Week 6.
Jewish Travelers Accounts: Community, Self, and Other

At first glance the thought of reading travelers accounts may, for some, have th appeal of turning on the National Geographic Channel, which is doubly burdensome here after it replaced NBC. But just as a passing glance or an excess of alcohol can compel us to linger in front of a travel channel, there is a captivating quality to the accounts written by Jewish travelers during the centuries. For many periods of history, especially in absence of other sources, we must rely on them, however when more than one exists they are usually contradictory.

Travel accounts, like so many historical and autobiographical accounts, beg the question of their reliability. Usually, historians have read these variegated accounts and tried to separate the factual aspects from the fictional, imaginary ones. This form of reading, often characterized as positivism, misses what is actually going on in these fascinating texts from a cultural point of view. The question, therefore, is not what is true and what is not, but why did the author mix them together so freely. The answer to this question will lead us to an understanding of the cultural considerations in the author's construct of his community, his self, and others.

In short, before presenting the Jewish People's Greatest Travel Accounts, Volume I, I would like to offer three guiding principles for reading them:

1) Each writer is not necessarily traveling in real time and space but in the biblical text. In other words, the travel account functions as sort of a midrash which connects the biblical text with the living reality of the world. In describing the author's alleged peregrinations through the world, we often see that the stopping off places were places mentioned in the Bible or the scenes of continued biblical adventures, including the appearance of the ten lost tribes and the River Sambation, which usually behaves differently on the Sabbath, offering natural legitimization of the laws of the Sabbath.

2) Travel accounts, as simple as they seem, like television travelogues today, where the commentators are usually either overly serious or overly perky, are actually strident polemics, usually directed against Christianity. The often unstated fundamental premise of these works is Genesis 49:10, "The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a lawmaker from between his legs until Shiloh comes." This may be the most important verse in all of history. S. Posnanski, a leading Jewish scholar at the turn of the century, compiled at least a whole book in German devoted to this verse. As I have said in previous lectures, and I think that Ahad Ha'am said it best in his essay on Moses, that the what the Bible really meant is irrelevant to what it meant during the centuries, in other words, the difference between the historical Bible and the cultural Bible. It does not matter, therefore, what Shiloh really meant in the Bible what is important is what it meant to people who read the Bible.

Christians, as well as many Jews, understood Shilo to be the messiah, the anointed king of the Jews who would reestablish the lost kingdom of David. The messiah here had nothing to do with being the son of God or a spiritual redeemer, only a political figure. In particular, Christians saw Jesus as Shilo (remember he was crucified as King of the Jews.). What this meant was that because Shilo had come, Jesus in about the year 30, and then Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed by the Romans in 70, meaning that the political authority, the scepter and lawmaker had departed from the Jews, that is Judah, the Christians had divine proof of the Shilo had come. Were, however, the scepter ever to return to Judah or a lawmaker to again regain his place among the Jews, then this could be evidence that Shilo had not come, in other words, that Jesus was not the messiah. Thus there was a strategic biblically based balance between the Jews and the Christians during the middle ages. It was to the Christians' advantage to make sure that the Jews lived a degraded existence, not necessarily out of contempt for them, but out of fear of their symbolic power over any Christian which would undermine the Christian understanding of this equation. On the other hand, it was to the Jews' theological advantage to demonstrate instances where the scepter was in the hands of Judah or the Jews had a lawmaker. Now it was obvious to all that this was not the case in Europe, but this did not prevent the travelers from going around the world, often to Africa and beyond, to find such instances, usually involving the ten lost tribes, and to report them, at least in Hebrew, to their kinsmen to renew their weary souls with reports detrimental to Christian wellbeing.

By the way, this was the basic reason for longstanding Christian opposition to the establishment of a Jewish state. In particular, the Vatican had a great deal of trouble seeing the scepter return to Judah and a lawmaker between his legs. Until very recently the Vatican made visiting Church dignitaries meet with Israeli officials outside of their official government offices. Such a symbolic demand was made explicitly of New York's Cardinal O'Conner a few years ago when he came on a visit to Israel. The Vatican was always coming up with excuses why it could not recognize Israel. One of the lamest was that its borders had not been fixed, a feature of many other countries long recognized by the Vatican.

