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Reconstructing Ashkenaz: The Human Face of Franco-German Jewry, 1000-1250

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Reconstructing Ashkenaz: The Human Face of Franco-German Jewry, 1000-1250

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Reconstructing Ashkenaz
The Human Face of Franco-German Jewry, 1000-1250

By David Malkiel
Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture
Stanford University Press, Stanford: 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8047-5950-2.

Reviewed by Boris Segel - December 19, 2008

In this telling commentary on Franco-German Jewry during the High Middle Ages, David Malkiel examines old stereotypes, separating the fact from the myth. In the process, he paints a vivid portrait of what life was really like for Franco-German Jewry during this period, and he sets the historical record straight.

Reconstructing Ashkenaz: The Human Face of Franco-German Jewry, 1000-1250 is a stunning book that will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about Jewish life during this period. Malkiel rewrites age old 'historical facts' and shows that commonly held notions about Jewish martyrdom during the First Crusade, relations with Christians, and religious orthodoxy were, to a large degree, wrong. He also looks at how Jewish women often ignored or subverted Rabbinical authority within their own spheres of influence.

The text is organized into eight thematic chapters: Image, Adumbrations, Martyrdom, Survival, Apostates, Deviance, Christians, and Sepharad. The bulk of this study contends with the First Crusade and the devastating, long-lasting, impact that it had on Ashkenazic Jewry. To this end, Malkiel begins his study by examining how Ashkenazic Jewry has been depicted in the historic record and by modern historiographers. He also examines how this record has melded to create our image of this period. He then moves onto a detailed study First Crusade and its impact on medieval Ashkenazic Jews. He details the 1096 anti-Jewish hatred that grew out of the First Crusade, its causes and effects. The most important of which were the resultant massacres of Jews, which occurred throughout the Rhineland. Malkiel also examines the mass suicides that took place during this period, what gave rise to this phenomena, how these martyrs were viewed by others during this period, and since, as well as what drove some too oppose or show reluctance to commit suicide when those around them were seeking martyrdom.

In a related issue, Malkiel as examines what avenues where available to enable Jews to survive the massacres. And for those that did survive, Malkiel looks at how they reconstruct their lives and their communities. Also covered are how Jews interacted with apostates to Judaism and how the apostates viewed themselves. Unlike many historians, Malkiel contends that rather than being a rare occurrence, apostasy was much more prevalent than once thought.

Throughout this book, Malkiel examines Jewish-Christian relations during the High Middle Ages. He also resolves the issue about whether or not Jews were offered a choice between conversion or death during the First Crusade and in the years after. According the Malkiel's research, Jews were seldom offered a choice of conversion. Death was the only option meted out except in a few circumstances, and how this impacted Jewish-Christian relations is examined in detail.

Malkiel also examines the differences and similarities between the medieval Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews and how these two cultures were viewed during the medieval period and in modern writings. As Malkiel delineates, there were more similarities between the Spanish and Franco-German communities than were once thought. Both were cultures based on faith, both suffered at the hands of their Christian neighbors, and both plied many of the same trades and followed comparable levels of orthodoxy in their religious practices.

Throughout, Malkiel references leading Jewish scholars of the period, including Rashi, Solomon of Troyes, and Ra'avan, Judah ben Qalonymos and period works, both Jewish and Christian, such as Hebraic commentaries on the First Crusade, Sefer Nizzahon Yashan, Sefer Hasidim, the Annales S. Albani Moguntini, Annales Augustani, and the Annales Hildesheimenses. Modern historical sources are also referenced throughout. In addition, he examines previous research on this period, discussing how his methodology and research had led him to postulate many different conclusions than those of previous historians.

Academically rigorous, and well-documented, Reconstructing Ashkenaz: The Human Face of Franco-German Jewry, 1000-1250 is revisionist history at its purest. In this book Malkiel is attempting to correct historical errors while also presenting a detailed and enlightening overview of this pivotal period in Jewish history. He is not trying to 'rewrite' history just for the sake of it, or to push forward a political agenda or create a 'politically correct' document. Rather, he has tried to present an unbiased, accurate assessment of the period. To this end he has succeeded admirably. Reconstructing Ashkenaz: The Human Face of Franco-German Jewry, 1000-1250 will change the way that you think about this period, and it will lead, I would hope, to a renewed interest and increased scholarship in this turbulent and pivotal period in Jewish history.

Ideal for use as a supplemental text in upper-level undergraduate and graduate level university classes, and as a research tool for historians, this book is destined to be a classic in its field. Malkiel's extensive endnotes (nearly eighty pages worth) will be a boon to researchers and students looking for guidance in exploring this topic in greater detail.

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