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Jewish Icons: The Image of Early Modern Court Jews in Jewish History and Art

Mon, December 17, 8:30 to 10:00am, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Harborview 3 Ballroom

Session Submission Type: Panel Session


The conceptual and visual image of the Court Jews has been an important subject of academic discourse and art. Jewish historians have presented Court Jews as agents of change, precursors of emancipation, and thus as icons within Jewish history. At the same time, artists have contributed to the emergence of Court Jews as icons by presenting them as great men, clever merchants, powerful intercessors, benefactors, or as dignified and humble scholars. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, however, the visual and textual images of Court Jews became increasingly stamped with an antisemitic language. Court Jews were portrayed with distorted facial features typical of racial stereotypes to underscore their representation as greedy capitalists. In response to rising antisemitism, racialized Jewish identity, and gradual or partial emancipations, Jewish depictions of Court Jews became more differentiated. These images drew from a range of political discourses – from apologetics to critiques of faltering emancipation to critiques of capitalism. Visual images were part and parcel of these public and academic discussions.
This panel discusses transformations in the conceptual and visual images of the Court Jew in Jewish history and art from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. Recently, Richard Cohen and Vivian Mann have drawn our attention to the methodological need of thinking through the “Jewish art in history” and the “Jewish history in art.” This panel, therefore, focuses on the interplay of textual and visual images in the “iconization” of early modern Court Jews from three angles: The first paper (Aust) examines seventeenth- and eighteenth-century critiques of Court Jews’ dress and appearance and considers how the contemporary critique influenced their image in Jewish history. The second paper (Thulin) explores eighteenth and nineteenth-century images of Jew Samson Wertheimer to show how Jewish history and art made him an icon of the early modern era. The third paper (Mell) situates twentieth-century histories of Court Jews in contemporary cinematic and literary discourses to show how the modern icon of the Court Jew was fashioned (and contested) in the troubled waters of the emancipations of European Jewry and European women.

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