Department (IETD), the telegraph stations were regarded as places of extra-territoriality and therefore suitable for taking bast. This status was further strengthened by the popular belief that the telegraph wires ended at the foot of the Shah’s throne, which together with all royal establishments were also considered as suitable for taking bast.” (Soli Shahvar, “Oppression of Religious Minority Groups in Times of Great Upheaval in Late Qajar Iran: The 1892 Persecution of Jews and Baha’is of Jewish Origin in Hamadan Based on Two Newly Discovered Letters,” JQR 108.2 [2018]: 225–52, at 239)


“Now the Cylonian pollution had for a long time agitated the city, ever since Megacles the archon had persuaded Cylon and his fellow conspirators, who had taken sanctuary in the temple of Athena, to come down and stand their trial. They fastened a braided thread to the image of the goddess and kept hold of it, but when they reached the shrine of the Erinyes on their way down, the thread broke of its own accord, upon which Megacles and his fellow-archons rushed to seize them, on the plea that the goddess refused them the rights of suppliants. Those who were outside of sacred precincts were stoned to death, and those who took refuge at the altars were slaughtered there; only those were spared who made supplication to the wives of the archons.” (Solon 12.1; cf. also Herodotus V.70–71 and Thucydides 1.126)

Shahvar’s piece also serves as a bridge to the growing field studying Jewish modernity in Islamic lands, the topic of the Katz Center’s 2018–19 fellowship year.

Natalie B. Dohrmann is an editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review.

Advanced Summer School 2018: Out of This World // CAJS Blog

posted July 13, 2018 

This past month, the Katz Center hosted the annual Advanced Summer School for Graduate Students in Jewish Studies. Co-presented with the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel School for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the program brought both students and faculty from around the world to 420 Walnut Street for a week-long learning experience on the theme of the supernatural in Jewish history and culture.

With an accelerated five-day curriculum, the group of 25 students and 15 faculty members analyzed supernatural beings—ranging from miracle-workers, magicians, and messianic saviors to ghosts, golems, and God—in the context of Jewish experience, culture, and thought. And, in addition to readings and specialist-led lectures and seminars, the Summer School featured excursions on the week’s theme. 

A walking tour with Atlas Obscura brought the visiting students around Old City and Society Hill to check out locations with reported paranormal events and peculiar Philadelphia lore. Visits to the rare book room in the Library at the Katz Center and to the Science History Institute showed off diverse local holdings in books, art, and curios connected to the topic. 

A particular highlight of the week was the group outing to the Penn Museum, where archaeologist Linda Meiberg assembled a collection of magical artifacts specifically for Summer School participants. Among the collection were a 4000-year-old Egyptian wand made from the tusk of a hippopotamus, a 2000-year-old Roman limestone stela depicting the deity Tutu, and a series of Babylonian magic bowls meant to protect users from demons. Students learned about the objects’ provenience, material makeup, iconography, and cultural contexts and were even able to inspect the items up close. Afterwards, they were invited to tour the museum’s brand-new Middle East Galleries, which feature over 1200 objects from ancient Mesopotamian societies. 

The Advanced Summer School alternates between Philadelphia and Jerusalem each year and always brings together faculty and graduate students from diverse fields and institutions for a week of intensive teaching and learning. Next year’s program will take place in Jerusalem in August; stay tuned for an announcement of the topic and application information in late 2018.


Katz CAJS Blog

JQR 108.2: Linguistics and History // JQR Blog

Read for free. Posted June 20, 2018 

The articles published in JQR touch on themes that offer fresh new perspective on Jewish culture and history. In order to introduce the scholarship of JQR to those beyond the community of academic readers, we free up one article in each issue for download without a subscription for a limited time. Read about the current free essay below.

Linguistics done right are like magic infrared goggles that tell stories invisible to the historian’s eye, penetrating the normative claims and seductive rhetoric of the source texts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Lily Okalani Kahn’s essay “The Kitsur shulḥan ‘arukh, Hasidic Tale, and Maskilic Literature as Exemplars of Ashkenazic Hebrew,” which appears in the current issue (JQR 108.2 [2018]: 159–93).

Kahn begins with mistakes. Reading Maskilic Hebrew, she finds that despite the Haskalah’s devotion to the study of Hebrew grammar, and its ideological claims to linguistic precision and purity vis-à-vis biblical Hebrew, maskilic narrative is rife with deviations from biblical precedent. Moreover these deviations are not ad hoc, but can be found consistently across a range of sources.

This is of minor interest on its own, perhaps, but becomes rather more interesting when she finds that Hasidic Hebrew—regularly maligned by those same maskilim as corrupt, ignorant and ungrammatical—makes many of the very same set of “mistakes” and with the same consistency as do maskilic texts!

To check her work, and to make sure that that the maskilim and hasidim were not mirroring each other’s grammatical tics because of their polemical back and forths, she looked at what she deemed an unconnected third source: the non-Hasidic Orthodox halakhic literature of the Kitsur shulḥan ‘arukh. Guess what she found there? The same set of nonstandard features (with regard to both biblical and postbiblical Hebrew) as ran throughout the other corpuses.

Here careful attention to such apparent minutiae as gender agreement and construct chains has given her a glimpse of a strata of Hebrew heretofore overlooked: a shared Ashkenazic vernacular that underlay all the stemmatic evolutions of nineteenth-century Eastern European Hebrew. Moreover, these patterns can be found in responsa literature dating to the Middle Ages, and “may point to a widespread cohesive variety of Hebrew that developed in Central and Eastern Europe.” 

How can these findings not shape how the history of these diverse communities is understood? Decide for yourself. Read the eminently readable piece for yourself, and peruse her examples in a lucid appendix. JQR is offering it free, outside of the paywall. Find it here.


New Issue of the Jewish Quarterly Review: Spring 2018 // JQR Blog

posted June 15, 2018 

JQR 108.2 (Spring 2018)* is now available, featuring:

       Francis Borchardt sheds new light on how the Temple Scroll, the longest and best-known of the Dead Sea Scrolls, was composed and used. Comparing it with particular Graeco-Roman scholarly texts of the same era, he suggests that it was used for educational purposes, repackaging biblical material for a different setting.

       In our free article for this issue, Lily Okalani Kahn reports that there was a distinct form of Hebrew used by Ashkenazi writers across genres before modernity. This finding changes the landscape of modern Hebrew linguistics. Editor Natalie Dohrmann writes about it here.

       Francesca Bregoli asks how early modern merchant families preserved their family ties despite long periods of physical separation. Emotional language in the eighteenth-century letters of one such family reveals how affection and obligation, love and material success, were interrelated as fathers sought to supervise and connect with their sons in distant lands. 

       Using both Jewish and Baha’i source texts, Soli Shahvar reconstructs an incident of persecution led by a Shi’i cleric in Iran in 1892. He sheds light on the interconnection between these religious minorities and shows that they were relatively helpless against clerical and mob aggression, even with the attempted support of local and central officials. Read a post inspired by this case here.

       Martin Kavka engages in a thought-provoking review essay with recent books on Leo Strauss and other twentieth-century Jewish philosophers by Jeffrey Bernstein and Benjamin Wurgaft. If critique and skepticism are the Jewish art, he asks, what is left to the discipline? What does Jewish philosophy do?


*We link to JQR’s online distributor Project Muse, where most full articles are available to subscribers only. Log in through your library for institutional access or see for subscription information.


Katz CAJS Blog

Building a Renaissance Temple in the Mind // Alessandro Guetta // CAJS Blog

posted June 5, 2018

It’s the sixteenth century. Let’s imagine a Jew walking in the piazza of some Italian city, perhaps Mantua, Bologna, Venice or Rome. He would probably see several buildings under construction—scaffolding raised, dozens of workers moving around. The civic and religious landscape is being modified on all sides, with the erection of great masses destined to dominate the urban landscape, the shapes and proportions of which reveal the imprint of select architects. As he makes his daily movements throughout this city-in-the-making, he finds himself in the centers of commercial activity, the shops and the markets. He is also probably near the Jewish quarter—neighborhoods that would later become ghettos.

Our Jew might watch these buildings rise in a detached way, possibly complaining about the dust caused by the construction, or he might quietly rejoice, in a more or less conscious way, at the city’s thriving and bustle, an energy that meant a dynamic economy with positive consequences for everyone, including himself. He could even be proud of the impressive achievements of a city that he saw—to a certain extant—as his own.

But if he paused, and pushed his thoughts farther, he might have come to think of those big beautiful buildings, so often churches, as the expression of the dominant—and rival—religion. An inevitable question would arise: what is our place in this glorious built landscape? The more educated he was, the more sophisticated his response may have been, and in any case may have been dictated by an assertion of self-justifying pride: we had better than that, in the past, in the period of our glory, before the exile and the decadence. We had the Temple of Jerusalem, an architectural wonder admired by the whole world, an ensemble of buildings, courtyards, colonnades, that was not only vast, complex, and richly decorated, but whose very plan was inspired by God himself. Didn’t the churches, after all, seek merely to reproduce it on a smaller scale?

It is therefore not surprising that several Jewish scholars, from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, set themselves the task of describing the ancient Temple: trying to make it “visible” to the imagination of the contemporary reader, as did Avraham Portaleone (Shilte ha-giborim, Mantua 1612); reproducing it and the Tabernacle in miniature, as did Yehuda Sommo in the sixteenth century, Malkiel Ashkenazi (Hanukat ha-bayit and Tavnit ha-mishkan, Mantua beginning of seventeenth century) and Immanuel Hai Ricchi (Ma‘ase hoshev, Venice 1712); or emphasizing its geometric proportions as did Gershom Hefetz (Hanukath ha-bayit, Venice 1696). These writers generally drew on Jewish sources, in some cases recollecting talmudic material that could otherwise have been lost, after the 1553 burning and the prohibition of the Talmud. In the same years, in Protestant Northern Europe, Ya‘akov Yehuda of Amsterdam made an ambitious model of the Temple that was circulated in many cities, including London, as a true attraction.

In these ways, early modern Jews participated in the evolution of their world, reproducing in bookish descriptions what was constructed by their Christian neighbors in stone, marble and brick. As for the three-dimensional miniature reproductions that sometimes accompanied their scholarly works, they showed a post-symbolic vision of the reality, in unison with the general orientation of the Renaissance art. These works could uphold Jews’ national pride by recalling that their present, social inferiority was not essential or eternal, but historical and contingent. And so our friend would justify his existence and bolster his self-confidence—both so vital to the individual and the community. And this, for the moment, was enough.
Alessandro Guetta is Professor of Jewish thought at INALCO (Institut National des Langues et Civilisation Orientales), Paris. He was the 2017–2018 Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies – Katz Center Fellow in Jewish Manuscript Studies. He was also a Center fellow 1998–1999: Poetry and Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Jewry.

His MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) launches on June 5, 2018: The Tabernacle in Word & Image: An Italian Jewish Manuscript Revealed. This two-hour-long mini-course presents a case study constructed from a remarkable Hebrew manuscript in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania Libraries (UPenn CAJS Rar Ms 460 from seventeenth-century Mantua: Malkiel Ashkenazi’s Tavnit ha-mishkan, an extended commentary on the structure and implements of the ancient Israelite Tabernacle (mishkan). Guetta suggests ways that this work—one that examines the details of a long-destroyed building—illuminates Italian Jewish intellectual life in the early modern period, as Jews expressed themselves in terms that combined Jewish traditions with the Renaissance humanism around them.
To read about Professor Guetta's public lecture on Renaissance Jewish translations of Hebrew works into Italian, and to watch the video, click here.

A New MOOC Celebrates Jewish Manuscripts // An Italian Jewish Renaissance // CAJS Blog

posted June 5, 2018

The Katz Center and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS) announce the June 5 launch of a video mini-course exploring a fascinating 17th-century manuscript. It is taught by the 2017–18 SIMS-Katz Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Manuscript Studies, Alessandro Guetta (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales, Paris), and is called:

The Tabernacle in Word & Image: An Italian Jewish Manuscript Revealed

In it Professor Guetta introduces Malkiel Ashkenazi’s Tavnit ha-mishkan and Hanukat ha-bayit (CAJS Rar Ms 460), a detailed commentary on the construction and implements of the biblical Tabernacle. Through this look at one man’s production of a heavily illustrated exploration of Jews’ own lost architectural past, Guetta discusses how Jews in Renaissance Italy found ways to both participate in the revolution in Italian architecture and recover suppressed talmudic traditions. 

This is the second in a growing series of SIMS-Katz MOOCs that pair an internationally-known scholar with one of the manuscripts in Penn’s library holdings. Each course dives deeply into the manuscript itself, but the MOOCs are bound together by the many ways that historians can learn from manuscripts as manuscripts. What do the unique material aspects of a given manuscript have to say that is not available through a printed version of the same? Marginal notes, bindings, scratch outs, handwriting styles, inks, and materials—all offer a wealth of information to those who know how to read them.

Free and available to anyone with an internet connection and email, the MOOC (massive open online course) is produced by SAS Online learning, and hosted through

Others in the series:

MOOC 1:  The History of Medieval Medicine through Jewish Manuscripts.
by Professor Y. Tzvi Langermann (Bar-Ilan University)
Manuscript: A fifteenth-century Sicilian medical miscellany (UPenn MS Codex 1649)
Learn about the circulation of thirteenth-century medicine by reading the wide variety of clues left in this amazing manuscript. 

In production & on the horizon:

MOOC 3: History through Handwriting
by Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger (École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris // Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies)
Manuscript: A variety of Geniza fragments from Penn’s collection
No one makes deciphering handwriting more riveting than Professor Olszowy-Schlanger, who consulted with Parisian police handwriting experts to hone her craft. It should be ready in the late fall of 2018. Stay tuned for this masterclass in Hebrew paleography.
MOOC 4: Scribal Secrets in Hebrew Liturgical Manuscripts
by Professor Dr. Elisabeth Hollender (Seminar für Judaistik, Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität)
Manuscript: Maḥazor minhag Ashkenaz le-Yamim ha-noraʼim ule-Sukot (LKCAJS Rar Ms 382), late thirteenth- or early fourteenth-century Ashkenaz.
Details TBD

For Judith Leifer on Her Retirement // Arthur Kiron // CAJS Blog

posted June 4, 2018 

The words below accompanied the presentation of a book of letters sent by staff and past fellows of the Katz Center to honor the career of Judith Leifer, who retires on July 1, 2018 after thirty years of service. It is a collection of memories, tales of friendship and acts of kindness, feats of dogged bibliomania, as well as a long list of scholarly books in which Judith is thanked for her extraordinary efforts in aiding researchers to obtain the resources they needed. Judith will be sorely missed, and we wish her wonderful new adventures in this her next chapter. Her energy, élan, and generosity will ensure that her life is rich and rewarding, whatever she does next.

May 15, 2018

Dear Judith,

Congratulations on reaching this milestone in your life! For thirty years, since the September of 1988, when you first came to work at the library at the Annenberg Research Institute, which had just opened its doors, you have given of yourself in innumerable ways to serve the cause of scholarship. You have won the everlasting respect and admiration of so many. Speaking for myself, I must say that getting to know you, dating back to 1991 when I first met you, working with you as your supervisor since 1999 at the Penn Libraries, and getting to know a bit about your life over the years, has been one of the most memorable aspects of my career. Your life story is truly extraordinary. As a survivor of Nazi persecution, as a lieutenant in the IDF, as a nurse, as a wife, as a mother, as a grandmother and for the last thirty years as a librarian, you have faced and overcome so many challenges and achieved so much.  

Let it be said and recorded here for posterity that no amount of work or difficult challenge ever defeated you. I never imagined, for example, you would ever complete the duplicate books searching assignments I gave you. And here we are, hundreds of thousands of searches of books later, searches that you made in multiple languages, in multiple databases, with the project complete. Through frigid, icy conditions, through sunshine and fierce storms, you always came through and were and are simply indefatigable.  

Over these last thirty years, a generation of scholars have thanked you in their publications, celebrated your assistance in letters and messages sent to me, and otherwise praised you for your total dedication to the cause of learning. To mark this milestone, we thought it would be meaningful to gather words of appreciation from the multitude of people whose lives you enriched with your hard work and boundless passion. I hope you enjoy reading their messages to you, which Etty Lassman has compiled in this beautiful booklet which she has designed and produced. 

With all best wishes,

Arthur Kiron, Ph.D.
Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections
University of Pennsylvania Libraries

Bernard Lewis (1916–2018) // CAJS Blog

posted May 21, 2018 

Prominent Princeton scholar of Islamic history and controversial orientalist Bernard Lewis died on Saturday May 19. Lewis’s storied career touched our own history. When the Center’s forerunner, the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Studies, was transformed into a center for advanced study, it was done so with the backing of philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg. The newly dubbed Annenberg Research Institute for Judaic and Near Eastern Studies made its home in our current Independence Mall location, and named Bernard Lewis as its first president in 1988. Though his stay was brief, his appointment signaled the emerging prominence of Judaic studies, as well as the institute’s commitment to seeing Jewish history in the context of its Muslim and Christian neighbors. The Center is proud to have inherited this legacy, and marks Lewis’s passing with sadness and respect.

Read Brian Murphy’s May 19 obituary in the Washington Post here.

Transforming Jewish “Science” // Annette Yoshiko Reed // CAJS Blog

posted April 30, 2018

How did “science” transform medieval and early modern Jewish cultures? This is the question tackled by the speakers at the 24th annual Gruss Colloquium, the culmination of a year of discussions on Nature between Science and Religion. Whereas the December Symposium brought ancient and contemporary concerns into conversation around animals and evolution, the concluding Colloquium focused on the centuries before and after the emergence of the modern Western sense of “science.” Consistent with the cultural history of science, the rubric was taken in the broadest possible sense—encompassing popular cosmology and “mystical” recipe-books, technology and mathematical tools, the rhetoric and realia of physicians, and the discourse of scientism. The result was a richly eclectic discussion, offering a mosaic of medieval and modern perspectives on Jewish knowledge-making. 

Because the Torah proclaims the God of Israel as the creator of the world, any inquiry into nature might be readily claimed as “Jewish.” Yet the modern concept of science and its premodern precedents exemplify epistemological claims for observational and theoretical inquiry as neutral or objective, in a manner marked as “non-Jewish” unless claimed as “Jewish.” Tzvi Langerman explored how Judah ha-Levi and Maimonides negotiated this very tension by claiming the ultimate Jewishness of all sciences while drawing upon Sefer yetsirah, Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer, and Plato’s Timaeus alike. Similarly, Gad Freudenthal offered an example of the translation of non-Jewish cosmological traditions into Hebrew language and Jewish idiom, showing how Sefer tsel ha-‘olam (in its various versions) paraphrases Gautier de Metz’s Image du monde but also interweaves biblical, rabbinic, and other Jewish traditions—thereby marking its enchanted celebration of the marvels of the world as Jewish. That such engagement cannot be reduced to any simple arithmetic of influence was made further clear by Assaf Tamari through the example of the Zohar, which he showed to be deeply shaped by a thoroughgoing deployment of medical discourse. Agata Paluch noted something similar at play within the early modern flurry in the production of recipe-books of “practical Kabbalah,” which have parallels in non-Jewish “books of secrets,” but also reflect a distinctively Jewish response to the broader epistemic shift whereby “knowing and learning through both speculation and exercise began to be regarded as mutually interconnected means of cognition.” 

For the use of scientific models of knowledge and authority to buttress traditional models of Jewish authority, another striking example is the case and context of Isaac Lampronti, as discussed by Debra Glasberg Gail: in early modern Italy, medical students trained as rabbis transmitted new knowledge to other Jews but also applied empirical data and methods to halakhic questions. Something similar happened in the case of the appeal to technological knowledge about electricity in early twentieth-century American Jewish debates surrounding the telephone, as discussed by Tamar Rabinowitz, whereby “to determine the permissibility of the device, American religious leaders had to couch their authority as interpreters of halakhah in scientific terms.” And particularly in modern contexts, the allure and authorizing power of scienticity often went well beyond what we would strictly call “science”—as demonstrated by Tal Golan, for instance, in relation to the repurposing of the fin-de-siècle rhetoric of “scientism” by early Zionists. 

Quite fittingly for a colloquium held in the Kislak Center, a recurrent theme was the need for attention to the material forms whereby Jews transmitted and transformed “scientific” knowledge. Just as Freudenthal’s inquiry into Tsel ha-‘olam focused on its manuscript tradition and the redactional activities therein evinced, so Paluch and Glasberg Gail also highlighted the textual practice of encyclopedism. Josefina Rodríguez-Arribas attended doubly to materiality when considering astrolabe diagrams within Hebrew manuscripts, noting both how diagrams function within manuscripts and how mathematical instruments are themselves “part of a process of knowledge-making.” Likewise, in lush detail, Maud Kozodoy illumined the microdynamics of the materiality of the manuscripts whereby medieval Jewish medical knowledge was made, marked, and maintained. 

If attention to manuscripts points to the importance of transmission in the making of both scientific and Jewish knowledge, so it also brings questions of transformation into sharper relief. To what degree, for instance, did the early modern European cultural transformations that produced our modern sense of science also play a part in reshaping Jewishness? Golan goes so far as to suggest that “the Jewish Question was a child of Science,” due to the new problematization of Jewish particularism resultant from “Enlightenment-era humanistic sciences articulating an ideology whereby human beings were asserted to be born equal.” If so, then it is especially striking that the materiality of “Science and Transformation of Jewish Cultures” plays out upon the Jewish body. This was another recurrent theme of the Colloquium, as explored in terms of race by Natalia Aleksiun in the context of Jews in the Second Polish Republic; in relationship to institutions of global health and the medicalized body by Sofia Grachova for Eastern European Jews in the nineteenth century and by Anat Mooreville for North African Jews in the twentieth; and in terms of the technologized American self and its Jewish immigrant “others” by Rabinowitch. In each of these cases, a focus on Jewish culture shows how those processes of transformation commonly called “modernization” can be viewed, also or instead, in relation to the body and the much longer history of its making and marking by knowledge—whether through performances of expertise, such as writing manuscripts or using astrolabes, or through actions signaling a lack of acculturation such as misusing the telephone, or through the body as a site for mapping the modern discourse of race or ethnicity onto images of sickness and health, or through the richly varied cultural redeployment of “science” as means of seeing or solving difference.

Annette Yoshiko Reed is a professor of religious studies at New York University, specializing in the ancient world. She was a member of the concluding panel of the Gruss Colloquium, and was a Katz Center fellow in 2007–2008 (Antiquity) and in 2014–2015 (Wissenschaft).



Katz CAJS Blog

Raphael Levi Hannover, First Known Jewish Copernican // Matt Goldish // CAJS Blog

posted April 27, 2018

It appears that the first clear-cut advocate of the Copernican system among the Jews was an obscure Ashkenazi bookkeeper, Raphael Levi Hannover (1685–1779), and a scientific manuscript of his, Tekhunat ha-shamayim ve-khol tsev‘am, matsavam u-mahalakham, resides at the Library at the Katz Center awaiting full investigation. 

By the seventeenth century, some Jews had encountered the paradigm-shifting thesis of Copernicus that the sun rather than the earth is at the center of our piece of the universe. David Gans of Prague (1541–1613) had actual face-to-face contact with the greatest astronomers of his age, Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler. While Brahe advocated a sort of hybrid Copernican theory, Kepler was a promoter of full-blown Copernicanism. Gans, however, could not bring himself to abandon the old Ptolemaic system. Jacob Frances Bocarro-Rosales (ca. 1593–1662), a sometime Portuguese converso, was a student of Galileo, one of the great advocates of the new system (though he may have been with Galileo before the latter made the shift to Copernicanism). The Cretan polymath Joseph Solomon Delmedigo (1591–1655) has been credited with being the first Jewish Copernican but there is some lack of clarity about this. Other figures, such as Isaac Cardoso and Tobias ha-Kohen, knew but rejected the Copernican thesis. The same is true of the early eighteenth-century scholars David Nieto and Moses Gentili.

None of this should surprise us. Jews were not the only ones to express skepticism about the radical new world picture. After all, the old earth-centered system made intuitive sense and had been taught for almost two millennia. It continued to be taught in many European universities well into the Enlightenment period. Further research into the Katz Center manuscript is necessary to clarify whether Hannover had indeed accepted the Copernican system by the 1630s. If so, he would be a pioneer in Jewish adoption of new science in the early modern period.

Hannover is little known today to any but a handful of historians of early modern Jewish culture. In 1756 Hannover’s student, Moses Yekutiel of Tiktin, published his notes on Hannover’s lectures concerning astronomy, which include passages about Hannover’s adoption of Copernicanism. Jeremy Brown (New Heavens and New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought [Oxford, 2013], 147–54, with help from David Ruderman) has done excellent work reconstructing Hannover’s role in the history of Jewish astronomical thought, but the full story of his studies is not yet told. The Katz Center’s manuscript contains a significantly different version of Hannover’s astronomical views, and includes a series of illustrations showing the earlier Ptolemaic system with the earth at the center directly across from an illustration of the modern Copernican system with the sun at the center. The work is probably in Hannover’s own hand and has the year “1737” stamped on its cover, suggesting that Hannover may have been a Copernican by the 1730s if not earlier.

One reason that the full story of Hannover's Copernicanism is not fully known is that the Katz Center manuscript, originally belonging to the American Jewish pioneer Isaac Leeser, was long inaccessible. Steven and Henry Schwarzschild noted in a 1984 article that although “the Leeser library was absorbed by the Hebrew Education Association of Philadelphia and ended up in the library of Dropsie University [sic],” they were not able to locate it at that time (“Two Lives in the Jewish Fruhaufklarung: Raphael Levi Hannover and Moses Abraham Wolff” [Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 29 (1984): 243–4, n. 111]). Now, with the manuscript fully catalogued as CAJS Rar Ms 49 in the Penn Libraries, we are privileged to be able to examine it and consider Hannover’s developing views and the legacy of Jewish Copernicanism.



Matt Goldish is the Samuel M. and Esther Melton Chair of History at the Ohio State University. He was a Ruth Meltzer Fellow at the Katz Center in 2013–2014.





Katz CAJS Blog

Katz Center Fellow Julia Watts Belser on the Talmud, Disability Studies, and Environmental Humanities //CAJS Blog

posted April 24, 2018

This blog post is part of a series focused on the research of current Katz Center fellows. In this edition, Center director Steven Weitzman sits down with Julia Watts Belser to explore her research project, "Nature, Sex, and Power in Rabbinic Tales of Noah and Sodom: Tracing the Afterlives of Cataclysm."

Steven P. Weitzman (SPW): Can you share with us what drew you to the study of the Talmud, intellectually and personally?

