Material Culture in Latest Issue of AJS Review

I was excited to see two fabulous new essays on material culture in the latest issue of the AJS Review (Volume 36 / Issue 02 / November 2012).


Gravestone of Mata Wimpfen (1711) in Betahaim, Hamburg Altona, Koenigstrasse. Photo by Kent Coupe 2011 (Jewish Atlantic World Database).

The first is an essay on seventeenth-century ritual baths in Altona, Germany. In “To Immerse their Wives”: Communal Identity and the “Kahalishe” Mikveh of Altona, Debra Kaplan (Yeshiva University) “examines the construction and reconstruction of these policies regulating women’s use of mikva’ot, offering insight into how designated communal institutions were developed in the early modern period as well as how these institutions were used both to finance the community and to forge communal identity.”  This rich and exciting article greatly expands our understanding of how mikva’ot were used during this era and would make a wonderful teaching companion to The Memoirs Of Gluckel Of Hameln, trans. Marvin Lowenthal, particularly the section in which Gluckel talks about family purity. I don’t have any images of mikva’ot from Hamburg Altona, but click here to see images of gravestones from members of the Hamburg Altona community.


Detail from the ceiling of the Chodorow synagogue. Courtesy of Beth Hatefutsoth and

The second is an essay by Bracha Yaniv of Bar Ilan University called “The Hidden Message of the Hares in the Talons of the Eagle.” Yaniv resolves a long-standing controversy regarding the depiction of “an eagle grasping in its talons two hares trying to escape outward” from the interior of the wooden synagogue of Chodorów, today in the L’viv (Polish, Lwów) region of western Ukraine. This fascinating article provides an excellent example using detailed textual analysis to answer questions about iconography.  The elaborately decorated synagogues of Eastern Europe contrast sharply with the “plain style” early synagogues of the Jewish Atlantic World, though as several scholars have noted previously, the share an interest in mimicking the Temple.

Although it does not invoke objects, I would be remiss if I did not note the fascinating article “Their Eyes Shall Behold Strange Things”: Abraham Ben Elijah of Vilna encounters the Spirit of Mr. Buffon by Iris Idelson-Shein (Tel Aviv University) in the same issue of the AJS Review.  This article complements work by Jonathan Israel and David Sorkin who have argued that we should think of a “family” or “plurality” of Enlightenments that range from the radical, antireligious Enlightenment of Spinoza, to a “genuinely religious” and providential Enlightenment. [1] Idelson-Shein’s discussion of Jews and their relationship to “savage” peoples is a useful addition to histories of the development of notions of race and ethnicity during this era.

[1] Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza: the Renegade Jew who Gave Us Modernity (New York: Schocken Books, 2006).  Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment (New York: Oxford U. P., 2001), 159, 445-562. David Sorkin.  The Religious Enlightenment (Princeton:  Princeton U. P., 2008), 1-5.

Screen Captures

One of my much beloved colleagues recently expressed surprise that I knew how to do a screen capture, so in the spirit of sharing tips, I thought I would make quick post on a couple of easy ways to capture images and video.

If you are using Firefox, the easiest way to capture images is through a free add-on called Abduction! – Webpage Screenshots Screen Capture 3.0.16. Click “Add to Firefox” and follow the instructions.

Here  is a YouTube video explaining how it works:

Sometimes the selected area function is a bit sticky, but in general the add-on works great.

For capturing video (“screencasts“) of what I am doing on the screen, I use Jing, another free software. (You can also use Jing for capturing images, though the Firefox plugin is faster.)  I use Jing for creating webinars.

I use webinars both on my database website for guiding visitors, and in the classroom for teaching technologies to students: I can demonstrate in class a million times how to add a named anchor to a wiki page on our class moodle and get very few results, but if I link in comments to a webinar I made on the topic, the students actually seem to be able to replicate the process.  (Realistically webinars are how I usually learn technology these days as well:  when I couldn’t figure out my kids’ new MEEP! from the paper instructions, I went to YouTube.  Three hours later–voilà!). Likewise when I wanted to explain to students the fastest way to find the gravestones they wanted in the Farber Gravestone Collection and how to integrate the images into their page, I used a webinar. That way if they forget what I said after class ends, they can go back and see it happen again and again.

If you need help with Jing, there are numerous tutorials.  I have found the sound quality from recording on my laptop isn’t so great, so I recently got a Blue Snowball and this has improved the sound quality dramatically.  In case it isn’t obvious, I use a Mac, but I know Jing works for regular PCs as well, as I believe my father used it for his NESCent Academy Workshop in Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics, (August, 2012) in Durham, NC.

THATCamp AJS 2012: Making Jews in the Digital Humanities

I recently proposed a session in which THATCampers could discuss the relationship between Jewish Studies and recent debates about race and ethnicity in digital humanities.  I am particularly interested in talking about how certain platforms (digital archives, gaming, blogs, online genealogy sites, social media?) present either opportunities or pitfalls for thinking about the social construction of Jewishness.


Rosh Hashanah greeting card from the early 20th century, Hebrew Publishing Company, between 1900 and 1920. Wikipedia Commons.

On the positive side, I am curious about how digital humanities offers opportunities to discuss the boundaries of our discipline and who gets included and excluded from the rubric of “Jewish Studies.”  I mainly work, for example, on the Sephardic Diaspora in the Americas, so I tend to think about how scholarship can either reify or reject mythical views of authenticity of a “pure” Jewishness that is thought to have existed before the Sephardic displacement into the Americas or in medieval Iberia prior to forced conversions.  How might software (such as Omeka) that encourages visitor participation, for example, allow people visiting online archives to contest the definitions of either “Jews” or “Jewishness” in meaningful ways?  Likewise, how can we use online gaming to help raise questions about identity?  (Here I am thinking about games like Trading Races and AllLookSame.)  Does the digital world offer new ways to challenge students to think about the history of how Jews created their identities in relationship to and in dialogue with others?

I’d also like to talk about potential pitfalls of the digital world with respect to identity making.  To what extent extent are “charged assumptions” about race, ethnicity, or Jewishness replicated in either the digital world through systems, codes, or tools (See Koh Slide 31)?  How does digitizing Jews relate to larger debates about Race in the Digital Humanities and what it means to “digitize” race or ethnicity?

Click here for more on THATCamp AJS 2012.