3) There is an antiquarian quality to this literature like so much other Jewish literature. One of the features of Jewish literary creativity is the enthusiasm with which the editors or authors would add diverse and conflicting materials to their collections. Whether it was because they saw every scrap of description as holy or as culturally significant, the way many of us browse through bookstores or websites and build our collections, it was often not the message but the medium. Thus, as I have shown, the Bible contains varying versions of the same story. The Mishnah, the third century code of Jewish law constitutes a flourishing collection of opinions and their opposites, a feature which continues in talmudic discourse and Jewish legal compendia as well. Similarly, the Midrash is based on each fragment of the biblical verse being explained in a series of mutually conflicting ways, each often prefaced with, "another matter," davar aher. So that these collections were made not as part of a search for unified truth, but a search for texts, making Jewish literature more of an open web than a tightly controlled canon.

As usual, I will follow the basic text as given in Leviant's Masterpieces because of the convenience of the work, though it often omits material without having indicated such. For this reason I will give references to other versions of these works. Nevertheless, my remarks will provide a free standing narrative as well for those who don't have the texts.

1. Eldad the Danite (Leviant, pp. 148-153; Adler, Jewish Travelers, pp. 4-21; Jellinek, Beit Ha-Midrash, III: 6-11 and also V:17-21, II: 102-113)

The account of the travels of Eldad the Danite, dated about the year 880, in which he traces his ancestry back to the long lost tribe of Dan, weaves biblical narrative with a contemporary account . He asserts that when Israel follows the law of God, no nation can rule over it, thus advancing beyond the usual formula that assures prosperity as a reward for observance to a new dimension that offers political sovereignty. The author then brings the readers to a far away place, somewhere in the area of Persia, where the Jews live independently according to their own law, specifically Midrash, Mishnah, and Talmud, which included the power to implement the traditional modes of capital punishment--the pinnacle of independence, the skills to go off to war, demand tribute from other peoples, and take booty, and the ability to speak Hebrew. The story also takes the reader to Africa, past Ethiopia, long associated with a Jewish presence. Here, too, there are independent, religiously observant (the account denies their knowledge of the rabbis, but then goes on to explain rabbinic practices), Hebrew speaking Jews with armies. The Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4, "Hear of Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one," which would later in Jewish history became the last words of dying Jews, many of whom took their own lives, is here the battle cry of the Jewish army in Africa. The account draws on stereotypes of cannibalism, often invoked, according to recent anthropological studies, to create a sense of self against a less than human other. The Sambation River runs for six days but is quiet on the seventh, when a fire begins to rage, isolating some of the tribes forever. Eldan left a lasting mark in Jewish History for a collection of laws he brought back from his journeys, cited by later legal authorities and extant in manuscript fragments in the Cairo Geniza, although the provenance of this collection is still under dispute. The grave of Dan himself , whose name is already graces the Tel Aviv area and its local bus company, has been recently "discovered" outside of Jerusalem and serves as the basis of a new housing development, so that the discovery of ancient landmarks is not confined to medieval Jews.

2. Nathan Ha-Bavli (Leviant, 154-157; a better version is in N. Stillman, History of the Jews of Islam, 170-177; B. Halper, Post-Biblical Hebrew Literature has the Hebrew, 23ff and English, 64ff) (The Hebrew is in Neubauer's Medieval Jewish Chronicles, II, 83ff)

This tenth century account from Seder Olam Zuta could be noted for the fascinating positivistic data that could be extracted from it about the powerful Jewish banking families of Baghdad, the young men's choir in the synagogue, the order of the worship service, the hierarchical relations between the Jewish elite of Babylonia. What is of major interest to our theme is the fact that the new Exilarch, the leader of the Jewish community of Babylonia (and the entire Jewish world according to his own estimations), was crowned with linen and purple, the color of royalty. This fact, in addition to the blowing of shofars, the laying of hands, and claim of the Exilarchs to be descended from the house of David, shows the attempt of the narrative to show the independent political sovereignty of the Jews, a situation that was not very likely in the capital of the Babylonian empire.

