Newberry Library, Spertus Institute Presenting Symposium on Early Modern Jewish Books

Premodern Judaism

Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, [Pardes rimonim], 17th C. (courtesy of the Newberry Library)

Do you ever leave a Newberry Consort performance dying to know even more about the time period and culture we are celebrating? If so, you’ll be excited to know the Newberry Library and Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership will be presenting a special symposium on “Premodern Judaism from Manuscript to Print” on Nov. 5 and 6 in conjunction with our concert of the music of the Sephardic Jews in Renaissance Spain.

The symposium begins on Nov. 5 at Spertus Institute, where you can see a collection of early modern Jewish books and other printed materials from 1:30-2:30 p.m., followed by a pre-concert chat and our performance at 3 p.m.

The following day, attendees are invited to take a tour of the Newberry Library’s current exhibit, “Religious Change and Print, 1450-1700,” before seeing several presentations that will give insight into what life was like for the Jewish people in medieval and Renaissance times. The presentations will include talks on “Secrets, Sodot, and the Inter-religious Transmission of Medieval Esotericism,” “Isaac Abravanel on Wealth, Work and Poverty,” “Jewish Books in Early Modern Europe: the Marcaria Pamphlets and other Materials at the Newberry,” and “Ghetto Gazing with Giovanni Merlo.”

Venetian map

Detail of the Venetian Ghetto from Giovanni Merlo’s 1676 map.

The day will end with a roundtable discussion on “Judaism and the Book,” featuring Dean Bell and Julie Harris of Spertus Institute and Stephen Burnett, a professor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The symposium will look at how Jews were represented in print in early modern Europe, how the shift to print affected Jewish thought, and what new discoveries about Jewish life during this time period are being made today by scholars.

And if you’ve ever wanted to see beautifully illustrated historic books close and personal, this is your chance.

“Some highlights of the Newberry and Spertus collections include early Bibles in Hebrew and Yiddish, a cabala manuscript in Hebrew from the 17th century, Jewish calendars as well as materials printed by Jews in the 16th-century Europe,” says Lia Markey, Director of the Newberry Center for Renaissance Studies.

Markey says one of the most interesting works on display in the Newberry exhibition is a 17th-century map of Venice that includes a detailed view of the Jewish ghetto, which provides insight into Jewish life in Venice at that time.

Getting the chance to see pre-modern Jewish books, manuscripts and other printed material from this time period is relatively rare, not only because of the antiquity of the works but because of the particular challenges faced by Jews in Medieval and Early Modern society.

Jewish books, as well as their owners, suffered on these occasions. One particular event known as the “Burning of the Talmud,” took place in Paris in 1242. It is said that 24 oxcarts of books were burned, making it impossible for scholars today to know what Jewish manuscripts of the Paris region looked like. Julie Harris, who works on Jewish Iberia, says that it is likely that many books suffered a similar fate in Spain in 1391 when numerous locations erupted in vicious anti-Jewish riots.

Because books were such prized possessions, however, Harris says Jews held onto them even when they left Spain in 1492. In fact, the famed Golden Haggadah – which was designed to orchestrate Passover seders in 14th-century Aragon – now contains comments made by Dominican censors in 16th and 17th century Italy.

Markey says the symposium will be a great opportunity for anyone who is interested in Jewish culture to learn more about its history.

“[People will get] a greater understanding of the oral and written cultures of medieval and early modern Judaism,” Markey says. “The public will also learn about the rich collections of Jewish materials at the Newberry and Spertus, and I hope the symposium will inspire further research.”

The symposium is free, but registration is required

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