Time and the Jewish Past


Gillian Polack


I’m torn. I have three books, each deserving of an essay all to itself. One contains a full manuscript facsimile, for instance, and the other two are quite simply important books. Yet I am bringing them together here, guiltily. Why? Mostly because together they give an extraordinary set of insights into European history, into our calendars and our senses of space and time, into how these things affect our everyday life. I’ll talk about them each alone first, however, since really, I’m very lucky to have them. I want to give them each their moment before I talk about the consequences of bringing the three together.

Elisheva Carlebach’s Palaces of Time is a spectacularly good book. It examines European calendars and how they have changed and grown over time and how the calculations for them work and what the distribution and printing was like. It focusses specifically on Jewish calendars in Early Modern Europe (sixteenth to eighteenth centuries) but, unlike most other works concerning European cultural history, the Jewish is integrated into its contexts. This means that the book gives us some key insights into how the Jewish and Christian calendars developed alongside each other and fed into each other at different stages in their history, how Jews and Christians have lived in the same societies for centuries and where their interaction and sharing of cultures and religion have led. These insights are almost perfectly balanced by the third book in my little collection, Edward Goldberg’s Jews and Magic in Medici Florence.

I particularly enjoyed the section where Carlebach looked at both the computus and the ibbur. The computus (which I know best through the work of Bede) and ibbur are both sets of calendar calculations that give a higher understanding of how calendars work. Carlebach has possibly the best description and analysis I’ve seen of how these two systems developed alongside each other and inter-relate and why they developed in certain ways at certain times. Calendars are not culturally neutral, and Carlebach’s discussion demonstrates this, very clearly.

This is not a book about hate, but a cultural history, and the culture is the culture of measuring time and living in time. Carlebach explains how Christian time is measured in Jewish calendars and why it is crucial for Jews to be able to measure Christian time at different times in European history. She brings politics and economics and legal restrictions into the argument and shows (through the use of the calendar) how different Jewish cultures have evolved to meet the changing demands and restrictions of the outside world. She discusses the shape of Jewish space as it relates to Jewish time: what places were safe for Jews in early modern Europe, and why.

Some of her material is a reworking of earlier matter. For instance, the effect of Christian holy days on Jews has been very closely studied. In cases like this, Carlebach integrates earlier studies into a better understanding of the fabric of society. This may not be not a study of hate, but Carlebach’s calendar insights help us understand why it was considered legitimate to throw stones at Jews on certain Christian holy days and how this impacted on the times and spaces open to Jews.

There are some elements that are less studied. Early Modern Judaism is culturally quite different to modern Judaism. Our sense of danger is different, for instance. Carlebach explores this through the calendar, looking at why certain days and even certain moments in time were considered unsafe in Judaism.

Her arguments are always backed up with strong evidence, although she does not explore in any great detail why Jewish culture has changed and, for instance, lost some of the sense of danger around the solstice.

The one element of Carlebach’s work that is under-argued is the relationship between Jewish popular culture and Jewish magic. Or even between Jewish learned culture and Jewish magic. There are some elements implied (for instance in the discussion of the Jewish treatment of the solstice), but they are not really drawn out. The focus is on the calendar, for its ritual use and for what it can tell us about time and space in European Jewish history. I will return to this shortly, for the third book on my pile of gems discusses precisely this aspect of Judaism in Early Modern Europe.

Time and text give our lives their patterns. My second book for today is The Washington Haggadah. The authors are long dead, as is the artist and scribe, Joel Ben Simeon. This is a facsimile of a late fifteenth century text used to celebrate Passover, by a master of the craft. It has beauty and whimsy and tells the story of both the artist and the Haggadah, in its own way.

The introductory essays are by modern scholars and they explain the Hagaddah and its history and Joel Ben Simeon and his life. I wish this had been released while Geraldine Brooks was still writing The People of the Book, for she would have better understood how late Medieval haggadot were crafted, I suspect, if she had access to this volume. Mind you, the Sarajevo Haggadah and this come from quite different backgrounds, so maybe I’m the one in error and maybe I don’t understand the Sarajevo Haggadah and its production. My personal issue with Brooks’ novel is that she created a Haggadah which has very few Jews involved at crucial parts of its life. The Sarajevo Haggadah was saved at least once by a non-Jewish person, but Brooks argues in her novel that crucial aspects of its creation were also by non-Jews. None of this is relevant. Joel Ben Simeon’s haggadot are all clearly for purely Jewish users.

