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  • The Unexpected in Early Modern Jewish Life
  • Francesca Bregoli

"There is a danger that the history of coffee lead us astray. The anecdotal, the picturesque, and the unreliable play an enormous part in it." In his celebrated essay on coffee, coffeehouses, and early modern Jewish nocturnal rituals, Elliott Horowitz quoted these words by Fernand Braudel as "a warning and an invitation."1 Elliott's pioneering work on what he dubbed "the social history of piety" indeed opened vistas on the unexpected in early modern Jewish life, though his prodigious erudition and rigorous scholarship always kept him away from the purely anecdotal.

The connection between the spread of coffee and the diffusion of kabbalistic vigils outside of Palestine,2 the evolving practices on the eve of a boy's circumcision in Italy and Ashkenazic lands,3 the meaning of a bearded or beardless chin in the eighteenth century,4 questions about unorthodox female bathing customs in the Mediterranean area,5 or ostensibly reckless Jewish behavior on Purim,6 were never reduced to merely picturesque reconstructions of unusual Jewish mores but served him rather as keys to unlock broader cultural shifts, including issues of [End Page 365] periodization and the profound differences between Mediterranean, Western, and Eastern Jewries. A master of the historical-anthropological examination popularized by Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginzburg, Elliott's most influential, diachronically and geographically capacious essays date from a period in which Jewish historians instead often delved into specific investigations of single locales. His classical commitment to the transregional and the comparative, inspired by masters such as Jacob Katz, both preceded and anticipated the current renewed historiographical turn to the Jewish "global."

He combined a prodigious appetite for the records left by observers internal and external to the Jewish world—rabbinic sources such as manuals and responsa, communal documents such as sumptuary laws and deliberations, the accounts of Jewish and gentile travelers, works by converts or Christian Hebraists—with a penchant for wide-ranging associations across Europe and the Ottoman lands. Horowitz's attention to paradoxes and contradictions—the "embarrassing flaws" of Jewish communal life—helped him trace the reorientation of practices over time in the realms of popular culture and popular religion, in order to show "how the Jewish religion was lived by its adherents."7 In turn, his reconstruction of mundane ceremonies and changing rituals illuminated large-scale shifts between medieval and early modern Jewish mentalities and the dazzling diversity of the early modern Jewish world.

His work's longue durée approach, moreover, aided in detecting specifically early modern cultural shifts, such as the emergence of new concerns about social control in the late seventeenth century, a "narrowing of options, cultural as well as religious,"8 which would eventually crystallize over the course of the eighteenth. Elliott's 1989 essay on the eve of the circumcision was in many ways emblematic of his methodology and concerns about the normative and the deviant, with its emphasis on Jewish leaders' attempts to sacralize traditionally profane behaviors in the wake of the Catholic Reform.9 Still, his focus was never limited to the late medieval and early modern world but was also informed and problematized by the ways in which later scholars approached their source material: "The history of cultural practices and the history of efforts to reconstruct and understand them (or alternatively, to suppress their [End Page 366] memory) cannot be sundered," he pithily put it in his earliest piece on one of the themes dearest to him, and to which he devoted an influential monograph10—the perpetration, perception, and misperception of Jewish violence.11

But another recurring thematic thread running throughout Elliott's work, ushered in by his early studies on pious confraternities, was a pointed interest in youth sociality and sociability, particularly in early modern Italy, and an accompanying focus on the world of young men and boys (and, though less so, young women) and its perception on the part of Jewish adults. Although Horowitz's name will always be associated with his expertise on violence and his innovative essays on pious rituals, he was also among the first scholars to turn to the complex world of early modern Jewish youth...


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