Then and Now
Author Archive

Archaeology and the Talmud: 1

This week Yeshivah University is hosting a 2-day conference entitled, Talmuda de-Eretz Israel: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity. Here is a report on day 1: Eric Meyers, Duke University, The Use of Archaeology in Understanding Rabbinic Materials: An Archaeological Perspective Meyers pointed to some areas of intersection between rabbinic texts and archaeology. He...

The End of Lachrymosity

Over half a century ago, the great Jewish historian Salo Baron famously declared an end to the lachrymose view of Jewish history. By this he meant that prior Jewish historians had an almost unremittingly bleak view of Jewish history. Jews, in these narratives, were always the persecuted victims, living tenuously in a hostile world. Baron...

Who is a Jew? No, Really.

The traditional legal definition of a Jew is well-known: the child of a Jewish mother or a convert. Sure, there is a little fuzziness around the edges as Orthodox Jews in Israel in particular debate what makes a kosher conversion, and whether conversions can be retroactively revoked. But both Orthodox and Conservative Jewish institutions share...

The Human Condition

Last month I saw the exhibit Figuratively Speaking: A Survey of the Human Form at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. What was particularly interesting to me about this exhibit was the chronological progression. The earliest, Renaissance and early modern works attempted to portray the human form realistically. The works of the early twentieth century...

Perfection

In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik discusses the modern dessert. His investigation soon took him to Spain, where he talked with with some of the most widely admired pastry chefs in the world. While Gopnik doesn’t quite frame his own essay this way, it is clear that these chefs are not...

What I Learned in Prison

I recently finished teaching a four-class course on the Book of Psalms to medium security inmates of our state ACI (Adult Correctional Institute). The course was organized through a student group at Brown. The reasons I choose to do this are too complex to get into here; perhaps that will be the topic of another...

Fooling Around with Digital Humanities

I have long been interested in ways in which modern technology can enhance what I do, as a scholar and a teacher. In the classroom I have used podcasts and wikis, and I continue to work on a digital collection of inscriptions from Israel/Palestine that date from antiquity. Only recently, however, has the surge of...

A Usable Past

I just finished Albert Baumgarten’s engaging biography of Elias Bickerman, Elias Bickerman as Historian of the Jews: A Twentieth Century Tale, which was also recently reviewed by Anthony Grafton in The Jewish Review of Books. In Baumgarten’s telling, Bickerman was a permanent refugee (who for the almost forty years that he “lived” in America actually...

Death, and the Modern American Synagogue

I had the pleasure this last week of listening to a lecture by Professor Carlos Eire, of Yale University. (Full dislosure: I was a colleague of Carlos’s at University of Virginia, and in addition to finding him a supportive senior colleague, have followed his work with admiration since, particularly his award-winning Waiting for Snow in...

Larry Axel Memorial Lecture

I just presented the Larry Axel Memorial Lecture at Purdue University. The talk was entitled, “Big Givers: The Origins of Jewish Philanthropy.” The publicity paragraph reads: Whether by naming buildings, erecting plaques, or publishing name-lists, our practice of recognizing donors is so common that we hardly notice it. This lecture will examine the origins of...

"Day of Judgment"

Tonight Rosh HaShanah begins. It is probably safe to say that many Jews associate the holiday with two theological themes. The first, emphasized especially in children’s books and early Jewish educational settings, is the birthday of the world – the day on which God created the world. The second theme, which is far more prominent...

Memory, History, and Jews in the Eighteenth Century

I’ve just spent a fascinating few days reading through Jewish ritual calendars luhot – that date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of these calendars contain a short, one or two page, list of important Jewish historical events, dated from the creation of the world. These annual calendars were for the most part small...