Notice that during the installation the Jews of Baghdad held what might have been the first "dinnair" in Jewish history. At the meal they did what is now referred to as "calling the cards," which is the mirror image of the famous eight rungs of charitable contributions proposed by Maimonides in which giving anonymously is placed at the top. Here, at this meal a representative of each community stood up and announced how much they would contribute to the academies of Babylonia, no doubt prompting other communities to adjust their contributions accordingly. It is difficult to reconcile the great wealth displayed in the Exilarch's court in this reading and the need of the Jews to have toschnorr.

3. The Correspondence between Hasdai ibn Shaprut and the King of the Khazars (Leviant, 158-169, J. R. Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World, 227-232 cf. http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/jewish/jewishsbook.html

(Hebrew versions of the correspondence can be found in the back of various translations of Judah Halevi's Kurzari)

To the extent that there was a Golden Age for the Jews of Cordova, it can be attributed to Hasdai ibn Shaprut (910-970 or 905-975), the court physician to Abdurahman III (912-961), the powerful caliph of Umayyid Spain. Hasdai gradually also became involved in politics, foreign affairs, and finances, wielding a great deal of influence among Christians and Muslims. It was he who, as patron of Jewish culture in Cordova, in competition with the hegemonic desires of the Exilarchs of Babylonia, transferred Jewish culture and religious authority to Spain. It was under his sponsorship of the position of court Hebrew poet that Hebrew poetry flourished and blossomed in Spain, adopting many of the features of Arabic rhyme and meter.

In 960 Hasdai learned from a Persian diplomat about the Khazars, an independent kingdom near the Black Sea whose ruling house had converted to Judaism in about 740. He used much influence to transmit these letters across Europe. Since the discovery of these letters there have been many questions raised about the authenticity, but 150 years after the date of this correspondence, Judah Halevi, one of the major Jewish poets and philosophers of Islamic Spain, until he left for the land of Israel, knew about the conversion of the Khazars and used it as the setting for his philosophical which purported to be a dialogue among spokesmen for the world's religions before the king of the Khazars, an aspect of the conversion of the Khazars mentioned in the letters.. In his letter Hasdai makes clear his power for two reasons: he wants to show that as a Jew he possesses great power (scepter) and to highlight the significance of the offers he will make. As he says, making clear the spirit of this genre of literature: ". . . but only to know the truth, whether the Israelitish exiles, anywhere form an independent kingdom and are not subject to any foreign ruler. If, indeed I could learn that this was the case, then, despising all my glory, abandoning my high estate, leaving my family [so much for the Jewish family. . . Judah Halevi also left his wife and family to go to the land of Israel] . . . that I might see not only his glory and magnificence, and that of his servants and ministers, but also the tranquility of theIsraelites." Later in the letter Hasdai asks the king of the Khazars questions such as whether his subjects are Jewish, how he judges his people (lawmaker between his legs), against whom he goes to war, and whether he fights on the Sabbath, expressing therefore concern about power and observance. The concerns culminate with Hasdai's questions to the king about his knowledge of the coming of the messiah, an event he associates with the ascension of Jews to power. In this spirit he ends his letter, stating emphatically his polemical concerns about Jewish power: "We have been cast down from our glory, so that we have nothing to reply when they say daily unto us, 'Every other people has its kingdom, but of yours there is no memorial on earth.' Hearing therefore, the fame of my Lord the King, as well as the power of hi s dominions, and the multitude of his forces, we were amazed, we lifted up our head, our spirit revived, and our hands were strengthened, and the kingdom of my Lord furnished us with an argument in answer to this taunt. May this report be substantiated for that would add to our greatness. Blessed be the Lord of Israel who has not . . . suffered the tribes of Israel to be without an independent kingdom . . ."

