The Medieval Review 11.06.43

Caballero-Navas, Carmen and Esperanza Alfonso. Late Medieval Jewish Identities: Iberia and Beyond. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Pp. x, 306. $85. 978-0-230-60833-7. . .

Reviewed by:

Maya Soifer Irish
Rice University

This collection of essays by an international group of scholars is organized around the theme of "Jewish identities," but transcends its original goal, making a fine joint contribution to the historiography of Iberian Judaism and Jewish-Christian-Muslim relations in the late Middle Ages. As the volume's editors, Esperanza Alfonso and Carmen Caballero-Navas, indicate in the Introduction, both the book and the workshop with a nearly homonymous title held at the Universidad de Granada in November, 2007, were conceived as a forum for scholars with different fields of research, all of whom focused on various aspects of Jewish identity in late medieval Iberia (1). It is worth noting, however, that none of the articles in the resultant volume (perhaps with the exception of the Introduction) actually engages with the concept of identity as an analytical tool. Rather, the question of identity is a corollary of what seems to be the central focus of most articles in the volume: the strength and extent of Jewish acculturation in Iberia and beyond. The reader is hardly disappointed, for the content exceeds the expectations set by the title. This relatively slim volume manages to accommodate a broad range of disciplinary approaches, with the essays grouped into sections that roughly correspond to social, intellectual, literary, and art history, as well as converso and gender studies. While the focus is mainly on late medieval Christian Iberia, several of the essays also explore Jewish appropriation of Arabic literary and scientific models. All but two of the fifteen articles delve into Jewish Iberian evidence (broadly conceived), and one of the two exceptions incorporates a Spanish source. Unusually for such a diverse collection of essays, a central theme runs through the entire volume, reflecting a broad consensus that has emerged in the field of Jewish medieval studies. There is no romanticizing of coexistence, or wallowing in the doom scenarios of an inevitable decline. Instead, the authors seem to agree that Jewish acculturation (described by the contributors variously as cultural "crossbreeding," "commuting," and "crossing borders") proceeded apace even in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries--a period not generally known for normative examples of interfaith accommodation. The essays by Meyerson, Planas Marcé, Freudenthal, Gómez-Aranda, Ferre, Salvatierra Ossorio, Sáenz- Badillos, and Frojmovic provide particularly strong support for this conclusion. What is more, this penchant for straddling multiple cultural spheres was inherited by those who seemingly abandoned their Jewishness to join the Christian majority. The inherent instability and ambiguity of the converso identity figures prominently in the contributions by Melammed and Szpiech. However, all of the above essays also point out that cultural flexibility was not absolute, and that some identity markers remained non-negotiable, as both Jews and conversos strove to preserve the distinctiveness of their communities, sometimes, paradoxically, by quoting or mimicking the very culture they were determined to resist (Meyerson, Frojmovic). The authors root their analyses of Jewish cultural identities in the context of the evolving Christian attitudes towards the Jews: Holy Week violence (Meyerson), pressures to convert (Szpiech, Prats), the Inquisition and the expulsion of 1492 (Melammed), and anti-Jewish visual polemics (Lipton).

The volume's Section I opens with Mark Meyerson's article on Jewish intracommunal violence in the post-Reconquest kingdom of Valencia. While rejecting Yom Tov Assis' characterization of such violence as a sign of the weakening of the Spanish Jews' religious identity, and their "corruption" by the Christian society, Meyerson suggests that the Jews' adoption of the Christian practice of combatiment de alberch ("assaulting the house") stemmed from acculturation, but argues that it served to strengthen rather than undermine communal boundaries. In fact, it may have been a case of "inward acculturation" (Ivan Marcus), a polemical statement "to Christians and to themselves that they were not the powerless, cowardly, emasculated Jews of Christian imagination and propaganda" (17). The Section continues with an article by Eleazar Gutwirth on the historiography of the converso identity. Of interest to students of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Spanish historiography, the article takes the reader through the twists and turns of the scholarly discourses on the conversos, and would probably fit better in Section II, devoted entirely to Jewish converts to Christianity.

