I have always been interested in how real people lived their lives; how they negotiated the quotidian demands and stresses that accompany all human societies. I like intellectual history, but one of the real joys of my job is seeing how ideas work in the world. In looking at the lives of others, of those who lived in a distant past and place, I believe that we can also see ourselves more clearly.
Yet this is also one of the greatest frustrations of my job. Due simply to the nature of the evidence, there is much that don’t and never can know about Jews (and others) in antiquity. We can make informed speculations, but fundamental questions about Jewish society in antiquity are beyond are grasp. All the more so is anything approaching actual biography. Who really were these classical Rabbis? Sure, there are many stories told about some of them, but the scholarly consensus today, to which I subscribe, is that these stories are to be read more as later hagiographies than as actual historical accounts. That does not leave us with much, and that is multiplied when we turn to the inscriptions from antiquity, some epitaphs and others commemorating donations, that mention the names of Jews about whom we know nothing else.
About a year ago I was asked to take a look at the first printed luach – Jewish ritual calendar – in the United States, printed in Newport in 1806 by Moses Lopez. Two copies of this slim volume are in libraries that are within a short walking distance from my office. The more I looked into these copies the more they interested me. Not only do they raise questions about being Jewish in the early Republic, but the annotations in them give us a glimpse into how people actually used them. In contrast to the floating names from antiquity, this calendar opens up into webs of families, many of which have left extensive archives. What a joy!
The first fruit of this labor has just been published as “Two Copies of a Printed Early American Jewish Calendar in Providence,” Rhode Island Jewish Historical Association Notes 15:3 (2009): 416-427. While this remains very much a side project for me, I am now continuing research on the larger issues raised by this calendar.