Julia Watts Belser (JWB): I came to Talmud quite unexpectedly. As someone whose intellectual passions run toward queer and feminist studies, whose political sensibilities have been shaped by the work of Adrienne Rich, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde, Talmud wasn’t exactly a natural fit. But I find Talmud a provocative medium through which to grapple with matters of power and violence, gender and the body. Working historically forces me to question carefully what I think I know. I’m always trying to check the assumptions I make about bodies, for example, to allow myself to be surprised by my sources. Most of all, I think, I was drawn to rabbinic stories—to the way they crack open hard questions and invite me to linger with the rabbis’ own uncertainties.


SPW: One of the goals of your scholarship and teaching is to bring disability culture into dialogue with Jewish tradition. How have you been pursuing that goal? Do you see that dialogue emerging within the field of Jewish studies more broadly? Where would someone in the field go if they wanted to learn more about disability studies?

JWB: In much of my work, I bring disability studies into conversation with rabbinic texts, examining how ancient Jewish texts understand mental and physical difference, how and why they stigmatize—and sometimes valorize—bodies that differ from their notion of the ideal form, as well as the cultural and political significance they attribute to disability. It’s an exciting time to be doing this work, because we’re in the midst of a real flourishing of disability studies in pre-modern history, literature, and religious studies. Disability studies and the Hebrew Bible is thriving—so I think that’s a great place for Jewish studies scholars to begin exploring the field.  


SPW: Penn recently established a program in the environmental humanities, and thanks in no small part to your presence, this year has been a chance for the Katz Center to engage that kind of scholarship. I am thus moved to ask the following: What kind of responsibility does climate change impose on an academic field like Jewish studies? What can Jewish studies contribute to the environmental humanities?

JWB: Climate change is, in my view, one of the most pressing ethical issues of our time. I do feel an obligation to engage questions of climate, to ask myself how my sources might shed light on our present situation. I’m actually rather skeptical about whether the most commonly cited environmental passages in rabbinic literature are up to the task of forging an environmental ethic for the Anthropocene. I tend to look elsewhere, to stories about disaster, despair, and political violence. I find rabbinic stories useful for analyzing structural inequality that drives the call for environmental justice—or for illuminating what I call “climate silence,” the tendency to look away from crisis and catastrophe.  

As for the responsibility that climate change imposes on Jewish Studies?  I’d like to see us take a new look at academic practices—like routinely flying to conferences—that have a heavy environmental footprint. Might we find creative ways to limit those practices, to mitigate our harm? And when we do fly, can do more to make the carbon count?


SPW: One of the things I've learned this year is what a delightfully engaging and stirring teacher you are. What advice do you have for new or aspiring academics about how to develop as a teacher?

JWB: Thank you, Steve! I’ll share one paradigm shift that has sharpened my own practice as a teacher. Rather than organize my teaching around the facts I want to convey, I find it more fruitful to ask myself: What are the most important questions I want to raise for my students? How can I help them recognize what’s at stake? I spend a lot of time reading primary texts with my students—a built-in laboratory for inviting students to voice their opinions. My job, as I see it, is to help equip them with the critical tools to analyze, argue a point, and listen to each other. But I will say: Before I teach, I make sure to answer my own question about what’s at stake. I try to spend my time teaching things that matter, that I feel are worth sustained attention in these difficult days.


SPW: You've just had a new book come out, Rabbinic Tales of Destruction. The book presents a detailed analysis of how the Talmud describes the destruction of the Second Temple, a rich subject, but the book is about much more than that. Can you give us a sense of some of the questions or issues you are trying to address in this book beyond explicating the Talmud?

JWB: The Roman destruction of the Second Temple is one of the most discussed events in Jewish history! So why write another book on the subject? While many scholars have discussed the religious and political implications of Roman conquest, I focus particularly on how the destruction affected rabbinic understandings of gender, sexuality, and the body. I argue that the remembered risk and reality of sexual violence, enslavement, and war shaped rabbinic notions of body sovereignty, as well as their experience of masculinity and disability. The book also explores one of the things I found most surprising: Unlike many biblical narratives, the rabbinic stories I examine don’t use sexual violence as a metaphor to castigate women or Israel for sin—an unexpected and quite refreshing turn! Rather than focus on destruction as divine punishment for sin, some of these stories imagine God as suffering with victims of violence.


SPW: Can you give us a glimpse of what you've been up to this year at the Katz Center? And what's next for you?

JWB: At the Katz Center this year, I’ve been working on rabbinic stories of Noah and Sodom, analyzing how the rabbis grapple with these two sites of cataclysm by fire and flood. I’ve been particularly interested in probing the way these tales highlight the connection between social violence and natural disaster—a nexus that’s also central to contemporary realities of environmental harm. As for my next project? I’ll be diving into a new book on disability and dissident bodies, examining how rabbinic narratives situate disability in relation to race and ethnic otherness, gender, and slavery.

Julia Watts Belser is a Louis Apfelbaum and Hortense Braunstein Apfelbaum Fellow at the Katz Center this year. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and the Graduate Theological Union in 2008.




Katz CAJS Blog

Science and Transformation in Jewish Culture // CAJS Blog

posted April 17, 2018

What can Jewish history offer to the history of science and what can the history of science offer to Jewish history? These are the questions that framed the opening discussion this fellowship year and inspired the planning of the year-end Gruss Colloquium

The theme this year—“Jews and the Natural World”—is rather capacious and has encompassed a wide range of topics including: Jewish views on evolution; animal/human hybrids in medieval Europe; geographical conceptions of the natural world in ancient literature; translation of scientific texts into Hebrew in the early modern period; public health in twentieth-century Palestine; and the relationship between humans and animals in rabbinic discussions of Noah’s Ark. As a result, we have been able to see the diversity of ways in which Jews interacted with the natural world in different times and places. 

The planning committee decided to focus the year-end colloquium more specifically on “science” (albeit a broad word whose meaning changes in context) and “transformation”—since the issue Jews often grappled with wasn’t really “science” per se, but rather evolving ways of understanding and manipulating the natural world. 

We came up with four ideal ways to address the subject: transmission, praxis, expertise, and states and institutions.

The first panel addresses “transmission” and aims to consider how Jews responded to changes in scientific thought in the early modern period specifically. The papers cover medical discourses in kabbalistic literature, how science was transmitted from the university to rabbinic culture, and the early modern reception of a medieval medical text. 

The second panel covers “praxis”: the material and practical ways in which Jews made use of or adopted new scientific and technological objects. We hope the chronological span, twentieth-century America to medieval Europe, will allow for fruitful discussions about the importance of looking at material dimensions of science and technology in Jewish culture. 

The third panel addresses “expertise”: how and where expertise and authority manifested themselves, from the use of ancient authority in medieval texts to expertise and authority in Zionism.

The fourth panel, on “states and institutions,” addresses nineteenth- and twentieth-century subjects including medical discourse and race, Jews and global health, and medicine and the state. 

Panelists in the concluding round-table session will offer their thoughts from the perspectives of the history of science, early modern Jewish history, Jewish thought, and Jewish studies more broadly. The planning committee believes that, together, these panels will allow us to probe some of the most pressing questions that have arisen this fellowship year, especially whether we can even consider the history of Jews and science across the centuries as a coherent subject of its own.

Fellows of the Colloquium Planning Committee

Katz CAJS Blog

Meditations on a Monkey Face // JQR Blog

posted April 13, 2018

Although JQR contributors write primarily for a scholarly audience, they often also speak volumes to a learned layperson. In order to share their work more widely, we free up one article in each issue for download without a subscription.

In the current issue (Winter 2017), we feature Iris Idelson-Shein’s “Meditations on a Monkey-Face: Monsters, Transgressed Boundaries, and Contested Hierarchies in a Yiddish Eulenspiegel.”

Featuring monkey-faced men, venomous women, and other monstrous creatures that populated an eighteenth-century Yiddish book, this essay takes the comical seriously. The book in question is a 1735 translation of tales about the German folkloric trickster Till Eulenspiegel, famous for his practical jokes and scatological humor, now Judaized with new episodes and altered details. Idelson-Shein shows how the stories play with natural, gendered, and linguistic categories to create a confusion of hierarchies and mad mixtures, arguing that they express anxiety about the transgression and evolution of such boundaries in this era of rapid cultural changes—after all, early modern Europeans faced new paradigms of knowledge, newly discovered lands, and new political orders. Ultimately, she suggests, the Yiddish language itself was the subject of such anxiety: as she writes, it was “a hybrid genre, formed by the unnatural coupling of separate tongues, literature, cultures, classes, and genders—Yiddish literature was a monstrous creation in its own right; an almost natural breeding ground for monsters.”

This essay will be free for download for six months. See the full table of contents for JQR 108.1 here.


Katz CAJS Blog

Katz Center Fellow Agata Paluch on the Literature of Early Modern Practical Kabbalah of East-Central Europe // CAJS Blog

posted April 11, 2018 

This blog post is part of a series focused on the research of current Katz Center fellows. In this edition, Center director Steven Weitzman sits down with Agata Paluch to explore her research project, "Between Kabbalah, Magic, and Natural Science in Early Modern East-Central Europe." 

Steven P. Weitzman (SPW): Can you tell us a little about the research you've been pursuing here at the Katz Center?

Agata Paluch (AP): I’ve been focusing on the literature of early modern practical kabbalah of the East-Central European provenance. My research examines the extent to which the kabbalistic engagement with both the natural and the supernatural world facilitated and, at the same time, was expedited by the concomitant spread of the nascent experimental sciences in East-Central Europe in the seventeenth century up to the early eighteenth century. I’m particularly interested in the re-evaluation of the role and forms of thriving early modern manuscript culture in the transmission of practical and kabbalistic knowledge.

SPW: This and other research you've done focuses on understudied esoteric traditions in early modern East-Central European tradition. What led you to take an interest in this kind of subject?

AP: Scholars of early modern Ashkenaz have suggested that by the sixteenth century, the speculative theosophical kabbalah became part and parcel of the educational curriculum of the Jewish intellectual elite. Also, especially in the seventeenth century, the so-called "practical kabbalah" associated with magic and a talismanic approach to religious ritual has been claimed to have gained substantial popularity. At the same time, with regard to Central and Eastern Europe the spectrum of early modern Jewish mystical and kabbalistic beliefs and practices remains largely unstudied, with its literary output often unfairly described as unoriginal and peripheral to the study of Jewish mysticism. I found this discrepancy in scholarly assessments puzzling and inviting further research, which has revealed a particularly rich and multifaceted intellectual tradition. My broader project, of which the research pursued at the Katz Center is a part, explores a large corpus of (broadly defined) kabbalistic manuscripts and printed materials of Ashkenazi provenance, placing it within the wider context of early modern intellectual history. 


SPW: How are Jewish mystical and magical practice in the early modern context you focus on different from mysticism and magic in earlier periods?

AP: Kabbalah in the regions termed Ashkenaz had emerged in the late-Middle Ages out of various ancient and earlier-medieval mystical, philosophical, and magical traditions. While it evidently assimilated the theosophical kabbalah of the Zohar—the "canonical" kabbalistic corpus written in Spain during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries—the Ashkenazi kabbalah was still anchored in a set of older esoteric traditions of its own, e.g., on the origins of evil, on demonology, angelology, or the tension between divine transcendence and immanence. It also remained faithful to many of the exegetical methodologies of its Ashkenazi predecessors, such as the twelfth–thirteenth-century Rhineland pietists known as Haside Ashkenaz, and other mystical groups active in medieval Ashkenaz. This connection to the specifically Ashkenazi medieval esoteric tradition was maintained right through to the early modern era, even though the classical, mostly Spanish, kabbalistic texts had by that time become standard throughout the Ashkenazi world, including Poland. 

What obviously changed in the early modern times was that by the late-sixteenth century kabbalah, especially in its magical/practical reinterpretation, was hardly an esoteric matter. While the speculative kabbalah of the elites might have exerted only limited influence on the Jewish masses in East-Central Europe, popular magical traditions and practices did infiltrate the elitist kabbalah to a large extent.


SPW: The traditions you investigate were eventually overshadowed by Lurianic Kabbalah, which completely reshaped Jewish mystical tradition in ways that continue to reverberate until today. How is the kind of Jewish mysticism you study different from that of Lurianic Kabbalah?

AP: In fact, the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Polish kabbalah is so permeated by references to the earlier Ashkenazi sources that it cannot be understood against the background of either the medieval literatures of the Zohar or the Safedian sixteenth-century Lurianic tradition alone. Although it was inspired by the theosophical universe of the Spanish, Safedian and Italian kabbalists, it also preserved and explored motifs that stemmed from the pietistic and magical traditions of medieval Ashkenaz, which did not seem to the Ashkenazi kabbalists to be inconsistent with the classical lore of the Spanish kabbalah nor with Lurianic theosophy. 

I’d suggest that what Gershom Scholem, and others after him, had viewed as the universal spread of the speculative doctrines of Lurianic kabbalah in the early modern era may well have been facilitated by the wide dissemination of much more concrete magical and mystical practices, drawn out of an old stock of religious performance techniques, such as the invocation of angelic names, manipulation of the divine name, talismanic divinatory practices and the like. This magical strand of the early modern kabbalah, with its special interest in the mystical and also practical dimension of language, was a latter-day development out of much earlier traditions originating in medieval Ashkenaz. 


SPW: Can you share a new insight or two that you've gleaned from your research at the Katz Center?

AP: I’ve focused this year on studying the flurry of handwritten practical kabbalistic "how-to" books in early modern Ashkenaz. The genre was represented by private or family notebooks recording an individual or domestic sphere of expertise, experiment, and testing, as well as by the kabbalistic manuals often produced by the members of the educated rabbinic elite. These books of recipes not only copy and excerpt existing sources or record "folk" customs, but each of them accounts for a particular reader’s and practitioner’s appropriation of knowledge, be it natural and/or kabbalistic, through the process of selection and modification of traditions, textual sources, and personal experience noted on the page. Even if at first glance a rather straightforward and unpromising, the genre of recipe books seems to be an invaluable source for the study of the circulation of knowledge and natural science between various social, cultural, and linguistic contexts.


SPW: One of your interests is the cognitive science of religion. Can you explain what that is and how it relates to your research? If someone in Jewish studies wanted to learn more about this kind of science, is there a reading you'd recommend?

AP: This stems from my interest in approaches and terminologies involved in the study of mystical experiences, rituals and religion. Cognitive science of religion applies tools of evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and neurosciences to answer questions that have been of relevance to historians of religion, such as why certain religious ideas and practices appear and continue through centuries while other vanish, or why some religious behaviors share common features across cultures. The essential reading in the field is probably Bringing Ritual to Mind: Psychological Foundations of Cultural Forms by E. Thomas Lawson and Robert N. McCauley (2002), but more recently I have been very much inspired by the works of Ann Taves, especially her Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things (2010). 


SPW: The research you've presented here covered an incredible range of magical recipes and spells. Do you have a personal favorite?

AP: The thematic range is indeed enormous, so it would be difficult to have one favorite. Those recipes which make it possible to recover a personal experience of the practitioner-scribe are always especially intriguing, whether this reflects concerns and anxieties about health, fertility, material and spiritual wellbeing, physical beauty, or cleaning stained clothes. I’m also fond of recipes for any type of magical mirrors, as they tend to reveal a lot about the early modern models of perception, the mind, and the concepts of self.


Agata Paluch is a Ruth Meltzer Fellow at the Katz Center this year. She received her Ph.D. in Jewish studies from the University College London in 2013.




Katz CAJS Blog

Jonathan M. Hess (1965-2018): In Memoriam // JQR Blog


posted April 11, 2018 

JQR is shocked and saddened to hear of the sudden death of Jonathan M. Hess (Penn Ph.D. 1993), the Moses M. and Hannah L. Malkin Distinguished Professor of Jewish History and Culture and Chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Jonathan was a brilliant and lively scholar. He published essays in our pages in 2007 and again in our most recent issue (for his related blog post click here). 2018 also marks the publication of his most recent monograph Deborah and Her Sisters in our own Jewish Culture and Contexts series.


JQR and the Katz Center are honored to share in this small part of his formidable intellectual and scholarly legacy.


Katz CAJS Blog


The Trouble with Yiddish Linguistics under the Nazis // Edward Portnoy // JQR Blog

posted April 3, 2018 

Fraught, for obvious reasons, with angst and conflict, the history of Yiddish studies in Germany is a topic ripe for inquiry. While it is well known that Germanic-speaking lands were the cradle of Yiddish, inquiry into the metahistory of German scholarly interest in Yiddish as a component of Germanic linguistics, a field with a long history, has only recently been approached. It is therefore of great interest that in the latest issue of JQR (108.1), Kalman Weiser, who holds the Silber Family Chair in East European Jewry and Holocaust Studies at York University, shines a light on a thought-provoking episode in the relationship between German and Jewish scholars of Yiddish in the post-Holocaust era (“‘One of Hitler's Professors’: Max Weinreich and Solomon Birnbaum Confront Franz Beranek”).

Weiser’s compelling foray considers the case of one Franz Beranek, a Bohemian linguist whose academic focus was extraterritorial German dialects, Yiddish among them. In 1941, as WWII raged and as European Jewry stood at the abyss, Beranek published Die Jiddische Mundart Nordostungarns (The Yiddish dialect of northeast Hungary), a work he had begun in 1933. A few years after the war’s end, Beranek, who saw himself as the major scholar of Yiddish linguistics in Germany, hoped to engage with the linguists at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which had relocated to New York. But Max Weinreich, the guiding light of YIVO—and author of Hitler’s Professors (1946)—summarily refused his entreaties. Stung, in part because he saw himself as a victim of circumstances, Beranek turned to another Yiddish linguist, Solomon Birnbaum, for intercession. While Birnbaum was more understanding than Weinreich, it was to no avail.

By tracing this fascinating dispute, Weiser uncovers a tale of two Yiddish scholars and their very different reactions to a German scholar of Yiddish linguistics, thereby revealing a truly compelling episode in the history Yiddish studies in the process.

Edward Portnoy is the Academic Advisor/Exhibitions Curator at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.



Katz CAJS Blog

Nina Davis (1877–1925) // JQR Blog

posted March 29, 2018

It was the work of genius (the spirit of God) to create a religion which, with the development of mind, was capable of covering the inevitable varieties of individual thought. (Davis, “An Aspect of Judaism in 1901,” JQR 13.2 [1901]: 241–57)

For Women’s History Month, JQR draws your attention to a remarkable fin-de-siècle character: Nina Davis. British-born Davis was a regular contributor to the old series of JQR—her byline as author, as coauthor, and most commonly as translator, appeared 29 times in the journal’s pages between 1895 and 1901. 

Old Series JQR, it probably goes without saying, was no place for young women. They are rare birds whose contributions to the journal were confined almost entirely to translation, but within that cohort Davis was the most prolific. The company she kept on those tables of contents were scholars of such legendary learning that they are all virtually still household names (well, in certain households). Every issue bristled with essays, reviews, and erudite notes by Cyrus Adler, Solomon Schechter, Alfred Neubauer, Heinrich Graetz, Wilhelm Bacher, R. H. Charles, David Kauffmann, Israel Abrahams, Ignaz Goldziher, Claude Montefiore, Alexander Kohut, and Moshe Friedlander—just to name a few—and they presumably suffered no fools.

It is especially impressive in this context that her first piece was published in 1894 (JQR 7.1: 141–44), when Davis was only 17 years old! “The Ideal Minister of the Talmud” is a poem of her own composition set in response to the question asked by the rabbis in the Gemara (bTa‘an 15a–16b), “Who is qualified [to minister to God before the Torah]?” 

His lips are steeped in wisdom handed down
In golden links unbroke from sire to son, 
Long treasured race-traditions old and dear,
To be preserv'd through ages yet unborn.
Speaking in glowing words of metaphor,
He shows the beauty of their ancient faith.

With echoes of Ben Sira, she praises her ideal man, a scholar steeped in empathy, a clarion from the God of Israel to Jew and human alike.

Davis’s frequent publications, often translations of Judah Halevi, were on a few occasions coproduced with her sister Elsie. Her connection to JQR seems to have grown from association with the (Kilburn) “Wanderers,” a group of Anglophone Jewish intellectuals in the 1880s. She was close friends with members of the group, especially Israel Zangwill and Israel Abrahams. For a wonderful discussion of the cabal see Israel Abraham’s encomium to it and its brilliant charismatic “Johnson”—Solomon Schechter (reprinted from the London Jewish Chronicle in The Reform Advocate, January 15, 1916). Davis no doubt both contributed to and learned from their committed yet free thinking spirit vis-à-vis tradition. Abrahams encouraged her translations of medieval Hebrew and it was Zangwill who introduced her to Mayer Sulzberger (pictured below); in 1901 the Jewish Publication Society published a collection of her work, Songs of Exile by Hebrew Poets

1901 was the same year she married physician and ostrich feather heir Redcliffe Nathan Salaman. Though rearing six children seems to have kept her from the pages of JQR in the early years of the twentieth century, she remained a scholar and activist throughout her life. Davis fought unconventionally for what to her were deeply traditional and conservative values: Judaism, family, and Torah. She was a suffragette, both for women in England and also for women’s voices in the synagogue. She was a Zionist who in 1916, according to Todd Endelman’s biographical entry in the Jewish Women’s archive encyclopedia, “published one of the first English translations of the Zionist anthem ‘Ha-Tikvah’ and later wrote the marching song for the Judeans, the Jewish regiment that took part in the British conquest of Palestine at the end of World War I.” He goes on to note: “More daringly, on Friday evening, December 5, 1919, she became the first—and only—woman to preach in an Orthodox synagogue in Britain when she spoke on the weekly portion to the Cambridge Hebrew Congregation.”

Her last work, a collection of translations of the poetry of Halevi into English, was published in 1924. Nina Davis Salaman died in 1925.


Natalie B. Dohrmann is the Associate Director of the Katz Center and an editor of The Jewish Quarterly Review.


Katz CAJS Blog

Announcing 2018–2019 Fellows // CAJS Blog

posted March 27, 2018

2018–2019 Fellows: Jews in Modern Islamic Contexts

The Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania is proud to announce its 201819 fellowship cohort.

Selected from a large and highly competitive pool of applicants, the fellows come from throughout the world—from Europe, Israel, Turkey, and North America—and represent a range of different disciplines, including history, literary studies, anthropology, and ethnomusicology. Their research encompasses North Africa, the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, Anatolia, and Central and South Asia, and addresses both religious and secular dimensions of Jewish culture as it has developed in these areas. 

The Katz Center envisions the year as a watershed moment in the study of modern Jews beyond European and American contexts, building on research that has been gathering momentum in the last 25 years and pushing it in new directions. Once they’ve arrived to the Katz Center in September, the fellows will form a core of a larger intellectual community that will include scholars and graduate students from Penn and elsewhere, from within Jewish studies and beyond. For more information about the fellows and their research, along with news about conferences and events that will happen throughout the year, consult our website after July 1.

In the meantime, the Katz Center extends heart-felt congratulations to the 2018–19 Katz Center fellows and looks forward with great anticipation to their arrival.

Click here for the full list of fellows


Katz CAJS Blog

Out from Behind the Paywall—and the Ivory Tower // JQR Blog

posted March 22, 2018

Each issue of JQR makes one article available online without a subscription—downloadable to one and all from Project Muse, the journal’s main online distributor. Recent examples include this one on an early modern Yiddish book, and this one on Egyptian Jewish films. Why do we do this? 

Perhaps it is unnecessary. JQR’s main readership consists of professional academics, most of whom have access to the journal through their institutions’ library subscriptions. But more than this, in this age of undervalued content and besieged humanities scholarship, the editors of JQR feel strongly that it is important to recognize the work that goes into every issue, from editorial to production—this labor should not go unpaid. In fact, that is why we ask our authors not to post free copies of their pieces on their personal social media pages, but rather to post links to them on Project Muse. If an author’s most likely readers find the paper first on, for example, then they never click through to a distributor, where the number of “hits” and “downloads” for JQR determines our compensation, directly affecting our ability to publish more high-quality content. We are both aware of and sympathetic toward calls for academic open access; without a wholesale restructuring of the economics of academic publishing, however, that lofty goal is unrealistic.

So why give an essay away for free? Essentially, it’s a way to reach out to two groups not served well by the online distribution model. One such group is the increasingly large body of partially- or precariously-employed PhDs and doctoral students, as well as scholars at under-resourced institutions. For a scholar who wants to continue doing scholarship, one of the most problematic aspects of a year-long gap in funding or a turn to para-academic employment can be the loss of institutional access to scholarly journals and search engines. We can’t make it all free, but we can do what we can.

The other group consists of educated laypeople who are interested in academic research but have not been introduced to JQR. The funding challenges that we face will only worsen if scholarly writing is totally sequestered from this world of curious readers who are, if recent public engagement is any measure, clearly willing to meet us halfway. As a journal with roots in the English “review” tradition combining academic writing with thought-pieces of broad public interest, and one once headed by the storied essayist Solomon Schechter, JQR is committed to being heard beyond the ivory tower. Unlike many other journals, JQR covers an entire field rather than a particular subfield or discipline, and thus consistently pushes its authors to avoid obscure jargon and to make clear for a nonspecialist reader what is at stake in their scholarship.

Academics are producing amazing work that is, in many cases, accessible to a wide range of curious and learned readers. By animating the journal’s blog and playing with scholarly genre in our pages, we strive to make JQR the site of vibrant intellectual exchange as well as a showcase for superb scholarship. Making an article free to any reader is part of that effort, drawing new eyes to our work and reminding us as scholars to keep an eye on the horizon.

Anne Oravetz Albert


Katz CAJS Blog

A New Way to Understand How History and Memory Are Constructed // CAJS Blog

posted March 19, 2018

This month saw the passing of Hayden White (b. 1928), a scholar renowned for making connections between the study of history and fiction. In studies like Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe and Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (first published in 1973), White showed that historical narratives, even when grounded in verifiable facts, are constructed in much the same way that fictional stories are. One can understand a lot about the ideology implicit in history writing, he argued, by asking questions of it that had traditionally been applied to fictional works like epics and novels. 

The treatment of history as fiction-like provoked controversy when applied to Jewish history. White found himself in disagreement with scholars like Saul Friedländer and Carlo Ginzberg about the implications of his approach for understanding the Holocaust. But his approach helped to bring together the study of history with the study of literature and philosophy, and there is a lot that Jewish studies scholarship has learned from it. To acknowledge my own debt, I myself was inspired by it to develop a new approach to one of the historical mysteries associated with the Maccabean Revolt (article available here). More recently, his influence helped to spark my interest in how scholars choose to recount the beginning of Jewish history—the choice of a beginning point is one of the vital decisions historians make in fashioning the stories they tell.

White is one of the thinkers blamed for what is seen as a postmodern blurring of truth and fiction, but in truth, he opened up a new way to understand how history and memory are constructed, and his writings merit being remembered as an important part of the story of contemporary scholarship and its approach to the past. 


