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All in the Family: A Review of Yaakov Deutsch, Judaism in Christian Eyes: Ethnographic Descriptions of Jews and Judaism in Early Modern Europe

February 5th, 2013

“All in the Family”: A review of Yaakov Deutsch, Judaism in Christian Eyes: Ethnographic Descriptions of Jews and Judaism in Early Modern Europe (tr. from the Hebrew by Avi Aronsky). Oxford: ­­Oxford University Press, 2012. 320 pp. $74.00

By Mordechai Levy-Eichel

mordechai.levy-eichel@yale.edu

Yaakov Deutsch’s detailed and systematic study of ethnographic works about Jews in early modern Europe—Judais­m in Christian Eyes: Ethnographic Descriptions of Jews and Judaism in Early Modern Europe—is a timely and helpful work for scholars. Anthropological studies, ethnographies, travel accounts, imagined reconstructions of humanity’s early history, and other similar sorts of works were an important and burgeoning genre of writing and study in early modern Europe. Deutsch’s book, which takes us from the early 16th century (beginning with the work of Johan Pfefferkon in 1508) through the late 18th century (terminating with Caspar Friedenheim’s Yehudi mibahutz, das ist der äußerliche Jud in 1785) is the only comprehensive survey of all ethnographic works about Jews, Judaism, and Jewish rituals published in Western Europe in this pivotal period and should serve as a reference for any future scholarship on the perception of Jews in the early modern world. Despite investigating and illuminating many significant historical points however, the limitations of Deutsch’s book make aspects of its theses questionable. My review will consist of two principal parts: first, I will summarize the volume, its structure and arguments; second, I will focus on some of its weaknesses, what Deutsch omits (most especially, an account of the reception of the works), and what aspects of this topic future scholars may want to pursue.

Deutsch’s book is a lucid and broad survey, and for this it deserves to be commended. The volume is composed of five chapters plus an introduction. Between his first chapter (“A Survey of the Ethnographic Accounts of the Jews”) and his last (“An Overview of the Ethnographic Wrings about the Jews”) are three chapters that each examine one topic in particular. The second chapter on focuses on Yom Kippur observances; the third on circumcision “and other birth rituals”; the fourth on perceptions of kashrut and other matters relating to food and drink.  The book’s primary source base consists of 78 works written by Christians (some of them converts from Judaism) within this nearly three hundred year period.[1]  In addition to a chronological listing of all the works, including their years and places of publication, the first chapter offers a series of ten tables which compare the content of each volume.  At a glance, one can see how much more often marriage was a subject of study than, say, mourning customs, or how over time, education became a subject of increasing interest to the authors of these ethnographies.

Two questions undergird Deutsch’s project: “First, against the backdrop of the genre in question [ethnography], what were the changes that the writing about the Jews underwent from the early 1500s to the late 1700s? Second, why did a literary genre that focuses on contemporaneous Jewish lifestyle emerge in the early modern period, of all periods?”[2] The author explains his decision to focus on ethnography because, in his opinion, “the ethnographic accounts reflect [a]…watershed in the history of Christian-Jewish accounts.”[3] Answering his first question, Deutsch “contend[s] that the early modern ethnographic writing on Jews is, to a large extent, a new phase in the age-old Jewish-Christian polemic.”[4] Although taking care to highlight the continuities between the literature about Jews in medieval and early modern times, Deutsch notes that the latter writings about Jews and Judaism were novel in how they described the rituals, habits, and customs of the contemporaneous Jewish communities. One of Judaism in Christian Eyes “basic premise[s] is that different approaches and methods were available to the authors, so that the expositive route they ultimately preferred is bound to be insightful,” with this turn to ethnography being evidence of a larger shift in Christian-Jewish relations. As opposed to medieval theological polemics and critique aimed at denouncing the errors of the Jews, these works aimed rather at describing the religious habits of the living and surrounding Jewish communities. The authors did not write simply to reproach the Jews but also to inform and educate Christian readers. To describe this new genre, the author coins the term “polemical ethnography” to emphasize a) the truthful nature, on the whole, of these accounts of Jewish life and customs, coupled with b) the political and polemical critiques behind much of the scholarship. “In general, the Jews and Judaism were rendered as diametric opposites of the authors’ conception of the Christian and Christianity”[5] with anti-Jewish ethnographies often being placeholders for critiques of Catholic or Protestant observances (although more the former than the latter). The polemical aspect also came out in the disagreements between the authors of these works who converted away from Judaism and emphasized their personal experience of Judaism (and its problems), versus Christians from birth who emphasized their knowledge and reading of Jewish sources.

