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The Jewish Palette: New Perspectives on Color Symbolism in Jewish History

Mon, December 18, 5:00 to 6:30pm, Marriott Marquis Washington, DC, Marquis Salon 3

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


This panel examines various perspectives on color symbolism in Jewish history. Focusing on references to colors in medieval, early modern, and modern texts, the panel aims to draw attention to the largely overlooked potential of the study of color symbolism in Jewish history. Each of the three papers focuses on one particular color, unfolding its roles and manifestations in various cultural, historical, and discursive contexts. Rebekka Voß discusses the figure of the Red Jews, a red-haired, red-bearded or ruddy-complected variant of the Ten Lost Tribes, as a visual idiom for vernacular Jewish identity in early modern Ashkenaz. Iris Idelson-Shein focuses on European-Jewish thinkers’ attempts to grapple with the increasing racialization of whiteness during the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth centuries. Finally, Gadi Sagiv will reexamine the medieval and early-modern history of the color blue as a color symbolizing the Jewish people.
As a prominent phenomenon in both nature and culture, colors have been important objects of study from various approaches and fields of study, particularly over the last two decades. Based on the pioneering work on color symbolism by Michel Pastoureau, John Gage and Christel Meier-Staubach and others, recent research extends into the practical and emotional effects of color in various historical contexts, from art and architecture, through religion and politics to language and literature.
Inspired by these developments of research beyond Jewish Studies, the participants of this panel seek to approach colors and their symbolism in a historical way. Rather than discuss colors as static, abstract entities that signify unchanging meanings, the papers emphasize the ever-changing perception of colors as well as their transfer between cultures and discourses (literary, scientific, nationalistic, theological, etc.). Herein lies the particular value of studying colors in the Jewish context: colors bridge not only religious and linguistic communities, but also social cohorts. Meaning conveyed through color is accessible across educational strata, simply because its visuality is independent of literacy. The study of colors thus clears a vista on the often occluded realms of (non-elite) ways of seeing.

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