Steven Weitzman is the Ella Darivoff Director at the Katz Center and Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at Penn. 

How to Preserve the Humanities // CAJS Blog

posted March 15, 2018

Though they often aspire to transcend politics, the humanities must, on occasion, get political simply in order to survive. 

Since 1965, the United States government has provided funding for cultural institutions and individual scholars through the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an organization that awards grants to support research, education, and cultural preservation. Although the NEH has long enjoyed bipartisan support, its future is uncertain because President Trump has proposed eliminating it in his recent budget proposal. As a result, scholars like me have felt compelled to get involved in the political process as advocates on behalf of the NEH.

Why is this program so important?

There are lots of intellectual and practical reasons to support the NEH—it does good for a lot of different kinds of people, including veterans’ organizations, museums, libraries, and many other institutions that serve the public good. To answer this question from the perspective of Jewish studies, however, I would emphasize the role that the NEH has played in preserving traditions. 

One of my colleagues in the Religious Studies Department, Tim Powell, is an expert in Native American studies. He has received NEH funding to support an initiative that brings tribal members to Penn to teach endangered Native American languages. The NEH also supports his digitization project to preserve indigenous songs and stories on the verge of being lost. The idea that NEH-funded scholars are trying to help save indigenous traditions from extinction is deeply moving to me as someone who knows from his own research what Jews have had to do to preserve their traditions. In fact, the NEH has supported a number of efforts to support the vitality of Jewish culture itself.

Around the corner from our building is the National Museum of American Jewish History, which recently received a large grant from the NEH to support an exhibition focused on the composer Leonard Bernstein. The NEH preserves Jewish memory by funding Jewish historical societies. It has even helped to retrieve lost texts by funding publication of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I feel indebted to the NEH for what it has done to connect Jews to their past.

Each year, an organization called the National Humanities Alliance organizes an advocacy day in Washington, D.C. that brings together scholars from around the country to make the case to Congress for continued support for the NEH (and also to advocate for the Fulbright-Hayes program, which provides funding for scholarship and teaching abroad). The effort this year is particularly important because of President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the NEH altogether. As someone who has benefitted from government support myself during my studies and research—and as a witness to the positive difference that the humanities can make for people—I felt a duty to join the effort to save it (and also to advocate for the continuation of the Fulbright-Hayes program, which provides funding for scholarship and teaching abroad).

Petitioning Congress directly involves wandering the halls of vast buildings and feeling overwhelmed by hundreds of people who are also there to lobby for worthy causes. As exhausting as the experience was, however, it was inspiring to see representative democracy in action, and we felt we made a difference. One Republican congressperson from Pennsylvania signed a letter of public support just after we left his office.

We learned as part of our training that there are only two kinds of people in Congress: friends and future friends. The Pennsylvania delegation includes some friends, and a good number of future friends, and we hope that they will all continue the tradition of bipartisan support that has sustained the NEH for half a century. If you feel moved to support this effort, you needn’t travel to Washington, D.C. to do so; you can show support by clicking here or by visiting the National Humanities Alliance online. 

Steven Weitzman is the Ella Darivoff Director at the Katz Center and Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at Penn. 

What’s Steven Spielberg Got to Do with Nineteenth-Century Jewish Literature? // Jonathan Hess // JQR Blog

posted March 12, 2018

The Post, Steven Spielberg’s recent hit movie about a battle over the freedom of the press, is a fabulous and timely film, but those of us interested in Jewish history and culture had good reason to greet its debut with disappointment. Two years ago, after all, it was widely reported that The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara was slated to be Steven Spielberg’s next big film. Based on David Kertzer’s award-winning 1997 microhistory of the same name and boasting a screenplay by Tony Kushner, Spielberg’s latest movie was to have told the story of the famous six-year-old Jewish boy from nineteenth-century Bologna who was secretly baptized by a Catholic servant while suffering from an acute illness. Several years later, in the summer of 1858, the Papal States learned of the clandestine baptism and tore Edgardo away from his parents, taking him to a monastery. Never reunited with his parents, he eventually grew up to become a priest. In the late 1850s and 1860s the Mortara kidnapping unleashed one of the great international media spectacles of its era, becoming a liberal cause célèbre across Europe and North America. For Protestants, liberal Catholics, Jews, and secular intellectuals alike, expressing sympathy with the suffering of the Mortara family became a convenient shorthand for voicing outrage over the excesses of the Catholic Church and the anachronism of papal rule (which would come to an end with the unification of Italy in 1871).  

The events that Kertzer recounts read as if they could have been lifted from the pages of a nineteenth-century novel. Back in 2016, in fact, an article in Variety about the casting for Spielberg’s film mischaracterized Kertzer’s history as a novel. Following in this tradition, the current listing for The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara on IMDb also reports a Kushner screenplay “based on the novel by” Kertzer. There is a certain logic behind this slippage. Nineteenth-century journalistic accounts of the Mortara affair were themselves often highly sensational and full of melodramatic excess, hovering between fact and fiction. As both Kertzer and a powerful recent book by Edgardo’s great-great niece Elèna Mortara explore, moreover, within eighteen months of the kidnapping, theaters in Italy, France, the U.S., and elsewhere began presenting stage plays based on the Mortara affair, using the theater as a forum to intervene in political debate.

In my JQR essay on the Mortara case (JQR 108.1), I wanted to understand exactly how and why nineteenth-century readers found the case so entertaining. As a scholar of Jewish literature, I was fascinated to discover that rabbis and those close to the rabbinical establishment in the German-speaking world produced many different fictional treatments of the Mortara case, melodramatic works of literature that typically imagined happy endings for fictional stand-ins for Edgardo. Why did these writers and their mostly Jewish readers take such pleasure in mining the events unfolding in the Papal States for entertainment? Why was it enjoyable for Central European Jews to consume piece after piece of literature that encouraged them to identify with the sufferings of the Mortara family in faraway Bologna? How did these fictional reworkings of the Mortara affair help German Jews feel good about themselves and their own place in the world? And finally, what, if any, was the political power of the righteous indignation that this corpus of melodramatic fiction sought to instill in its readers?

Spielberg’s Mortara film is apparently still in preproduction. Current Internet chatter indicates, alas, that a remake of West Side Story will be his next film. West Side Story, of course, has its own Jewish prehistory, the details of which Warren Hoffman has explored in The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical (2014). At this point, it is unclear exactly when Spielberg’s next big Jewish blockbuster will hit the theaters. How closely The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara will follow the historical narrative that Kertzer reconstructs is also up for grabs. Based on Spielberg’s track record, however, we should have every reason to expect a gripping and entertaining film. In this sense, the director of The Post may reveal himself to be more indebted to the nineteenth-century forebears whom I explore in my JQR essay than Hollywood will be in a position to acknowledge.

Jonathan M. Hess is Moses M. and Hannah L. Malkin Distinguished Professor of Jewish History and Culture and Chair of the Department of Germanic and Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author, most recently, of Deborah and Her Sisters: How One Nineteenth-Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated Actresses Put Judaism on the World Stage (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017). 


Katz CAJS Blog

New Issue of the Jewish Quarterly Review: Winter 2018 // JQR Blog

posted March 6, 2018

JQR 108.1 (Winter 2018)* is now available, featuring:

  • Mika Ahuvia and Sarit Kattan Gribetz recover the history of the term “the daughters of Israel” (benot yisra’el), in Second Temple and rabbinic era sources, making the case that the term often signals moments when women act as subjects (rather than objects) of ritual and legal discourse.
  • In our free article for this issue, Iris Idelson-Shein offers a close reading of a unique eighteenth-century Yiddish translation of a well-known German Schwankroman, or jest-novel. She argues that the author’s addition of several tales about monstrous creatures reflects early modern anxieties about Yiddish literature as a hybrid genre, formed by the unnatural coupling of separate tongues, literature, cultures, classes, and genders.
  •  Jonathan Hess reflects on melodrama and victimhood in German Jewish literary treatments of the famous Mortara case, in which an Italian Jewish child was secretly baptized on the brink of death, only to recover and then be removed by officials of the Papal States, to be raised in a monastery.
  • In Part 2 of a two-part forum on letters in Jewish intellectual life (Part 1 is here), contributions from Daniel Schwartz, Mirjam Thulin, and Kalman Weiser show how letters by and between scholars reveal both personal and professional struggles at key moments in modern European Jewish history.
  • In a review essay, Jeffrey Bernstein writes about how Judaism fares in and after modern philosophies of religion, bringing Leora Batnitzky’s How Judaism Became a Religion together with Sharon Portnoff’s Reason and Revelation before Historicism.

*We link here to the journal’s online distributor Project Muse; article there are available to subscribers and those who have access to subscribing libraries. Log in through your library for institutional access or see for subscription information.

Katz CAJS Blog


A Meeting of Minds // Zalman Rothschild // CAJS Blog

posted March 5, 2018

Before Jewish studies took off as an independent discipline in the 1960s, many would-be Jewish studies academics became rabbis and used their rabbinic platforms as opportunities to cater to both their congregants and their intellectual interests. In addition to their sermons and other writings oriented toward the congregation, a number of rabbis—including the likes of Louis Jacobs and Milton Steinberg, as well as Steven Schwarzschild and Mordecai Kaplan earlier in their careers—wrote scholarly articles and books. Today scholarship in Jewish studies is deeply specialized, with academic subdisciplines ranging from Dead Sea scrolls to contemporary American Jewish literature, and the rabbinate is populated more by leaders than by working scholars. 

So, when I was asked to address the group of rabbis participating in LEAP (a program the Katz Center offers in partnership with Clal), I thought, “why burden rabbis with the wholly theoretical questions about Hasidic thought I am working on?” As I began to teach I was still ruminating on what relevance my esoteric research project on Hasidism’s theological opposition to secular knowledge would have for practitioners who spend the bulk of their days handling the here and now, from the personal needs of congregants to institutional crises. Quickly, however, I perceived the enthusiasm and intellectual eagerness—indeed, thirst—with which the rabbis engaged in our “wholly theoretical” discussion.

In our ninety minutes together, we explored Hasidism’s construct of the “secular,” and why Hasidism so strenuously opposes secular knowledge, which it calls “external wisdom.” The discussion segued into a set of reflections: are Hasidic Jews so dissimilar from mainstream American Jewry as to warrant a lack of engagement with them? To what extent are progressive Jews also fundamentalists with respect to the very principles and values they live by? Was Menachem M. Schneersohn’s anti-assimilationist message an offshoot of his general counter-culturalism, or was it the other way around? And how similar is it when rabbis like the ones in LEAP discourage their communities from assimilating into what we might call “radical technologicalism,” from being glued to their iPhones at the expense of meaningful connection?

Hasidism’s opposition to secular knowledge provided rich fodder for discussion about Jewish identity in the modern world and my time with the LEAP rabbis led me to reevaluate some of my own conclusions about the nature of fundamentalism in Jewish thought. I deeply appreciated the insights that the rabbis shared. Clearly, the divide between the academy and the rabbinate, between the theoretical scholar and the practitioner, need not be so stark. Rabbinic training and academic preparation differ from one another today, but it need not follow that there be total separation between the two groups. They often engage the same texts, ideas, and even ideals, and each is enriched by engagement with the other.

Zalman Rothschild is a Ruth Meltzer Fellow at the Katz Center this year. He received his PhD in Modern Jewish Thought from New York University in 2016 and anticipates the completion of his JD from Harvard Law School in 2018.


Even a Shoe Has Its History // JQR Blog

posted February 23, 2018

The editors were a little surprised when our year-end report came in from JSTOR—one of the services that distribute our content electronically—informing us that 2017’s most downloaded article from the JQR archives was Jacob Nacht’s 1915 essay "The Symbolism of the Shoe with Special Reference to Jewish Sources" (JQR New Series, Vol. 6, No. 1 [Jul., 1915]: 1–22; available without a subscription).

We immediately downloaded it ourselves. Nacht opens with the simple truth that "Even a shoe has its history," and goes on to write, if not a history per se, then a sprawling list of shoes as they have appeared in the classical Jewish library. A shoe holds a wealth of symbolism concerning power and powerlessness, sex and marriage, ostentation and modesty, transfer of property, fertility, and more. To map this discursive horizon, he pulls examples from across the Bible and rabbinic literature and beyond. Typical of much early JQR, sources appear untranslated in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, German, Romanian, French, and Arabic. He juxtaposes ancient Teutonic lore, contemporary Bedouin women, Chinese, Greek, and Hessian rites, English proverbs to name but some; Nacht even notes the scruples of an Ohio mayor who, near the turn of the twentieth century, outlawed the striking of newlyweds with rice, fists—or old shoes.

Don’t miss out. We invite you to join the teeming throngs and download the essay for yourself (JSTOR). While you are there, check out the incredible riches of over a century of superior Judaic scholarship in the archives.


Katz Center Scholars Win Big at the 2017 National Jewish Book Awards // CAJS Blog

posted February 2, 2018

The Jewish Book Council recently announced the winners and finalists of the 2017 National Jewish Book Awards, with eight different Katz Center scholars included among them.

Steven Weitzman, Katz Center director, won for The Origin of the Jews: The Quest for Roots in a Rootless Age in the category of Jewish Education and Identity. Speaking to Penn News about the win, Weitzman reflected, “I wanted the book to tell the story of a scholarly quest in a way that was helpful to readers beyond academia while staying true to the complexity of the issues involved… I would be delighted if the book helps readers, Jewish or non-Jewish, think about their origins and their identity in a deeper way.”

Three past fellows also took home awards:

In addition, four Katz Center fellows and/or affiliated scholars were recognized as finalists:



Library at the Katz Center Acquires Decorated Ketubbot from Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East // CAJS Blog

posted January 30, 2018

Collection of Ten Decorated Ketubbot, Penn LibrariesThe Library at the Katz Center holds a wide range of Judaica in the form of photographs, ephemera, and, as of December 20, 2017, a collection of Jewish marriage contracts (ketubbot) from North Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. These ten beautifully illustrated documents date from 1862–1931, and originate from Fez, Ancona, Izmir, Gibraltar, and Aleppo, among other places. 

Traditionally signed at the start of Jewish wedding celebrations, ketubbot often feature detailed designs, ranging from floral paint patterns to meticulous paper cut compositions, and much more. The ketubbot in this particular collection vary in appearance. Some deviate from a rectangular shape, appearing on paper or parchment cut into creative silhouettes. Some are accompanied by royal imagery, such as crowns, while others include architectural components, such as columns and roofs. Click this link to see them up close.

Each item in the collection is dated and legible, indicating clearly the names of the wedded couples, the locations of their weddings, and the dates of the events. Used in marriage ceremonies across the world, the details of the ketubbot reflect their distinct places of origin.

The Library at the Katz Center is always acquiring new materials for the preservation and study of Jewish history and culture. This newest acquisition was supervised by Arthur Kiron, the Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at Penn Libraries, and was made possible by the generosity of the Elis and Ruth Douer Endowed Fund for Judaica Collections.  


Schechter in Cambridge and Philadelphia // Theodor Dunkelgrün // CAJS Blog

posted January 16, 2018

November 2015 marked the centenary of the death of Solomon Schechter, one of the most original, accomplished, and versatile Jewish scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. To explore Schechter’s life, work, and legacies on both sides of the Atlantic, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge and the Katz Center at the University of Pennsylvania joined forces to convene a pair of conferences.

One conference, Solomon Schechter’s Life and Legacy: A Jewish Scholar in Victorian England (1882–1901), met at the Old Divinity School, St John’s College, Cambridge. This conference focused on the English chapter of Schechter’s life (1882/3–1902) and especially his work as a scholar. The other conference, Solomon Schechter's Life and Legacy: American Transformations (1902–1915) was hosted by the Katz Center and convened at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. It focused on the American chapter of Schechter’s life (1902–15), framed in large part by his stewardship of the Jewish Theological Seminary and his role in the emergence of Conservative Judaism and in American Jewish life generally.

Scholars from Israel, Europe, and North America, many of them former Katz Center fellows, attended both conferences. A wide range of rich papers illuminated Schechter’s many-sided scholarship, his friendships (and animosities), his work on medieval manuscripts before and after the discovery of the Cairo Genizah, his flair for his adopted English, and his intellectual path from a Hasidic childhood through the new institutions of Jewish science in Vienna and Berlin to Victorian London and Cambridge and finally to New York. Both conferences were recorded on video (Philadelphia here, Cambridge here), and two subsequent publications offer reflections on Schechter life and work on the occasion of the centennial. Jewish Quarterly Review 106.2 (Spring 2016) opens with a forum devoted to Schechter's English writings: "Some Essays on Some Essays by Solomon Schechter," with an introduction by Elliott Horowitz. And Jewish Historical Studies (Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England) 48 (2016), a special issue guest-edited by Theodor Dunkelgrün, includes seven essays devoted to Schechter. Five of these were delivered as lectures to the Cambridge conference; a sixth, by Mirjam Thulin, is a revision of the lecture she delivered at the Philadelphia conference; and a seventh, by David Starr (see Starr’s blog post on Schechter here), builds on his lectures at both conferences. 

Theodor Dunkelgrün, "Solomon Schechter: A Jewish scholar in Victorian England (1882–1902)"

Ismar Schorsch, "Schechter's Indebtedness to Zunz"

Ephraim Kanarfogel, "Solomon Schechter and Medieval European Rabbinic Literature"

Ben Outhwaite, "Schechter's Eye for the Extraordinary"

Stefan Reif, "Schechter's Approach to Jewish Liturgy"

Bernhard Maier, "William Robertson Smith, Solomon Schechter and Contemporary Judaism"

David B. Starr, "Against the Certain: Solomon Schechter's Theology and Religion in His British Years, 1882–1902"

Mirjam Thulin, "Wissenschaft and Correspondence: Solomon Schechter between Europe and America"   

Jewish Historical Studies (Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England) is now published entirely in Open Access by the University College London Press. The entire special issue devoted to Schechter—the fruit of collaboration between CRASSH at Cambridge and the Herbert D. Katz Center at Penn—can be read here

Theodor Dunkelgrün is the Senior Research Associate and Academic Co-Ordinator on the Mellon-funded Religious Diversity and University Responses project at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at Cambridge University. He was a fellow in 2010—2011: Converts and Conversion to and from Judaism.


Remembering Appelfeld // Nili Gold // JQR blog

posted January 8, 2018

The Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld died on Thursday, January 4th. One of the most important authors of the twentieth century, his works reached far and wide, translated into dozens of languages. Appelfeld was among the founders of Israeli literature, one of a handful of writers like A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, who, in the 1960s, shaped Israeli literature for the many decades that followed. Appelfeld’s fiction, however, was different from that of the other members of his literary generation, the “Generation of the State” (so dubbed by the great scholar and critic Gershon Shaked), for it drew on his experiences during the Holocaust, and was nourished by his idiosyncratic creativity. 

Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz in Bukovina (now Ukraine) in 1932. When we first met, I told him that my mother was also born there, and ever since, he always introduced me as “bat ‘Iri”—“a daughter of my town.” When I told him of my plan to write about my own hometown, Haifa, he said in his melodic soft voice: “but Nili, why don’t you write about Czernowitz?” In 2011, Appelfeld came to Penn to participate in a conference I organized in his honor. (Click here to see a JQR forum inspired by that colloquium.) In the public interview that I conducted with him at the culmination of the event, his voice cast a spell on all who were present. Now that voice is no more. 

Appelfeld’s formative years were spent in the thick of World War II. He was eight when his mother was murdered. He and his father were taken to the ghetto, and from there to a labor camp, from which he escaped. Still a child, he then survived alone in the forest. Yet he rarely described the horrors themselves, but rather remained at the margins of those experiences, writing about the years that preceded or followed the “big bang” in places that barely touched the abyss. His works were branded by the Holocaust, but he wrote in a whisper, so to speak, his muted scream reverberating in both his speech and in his books. The critic Yigal Schwartz, who also edited 28 of Appelfeld’s books, wrote in Haaretz last week that he “saw the world through the eyes of a child running away in the forest.”

Appelfeld came to Israel as a teenager in 1946 not knowing any language well. He served in the army and then embarked on the study of Hebrew as well as Yiddish at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He started publishing poetry in 1956. After having been rejected by a number of publishers, his first book of stories, Smoke, came out in 1962. In the climate of Israel at that time, stories of Holocaust survival were not embraced. He himself said in a 2015 interview, “everywhere it was written ‘Forget,’ and I wanted to remember.” Since Smoke, he has written nearly fifty books, almost all of which deal with World War II and Europe in some way or another. Appelfeld’s novels Badenheim and Katerina were among his most famous works, and were widely translated and garnered him rare acclaim. His last book, Wonderment, came out just last year. 

Appelfeld won many literary prizes, the most prestigious of which is the Israel Prize. He was an impressionistic, lyrical, understated artist who honed every word. His fictional world was often distant from the Israeli reality. “Appelfeld’s importance is so significant because he created a different route in the tradition of the Hebrew fiction that began in the 1960s. He is the one who continued the tradition of Bialik’s generation,” said Shaked. In turn, Appelfeld enabled the writings of great authors like Yoel Hoffmann and David Grossman. He himself was influenced by Brenner and Agnon, but he said that Kafka’s works offered vital assistance to those, like him, who wanted to tell about the Holocaust. “Kafka gave us back the words,” he said. “If not for him, it is doubtful that we would be able to retrieve even one word from the depths.” Indeed, if anyone has succeeded in retrieving words from the depths, it is Appelfeld.

Nili Gold is Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Language & Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She was a fellow in 2004-2005: Modern Jewish Literatures: Language, Identity, Writing.



Katz CAJS Blog

From the Director: Legitimate Debate is Crucial to Jewish Vitality // CAJS Blog

This last fall the Center for Jewish History, a center with an academic research mission similar to the Katz Center’s, found itself at the center of a political storm when a small group of activists called for its new director David Myers to be fired for alleged anti-Israel views.

Apart from misrepresenting Myers's position, their call for him to be terminated was an attack on the principle of academic freedom—the idea that scholars and intellectuals should be able to engage in debate without fear of censorship or retaliation. 

Myers drew the support of hundreds of fellow scholars and resolved to brush off the protests, but the storm continued. The same group turned its fire on the American Jewish Historical Society, one of the partner organizations of the Center for Jewish History, for organizing two events that involved people associated with Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish group that supports the BDS movement. The board of the AJHS decided to cancel the programs, and its director, Rachel Lithgow, subsequently decided to resign, writing about her experience and her thinking in an article just published by Tablet

Lithgow has since acknowledged that the decision to sponsor the programs was a mistake. But the decision by the board to cancel the programs sent a mixed message by appearing to capitulate to a call for censorship. Criticism and protests are perfectly legitimate responses to ideas one finds objectionable, and academic organizations should be open to listening to such critique, but they must also be very careful about suppressing or prohibiting the expression of ideas simply because people on the internet call for them to do so.

As a director of another research center, I recognize this situation as a tragedy not just for Rachel Lithgow, the American Jewish Historical Society, and the Center for Jewish History, but for the American Jewish community. 

I strongly oppose BDS myself but that is not the real issue here. Intellectual centers—universities, research centers, journals—will occasionally generate ideas that are wrong, dissident, or even heretical. That is the cost of pursuing the truth, a process that involves argument, disagreement, and experimenting with new and unpopular ideas, as Jews should know from their own rich intellectual history. Monotheism was once a dissident idea; and where would Jews be without that enduring monument to the value of argumentation, the Talmud? If the room for debate and dissident ideas within the Jewish community was ever to close, the loss would not be unlike the loss of the Temple as far as I am concerned: Jews would be cut off from one of the principle sources of their vitality.

For this reason—and speaking only for myself—I feel impelled to say that I lament the fact that Rachel Lithgow had to resign from her position. I am incensed that David Myers has been subject to falsely grounded and narrow-minded calls for his termination. And I am resolved as ever to protect the Katz Center as a space for open, honest inquiry and the free exchange of ideas.


Steven Weitzman is the Ella Darivoff Director at the Katz Center and Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at Penn. 






The Accidental Golem Hunters // Edan Dekel and Gantt Gurley // JQR Blog

How did a scholar of ancient literature and a specialist in Scandinavian literature and folklore find themselves writing together about the quintessential modern Jewish legend, the tale of the Prague golem? That is the question we asked ourselves as we sat down to reflect on the publication of our essay "Kafka's Golem" in the current issue of JQR (107.4, fall 2017).  

Dekel: This article is the second in a series of essays on the golem legend. Do you remember what prompted our first article, "How the Golem Came to Prague," which discusses the literary history of the golem legend in the mid-nineteenth century? 

Gurley: I was working on the Danish Jewish writer Meïr Aron Goldschmidt's 1845 novel A Jew, which contains several unusual narrations of traditional Jewish tales. When I came across his rendition of the golem story, I was struck by how different it seemed from any other version I had ever read. I searched through the secondary literature on the golem but found no mention of Goldschmidt anywhere.

Dekel: I remember you called me one day excitedly to report this news about Goldschmidt. In a happy coincidence, I was doing some research at the same time for our long-term project on anthologies of rabbinic tales, when I stumbled onto an untitled notice in a Viennese literary magazine from 1836 that presented the familiar Prague story, but which again had escaped the notice of most scholarship. We decided to bring these two early innovators of the literary legend together to see what we might learn about the origins of the Prague golem tradition.

Gurley: Our Kafka essay was a result of a similar pair of unexpected discoveries. After the first article, we became interested in other literary accounts of the golem that are not well represented in the scholarship. We had started research into another set of early nineteenth-century sources, when I happened to attend a lecture on Jewish dietary law in the work of Franz Kafka. The lecture included a discussion of Kafka’s fragmentary tale usually called "The Animal in the Synagogue." Because I had golems on my mind, I began to consider the possibility that this fragment was deeply connected to the golem tradition. 

Dekel: When you told me about this idea, I reminded you that years earlier we had discussed the identity of the animal in this story from a Jewish folkloric perspective, but we had never linked it to the most famous modern Jewish legend of all. I began to wonder whether Kafka had ever mentioned the golem explicitly in any of his surviving writings. A search through Kafka's largely fragmentary corpus revealed a brief but striking account in his diaries of a rabbi attempting to make a golem in a washtub. I found a few short discussions of this passage in the scholarship, but was surprised to see that the standard modern critical edition of Kafka's works had relegated the text to its critical apparatus volume as a deleted passage.

Gurley: The occlusion of the golem within Kafka's oeuvre was too attractive a problem to pass up, particularly because it brought together questions of textual criticism, philology, and Jewish narrative traditions. We decided to find out whether a close reading of this golem fragment could shed light on "The Animal in the Synagogue," which is often, but erroneously, called the only Kafka story to use explicitly Jewish motifs. This eventually led us to Kafka's Jewish reading habits and his potential engagement with another unusual golem story by the great Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz.

