Dean Bell: ‘In a certain sense we got out of the ghetto’

Dean Bell is an authority on early modern Jewry in Germany and Europe more widely, with a special interest in the question of community. Here he talks about approaches to the complex relationship between Jews and Christians in the era of expulsion, migration and confessionalisation. (14-6-2011)

David Rosenthal: In your Sacred Communities book of a decade ago now, you were talking about looking at both Jewish and Christian communities together, and in your view until then there had tended to be two kinds of historiography. [Sacred Communities: Jewish and Christian Identities in Fifteenth-Century Germany, Brill, 2001]. One was to look at the Christian majority’s perceptions of Jews, the other was to look at Jews in and of themselves. What you were trying to do was to see this relationship as a dynamic process. Is that a fair way of describing your project, and to some extent the direction of studies since then?

Dean Bell: There really has been a revolution and a renaissance in urban Jewish history in the early modern period in particular. The number of sources that are being engaged, both Jewish and non-Jewish is really remarkable. When you look at Jewish-Christian relations we always used to talk, at least up to the Fifties and Sixties, about the lachrymose idea of Jewish history. It was about on one hand learning and scholarship, and on the other persecution. Many people sort of got rid of that notion a couple of generations ago already, and yet it still seeps into the vast majority of general writing about Jewish history. I would argue a similar kind of thing was at play when we looked at Jewish communities. We had a sense of a very specific kind of structure within Jewish communities, that all Jewish communities were modelled the same way, operated the same way, utilized the same structures and processes and documents – and that they were in a certain sense shut off from the environment around them. Maybe every once in a while something managed to get through that affected the way Jews thought about their communities, but by and large it was a response to restrictive policies and legislation, and a response to internal Jewish concepts of peoplehood and community. I would say that this lachrymose idea when applied to community has really also been shed, but it took a little longer than with the Jewish-Christian relationship issue. And I think that’s because community studies until recently were fairly traditional. It’s not until anthropology and history begin to intersect and we begin thinking about communities and social dynamics and relationships that are permeable, that operate at many different levels for different purposes, that you can think about communities in new and more interesting kinds of ways. As historians have begun to do that they’ve found there really wasn’t a single model for a Jewish community in the early modern period. There were many different kinds of communities. Sometimes they weren’t “communities” at all. Sometimes they were settlements, or conglomerations of smaller regional settlements; sometimes they were very large urban communities with multiple sub-communities. The nature of Jewish identity in each of these contexts could be quite different, in terms of interaction with the non-Jewish world but also in terms of interaction with other Jews inside and outside of that community or area. It’s in the last 20 years or so that we have begun to understand Jewish community in the broader bigger sense that general early modernists were heading towards already, and in a certain sense we got out of the ghetto.
      Of course, on the other hand, there is a challenge here, in that we tend to overcompensate – we begin to assume that things were so permeable, that, for example, the number of councillors in the Jewish community was exactly the same as the number of councillors in the Christian community and so Jews and Christians must have been interacting at a very high level. There’s a danger to suggest there was a superabundance of interaction that helped to effect and create communities. Some studies go so far as to suggest that in a certain sense there really are no boundaries Jewish and non-Jewish communities. I think that’s a step in the right direction in some cases, but in other ways it creates a history that’s equally problematic. The balance is somewhere in between obviously.
      For example, a big deal has been made recently about the professionalisation of the rabbinate in the middle ages and early modern period. In some ways that mirrors developments in the Christian community, yet in others it’s still fairly sui generis to the Jewish community in terms of the position of the rabbi. In some cases it’s clear that the rabbinic authorities are receiving contracts, for which the associated salaries  are being paid out of the city poor box or communal coffers or by individual community members. At other times we do have a sense, depending on the stature or the social context of the particular rabbi, that the position of the rabbi was more traditional in terms of rabbinic authority being wed to the individual’s personality. So, I’m not sure professionalisation of the rabbinate necessarily means the same thing that we’re thinking about in the broader culture, in terms of the clergy being professionalised.
      Another thing I’ve thought about recently is that you see some similarities – whether you use the confessionalisation paradigm or not – in how Jewish communities are developing in the 16th and into the 17th century, in terms of creating bureaucratic structures, documents and processes that are more formalised, such as memory books, communal ledgers, protocol books. In many ways this mirrors what is going on in the broader community, yet in some ways it is building on Jewish traditions, taking certain kinds of Jewish texts, or legal (halachic) discussions, and adapting them to contemporary conditions. And yet Jews are not necessarily taking over lock, stock and barrel everything that’s going on in communities around them. On the other hand, there have been some instances – as in the work of Rolf Kiessling and his students, who have done a very interesting job of examining this – in southern Germany, for example, and especially rural communities, where Jewish and Christian communal structures become symbiotic. So there are examples where there’s a great deal of integration, not just acculturation. But in the majority of early modern cases we’re talking about much smaller percentages of Jews in these large communities. I still sense there is a separateness, that there remains something specifically Jewish there. My caution is that we sometimes go too far in the revision of the history and suggest that everyone was getting along just peachy, that normalcy was the thing that ruled the day most of the time, and that persecutions and restrictive legislation were prescriptive, that is, that it was not always followed and it didn’t have long-term implications in many cases.