Before closing his letter, Hasdai made specific references to the account of Eldad the Danite, whom he remembered as having used only Hebrew and for reporting Jewish laws, thus establishing a clear line between the report of Eldad the Danite and Hasdai's attempt to join the Khazars. In his response, the king of the Khazars (or his literary representative) repeats Hasdai's political concerns and notes the kingdom's biblical antecedents based on current genealogical records. He makes it clear that not all the subjects have converted, a premise that enhances the notion of Jews holding political power over others. The letter notes that both Christian and Muslim sovereigns sent him envoys with presents and he then described the disputation among the representatives of the various religions that ended up in the conversion of the royal household. He ends his letter offering Hasdai his hope that God will soon send a messiah to redeem the Jewish people.

4. The Chronicle of Ahimaatz (Leviant, 241-265; the full Hebrew and English texts were published with a long introduction by MarcusSaltzman)

This eleventh century Hebrew chronicle from Italy (1054) reflects both Christian, especially from the Eastern Roman Empire, Greek Byzantium, and Islamic influences, from Spain, North Africa, and the East, on both its substance and the content. As was the case during the time of Hasdai, also at this time Jewish culture was being transplanted out of Babylonia, here the destination was southern Italy.

As a cultural artifact, it is important to note that this account was written in rhymed Hebrew prose with various poetic components that reflected further developments of the piyyut genre. As a chronicle, it is significant that it contains a mixture of what previous historians writing about it have called historical facts concerning reality and fantastic legends or flights of the imagination. Rather than following the positivistic route of trying to separate references to historical events and personalities from tales of magic, "superstition," and fantasy (see either Saltzman's or Leviant's introductions), current trends try to explain why the two were mixed so freely together. What emerges is the sense, also expressed but not seized upon by earlier writers, that Ahimaaz was writing relying not upon documents but upon memory, that Ahimaaz was writing a chronicle of his family that covered a period of two hundred years, and that he was engaging in a process of midrash rather than historical documentation. In other words, in this document emerges a sense of self as expressed in the adventures of one family seen through the matrix of biblical events and contemporarypolemics.. Thus the author feels the need to trace his roots back to the destruction of Jerusalem, stress the amount of political and military power held by his ancestors, such as R. Shephatiah and R. Paltiel, the latter who served as vizier to al-Muizz the first Fatimid caliph of Egypt, in terms evocative of the biblical description of Joseph in Pharaoh's court. This power included the authority of Jews to control access of Christians before the Muslim rulers, to excommunicate and to administer capital punishment for Sabbath violations , and to rule over Jerusalem, the scepter had returned to Judah (Leviant, 260). Even the king (the Caliph) identified one of Ahimaaz's ancestors, R. Paltiel, as a king, despite Ahimaaz's protests, (Leviant, 261).

Although not in Ahimaaz's version, another medieval German Hebrew text, Sefer Hasidim, The Book of the Pious, compiled by Judah the Pious of Regensberg in the late the twelfth century, contains an account of Paltiel in which he and a group of men in the course of a morning cleared the rubble of the Temple which had remained since the time of Titus, rebuilt the Temple, and then continued to pray in it. Afterwards he crowned his son king in Alexandria. Here in the version of the story preserved in the Christian environment of medieval Germany, both the Temple and the scepter return to the Jews for a short while, almost magically in light of the massive proportions of the stones involved at the site as opposed to accounts in the Mishnah of the city having simply been ploughed (Taanit 4:6).

In a very insightful article about the chronicle of Ahimaaz in The Midrashic Imagination: Jewish Exegesis, Thought, and History, edited by Michael Fishbane, Robert Bonfil connects such Jewish mythologizations with reports in Arab chronicles about Jewish attempts to rebuild theTemple. This mythical-political-polemical aspect of chronicle is but one aspect of it. Another important aspect of it is precisely what historians have tried to minimize, trivialize or negate, that is the superstitious, magical, supernatural aspects of this work and others like it. Rather than dismissing these aspects, such as the changing of a boy into a mule, exorcism of demons, use of the divine name for travelling by horse or boat at supersonic speeds, fending off enemy ships, and reviving the dead, because they are so integrated into the fabric of the account and must have resonated with the readers, that, as historians of Jewish magic and mysticism have demonstrated, we must recognize them as a vital aspect of Jewish life. In other words, attempts separate out certain aspects of an integrated account reflect not the values of the author but our values. Their world, unlike so many elementary school libraries, cannot be easily divided into fact and fiction.

