I am excited to be participating along with scholars I admire greatly in a three day seminar on the theme "The Practice and Materiality of Jewish Death." I'll be speaking on the topic “History, science and religious politics: The archaeology of medieval Jewish cemeteries” about what sometimes refer to as "The Science of Desecration" - the history of excavation of Jewish cemeteries in Europe since the 19th century and the the thin and highly contested line between science and desecration (you can read the abstract below).
Here is the accepted abstract and program for the seminars. Papers will be submitted, circulated and (hopefully) read beforehand, and more in depth discussion can take place.
Jewish beliefs surrounding death, the afterlife and the end of times have been a topic of significant study across the discipline and in all periods of Jewish history. On the other hand, the human practices and material culture in which Jewish conceptions of death have been ritualized have received only sporadic and uneven attention. The papers contributed to “The Practice and Materiality of Jewish Death” will explore the roles that material culture and ritual practice plays in the Jewish experience of death, mourning and remembrance, and in the social construction of Jewish belief and custom. From tombstones and the tearing of garments to food and fasting, the papers included in this seminar will deal with specific aspects of Jewish funerary customs, ancient, medieval or modern.
The three-day seminar will be divided topically around discussion of three themes: “Ritual and Performance,” “Politics and Identity,” and “Communities and Contexts”. The papers of the first session, “Ritual and Performance” (Todd, Labovitz, Goldberg, Sion), investigate the different rituals and practices performed by Jewish communities across time, and the role these customs play in Jewish responses to death and mourning. The papers of the second session, “Politics and Identity” (Russo, Olson, Rosenthal, Gruber), examine the connection between funerary culture and issues of power, politics and identity. The final session, “Communities and Contexts” (Zissu, Burrus, Fine, Malkiel), considers various aspects of Jewish communities as represented in funerary culture, including social class and regional influences.
This paper will explore particularly the activities which the tannaitic authors imagine women to undertake as part of the funeral process, using mMo’ed Qatan 3:8-9 as a point of entry. Integrating biblical, rabbinic, Greco-Roman, and Christian materials, questions to considered here include: was public mourning a professional role for rabbinic women, what was the nature of women’s activities and laments at funerals, did the forms of lament and praise for the deceased offered at the funeral differ (materially and/or in terms of their social valuation) if offered by men or by women, why might these roles have been assigned especially to women.
“Staging Jewish death at the turn of the Medieval Era” Sylvie Anne Goldberg (EHESS)
The Treatise Semahot (3rd century) shows that during the Antiquity, death and all that surrounds it were subjected to special ceremonials: professional mourners, weeping, elegies, first burial and second-burial are displaying a spectacular image of death. However, this staging of death has undergone many changes over time. As it is well known that many rituals, customs, and prayers were introduced during the Middle-Ages, this paper will therefore seek to focus on some of them selected on the basis of their material aspects, containing concrete representation of the approaches of death in the Jewish world at that time.
“Material surrogates to absent bodily remains: How memorials perform Jewish mourning rituals” Brigitte Sion (Independent Scholar)
How do Jews perform funerary and commemorative rituals in the absence of bodily remains? The Holocaust, the Argentine dictatorship and the September 11, 2001 attacks offer metonymic, symbolic, and surrogate responses to the missing corpses.
"Marginal or Monumental? Kokhim in the Catacombs of Rome Jessica Dello Russo (Northeastern University)"
This contribution to the AJS seminar on "The Materiality of Jewish Death" examines the arrangement of multiple examples of the distinctive tomb type known as the "kokh" (pl. "kokhim") within certain areas of the catacomb of the Vigna Randanini in Rome, drawing attention to their unusual characteristics and organization in this particular site in light of their limited presence in the other catacombs in Rome and most other cemeteries outside of Palestine in the period of Late Antiquity.
“From matsevah to Grabmal -- Central European gravestones as markers of Jewish cultural evolution” Jess Olson (Yeshiva University)
The most ubiquitous -- and historically useful -- pieces of material culture surrounding death in Jewish cultural history is the matsevah, the tombstone. For the most part, historians have approached these often complex works of sculpture in the modern period primarily as conveyances of demographic information, but the design of Jewish matsevot in the 19th and 20th centuries provides valuable, and unique insight into the evolving tastes and cultural identities of central European Jews. This paper will examine and interpret the evolution of these monuments in the context of evolving Jewish identity in Germany and Austria-Hungary between 1848 and 1914.
"In-between Graves: Space and Class in Cemetery Conflicts among the Jews of Interwar Poland" Daniel Rosenthal (Ph.D. Candidate, University of Toronto)
The growth of the urban Jewish population of Poland after the First World War strained existing cemetery infrastructure to such an extent that communities were forced to reorganize how burial space was allocated and defined. These changes to the use of space in sanctified burials grounds indicate how Jewish officials navigated their dual responsibilities to their poor constituency and to the new governmental bodies of the Second Polish Republic.
The 19th-century rediscovery and excavation of the Rue de la Harpe Jewish cemetery in Paris and the Jewish catacombs in Rome alerted and excited historians about the potential rewards of the archeology of European Jewish sites, including cemeteries, but for the most part little conscious effort was made to identify the locations or to methodically examine the remains of Jewish cemeteries until the 1980s, when again, like in 19th-century Paris, new urban development encroached on previously undisturbed burial grounds. This paper and discussion will examine recent methods of and finds from Jewish cemetery excavations in England, Spain, the Czech Republic and elsewhere, and how new discoveries have been greeted with enthusiasm and opposition by different quarters of the academic and religious Jewish communities.
"City and Periphery - Jerusalem and Judean Burials during the Late Second Temple Period - An Archaeological Overview" - Boaz Zissu (Bar Ilan)
While the urban necropolis of Jerusalem during the late Second Temple period (2nd c. BCE-1st c. CE) has been thoroughly studied, the more distant Jewish rural areas have been mostly neglected. The proposed paper attempts to present an overview of the tombs' architecture, burial customs and chronology of Jewish burial in the Judean countryside vs. those of the urban center of Jerusalem during the 2nd c. BCE - 2nd c. CE.
"Jewish Others: Visual Culture and Ethnic Identification at Beit Shearim" - Sean Burrus (Duke, Ph.D. Candidate)
The catacombs at Beit Shearim (ca. 200-400 CE) offer a chance to explore how disparate communities, the local Galilean and the diasporic, come together in the same funerary sphere. This paper will examine the role of visual culture in the Beit Shearim catacombs as a point of demarcation between communities.
“Between Beit She’arim and Eden: Rabbinic reflection on the Tomb of Makhpelah” Steven Fine (Yeshiva University)
This paper explores the ways that ancient rabbis constructed their own vision of the biblical Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. It suggests that the rabbis imagined the tomb complex in ways that reflect monumental communal burial complexes of late antiquity, most notably those at Beit She'arim in the lower Galilee. It further argues that the rabbis project burial practices and attitudes toward the dead of their own time onto the Tomb of Machpelah.
“Icon and text in the art of Padua’s Hebrew tombstones (1529-1862)” David Malkiel (Bar Ilan)
The art of a small set of Hebrew tombstones from Padua reveals the complex interplay of Jewish literary sources and carved images, which perforce required Jewish participation in the tombstone’s design, if not its execution. These sophisticated creations were clearly the work of the city’s Jewish intellectuals, which raises the question of the accessibility of both text and icon to the general Jewish population.