This section includes an article by Renée Levine Melammed on converso experiences in the aftermath of the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition and the Jews' 1492 expulsion from Spain, and Ryan Szpiech's study of the polemical strategies of Abner of Burgos, a fourteenth-century convert to Christianity. Melammed rejects the notion that there was a single converso experience or identity in late medieval and early modern Europe. Rather, she argues, the Iberian conversos in Holland, France, England, and Italy forged identities that were in part rooted in Iberian culture, and in part shaped by their ability and willingness to integrate with the cultures of their host societies. While some, like many conversos in Italy, were "cultural commuters," who made efforts to belong in both Jewish and Christian worlds, others, like the émigrés from Portugal, preserved a strong sense of ethnic identity ("the Nation"), and almost seamlessly merged with the Jewish community in Holland. Ryan Szpiech's article takes the reader back to the fourteenth century, when Abner of Burgos became the latest in the long line of medieval converts from Judaism aiming to provide "authentic testimony" on the truth of Christianity. Szpiech traces the changes in the concepts of auctoritas and authoritative proof in Christian polemical writing, arguing that by the thirteenth century "authentic" Jewish and Muslim texts eclipsed the significance of biblical testimonia in Christian argumentation. Abner took this strategy to the next logical level, citing exclusively Jewish sources, and actively employing both his pre-conversion and post-conversion identities to lend further authenticity to his polemical narrative. However, by presenting himself as "both convert and converter," Szpiech asserts, he called "into question the authenticity and the authority of each 'self'" (67), thus exposing the paradox inherent in the new Christian argumentation.

With three articles discussing the status of Jewish women in Germany and the Crown of Aragon, Section III stands somewhat apart from the rest of the volume. Even so, all three authors emphasize the significance of cross-cultural contacts in shaping the position of Jewish women living in late medieval Christian societies. Judith Baskin, in the volume's only study not directly concerned with Iberian evidence, argues that while rabbinic opinions relegated Ashkenazi women to the status of the inferior "other," the cultural and economic realities of their host society dictated a readjustment of attitudes and expectations. Especially in the economic sphere, as moneylenders and business entrepreneurs, Ashkenazi women were able to achieve a high status and even insist on performing religious rituals not mandated by the halakhah. Only in the later Middle Ages, as the Jews' situation in Ashkenaz worsened, were the religious privileges of high-status women curtailed. Asunción Blasco Martínez, in discussing the status of Jewish women in Aragon (albeit during a later period, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), paints a rather different picture. Confined mainly to the domestic sphere, a Jewish Aragonese woman carried out her tasks in the strictest privacy of the home, rarely crossing into public space, lest she be labeled "a public woman." But even in Aragon, wealth and high status enabled some women to transcend the limitations of their position. Sílvia Planas Marcé, in her article on Jewish and converso women in Girona, makes similar points in both stressing the subordinate position of women in Jewish families, and pointing out the avenues by which elite Jewish women could cross the boundaries imposed by gender and religion. The favorable outcome of Ester Caravita's divorce case had much to do with her family's connections to well-established Christian lineages and the royal court. Planas Marcé also examines the wills of well-to-do Jewish and converso women, concluding that the testators freely distributed their assets between Jewish and converso heirs, without much regard for their religious affiliation.

The articles in Section IV examine the Jews' conflicted relationship with "alien wisdom": Arabic and Latin sciences. Traditionally viewed with suspicion by rabbinic authorities, science and philosophy, with their Greek roots, gained enough adherents among the medieval Jews to deeply affect Jewish culture. Two of the studies note the relative ease with which the Jews embraced Arabic learning, and contrast it with the late reception of the Latin corpus, which did not begin in earnest until the fourteenth century. However, the studies give slightly divergent interpretations of this phenomenon. Gad Freudenthal, in a very thorough and data-filled analysis of Jewish attitudes towards Arabic and Latin learning in the Midi and Italy, argues that "a historically deep-rooted cultural attitude" was responsible for the Jews' initial rejection of the Latin sciences (126). Freudenthal roots his explanation in the supposition that the Latin tradition was seen by the Jews as "a true alien culture," because they associated it with the "cloud of menace" that surrounded Christian institutions, whereas the Arabic tradition was considered "a kindred culture" (123, 139). However, as Freudenthal shows, this alienness apparently did not dampen the Italian Jews' willingness to study Latin sources, in contrast to their counterparts in the Provence. Lola Ferre's article on the Jews' adoption of foreign medical literature arrives at similar conclusions, but eschews Freudenthal's dichotomous categories. To explain the Jews' delayed interest in the Latin tradition, Ferre echoes Freudenthal's point that Islamic science enjoyed greater prestige than the Christian one; in addition, as both a spoken and a written language, Arabic was far more serviceable as a vehicle of cultural transmission than Latin, which remained predominantly a written language. In any event, by the fourteenth century, Ferre argues, there was a growing interest among the Jewish scientists in the scholastic learning of Christian universities, especially in the area of medical arts, which were largely free of religious associations and philosophical controversies. Mariano Gómez-Aranda's study of the career of a Jewish astronomer, Abraham Zacut (1452-1515), rounds off the section by illustrating the way a "foreign science" was legitimized for a Jewish audience. According to Gómez-Aranda, Zacut's most influential work, Ha-hibbur ha-gadol, contained astronomical tables that were useful to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but was firmly entrenched in the Jewish tradition.

