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Crossing the Jabbok: Illness and Death in Ashkenazi Judaism in Sixteenth-Through Nineteenth-Century Prague.

Sylvie-Anne Goldberg (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. xvii plus 303pp. $45.00).

Crossing the Jabbok is a fascinating study of Jewish communal politics and attitudes. By analyzing rituals associated with death and illness, funerary literature, the Jewish burial society, and attitudes toward resurrection, Sylvie-Anne Goldberg offers an important cultural analysis of the social structure of central European Jewry. Her monograph poses several key questions: when and why were there divergences in Jewish and Christian society? Were these superficial or indicative of deeper differences? How did Jewish communities respond to changing external circumstances? By tracing changing attitudes toward death from the biblical period to the nineteenth century, Goldberg is able to identify the basic beliefs that distinguished Jews and Christians and to show that Jewish rituals toward illness and death reflected new Jewish-Christian tensions and the influx of Jewish exiles from Spain. Turning to a wide array of texts, ritual practices, and communal institutions, Goldberg tracks the development of responses to death and illness to identify areas of continuity and change and shifts in mentalites.

Jewish assumptions about the Afterlife influence burial practices at the level of rabbinic and popular culture. Thus Goldberg's discussion of resurrection is particularly illuminating. In the rabbinic period, a time when exile defined Israel's fate, resurrection became a fundamental doctrine of Judaism. Resurrection incorporated two significant differences from Christianity: first, the notion of retribution and reward for all Israel, i.e. for all Jews, not for Jews as individuals; and second, the belief that the body and soul are indivisible.

Goldberg further illuminates the funerary attitudes and practices of Jews through a close analysis of the development of cemeteries. She finds no tangible traces of Jewish cemeteries before the eleventh century, a conclusion at odds with those of some scholars of antiquity. Goldberg suggests that prior to the eleventh century, Jews may have been buried with others and without headstones. As Christianity spread in the West, Christian burials moved into the Church (from which Christians barred Jews and which Jews avoided owing to their location and attendant rites) and Jews set up their own cemeteries. Cemeteries, Goldberg argues, could not have emerged in such an elaborated form in the eleventh century; transformations in key social conditions must have occurred between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Separate cemeteries emerged about the time that Christianity made inroads among the lower classes, a period when Christians increasingly came to see Jewish communities as "a political concept of social organization" and not as individuals (p. 28) From the period of the Crusades, when the process of cultural and social integration reversed, entire Jewish communities perished in order to die as a Jews (choosing to die for the sanctification of God's Name - Al Kiddush ha-Shem). These tumultuous times affected Jewish attitudes, as evidenced in new contributions to liturgy. Prayers now included those said for the dead (eg, the Mourners' Kaddish entered daily liturgy), memory become central in Jewish culture, and messianic hopes intensified.

After sketching the general patterns, Goldberg turns to a detailed analysis of Jewish funerary practices in Prague, a vibrant community with a continuous Jewish existence throughout middle ages. Goldberg argues for the key roles of new mortuary literature and the Hevra Kaddisha, or burial society, which emerged as Prague's first Jewish philanthropic organization in 1564, spread to Frankfurt (1597), and on to all great European communities. The Hevra Kaddisha took on charitable activities beyond its specified role of preparing and burying the dead and seemingly filled a void and extended the authority of the elders.

Scholars have suggested several reasons for shifts in communal practice and structure. Goldberg connects Jewish beliefs about resurrection to Jewish mysticism and messianic movements and shows how they affected Prague Jewry. During this time, when the ghetto was at its height, there was an influx of exiles from Spain and Portugal who were steeped in kabbalistic tradition. Mystics envisioned a time after death during which the soul passes through a river of fire, is purified, and arrives at the earthly paradise and on to eternal life. Such themes influenced the new mortuary literature. One such work, the Ma'avar Yabbok - Crossing the Jabbok, by Aaron Berachia of Modena, provided the title for Goldberg's book. The Ma'avar Yabbok is much more exhaustive than other works devoted to death and included ritual for dying, death, burial and mourning, cautions for the dying and dead, and prayers in current use. Unlike some manuals, it was designed to be accessible and had Yiddish translations. During this period, several other works focusing on death emerged; their emphases on repentance and exile also show kabbalistic influence.

Documents from the Prague Society give insight into its objectives. In addition to dealing with the dead, the society supervised charitable and social welfare efforts. The need for a hierarchical corporate institution suggests there was inadequate ritual knowledge, neglect of the poor, and the emergence of new ideas related to death. Possibly Jews developed the same institution as their neighbors and situated it within Jewish tradition. Goldberg further argues that the Hevra Kaddisha drew on traditions of Germanic guilds and exiled Spanish Jewry. Sephardi Jews had extensive social services that were absent in the Ashkenazi community, as well as ties to Lurianic Kabbalah, which Gershom Scholem demonstrated had extensive influence on Jewish mentalities.

Goldberg's book places Jewish traditions of death and illness in both their Jewish and European socio-cultural milieu, makes sophisticated use of historiographic approaches, and draws on an impressive range of evidence. In particular Goldberg draws extensively on the literature of Ashkenazi Jewry, rabbinic texts, and the records of burial societies. While a specialized study, it opens a window on a significant community, builds on current works of early modern Jewish history, and complements the work of Hillel Kieval on modern Czech Jewry. It helps place Jews within European cultural history, and the history of mentalites, especially important since the literature on the history of death does not generally consider the attitudes of Jews or Judaism. Scholars will undoubtedly disagree about the origins and nature of the Hevra Kaddisha and the emergence of cemeteries given the archaeological and literary evidence from antiquity. Typical of the Annales school, Goldberg's analysis covers a very long sweep of history. Such an approach gives a contextual flavor, but it cannot treat all periods with comparable depth and dexterity. That noted, the book is a major contribution to our understanding of rituals associated with death and dying and offers a rich and textured study of Jewish communal life, changing attitudes, and Jewish social structures between the sixteenth century and the Enlightenment, when Jewish corporate structure began to decline.

Susan L. Tananbaum Bowdoin College
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Tananbaum, Susan L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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