Dekel: You mention the different types of questions that this essay brought together for us. What do you think are some of the benefits of applying our philological training in ancient and medieval languages and literatures to such a modern corpus as Kafka's writings?

Gurley: I think that the kind of textual critical and linguistic skills that we have developed while working on the Homeric poems or the Old Norse Edda, for example, lend themselves well to untangling the fraught and fragmentary textual history of Kafka's work. At the same time, the close reading methods that we employ in our other research can complement some of the more theoretical approaches that scholars have taken toward Kafka in recent years.

Dekel: Over its long history, JQR has featured a lot of philological work on biblical and rabbinic texts, so our methods are certainly not unusual in this context. But when we were putting together this essay I searched the complete archive of the journal and discovered that JQR has never published an article that is specifically about Kafka (and only one review of a book about Kafka). I think that reveals something about the still-contested status of Kafka as a Jewish writer rather than a writer who happened to be a Jew.

Gurley: When you put it like that, it makes me realize that a lot of our work together aims to recover traditions of Jewish storytelling within the mainstream of European literature. And what could be more mainstream than Prague’s most famous Jewish storyteller telling Prague’s most famous Jewish story? As obvious as that sounds, I don’t think I could have worked out its implications on my own. 

Dekel: That is a bold confession in the context of literary studies, where the predominant model still tends to be an individual scholar toiling alone to unravel the mysteries of a text.

Gurley: Exactly, our collaboration has really been a lesson to me about the value of stretching beyond our individual specializations and academic designations to produce more dynamic readings of Jewish narrative. The hunt for the golem continues, and I look forward to our next discovery! 


Edan Dekel is Professor of Classics and Jewish Studies at Williams College.





Gantt Gurley is Associate Professor of Scandinavian at the University of Oregon. 



From Jingle Bells to Sabbatian Hymns: JQR Blog, Holiday Edition

The scholarly articles published in JQR often speak volumes to learned laypeople, and have the potential to illuminate Jewish culture in the broadest sense. In order to share their work beyond the community of academic readers, we free up one article in each issue for download without a subscription.

This issue (Fall 2017), we feature Eliezer Papo’s “From Messianic Apologetics to Missionary Counterattack in the Sabbatian Sacred Romancero.” 

The seventeenth-century messianic movement of Shabbetai Tsvi has a reputation for drama, intrigue, and the truly bizarre. Deservedly so, since its history features ritual and sexual transgression, fistfights, plots, miracles, and apostasy, with Tsvi finally converting to Islam at the bidding of the Ottoman sultan. Less well known is the group of Ottoman Jews who continued to follow the supposed savior even after his conversion, creating a unique and secretive culture focused on Sabbatian adoration and messianic expectation.

Eliezer Papo writes in JQR 107.4 about how these Sabbatians sanctified traditional Judeo-Spanish romances and adapted the lyrics to suit their theology of a converted and hidden messiah. The romance, a sung poetic narrative, or folk ballad, was a typical Spanish genre with tunes and stories that were widely known among these Inquisition-era descendants of exiles from Spain and Portugal. Through translation, comparison, and elucidation of five such songs, Papo shows how Sabbatians played on the originals to imbue them with messages that were distinct to particular subgroups among them.

Sabbatians weren’t unique in adapting popular songs for particular content, then or now. See these articles by Kirsten Fudeman and Michela Andreatta from JQR’s archive, both of which look at boundary-crossing doublespeak in songs and poetry. In honor of tonight’s holiday, take as another example the Maccabeats, who produced this Chanukah medley of songs from the musical Hamilton, replacing the American revolutionaries with storied Maccabean fighters through clever plays and parallels. But whereas the Maccabeats’ relationship to the original seems essentially positive, the Sabbatians ’ use of chivalric songs was mocking even as it relied on shared cultural elements—more akin to “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg!” Papo draws out in detail how the Sabbatian songs reversed gender roles, thumbed their noses at rabbis, and used the vernacular to undermine the Jewish elite. For them, the use of such popular, often violent and suggestive tales served not only to connect with the wider culture, but to articulate a distinct, and subversive, perspective.

Papo’s essay will be free for download for six months. See the full table of contents for JQR 107.3 here.

Anne Oravetz Albert is the Katz Center’s Klatt Family Director for Public Programs and Managing Editor of JQR.

Katz CAJS Blog

Rabbis and Scholars Meet in the LEAP Program // CAJS Blog

This week, a group of rabbis drawn from diverse American Jewish communities came to the Katz Center to learn from fellows under the auspices of the LEAP program in partnership with Clal. Now in its third year, LEAP enlists influential voices in the Jewish world in the effort to translate and disseminate Jewish studies scholarship beyond the academy.

Following the Center's fellowship theme, the 2017–2018 LEAP fellows are thinking of the ways that nature and science have been variously received by, embedded in, and opposed to Jewish religion and culture. This meeting, the first of three planned for the year, included presentations on disparate topics. Daniel Langton (University of Manchester), the Center's Ivan and Nina Ross Family Fellow, spoke about Jewish responses to the theory of evolution; Bethany Wiggin, from Penn's German Department, offered an introduction to environmental humanities; and Louis Apfelbaum and Hortense Braunstein Apfelbaum Fellow Julia Watts Belser (Georgetown University) explored rabbinic responses to drought and other natural disasters.

The range of topics catalyzed productive conversations about the place of nature and science in contemporary Jewish life. The group discussed, for example, how rabbis can facilitate awareness of environmental concerns and promote urgent action. They compared notes on ways in which widely accepted scientific views butt up against elements of Jewish liturgy and theology, affecting perceptions of Jewish "truths" in ways that often go unacknowledged. They brainstormed how elements of Jewish ritual are—or could be—imbued with a sense of connection with the natural world including annual cycles, human corporeality, and indebtedness to other living creatures.

These lines of thinking are not necessarily scholarly, but as they develop over two days of reading and discussion with scholars, they are informed by scholarly insight and subtle historicity in most unusual ways. Participating rabbis return to their regular duties with a mandate to "apply" this learning, with application understood very broadly. Beyond directly teaching the scholars' work to their constituents, rabbis might create a new ritual, compose a sermon or a blog post, or alter their approach to pastoral conversations. 

But how deep is the meaning that is made, for example, by comparing today's struggles to process climate change with Talmudic narratives about bringing rain by requesting divine intervention? Is it intellectually responsible to conflate nineteenth-century Jewish responses to Darwin with the religious perspectives of contemporary Jewish doctors?

Such thought-producing problems lie at the heart of the LEAP program. Academic and rabbinic approaches to Jewish texts and history differ not only in methodology but, often, in terms of fundamental aims. It is natural for rabbis to approach new scholarship with questions about what it can mean to them and the communities they lead, since such leadership is their vocation. For academics, though, it can be hard to see painstaking research and cautiously-argued conclusions turned into metaphors. The ideal of scholarly disinterestedness wars with the belief that the humanities matter when it comes to applying insights to chronologically or culturally distant contexts.

Sometimes, academic writing does speak directly, without need for apology or translation, to broad human concerns; when it doesn't, should it be pushed to that purpose? The LEAP program's focus on application puts it at risk of devaluing pure research, but the risk is averted through emphasis on time spent in deep study of the apparently arcane together with scholarly practitioners. It acknowledges that such study is necessary, energizing, and enlightening, even before any new applications may arise. In this way it stands as an example of Jewish communal commitment to supporting the academic scholarship to which the Katz Center is devoted.


Anne O. Albert is the Klatt Family Director for Public Programs at the Katz Center.

Naftali Levy: An Interesting Species (or min) of Jewish Evolutionist // CAJS Blog

posted November 27, 2017 


Big ideas don't come any bigger than Darwinism, and I've spent a fascinating few years looking at the impact of evolutionary theories on Jewish history and culture. I've discovered a wide variety of species of Jewish evolutionists rethinking their texts and traditions: from Italian kabbalist Elijah Benamozegh to religious Zionist Abraham Isaac Kook, from Anglo-Jewish eugenicist Lucien Wolf to US Reform rabbis Joseph Krauskopf and Isaac Mayer Wise. Even the Holocaust has been reconsidered in light of The Origin of Species, in the works of Mordecai Kaplan and Hans Jonas.

Sometimes one puts off reading a particular thinker because of one's preconceptions, and Naftali Levy (1840–1894) is a case in point. Three other studies have been made of this Polish rabbi's Toldot Adam or The Origin of Man (1874),1  and, frankly, I doubted that there would be much more to say. As the earliest known translator of (excerpts of) Darwin into Hebrew,2 and as a correspondent of Darwin, his significance was well established.3 Levy had been presented in the literature as a traditionalist who had sought "to convince the Jewish doubtful that science and Torah were not only fundamentally compatible, but mutually illuminating,"4 and "to show harmony between the Torah and the Darwinian theory of evolution."5 He was said to have used "the discoveries of the new science to demonstrate the veracity of Judaism’s claims of Divine wisdom and to prove the relevance of Torah and Jewish tradition."6 

A translation of Toldot Adam has been published online, and half of the sixty-page Hebrew book had been scanned for HATHI (why only half? These things are sent to try us). A cursory glance through these some time ago had appeared to confirm my assumption that Levy would feature in my work as a minor entry, illustrative of a tendency among some nineteenth-century traditionalists to read evolution into the Torah and rabbinic writings. 

Levy's Toldot Adam is quite rare now and is the kind of book that is confined to rare-book reading rooms. There's a copy in the Cambridge University library, and perhaps seven or eight copies in the U.S. according to WorldCat. This didn't matter terribly, because I didn't plan to spend time getting hold of a copy, since, well, Levy wasn't worth the effort. But after failing to make sense of the translation of one particular argument, I found myself needing to examine the original, which was located, of course, in one of the chapters that were missing from the online scanned version. And so I set about looking for the nearest library that held the book. WorldCat helpfully informed me that the nearest library was only 185 km away. Imagine my delight then, when, on a whim, I checked the local catalogue and discovered that a copy was actually sitting in the Katz Center library stacks. Ten minutes later I was happily turning the pages of the earliest Hebrew translation of Darwin. 

What have I learned so far? The author of Toldot Adam was not quite "the faithful, traditional rabbi… definitely orthodox in outlook" portrayed by some.7 Levy did not write again on the subject of science, and it is likely that his stance shifted toward a more cautious position, but there were certainly contemporaries who sensed something subversive about the youthful study, as illustrated by an unfortunate incident in London in 1883, when Levy's former friend, Rabbi Joseph Kohn-Zedek, cited Levy's views on evolution to justify a call for the withdrawal of rabbinic approval that had been granted his later halakhic studies. Most likely the problem had been the tone of the work, which gave the impression that one might not take for granted the authority of received religious tradition over the discoveries of modern science. Levy, who translated at least ten short sections from The Origin of Species for his study, certainly held Darwin in high regard. As he explained, 

The knowledge of the existence of life on the earth for thousands of years since ancient times is a result of the application of the theory of "the origin of species" which in our time has provoked sensation at every seat of learning, and on the basis of which natural scientists of our generation continue their [intellectual] ascent. It is vital, therefore, to listen to and read the principal enunciator of this theory, the most important researcher of his generation, Darwin, whose honour fills the scientific world.8 

Excited about the underlying reality of nature revealed by science, he exulted that these "sublime matters [were] hidden from the masses of the people."9 It is perhaps this excitement that led him to make speculations uncharacteristic of one espousing an Orthodox religious worldview, such as his remarkable concluding remarks on immortality, ignored by earlier commentators, in which he argues that man will one day evolve to a stage where he will defeat death itself.10 Also, in contrast to other Jewish evolutionists who rejected the apparent cruelty of natural selection in favour of some kind of divine guidance, Levy's God reigned over a natural world undeniably shaped by the darwinian "struggle for existence," or milhemet ha-kiyum, characterised by chance and massive loss of life through predation and competition; in fact, such suffering was viewed by Levy as the primary mechanism by which human morality evolved.11 And then there are the intriguing hints of something more heterodox, still. On one occasion, Levy allows Nature to usurp God:

[A]fter it was all ready, nature [ha-tevah] could give forth the command: Let there be light! This law was achieved, thus: the elements of the entire universe separated into the bodies of the world, namely, the inert matter, the plant and the animal; and after the great law in nature [that is, evolution] fulfilled its aim and its perfection, there appeared the most glorious creation in all of creation… man!12 

And at another moment he suggests that the image of an ape-like hominid was a more accurate portrayal of the first man than was the biblical claim of divine likeness: 

All contemporary researchers who hold to Darwin's theory will agree that early generations [of humans] were wild and uncivilized… and trace the [human] lineage down to the apes, the forefathers of the perfected man… Thus natural science has enunciated a great theory: that man is a product of [his] environment… And I shall proclaim loudly giving honour to man as a beast of the field; and there will be those who will be shocked at the fact that I correctly read Darwinism in the Torah, and I believe more in his theory than the text which says "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness!"13 

If nothing else, then, it'd be a mistake to see the young Levy as a traditionalist offering nothing more than an evolutionary midrash. If not a heretic, he's certainly a rarer species of Jewish Darwinist than I’d first imagined. 

[1] Naphtali Levy, Toldot Adam [The Origins of Man] (Hebrew; Vienna: Spitzer & Holzwarth, 1874). Strictly speaking, the work was first published in a well-known Haskalah journal as "Toldot Adam," Ha-Shachar 6 (1874): 3–60.  

[2] Levy himself cites German translations of Darwin's writings, including The Origin of Species, of which there were three editions of the German translation by that time, by Bronn (1860, 1863) and by Bronn and J. V. Carus (1867).

[3] Darwin indicated his pleasure in the idea of Jewish engagement with his ideas in his reply to Levy, in conversations with Christian friends, and in his Autobiography, in which he exclaimed that "Even an essay in Hebrew has appeared on it [The Origin of Species], showing that the theory is contained in the Old Testament!" Levy's personal correspondence with Darwin, and Darwin's interest in Levy's work, is treated at length in Ralph Colp and David Kohn, "'A Real Curiosity': Charles Darwin Reflects on a Communication from Rabbi Naphtali Levy," The European Legacy 1.5 (1996): 1717–27. 

[4] Colp and Kohn, "A Real Curiosity." 

[5] Edward O. Dodson, "Toldot Adam: A Little Known Chapter in the History of Darwinism," Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 52 (2000): 4. 

[6] Michael Shai Cherry, "Creation, Evolution and Jewish Thought" (PhD dissertation, Brandeis University, 2001), 134. 

[7] Colp and Kohn, "A Real Curiosity," 1721. 

[8] Levy, Toldot Adam, 33. 

[9] Ibid., 11.  

[10] Ibid., 57.  

[11] Ibid., 45–46.  

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13] Ibid., 40, 41.


Daniel Langton is professor of Jewish history in the Department of Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester in the UK and is currently the Ivan and Nina Ross Family Fellow at the Katz Center. Read his bio here.





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Saturn and the Jews // CAJS Blog

posted November 10, 2017 

Underlying the well-known link between Saturday (Shabbat in Hebrew) and Saturn (Shabbetai in Hebrew) is the reference to Saturn as the planet in charge of the Jews. Behind the link between Saturn and Saturday is the astrological theory that assigns the seven planets in succession, beginning with the sun and following the order of their orbs, to the 24 hours of the day and to the seven days of the week. 

Prominent Roman historians such as Tacitus (56120 CE) and Cassius Dio (ca. 155–after 229), as well as Church fathers like Augustine (354430), acknowledged a special link between Saturn and Saturday, the holiest day of the week for the Jews. That Jewish society of the talmudic period recognized the same association is shown by the fact that the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 156a) refers to Saturn as Shabbetai, i.e., the star of Shabbat (Saturday). Greek and Arab astrology, however, considered Saturn to be the most malignant of the seven planets; and thus the Jews, astrologically governed by Saturn, were considered to be contaminated by the planet’s wicked nature.

Abraham Ibn Ezra (ca.1089ca.1161) is the first Jewish thinker to deal with the problematic link between Saturn, Saturday, and the Jews. He addresses the astrological association, throughout his writings, both scientific and nonscientific. He removes the sting of this embarrassing linkage by stressing that Saturn is actually conducive to a Jew’s religious faith. In his long commentary on Exodus 20:13, Ibn Ezra associates Saturn with the fourth commandment, ordaining one to "remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy" (Ex. 20:8), and explains that this correspondence allows the Jews, by not occupying themselves with everyday matters but devoting themselves solely to the fear of God on this day, to protect themselves from Saturn’s baneful influence and also to improve the quality of their religious belief.

For more details see Shlomo Sela, "Abraham Ibn Ezra’s Appropriation of Saturn," Kabbalah 10 (2004): 2153.


Shlomo Sela is a professor of Jewish Thought at Bar-Ilan University and an affiliated scholar at the Katz Center this year.




Genetics and the Meanings of Jewishness // CAJS Blog

posted October 12, 2017 

A prominent rabbinic judge in Jerusalem has issued a responsum that a genetic test can be used as proof of Jewish descent, eliminating the need for conversion where Jewishness is in dispute. Rabbi Yosef Carmel of the Eretz Hemdah Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem ruled that it is now possible to determine the Jewish status of a person on the basis of a specific test, which examines their mitochondrial DNA, a segment of DNA that is transmitted maternally. The ruling is based on a scientific study that claims to have established that about 40 percent of Ashkenazi Jews are descended from four women; and according to a report commissioned by Eretz Hemdah, there is a 90 to 99 percent certainty that a person bearing specific genetic markers is a descendent of one of these women. As reported on and the Jerusalem Post earlier this month, the new ruling will be promoted as a solution for hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens from the former Soviet Union who have had difficulty proving their Jewish status for the purposes of marriage and a range of other processes in Israel that require one to be Jewish. Rabbi Carmel is reported to have said that while the test would absolve about 40 percent of Russian 'olim of the requirement to convert, it cannot be used to revoke someone's Jewish status even if they were not found to have the required markers, as only 40 percent of the general Ashkenazi population have them. 

The test builds on research that belongs to a growing list of genetic studies conducted in Jewish communities, including work exploring the degree of genetic relatedness of different Jewish groups world-wide, research on the kohanim, and studies concerning the origins of communities who embraced Jewish identity in the past one hundred years. The responsum and the genetic study, which have been submitted to the Chief Rabbinate with a suggestion to have the test accepted by rabbinical courts as a licit way of proving the Jewish status of those citizens who do not have conventional means of doing so, is reported to have been challenged by Rabbi Seth Farber, head of the ITIM religious services advisory organization. The latter pointed out that it was a "slippery slope to greater reliance on scientific methods to prove Jewishness" that would fly in the face of traditional Jewish law. Social scientists would also probably point out that the test would take the discourse about the biological dimension of Jewishness to a new level.1 While until now genetic studies of this kind have been described as purely academic endeavors aiming to cast light on historical questions that cannot be answered through conventional means of historiographic research,2 the new ruling would employ DNA analysis not merely to make a conjecture about events from the distant past,3 but to decide on the status of individuals living today. 

Having said that, one should nevertheless appreciate the emancipatory spirit in which the ruling was proposed, as its stated aim was to create an additional pathway to proving one's Jewishness for a community that, for historical and political reasons, may struggle to provide conventional proof. It can be seen as an example of rabbinic authorities taking into consideration the specificity of the history of Russian-speaking Jews and making an extra effort to accommodate their needs. The question that remains is whether similar efforts would be made in relation to other groups facing problems of recognition in Israel.


[1] Harry Ostrer, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People (Oxford, 2012).

[2] Yulia Egorova, "DNA Evidence? The Impact of Genetic Research on Historical Debate," BioSocieties 5.3 (2010): 348–65. 

[3] For a discussion of conflicting genetic studies of the "founding mothers" of Ashkenazi Jews, see Nadia Abu El-Haj's The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origin and the Politics of Epistemology (Chicago, 2012).


Yulia Egorova is currently the Ella Darivoff fellow at the Katz Center. Read her bio here

Library at the Katz Center Acquires Rare Early Modern Sephardica // CAJS Blog

posted October 2, 2017

The Library at the Katz Center holds approximately 200,000 volumes, including 32 incunabula and over 8,000 rare printed works. The special collections of non-print materials include 453 codices written in eleven different alphabets and in twenty-four distinct languages and dialects. They also contain a collection of ancient artifacts dating from ca. 2,500 BCE and nearly 600 medieval manuscript fragments from the Cairo Genizah. Two new additions to this vast collection of rare materials were recently made.  

The first is a 1637 text authored by Fernando Cardoso, physician to the Court of Philip IV in Madrid. The work’s title, Utilidades del agua de la nieve, del bever frio i caliente (The Uses of Water and Snow and of Cold and Hot Beverages), indicates its utility: studying the ingestion of temperature-specific liquids. While Cardoso was perhaps best known for his work Las excelencias de los Hebreos, a polemical defense of Jews and Judaism, he studied medicine at the highest levels and became an important fixture in the world of Spanish medicine before emigrating from Inquisition Iberia to practice his religion openly in Verona, Italy. This first edition medical treatise not only represents a great enhancement to our rare materials collection but also one that perfectly aligns with the Center’s current fellowship theme: the history of science, medicine, and technology from the perspective of Jewish culture.

The second addition comes to the Library at the Katz Center from Amsterdam. Printed in 1659, it details the funding of the Hebron Yeshiva by Abraham Israel Pereira, who fled the Iberian Peninsula to freely practice Judaism after a lifetime of covert practice as a Marrano in Spain. The book, Livro que contem o termo é condiçoes con que os Srs. do Mahamad do K.K. de T.T. admitiraõ ó legado que nelle constitutió, is extremely rare, having previously been believed to exist only in manuscript copy. 

These acquisitions join our collection under the supervision of Arthur Kiron, Schottenstein-Jesselson Curator of Judaica Collections at Penn Libraries. 

Katz CAJS Blog

Los Judíos de Nuestro Barrio: A Call for Help from a Disaster Zone // CAJS Blog

posted September 28, 2017 

La Señora Agustina has been selling fish in Mexico City's famous Medellín Street market ("Mercado de Medellín") for some fifty years now. When she first came to work at the market, the thriving Jewish community living in the adjacent La Condesa and La Roma neighborhoods still did their shopping in the market. Doña Agustina is happy to give patrons her gefilte fish recipe—huachinango, robalo, local fish caught in the Pacific and the Caribbean seas that fill Mexican Jewish tables on Rosh Hashanah. Don Ceferino's children, who have been running their fruit stalls at the market for more than five decades, still remember when their Jewish customers placed orders for gorgeous tropical fruit baskets that Jews sent as presents to Jewish and non-Jewish friends alike on Jewish holidays, "para sus fiestas," as they say in the smooth local variant of Spanish, "fiesta" meaning both "party" and "holiday."

A casual visitor to this most traditional Mexican market might be surprised by its not-so-hidden Jewish history. Not so long ago, it was simply business as usual. The four historical synagogues (of Damascus, Aleppo, Ashkenazi, and Ottoman Sephardic heritage respectively) found within a mile of the market are witness to the profound intertwining of the Mexican lifestyle and Jewish tradition since the 1920s when the Mexican Jewish community was officially established. Decades passed, and Mexican urban development took most Mexican Jews to the suburbs, but most still cherish the memories of their communal life at the core of Mexico's art nouveau heritage sites—La Condesa and La Roma neighborhoods. And some of those Mexican Jews still allow themselves time to come down on Sundays from their suburban dwellings to do their weekly shopping with Doña Agustina, Don Ceferino’s children, la Señora Eva, and all the other sellers who still remember "los judíos de nuestro barrio."

Last week, Hebrew was once again heard in La Roma area but this time it was with a strong Israeli accent. After three massive earthquakes and 4,000 aftershocks, southern Mexico and its capital city lie devastated. Less than five minutes' walk from the colorful Mercado de Medellín and the four synagogues, two buildings collapsed after the September 19 quake (7.1 on the Richter scale). It was the bloodiest earthquake in two generations. At the time of writing, the dead number 333, 194 in Mexico City alone, including dozens of children trapped in their schools. A seventy-person brigade from the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command promptly came to Mexico and began helping at the center of the humanitarian disaster, the neighborhoods of La Roma and La Condesa. Pulling people alive from the rubble or extracting corpses so a dignified burial could take place, these Israeli rescuers worked alongside Spanish, Swiss, Japanese and other international and local teams. When Israeli rescuers walked on the Medellín Street that had been at the center of Mexico’s Jewish communal life for decades, local residents cheered them, calling out, "Gracias!" See here for video:

At the forefront of the national effort, a Jewish organization excels. CADENA ("chain" in Spanish, an acronym standing for the Committee for Nationwide Disasters and Emergency Help) has a strong twelve-year history of helping victims in Mexico and abroad, but their finest hour has perhaps been since the September earthquakes. CADENA's response has been expeditious, organized, and efficient in all the ways required—rescuing people and bodies from the rubble; dispatching food, blankets, and logistical aids to isolated villages and poor areas in the city; sending psychologists to help victims build up a new life out of a personal apocalypse. CADENA has established a reputation of accountability, efficiency, and expeditiousness, singling it out as a trustworthy, competent nongovernment organization.

While the Mercado de Medellín has a not-so-hidden Jewish history, Penn's Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies has something of a hidden Mexican story. Chava Turniansky, Israel Prize laureate for her studies on Yiddish, is a 2005–06 alumna of the Katz Center and a native of Mexico City, born and raised at the time when Mexican artist Diego Rivera illustrated Yiddish books and a local Mexican Yiddish press flourished. Now, the historic Ashkenazi synagogue Nidjei Israel (or Acapulco Street 70) in La Condesa, where the records of that Mexican Yiddish past are preserved in the archive and rare book library of the Ashkenazi community, is in danger of being demolished following massive damage caused by the earthquake. The historical library of Acapulco 70 was catalogued by Carsten Wilke, currently a distinguished professor of Jewish Studies at Budapest's Central European University, a 2008–09 fellow at the Katz Center, and once a resident of Mexico. Numerous personal and professional contacts have been established through the years between Mexico-based scholars and Israeli, North American, and European scholars of Jewish studies by coming to the Katz Center, helping to foster Jewish studies in Latin America.

In this time of profound national distress, when we know that it will take months or year for our scars to heal, the organized Mexican Jewish community asks for help through CADENA. ¡Gracias de corazón!

Please consider donating through the Mexican branch: (in Spanish only) or the U.S. branch:



Miriam Jerade of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México was part of the 2015–16 fellowship year, Jews beyond Reason: Exploring Emotion, the Unconscious, and Other Dimensions of Jews' Inner Lives.



J. de Prado of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México was part of the 2013–14 fellowship year, Constructing Borders and Crossing Boundaries: Social, Cultural and Religious Change in Early Modern Jewish History.




