Susan L. Einbinder. No Place of Rest: Jewish Literature, Expulsion, and the Memory of Medieval France. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. 267 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4115-0.
Reviewed by Ira Robinson (Department of Religion - Concordia University)
Published on H-Judaic (June, 2009)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Jewish Literature and the Memory of Medieval France
Academic research on Jewish history, literature, and thought has been ongoing for the better part of two centuries, and there is much we have learned from this enterprise. It is Susan L. Einbinder’s book, however, that causes readers to reflect deeply not only on the achievements of Jewish studies but also on its limitations. Einbinder successfully sustains a dual focus in her book. She accords the medieval authors and their works the sort of meticulous and thorough analysis expected in a work of academic scholarship. What is less expected, and most welcome, is the insight the author gives on the scholarly process itself: what is gained and what is lost.
As Einbinder puts it, when she began the research that culminated in this book, she "innocently expected the literary remains of the French expulsions to announce themselves obligingly from a conventional series of texts" (p. 161). This did not happen. Instead, she embarked on an intellectual adventure that taught her not only to respect “the wide ranging interests and profound intellectual curiosity” of the medieval Jews she studied, but also to confront what she terms modern scholars’ own “narrowness of knowledge” (p. 162).
There are few direct and overt Jewish reactions to the series of fourteenth-century expulsions that, with only a few exceptions, ended organized Jewish life in the areas we know as France until early modern times. In one sense, that is because premodern Jews largely avoided chronicles and other historical writings. Even liturgical or para-liturgical works referring to these expulsions are rare, since the French Jews generally did not establish communities able to transmit their liturgical traditions in most of the places to which they were exiled. This left Einbinder with the daunting task of teasing out the evidence that she needed from the works of neglected manuscripts, obscure poets, and little-known liturgies.
She begins with a chapter on Isaac of Aire (ha-Gorni) who witnessed the expulsion of the Jews of Gascony in 1287. To the extent that he was previously “known” to scholars, it was as a “Jewish troubador.” Einbinder patiently and convincingly examines his poetry and repositions Isaac as a very vocal public participant in the often tempestuous intellectual debates of his time over the place of “Greek wisdom” in the Jewish curriculum. It might be noted that here and throughout the book, there are extensive citations of Hebrew poetry which might have been rendered more intelligible to the reader had a vowelized text been provided.
Her second chapter examines the surviving poetical works of Yedaiah Bedersi and Joseph ben Sheshet Latimi. Their poetic style, which involved compositions consisting entirely of words beginning with or containing the same letter (pantogram), has been dismissed by many academic students of medieval Hebrew poetry as inferior or frivolous. Einbinder succeeds in taking us into the intellectual world of these poets and makes sense of their poetical choices. As she states, “far from representing eccentric literary tastes that were doomed to oblivion, the precious poetic exercises ... were popular among Hebrew (and non-Hebrew) readers for precisely the hyperbolic mannerism that offends the sensibilities of modern readers” (p. 58).
Einbinder’s third chapter attempts the exacting task of teasing out the likely references to the disasters of the expulsion of 1306 amid the oft-repeated Jewish poetical themes of exile and redemption in the liturgical compositions of one who had undergone that trauma, Reuben ben Isaac of Montpellier. Her fourth chapter does the same for the physician Crescas Caslari’s verse narratives of the Esther story. In this chapter, she also succeeds in relating the worldview of medieval physicians and their concern with diet to his re-presentation of the biblical story.
The fifth chapter also takes us into the world of a physician (physicians, it seems, were, of all refugees, able to get back on their feet relatively easily and hence have the leisure and peace of mind to write)--the late fourteenth-century Jacob ben Solomon ha-Tzarfati. Einbinder’s masterful analysis of his narration of the death by plague of his beloved daughter ties theology (Jewish and Christian), medicine (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim), and literature to make us understand “the complex construction of human memories, and the myriad motives for which they are enlisted” (p. 136).
The sixth chapter discusses a community of French Jewish exiles in northern Italy in which elements of French Jewish practice survived until the twentieth century. The liturgical poetry of this community, like that of other medieval Jewish communities, combined typological motifs and concrete details and thus makes historical analysis exceedingly chancy, though Einbinder does put forward some shrewd hypotheses concerning the memory of “France” and its preservation in these poems by reading them against the backdrop of historical events. Thus, for example, she connects the use of an obscure scriptural expression in one liturgical poem, ta’ar ha-galabim (Ezekiel 5:1 “barber’s razor”), to refer to Christian friars and their preaching of hatred and violence against the Jews (p. 150). As always in this analysis, the allusive and elusive nature of the genre of liturgical poetry makes certainty an inherently unattainable goal, as the author clearly understands.
As conscious as Einbinder is of the nuances of the texts she illuminates so well, she is equally attentive to the ways in which these texts made it to the present day to be examined by her. What was the trajectory of the manuscripts she read? In whose hands were they written? By whom were they preserved? By making the transmission of these documents an important part of the story she wants to present, the author has a clear message for practitioners of Jewish studies. There are insights to be made and clues to be discerned that all too often go unnoticed. As she states, “for reasons that have to do as much with our own constructs of the Jewish past as they do with the damaged and fragmentary record, we were not looking very hard” (p. 159).
This book thus serves to give us some important insights into medieval Jewish literature, history, and memory, as well as provides a mirror in which we can see ourselves, our work, and how we may appear (or disappear) in the eyes of future scholars.
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If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Ira Robinson. Review of Einbinder, Susan L., No Place of Rest: Jewish Literature, Expulsion, and the Memory of Medieval France.
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