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.