05.04.03, Brann and Sutcliffe, eds., Renewing the Past

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Robert Chazan

The Medieval Review baj9928.0504.003


Brann, Ross, and Adam Sutcliffe, eds.. Renewing the Past, Reconfiguring Jewish Culture: From al-Andalus to the Haskalah. Series: Jewish Culture and Contexts. Philadelphia: Univesity of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 237. ISBN: 0-8122-3742-0.

Reviewed by:
Robert Chazan
New York University

Over the past few decades, as the field of Jewish studies has expanded and matured, contexualization of Jewish life in its diverse settings has become a major emphasis. Scholars in the field are deeply committed to the notion that Jews of all epochs and places must be seen against the backdrop of the larger societies within which they found themselves.

The emphasis on contextualization flows from both sociological and intellectual factors. As Jewish studies have been absorbed into the North American academy, scholars in the field have regularly been placed in academic departments where they have served as both Jewish studies and more general resources. Students of Jewish life in antiquity have been seen as resources for ancient studies, students of medieval Jewish life as resources for medieval studies, and students of modern Jewish life as resources for modern studies. Thus, Jewish studies scholars must, for professional reasons, immerse themselves more fully than heretofore in broader aspects of the period and space with which they deal. At the same time, it has increasingly been realized among scholars in the field of Jewish studies that Jews of the past--like Jews of the present--did not live hermetically sealed off from their larger environment. Jews of antiquity were deeply influenced by Greco-Roman culture; Jews of the medieval period were much affected by the cultures of both Islam and Christianity; recent Jewish life has been impacted by all the currents of modernity. This reality necessitates considerable knowledge on the part of Jewish studies scholars of the larger ambience.

Like all good things in life, the new emphasis on contextualization has its liabilities as well. In this case, what is often lost is the sense of the diachronic in Jewish life. The Jewish communities deeply affected by Greco-Roman, Islamic and Christian, and modern cultures have also lived and created within a specifically Jewish cultural context; they have been heirs to a rich Jewish legacy, which they attempted to preserve, often through a process of mediation between their Jewish heritage and the new cultural forces of their environment. Mastering both the Jewish legacy and the external forces is a tall order, and many scholars have diminished their immersion in the former in favor of the latter. Thus, settings in which the diachronic facets of the Jewish past can be investigated and presented are to be prized.

One such setting is the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies of the University of Pennsylvania. During the academic year 1998-99, faced with two interesting proposals for scholarly group activity, the leadership of the Center opted to bring both groups to Philadelphia. One group was centered on medieval Andalusian and Italian poetry and culture and the second on the complexities of the Enlightenment period. The results were, according to the Director of the Center, David B., Ruderman, quite unexpected. In effect, according to Ruderman, the two disparate groups merged: "Common themes emerged to unite the two groups ... Whether in medieval Andalus, Baroque Italy, or Enlightenment Germany, our participants noted, Jewish writers found themselves in constant dialogue with their forbears. Common to all three periods was the endeavor to interpret the present in the light of the past and to preserve a uniquely Jewish voice by anchoring contemporary literary and philosophical models in an age long gone" (vii). The valuable results of these special circumstances are presented in the present volume.

The volume is divided into three parts: "Philosophy, Poetry, and Cultural Exchange in Premodern Al-Andalus and Italy," "Renewing Texts, Changing Horizons: The Jewish Enlightenment's Appropriation of Andalusi Ideals," and "Refashionings of the Jewish Past in the Era of the Enlightenment." The first and third parts of the collection illustrate the diverse ways in which medieval and eighteenth-century Jews attempted to refashion their heritage in the light of exciting contemporary developments. The middle section shows how the earlier effort at refashioning was absorbed into the later effort, which adds a fascinating element to the study.

The introductory essay, written by the two editors of the collection, lays out the issues and themes clearly, succinctly, and compellingly. While functioning admirably as an introduction to the collection, it is well worth reading on its own. The diverse studies are of uniformly high quality. Perusal of the list of contributors indicates that six of the eleven authors are in the early stages of their careers, surely a hopeful sign for the ongoing vitality of Jewish studies in North America.

The choice of venues to be studied--Andalus, Italy, and Enlightenment Germany and France--reflects, first of all, the interests of the scholars who first submitted proposals to the Center for Advanced Judaic Study for the academic year 1998-99. However, it hardly seems accidental that these sites would come to the fore. These periods and areas are among the most prominent for scholars who study the process of integration of the Jewish legacy with rich and dynamic outside cultures. To an extent, these were areas in which the external culture was especially stimulating and challenging; at the same time, these were areas in which the realities of Jewish social relations with the non-Jewish world allowed for maximal familiarity with the stimulating and challenging external culture. It is important that this valuable collection not be seen as addressing the anomalous, that the Jews of medieval Andalus, Baroque Italy, or Enlightenment Germany not be seen as unique in their integration of the Jewish past with exciting new cultural patterns in the surrounding society. Rather, the studies in this collection should stimulate scholars working in other periods and cultures to search out the (perhaps less obvious) ways in which the same processes were in evidence in other places and at other times, the ways in which the Jews they study were involved in a similar synthesizing effort.

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Robert Chazan

New York University