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News in Exile: The Historical Library of Eighteenth-Century European Jews

Sun, December 16, 4:15 to 5:45pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Cityview 2 Ballroom


No matter whether scholars have analysed European Jewish history of the eighteenth century in terms of crisis, revolution or evolution, they have noted that the historical writings circulating among Jews of the period did not clearly reflect any of these categories, and that – until the emergence of Wissenschaft des Judentums – there was far more continuity in the adopted genres and interpretations of exilic history than one might expect in an age so closely associated with change. Instead of approaching continuity in negative terms as an absence of innovation, a failure of the imagination and a delay of radical transformation, this paper proposes to analyse the persistent attractiveness of existing patterns of interpretation – not the least among some maskilim – as an interesting challenge to Christian and secular narratives of historical progress. Rather than following a Christian/secular model, in which modernity supersedes tradition, the Hebrew and Yiddish historical library available to eighteenth-century Jews (from Zacut to Amelander) privileged alternative frameworks that captured historical transformation and innovation in terms of restoration. As progress narratives become questionable in our own fragile world and are interrogated in many academic fields, the insistence on writing history differently that can be observed among early modern European Jews may cease to appear entirely bewildering. Analysing early modern historical narratives – in conjunction with complex trajectories of transformation and continuation in other fields, such as halakhah, and in pursuit of insights offered by Carlo Ginzburg and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin – may indeed open up new perspectives on Jewish conceptions of modernity.


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