The essays introducing the book are all competent, but not as illuminating as the facsimile itself. The essays contain a lot of key information and help explain the history of the Haggadah and the use of the Haggadah and, for those who haven’t encountered these things before, what a seder is and how it operates. In other words, this is a good book that contains something of beauty and meaning. The Jewish calendar and Carlebach’s discussion of it come to life for me when the Washington Haggadah is open on my desk.

The final volume brings all this together in a quite different way. It announces that it’s the life of Benedetto Blanis, a Jewish scholar and magician in Renaissance Florence. Blanis’ life is key to the book, and Jewish magic plays a significant part in it, but the star of Goldberg’s research is the Jewish ghetto in Florence in the seventeenth century. As I suggested earlier, this book balances Carlebach’s study of calendar quite beautifully. Goldberg presents the pressures and pleasures of daily life, as seen through the archival records of the Jewish community. He discusses the special times and spaces Jews needed in seventeenth century Florence and how the pressures of living next to Christians affect Jewish space and time.

In all three books there is an underlying tale of a minority group dealing with a majority group that is, at best, unsympathetic. At its best, the Jewish community in Florence handled its own affairs. At its worst, it was circumscribed and confined and subject to extra taxes. Life as a European Jew in the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries was a series of difficult negotiations, of some doors opening and more doors closing, or knowing when to cut losses and to leave everyone one knew behind and when careful politics could mean new opportunities. Joel Ben Simeon and Benedetto Blanis contrast in terms of their lives and their life choices, but both had exceptional (albeit quite different) abilities and had to make their way through the Christian world, while retaining their Judaism. Blanis made his esoteric Jewish knowledge into a career strength—a very risky career strength—when he developed a business relationship with a practitioner of Christian magic. Ben Simeon turned his artistic skills and his scribal dexterity and his calendar knowledge to a career as peripatetic but very successful scribe and illuminator. Both of them lived lives wholly within the confines of the calendars Carlebach describes so lovingly, both the Jewish and the Christian. The shapes of these calendars gave them the shape of their weeks and months and years.

Sometimes, it’s hard to choose one book above three. In this case, it’s impossible. The three work together and, between them, illuminate the lives of European Jewry in a way that none of them could do alone. This is despite the fact that Goldberg and Carlebach, in particular, have written fascinating works of lucid scholarship. My mind keeps wandering around what these authors have written and putting together odd ideas and key facts. The more I think about these books, the more I understand what they contain, the better I understand, not just the Jews of Europe, but the European Renaissance as a whole.

Books mentioned in this column:
Jews and Magic in Medici Florence. The Secret World of Bendetto Blanis by Edward Goldberg (University of Toronto Press, 2011)
Palaces of Time. Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe by Elisheva Carlebach (Belknap Press, 2011)
The Washington Haggadah. Joel ben Simeon. A Fifteenth-Century Manuscript from the Library of Congress. Introduction and translation by David Stern, introduction by Katrin Kogman-Appel (Library of Congress, 2011) 

Gillian Polack is based in Canberra, Australia. She is mainly a writer, editor and educator. Her most recent print publications are a novel (Life through Cellophane, Eneit Press, 2009), an anthology (Masques, CSfG Publishing, 2009, co-edited with Scott Hopkins), two short stories and a slew of articles. Her newest anthology is Baggage, published by Eneit Press (2010).One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world's best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers' residence in the Blue Mountains. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney. She researches food history and also the Middle Ages, pulls the writing of others to pieces, is fascinated by almost everything, cooks and etc. Currently she explains 'etc' as including Arthuriana, emotional cruelty to ants, and learning how not to be ill. She is the proud owner of some very pretty fans, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books. Contact Gillian.



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