DR: In that context, I was curious about something Kenneth Stow said recently on the topic of the ghetto in Italy. He says in the 16th century the co-existence of stigma and acceptance, as he puts it, gave way to an era of separation and disciplining. [K. Stow, ‘Stigma, Acceptance and the end of Liminality: Jews and Christians in Early Modern Italy’, in S. Milner, ed., At the Margins: Minority Groups in Early Modern Italy, Univ. Minnesota Press, 2005] At the same time, Stefanie Siegmund, on the founding of the Florentine ghetto in 1571, takes the position that the ghetto in fact creates community. [S. Siegmund, The Medici state and the ghetto of Florence: the construction of an early modern Jewish community, Stanford Univ. Press, 2006]. For her the ghetto seems to embody precisely that balance between stigma and acceptance, that the state makes a permanent space for a group previously tolerated on a more ad hoc basis. Which is it?

DB: The good Jewish answer is it’s both. But it depends on the context. Stow is right in many cases, but Stephanie’s answer resonates in other areas. I recently did some work on Hamburg, and the Jewish community here is accepted fairly late – it’s really the early 17th century that we’re beginning to see Jews officially recognised as Jews, Hebrews of the Portuguese nation if you will. All of a sudden there are all these requirements for policing within the Jewish community, protocol books about how people are supposed to behave, documents the Jews have to produce and show to the city council. And it’s not unlike similar kinds of protocol books for the Mennonite community, or similar faith-based or merchant communities. So there is the element that the Jewish community becomes confessionalised again as part of this larger state or territorial or civic supervision of the peoples living there. In other cases, though, it’s much more fluid, particularly where you’re dealing with small settlements – I wouldn’t even call them communities – that together comprised a larger community. Looking at parts of south Germany, you may have a group of 20 to 25 settlements within a 50 mile radius that see themselves as a community. In the literature we call it a medina, a region, as opposed to a kehilla, a local community. As you get further into Eastern Europe you start to see these large communities begin to blossom in the 17th century; the notion of community is a little bit different – it has more of a self-directedness and self-sustainability than you see in many of these smaller settlements.
      The implications of ghettoisation are different in many places. Some ghettoes are a whole lot more permeable – and Venice is the great example – and there are others where you get a sense that the ghetto walls weren’t so permeable, in terms of social and cultural interaction or politics. So I think it does vary quite a bit. Probably in more cases rather than less, you have people who are living in a particular area in a city but are not necessarily ghettoised. In Hebrew we have a get, a bill of divorce, and I think it was Benjamin Ravid who said that early on the Jews might have been shocked that a ghetto was established, especially in Venice, but in rationalising it later on they might have come back and said, maybe it’s better we have a get, a bill of divorce, from society around us and tried to take it in a more positive tone. I’m not sure everyone would have seen it like that. But, again, separation wasn’t necessarily a bad thing and I think the extent of separation could vary dramatically.
      One of the ways I’ve been trying to approach this more recently is in responses to natural disaster. Because there you see individuals in both their faith community, but also part of a broader civic or territorial community, responding to larger kinds of issues – floods, earthquakes, pestilence, or whatever it happens to be. Even into the 18th century you see an interesting development. Sometimes the Jewish and Christian accounts are fairly universalistic, in terms of the general devastation that’s being wrought, the way people band together, and so forth. At other times they remain quite particularistic, even in terms of being anti-Jewish, or only focused on the Jewish community. And there you do see that tension, of being members of a community that is beyond the boundaries of the specific Jewish community, but also being rooted in their specific faith-based community. When they’re responding to a natural disaster you catch them off guard, not thinking about what these boundaries are or should be, but rather in their everyday life. This is one of the more recent kinds of historiography that begins to ask interesting questions about Jewish identity and notions of community in this period. We don’t have a lot of sources, but there are more than you think. I’ve come across flood chronicles, or local community ledgers, even liturgical poetry. There are windows into these mentalities or experiences on a more day-to-day basis that, as opposed to prescriptive or legalistic texts, begin to form a very different notion of community.
      What holds us back, more than the limitation of the sources, is the way we’ve read our traditional sources. To give one example: there are commentaries on customs books that are written in the 15th, 16th and into the 17th centuries. But we tend to look at them in terms of the intellectual and religious or legal origins of some of these customs in different communities. But if you start reading them a little bit differently, they can actually tell us about how people were practising and the tensions between different kinds of practices. It’s that kind of alternate, deeper reading of these kinds of texts that begins to add more evidence about how communities were conceived and how people were interacting, positively or negatively, with neighbours, Jewish and non-Jewish. These are complicated sources. Rabbinic responsa, to take another example, are often theoretical, neither based on actual events, nor providing much concrete historical detail. But sometimes they do, and then they let us into a discussion that might give us anecdotal evidence about what other people were doing and how the rabbi was responding to it. The revolution is in part that there are new sources, but also new ways of thinking about sources, and there’s a new openness to suggest that community is really about these social relationships, not just about how boundaries and borders were policed and patrolled.

