- Reassessing Jewish Life in Medieval Europe
This is an ambitious work by a mature scholar. Chazan has been publishing medieval Jewish history for forty years. His works examining anti-Jewish attacks (the First Crusade, the Blois incident, the Barcelona Disputes, [End Page 445] among them) and Jewish responses to them sit at the intersection of intellectual and political history. In Refashioning Jewish Identity (New York, 2004), Chazan turned to larger questions, and he continues to do so in Reassessing Jewish Life. His goal is to challenge the still-dominant narrative of Jewish-Christian relations in medieval Europe as unrelentingly violent and tragic. As Chazan explains, a religiously based tripartite view of history as having an idyllic past, a deteriorating present, and an everlasting idyllic future provided the intellectual frame for both medieval Jewish and Christian writers. As they described the "deteriorating present" of the Jews in medieval Europe, they set the tone for later scholars who used these texts as sources. Chazan demonstrates that although the religious frame was transformed through the Enlightenment and the Romantic and nationalist periods, it remained essentially the same well into the twentieth century, persisting today among the general public and many scholars of the modern world in spite of a growing body of evidence to the contrary. As such, this work will be of interest to those readers pursuing questions of historical memory and group narratives.
Part I of Reassessing Jewish Life clearly articulates the development of narrative. Chazan is particularly thorough when detailing which biblical writings were emphasized in the medieval Jewish and Christian sources to explain Jewish exile. Chazan identifies five persistent themes in these descriptions of medieval events, Jews' constant and forced movement, their limited economic activities (particularly in finance), their lack of status, their persecution by Christians, and their retention of a distinct identity. Part II examines each of these themes in more detail and then provides historical examples to improve our understanding of Jewish medieval history according to a more complete reading of our evidence. The book ends with a meditation arguing that even negative medieval Jewish experiences can be read as having a positive legacy in modern Jewish history.
Chazan, however, missed opportunities to synthesize all of the interdisciplinary work that is essential to make the case to change the narrative. The shortest sections of the book are those meant to argue that Jews were members of the European community, but social and cultural scholars have been most productive on this subject. Chazan points to the growing body of scholarship about linguistic integration, integrated physical space in the urban centers, gendered life, and everyday activities that brought Jews and Christians together, but he does little to detail or integrate the arguments. Missing are such creative literary analyses as Susan Einbinder's No Place of Rest (Philadelphia, 2009), which uses a variety of obscure texts to see how even the most often-dislocated community, the French Jews, retained a sense of being French after their final exile. Chazan could have benefited from a work like Eva Frojmovic's Imagining the Self, Imagining the Other (Leiden, 2002), which finds Jewish-Christian interactions in art, or Marc Epstein's Dreams of Subversion [End Page 446] (Philadelphia, 1997), which demonstrates different understandings of shared images. This book is not the last word on the subject, but it is a good contribution by a fine scholar to the broad interdisciplinary discussion of memory and narrative.