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17.12.06, Fraenkel, et al., eds., Hebräische liturgische Poesien zu den Judenverfolgungen während des Ersten Kreuzzugs

17.12.06, Fraenkel, et al., eds., Hebräische liturgische Poesien zu den Judenverfolgungen während des Ersten Kreuzzugs

In February 2014, I attended a conference at the University of Munich on Religious Violence. After my talk that focused on Hebrew liturgical poetry written in Germany during the First Crusade, an elderly German professor from a small university approached me with astonishment. "I have studied the Crusades for many years but I have never heard about these Hebrew poems," he told me and asked whether a German translation was available. "Unfortunately not," I replied. "All we have are the Hebrew texts, and even they were not published in a proper critical edition." When we parted I promised to notify him if and when I ever came across a German translation. Little did I know that a group of scholars were working at the same time on a critical edition of the texts accompanied by a German translation and commentary.

The volume was published in 2016 as the third volume in the series Hebräische Texte aus dem mittelalterlichen Deutschland, a sub-series of the monumental Monumenta Germaniae Historica in cooperation with the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities. In a speech delivered at a celebratory event in Munich, Benjamin Z. Kedar, the prominent historian of the Crusades and the co-founder of the series, singled out its importance: "With the establishment of the series and the publication of the new volume we launch today, the MGH plays a groundbreaking role in Europe. Neither the editors of Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, nor those of the Rolls Series, nor those of Recueil des Historiens des Gaules et de la France ever considered to include in their comprehensive series Hebrew texts that were written in Italy, England or France in the Middle Ages. However, the Hebrew sources are central not only for the history of the Jews, not only for the history of the relations between Jews and Christians, but also to the general histories of the lands in which they were written." [1] Indeed, the present publication fills a big gap in the historiography of medieval Jewish culture and society.

The volume comprises twenty-seven Hebrew liturgical poems that were written in the aftermath of the mayhem of 1096 in the Rheinland. As is well known, on their way to Jerusalem the crusaders harassed Jewish communities in the region, causing great damage and many fatalities. For the crusaders, these were perhaps passing events but they left a long-lasting imprint on Jewish culture. As the late Alan Mintz rightly observed, these literary representations became a blueprint for later authors whenever they represented persecutions against Jewish communities in Europe, all the way up to the modern period. [2] Furthermore, the poems that are included in this volume differ considerably from earlier Hebrew liturgical poetry from Byzantine Palestine, the birthplace of this poetic tradition. Whereas the late antique poems only barely refer to Christians or Christianity and even when they do it is almost exclusively by way of typology, the medieval examples in this volume are embedded in a specific historical context and relate to Christianity in a forceful, harsh manner. This difference relates to the stark contrast between the political and cultural conditions of Jewish communities in Byzantine Palestine and in medieval western Europe.

The major part of this hefty volume (more than five hundred pages long) features a critical edition of the Hebrew texts (including variants in manuscripts and early printings) and German translation and extensive commentary on the opposite page. The comprehensive German introduction discusses textual, liturgical, literary and historical questions pertaining to the poems and there are also several useful indices and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources. The poems themselves are presented in a chronological order and they are grouped, whenever possible, according to their authors. Each poem is prefaced by a short introduction that touches upon its poetic and generic characteristics, its textual transmission and its major themes. These short introductions are very helpful for the readers, especially for those who come from outside the field of Jewish studies.

It goes almost without saying that such a volume requires a collaborative effort and indeed the burden was shared by three Israeli scholars: Abraham Gross, a professor of Medieval Jewish history at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Avraham Fraenkel, an independent scholar who specializes in medieval Hebrew liturgical poetry, and Peter Sh. Lehnardt, a scholar of Byzantine Hebrew liturgical poetry with a strong background in German language and culture. It is also worthwhile noting that the present volume complements the prose narratives of the same unfortunate events that were published by Eva Haverkamp. [3] Taken together, these two volumes offer an indispensable source for medievalists interested in Jewish history, Christian-Jewish interaction as well as history of the First (and Second) Crusade. That said, as the editors rightly note, too often scholars favored the prose version, deeming the poetic versions to be secondary. [4] Indeed, the tendency to favor prose over poetry characterizes many studies of pre-modern Jewish cultures and only in recent years a more balanced and nuanced approach emerged.

In sum, the volume is of the highest textual standard, the German translation is clear and precise and at the same time reflects subtly the many idiosyncrasies of the original. The introduction is very useful for the non-specialist and specialist alike and the richness of the poetry promises not to leave the reader indifferent. One can only hope that an English translation of these poems will follow in the not-so-distant-future, making them accessible to those who do not read Hebrew or German.

I have lost contact with the German professor who inquired about a German translation of the poems, and I do hope this review will find its way to him. When it does, I am sure that he will be pleased to hear about the publication of the volume. Surely he will not be the only one.

-------- Notes:

1. Quoted from the magazine of the Israeli Academy of Science and Humanities, 38 (2016): 76 [Hebrew].

2. Alan Mintz, Hurban: Responses to Catastrophe in Hebrew Literature (Syracuse 1996), 93-98.

3. Hebräische Berichte über die Judenverfolgungen während des Ersten Kreuzzugs (Hannover: Hahn, 2005). This publication was the inaugural volume of the series Hebräische Texte aus dem mittelalterlichen Deutschland.

4. Notable exceptions are Susan Einbinder's Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France (Princeton, 2002) and Israel Jacob Yuval's Two Nations in Your Womb: Perceptions of Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Berkeley, 2006).