Katz CAJS Blog

Rethinking Rabbinical Leadership // JQR Blog

posted September 14, 2017 

Although JQR contributors write primarily for a scholarly audience, the information they uncover and the insights they produce often also speak volumes to a learned layperson, and have the potential to alter the general understanding of Jewish history or texts. In order to share their work more widely, we free up one article in each issue for download without a subscription. 

This issue (Summer 2017), we feature Yaron Ayalon’s “Rethinking Rabbinical Leadership in Ottoman Jewish Communities.” In diagnosing an ongoing scholarly misconception about a particular 17th- and 18th-century context, Ayalon challenges what might be a more widespread popular sense that rabbinic authority was monolithic and unassailable in the premodern Jewish world. Far from a world in which an esteemed rabbinic leader governed a unified Jewish community set starkly apart from the majority Muslim population, Ayalon illuminates one in which rabbis competed with each other for influence. He shows that rabbis’ official authority was less well defined than it is usually taken to be, and their capacity to impose halakhic observance limited. Ayalon problematizes the very idea of “head rabbi” itself, showing that titles were often improvised within the complex landscape of overlapping legal and cultural orbits in the Ottoman Empire.

This essay will be free for download for six months. See the full table of contents for JQR 107.3 here.

The 2017 Eclipse Has Come and Gone, but What Secrets Did It Portend? Some Insights From the Jewish Middle Ages // CAJS Blog

posted August 22, 2017 

In 1218, an army of Crusaders landed in Damietta, an Egyptian town in the Nile River Delta ruled by the Ayyubid Sultan Al-Kamil. They were greeted shortly thereafter by a heavenly omen, described by the German-born canon and schoolmaster Oliver von Paderborn, who chronicled the military expedition:

Soon after the arrival of the Christians there was an almost total eclipse of the moon. Although this very often happens from natural causes at the time of the full moon, nevertheless… we interpreted the eclipse as unfavorable to the Saracens, as if portending the failure of the ones who ascribe the moon to themselves, placing great weight in the waxing and waning of the moon.1

In Oliver’s estimation, the moon symbolized the fortunes of Damietta’s Muslim defenders, since Islamic ritual and liturgical life are oriented around a lunar calendar. The moon’s obstruction by the sun thus portended victory for those who followed the solar calendar, namely the forces of Christianity. And sure enough, the following year, after a lengthy siege, the city fell to the Crusaders (though it would be retaken by the Ayyubid forces just two years later).

Oliver’s attempt to find meaning in the eclipse should come as no surprise. As Bernard Silverster put it, for medieval observers “the sky is like a book, with its pages spread out plainly, containing the future in secret letters.”2 Anyone who could properly “read” the portents in the sky gained access to knowledge of future events. More surprising, however, is the fact that Oliver’s specific interpretation of the 1218 eclipse could just as easily have been written by some of his Jewish contemporaries. Centuries earlier, the Babylonian Talmud had laid out the following scheme for interpreting eclipses:

Our rabbis taught: when the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad sign for the gentiles [‘ovde kokhavim]; when the moon is eclipsed, it is a bad sign for the children of Israel [son’ehem shel yisra’el]. This is because Israel measures [time] according to the moon, and the gentiles according to the sun.3

The Talmud went on to list some of the specific misdeeds that would lead to these “bad signs.” They range from the mundane—e.g. forging financial contracts, bearing false witness—to the more harrowing, such as rape and murder. Fascinatingly, the Talmud singles “sodomy” (mishkav zakhar) as a specific cause of solar eclipses, presumably since homosexual acts were considered “contrary to nature” and hence as contributing to the breakdown of the natural order.4 (Though the eleventh-century exegete Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, aka Rashi, remained puzzled by the cause-and-effect: “I have not heard any explanation for this matter” he admits.)

Thirteenth-century German Jews took the Talmud’s warnings and ran with them. In the view of Rabbi Judah the Pious (Speyer and Regensburg, d. 1217), eclipses were not uniquely portentous. Rather, any apparent deviation from the natural order should serve as a prod to reflection and repentance:

If one were to ask: Doesn’t the created world change at times? Such as a chicken that lays two eggs in a day, or a woman who gives birth to triplets, or a tree that blooms twice in a year… One should take such cases to heart and repent… Similarly, if a chicken crows [like a rooster], or a dog cries and drags itself around outside on its tail—although it appears to be pagan superstition, in order to assuage one’s concerns they may slaughter the chicken or drown the dog. In all such deviations, one must repent… as one would when there is a solar or lunar eclipse.5

The dual response Judah prescribes—repent, but also be sure to kill the animal that behaved “contrary to nature”—illustrates an apparent paradox in the medieval attitude toward exceptional natural phenomena, including eclipses. Medieval Jews and Christians alike understood the mechanics of eclipses and could predict them with precision. As Jeremy Brown notes in a recent article, subsequent readers of the passage in Tractate Sukah took pains to reinterpret the chain of cause and effect that it lays out: if eclipses are predictable natural phenomena, it makes no sense to tie them to specific sinful triggers.6 But is it necessarily the case that understanding the mechanics of natural phenomena drains them of their theological or moralistic implications? Judah’s hedging renders the matter ambiguous. Judah and his students were careful readers of late antique and medieval Hebrew astronomical texts and likely understood the etiology of eclipses—just as they surely knew that the birth of multiple children in a single pregnancy or the laying of two eggs in a single day were uncommon, but hardly unheard of, much less miraculous or supernatural, occurrences. Judah admits that killing a chicken or dog that behaves strangely looks an awful lot like misguided (and biblically proscribed) pagan superstition (darkhe emori)—but he recommends it nonetheless! Indeed, Judah’s ambivalence is mirrored in Oliver’s contemporaneous decoding of the meaning of the 1218 lunar eclipse. His efforts to divine its underlying theological meaning go hand-in-hand with his explicit awareness that lunar eclipses “very often happen from natural causes at the time of the full moon.” Natural causes and meaningful portents might have struck some subsequent interpreters as strange bedfellows, but for at least some thirteenth-century religious thinkers, they could dwell comfortably together.

Elsewhere in the same work, Rabbi Judah reflects more explicitly on the theological stakes of natural consistency and predictability:

“There is nothing new under the sun” [Eccl 1.9], so that man should never think that something occurs against God’s will, or that maybe a second [divine] power can abrogate the actions of the first one. It is for this reason that [God] set the time and duration of reproduction, each animal and plant species as is customary for it, and the times of planting and harvesting, each in its proper time. And he has never changed and never will change these customs… This is in order that one not think that there is a second God who can contradict the first God. Thus, our sages have said, “The world follows its customary course [‘olam ke-minhago noheg] in all matters.”7

As I have argued in a recent book (published with Penn Press in the Center’s series Jewish Culture and Contexts), medieval Jews and Christians increasingly understood the natural world to be replete with spiritual profundity and saw the exploration of nature as both scientifically and spiritually efficacious.8 The procession of the heavenly bodies, the duration of the reproductive process, and the cycle of the agricultural year are not merely the mundane backdrop to spiritually resonant portents like eclipses. Rather, both the conventional workings of the natural order and their seemingly wondrous exceptions are grist for the theological mill, and both need to be studied, compared, and reconciled in order to make sense of the relationship between God and the world that he created. For Judah, eclipses and other uncommon phenomena merit special attention not because they disrupt an otherwise prosaic and spiritually neutral natural order, but precisely because that natural order is intrinsically meaningful and awe-inspiring.

By any measure, 2017 has been a portentous year—would that a latter day Judah or Oliver could decode the “secret letters” that are, per Bernard Silvester, “spread out plainly” in the sky. But the consuming popular interest in and international media coverage of yesterday’s eclipse implies that even in the mechanistic and scientifically comprehensible cosmos that we inhabit, certain natural phenomena jolt us from our complacency and remind us to marvel at the workings of the apparently mundane natural order. If the underlying meaning of the eclipse remains obscure, perhaps the ruminations of medieval Jewish and Christian stargazers can prod us to reflect upon how even the predictable and comprehensible workings of the natural order might nevertheless inspire wonder and even transcendence.

[1] Oliver of Paderborn, Historia damiatina 10, ed. H. Hoogeweg, Die Schriften des Kolner Domscholasters…Oliverus (Tübingen, 1894), 178; trans. Robert Bartlett, Nature and the Supernatural in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2008), 65.
[2] Bernardus Silvestris, Cosmographia 2.1.3, ed. P. Dronke (Leiden, 1978), 121; trans. Bartlett, Nature and the Supernatural, 63.
[3] bSuk 29a.
[4] This link was propounded in the thirteenth century by such authors as Alan of Lille in his De planctu Naturae. On the broader application of natural philosophy to the understanding of “sodomy” in the Middle Ages, see Joan Cadden, Nothing Natural Is Shameful: Sodomy and Science in Late Medieval Europe (Philadelphia, 2013).
[5] Imrot tehorot hitsoniyot u-penimiyot le…R. Yehudah he-Hasid, ed. Y. Stal (Jerusalem, 2006), 50–54.
[6] Jeremy Brown, “The Great American Eclipse of 2017: Halachic and Philosophical Aspects,” Hakirah 23 (2017): 171–80.
[7] Imrot tehorot, 49–50.
[8] David I. Shyovitz, A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz (Philadelphia, 2017).

David Shyovitz in is the department of History at Northwestern University, and will be a

short term fellow during the 2017-18 theme year:

Nature between Science and Religion: Jewish Culture and the Natural World

Katz CAJS Blog 

A Statement in Support of David N. Myers // CAJS Blog

posted September 7, 2017

For many years, the Katz Center has benefited from its association with Professor David N. Myers, who recently became the president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History. Myers is a widely esteemed historian and public intellectual, and an ideal person to lead the Center for Jewish History in the 21st century. His vision has been evident at the Katz Center since nearly its inception—Myers has been a fellow four times, twice as architect of the theme, and in another year he edited one the fellowship’s most influential volumes. He has, most importantly, been an editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review for over a decade. His intellectual leadership has been crucial to the journal's revival as a flagship for the field of Jewish studies. 

In recent days, a small group of critics have called for Professor Myers to be fired because of his political views about Israel. We believe their criticism seriously misrepresents his views and confuses the mission of an academic organization with a Jewish communal organization. Myers was selected for his role at the Center for Jewish History on academic grounds—his scholarly reputation and professional leadership are universally admired by his colleagues. His fitness for the role is clear. It would violate core academic values to terminate him for ideas and arguments that he has made, whether or not we agree with them. 

We are proud to be associated with David Myers and his exemplary scholarship, and we write to affirm the Katz Center's commitment to the principle of academic freedom.

Steve Weitzman

Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center

Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures

Scholarly Lives in Letters // Shaul Magid // JQR Blog

posted September 1, 2017

The proliferation of epistolary activity in the modern West began in earnest in the 18th century with the marked rise in literacy in Europe and the Americas. The Post Office, invented in 1860, and the typewriter, invented in 1860 and marketed in the 1870s, increased the exchange of personal letters among lovers, friends, family, and colleagues. Letter writing increased even more when paper became more affordable and then began to decrease with the ubiquity of the telephone in the 20th century. 

Letters, especially among the literati, were more than a conveyance of greeting and news; they were often the vehicle for early stages of ideas and theories that later matured and appeared in published works. One example among many is Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” which began as a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem. Letters like his often served to illustrate the complex nature of intellectual friendships and relationships, mixing the personal with the ideological, the relational with the intellectual.

Gershom ScholemMy essay, included in a forum in the current issue of JQR, explores the complex relationship between teacher and student, Gershom Scholem and Joseph Weiss, whose Hebrew correspondence was recently collected and published by Noam Zadoff. This was indeed a complex and, in many ways, a tragic relationship with deep psychological resonances on both sides. It was, finally, an epistolary relationship of the highest intellectual and personal order, one that ended abruptly with Weiss’s suicide in the summer of 1969. In these letters, one feels the push and pull of love and resentment, jealousy and respect, disappointment and regret. They portray how Scholem’s Zionism was used as a weapon against his student’s deep ambivalence about Israel, how Scholem could not quite overcome his need for ideological fidelity even from a devoted disciple to whom Scholem referred after his death as “his most talented student.” One sees stylistic differences as well: Scholem’s somewhat stilted and competent but not quite fluid Hebrew juxtaposed with Weiss’s beautiful and eloquent prose, peppered with midrashic wordplays and kabbalistic allusions, presented a disparity that Scholem certainly noticed.

Mining epistolary relationships for new perspectives on a thinker’s life and ideas is a quasi-voyeuristic enterprise. I say “quasi,” because these letters were meticulously archived by Scholem, certainly for posterity. And yet, as we read them carefully, we still feel like we are looking through a keyhole, spying on a series of intimate moments between two literary giants, sometimes at their best and often at their worst.

This essay was itself born from an epistolary moment. Elliott Horowitz z”l asked me via email, today’s epistolary substitute, to contribute to this forum, and when I suggested the Scholem-Weiss correspondence, we had a robust exchange on the topic and on various drafts of my essay and translations. Elliott’s work on early modern Jewish history in Europe was filled with data collected from letters and other sources not necessarily meant for public consumption. Part of the beauty of his work was his ability to discover and then analyze obscure documents that exposed the complex nature of Jews’ reactions and responses to the world around them. He understood that sometimes the most significant moments of human creativity happen in the realm of relational privacy. It is thus an honor for me to present my understanding of an epistolary moment, itself born from an epistolary moment, one that I hold dear, between Elliott and me.

Read Elliott Horowitz's forum introduction here.

Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Chair in Jewish Studies and Professor of Jewish Studies and Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, and was a Katz Center fellow during the 2015–16 year: Jews Beyond Reason: Exploring Emotion, the Unconscious, and Other Dimensions of Jews' Inner Lives

Katz CAJS Blog 

Transition on the Board of Overseers

The Katz Center is pleased to announce that Ivan Ross (W ‘83) will become chairman of our Board of Overseers starting July 1, 2017. Ivan takes the helm after serving the Katz Center as an active member of the board for nearly a decade. For him and his wife Nina, supporting the Katz Center reflects a philanthropic commitment to learning as a central pillar of cultural strength and individual development in Jewish culture and beyond. “Ivan has been extraordinarily supportive and engaged throughout my time as director,” says Steven Weitzman, “bringing energy, a genuine sense of curiosity, savvy advice, and enthusiasm about the Center's future. We are extremely fortunate that we will be benefitting from his leadership.” 

In his decades-long career, Ivan has worked at Skadden Arps, Goldman Sachs, and Mason Capital. Ivan and a partner recently started a boutique investment banking firm, Ardea Partners. The Rosses are the proud parents of three sons, Ethan (C’ 15); and Tyler (W’ 14) and Josh (C’19), and they are devoted philanthropists. In addition to their commitment to Jewish learning, they invest in education for disadvantaged children. Nina is a longstanding board member of Westchester Jewish Community Services, where she also has driven the successful growth of an after-school tutoring program in Mount Vernon, New York. Nina is also a generous donor to UJA where she has been a member of a nedivot group focused on Jewish continuity. Ivan is also a member of the Board of Overseers at the Jacobson Leadership Program in Law and Business at NYU School of Law.

The outgoing chairman, Thomas O. Katz (W '79), will remain a member of the Board of Overseers. Tom is the son of the late Herbert D. Katz (W ‘51), for whom the Center is named and who was a crucial partner in developing the Center as an institution. Between them, father and son shepherded the board as chairmen for eleven of the Center’s twenty-four years. We extend our deepest appreciation for the continued support of Tom, his wife Elissa, and the entire Katz family, without which the Center would not exist as an unparalleled world center of Judaic scholarship—able to attract and support, foster, and share the very finest scholarship from around the globe. We are deeply grateful for their dedication, warmth, and intellectual energy, and we know they will remain involved for years to come.

On the occasion of an affair in honor of Tom Katz’s service as chairman, President Amy Gutmann sent a letter of appreciation:

April 23, 2017

Dear Tom,

While I regret I cannot be with you for tonight’s festivities, I send my greetings and extend my sincere thanks to you, Tom, on this very special occasion.

What’s in a name? For the Katz family, there is certainly much to praise: a love of the Jewish people, a commitment to the preservation of their history, and an unwavering devotion to our University. The strong foundation established by Tom’s father, Herb Katz, paved the way for Tom to follow in his footsteps as a passionate advocate of Jewish studies.

Tom’s connection to the Center dates back to when it was simply known as Penn’s Center for Judaic Studies. His tireless fundraising efforts and deep admiration for his father culminated in the Center’s rebirth as the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. With the Katz name now etched into our University’s history, Tom continues to selflessly give back.

Tom joined the Center’s Board of Overseers in 2000, and became chair five years ago. His efforts have been vital to propelling this cultural and academic hub to incredible heights. The Center hosts 20 fellows from across the globe annually to conduct post-doctoral research on an array of topics. Tom’s genuine interest in their work is reflected in the personal relationships he has forged with this new generation of experts, his capacious curiosity about their research, and the mentorship he has offered.

His tenure has secured a bright future for Jewish studies, not just at Penn, but on an international level. The Katz Center is among the world’s most preeminent research institutions in Judaic studies. To have such a renowned institute associated with the University of Pennsylvania is truly an honor.

Although we will miss Tom’s leadership, I know that he will not be a stranger. His influence will continue to reverberate at the Katz Center for generations to come. He leaves the Board, and the Center on an upward trajectory, poised to carry out his father’s vision. To you, Tom, I say “toda raba” for everything you have done for our University. We could not be more grateful or more proud.

Warm regards,

Amy Gutmann

Katz CAJS Blog 

Response to Charlottesville // CAJS Blog

posted August 16, 2017

In response to the violence in Charlottesville this last weekend, Dr. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, has issued the following statement:

The racism, anti-Semitism, and other bigotry expressed by the neo-Nazi, KKK and other white supremacist groups that demonstrated in Charlottesville are deeply abhorrent and call for universal condemnation. The hatred espoused is inimical to any decent society and anathema to the most fundamental ideals of our University.

President Gutmann’s statement speaks for itself. I would only add a bit of commentary from my perspective as director of the Katz Center: that the hatred displayed during the Unite the Right rally this last weekend is anathema to the most fundamental ideals of the university. 

The ostensive trigger for the rally was the city’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from a local park, but it isn’t a coincidence that the organizers chose a university community as their staging ground. For many of those in the far right, the university is a threat, the instrument of their arch enemy—the Jews.

Jason Kessler, the former University of Virginia student who organized the Unite the Right rally, is an example. He builds on an anti-semitic conspiracy theory known as “Cultural Marxism” that posits a covert assault on American values initiated by a supposed cabal of Jewish philosophers based at Columbia University. A distortion of the Frankfurt school of social theory, this group of thinkers uses its position to undermine white ethnic pride and promote sexual promiscuity.

Kessler’s tweeting suggests that he sees universities today as hotbeds for Cultural Marxism and that the rally he organized was in part payback against “militantly anti-white academics.”

For other far right thinkers like David Duke, the enemy is another academic, Franz Boas (1858-1942), the anthropologist they blame for introducing multiculturalism into American life. They take elements from Boas’ biography and thinking—the fact that he was a Jewish émigré and that he argued against race as a meaningful biological category—and weave it into yet another conspiracy theory that has been circulating for some 60 years since it was articulated by the neo-Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell.

For such thinkers, the Jews have taken over the university in an effort to undercut the supremacy of the white race by dismantling the idea of race, by imposing political correctness, and by championing cultural relativism.

Ironically, for all their hostility to academia, such leaders also seek its recognition. As documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, Duke casts himself as an academic. He refers to himself as a “Dr.” based on a doctorate he received at an anti-Semitic Ukrainian institution known as a diploma mill, and he professes to adhere to high academic standards despite evidence that a good portion of his self-published book was plagiarized. The far right’s hostility to academia isn’t simply anti-intellectual; one also detects within it a craven desire for academic acceptance. The far right understanding of the university is of course a caricature—and it is now clear that it is an extremely dangerous one.

But it is true that universities like Penn are places where minorities can find a place for themselves and where people can learn about different cultures—these are values to which the Katz Center itself is deeply committed as a center devoted to a deepened understanding of the Jews in relation to other cultures. The Unite the Right rally targeted Jews, Blacks, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, and other vulnerable groups, but it was also a lashing out against academic values—and against Jews as a part of academia— and that too needs to be defended as the struggle to maintain the United States as a decent and inclusive society continues.

Steve Weitzman

Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center

Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures


posted July 19, 2017 

The spring issue of the Jewish Quarterly Review (107.2) features a scholarly Note and translation by Miriam Bodian and Ide François. “From the Files of the Portuguese Inquisition: Isaac de Castro Tartas’s Latin Ego-Document, 1645” presents a semi-autobiographical essay written in Latin found in the Inquisition file of one Isaac de Castro Tartas, a Portuguese-Jewish prisoner and victim of the Portuguese Inquisition. Castro, the authors write, “was deeply informed both by his Jesuit education in France, where he and his family lived as crypto-Jews, and by his exposure to early ideas of freedom of conscience in Dutch lands where he later lived. In his firm defense of his right to profess Judaism, Castro […makes] a radical argument for freedom of conscience of a kind few Europeans of his day were articulating.” Judaism, through this example, finds itself defined and given shape by its passage through the language and institutions of the Latin Church.    

This essay partakes in JQR’s long interest in the not always obvious place of biography and autobiography on the horizon of Jewish genres, yet we are ever interested in the history of the idea of the self, of the person, of modernity, that such documents narrate. Excellent work on the topic has appeared in the journal’s pages from its earliest numbers—as with the century’s-old piece by Alexander Marx “A Seventeenth-Century Autobiography: A Picture of Jewish Life in Bohemia and Moravia. From a Manuscript in the Jewish Theological Seminary” (JQR 8.3 n.s. [1918])—up to the twenty-first century. A 2005 issue of the journal, for example, was devoted to the theme of autobiography. Our upcoming two-part forum on letter-writing (107.3 and 108.1) is a testament to our ongoing interest in the phenomena of the revealing subject; the life, the persona, and the filtered depiction of self are all key parts of the economy of intellectual culture.    


A Dispatch from the World Congress of Jewish Studies

The World Congress of Jewish Studies, currently underway in Jerusalem at the Hebrew University, is a rare enough event that it deserves special mention. The first congress occurred in 1947, making it older than the State of Israel, and the present congress—the 17th—has brought together thousands of scholars for some 1800 presentations. It is the largest academic gathering in the field, and offers great evidence for its international and multi-lingual character. There were sessions in Yiddish, Spanish, English, and Hebrew, with participants from some 40 countries.

The fact that the congress happened at all is something of a miracle (albeit a miracle with its fair share of glitches.). As I came to learn in the last few months, the World Union of Jewish Studies which runs the congress has a tiny staff, and it is hard to imagine how just one full time person, another part time staff member, and a few behind the scenes volunteers pulled everything off. It tells you something about the congress that I had a check returned because one of the staff member’s children had written all over it with crayon. And yet they pulled it off, producing a conference that not only consisted of 700 or more sessions, but also musical and dance performances, piyyut workshops, film screenings, and much else. 

One of the sessions I participated in concerned the future of the research institute in Jewish Studies. We thought it would be interesting to unite directors from Israel, North America, and Europe to discuss how such centers operate in those very different settings; what challenges they face, and how they envision the future. We managed to pull together a panel that could draw on experience from the Mandel Scholion Research Institute at the Hebrew University, the University of Amsterdam, and Oxford University. The substance of the conversation deserves more attention that I can give it here, but it raised a number of very daunting challenges.

An Israeli panelist spoke of the bleak employment prospects facing new scholars in Israel. Of the 12 doctoral students he has supervised, only 2 have found academic employment. Another European panelists spoke of the daunting financial and administrative challenges faced by Jewish Studies in continental Western Europe—try raising money for Jewish Studies in a country where income taxes exceed 50%. Jewish Studies has taken root in Poland in remarkable ways, but a lot of the support for an institution like Polin: the Museum of the History of Polish Jews comes from outside the country and may dry up as the generation that emigrated from Poland to America dies off. There are social challenges, political challenges, and cultural problems, including the decline of the humanities in general (which seems even more dire in Israel and Europe than in the United States).

Some left the session with a pessimistic view of the field’s future, but the counterargument was the Congress itself. It is true that, as one long time Hebrew University faculty member pointed out, this was the first congress that received no support from the Israeli government—a sign of the state’s declining support for education and research—and one looking for corroboration of a bleak future could find other inauspicious signs at the Congress as well. On the other hand, there is the fact that 25 academic sessions are happening at any given time. There are all the incredibly bright post-docs and graduate students in attendance. There are so many books on sale and so much animated discussion unfolding in the hallways. I cannot confirm it, but I’ve been told that there were only about 75 people in attendance at the first World Congress in 1947. Today, there are thousands of attendees. A hopeful sign.

17th Congress of World Jewish Studies

Steven Weitzman

Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center

Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures

Elliott Horowitz, z"l

Elliott Horowitz (1953–2017)

The editors and staff of the Jewish Quarterly Review express our profound sadness at the untimely death of our friend and colleague, Professor Elliott Horowitz, z”l. For nearly fifteen years, Elliott lent his distinct intellect, skills, and humor to JQR as its coeditor, helping shape it into one of the leading scholarly forums in the field of Jewish studies. As a dedicated Anglophile, Elliott took seriously the English roots of JQR—which was founded in London in 1889—and delighted in recovering treasures from the journal in its early years. Elliott’s work on the journal or his crafting of an essay was never a race to the finish, but rather a leisurely country outing replete with ample stops to reflect on the beauty and intricacy of the surroundings. His own essays in our pages, famous for their humor and bibliographic bounty, borrowed from the impressionistic and associative style of Israel Abrahams, one of the founding English editors of JQR.

Apart from his work for JQR, Elliott was a uniquely creative cultural historian. After receiving his undergraduate degree at Princeton, he moved on to Yale where he completed a dissertation in 1982 on seventeenth-century Jewish confraternities in Verona, Italy. In that same year he moved to Israel, and spent much of his teaching career in Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University. Although his initial field of scholarship was early modern Italian Jewish history, in which he remained interested throughout his life, Elliott constantly read and experimented with new forms of cultural history in and beyond Italy. He relished and perfected the article form, producing some of the most innovative pieces on early modern Jewish history in the last half-century including his path-breaking “Coffee, Coffee Houses, and the Nocturnal Rituals of Early Modern Jewry” (1989). Few scholars of the Jewish past can think of coffee and the Safedian practice of midnight study (tikune ḥatsot) without immediately summoning up this essay.