5. The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (Leviant, 336-357; Adler, 38-63; and in a 1983 edition by Michael Signer; the Hebrew and English were published in volume 16 of the Jewish Quarterly Review in 1904; Halper provides a brief excerpt in Halper)

This mid twelfth century travel account (c. 1159 or 1167-1173), covers much of the world from Spain to China, including the major sites for pilgrimages in the Holy Land then under control of the Crusaders. Some of the highlights include an early depiction of the Druze, a religion which had recently emerged, the rabbinic academies of Babylonia in their final days, and the Exilach. Historians have used this book for economic, demographic, intellectual, and political history, while at the same time noting that it does contain legendary materials as well. As a cultural document, therefore, Benjamin's account like the others we have examined tells an important story to its readers rather than simply constituting a collection of positivistic facts. As a writer he extends the reach of the biblical period to his own time and as a pilgrim he enters into its physical space through his travels. As a Jew, like other travelers and chroniclers before him, his travels were dedicated to showing that the scepter had indeed returned to Judah. Lest I be accused of overstating this theme, Benjamin himself referred explicitly to Genesis 49:10..

Thus Benjamin shows the Jews serving as officials to the pope. Not only, along with all the captured vessels from the Second Temple in Rome, are the pillars from the ancient First Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem still preserved in Rome, but every year on the Ninth of Av, the day the Temples were destroyed, the pillars exude moisture like tears. He also reifies post biblical Jewish events, such as the death of the Ten Martyrs, as preserved in the liturgy, by finding their graves in Rome (though they were killed in Palestine.) In the Holy Land, he participates in the collective memory of the place and the texts associated with it by visiting graves and other historical sites, often of minor events.

In addition to his classic work On Collective Memory, Maurice Halbwachs, who actually visited Palestine during the thirties before he was killed by the Nazi protesting the arrest of his Jewish in-laws, wrote a work on pilgrimages called, The Legendary Topography of the Gospels in the Holy Land. In this work Halbwachs explores the way in which pilgrims locate and change the scenes of events which often were not explicitly recorded in the sacred texts, adding sacred space to the sacred text as an object of veneration, even after the geography of the region as well as people's memory of it has been altered in a major way.

An example that illustrates such a phenomenon in the account of Benjamin is, after he identifies Mosque of Omar as being on the site of the ancient Temple, his identification of the western wall as one of the walls of the Holy of Holys, which is not true or physically feasible. He connects many other sites with Solomon and the Temple: his stables, a priestly pool, King Uzziah's grave, and the Pillar of Salt which had once been Lot's wife-even though the sheep lick it, it continually returns to its original shape.

Benjamin reports that the scepter and crown of King David were discovered in his burial cave. As in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, when two men tried to enter the burial chamber of Kings David and Solomon, fierce winds rendered it impossible for them to function. Subsequently, the location of the grave was hidden.

In discussing Hebron Benjamin demonstrates some of the polemical importance of his interest in biblical graves. He notes the Christian name of Hebron, the presence of a church, and the creation of six tombs there by the Christians since they occupied the territory, for which Christian tourists pay to visit. However, like the famous scene in the Israeli movie Salah where each group of tourists gets to see the same trees with their own name on them, when Jewish tourists come to Hebron and properly reward the custodian, he takes them inside through a series of three caves where the real tombs of the patriarchs and the matriarchs are located as well as the bones of many other deceased Jews. He also notes that out of respect for the biblical Abraham, whose house still stands, no one is allowed to build in the neighborhood, a custom no longer followed today.

