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

David Malkiel

  • Review
By – August 25, 2011

The writ­ing of his­to­ry has moved away from ide­al­ized por­traits of great men in favor of untidy accounts of the lives of ordi­nary peo­ple. David Malkiel, a Har­vard trained his­to­ri­an at Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty, takes on the loom­ing myth of medieval Ashke­naz as a holy com­mu­ni­ty” entire­ly focused on per­form­ing God’s will and mar­tyr­dom. Ear­li­er his­to­ri­ans, for a vari­ety of rea­sons, have tried to present Sepharad as a world­ly, sophis­ti­cat­ed but reli­gious­ly lax com­mu­ni­ty, while Ashke­naz was seen as cul­tur­al­ly iso­lat­ed and devout. With­out intro­duc­ing new sources but sim­ply by re-read­ing well known texts, Malkiel paints a much more nuanced pic­ture of a com­mu­ni­ty with all kinds of mem­bers. Rich and poor, saint­ly and sin­ful, upright and crim­i­na —the Jews of Ashke­naz came in all dif­fer­ent shades.

This real­is­tic account nar­rows the per­ceived gap between Sepharad and Ashke­naz in the Mid­dle Ages, and it has impor­tant ram­i­fi­ca­tions for our under­stand­ing of the dif­fer­ences between Jews and Gen­tiles in North­ern Europe. Illu­mi­nat­ing analy­ses of 19th cen­tu­ry Jew­ish his­to­ri­og­ra­phy is com­ple­ment­ed by schol­ar­ly debates from recent years. Malkiel’s book pro­vides a much-need­ed revi­sion of our assump­tions about Jews in the Mid­dle Ages.

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