Elliott’s monograph, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (2006), was a runner-up for the National Jewish Book Award. The book brought together his enduring scholarly curiosity about violence and the carnivalesque with an ethical concern for the way in which religion can be used and abused. Like so much of his work, Reckless Rites bore traces of his deep humanity, which the worlds of JQR and the Katz Center—along with Elliott’s personal network of scholars and fellow travelers—will sorely miss. Since his death, we have been flooded with accounts of ways Elliott has made an impact on lives and scholarship through bold insights, keen edits, and gestures of kindness and generosity, especially toward junior scholars. He was a polymath, an iconoclast, and caring person whose wit had few peers. A person of his inimitable talents cannot be replaced. In coming numbers the journal will honor his impact upon us and the field by printing some of his own last writing and by dedicating an upcoming forum to his seminal work.

The Editors 

Katz CAJS Blog 

posted March 21, 2017

Hebrew Texts into Lyrical Italian: Penn Virtual Seminar in Manuscript Studies

June 30, 2017

The SIMS/Katz partnership hosted its first Penn Virtual Seminar in Manuscript Studies on June 29, 2017.

Professor Alessandro Guetta, the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris

“The Hebrew-Italian Translations of the Early Modern Period: A Presentation and a Few Questions.”

In collaboration with Professor Alessandro Guetta, the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS) and the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania hosted the first-ever Penn Virtual Seminar in Manuscript Studies.

The seminar invited some of the finest advanced graduate students and early career academics on the topic of Italian Jewish literature of the early modern period to join a live discussion. The participants, drawn from institutions across Europe, the United States, and Israel, gathered in conversation with Professor Guetta virtually in real time.
Professor Guetta presented a thus-far neglected phenomenon in Jewish textual history. In his words:

"Since the brilliant articles by M. Steinschneider more than 100 years ago, little scholarly attention has been paid to the fascinating phenomenon of literary translations of Hebrew texts into Italian in the early modern period. Among the texts translated from Hebrew were fundamental classics--biblical, poetical, philosophical, sapiential, and other sources. These translations are especially interesting when compared with what happened in the other Jewish communities of the Christian world, where the local language was often not mastered, and certainly not written, until the late 18th century. Thus these texts teach us about the level of participation of Jews in the general cultural phenomenon of the volgarizzamenti—the translation of the classical corpuses into Italian. We will read together some significant texts, in both Hebrew and Italian, and ask ourselves the question: who were the potential readers of these works? Why were they written? We will also speak about the translations in the other direction, from Italian into Hebrew, in that period and later, and try to understand why such endeavors were undertaken at all."

Branka Arrivé, Paris
Miriam Benfatto, Bologna
Ilaria Briata, Verona
Giada Coppola, Hamburg
Debra Glasberg Gail, New York
Francesca Gorgoni, Paris
Rachele Jesurum, Paris
Sarah Parenzo, Ramat Gan
David Sclar, Princeton
Anamarija Vargović, Paris

Our aim with this project was to create networks of exchange among scholars working on similar topics in various locations and between scholars and manuscripts.  We saw through this first trial that this can be a model for strengthening scholarship in a community of researchers.


Katz CAJS Blog 

The PLO and the Pittsburgh Platform // Jonathan Gribetz // JQR blog

posted February 26 2017

What makes someone Jewish and who gets to decide? These questions divide Jews in the Diaspora from those in Israel and divide Jews from one another everywhere. While there is no Jewish consensus on the definition of the Jews or on who has the right to decide, most Jews, I suspect, are united in this conviction: non-Jews (that is, people who make no claim to being Jewish themselves) have no business participating in this debate. All the more so when those non-Jews are regarded as hostile to Jewish interests. So when they confront the Palestine Liberation Organization’s declaration in its founding charter of 1964 that “Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong,” Jews tend not only to underscore the self-serving nature of those lines but also to protest reflexively and adamantly: Who are the Palestinians to tell us Jews what Judaism is and what makes us Jews?! (Some also add—apparently without recognizing the irony—that there is no such thing as a “Palestinian” anyway, as they are simply Arabs.)  But what if that Palestinian definition of the Jews and Judaism were actually a (not the but a) Jewish definition? How might the PLO charter be understood differently if we were to see German and American Reform rabbis, rather than Palestinian militants, behind the definition of the Jews and Judaism that the Palestinian charter espoused?

Jonathan Gribetz

Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies and the Program in Judaic Studies, Princeton University

Katz Center Fellow, 2009-2010, Secularism and Its Discontents: Rethinking an Organizing Principle of Modern Jewish Life

Read Jonathan Gribetz's fascinating history of the PLO's explorations and use of Reform Judaism in his essay "The PLO's Rabbi: Palestinian Nationalism and Reform Judaism" in JQR 107.1 (Winter 2017). On newsstands now.  

Katz CAJS Blog 

Editorial Announcement, 1910 & 2017// JQR blog

Editorial Announcement, 1910 & 2017

When they launched the Jewish Quarterly Review in the United States in 1910, Cyrus Adler and Solomon Schechter, its formidable new editors, felt they were not merely transporting a British journal across the ocean, but were remaking it—taking the opportunity to translate the journal’s mission for a new land. They rejected localism and theology both, and embraced the Jewish historical tradition and bold scholarship as essential to the horizon of human experience and universal knowledge. They wrote a brief editorial introduction to the first number in the new series. In this excerpt from it, we find a set of ideas, “America,” “science,” “learning,” which seem in hindsight to have been admirably transparent to their readers. Each of these words—and Judaism’s imbrication with them—is contested now in ways not imaginable to these authors.

The Editors felt it… their duty to supply the need [for broad meaningful scholarship], as America is fast becoming the center of Jewry, and in all likelihood will become also the center of Jewish learning in the English world. It would be anomalous if, in the face of this great present growth, the past with its glories and its sacrifices, its ideals and achievements, its lessons and its inspirations, were not offered the opportunity of that articulate utterance which can be given to it only through the mouth of science and scholarship.

Cyrus Adler and S. Schechter, “Editorial Announcement,” JQR 1.1 new series (1910), pp. 3–4.

The current editors share this aim, and the dual investment in the American context and the drivefor relevance in historical research animates editor David N. Myers most of all. We are delighted that David has been appointed the new President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Jewish History in New York. No historian is better suited to the task, with his eye toward the future and commitment to the moral imperatives of scholarship—especially in America, and especially now in the 21st century.


Katz CAJS Blog 

Professor Alessandro Guetta (INALCO, Paris) Films a MOOC // Blog

June 29, 2017

This week the Center has been delighted to welcome Alessandro Guetta, Professor of Jewish intellectual history at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales in Paris, to be the second annual Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies [SIMS]/Herbert D. Katz Center Distinguished Fellow in Jewish Manuscript Studies. The fellowship, funded in part by the David Ruderman Distinguished Scholar fund, pairs a prominent scholar in any field of Jewish studies with a manuscript in one of our collections.

Guetta spent the week looking at an early modern Italian Manuscript in the Schoenberg holdings: Malkiel Aschkenazi’s Tavnith ha-mishkan and Hanukath ha-bayith (now CAJS Rar Ms 460), produced in Mantua in the early seventeenth century. The full digital manuscript is available online.

On Wednesday June 28, 2017, Professor Guetta filmed a short-form Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) a minicourse on the value of manuscript studies for Jewish history. The course explored the nature of the document, the significance of its material form, and what this rare document reveals about the Jewish landscape of Renaissance Italy.  He moved from libraries to book burnings, and philosophy to architecture, in his wide-ranging introduction to the early modern fascination with the biblical Tabernacle and Temple.

The mini-MOOC is now in production and will be available free and universally this winter. It will sit alongside the one filmed last year by Professor Y. Tzvi Langermann, on a 15th -century Sicilian medical miscellany. To watch Langermann’s MOOC click here, and for more information click here


Katz CAJS Blog 

Old Yiddish Literature and German Jewish Culture // JQR Blog

The latest issue of JQR (107.2, Spring 2017) features an article by Aya Elyada on how early modern Yiddish found its way into the debate over the “Jewish question” in German scholarly discourse of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here, Elyada reflects on the genesis of the piece. Read the full article here.

When we hear the term "German-Jewish literature" we usually think of modern Jewish literature in the German language, beginning with Moses Mendelssohn and flourishing throughout the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. But before these better known times, an earlier corpus of literature existed, predating Mendelssohn and dominating the cultural world of German Jews throughout the early modern (post-Renaissance, pre-Enlightenment) period. This so-called Old Yiddish literature (as opposed to Modern Yiddish literature, which emerged in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe) included both secular and religious works, and enjoyed great popularity among German Jewish readers. But what happened to this rich and once very popular literary corpus at the dawn of the modern era? We know that from the late eighteenth century, as German Jews gradually replaced Yiddish with German, the publication of Old Yiddish literature practically ceased in Western and Central Europe. But was this really the end of Yiddish literary legacy in the German-speaking world? Did it no longer have a place in modern German-Jewish culture?

When I set out to find answers to this question, I soon realized that even if Old Yiddish literature was no longer published in Germany of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it was by no means forgotten. Rather, it gained new life in the works of German and especially German Jewish scholars and men of letters, in the form of translations and adaptations, annotated anthologies, bibliographic lists, and literary surveys. Moreover, it soon became clear to me that the engagement of German Jewish authors with the Old Yiddish works was not motivated simply by an "archeological" or antiquarian interest in the past, nor was it driven only by a scholarly ambition to encompass all aspects of Jewish culture. Instead, Old Yiddish literature was recruited by the German-Jewish authors as part of their endeavors to address the challenges German Jewry had to face in the modern era: to accommodate and support integration and acculturation to German culture and society, to combat assimilation, and to bolster a distinctive German Jewish identity. Old Yiddish texts  were also employed in the German Jewish attempts to counteract the racial discourse on Jews that came to dominate German culture and scholarship in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, and to promote an alternative to the hegemonic scholarly discourse in the face of rising anti-Semitism.  

Katz CAJS Blog

Aya Elyada is Assistant Professor at the Department of History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  

New Issue of the Jewish Quarterly Review // JQR Blog


The latest issue of JQR, 107.2 (Spring 2017), is now available in print and online at Project Muse.


A Mechanism for Change in Traditional Culture: A Case Study from the Judicial Jewish Codes of the Geonic Period

Zvi Stampfer

Gnats, Fleas, Flies, and a Camel: A Case Study in the Reception of Genesis Rabbah

Benjamin Williams

Early Modern Yiddish and the Jewish Volkskunde, 1880–1938

Aya Elyada

Chalom and ‘Abdu Get Married: Jewishness and Egyptianness in the Films of Togo Mizrahi (*available for free download)

Deborah Starr


From the Files of the Portuguese Inquisition: Isaac de Castro Tartas’s Latin Ego-Document, 1645

Miriam Bodian and Ide François


Sacred and Suggestive: The Many Faces of Medieval Hebrew Poetry from Spain

Adena Tanenbaum

More information and subscription at

Katz CAJS Blog 

Commemorating 1967—and 1947, 1917, 1897... // JQR Blog

This week was the 50th anniversary of Israel’s Six Day War in 1967, a fact that has hardly gone unmarked. It's also the 70th anniversary of the UN Resolution that called for the partition of Israel and Palestine (1947), the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration that called for “a national home for the Jewish people” (1917), and the 120th anniversary of the founding meetings of the World Zionist Organization and the Bund (1897). 

JQR is commemorating these momentous 7s in the history of Israel with a special forum featuring commentary by Derek Penslar, Liora Halperin, Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, and Seth Anziska, introduced by coeditor David Myers. But while it's in preparation, we couldn’t let this week go by entirely in silence, so we share here a sneak preview of Anziska’s contribution. The f
ull version with notes will appear in late 2017, so stay tuned.  [-The editors]

In the Arab world, the 1967 War launched an intellectual search for answers about the limits of pan-Arabism, the fate of nationalism, and the cultural consequences of defeat. It haunted Arab thinkers from North Africa to the Levant, and underscored profound changes afoot, from the growing influence of Islamism to the persistence of sclerotic statist models of governance. The Palestinian question has therefore been an integral part of—and even a catalyst for—the broader reordering of Arab societies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

            Introspection by the defeated is perhaps a natural outcome of war, but what of the victors? While earlier phases of Zionist settlement in Palestine were marked by the use of force, the attainment of political sovereignty and the establishment of a state in 1948 signaled a pivotal departure. This revolution was sealed by the 1967 War, which served to liberate Israeli society from a great deal of national vulnerability while also unleashing rival political impulses. Internal struggles for inclusion that marked Jewish and Arab communities in the state’s early years gave way to perpetual external control. And so the year 1967 shifted the focus in the study of modern Jewish politics from powerlessness to unbridled power, an unexamined parallel to changes in Arab political culture.

Jewish power has often been neglected by scholars more interested in its absence, but the sweeping military victory of the war inaugurated a reordering of Jewish scholarly and public attitudes toward the state. A new era in modern Jewish history was unfolding; and there were other shifts underway, most notably changing consciousness about the Holocaust and its legacy, which registered differently inside Israel and farther afield. Taken together, these developments require a rewriting (or writing) of post-1967 Jewish history in a less triumphalist key. “A nation that is concerned for its future must always look back at its past,” Israeli Minister Naftali Bennett said ahead of the planned celebrations in the West Bank. He may not have anticipated the valence of his words. It is easy to look back and revel in conquest, but it is much harder to see the consequences for the vanquished—and sometimes for the victor, even more.

Seth Anziska is the Mohamed S. Farsi-Polonsky Lecturer in Jewish-Muslim Relations at University College London.

Katz CAJS Blog 

Effundere in Latrinam // JQR blog

posted March 10, 2017

In Pope Innocent III’s 1205 papal bull Etsi Iudeos, we read that “on the day of the Lord’s resurrection the Christian wet nurses of [Jewish] children receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, for three days [their Jewish patrons] make them express milk into the latrine before they may nurse [the Jewish children].”

Jeremy Cohen’s lively and meticulous rereading of this bull (JQR 107.1, winter 2017) overturns its standard interpretation among Jewish historians, taking aim at the way bad habits and biases get passed among members of academic guilds. He does not exempt even himself in this micro-history of misreading, and his reconstruction offers a cleaner view into the place of the Jews in early 13th-century church doctrine.

We have made the full text of Cohen's Note available for free here.


Katz CAJS Blog 

The Case for "Assimilation" and Diaspora // JQR blog

Posted December 9, 2016

Jewish Quarterly Review volume 106, number 4 (fall 2016)

Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, reflects on Gerson Cohen’s famous 1966 address “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History” in a forum dedicated to topic in JQR 106.4.

JQR's forum On Gerson Cohen’s “Blessing of Assimilation” A Half Century Later, features essays by  David N. Myers, Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert,  Sarah Bunin Benor,  Arnold Eisen, and David B. Ruderman

Read Eisen’s essay for free here. And check out the full forum and more on Project Muse

Katz CAJS Blog 

Related: David Myers on if Gerson Cohen responded to Mark Lilla 

I, Thou, and the Election // Samuel Brody

posted on November 4, 2016

Is Martin Buber relevant to the 2016 American elections?

Could he be relevant in a way that doesn’t reduce to scolding individuals for their impoverished spiritual stances, to “can’t we all just get along?”

Or could he be relevant in a way that doesn’t simply amount to bemoaning social media, as if epistemic sorting is a novel aberration of recent technology, and in the golden olden days everyone used to sit around the same newspaper and the same 3 broadcast channels and have reasonable arguments about commonly-agreed-upon sets of facts?

One problem with using Buber’s I and Thou to talk about contemporary politics is that it seems to reduce complex processes to the simplest of ethical demands. In this way of thinking, Buber offers us an existential elaboration of Kant’s categorical imperative: act always in such a way that you could be open to the uniqueness of the other, encountering the other with your whole being, and avoid treating the other as an instrument for the accomplishment of your purposes.

Well, that’s very nice! But it doesn’t tell me how to vote. More than that, it doesn’t tell me how to relate to others in an open, generous, whole-being sort of way even when I perceive them as dehumanizing me—treating me and others like me as less than human. Just as we bristle at a municipal law that equally forbids the rich and the poor from sleeping under a bridge, it seems ludicrous to put forward a moral injunction that equally forbids open white supremacists and ordinary liberals from “distrusting” each other. Part of the sense of alarm and emergency surrounding these elections stems from the fact that Trump has brazenly and unashamedly dehumanized so many individuals and groups: calling undocumented Mexican immigrants rapists, mocking the disabled, grouping all African-Americans together as though they only lived in “high-crime areas,” looking the other way or dog-whistling as a significant sector among his supporters openly deploys violent antisemitic rhetoric, calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the country, bragging about sexually assaulting women and otherwise treating them as objects, etc. etc. etc. Attempts to be exhaustive in cataloguing these things must necessarily fail.

And so, the problem we face is not simply that a man many consider unfit to be President may hold the executive office and have access to the nuclear codes, as terrifying as that is. The problem is that we do face a polemical situation characterized by distrust and even hatred of huge portions of the population—and this is a situation that will continue after the election, no matter who wins. One can understand the temptation to turn to Buber’s thoughts on human relation per se as an antidote to all that, but this runs the risk, as Martin Kavka has written, of being little more than a “coping mechanism.” Whiskey could serve just as well.

Fortunately, Buber had a lot more to say about politics than one might guess from I and Thou. Over the course of the four decades he lived following the publication of that work, he wrote essays on the politics of Germany and Palestine, as well as books that were ostensibly about the Bible and ancient Israel but were manifestly also about the contemporary world. In these works, Buber offers a fascinating picture of a thinker animated by apparently absurdly idealistic principles, constantly engaged in the mundane work of attempting to apply those principles to the most recalcitrant realities, as well as in higher-order reflection upon the process of that application itself.

An example can be seen in the essay “Instead of Polemics,” published in the November 1956 issue of Ner, a forum for those who had been members of the bi-nationalist Ichud group prior to the formation of the State of Israel, and who carried that flame (Ner means “candle”) forward into the 50s and 60s. Buber describes the typically estranged camps of politicians and men of action, on the one hand, and principled idealists, on the other, eyeing each other warily across a gulf of misunderstanding. Against these, Buber avers that “all true human responsibility is dual: directed towards heaven and towards the earth.” The issue is how to combine these duties. Here, Buber argues against those who “appear in public as innocent men before sinners.” This is not just a matter of being morally right, but of being politically effective—those who desire both “do not propose purely principled behavior to the people, and they do not demand that the people obey pure principles. They wish to repair what can be repaired under the given circumstances, and no less than that.”

Buber was talking, then, about the Palestinian refugee problem, arguing against a mentality (still present today) that treated this problem as all-or-nothing, a position that always ended up erring on the side of nothing. But this is not so far removed from his advocacy, elsewhere, of “socialism from below,” or his pre-state advocacy of bi-nationalist Zionism. In contrast to the apocalyptic notes he had struck in I and Thou, imagining a moment of divine destruction coming ever closer, in his later work the note he strikes is prophetic. The call is to turn, as much as one can; to do justice, as much as one can; to struggle, as much as one must. These things are within, and not beyond, human power.

So, in the context of the election, I would say this: it seems very well the case that “both sides” are guilty of some level of de-humanization of the other side. But recognizing this does not mean that the only properly deep, spiritual attitude is to pronounce a plague on all our houses. We do not have to appear as innocent people before sinners—Lord knows I’ve listened to my share of conversations in which liberals treated Trump supporters as bizarre anthropological specimens to be dissected, rather in the way that British imperialists treated natives, and I’ve spoken up against this when I saw an opportunity. But fairness does not require treating this as on the same level as Tweets depicting my friends and colleagues being shoved by Trump into gas chambers. Or claiming that he will only respect the results of the election as legitimate if he wins.

Buber lived for five years under the Nazis before escaping to Palestine in 1938, really the last possible moment before Kristallnacht and the war. In 1942, he reflected upon the politics of authoritarianism and fascism in an essay called “People and Leader.” A number of lines in this essay have been haunting me. Writing of Mussolini’s proud proclamation that he had created a new myth of Italy, Buber writes: “But he obviously knows his masses. They are masses who have despaired of a truth worthy of belief, because the previous war and what followed it have not only dashed to pieces the current truths but have also driven out the belief in truth in general, the objective trust.” In the absence of truth, having no path to follow, one—follows the leader.

But surely the leader himself has a path? Well, sometimes. Buber avoids falling into the easy trap of conflating fascist and Bolshevist totalitarianism: “the latter arises from the tradition of a real idea and in vital relationship to it…whereas fascism in contrast, basically acknowledges nothing but ‘the firm will to retain power.’” This type of leader is flagrantly non-ideological, believing only in himself. “The leader alone knows the goal, but there is no goal. The leader embodies the idea, but there is no idea…Nietzsche did not foresee that his idea of the ‘becoming God’ would be taken possession of not by the type he called the ‘higher man,’ but by the lower man who is, to be sure, without restraint, but at times is probably assailed by doubts in his innermost being, and must strive, therefore, to be worshipped in order basically to believe in himself.”

If these themes strike a resonant chord to you, then you know that you cannot turn now, the week before the election, to a disembodied spiritual hope or the simple name of Trust. The rebuilding of human relationships at all levels of society is necessary, but some candidates and institutions place greater blocks in its way than others do. And yes, as Kavka said correctly—that means putting down our books, not only voting but organizing, not only tending our gardens, but getting into the streets.

Katz CAJS Blog 


Samuel Brody

University of Kansas

Albert J. Wood Fellow, 2016-2017


Related post: Martin Kavka's "Brooks, Buber, and the Ballot Box"

If Gerson Cohen Responded to Mark Lilla in the Age of Trumpism // David N. Myers // JQR

posted December 8, 2016

In the shocking new world we inhabit in America after November 8, there would seem to be a new premium placed on assimilation, the term that stands at the heart of our JQR forum (JQR 106.4 [2016] -- Gerson Cohen’s “Blessing of Assimilation” a Half Century Later).  Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump promoted the ideal of a monolithic, essentially white, American patriotism, which set off peals of euphoria on the far-right. Columbia historian Mark Lilla wrote a provocative post-mortem in the November 18 opinion section of the New York Times (click here to read it), excoriating the descent into what he called “identity liberalism.”  Among its ills, Lilla roared, was a “fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press (that) has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups.”

    Lilla ends up calling for a “post-identity liberalism,” which, on the face of it, seems like a good fit with the essay that animates our forum: Gerson Cohen’s 1966 “The Blessing of Assimilation in Jewish History.”  In that address, Cohen issued his own provocative call.  Speaking to a group of graduating Jewish educators, he urged them to recognize that assimilation, perceived by many then as today to be a grave threat, was not only not an impediment to survival, but in fact could be “a stimulus to original thinking and expression, a source of renewed vitality.”  As one drills deeper into Cohen’s compactly brilliant essay, one discovers that assimilation of this sort does not really resemble, as it first appeared, Lilla’s blanched  “post-identity liberalism.”  Rather, assimilation, on Cohen’s idiosyncratic reading is a form of cultural exercise cum engagement that can ward off atrophy and revivify, re-interpret, and translate an ever-evolving “tradition.”

    When the editors of JQR planned for a collection of essays to rethink Cohen’s “Blessing” fifty years later, we had a decent sense that it remained relevant today.  But we did not imagine that it could lend much-needed nuance to a contentious debate over identity in the age of Trumpism that has already suffered from over-simplification.  Cohen’s concluding image, drawn from Nachman Krochmal, of tacking a middle path between freezing cold and consuming fire seems particularly relevant in this strange new world that we inhabit. 


David N. Myers                                                                                                          

Professor & Sady and Ludwig Kahn Chair in Jewish History, UCLA

Coeditor, Jewish Quarterly Review                                                                                     

David has been a fellow or affiliate of the Katz Center during the years 1994-1995, 2014-2015, 2016-2017, and held the Ellie and Herbert D. Katz Distinguished Fellowship in 2009-2010

Katz CAJS Blog 

On Brooks, Buber, and the Ballot Box // Martin Kavka

posted on November 4, 2016

It’s not every day that Jewish philosophy appears on the New York Times op-ed page. I suppose that I and the other members of this small and close-knit guild should be happy to have seen David Brooks start November with a column entitled “Read Buber, Not The Polls!

To some extent, I am. It’s heartening to see Buber’s widely read 1923 book I and Thou appear with relevance at this moment. In the constant horserace before the election, and in an environment when the last slice of the electorate is being fought over with more and more apocalyptic rhetoric, we think of sides in a battle.  But Brooks uses Buber to remind us that in our political life, we should see persons as persons, not as instantiations of types. US political discourse possibly corrodes itself when we reduce presidential candidates to their policy positions.  No matter one’s choice in the voting booth, it’s not necessarily healthy to vote for a person who (in our minds) is not much more than someone who offers up Supreme Court nominations to the Senate. The political realm has become cold, and Brooks is wrapping himself up in Buber, and his account of the I-Thou relationship (in which I do not objectify another person), for warmth.

Still, I have my doubts that my colleagues and I will recognize Buber in Brooks’s account of I and Thou.  Brooks offers a Buber who is a bit more passive and fatalistic than anything in I and Thou suggests, describing that we sit around and wait for these moments of deeper encounter.  “You can’t intentionally command I-Thou relationships into being,” Brooks writes. That’s true to the extent that any meaningful relationship, for Buber, involves both “will and grace.” (This is the line that famously gave birth to a sitcom.) Nevertheless, Brooks emphasizes grace at the expense of will, imagining that we can only provide “fertile soil” for such relationships, and “be open to them.” That ignores a whole slew of pages in _I and Thou_ about how we speak to other people. To speak to someone in a way that js free from any teleology, letting go of any purpose that I might have for that conversation or that relationship, has transformative power for Buber. Brooks entirely misses this.

There is an odd difference between Buber and Brooks.  Brooks gives us a portrait of a Buberian self who waits around for transformation to happen, and leaves us with a last paragraph meant to get us excited about how we ourselves might stop waiting around and “rebuild Thous at every level” of our society.  Brooks never explains whence such energy should arise.  Buber, on the other hand, gives us a portrait of a self who is more active in her relations with others, and yet he is enough of a realist to know that this rebuilding process is doomed to failure.  We live in a political system, and that means that we have to act for certain ends in our lives; such action requires objectifying others, and therefore requires putting an end to the rebuilding process until we start again, and fail again, and start and fail... On such a worldview, why go vote? Why not just stay home, watch the yelling on CNN, bury one’s head in one’s hands, and choose between meth and alcohol as one’s next longtime companion? 

Still, Brooks is not wrong to say that Buber maintains some kind of hope in I and Thou. Buber’s answer near the end of I and Thou is that the failure of efforts to rebuild Thous in a polity is actually, and counterintuitively, a harbinger of divinely ordained success: “doom becomes more oppressive in every new eon … and the theophany comes ever closer.” Here, Buber’s thought slid into a particularly idiotic brand of theology. Thinking that one’s suffering will shortly be redeemed and eliminated may be a way to cope with pain, whether the pain of a Trump or a Clinton presidency, or any other kind of pain. However, this kind of coping mechanism inexorably leads to huge questions that I and Thou did not, and could not, answer. Why is suffering necessary for theophany, anyway? Why this much suffering after November 9 (and before), and not one iota less? Why affirm existence in a world that entails so much suffering, anyway? And as soon as a reader of I and Thou is done scribbling these questions in the margin, she realizes that the book has come to an end and Buber has done nothing to answer such questions. Trying and failing to justify one’s hope (Buber’s sin against thinking) is a lesser sin than not trying at all (Brooks’s sin), but it is a sin nonetheless.