The three studies collected in Section V further elaborate on the theme of Jewish accommodation to Christian and Islamic cultural traditions, this time in the literary sphere. The authors concur on the enduring significance of Hebrew in shaping and preserving the Jews' literary culture and communal identity. But they also show that the linguistic frontier was as porous as the other cultural borderlands discussed in the volume, with Jewish authors freely borrowing from "alien" literary traditions and adopting their elements for a Jewish readership. Aurora Salvatierra Ossorio's study argues that a Hebrew work by a thirteenth-century Jewish translator, moralist, poet, and philosopher, Shem Tov ibn Falaquera, on grief and consolation was an "act of crossbreeding" "between different sociocultural systems" (188). Falaquera borrowed freely from Greek, Latin, Romance, Arabic, and Hebrew sources, collapsing the boundaries between them, and partaking of the shared literary heritage that combined materials of Hellenistic and Eastern origin. In a study of the early-fifteenth-century Aragonese Jews' linguistic identity, Ángel Sáenz-Badillos makes a similar point. The Jewish elites in Aragon chose Hebrew as a language of literary expression, but at the same time showed marked propensity for multilingualism. This period saw a surge of interest in Christian scholasticism, seen by some as a welcome alternative to the Maimonidean system. Sáenz-Badillos argues that Hebrew translations of scholastic works allowed the Jews of Aragon to strengthen their own identity, while crossing the borders between the Jewish and Christian cultures. The section concludes with an article by Arturo Prats, who also focuses on the Jews of Aragon in the fifteenth century. Seeking to challenge the popular assumption that the late Middle Ages were a period of inexorable decline for the Jewish minority in Spain, Prats brings attention to the literary activities of the so-called circle of poets of Saragossa. Despite the decimation wrought upon the Jewish community in Aragon by the Disputation of Tortosa (1413-14), and the subsequent conversions of several prominent poets from the Saragossa circle, capable Hebrew poetry continued to flow from the pen of Reuben Bonafed, who hoped that his poetic word would reverse assimilation and prevent further conversions of children from prominent Jewish families.

The book ends on a strong note with two articles on visual representations. Eva Frojmovic delivers an impressive analysis of Jewish visual Mudejarismo on the example of illuminated Bibles from thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Castile, Catalonia, and Roussillon/Mallorca. Pointing out the shortcomings of an approach that tries to explain Jewish visual culture in purely intellectual- theological terms, Frojmovic instead contextualizes Jewish Mudejarismo within a broader phenomenon of material aristocratic culture that "transcended the boundaries between Christians, Jews, and Muslims..." (235). As Frojmovic sees it, by adopting the Mudejar style for their Bibles, Jewish illuminators "invented a tradition" (Eric Hobsbawm's expression) that aimed to demonstrate the patrons' adherence to Jewish values, their piety, and high status in society, while also marking Jewish visual aesthetics as different from the Christian ones and thereby resisting the hegemony of the dominant culture (237, 247). The section and the book conclude with Sara Lipton's study of Christian anti-Jewish visual stereotypes. Even though it departs from the volume's central theme of Jewish acculturation, the article provides a useful reminder of the difficult environment in which late medieval Jewish culture continued to flourish. "Jewish Gothic caricature," born by the mid-thirteenth century in Northern Europe, also made its way into Iberia, appearing in the illuminated manuscript of the Cantigas de Santa María (Lipton looks specifically at Cantiga 108). Here, as in other caricatured Christian representations of the Jews, Lipton argues, the Jews' distorted, dark features were not only meant to demonstrate their "otherness," but also to convey a more general message about the need to transcend corruptible flesh in order to get to the deeper, spiritual truths. The symbolic conclusion Lipton's article provides to the volume is almost inescapable: there was a well-defined place for the Jews in medieval Christian culture, just as there was a strong need on the Jews' part to partake of their host societies' cultural and intellectual resources. And yet, Lipton reminds us that this symbiotic-conflictual relationship was not destined to last, as Western Christendom was about to become "largely devoid of living Jewish faces" (277).