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Current Issue Article Abstracts

Spring 2017, Vol. 107.2

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

Y. Zvi Stampfer

This article deals with the genre of Jewish judicial works, written from the eighth century to the end of the tenth century (known in Jewish history as the classical gaonic period). Those writings were monumental in breaking away from centuries of cultural, religious, and legal boundaries. It was trailblazing in two unique ways. First, in that it broke from oral to written culture, and second, because legal authority shifted from the institutions to individual scholars. I will try to identify the mechanisms for this phenomenon of breaking away from traditional and legal boundaries that previously forbidden the writing of any legal religious work. In this framework I wish to deal with two central historical themes: the interplay between tradition and change, and between the centre and the periphery. I will use, among other sources, remnants of legal works from the Cairo Geniza, and will try to draw a high-resolution picture of the process. By doing this, I will suggest a model for change that can be used to explain the phenomenon of change in traditional societies.

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

Benjamin Williams

The pages of familiar printed editions of Midrash Rabba, including the Venice 1878 folio edition, teem with the commentaries of medieval and early-modern interpreters. This paper examines these abundant sources of information about the reception history of midrash by considering interpretations of a perplexing exposition in Genesis Rabbah (5:9 and 20:8). According to this midrash, when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden tree, God commanded the ground to bring forth cursed animals of four species – gnats, fleas, flies, and a camel. While medieval Ashkenazi commentators struggled to explain the presence of a camel, an animal unfamiliar to them, in a list of small insects, Joseph ben Shalom Ashkenazi (writing ca. 1300) explained the kabbalistic significance of the creatures. The sixteenth-century commentator Samuel Yafeh emended the text with reference to recently printed editions. By examining commentaries on the midrash of the insects and the camel, therefore, this study seeks to illuminate the modes of exegesis employed by successive interpreters of Genesis Rabba and the expository resources at their disposal, and thereby to deepen scholarly understanding of the reception history of rabbinic Bible interpretation.

Early Modern Yiddish and the Jewish Volkskunde, 1880–1938

Aya Elyada

As an integral part of the cultural history of German Jewry, early modern Yiddish and the literary corpus it produced found their way into the debate over the “Jewish question” in German scholarly discourse of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth century. Focusing on the field of Jewish Volkskunde, or folkloristics, this paper explores the place of Yiddish in the works of two ideologically opposing camps: on the one hand, the racial perception of Jewry, which posited an essential sameness among Jews and distinguished them from the peoples around them, and on the other hand, the liberal, integrationist definition of Jewry, which emphasized German-Jewish symbiosis and the historical attachment of Jews to their non-Jewish environment. As demonstrated in the paper, the engagement of turn-of-the-century Jewish folklorists with early modern Yiddish did not derive merely from a scholarly ambition to encompass all aspects of Jewish culture, or from nostalgic longings to a bygone Jewish world. It was, to a large extent, an expression of cultural and intellectual resistance by a minority group, who attempted to promote an alternative to the hegemonic scholarly discourse of the time.

Chalom and ‘Abdu Get Married: Jewishness and Egyptianness in the Films of Togo Mizrahi

Deborah A. Starr

Togo Mizrahi, an Egyptian-born Jew of Italian nationality, established a movie studio and production company in Alexandria, and became one of the most prolific filmmakers in Egypt in the 1930s and 40s. Films produced in Mizrahi’s Alexandria studio between 1934 and 1939 represent a culture of coexistence among the lower classes, featuring Jewish, Greek, Nubian, and Levantine characters, alongside the majority Muslim population. I argue that these films attempt to shape to the popular imaginary of what it means to be Egyptian through their representations of a diverse urban landscape.

This article examines two films that Mizrahi wrote, directed, and produced featuring a friendship between a Chalom, a Jew, and cAbdu, a Muslim: al-Manduban [Two Delegates, 1934]; al-cIzz Bahdala [Mistreated by Affluence, 1937]. These films construct an ethics of coexistence, perhaps best articulated through the repeated celebration of the dual weddings between Chalom and Esther, cAbdu and Amina.

The analysis of Chalom’s performance of identity in this article explores how Mizrahi’s films contributed to debates about who was Egyptian. In contrast to the social status of the Egyptian Jewish Bourgeoisie, this article argues that Mizrahi’s films specifically seek to articulate the place of Jews in the Egyptian polity through characterization of Chalom as a salt-of-the-earth, Arabic-speaking, ibn al-balad.

During the 1930s and 40s, Egyptian identity was hotly contested, with notions of national identity that excluded minorities eventually eclipsing the pluralist nationalism Mizrahi espoused. This article concludes that, despite Mizrahi’s effort to portray a culture of coexistence among equals, the Chalom and cAbdu films contain with themselves the discourse of otherness that were employed to drive a wedge between Egyptianness and Jewishness.


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

Miriam Bodian, Ide François

A semi-autobiographical essay written in polished Latin in his own defense by Isaac de Castro Tartas, a Portuguese-Jewish prisoner and victim of the Portuguese Inquisition, is published and analyzed here, historically and linguistically, for the first time. It is accompanied by an English translation. The autograph copy of Castro’s extraordinary essay, found in his Lisbon inquisitorial dossier, reveals a young man whose vision 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. Probably composed in early 1645, it offers a life narrative some elements of which can be confirmed by other sources. In his firm defense of his right to profess Judaism, Castro deployed dialectical skills he learned from the Jesuits, while making a radical argument for freedom of conscience of a kind few Europeans of his day were articulating.

Review Essay

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

Adena Tanenbaum