As Benjamin continues his travels he marks his territory by presenting the graves of many illustrious post-biblical Jews. In Tiberias he points out the graves of R. Johanan ben Zakkai, who fled the Zealots in Jerusalem during the revolt against Rome, and the grave of the recently deceased poet and philosopher Judah Halevi. Halevi was reported to have left Spain for Jerusalem, though the documentary record in the Cairo Geniza as well as his own literary creations, including a recently discovered letter reported in last week's papers, only show his trail reaching as far as Egypt where he died. A legend emerged therefore that Judah Halevi reached Jerusalem, bent down to kiss the ground, recited, his "Zion will not you ask for your captives," ( Tzion halo tishali . . .), and was trampled by an Arab on horseback. This legend reported in some later Jewish chronicles and popularized in Heinrich Heine's nineteenth century German "Hebrew Melodies." In 1993 in the Hebrew Journal Paamim, an extensive discussion was carried on through many articles on the question of whether Judah Halevi made it to the land of Israel or not, perhaps walking across the Sinai to follow in the footsteps of Moses as he had envisioned doing in one of his poems. This was a debate not only about nationalist aspirations (all history is contemporary) but also about whether poetry constitutes documentary evidence of events in the life of the poet.

Benjamin devotes his most extensive discussions to Baghdad, long a center of Jewish life. In this account he devotes much attention to the power held by the Jews. The Exilarch wields an official seal and every Jew and Muslim must stand and salute him or receive a punishment of 100 lashes. The Exilarch sits opposite the throne of the Caliph in a throne ordered by Mohammed himself. For Benjamin such a relationship is in compliance with Genesis 49:10. Benjamin then describes in great detail the lands over which the Exilarch has control, including Persia to India. He appoints rabbis and ministers to rule over these areas, who in exchange bring him gifts. The Exilarch is both wealthy, knowledgeable, and powerful. Like Nathan Ha-bavli, Benjamin also offers a description of the installation of the Exilarch and his investiture of those responsible to him.

Benjamin's trip continues to reify biblical personalities and events in tombs and sacred spaces such as the Tower of Babel, Ezekiel's synagogue, sepulchre, and Torah scroll, Joseph's storehouses in Egypt, the ruined city of Ramses which the Hebrews built (they didn't build pyramids!) He too reports the location of the ten lost tribes in Persia where they are ruled by their own prince and field their own army. He also reported stereotypical findings of primitive savages in Africa. He devotes attention to the messianic figure David Alroi.

6. The Travels of Petachia of Ratisbon/Regensberg (Leviant, 358-366, Adler, 64-91; a Hebrew critical edition with introduction was published by Abraham David in Kovetz al Yad 13 (1996).

In what constitutes more than a coincidence, as part of the story of Ahimaaz's relative Paltiel was recorded in Judah the Pious' Sefer Hasidim, Judah was also the amanuensis of the travel account of Petachia of Regensberg, whose trip covers a ten year period in the late twelfth century (1170-1180) shortly after the trip of Benjamin of Tudela even though there is no evidence that he knew of the trips taken by the others. He too seeks out places of Jewish interest. In Baghdad, where Benjamin found 40,000 Jews, he found only 1,000, raising serious questions about these works as sources for positivistic information. Moreover, at Jerusalem he found only one Jew (not very helpful for propaganda today!), whereas Benjamin found 200, though according to some manuscripts he found only four (who could have constituted at least four political parties). More importantly, he dwells on a description of the power of the Exilarch, confirming the symbolic meaning that this position held for both European Jewish travelers. Like Benjamin, in his travels he found biblical artifacts not only preserved but evoking ongoing commentary on the biblical story. So that the houses of Nebuchadnezzar, was desolate, but that of Daniel, was like new, implicitly reifiying history's verdict on the two personalities. Other artifacts included a book in which Daniel had written as well as reports of the Temple vessels from Jerusalem; when, however, he reached Ararat he conceded that Noah's ark which once rested there had decayed, the pillar of salt that was once Lot's wife vanished, and the stones that Joshua installed were gone, a concession he was not willing to make about the continued appearance of manna, the continued presence of a synagogue built in Tiberias by Joshua as well as one built by Elisha in Damascus, and the continuous pleasant odor from the grave of Judah ha-Nasi, noticeable up to a mile away. He describes a special river that dries up on the Sabbath in Yavneh in Palestine rather than in Babylonia as did Eldan the Danite. Just as according to Benjamin Jews got preferential treatment at the grave of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Hebron, a story also found in Petachia, according to Petachia, Jews got similar treatment at the grave of Jonah the prophet .

