Massive history book charts how the Jewish Diaspora reached all corners of the globe
In the 1,200-page fifth installment of the Posen Library series, Prof. Yosef Kaplan gives a thorough and colorful look at Jews’ cultural and geographical expansion from 1500-1750
Jacob Judah Leon Templo’s interest in biblical structures defied the imagination. A prominent Sephardic Jew in the 17th-century Netherlands, Leon owned models of two celebrated constructions: Solomon’s Temple and the Tabernacle. He exhibited these reproductions across Holland and England, acquiring the surname “Templo.” Like others of his era, he took advantage of a new technological advance — the printing press — to publicize his passion.
This unconventional narrative is one of many that are shared in the latest release from the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization — volume five, “The Early Modern Era, 1500-1750.” Its editor, Yosef Kaplan, is an emeritus professor of Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“When I look at what I collected here, it’s really amazing,” Kaplan told The Times of Israel. “I tried to bring the 16th, 17th and the first half of the 18th century in the Jewish world to life.”
The early modern era was populated by some of Judaism’s most celebrated thinkers, from 17th-century philosopher and skeptic Baruch Spinoza to 18th-century rabbi Judah Loew, better known as the Maharal of Prague, who became posthumously linked with the myth of the golem.
Within the Ottoman Empire, a serendipitous meeting took place in 1529 between rabbis Joseph Karo and Solomon ha-Levi Alkabetz. Following their encounter, the duo conceived the idea of all-night study for the holiday of Shavuot. Their eventual destination, the city of Safed, became a hub of rabbis and mystics who helped popularize Kabbalah during the period.
The anthology also spotlights a figure who sparked controversy across Europe and the Mediterranean — self-proclaimed messiah Sabbetai Tzvi. Most of Tzvi’s followers abandoned him following his 1666 conversion to Islam, which is included in the volume.
The Posen Library is an ongoing series dedicated to Jewish culture and civilization from antiquity to the modern era, with its volumes sometimes released in non-chronological order depending upon their completion date. Reflecting the challenges of the era Kaplan tackled, it took him almost 15 years to complete his anthology.
Series editor Deborah Dash Moore, a professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, explained that “the early modern period is a period of Jewish migration to parts of the globe Jews had never lived in before — the Americas, of course, Jews came to both North and South America, and Jews got to India and further east. That is really new, the expansion of a really global Jewish Diaspora.”
A particularly portentous arrival took place in 1654. Twenty-three Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil, arrived in the Dutch colonial port of New Amsterdam, which passed to England a decade later and was renamed New York. It marked the start of a Jewish community in the future United States. The anthology excerpts a 1728 copy of the Minute Book from the synagogue established by this community — Congregation Shearith Israel, which remains in existence today.
Spanning 1,200 pages, including 100 pages of illustrations, the volume features a diverse array of sections that reflect Kaplan’s commitment to portraying the era’s Jewry in a manner that’s as inclusive as possible.
“My concept of culture is very comprehensive,” he said. “Everything that a society produced is part of its culture. Jewish culture is not only the books Jews have written or pieces of art they have produced. It’s also their community organizations, their family life. That’s also part of their culture.”
This approach earned praise from Posen Library editorial board member Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
“Kaplan is an acknowledged master of this era, and his volume gathers materials of multiple types and from multiple countries, including the then-nascent Jewish communities of the New World,” Sarna wrote in an email. “Many items have been translated into English expressly for this volume.”
There’s room for Spinoza’s correspondence, as well as theological classics such as Karo’s Shulchan Aruch, or codification of Jewish law, and Alkabetz’s Shabbat hymn “Lekhah dodi.” (Spinoza’s ideas clashed with Amsterdam’s Jewish communal leadership, which excommunicated him in 1656.)
There’s also room for sections on magic, amulets, dreams and travelogs, even a selection of nursery rhymes from Kurdistan and an eyebrow-raising account of a gang of Jewish bandits in Moravia who tricked a woman into a sham marriage. A section on poetry features the memorably titled Ladino poem “On the Glory of the Eggplant,” while arguably the greatest Yiddish-language writer of the era, Elye Bokher, is well represented, including an excerpt from his bawdy epic “Bobo d’Antona.” During this period, both Ladino and Yiddish became indispensable languages for Sephardim and Ashkenazim, respectively.
