By Jaime Ashworth
Jewish History is fundamental to the lives and experiences of Jews, whether they consciously know it or not. Since the destruction of the Temple in 70CE, Jews have been scattered throughout the world, connected by liturgy and tradition, and by the stories we tell each other about who we are, where we come from, and how both of those things create who we are. In the Makor Hayim vision, it says:
We believe that Jewish teaching and history offer us deep wells of wisdom that is alive and relevant today. By bringing this wisdom into dialogue with our own lives, we believe it can help us to remember who we are, rediscover our humanity, and challenge us to return back into the world as more just and loving people.
Given the amount of time and the geographic scope of the subject, however, four sessions of 75 minutes were never going to be more than an introduction. The aim of this Navigating Judaism course, therefore, was to give an overview of the most important “milestones” to allow participants to firmly locate themselves and give them tools to pursue their own interests.
My underlying suggestion was that three concepts are crucial in understanding Jewish history. Firstly, catastrophe: events which, in the words of Alan Mintz, “convulse or vitiate shared assumptions.” Much of Jewish history is about not just building, but re-building. Secondly, we need to acknowledge minhag, the local differences in custom and rite which can confuse the newcomer. These are historical phenomena: Ashkenaz and Sepharad developed along different lines for reasons which can be explained historically, and which structure the past in particular ways. The fate of Ladino-speaking Jews in the Holocaust, for example, was conditioned partly by their inability to understand German orders in the camps, in contrast to Yiddish-speaking prisoners. Similar problems affected highly assimilated Jews from countries such as Hungary.
Thirdly, however, we need to bear in mind broyges, the uncreative differences which lead to the old joke about a Jew on a desert island who built two synagogues: one to go to, and the other not to be seen dead in.
Session 1 introduced these key ideas, by asking the question “Who is Jewish History for and about?” There is a recurring tension between self-identification, mutual recognition, and external classification that has to be engaged with. I am Jewish because I say I am, and because others recognise me as such: in a fundamentally social religion, how could it be otherwise? We need a minyan to say certain prayers or do certain things. But that means all the members of the minyan must accept each other as valid. The degree to which this tension plays out struck me with particular force while working in an archive recently with accounts of life in the Belsen Displaced Persons’ Camp. Just months after the end of the war, an observer wrote:
There are in Belsen two absolutely separate and distinct groups - the [religious] Kehilla and the [secular Zionist] Central Jewish Committee. Each body has its own post office, Search Bureau and its own stores. The stores of the Central Jewish Committee are distributed to all irrespective of religious conviction or belief. If people apply to the Kehilla for supplies they are asked if they are Shomrei Hadath (strictly orthodox).
The distinction between the so called orthodox and unorthodox has reached a stage that the Kehilla considers it wrong, in fact almost a crime, for any part of their members to visit the Beth Chalutz or the Children’s Home or to be friendly even personally with any who work in the Central Jewish Committee. This attitude is producing a sharp reaction in the so called “other” camp.
An external observer might find this almost comical. Surely after surviving an event as terrible as the Holocaust, religious and political differences could be set aside? But actually this was a sign of recovery, as individuals worked through trauma and simple survival, and reasserted who they were. The definitions we explored drew lines in different ways, hopefully providing us with ways of thinking about our own journeys from self-identification to communal membership.
Week 2 began the narrative in earnest, tracing the development of Jewish religious texts against some of the historical changes. Eras of Jewish law and custom are eras of Jewish history: it is not a coincidence, for example, that the Haggadah, with its concluding wish that we are reunited “Next year in Jerusalem!” appears in the aftermath of the Bar-Kochba Revolt, which was the final serious attempt to secure an independent political entity until 1948. Similarly, the Selichot written in response to the Crusades would structure thinking about future (and previous) catastrophes for centuries. And all of this is to be found in the structure of a page of Talmud: with Zugot speaking to Tanaim speaking to Amoraim, and so on…dialectical disagreement between sages, driving Jewish life forward, but always looking over its shoulder.
Week 3 covered the broadest span, taking in the period from the “establishment” of Christianity in the Roman Empire to Napoleon’s tempered “emancipation” of the Jews of France in 1808. Looking at the documents setting out the conditions of Jewish life in Muslim Spain, or the proscriptions of the Fourth Lateran Council, it was curious to see the continuities. The desire to mark Jews out, to brand their mutual recognition from the outside. The underlying belief that Jews have a “hidden” nature that must be unveiled, either by Inquisition or by an official naming system.
Week 4 was the hardest, because it covered the recent past. We can sigh for the sufferings of the twelfth century but we weep for those of the twentieth. The session revolved around 1896 and Herzl’s writing of The Jewish State. Not as a political statement but as a moment in which it became clear that the strategies of assimilation, accommodation and emigration which had been the hallmarks of the nineteenth century had failed. And because the grotesque, bestial racism directed at Dreyfus spoke of the debt antisemitism has to other forms of racism. They are all the result of European colonial anxiety: the awareness that the colonised resented and despised the coloniser, and the walls of colour-based prejudice which were erected as a result. Ironically, it was Disraeli who oversaw the suppression of the Indian Mutiny and presented Queen Victoria with Empire in India. But Disraeli was dogged by antisemitism. Jews could “pass” as “white” but in 1867 Anthony Trollope described his protagonist Anton Trendellsohn as “dark as a man can be, and yet show no sign of colour in his blood.” The stereotype of the converso, the Marranos, outwardly conforming but privately Jewish, upset the visually-derived prejudice of Empire. How, after all, could the antisemite distinguish Jew from non-Jew? The answers proposed in the nineteenth century were about blood: and the only way to extirpate blood is annihilation. The Holocaust saw all the different varieties of Jew-hatred, religious, racial, and otherwise, coalesce into murder.
It is a somber note to conclude on, and the tribulations of the state of Israel make for a very cautious coda. “What kind of people will we be?” asked Fela Scheps in her wartime diary. She died in the first weeks after liberation at Belsen, but her question challenges us still.
Feedback from the course - collected partly by online questionnaire was positive. This is a representative comment:
I loved the time lines. maps and pictures which brought the lectures to life and grounded them for me.I really enjoyed the lectures, being able to ask questions and discuss things as a whole group and in break out groups. I liked being taught and could not believe how much was being covered. Who knew you could cover so much history in four weeks. It helped ground me, let me rethink ideas. Your way of teaching let me think from more perspectives in a non threatening way to my established ideas. I am ready for more. Thank you for all your work in creating this course for us. Perhaps we could return to some areas and look at them in greater depth?
There are so many areas to explore. As one participant noted, the glories of Muslim Spain got only a brief mention, and the vibrant communities of Eastern Europe were discussed through the single glorious image by Roman Vishniac at the head of this post.
But history is ongoing, and we must call a halt somewhere and somehow. There is always: next year.