A key feature of his discussion of the Exilarch is his power to flog And a very important aspect of his discussion of Jerusalem involves a description of a Temple the Muslims built where the Temple had stood. The Christians came and tried, even in the Holy of Holys, to install images but they were not able to. This story illustrates the fantasy for a rebuilt Temple and the power of the Jewish shrine over Christian objects of worship that are rendered worthless. Like his predecessors, Petachia inquired after news of the messiah.

7. The Letters of Obadia da Bertinoro (Leviant, 477-502; a Hebrew critical edition and introduction was published recently by Menahem Hartom and Abraham David under the title From Italy to Jerusalem)

Obadia's letters to his father on his way to the Holy Land raise many of the same issues and concerns. He too presents the Jews employing capital punishment and carrying out the death sentence, reference to the dudaim, the mandrakes, the aphrodisiac that Reueven gave to his mother Leah who gave them to Rachel in exchange for the opportunity to sleep with Jacob for the night (Genesis 30), passing reference to a sighting of Elijah the prophet, remnants in Egypt of the plague of the frogs from the time of Moses, the storehouses that Joseph built, the spot in the sea where it divided for the Hebrews to cross, the place Moses prayed, the ruins of the building Samson pulled down, a further repetition of the fact that there is a real burial cave in Hebron, the grave of Jesse. He too inquired about the Sambation River, learned about the various military campaigns of the lost tribes in Africa, and explored under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In his letter to his brother however, he mentions miracles on the Temple mount and at the graves of pious, such as lights on the site of the Temple which spontaneously go out on the Ninth of Av, but cautions against accepting them as true.

Ovadia explains life in Jerusalem by first explaining how well the Arabs treat the Jews and how kind they are and then comments about the Jews: "In my opinion, an intelligent man versed in political science might easily rise himself to be chief of the Jews as well as of the Arabs; for among all the inhabitants there is not a wise and sensible man who knows how to deal affably with his fellowmen; all are ignorant misanthrops intent only on gain . . ."

8. The Travel Diary of David Rueveni (Leviant, 503-520; the Hebrew text with an extensive introduction was published by A. Z. Aescoly; the Hebrew text was also published in Neubauer's collection.)

David Reuveni, as his name indicates, purportedly from the tribe of Reuven, made a dramatic appearance in Europe during the 1520s, suggesting that he was the messiah and that his brother was King of the lost Jewish tribes now located in Africa. Reuveni gained an audience with the pope, proposed a military alliance between his forces and the popes, and acquired letters of recommendation to meet the King of Portugal. There, after the forcible conversion of the Jews and the inauguration of the Inquisition, Reuveni was a major sensation, attracting people who wanted to revert to Judaism.

The sheer volume of his account and the repetition of all the themes mentioned so far makes for both fascinating reading and more than I can contain in the assigned amount of space. So for those interested, I highly recommend a reading of this work.

9. The Autobiography of Leon Modena (partially in Leviant, 543-550; fully translated by Mark Cohen, with several introductions; in a Hebrew edition published by Daniele Carpi)

