- Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life by Laura Arnold Leibman
Laura Leibman’s book is a welcome account of the understudied colonial period in American Jewish history. Utilizing the tools of material cultural studies, Leibman argues that kabbalah and post-Sabbatean messianic anticipation were central to the embodied religious lives and cultural productions of Jews in what she terms the “Jewish Atlantic World” (5) of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This “world” was a product of the transatlantic trade that sent Jews to port cities like Amsterdam, Newport, Curacao, and Paramaribo. It was populated largely by conversos, who had converted to Catholicism under the Inquisition but returned to Judaism upon leaving the Iberian Peninsula. Examining the spaces, bodies, and artifacts of these interconnected Jews, Leibman argues, not only reveals their shared religious impulses, but shows them to be committed revitalizers of traditional Judaism.
Having survived the Inquisition by hiding their Jewish loyalties, Leibman argues, these conversos expressed through their objects and practices “a poetics of secrecy” (14) that was marked by kabbalistic understandings and multiple meanings. Residing in a new world that seemed to confirm the messianic portent occasioned by the failed messiah Shabbetai Zevi, they also lived in anticipation of a glorious redemption. Theirs was largely a “quotidian messianism” (13), however, marked by everyday practice rather than radical disrupture. Through mikvah use, kosher food consumption, and worship in synagogues built to resemble Solomon’s Temple, they yearned for and actively worked for the coming of the messiah.
Mikva’ot, synagogues, food, gravestones, Afro-Jews, itinerant preachers, masonic regalia: these all interacted with contemporary trends and tastes Leibman argues, usually incorporating them into Jewish religious practices in ways that comported with the larger culture while secretly fueling messianic hopes. Mikva’ot benefited from association with contemporary water cure trends, while allowing women to contribute to the redemption of the world. Sephardic cuisine adopted sugar, a newly available Caribbean product, while remaining deeply committed to kashrut and its sanctification of the mundane. Masonic pavement patterns were used by Jews, but redeployed as markers of boundaries rather than of centers.
Leibman’s close readings of these materials—many of which are helpfully shown in images throughout the book—are carefully done and often illuminating, and her comparisons to evangelical Christianity and engagements with European Jewish sources are important additions to our understanding of the multiple contexts of Judaism in early America. But while material culture has much to bring to the study of American Judaism past and present, it is not without its blind spots. Because it is hard to know what individual people were thinking or saying about the materials they used and produced, Leibman occasionally relies on what a decontextualized “Judaism” says to explain meaning and relies largely on normative texts like guidebooks to [End Page 91] buttress her material sources. She ultimately paints a harmonious picture in which she presumes most subjects to be “good” Jews. Even their questionable predilections for graven images and an inclusive afterlife are ultimately authorized by kabbalah. And yet, certainly there were also those who had a more complicated relationship to traditional Judaism, who were unmoved by the Temple-like synagogue architecture, or who occasionally ate nonkosher food. There are hints of this in Leibman’s telling, but her reading of these relatively opaque sources presents an everyday Judaism that strikes this reader as much too coherent and tidy.
This is why in many ways the most compelling chapters are “Black Jews” and “The Secret Lives of Men,” both of which start to gesture toward the messiness of lived religion. In the first, Leibman shows that despite available Jewish traditions for including them within households, slaves, and their off-spring with Jewish masters, were treated differently within Jewish communities depending on local customs. While Leibman argues that this is the only chapter in which local practices prevail over Jewish ones, her chapter on the Masons provides complicating evidence. Masonic lodges, she argues, provided a...