DR: At the same time, from below the level of this experiential approach, you have these large structural shifts. In your recent general book you put expulsions and migrations front and centre – and that still seems to represent the baseline against which historians are looking at the drivers of change from the 15th through 17th centuries. [D. Bell, Jews in the Early Modern World, Rowman & Littlefield, 2008]. You have two stories kind of working together, as it were.

DB: And sometimes working against each other. When that book came out one of the reviews said, that for all the talk he does about cultural interaction, at the same time there’s a lot of anti-Judaism. Well, the two things can be true simultaneously, where structures are affecting everybody, or you have smaller episodes that might be played out on top of those, or adjacent to them.

DR: What are the other structural shifts that you see happening? Part of your own line has been that new forms of community emerge by the end of the 16th century. In this context, what are the major differences you see as you look around the European map?

DB: It strikes me that there are more similarities than you would expect across Europe. There are some common themes. Not only demographic shifts, many of which are forced but some of which are voluntary, and are often times related to political issues. There is significant cultural-intellectual change that is occurring. David Ruderman and others like to point to the revolution of printing. But even beyond printing itself there is a new exchange of ideas that begins to occur at the end of the 15th and into the early 16th century, and clearly Jewish communities are affected by that as well. You look for example at the number of customs books that start to appear – it’s this tension between universalising in say legal codes, and creating more a regional or communal identity and trying to save that through the recording of local customs in notes or books, which often times may never have been read. Such collections were written down and thrown into the communal repository and maybe they were published 200 years later. We don’t really know if they were guiding principles in day-to-day to life, or were simply written down as an ethnographic study, or, in fact, what the purpose might have been, but clearly there’s this tension between the universal and local or particularist. I argued in Sacred Communities and would continue to argue today that that parallels very nicely with what’s going on in early modern Germany in Christianity – a tension between the universal Catholic Church and a domestic sacrality that’s very Protestant. In plainer language I’d say that as this intellectual and social transformation is occurring, more things are available, there’s a circulation of ideas at unprecedented levels, and it raises not only opportunities but questions. This is true in the Jewish as well as in Christian communities.
      Another area is changes in religion itself. One of the things I like to do as a historian, particularly a historian of German history, is to look at new historiographical developments, and then come back and say, was it good for the Jews? What does it mean for Jewish community and Jewish history? Sometimes these are not terribly relevant kinds of developments, but sometimes they really are. Everybody has been abuzz with confessionalisation for the last ten years. Not much has been written about it from a Jewish perspective, at least until you get to the end of  the 18th century. And I can’t say I’ve done an exhaustive study of it, but if you begin to look at some of the main themes, in terms of the centralisation of state power, the ideas of moral policing, creating standard curricula in education, you certainly see a lot of the same developments going on in Germany – and I would argue the same in Italy and eastern Europe as well – for Jews as well as Christians. So the sort of broader confessional religious changes that you see throughout Europe are affecting Jewish communities as well, both directly and indirectly. Jews learn what’s going on by seeing communities around them; in a certain sense they absorb some of these notions by simply living in these cities and reading non-Jewish literature. There are plenty of examples of Jews not just reading biblical or rabbinic literature but reading contemporary chronicles and a whole host of scientific or medical treatises. Here’s where you get permeableness, this idea of interaction at an intellectual level; but it’s also at a religious and social level. The old argument has always been that everybody in the Jewish world was “orthodox” until the 19th century, then reformers came along and shattered it. The truth seems to be somewhat more complicated. We don’t really completely know what orthodoxy meant back in this period, in terms of praxis or belief. And we begin to get a sense these days as we see more documents that there was a pretty broad range of opinions and practices within Jewish communities. Jacob Katz, who was the father of Jewish social history back in the late 60s and 70s, argued there was a concept of halachic (legal) flexibility, in which the Jewish community was able to absorb a variety of practices and still have everyone contained within the community in a way that was not possible after the 19th or even the 18th century. The boundaries had to be much more flexible because they had to include every sort of Jew and Jewish practices. There was no place for Jews to go if they weren’t in the Jewish community, whereas in modernity you could leave the Jewish community if you wanted to – without having to convert to Christianity. So, throughout the early modern period there was the sense of “tolerated dissent”.
      There’s a nice book by Ivan Marcus from a few years ago on the history of Jewish practice and he goes through a whole bunch of these discussions about how many traditional rituals that we think about today, including Bar mitzvah, really evolved in a medieval early modern context, in exchange with ideas of broader society. [I. Marcus, The Jewish Life Cycle: Rites of Passage from Biblical to Modern Times. University of Washington Press, 2004] There’s a great example which I use in one of my books that I borrow from Elisheva Baumgarten at Bar Ilan University, She’s got a wonderful book on mothers and children in medieval Germany [E. Baumgarten, Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe, Princeton Univ. Press, 2004]. She gives the example of a remarkable custom in south Germany of giving a secular name to the child in the cradle. She tries to figure out where it comes from, because its not inherently a Jewish ritual. She finds out that it’s a local south German ritual called Hollekreisch. She suggests it’s borrowed lock, stock and barrel from the local Christian population and it’s to protect children from Frau Holle, who’s a demon-ness who likes to steal babies. But the more interesting thing is that as this part of south Germany becomes more heavily Protestant the whole ritual is abandoned as being Popish and the Jews are the only ones who continue it into the 19th century. So a ritual that’s not Jewish at all becomes defining, and the Jews try to take it over and suggest it’s related to Lilith and other kinds of biblical lore.

