This article notes that the study of the modern history of East European Jews is not a field driven at present by deep conceptual or ideological divides or abiding scholarly or methodological controversies. The past debates on this score between Israeli and diaspora Jewish scholarship have all but disappeared, as has even more dramatically the attempt at a Marxist version of juedische Wissenschaft. While the major works of the founders of the field from Simon Dubnov on ought to be studied and the impressive resurgence of interest in the history and culture of East European Jewry in the modern age is underway, the work is still largely undone. The crucial challenge to the field is not to succumb to the lachrymose and romanticized stereotypes of Jewish life in Eastern Europe while continuing to explore the history of this the largest Jewry in the world before the Holocaust.
This article describes conceptions of the early modern period in Jewish historiography, the Italian Renaissance, intellectual history, the Jews of Central Europe in the early modern period, the Sephardic diaspora in Western Europe, and messianism. Classical Jewish historiography depicted a sharp break between medieval and modern patterns, the movements of transformation seeming to emerge virtually out of nothing. Cecil Roth's The Jews in the Renaissance introduced Jewish historians to the riches of Jewish life in this multifaceted world. Jewish intellectual history in the early modern period is characterized by successful attempts to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. The expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 had a profound impact on the life of Western European Jews, even beyond that on Iberian Jewry itself. Meanwhile, the messianic movement of Sabbatai Zevi reverberated strongly through the Jewish historiography of the early modern period.
Mark R. Cohen
Islam arose in the seventh century in Arabia through the preaching of the prophet Muhammad (d. 632). Nineteenth-century Jewish historians of the ‘Wissenschaft des Judentums’ school painted the experience of medieval Jewry in the world of Islam in idyllic, almost mythic terms and in stark contrast to the sorrowful, oppressive, persecutory history of Jews living in medieval Christendom. This rosy comparison between the ‘Golden Age’ under Islam and the era of persecution under Christendom, sketched against the background of the political agenda of nineteenth-century Central European Jewish intellectuals, was carried forth into the twentieth century, reinforced by the brutal Nazi persecution of the Jews culminating in the Holocaust. On the other hand, the Arab-Jewish dispute over Palestine generated a fresh political issue which impacted on the historiography of medieval Jewry in the world of Islam.
Since their expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, the dissemination of the Jews in Europe, northern Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas has resulted not only in the production of a literature in modern Jewish languages and dialects such as Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino, Judaeo-Italian, and Judaeo-Arabic, but also in a Jewish literature delivered in virtually every major Western tongue. These literatures in non-Jewish languages obviously fit into their respective national canons: Jewish-Portuguese authors are part of Portuguese letters, Jewish-Polish authors part of Polish letters, and so on. Five centuries after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and more than 200 years after the Haskalah, an abundance of fiction and poetry by Jews in non-Jewish languages around the globe is produced regularly. And a solid body of literary criticism that attempts to examine its ambivalence at the national and international levels goes hand in hand with it.