Friday, January 2, 2009

AJS Conference Day Three Session One (Explorations in the Society and Culture of Italian Jewry and Death and Acculturation)

(I session hopped this one in order to listen to Steven Fine so I got parts of two different sessions.)

Explorations in the Society and Culture of Italian Jewry in the Early Modern Era
Stefanie Siegmund (Jewish Theological Seminary)
"Gendered Paradigms and Gendered Prospects: Italian Jewish Converts in the Early Modern Context"

Judith Bennett talks about the need to look at historical continuity when dealing with women. Women are continuously in a subjugated position. To apply this model to the situation of Jewish women and conversion, throughout the early modern period Jewish women were less likely than men to convert to Christianity. With the exception of forced conversions converts are overwhelmingly male. Judging from cases in early seventeenth century Rome, twice as many men converted as women. What we are looking for here is a model of non conversion. Both Christian and rabbinic sources are filled with cases in which wives did not convert along with their husbands.

Jews were more likely to convert when there were economic incentives. One would therefore expect women to convert when there was something for them to gain. Now in most cases women did not have the economic incentive that men had. On the contrary by not converting women were maintaining their status. The wife of a man who converted could still hope to get a divorce and her dowry. This would make her a free woman, outside of the control of her father or husband. Women are more likely to convert along with their husbands if they were younger and had small children. Such a women might value her personal freedom less and feel the need to keep her children.

(It may very well be true that in the situation of Rome women did get divorces. In the literature on the issue of apostate husbands leaving their wives that I am familiar with, mainly from fifteenth century Spain, husbands are not giving their wives halachic divorces, leaving them as agunot. This becomes a major incentive for women to convert. An example that comes to my mind is that Isaac Arama, who frames his discussion of who is a Jew within the contexts of apostate husbands. Saying that such people were no longer Jewish would solve a major problem; their wives would be free to remarry. The consequence of accepting these men as still being Jewish is that they are free to blackmail their wives and their wives are trapped.)

Death and Acculturation in Jewish Late Antiquity
Steven Fine (Yeshiva University)
"The Jewish Community of Byzantine Zoora: Inculturation and Jewish Identity in Late Antique Palestine"

The discovery of tombstones in Zoora gives us lots of written texts, but no context. Ten percent of the tombstones are Jewish the rest are Christian. That being said these Jewish tombstones are sources for Jewish life from the fourth to the sixth century, a period in Jewish history that we know little about. Jews here use their own calendar calculations. They were cut off from the main Jewish communities. We see lots of names starting with Yud or Chet. Inscriptions are in Greek and Aramiac. Engraved tombstones cost more and make you less sloppy. Christians have lots of crosses at the bottom. Jews have menorahs, arks, shofars, and lulavs. Both Jews and Christians have birds.

We cannot say what a symbol means. We can only talk about a range of meanings. Scholarship has been dominated by the Protestant question and has focused on Jews as a collection of sects; rabbis are seen as one among many Judaisms. We need to consider the broader common culture. The Jews in Zoora may not have been "rabbinic" Jews, but they were part of an easily recognizable Jewish culture.


Miss S. said...

...husbands are not giving their wives halachic divorces, leaving them as agunot. This becomes a major incentive for women to convert.

This "solves" the agunot problem for the woman converting only; in that Judaism doesn't really have a way to relinquish your "Jewishness". Any subsequent children would still be mamzerim. Surely these women would have been aware of that (either that or very devout converts) (?).

Izgad said...

If a woman converts along with her husband than the two would still be legally Jewish and legally married according to Jewish law so the kids would count as fully kosher Jews. You might enjoy Stephen J. Dubner's Turbulent Souls. His parents were both Jews who became Catholic. He "converted" back to Judaism.