DR: Is that kind of process also happening within urban ghettos, which sometimes contain different Jewish communities with different customs living cheek by jowl?

DB: Yes, but interestingly in many ways the boundaries between let’s call them geographic or ethnic Jewish groups are sometimes stronger than between the Jewish and non-Jewish world. Particularly in Venice, or even in the larger cities of the Ottoman empire, you have very distinct communities that revolve around where individuals have come from, what customs they have; often times the members of these communities don’t want to interact with each other. In Germany the classic example is the difference between the Portuguese Jews on one hand and the German Jews on the other. In a few places, like Hamburg, they actually constitute separate communities – quite distinct, not just ethnically, but in terms of social standing and professional life. They see themselves as completely different communities, even if they recognise that they’re both Jewish.
      At times this diversity does lead to a kind of richer interaction – so one of the main legal codes in the 16th century, the Shulchan Aruch, is particularly Sephardic in orientation and there is a lot of opposition to it in Germany in the mid-16th century. But within 10-15 years that opposition is overcome and it sort of becomes the standard text. But it’s interesting in the early modern period to see tensions between German and Sephardic legal reasoning or between German and Polish customs. There are a lot of walls around customs, practice, and authority. Eventually there are opportunities for rich and robust interaction between different Jewish groups, but not always and not always very quickly. As we see Jewish communities as more complicated than we once thought them to be, there are social and economic differences as well as religious and ethnic ones that are also important. And that might be one of the things you see in this early modern period in terms of broad changes in Europe, namely social stratification. In terms of larger social changes, you see this being played out in exactly the same way as in Christian communities.

DR: Speaking of Portuguese Jews, there seems to be a lot of attention lately to the commercial aspects of Jewish communities. That strand seems to be quite prominent, so-called Port Jews for instance.

