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New Turns in Jewish Historiography?

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 103, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 589-598 | 10.1353/jqr.2013.0039

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The content of Jewish history—the actors and the actions on which the historian focuses—remains a matter of dispute. While the social upheaval and intellectual ferment that transformed the writing of academic history in the 1960s and 1970s also broadened the Jewish historiographical stage, no consensus emerged about how the historian was to integrate those who had previously been excluded from it into the larger narrative. Were they now to become the center of attention, displacing heretofore hegemonic political, intellectual, and economic elites? Or were they to share the stage uneasily with those already there? Moreover, the question of whose behavior was more significant—that is, whose behavior the historian should privilege—depends on subjective assessments of what constitutes “significance.” This is a problem that continues to bedevil the writing of Jewish history, even if historians rarely acknowledge it.

Beyond this question lurks another equally perplexing question of prioritization. Even were there consensus about which kinds of Jews merit the historian’s attention, the question of which of their myriad behaviors and emotional states deserve exploration remains. Thinking and writing? Buying and selling? Courting and marrying? Soldiering? Politicking? Praying? Consuming? Pursuing leisure? This question, in turn, raises still another question. Were there distinctive ways in which Jews did these things? This issue is critical because it speaks to what constitutes the distinctiveness of Jewish history as a field in the modern period—those characteristics, traits, and qualities that make it impossible to fold the Jewish experience into the history of those in whose midst Jews lived.

These two collections of essays speak to these concerns, sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely. Their editors envision them above all as programmatic statements. In their view, the history of Jewish economic activity (understood broadly) and the history of Jewish consumption and leisure have not received the attention they merit, and introducing or, in the case of economic history, reintroducing them will generate new readings of Jewish history. They argue that investigating unexplored realms is not only fruitful in itself but also redirects the historian’s attention in productive ways to broad, unresolved historical themes. Thus, for example, in the introduction to their volume on the making of Jewish consumer culture, Gideon Reuveni and Nils Roemer write that studies of the role of consumption among East European immigrants to the United States treat consumption as “a crucial vehicle for the integration of Jewish newcomers” but also highlight its significance as “a means of preserving and fashioning a distinct Jewish sphere in America” (p. 2). In other words, consumption patterns can illuminate themes such as acculturation and integration that have long been staples of modern Jewish historical writing.

Because the economic history of the Jews is widely recognized as a legitimate focus of research, while the history of Jewish consumption has yet to win a place on the historiographical agenda, I will consider each of the volumes in turn.

Jewish economic history attracts few practitioners today. This was not always the case, but as Reuveni notes in his introduction to The Economy in Jewish History, those who ventured into the field were acutely aware of its marginality. A notable characteristic of the work that appeared before World War II was its entanglement with contemporary apologetics, especially following the publication of Werner Sombart’s Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben (1911) [The Jews and Modern Capitalism (1913)]. The desire to demonstrate that Jewish economic activity was productive, rather than parasitic, and that it emerged from Jewish historical experience (environment), rather than innate Jewish traits (race), drove much of this research. Even when not harnessed to apologetic ends, it often spoke to internal ideological ferment. For example, as Reuveni notes, the Zionist Polish historian Yitzhak (Ignacy) Schipper (1884–1943) portrayed Jewish merchants in the early Middle Ages not as passive objects of history, forced to occupy a stigmatized economic niche, but as active agents, mobilizing their only means of defense—money—against their enemies.

Reuveni traces the neglect of economic history in the decades since World War II to three causes. Some shun it, he writes, because it is too entangled with “the politics of being Jewish” (p. 8), without explaining, however, why Jewish historians willing to write...

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