The works that Buber wrote after 1923 have possibly better answers to these questions, answers that don’t flirt with nihilism—or with that point where nihilism and fideism meet—quite so openly as I and Thou does. Sam Brody, a professor at the University of Kansas who is a fellow this year at the Katz Center, will shortly publish a book that focuses on Buber’s later political thought, showing (in his words) “what might result from de-centering I and Thou as the keystone of Buber’s work.”  If I understand Brody right, the result is a far more activist and revolutionary Buber than scholars had anticipated.  If David Brooks were to read this Buber, he might become unrecognizable to his readers at the Times.  If Jews were to read it, they might acknowledge the limit of the ballot box, leave their pews and AIPAC or J Street meetings, organize, and go out into the streets.

Katz CAJS Blog 

Martin Kavka

Professor of Religion at Florida State University

Ruth Meltzer Fellow, 2015-2016

*Related post: Sam Brody's "I, Thou, and the Election"

Objectivity: A Critical Scholarly Value under Fire // Steven Weitzman

posted August 10, 2016

Several recent New York Times articles and op-eds raise disturbing questions about the future of a value at the heart of the Katz Center—objectivity.

One article, “Researchers or Corporate Allies? Think Tanks Blur the Line” is an exposé of prominent think tanks like the Brookings Institute, which rely on donations from corporations to sustain a good percentage of their annual budget. Think tanks cast themselves as “universities without students.” Their value to society depends on the independent research they produce. Think tank executives deny any suggestion that they are the tools of the corporate donors who support them, but the article lays out evidence that the intellectual independence of some think tanks has been compromised by the role they have developed as unofficial lobby organizations. As one executive director notes, “people think of think tanks as do-gooders, uncompromised and not bought like others. . .” but, because of corporate donations, “the danger is we in the think tank world are being corrupted in the same way as the political world. And all of us should be worried about it.”

Another article, “The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity,” addresses the objectivity of contemporary journalism. If journalists believe a leader to be a threat to the nation’s well-being, can they go about their job as they have in the past? Can they be objective in their analysis? Should they be objective? Many believe that to stick to how journalists have covered elections in the past would be immoral during this unprecedented and unsettling election season, but if journalists shift from reporting the facts to being critics, is there a risk that their credibility will be compromised in a way that is ultimately harmful to society?

Yet another piece raises a different problem: sometimes the pursuit of truth can be compromised by unwillingness to compromise. In “Can We Still Trust Wikileaks?” Alex Gibney argues that Julian Assange, editor-in-chief of Wikileaks, has been afflicted by “noble cause corruption,” a belief in a noble end that has led him astray. Assange’s goal is to hold governments and political organizations accountable by casting light on their inner-workings, as he recently did with the Democratic National Committee. He is so committed to transparency that he refuses to alter his sources in any way, even if he risks of publishing information that will be harmful to innocent people. But the writer of the essay questions Assange’s objectivity, criticizing him for using transparency to pursue his own personal aims. Is there a possibility that the journalistic search for truth is being compromised not only by financial pressures but also by good intentions?

Although the Katz Center is neither a think tank nor a journalistic organization, it cannot ignore the imperiled state of objectivity because it, too, is an institution dedicated to the search for the truth. It pursues this quest at a time when many individual scholars question the possibility of intellectual objectivity or political neutrality. For a fascinating and disturbing account of how the ideal of scholarly objectivity has changed and been challenged over the decades, see Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream.) It might seem naïve to profess a commitment to objectivity, but as an institution, the Katz Center might well have an obligation to defend it.

Consider all the forces arrayed against independent and objective scholarship. In 2009, an initiative called the Scholar Rescue Fund reported receiving applications for help from persecuted academics in 101 countries—and this was before recent crises jeopardized scholarship in places like Turkey which has closed universities, fired thousands of deans, and curtailed the travel of scholars in response to an attempted coup. Even in a country like the U.S. where academics do not face persecution, there are corrosive pressures on scholarly objectivity as researchers find themselves relying more and more on private sources of research funding. In a world that poses so many risks to independent scholarship, it is crucial to have institutions committed to creating an environment where scholars can pursue their work as independently as possible, without outside interference or influence.

The recent Times pieces illustrate how difficult it is to sustain objectivity in the contemporary world. Often dependent on external funding to accomplish their important work, institutions sometimes purchase organizational independence at the expense of intellectual independence. Truth-seekers can be led astray by ambition but also by noble intentions—by a need to address real-world problems or to speak truth to power. How vulnerable is a research institute like the Katz Center to the kinds of pressures and temptations that are changing the nature of other kinds of institutions?

The Center benefits from having faculty advisory boards and a board of overseers who understand and support its mission, and from being part of a university with rules and institutional practices that help to protect our mission. We also never forget that we are accountable to fellow scholars who expect the Center to maintain its commitment to intellectual excellence. But we cannot be complacent. As many practitioners of Jewish studies know well, it is difficult for scholars in this field to completely detach themselves from politics and economics. Indeed, many scholars feel it is wrong to stay neutral or to pretend to be objective in the face of the challenges posed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the financial pressures that beset the modern university. The forces that are reshaping think tanks and journalism are at work in academia as well, and we should not underestimate their power or their subtlety.

My point is that the question of scholarly objectivity has be to thought of in institutional and social terms and not just as a question of epistemology or method. It would be hard to find a scholar in the humanities today who believes in the possibility of completely neutral, unbiased, and detached scholarship, and I am not an exception. But even so, there is something hard-won and very important that will be lost if the field of Jewish Studies collectively abandons objectivity as an operational principle—just as there will be great cost to society if it gives up on the goal of objective journalism or fact-driven accounting. Objectivity is not just an intellectual ideal; it is an ethical and political ideal as well, and in an age when scholars face all kinds of threats to their credibility, their integrity, their independence, and their well-being, it is one that, in my view, a research institute like the Katz Center has a solemn responsibility to honor and sustain.Steven Weitzman

Katz CAJS Blog 


Steven Weitzman

Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center
Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures

Object of Desire // Natalie B. Dohrmann

posted September 30, 2015

Reflections on the SIMS-Katz Center Partnership

In the fall of 2014 the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies (SIMS) at Penn’s Van Pelt Library acquired a fifteenth-century Sicilian medical miscellany (now UPenn MS Codex 1649) that stitched together a variety of texts, including three medical treatises written predominantly in Judaeo-Arabic with marginalia in Latin, Hebrew, and even Samaritan.

This on its own was enough.  Libraries collect important manuscripts, and make them available to research. But more could be done.

Tzvi Langermann, a past Katz Center fellow and Professor of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University, came immediately to mind. Who else on this earth controlled the requisite quiver of skills necessary to read this material? An eminent scholar of premodern science, medicine, and mathematics whose mastery of rabbinic thought, plus experience with manuscripts, made him ideal (nay miraculous). The Katz Center and SIMS together found the means to bring Langermann to Penn, and thus the manuscript catalyzed an institutional collaboration before its pages were even opened by the scholar.

Langermann agreed to take a break from his current research to spend two weeks with the document. At the end of his time, he shared some of the fruits of his study through a graduate seminar and a public lecture. He also taped a video Master Class in which his findings will be shared globally.

Since he was not trolling the UPenn MS Codex 1649 with any particular question in mind, he was as open to the object in all its facets—and aware of the ways the object outran even his analytical abilities.  The evening after his public lecture (September 3, 2015), not 24 hours before taping his master class, Langermann posted his PowerPoint slides from the lecture in an open forum on  The response was overwhelming. By the time the forum closed three weeks later, 141 people had participated, and nearly 1000 had viewed the PowerPoint (994 at the time of writing this; 9/24/15).

The forum participants were not focused on Langermann’s theses per se—on whether he was right or wrong—but on how best, together, they could make sense of the ancient text. Crowd-sourcing brought people with expertise in a vast array of subjects to bear on the document.  Indeed, within hours of its posting, one scholar questioned Langermann’s interpretation of a dating chronogram, causing Langermann to adjust—and improve—his work between sundown and sunrise. 

 * * *

Standard scholarly research agendas are, as often as not, anchored in an idea or set of ideas meant to reshape how we view the past. Evidence is adduced and ordered to make a new story, or construct a model through which to better comprehend human data.  Research is valued for its “contribution,” whose most perdurable metric is originality. Ideas that are both new and good are valuable commodities, tradable for promotions, invitations, students. A scholar’s relationship to her work is thus by necessity proprietary.

Object-driven research—research that takes as its beginning and end a particular artifact—invites a different dynamic. Since what is paramount is not a hypothesis to be asserted, tested, and defended, the artifact itself determines the agenda. The scholar’s ego can thus be transferred to the object and subordinate itself to the demands of an item which itself asks the questions needing answering. Seen this way, object-driven research is naturally and uncomplicatedly collaborative.

Outside of museums and libraries, object-driven research occupies a particular small quadrant of the scholarly landscape. And indeed the limitations imposed by an object are obvious. No one thing can tell us everything; an object’s meaning is constrained by space and time and function.  Still, an artifact’s mysteries are manifold. Since the object is by definition unique—original—scholarly desire can focus on it and not on the originality of insight. The very metaphorics suggested by the object-driven researcher are telling: the doctor trying to cure a mysterious malady; the general contractor; the sheriff gathering a posse; the impresario. How different these are from the monkish Casaubon, the solitary genius, the amasser of note cards, the analyst, the philosopher. 

Collaborating experts are not only welcomed, but sought. If a paleographer is needed, then by all means get one—does DNA testing need to be done on the parchment? Who is the world expert on bindings? or watermarks? Who knows how to dissolve 300–year-old glue? Is there someone who can advise on Greek cardiology, Latin consonantal shifts, regional Portuguese dialects, botany? How about trade routes and weather patterns? Aragonese politics? The radical specificity of the artifact means that each expert in turn needs the others to do her job right. The object engenders love from all—it becomes their shared obsession.

* * *

Below I have chosen a few exchanges sparked by Langermann’s initial observations and findings. The full text of the forum, including, among other things, a lively discussion of the color of arterial and venous blood, and debates over the color “yellow” can be found here.

The lecture that accompanied the slides can be viewed here.
For more on the manuscript in general click here.

Nadia Vidro
Dear Professor Langermann, thank you for inviting me. I noticed that the date in the colophon does not work: 13 Kislev in 5216 was a Sunday, not Tuesday. Is the year of copying supported by some other evidence? It is hard to see on the slide, but could it be that not all letters in the date phrase are marked as numbers? There are two lines over the heh, and perhaps, it represents 5000. The initial vav and aleph are also not marked in the same way as the rest of the letters. If the one dot that can I see on the slide refers to aleph, the year would be 5205, and in it 13 Kislev was, indeed, a Tuesday.

Tzvi Langermann
Thank you, I admit that with all the other things I had to check, I simply copied the information that was on a previous cataloguing—a serious mistake in this business. The difference is not great, the manuscript is still mid-16th century, which is how it looks to be… but you are right in catching this, now I will have to go back and check again.

Justine Isserles
Dear Professor Langermann Thank you for inviting me to comment on your paper which I am sorry I missed! I do have the following comments: 1. I am not surprised by a Romance spelling of Hippocrates, especially ending with a ש. In fact it is a 'sin' and often interchangeable with a ס. I described a ms from the University Library in Geneva ( 14th c., paper, Sephardic script) which contains the Problemata Physica by Aristotle and there is a later hand at one point describing the contents as פרובלימיש דאריסטוטילש . Then at the end we find a colophon with the word spelled with a samekh. Linguistically speaking I have seen several variations in spelling of one word in several different contexts and the use of “sin” or “samekh” for the “s” sound is common. 2. I do not think that the writing of this text is the same as you find in the binding. It can only come from the same book if there is another textual unit with the same hand which you cna find on the binding cover. 3. I am fascinated by the glossary at the end, and am trying to decipher more words ( I am not as keen on Spehardic script as with Ashkenazic/ Italian or Provençal). I will let you know if and what I discover.... Thank you for sharing your research with me! Best wishes, Justine

Tzvi Langermann
thanks... I have never seen this spelling of hippocrates in an arabic text; people wrote names as they heard them, hence I tend to think that is the name was written with a shin, it was pronounced sh and not s; but I am more at home in medical theory than in this sort of thing

Frank Savelsberg
Dear Tzvi, I think the first two terms are Latin fossilized genitives (form recipes): cin(n)amomi, *piperi longi. The third term seems to be the Catalan sindria (from Arabic sandya; DCVB s.v.) for 'watermelon' glossed by the Latin (genitive) meloni sarraceni or the like (for this term see our edition of Shem Tov ben Isaacs first list in book 29 of the Sefer ha-Shimmush: Bos et al. 2011, p. 171). The forth term corresponds to the Latin calque lingua avis (Bos et al 2011, p. 287). Best wishes, Frank

Tzvi Langermann
thank you...I just wanted to tell me audience about the way blank pages were used, and how interesting these names (written out in Hebrew letters, as they were heard) are to Romance philologists—of which I am not one

Igor Souza
For what it's worth, "piperis lorgi" is mentioned in the Pharmacopoea sive dispensatorium coloniensis, of Petrus Holtzemius (1627), p. 53. This might help further identification. "Cinamomo" in Portuguese can refer either to the spice or to the cinammon tree. The word may or may not have entered Portuguese from the Hebrew; there are different opinions. The earliest mention of it in Portuguese that I have run across dates to the 14th c. See A.A. Tavares, "Palavras Hebraicas e Hebraísmos na Língua Portuguese," Didaskalia 6 (1976), 105, 107 n16. There's an extended discussion on cinamomo by Garcia da Orta, "Colóquios dos Simples e das Drogas da Índia" (1563), which mentions Avicena and the Qanun in connection with the term.

Caroline Petit
Dear Tzvi, thank you so much for sharing this, and for inviting me to comment although I am not competent at all on Semitic texts and manuscripts! two small points: (1) I have seen other examples of Latin literal translations of names (or, important words in the text) in the margins of Arabic manuscripts, esp. Scorial. arab. 793, which contains Galen's treatise on Simples. From book VI onwards (the "catalogue" part of the treatise), such translations are regularly added in the margins, I guess to assist the reader in finding the relevant entry. (2) I am curious about the first text you mention, because it is similar in composition and purpose to the Greek pseudo-Galenic text Introductio sive medicus (the long chapter 13 especially) that I edited for my PhD.

Tzvi Langermann
Thank you, Caroline, for both comments. Nothing is really available on the Mughni; I haven't looked at Ullmann (the German, not the English), which would probably be the best place to look. I am sorry to say that I have not seen your thesis; it would be nice to see how the texts compare.

* * *

The forum is, as Monica Green of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study wrote, “a model of scholarly exchange”—proving the generative potential of intellectual modesty and honesty, attributable both to Langermann and to the capacious imperatives of object-driven research. It is a mandate for us to nurture and cultivate this sort of learning and production of knowledge. Between the material riches of our remarkable libraries, and the human capital and networks fostered and supported by the Katz Center, there is only good to come.

Natalie B. Dohrmann


Katz CAJS Blog 


Natalie B. Dohrmann

Associate Director, Katz Center & Coeditor, Jewish Quarterly Review

Feminist Hermeneutics and the Babylonian Talmud // Marjorie Lehman and Charlotte Fonrobert

posted September 17, 2015

This past summer a group of scholars from North America and Europe, working in the field of Talmud and Rabbinics, gathered at the Katz Center to explore feminist hermeneutic approaches to studying the Bavli. Each of the scholars is working on a commentary on one of the Bavli’s tractates. The commentary volumes are part of the Feminist Commentary to the Babylonian Talmud series edited by Professor Tal Ilan and published by the German publisher Mohr Siebeck. Navigating the complex field of Jewish Feminist Studies, our goal was to broaden the definition of what it means to employ a feminist analysis of rabbinic texts as well as to explore the ways in which modern scholars can contribute to the age-old project of writing commentaries to rabbinic texts, one of the practices that has defined Jewish literary practice for centuries.

Feminist scholarship of the Babylonian Talmud has come into its own during the past few decades, having developed a variety of strategies of engaging with and countering the androcentrism of rabbinic culture. Such strategies range from excavating and foregrounding of women, women’s practices, and women’s experiences, to studying the variety of gender identities and dynamics, and the ways in which the rabbis of the Talmud themselves use gendered strategies to assert their authority. These approaches fundamentally change the way rabbinic texts are read and re-appropriated. Feminist scholarship in particular has made a crucial contribution towards the wider reception of the Talmud and rabbinic texts in contemporary Jewish culture. The contributors to the Feminist Commentary project came together to explore collectively the potential of organizing such scholarship and scholarly commitments in the form of Talmudic commentary. After an initial workshop in May 2014 devoted to discussing best practices of feminist Talmudic commentary, sponsored and organized by the Stanford Taube Center of Jewish Studies, Professor Steve Weitzman initiated the idea for a cooperation between the Katz Center and the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford, to enable collaborative scholarship on this particular project. Recognizing the potential of our project as well as our ability to make a far stronger contribution to the field of Talmud and Rabbinics by engaging in thoughtful discussions with each other and with scholars working on gender in other fields of Jewish Studies, the two centers initiated the summer collaboratory.

As a result, this past July we worked together intensively on a daily basis in order to discuss our varied feminist strategies of studying the Talmud, and the ways in which our approaches could shape the task of writing commentary. We thought together about the importance of defining particular feminist approaches as well as integrating them one with the other in our volumes. We examined criteria of selection for identifying Talmudic texts to comment upon and we talked extensively about what it means to study a Talmudic tractate as a coherent project with an overarching agenda. Additionally, we invited scholars who work in gender in other fields of Jewish Studies, including Talya Fishman, Laura Levitt, Miriam Peskowitz, and Beth Wenger to challenge us, prompting us to think further about what it means to read the Talmud in an effort to produce a feminist commentary.

Engaging in this collective endeavor to study strategies and best practices of writing talmudic and feminist commentary, we realized that the very act of joining together should function as a feminist paradigm of doing scholarship. The experience of working as a team of scholars, guiding one another, presenting our material and incorporating each others’ suggestions into our written work, sharing and discussing past scholarship in feminist studies, transformed the way we think scholarship can and should be done. Because we were engaged in the process of mutually redefining what it means to engage in feminist analysis in rabbinics, there is no doubt that our experience will enhance our scholarly output and our contribution to the field, but also the way in which we teach our students the study of Talmud.

Our month-long collaboratory concluded with a symposium designed as an interactive forum for the summer fellows to present the fruits of their collective labor. Shaped in a way that allowed for extensive conversation, we created yet another opportunity to discuss the contributions and challenges of using a feminist hermeneutic in writing Talmud commentary. We addressed issues such as: why it is important to write commentaries, why feminist analyses are so significant to our understanding of the Bavli (and rabbinic literature more generally), how we mine the Talmud for texts appropriate for writing a feminist commentary on one tractate, why it is significant to study one tractate in its entirely, and what we are adding to the field of Talmud and Rabbinics.

Participants in the symposium:
Co-convener: Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert, Stanford University
Co-convener: Marjorie Lehman, Jewish Theological Seminary

Aryeh Cohen, American Jewish University
Naftali Cohen, Concordia University
Judith Hauptman, Jewish Theological Seminary
Jane Kanarek, Hebrew College
Gail Labovitz, American Jewish University
Sarra Lev, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, University of Virginia
Christiane Steuer, Freie Universitat Berlin
Dvora Weisberg, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (LA)

Tal Ilan of Freie Universitat Berlin, the general editor of the commentary series, attended and discussed the future of the project.

Katz CAJS Blog 

In Memoriam: Shlomo Berger // Emile Schrijver

posted August 30, 2015

We are deeply saddened to learn of the sudden passing earlier this week of Shlomo Berger, professor at University of Amsterdam and longtime friend of the Katz Center. He was a fellow during the year on The Jewish Book: Material Texts and Comparative Contexts (2005-2006) and we had certainly hoped to see him return.

Professors Avriel Bar Levav, Rachel Rojanski, and Andrea Schatz composed a necrology, and we share the following lovely memorial from Shlomo's longtime friend and colleague, Emile Schrijver. (You can also find it posted here, in Dutch and English.)

In Memoriam Prof. Dr Shlomo Z. Berger (1953–2015)

           "A tayerer fraynd," a much-loved friend: those were the words that came to mind when I received the startling news that Shlomo Berger had passed away last Wednesday, 19 August 2015. He would have been 62 on 1 September. He died following an acute bacterial infection which he fought off for a few days, yet ultimately in vain, leaving his friends and colleagues devastated.

            Born in Tel Aviv, Shlomo Berger attended Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva and Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There he gained his doctorate in Ancient History in 1987, with a thesis on Revolution and Society in Greek Sicily and Southern Italy, which appeared in print in 1992. It was shortly after this that he was invited by Prof. Dr Rena Fuks-Mansfeld to come to the University of Amsterdam, where he worked on two post-doctoral projects and began teaching in 1995. He taught Jewish History, Modern Hebrew, History of Modern Literature and Yiddish, the language of his mother as he fondly recalled. On 1 January 2005, the status of his Yiddish course was elevated when he was appointed extraordinary professor in Yiddish Language and Culture (with special reference to the Netherlands) under the auspices of Menasseh ben Israel Institute. The formal reason for establishing the chair was that the University of Amsterdam wished to safeguard Yiddish as an academic study; the informal reason was that the proposed candidate, Shlomo Berger, had long been professorable. Funding and continuation of the chair had only recently been organised in yet another testimony to the magnificent scholarship and mammoth reputation of this most modest of men.

            His academic articles, the first of which appeared in 1988, focused originally on the Ancient World, an interest that remained close to his heart; later, following the publication of his Classical Oratory and the Sephardim of Amsterdam: Rabbi Aguilar’s ‘Tratado de la retórica’ in 1996, in which he combined his classical expertise with his Jewish knowledge, he moved definitively into the world of Jewish Studies. He always regarded himself primarily as a historian, less so a Yiddish scholar, although he adored Yiddish (and Hebrew) language and literature and held many an impassioned lecture on the subject. In recent years he gradually drew closer towards the study of the Jewish book, a subject to which he brought many innovative contributions. His latest volume, with the poetic title Producing Redemption in Amsterdam: Early Modern Yiddish Books in Paratextual Perspective, appeared in 2013. It is a curious work which is based on a meticulous scrutiny of forewords, title pages, approbations and epilogues, paratext, in Yiddish books published in Amsterdam. While the study of this kind of text, which French historian Gérard Genette neatly describes as ‘the fringe of the actual text’ has received considerable attention among students of the non-Jewish book, it was Shlomo Berger who first applied this form of research to Jewish books, indeed to date he is the only scholar to have ventured into this particular area. I cherish warm memories of our many discussions; he would often visit Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana as he prepared for the publication and we would peruse this or that Yiddish book together and discuss the greater or lesser significance of some aspect of paratext.

            That pleasure in the study of old sources is something we had shared for many years. Berger published his Travels among Jews and Gentiles: Abraham Levie's Travelogue (Amsterdam 1764) in 2002, an historical analysis of one of my favourite manuscripts in the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana collection: a Yiddish account by Abraham Levi of his journey through Europe, written in 1764. We spent many hours poring over that manuscript. Sadly, he never got to finish his planned book on Readers and Modes of Reading in Yiddish, 1500-1850.

            He was an original thinker who stood firmly for the importance and above all for maintaining the highest standards in scholarship and his chosen terrain. He brooked no compromise in that respect. If a person’s work was below par he saw no reason not to say so in the most explicit terms. To engage in Jewish Studies it is essential to know all the relevant languages, he was convinced of this, and not without reason. Moreover, researchers should dare to venture beyond their own methodology and specialisation. If his candour was resented and resulted in the rupture of a relationship, so be it; he could not do otherwise, and he could never hide his frustration whenever he detected a lack of quality or a lack of genuine effort.

            Menasseh ben Israel Institute’s major international research project into Yiddish in the Netherlands as an Expression of Ashkenazic Culture, which we set up in the late 1990s with Marion Aptroot, Irene Zwiep, Rena Fuks-Mansfeld, Henk Meijering and Falk Wiesemann, would have been totally different without him. I look back with pleasure at the countless hours we spent together at the computer in my Menasseh ben Israel Institute office in Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum, juggling texts in our respective English, arguing the benefits of one formulation against another. He had a profound distaste for the red tape that Dutch and German bureaucracy entailed, and was not averse to saying so with undisguised relish, yet he understood that administration was required if he was to achieve his academic goals and so he was prepared to knuckle down time and again to make yet one more effort. Together with Irene Zwiep, he started a periodical, Zutot: Perspectives on Jewish Culture, first published in 2001 by Brill in Leiden, and he was on the editorial board of Studia Rosenthaliana, Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana’s scholarly journal. As an extraordinary professor, he was also editor of a series of Menasseh ben Israel Institute publications issued after each of the annual Amsterdam Yiddish Symposia that he organised, the ninth volume of which recently appeared.

            Shlomo Berger was a cosmopolitan. He was an Israeli Amsterdammer who had worked all over the world, from Jerusalem to Philadelphia, and from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Dublin (where he had just been appointed external examiner for Jewish Studies at Trinity College). Spain was a particular love of his, where he would regularly take a pile of books and recharge his batteries in the sun, and not to mention every researcher’s Valhalla: Oxford. In Oxford he was Visiting Fellow at Brasenose College and had recently led an Oxford Seminar in Advanced Jewish Studies at Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies on ‘Jewish Books in Amsterdam, 1650-1850: Authors, Producers, Readers and the Construction of Jewish Worlds’. Indeed, he was a past master at thinking up these ingenious titles. There, in his beloved Oxford, is where I saw him last, we lunched together in the Common Room at Brasenose College where he basked visibly in the gently elitist atmosphere of the place, and where we enjoyed the excellent food and drink after my own lecture at his seminar. It never occurred to me that this might be the last time we would embrace. Jewish Studies will be the poorer now that this thoroughbred intellectual has left us. And like so many other friends, colleagues and students, I shall cherish the memory of this ardent, curious man, an aesthete in every fibre of his being, my "tayerer fraynd."