The answer to Deutsch’s second question about why this kind of writing emerged in this period is less clear. As the author notes, many examples of the genre were written by converts (a point I will return to below), and at first often functioned as defenses for their shift in allegiance: writing in “this genre was a way to prove that they were true Christians.”[6] Yet a majority of the books under consideration were published in the 18th century (50 out of 78, or 64%), a time in which the works were increasingly being written by those without a Jewish background. Deutsch takes care to emphasize that most of the works were in German (60 out of the 78, or nearly 77%). An explanation Deutsch repeats throughout his book for this phenomenon is that “while the Jews were banished from other lands in Western Europe, there was a continuous Jewish presence in large parts of Germany. Put differently, one of the catalysts behind the genre in question was the presence of Jews.” This is not quite correct.  There was also a continuous Jewish presence in the Italian states in this period, overall at least, corresponding to the situation among the German states, but with comparatively few contributions to the genre.[7] Nevertheless only two volumes in Italian are on Deutsch’s main list of ethnographies (three if you include Leone Modena’s work, written very much from within the Jewish community). While Deutsch comes up with a few features that distinguish the situation in the various German principalities from the other emerging nation-states of Western Europe (lack of an overseas empire, the supposedly greater interest in Hebrew among Protestant intellectuals than Catholic ones, proximity of large Protestant and Catholic communities to each other), neither individually nor together do these criteria explain the emergence and flowering of this genre. A list of ingredients, without actually explaining how they should be prepared and cooked together, does not a dish make.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Deutsch’s story however is not why this genre emerged during this time, but who wrote these works, because the clear majority of authors were former Jews. Out of the 60 authors, all of whom identify as Christian, 40 of them (almost two two-thirds) were converts. Conversion from Judaism hardly cleared a path to social advancement as we learn from Elisheva Carlebach’s Divided Souls,[8] and so a fuller understanding of what purposes any of these works served would have necessitated putting them in greater context.  This leads us to the other main omission in Deutsch’s account, namely the isolation of these works from their context and impact.  Deutsch’s work is an example of a particular kind of intellectual history. Intellectual history, of course, covers a multitude of sins, and there are a wide variety of ways to practice it.[9]  In one of its most common forms, it focuses on what books and ideas can reveal about a particular time and place. The fruits of this approach come out in Deutsch’s contention that despite their anti-Jewish aims (which Carlebach puts more emphasis on), many of the descriptions of Jewish rituals in the ethnographies were accurate, thus staking a claim for the growth of a new and influential kind of scholarly examination of religious ritual in this period.

While admiring his care in individually and comparatively assessing this growing genre, one wishes Deutsch had placed the works in more of a German or European context. Admittedly this is a tall order.  The books Deutsch surveys span, chronologically and spatially, early modern Western Europe. He notes the multiple editions of many of the important titles (and how well they sold compared other early modern Hebraist works that have also recently received much attention). However, he doesn’t actually examine the personal, social, or political impact or reception of these works.  We are not given examples of whether the reading (or even the writing) of the books changed the outlooks of their readers (or authors), nor whether they featured in the debates about toleration or the other theological and political debates of the period.  For if they did, this is surely significant.  And if they did not, this is also significant, and speaks as well to questions about how customs and laws change under the impact of reportage and scholarly study (or do not).  By not examining the impact of these volumes on a personal individual or any larger political debate, the author undercuts his own case for the importance of his subject.  This is unfortunate since the transitions in the literature which Deutsch carefully tracks coincide with epic shifts in how religion was conceptualized and how minorities were treated, yet the legal, political, and social connections between any of these societal changes and the polemical ethnographies are not examined. Perhaps there were examples of marginalia by readers of these works which Deutsch could have shown us?  Or Deutsch could have looked more closely at the political relations of the authors of some of these works, like Lancelot Addison for instance, Anglican minister and author of The Present State of the Jews (1675).  Addison served in various positions while residing in Tangier and gathering the material that would make up his contribution to the emerging ethnographical genre. He also had extensive connections to the emerging British state and it is hard to believe his historical and ethnographic work on Jews (and Muslims) was not connected to his conservative ideology and political efforts.

Despite these criticisms, Deutsch’s comprehensive collection and broad survey will surely be of use to scholars of early modern Jewry and early modern religion for a long time to come. The tighter integration of Deutsch’s story with the larger currents of early modern German, and European, history would have only lent his perceptive observations more power. The questions his work raises about the shifts in the conceptualization and description of Judaism and religion in this period demonstrate once again the significance of early modern transformations to our own ideas and habits today.


[1] Deutsch also makes use of the only two works in this genre from this period written by Jews: Leon Modena’s Historia de gli riti Hebraici, Paris ,1637 [which was translated into English by the music theorist and roving scholar Edmund Chilmead and published in London in 1650 as The history of the rites, customes, and manner of life, of the present Jews throughout the world] and David Levy’s A Succint Account, of the Rites, and Ceremonies of the Jews, London, 1780; as well as 12 separate books of Jewish prayer, all translated “by and for Christians” (p. 74).

[2] Deutsch, p. 3.

[3] Ibid., p. 15.

[4] Ibid., p. 2.

[5] Ibid., p.246

[6] Ibid., p. 237.

[7] Ibid., p. 42. In the words of Elisheva Carlebach in her study Divided Souls: Converts from Judaism in Germany 1500-1750, “Of all the Jewish communities in western Europe, Italian Jewry paralleled German Jewry most closely in demographic structure and political predicament” (p. 7). Also, while German speaking Cologne, throughout the 1420s, and German speaking Regensburg, in 1519, expelled their Jews, both cities subsequently saw the publication of multiple ethnographic works about Jews. Although this may have more to do with the location of printing presses, it casts additional doubt on the casual connections Deutsch tries to draw between presence of Jews and writings of this sort about them.

[8] Carlebach, Divided Souls, chapter 6.

[9] For two of the more eloquent recent surveys on the topic, see Peter Gordon’s unpublished essay on his website “What is Intellectual History? A frankly partisan introduction to a frequently misunderstood field,” (Revised Spring 2012) http://history.fas.harvard.edu/people/faculty/documents/What%20_is_Intell_History%20PGordon%20Mar2012.pdf and Anthony Grafton’s “The History of Ideas:  Precept and Practice” in Journal of the History of Ideas (January, 2006).

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