Modena's work, often viewed as the first Jewish autobiography, though Abraham Yagel's Valley of Vision (edited in both Hebrew and English versions by David Ruderman) may hold that distinction. Nevertheless, both of these late sixteenth, early seventeenth century autobiographical works, although they provide much more personal detail and discussions of significant verifiable life events, raise many of the same issues as the travelers accounts. Both works mix fantasy with fiction. Both works, however, change the focus to autobiography because the structured focus of each work is on the development of the individual. In particular, like all other autobiographies these two works involve individuals who underwent a conversion experience, in both cases it was the death of a loved one, and devoted much of their works to confession of sin. The traveler accounts dealt with a collective national identity in terms of reifying biblical reality and polemicizing against Christian authority by demonstrating Jewish power, whereas these autobiographies presented personal issues of professional frustration, financial loss, and intellectual aspirations. Such a combination of factors produced works filled with omissions, embellishments, and understatements. Each writer created a true sense of self by mixing fiction with factfreely. Ultimately when reading these accounts we would like to be able to come away with some sense of reality. I think, despite my strong reservations that I have a method. In Hebrew it is called mesiah lefi tumo. This is a rabbinic concept usually involving cases where a woman's husband has disappeared and in order to remarry she needs confirmation of his death. Despite great enthusiasm to liberate a woman in such a situation, there is fear among rabbinic authorities that testimony brought in such circumstances may be tendentious. However, when individuals make incidental comments where the implications of their remarks are unknown to them, then there are no qualms about accepting the implications of their comments. For example, a man with a certain birthmark has disappeared. One day two dock workers hear two drunken sailors telling about a corpse that washed up with such a birthmark or, worse, they bragged about killing such a person. On the basis of such evidence the woman can now remarry. So too, I think, when these chronicles give information innocently that does not seem to fit any tendentious or polemical purpose, it is more likely to be usual historical data, true, as it were. Thus most reports of Jewish self government, lost tribes, and biblical relics can be dismissed, but a reference to Jewish dyers doesn't seem to be anything other than an incidental "fact."

This of course raises the larger question of whether we can determine the intention of the writers of any work. While I am not sure we can, I am sure that we should keep on trying. Most people who wrote, did so for a purpose.

I would like to conclude with one final observation based on the use of gender as a category of analysis. Most of the works discussed today do not have many references to women nor do they seem to have an agenda that touched upon such matters. It is therefore, I think, safe to consider the data these works provide on matters of women. The earlier works in fact do not mention women very often, they gradually appear more frequently towards the sixteenth and seventeenth centuies-the first autobiography written by a Jewish woman was the Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln which she began after the death of her first husband and in which she explained mostly family matters (While it is not in the anthologies we have been following two English translations have been made, the Bat-Abrahams is the better of the two and is out of print. Natalie Davis, a pioneer in social history, wrote, in addition to one of the opening essays in the Modena autobiography, an essay on Gluckel in her Women on the Margins.

In Bertinoro's letters he discusses a number of significant aspects of women's lives. He mentions, for example, that on Hoshana Rabba, the end of Sukkot, there is an all night vigil in the synagogue during which women come in family groups, kiss the scrolls of the law, and prostrate themselves before it. In complementary studies on Bertinoro and on the origin of all night vigils on Hoshanah Rabba and Shavuot, Elliot Horowitz notes that it was the introduction of coffee at this time in history that made such activity possible. Horowitz also notes that Bertinoro noted that on Simhat Torah they do things in Polermo that he would not describe. Horowitz also showed that a sentence in Bertinoro describing how in Polermo that women were lax in the observance of menstrual purity; that most brides were already pregnant, and the Jews were strict with laws of non-Jewish wine is omitted from most translations. (Elliott Horowitz in Journal of Religious History 17 1992 as well as in the Hebrew Paamim issue of 1988 devoted entirely to Bertinoro). Bertinoro also observed the high number of widows who came to live in Jerusalem, outnumbering the men seven to one. This may have been what Jewish widows did instead of joining a monastery. In Reuveni's travel account he notes the high education of Jewish women in Italy, including the fact that some of them earned the title Rabbanit for their accomplishments, a title that has meant more than just being the wife of a rabbi. He described their involvement in music and dance as well as their support of his messianic movement. Reuveni also described the fasting which occupied Jewish women at this time, including women living as Christians in Portugal. Other documents confirm fasting as a form of women's spirituality at this time, perhaps a form of anorexia.

Modena described the high intellectual accomplishments of several of his aunts in all branches of Jewish learning. These reports are confirmed by other writers during the period as well. One of these aunts, Fioreta or Batsheva, moved to the land of Israel when she became a widow, confirming the observation made by Bertinoro concerning the number of widows in Jerusalem.

In a paradoxical manner, because of their marginal role in society, factual information about women in these accounts may be more reliable than information about men. However, information about attitudes, values, and emotional needs why these texts were written and are still important.


 

 

Share                   PRINT    
30 Aug 2005 / 25 Av 5765 0