As Kaplan noted, the era was marked by the printing press, which gave Jews, along with wider society, the ability to print books for the first time.
“The printed book had a tremendous impact on Jewish life,” he said. “You can see here all kinds of printed books produced in this period. There are beautiful pictures [of them].”
Jews printed and published translations of the Hebrew Bible — including Yiddish and Ladino versions. The first Jewish newspaper, the Gazeta de Amsterdam, also debuted during this period. Reactions to the new technology were not always positive. The anthology includes Jewish community regulations from Amsterdam and Hamburg that banned provocative texts.
Within the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul-based Doña Reina Mendes established a publishing house, a first for a Jewish woman. The book highlights the increasing voices of Jewish women from the era. The oldest extant letters from a New World-based Jewish woman were penned by Abigail Levy Franks, an 18th-century New Yorker. She corresponded extensively with her son Naphtali; one letter is included in the anthology. In England, Catherine da Costa made a name for herself as the first Jewish female painter known to history; her miniatures, portraits and even a self-portrait are included in the section on visual and material culture.
Regarding the fine arts, readers can see depictions of court Jews who were trusted counselors to rulers of the era, and a portrait by Rembrandt posited to be of a well-known Amsterdam Jew named Dr. Ephraim Bueno. Rembrandt, it turned out, lived in a Jewish neighborhood of the Dutch capital. After the Protestant Netherlands broke away from the Catholic Spanish Empire, the new Dutch Republic became a haven for Jews fleeing the Inquisition. So did the Ottoman Empire. Italy initially presented a similar refuge before its cities began establishing Jewish ghettos.
In the section on synagogues, the images include some that still stand, including those from the Netherlands and its former colonies. A painting of the ornate interior of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue is shown on the cover. Within the volume, one can see historic houses of worship from the then-Dutch colonies of Curaçao and Suriname, each with a distinctive feature — sand-covered floors. The Kadavumbagam Synagogue of Cochin, India, had its own distinctive aspects — a teakwood-paneled interior and ark that incorporated Hindu elements of design. Tragically, most of the wooden synagogues built in Eastern Europe during this period met destruction centuries later during the Holocaust. A reconstruction of the gorgeous interior of one such synagogue, the Gwoździec Synagogue, is shown in the anthology.
Many items in the volume reflect the contemporaneous threats Jews faced — notably the Inquisition. There are testimonies from Jews who faced interrogation for secretly practicing their ancestral faith, and the last will and testament from Luis de Carvajal, executed in 1596 for openly practicing Judaism in the Spanish New World. In the mid-17th century, Jews in Eastern Europe were menaced by the pogroms of Bogdan Khmelnytskyi and his army of Cossacks and Ukrainians. A Jewish communal organization in Poland, the Council of the Four Lands, provided key assistance to its members during the attacks.
The section on last wills and testaments references a controversial subject — Jews who owned slaves. The section contains several wills of Jews in the British colony of Jamaica who bequeathed Black slaves to their descendants in the mid-18th century.
Kaplan said that some Jews of the era were involved in international trade and colonization efforts, and as such were slaveowners, just like many non-Jews from that period.
“The truth is they were like all the other slave owners,” he said. “This is a chapter of Jewish history we should not forget.”
Reflecting upon the early modern period as a whole, Kaplan made a conclusion that seems counterintuitive. It was an era of great dispersion for Jews, but also one of cohesiveness.
Although Jews were migrating to increasingly remote destinations, a sense of community often prevailed in their new homes, where they frequently observed the same traditions as their ancestors, albeit with diverse regional adaptations. What did Amsterdam Jewish community leader Moses Pereyra de Paiva remember about his visit to coreligionists in Cochin? A Shabbat morning serenade with drums, trumpets and maracas.
“Of course, the Jewish civilization is the culture of people dispersed throughout the world,” Kaplan said. “In the 16th and 17th centuries, Jews were living in the Americas, they were living in the Far East.”
Yet, he added, “There is a sort of unity in all this dispersion. There is a unity in the Diaspora. That’s what I tried to show.”
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