Katz CAJS Blog 

A Discourse of Global Significance // Ismar Schorsch

posted March 26, 2015

I regard this year’s Katz Center seminar devoted to the Science of Judaism  (Wissenschaft des Judentums) as preparatory to the commemoration of the upcoming bicentennial of Jewish studies. In 1818 Leopold Zunz launched the turn to Jewish history with a modest essay of bracing scope that spelled out for the first time the all-encompassing nature of postbiblical Jewish literature. Over the next two centuries that epistemological revolution—with its distinct ethos, tools and perspectives—gave rise to ever new sources of knowledge, subfields, and institutional settings, coloring the public discourse of old and new centers of Jewish life. The diverse participants of the seminar reflect that diffusion.

What is most noteworthy for me is the substantial minority of young scholars from Germany whose work merited an invitation. Their presence highlights the current prominence of German scholarship in Jewish studies. Some 1000 books pertaining to Jews and Judaism are now being published every year in Germany. Granted that many are popular and ephemeral, still a goodly number enrich a range of subfields with scholarship of the highest order. There was a time when students of Judaica were required to learn German to read what had been published before 1939. While that is still the case, it is even more important today to master German in order to read what is being written by contemporary German scholars. Indisputably and unexpectedly, over the last few decades Germany has become the third leading center for Jewish studies behind Israel and America. Its scholars have spent lots of time in Israel, acquired a better command of modern Hebrew than many an American colleague and are not stymied by rabbinic and medieval Jewish texts. Back in 1818 Zunz feared there would be few young Jews in 1918 with a sufficient knowledge of Hebrew to handle the sources. My apprehension is that there may be too few Israeli and American students of Judaica with a sufficient command of German to read the best of German Jewish scholarship that goes untranslated.

Wiedergutmachung, the effort to undo the destructiveness of the past, takes many forms in the German Federal Republic. The country has moved well beyond reparations to countless acts of genuine atonement. The decision of a young Christian scholar to undertake the arduous journey to master the requisite knowledge to do Jewish studies, without assurance of an academic job at the end, is often borne of a touch of penance. In retrospect, had academic officialdom before 1933 been more forthcoming to admit Jewish studies into the university curriculum, as repeatedly demanded by Zunz, perhaps the emancipated status of Jews in Germany could not have been so easily reversed and uprooted.

Image result for ismar schorsch

Katz CAJS Blog 

Ismar Schorsch

Chancellor Emeritus, Jewish Theological Seminary of America
Adjunct Fellow, Katz Center 2014-2015

Aviva Ben-Ur’s “Kabbalistic Pharmacopeia” // JQR

posted June 8, 2015

In the current issue of JQR (105.2, a special issue on the transposition of Sepharad and Ashkenaz to the Americas), Aviva Ben-Ur examines a rare manuscript recently acquired by the Library at the Herbert D. Katz Center. A combination of recipes for medical and other practical purposes, along with magical prescriptions belonging to the genre known as sifre segulot, it contains notes in a multitude of languages and reflects, in Ben-Ur’s words, “the major transitions that characterize the Atlantic Jewish era.” It is a remarkable document, and only a scholar with Ben-Ur’s range of linguistic, paleographic, and historical acumen could have plumbed its riches.

To highlight JQR’s emphasis on the scholarly “note”—a short essay gleaning trenchant insights from a small detail or recent find that stands out in a crowded research file—we offer Ben-Ur’s piece as a free download here.


Katz CAJS Blog 


The International "Merkatz" // Natalia Aleksiun

posted May 1, 2015

I arrived in Philadelphia on a chilly Monday morning last January, curious to meet a group of fellows many of whom I had only met on bookshelves and to experience the place I had heard so much about since my graduate years at NYU. Little did I expect a friendly atmosphere that far exceeded polite conversations about one’s future research projects and challenging deadlines. What I encountered was a uniquely mixed group of men and women who insisted on conversations in Hebrew and who took interest in one’s adventures in the world of Jewish Wissenschaft of the past centuries and of our own time. Coming from American universities, Israeli and European academic institutions and countries that had been part of the Soviet bloc, we found several languages in common.

Joining a group of fellows proved to be an intellectual adventure. While the project of modern study of all things Jewish emerged in the German context in the first half of the nineteenth century, I found myself challenged by the dominating voice of the Western European Jewish scholars. As someone who was trained in Eastern Europe and who had come to the USA for the second Ph.D., it was particularly interesting to find myself sitting on the academic fence, comparing approaches and agendas of scholars who had come to the Katz Center from Europe, Israel and American academic institutions. How much did we have in common and were our scholarly sensitivities all that different? Or maybe they stemmed more from gender and generational differences? I have not resolved these dilemmas. But I found myself fortunate to look deep into my own ideological, cultural, and linguistic context when engaging with the subject of Jewish studies. Still, camaraderie and shared predilections brought us together; everyone was ready to laugh together, swap library books and admit to anxieties about time that was passing way too fast.

Katz CAJS Blog


Natalia Aleksiun

Touro College
Albert J. Wood Fellow, 2014-2015

Reconstructing the Tower of Babel // Dorothea Salzer

posted May 21, 2015

As part of my contribution to the Katz Center’s public programming, I offered a workshop to twelve-year-old Hebrew school students on what we learn from retellings of biblical stories, and then included some of their work in a later presentation to adults at the same synagogue. The experience was moving and enlightening for me.

Two days after my workshop, the fellows at the Katz Center came together for a meeting of our reading group. We were discussing a text by Gershom Scholem called Mitokh hirhurim al hokhmat yisrael—“Wanderings of the Mind about Jewish Studies.” This is a rather radical and polemical essay, written in a wonderfully rich and powerful—even emotional—language with all kinds of allusions to the Bible, rabbinic texts, and mystical concepts. One of Scholem’s arguments is that a historian needs to destroy history in order to reconstruct it anew—meaning for him, of course, to use history in a Zionist context.

In the midst of our discussion, it struck me that this is exactly what the children did in retelling the story of the tower of Babel. They deconstructed the biblical narrative, “destroyed” it, so to speak, and changed it into a meaningful construction for themselves, thereby finding a way to give a personal meaning to this old story and make their own path to tradition. Their retellings, simple though they seemed as first, demanded to be taken seriously.

Each child told the story in a way that was different from the others and from the biblical version. They made cultural adaptations in order to explain biblical lacunae and make sense of various textual details. They tried to explain what it means that the tower reached up into the sky and what happened after the language was scattered; sometimes they redefined the tower itself. According to the biblical text, the tower is simply not finished, but for the children this bare fact was an opportunity for creativity; according to some of them, God destroyed it, while others suggested that it fell on its own, or that it was never destroyed at all. The obscurity of the text prompted the students to ask why reaching for the sky incurred God’s wrath. The children’s inventions were invested with moral, psychological, and historical significance.

They not only enacted Scholem’s process of destruction-for-renewal; they also engaged in cultural translation, adapting the text to their experiences just as did the authors of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century children’s Bibles that I’m examining for my current book project. Like the Hebrew school students, those authors felt it necessary to truncate or reshape the text, and in some cases toss it away altogether and start anew. As some of the children observed, the destruction of the tower was itself a deeply creative act as it restored harmony in some mysterious way, and corresponded to the formation of our own polyglot world.

The first story opens with a familiar phrase: “once upon a time.” Does this mean that the biblical stories for this child have the status of fairy tales? More likely, the author means to acknowledge the chronological distance of the story. I also noticed the unusual sentence, “and they scattered them in the world.” When asked about this, the girl who wrote the story said that she wanted to give space for all kinds of perceptions of God. Because there are references to God as man, woman, and other different notions, she wanted to be inclusive and chose the neutral form of “they.” This struck me as very thoughtful and as having a rather meaningful theological component. The student not only wanted to be tolerant and inclusive, she obviously also was very much aware that personal perceptions of God (and different contexts) are meaningful for building a relationship to the texts by which tradition is brought to us, that everybody has the need to find a way to forge a personal connection with the text.

Her illustration shows a skyline that is very similar to the skyline of an American city, with the tower of Babel only slightly bigger than the other buildings, which for me is a clear cultural adaptation. Also, she is one of the few children who actually implemented the city into the picture. I wonder if the choice of color (silver and gold on a black background) is an instrument of orientalization.

Hebrish: “In the city there was a very tall tower.”


This second story was written collaboratively by three girls and is a beautiful rewriting on many different levels. First of all, the story is situated in the future; in addition, the people do not build a tower, but rather a factory for apple phones. Embedded in this structure is a profound critique of our society that prefers texting to actual personal communication. Interestingly enough, the authors also turn the bad ending of the biblical story into a happy one, since the people are not scattered and the tower (i.e., the factory) remains standing—the people “made good use of the amazing factory that they built.” For me, the most striking feature in this text is how the girls tried to figure out a moral of the biblical story for their own time and context, which is exactly what the authors of my biblical stories did more than 200 years ago.

Hebrish: "But soon it change[d]"




For a third student, the story is about God being afraid of the strength of a unified humankind, an interpretation clearly rooted in the biblical text itself (Gen 11:6: and the Lord said, "If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach"). The scattering of the language for him is a means of weakening the collective. Interesting is the feeling of anxiety ascribed to God; God is a very emotional being in the Hebrew Bible—but most of the time the emotion is anger and to the best of my knowledge, never fear. So in showing an anxious God, the author actually questions God’s omnipotence and at the same time shows a human side in God, something to which we can all relate. Although the author does not spell it out, the insinuation of the power of unification is a striking one here, and so the story can be read as a demand to seek more unification in order to achieve important goals.

Hebrish: "Separated them by language."




Finally, the student(s) who wrote this text tried to find a reason for building the tower, something the authors of my biblical stories also did. For our author, the people of Babel built a tower so they could explore the heavens. God’s reaction is not rationalized as in the previous text, it is just stated that he saw this was not good. Is this a critique of progress?  The author(s) also thought about the question of the consequences of the scattered language and came up with the impossibility of coordination. Again, this can be read as an invitation to think about cooperation. Strikingly, the people themselves destroy the tower, a moment that is also captured in the illustration accompanying the story.

Hebrish: “God made different languages”



Katz CAJS Blog 




Dorothea Salzer
University of Potsdam
Jody Ellant and Howard Reiter Family Fellow, 2014-2015

The Fighting Faith of Solomon Schechter // David Starr

posted May 27, 2015

Leah Goldberg once wrote that “it may be a characteristic of the modern to fluctuate between the naïve and the ironic, craving Eden in a lost world all the while revealing the problems inherent in simple belief.” Such a tangled set of views characterized Solomon Schechter, the ultimate “modern,” whose life the Katz Center and JQR remember in this centennial year of his passing.  Schechter had lost the simple faith of his Romanian father, yet he fervently believed that scholarship could bridge the gap between tradition and modernity by creating the modern, committed Jew. He recognized the difference between religion and culture while serving a population that was more interested in a culture of tradition than in a religion of tradition.  JQR played a role in this intellectual and communal project, mediating Jewish texts, ideas, and history for English-reading Jews as they sought somehow to bring at least fragments of Jewishness with them as they entered modern times and sensibilities. 

At different times, both Moshe Idel and I reflected, at least in miniature, on Schechter’s life and works in the pages of JQR—in both cases the focus was on the transition—of Schechter from England to America—and the reflection engendered by that change.  A decade ago I noted that, in a letter to his Cambridge successor Israel Abrahams, Schechter reinforced the adage that objectivity need not be neutral.  In the sharply worded letter that I quote in “The Importance of Being Frank: Solomon Schechter's Departure from Cambridge” (JQR 94.1) it is clear that Schechter viewed the science of Judaism as intrinsically true but also as a vehicle for Jews to represent themselves and their civilization to Jews and non-Jews alike.  The creation of a spiritual nationalism in the fragmented present required a truthful reconstruction of the people’s past. 

To mark the 100th anniversary of Schechter’s bringing the Jewish Quarterly Review to Philadelphia, in an essay titled “On Solomon Schechter in the Pages of JQR” (JQR 100.4) Moshe Idel plumbed the archive for a telling essay to gloss.  His resultant piece on Schechter’s appraisal of mysticism reveals how the man worked in different aspects of Jewish science, how he managed to combine usually disparate and disconnected endeavors like history, theology, and philology to produce deceptively simple renderings of Judaism and its cultural expressions.  This shows through Schechter’s portrait of Nahmanides, the great Spanish medieval scholar who combined philosophy, mysticism, and profound feeling in a state of “happy inconsistency—an existential predicament with which Schechter likely personally identified. 

Schechter the modern emerges from these two offerings, and from the Katz Center’s recent conference devoted to Schechter’s years in America.  A person of many interests and facets, he accepted his ironic lot, recognizing that the questions worth asking, the facts worth knowing, took us in not one but many directions. In Schechter’s view, one needed to live with the gaps between what one knew and what one believed.  For someone who spent so much of his life fighting for Judaism, fighting with ideas and thinkers he felt threatened Judaism, he remains in some ways quite modest, even humble, about what he claimed to know, or to believe.  

Katz CAJS Blog


David B. Starr

Founding Executive Director, Tzion
Gann Academy/New Jewish High School
Visiting Research Associate, Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, Brandeis University

Three Generations of Judaic Scholarship // Elliott Horowitz

posted April 15, 2015

When asked to introduce two distinguished scholars, Ismar Schorsch and Mirjam Thulin, at the symposium on Solomon Schechter in March, I thought about how these two speakers represented very different generations of German-born Judaic scholars. Schorsch, who came as a child to the United States and earned all his degrees here, represented the tail end of the nineteenth-century Wissenschaft des Judentums and its flowering on the shores of America—a process that had begun, well before the rise of Hitler, with Solomon Schechter's move from Cambridge to New York in 1902. Thulin, who was raised as a Protestant in late twentieth-century Germany, where she developed an interest not only in Jewish studies but also in the tangled history of the field itself, represented the more recent rebirth in Germany of Judaic research at levels rivaling its pre-Holocaust achievements.

But what did all of this have to do with me, an American-born baby boomer belonging to the generation between those of Schorsch and Thulin? Admittedly, my own parents, like theirs, spoke German. Furthermore, I was honored to be one of Schechter's successors as an editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review. But then I remembered that my first contact with the name of Solomon Schechter had come during my first years of primary school, when for slightly over a year I studied at the first school named for him, the Solomon Schechter School of Queens. At the lunch preceding our conference I asked my fellow boomer Shuly Rubin Schwartz, who had grown up in Long Island, whether she had also been at that school. Shuly, now a dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary, explained that although her father was a Conservative rabbi she had been sent to an Orthodox day school, since the Schechter School in Queens was too far away. In my introductory comments at the conference I related the circumstances that later led my father—who was neither Conservative nor a rabbi—to move me from the Schechter School to an Orthodox school as well, reflecting a desire for a more rigorous approach to Jewish textual literacy, and I asked rhetorically whether Schechter would have approved.

The fragmentation of American Jewry into movements was an issue that preoccupied Schechter, as was the relationship of American Jewry to the core textual and legal tradition of Judaism. Shuly’s own presentation at the symposium later that afternoon discussed an essay on Abraham Lincoln that Schechter originally delivered as a lecture in 1909 marking the centenary of Lincoln’s birth. Noting that the essay may be “the most symbolic” of Schechter's “deep and abiding relationship to America,” she linked it with Schechter’s own struggle over an endangered union—that of American Jewry—which was then precariously split between the Reform movement, centered in Cincinnati, and the nascent Conservative movement, with Orthodoxy still representing only a slim slice of the pie. “When he recounted Lincoln’s ‘pleading with his friends and foes that there is no hope for Americans to live outside of the Constitution if they cannot any longer live in it,’” she suggested, “one cannot help but hear Schechter’s bitterness at the disregard for Jewish law evidenced in his Reform colleagues.”

Another generation of Judaica scholars, let me add in conclusion, fits squarely between Schorsch and Thulin—those, like myself and Shuly Rubin Schwartz, who were born in postwar America and benefited from the boom in Jewish education taking place during those years. We have, in our own ways, engaged the very issues that so concerned Schechter in his adopted country, and some of us have carried those issues to our own adopted countries. We have learned, as did Schechter before us, that scholarship and life are irrevocably intertwined.

Katz CAJS Blog



Elliott Horowitz

Coeditor, Jewish Quarterly Review

Byways // Andrew Berns

posted February 6, 2015

Ten years ago I was working toward my doctorate at Penn and had the privilege of studying with some of the accomplished and engaging fellows at the Katz Center. It was one of the healthiest and most vital of David Ruderman's brainchildren: the “modular,” according to which graduate students spend a few weeks cycling through mini-courses with the best scholars in the world, all in the hospitable confines of the Center. I distinctly remember one three-week session with Gad Freudenthal, a fellow from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, and a brilliant expositor of Jewish philosophy in the Middle Ages. We were reading Maimonides—an excerpt from his Mishneh Torah that concerned cosmology.  One by one we went around the table and offered our translations of texts, which we had spent hours preparing.  We had looked up the proper JPS language for biblical verses and Marcus Jastrow's renderings of rabbinic terms. We had buffed and polished our versions. Nevertheless Professor Freudenthal nonchalantly corrected us, substituting our flabby English with precise, lean expressions that perfectly captured Maimonides' intentions.  It sounded as though Freudenthal had swallowed and digested the entirety of Jacob Klatzkin's Otzar ha-munahim ha-filosofiyyim (Berlin, 1928–33), the peerless guide to scientific and philosophical Hebrew of the Middle Ages, which Freudenthal deployed effortlessly. At one point a fellow student, who now teaches Jewish history at an elite American university, leaned over to me and whispered "do you understand how remarkable it is that he's correcting our English? We've spoken this tongue since the cradle, and for him it's his third language!" I understood, and together we mourned our linguistic inelegance.

This winter I had the honor to teach in the modular. I could not offer the students Professor Freudenthal's bottomless learning, nor his philological expertise, nor his international renown. What I could do was lead spirited conversations based on a curated selection of texts, and bask in the glow that results when Penn's extraordinary graduate students, who come together from fields as disparate as Germanic Languages, Classics, and Religious Studies, get together and read a text. One fault with contemporary graduate education, professors whinge, is that it's too compartmentalized; no one talks to colleagues and fellow students in other departments. Mutated, in-bred dissertations result. The modular course at the Katz Center offers an alternative to disciplinarity, and maybe an antidote to it. One of the thrills of my year as a fellow at the Katz Center has been to participate in this extraordinary tradition, and to pass on a portion in turn of what my teachers taught me.

Katz CAJS Blog


Andrew Berns
Ph.D. University of Pennsylvania, 2011
Assistant Professor of History, University of South Carolina
Rose and Henry Zifkin Teaching Fellow, Katz Center 2014-2015

AAA Vote on BDS // Steven Weitzman

posted November 22, 2015

At its annual meeting a few days ago, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) voted on whether to embrace a boycott of Israeli academic institutions “until such time as these institutions end their complicity in violating Palestinian rights as stipulated in international law.” Those present voted to approve the proposed resolution by an almost 10 to 1 margin. The resolution must still be voted on by the ten thousand members of the AAA, but this endorsement is significant. AAA is the world’s largest association of anthropologists, and if this measure secures final approval, it would become the largest American academic society to embrace the boycott movement against Israeli academia.

As Vice Chair of the American Association of Universities, Penn President Amy Gutmann has signed a resolution opposing the academic boycott of Israel and has spoken repeatedly in favor of the fundamental importance of academic freedom and against efforts to boycott Israeli universities and scholars. President Gutmann’s position is in accord with that of the American Association of University Professors, which opposes academic boycotts as a threat to academic freedom.

In the wake of the AAA’s vote, I feel it is important to express my own opposition to academic boycotts (and my opposition to discrimination on the basis of national origin which this resolution may encourage), and my commitment to sustaining the Katz Center as a site for the free exchange of ideas, information and discoveries among scholars in North America, Israel and elsewhere. We will continue to support the research of scholars from around the world, including Israeli scholars, and to pursue collaborative relationships with academic institutions from abroad, including Israeli academic institutions. 

I have written about well-meaning efforts by scholars to intervene in conflicts, which raises a number of intellectual and ethical issues. I appeal to AAA members and other scholars to resist the conflation of academic institutions with the policies and actions of governments, to reject the use of scholarship as an instrument of punishment, and to embrace its power to build bridges of understanding across the boundaries imposed by fear, hatred and political conflict.

Steven Weitzman

Katz CAJS Blog



Steven Weitzman

Ella Darivoff Director of the Katz Center
Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures

In Search of Rashi's Tobacco Box // Dani Schrire

posted May 28, 2015

Dov Sadan, the first professor of Yiddish at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, once analyzed a joke that ridiculed Leopold Zunz, the founder of the Wissenschaft des Judentums and prime mover of the scholarly study of Judaism. Sadan attributed this joke to the anti-maskilic Rabbi Ornstein, who was quoted saying: “if you wish to know what box of tobacco Rashi used, ask Leopold Zunz; if you wish to know Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, ask me.” This joke is telling as to how early Jewish scholarship was perceived by its opponents: its implicit message is that Rashi’s actual (everyday) life does not merit attention in comparison to his textual output, and its explicit message is that scholars of the Wissenschaft were doing Jewish studies in distorted ways.

The Gruss Colloquium on “Doing Wissenschaft” is the first attempt to examine broadly the practices that have characterized Jewish studies in the last two hundred years: collecting, the construction of arguments, the ways in which scholars made an impression, and the role of correspondence in their work. Such reflection presses us hard to think of what we have been doing well, but it also exposes us as never before. It is my opinion that scientific endeavors should afford risk-taking, since they hold promises to better understanding and eventually, I hope, will lead us to doing even better Jewish studies. Given the breadth of this topic—and since such questions have not yet been addressed directly or systematically in our field, an assembly of scholars who do Jewish studies under very different spatial and temporal circumstances is particularly important in framing diverse current challenges.

We may not have discovered Rashi’s tobacco box in this colloquium; after all, Sadan already pointed out that in Rashi’s time, Europeans did not yet have tobacco. However, we may shed light on what triggered the animosity of Rabbi Ornstein’s followers—the ways in which scholarship was conducted. Wissenschaft has served as a practical example to later scholars, with its method of setting texts like Rashi’s in context, historically or philologically. In scrutinizing the practices of Jewish studies, past and present, we push this tradition further to reflect on immediate contexts that do not always receive enough scholarly attention.




Dani Schrire
Maurice Amado Foundation Fellow, 2014-2015
Lecturer in the Programs for Folklore and Folk Culture / Program in Cultural Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The Red Question Mark // Stefan Schorch

posted May 27, 2015

On the official poster for the day-long workshop on nineteenth-century Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur'an studies, the black printing of the workshop’s title is followed by a fat red question mark.

The red ink was well spent, as it turned out: this question mark hovered throughout the day’s lectures and discussions devoted to (in the words of the subtitle:) “Hebrew Bible, New Testament, and Qur’an in Jewish Research in the 19th Century and Beyond.” It was translated into a provocative aporia by Ismar Schorsch, who closed the day by pointing out that the most sacred of all Jewish texts had been missing from the agenda of the workshop—the Talmud! Thus, a day of interesting and often challenging presentations, analyses, and debates ended in the best of all possible ways: with new and more refined questions for all participants.

The study of the corpora of sacred texts became an important and even central preoccupation of many scholars of both the inner circle and the periphery of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, bringing to an end what had often been regarded as an intellectual monopoly of Christian theologians. Since most Jewish scholars at that time did not restrict their work to one of the sacred texts, but rather dealt with all the three, new approaches and methods applied in one field would often be adopted immediately within the other fields, leading to important new insights, as the oeuvre of the Prussian scholar and rabbi Abraham Geiger demonstrates.

Moreover, most of the nineteenth-century Jews engaged in these studies had a strong background in traditional or maskilic Jewish education and were therefore able to apply competencies and knowledge not available to most Christian scholars. For example, drawing on their intimate knowledge of rabbinic literature, Jewish scholars could often provide astoundingly simple explanations to difficult passages and shed new light on the New Testament (Isaac Mayer Wise from Cincinnati) or the Qur’an (Ignaz Goldziher from Budapest)

Finally, the workshop demonstrated quite plainly that the protagonists of the Wissenschaft des Judentums were not secluded in an ivory tower. Rather, they were generally very well connected with their communities, to whom they made the results of their work available in publications, translations, commentaries, and school books.  As for many scholars today, this was an important part of their work.



Stefan Schorch
Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg, Germany
Katz Center fellow, 2014-2015

Eve and an Easy Bake Oven: On "Jewish Paideia in the Age of Enlightenment" //Natalie B. Dohrmann // JQR blog

posted September 23, 2016

Jewish Quarterly Review volume 106, number 3 (summer 2016)

Americans of a certain age may remember Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots—introduced in 1964, the game set stiff plastic pugilists face to face in a small boxing ring. They were controlled by buttons that unleashed rudimentary uppercuts and jabs; if a plastic fist managed to connect, the head of the opposing robot would pop up. Round won. 

It was a toy that no parent really wanted their kids to have. But then again, nearly all toy marketing before then was aimed at adults; toys themselves likewise replicated adulthood in whimsical or didactic miniature, from dolls and easy bake ovens, which made girls into wee wives and mothers, to superhero costumes meant to direct the young man’s leisure imagination. Yet while the wisdom in the biz said it could not sell, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em was a wild success, managing to detach millions of dollars from post-war wallets.  How?

This game's maker changed the industry—as it was reported to me—by leapfrogging the parent and speaking directly to the child. The earliest ads were stripped of any hint of a domestic sphere, no mother smiled benignly on, and no world-saving heroism or virtue justified the blows the boys rained on each other’s robot. It was kid catnip.

In 1964, the American toy industry discovered children.

It is from this child-centered vantage that we follow our authors in this forum backward. Dorothea Salzer, Iris Idelson-Shein, and, Andreas Brämer remind us that, like children’s toys (or, more pertinently in this case, the advertising of children’s toys), children’s literature and education policy have a traditionally had little to do with actual children. They have been parts of a system driven by a range of interests beginning from a high minded concern for education that, when scratched, reveals a range of less-visible interests and framing paradigms, stretching from—as we see in the essays in this forum—apologetics to polemics, reformist to reactionary ideals, political to religious agendas, economic to philosophical priorities. The children at the crosshairs of education reform, children’s literature, and paideia in general, were not in fact children at all. They were ciphers—rudimentary clay humans: little Jews and proto-citizens, baby workers and wives—being asked to serve distinctively adult agendas for social reform or preservation.

As such, education is a useful tincture with which to reveal the dominant stressors and concerns of society at a given moment. Given that education is how societies make the citizens they most need or desire, we can also see in it in nuce the ideals and aspirations of the culture that produces educational theories, materials, and policies. The Haskalah proves an especially rich terroire for changing and dynamic education theory, law, and literature; the special section of this issue walks through 6 enlightening case studies.  It is introduced by coeditor David Myers, whose essay is available here.

Natalie B. Dohrmann




Natalie B. Dohrmann

Associate Director, Katz Center & Coeditor, Jewish Quarterly Review