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Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy

Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy

translated by Anthony Oldcorn
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy
    Book Description:

    With this heady exploration of time and space, rumors and silence, colors, tastes, and ideas, Robert Bonfil recreates the richness of Jewish life in Renaissance Italy. He also forces us to rethink conventional interpretations of the period, which feature terms like "assimilation" and "acculturation." Questioning the Italians' presumed capacity for tolerance and civility, he points out that Jews were frequently uprooted and persecuted, and where stable communities did grow up, it was because the hostility of the Christian population had somehow been overcome. After the ghetto was imposed in Venice, Rome, and other Italian cities, Jewish settlement became more concentrated. Bonfil claims that the ghetto experience did more to intensify Jewish self-perception in early modern Europe than the supposed acculturation of the Renaissance. He shows how, paradoxically, ghetto living opened and transformed Jewish culture, hastening secularization and modernization. Bonfil's detailed picture reveals in the Italian Jews a sensitivity and self-awareness that took into account every aspect of the larger society. His inside view of a culture flourishing under stress enables us to understand how identity is perceived through constant interplay—on whatever terms—with the Other.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91099-7
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Robert Bonfil
    (pp. 1-16)

    Accounts of the history of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, from the year c.e. 70 to the present, oscillate between what Salo W. Baron defined as “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history” and what, paraphrasing Baron, we might call “the antilachrymose conception of Jewish history.” This oscillation seems rooted in the elementary fact that for two thousand years, the existence of the Jews, unlike that of the non-Jewish peoples—Christians or Moslems—among whom they lived, has never been accepted as self-evident or taken for granted. Jewish existence is perceived as ananomaly. As such, it arouses curiosity, attracts...

  5. PART ONE Structures of Settlement and the Economy

      (pp. 19-78)

      The demographic distribution of the Jewish presence in Italy, from the close of the thirteenth century throughout practically the whole of the fifteenth, came about as the result of a process that can be reconstructed with a fair degree of accuracy. In Sicily, from thirty to thirty-five thousand Jews, spread over twenty or so different localities, chiefly Palermo, Syracuse, and Messina, continued a presence that went back more than a thousand years, a presence that was substantiallystaticin character. On the mainland, in contrast, the demographic distribution of the Jews was essentiallydynamic: here the Jews seemed to be...

      (pp. 79-98)

      The expulsion of the Jews from Sicily in 1492 considerably distorted the historiography of the Jews of Italy. The paucity of the documentation so far published regarding the Jews of Sicily, combined with their total disappearance from the Italian scene at the very moment when they were beginning to be of particular interest to historians, has led to their passing practically unobserved in the pages of history. The extent of the distortion can be better appreciated when we recall that there were as many Jews in Sicily as there were on the entire peninsula. We have already observed that between...

  6. PART TWO Structures of Culture and Society

      (pp. 101-124)

      After reading the account presented in the preceding chapters, one may well ask why the Jews of the time, living as they did so demographically dispersed, were not caught up in an irreversibly centrifugal dynamic leading to assimilation. True, even today, there is no dearth of examples of families belonging to religious minorities, especially Jewish minorities, who choose to live in isolation rather than join the communities organized elsewhere by members of their religious group. Nevertheless, even though, from the point of view of the psychology of minorities, the similarities between these modern day cases and those of our period...

      (pp. 125-144)

      The education of the young has always and everywhere been the ground where old and new,juventusandsenectus, meet. The period we are studying was no exception to the rule, valid alike for the Jews and for their Christian neighbors. In the case of the Jews, however, the encounter of opposites seems to have been somewhat more complex than in that of the Christians. The achievement of Self-awareness by a process of specular reflection in the Other called for the introduction of a second element, namely the Other, to all intents and purposes absent in the case of their...

      (pp. 145-178)

      It would be a well-nigh impossible task to attempt a concise summary of the characteristics of the culture of the Jews of Italy during our period. This is not simply because it would call for far more than the available space, but also and above all because modern historical research is still in its infancy when it comes to the problems that the topic entails. On the one hand, one has to contend with the slowness of Jewish historiography to assimilate new trends in the fields of intellectual and, more generally speaking, cultural history, to say nothing of their implications...

      (pp. 179-212)

      The Jews in the cities naturally tended to organize themselves into a group. Community organization was achieved as the result of an organic process of development, through mechanisms that were set in motion whenever the number of coreligionists seemed sufficient to justify the creation of structured collective institutions. With the exception of Rome and Sicily, where, as has already been seen, structures inherited from the past continued to exist, this process took place during the second phase of our period. Throughout the first phase, in most places, the resident Jewish families were so few as to justify an embryonic organization...

  7. PART THREE Structures of Mentality

      (pp. 215-232)

      The mentality of the Jews over time is one aspect of Jewish history that has so far received comparatively little attention. The following observations will therefore have a purely preliminary character. We will begin by investigating the categories of time and space, the first and most general categories in our perception of the world around us. On one level these categories were naturally perceived by the Jews in a way quite similar to that of their Christian neighbors. Their Jewish religion, however, conferred upon them certain characteristics that meant that their perception was in the last analysis profoundly different. This...

      (pp. 233-242)

      If, as we have seen, Jewish otherness conditioned the spatial and temporal universe, it also conditioned the universe of sound. The Jewish world presented itself in the first place as more silent than the surrounding Christian world. In one sense, this was a consequence of the uniqueness of the demographic pattern and of the economic activities of the Jews, to say nothing of the influence of the latter on the Jewish perception of space. The differences between the two phases of our period, although not entirely absent, are, from this point of view, more subtle. It has already been observed...

      (pp. 243-246)

      The sensory perception of Jewish otherness, as was observed in passing in chapter 3, was very much alive at the visual as well as the auditory level. In the Jewish space, especially in the ghettos, dark colors—black, grey, green, blue—were dominant. The metaphorical significance attached to the conscious adoption of these colors has already been discussed in the light of medieval symbolism, where they stood for the choice of placing oneself on an inferior level with respect to others, the only viable option in a social order imposed by the Other. We have also observed the impression of...

      (pp. 247-264)

      A son was certainly considered more valuable than a daughter. A tradition dating back for several millennia, whose weight is still felt today, did not leave room for any other way of thinking. Traditionally, the parents of a female child were consoled with the reassurance that “a female firstborn is a good omen for the male children to come.” The father recorded the birth of his children in the place where things worthy of record were recorded, on a blank sheet or on the inside of the binding of a book, usually a Bible or a prayer book. Births were...

      (pp. 265-284)

      The study of evolving attitudes toward death has been especially favored by historical scholarship in the last few decades. Of all the specific aspects that have been brought to light, Philippe Ariès, a pioneer in the field, has pointed above all the public dimension that characterized the occasion in the premodern period, in marked contrast to today’s way of death, dominated instead by the aseptic solitude of the hospital: “People always died in public.”¹ Death, the ultimate rite of passage, involved a ritual fraught with meaning. As we study the ritual of death among Jews, it is only natural to...

    (pp. 285-286)

    This book has proposed a portrait of the history of the Jews in Italy based on the accounts contained in a number of previous works, without which this book could scarcely have been written, but from which it takes a by no means negligible distance. The patient reader who has followed me thus far certainly has the right to the opinion that, rather than having proven my case, I have simply suggested a new way of reading the sources. It is true that I have offered elsewhere a more detailed demonstration of some of the arguments set forth in the...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 287-298)
    (pp. 299-306)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 307-320)