DB: It used to be Mediterranean, now it’s Atlantic history. I think these are important studies. What happens in Amsterdam, and to some extent Livorno now with Trivellato’s book, is that there are some interesting and numerous documents all of a sudden and they can be placed in a burgeoning context of more general history. [Francesca Trivellato, The Familiarity of Strangers: The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period, Yale Univ. Press, 2009]. So on the one hand I think there are some remarkable studies, such as the book Reluctant Cosmopolitans, that have unearthed some nice material, that’s not only about commercial issues, by the way. [D. Swetschinski, Reluctant Cosmopolitans: The Portuguese Jews of Seventeenth Century Amsterdam, Littman Library of Jewish Civilisation, 2000]. What’s much more difficult to get at – unless you’re using trial records or property deeds, which we don’t often have much record of – are small town or rural Jewish communities. Sometimes you can get at that through rabbinic responsa, and they’re not often direct. Part of the explanation for the foci in historiography is, I think, the nature of the sources available; there are also certain topics that are more popular for a variety of reasons. Some recent studies let us into a world of commerce and intrigue as being played out across the Atlantic Diaspora, addressing issues that are becoming more fruitful and intriguing because of globalisation. Globalisation, networks of communications, these are the kinds of buzzwords that perhaps have replaced confessionalisation and religion. Not surprisingly, now we’re looking at a different sense of community.

DR: The other question, related to that, is about the direction of the historiography on the conversos. I guess I’m thinking about the relationship between identity and community, something that in this context historians of Jewish culture are perhaps particularly attuned to.

DB: In a certain sense it’s a hot topic in Jewish history, not just because it’s inherently interesting, but also because it deals specifically with this identity question. Here we have individuals who are going back and forth between faith communities or between civic communities and often we have personal reflections from them. Having said that, I’m not sure that in the early modern period things are always quite so clear. If you go back to the notion of halachic flexibility that I mentioned before and tolerated dissent, there’s a fairly broad range of at least expressed Jewish ideas that you see in many different texts, and it’s hard to say this is an orthodox Jewish position and this is not. There’s a famous dictum, discussed in the middle ages as well, which is that an Israelite who sins is still an Israelite. So it doesn’t matter if you do something, say convert, or leave the community, you’re still Jewish from a Jewish legal standpoint. You have early in the 15th century, because of the Spanish pogroms and forced conversion in 1391, discussions among Spanish and North African rabbis about what happens if these people have the chance to revert back to Judaism and they don’t. Are they still Jews? You get both opinions: I don’t think it’s really resolved. I recently came across a rabbinic responsum from the mid-15th century from Austria. A fellow writes in to the rabbinic authorities and says, I took an oath that I wouldn’t gamble with anybody who’s Jewish. There’s this guy in town who converted from Judaism to Christianity and the question I have is whether I’m allowed to gamble with him. The response is that while it’s true we have this notion that an Israelite who sins is still an Israelite, clearly he’s no longer Jewish in terms of social action. What it points to is certainly in the 15th and early 16th century there’s still not a lot of clarity about that question. Identity is still more complicated, and I think that’s probably true well into the 20th century, in terms of Jewish law and community. As long as there are restrictions on how converts are going to function outside the Jewish community, they tend to still hover around the Jewish community. Some of the rabbinic responsa suggest that you basically work with these people. And it comes up in social, practical ways. For example, what happens if somebody converts from Judaism and won’t give a bill of divorce to their wife? They’re no longer Jewish per se so how do we coerce them to do that? Another would say, they are still Jewish so you need to get the bill of divorce. Others might say, that they’re not Jewish, so the rabbinic decree no longer applies, we don’t need the bill of divorce. That might be one of these big, underlying issues, the whole question of identity that is not only Jewish, but that’s percolating in the early modern period: it certainly plays itself out in the Jewish communities of central Europe.

DR: What areas in your view need more investigation? What kinds of new questions about Jewish community do you think historians need to be asking? Where do you think the field should be moving?

DB: The history of everyday life and the experiences of people and communities beyond periods of turmoil and outside of prescriptive legislation are fascinating areas and need more attention. Although there are severe limitations on what we can know, there are many sources that can inform our understanding, especially when the sources are read more deeply, or indirectly. As we have moved from the lachrymose notion of Jewish history, we have been struck by questions of how Jews engaged in power relations, how they lived within and beyond their communities on a daily basis, especially during more “normal” periods, and what social structures meant within the Jewish community – the role of women most significantly, but also the role and position of the poor, criminals, and other marginal groups. Social history has a great deal to teach us about the questions we could be asking and the types of sources we could be examining – both Jewish and non-Jewish sources – in order to create a more nuanced picture of the Jewish past. Finally, as in history more generally, early modern Jewish history has become more global and comparative. We have found both similarities and differences in Jewish communities in Europe, the Ottoman Empire and the New World. This also stimulates new and important questions that will shape the way we approach Jewish history in the future.


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