Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History
by David B. Ruderman
Princeton, 336 pages, $35
“Early, partly, sometimes, maybe modern, early modern is a period for our period’s discomfort with periodization,” Randolph Starn once quipped to describe the so-called muddle of early modernity. In Early Modern Jewry: A New Cultural History, David Ruderman engages Starn and other scholars reluctant to periodize by clearly delineating the fundamental contours of the age.
Eschewing treatment of early modern as an adumbration of modern, Ruderman catalogues and explores five essential markers of early modern Jewish culture—increased mobility, communal cohesion, knowledge explosion, crisis of rabbinic authority, and mingled identities. The manner in which these elements characterize and inform early modern Jewish culture is what, in Ruderman’s view, distinguishes this period from medieval and modern times.
Ruderman’s specifically early modern Jewish culture encompasses Talmudists, conversos, philosophers, itinerant preachers, Hebraists, kabbalists, and Frankists. A unifying culture transcends geographic boundaries, but the variety of Jewish experiences is carefully laid out. Ruderman achieves this insightful panorama through analytical synthesis of the ever-increasing canon of scholarship on early modern European and Ottoman Jewry.
Early Modern Jewry’s embrace of transregional synthesis and the notion of connected histories is perhaps Ruderman’s most significant contribution to his subject. In the past two decades, while global, transnational, and comparative historical studies proliferated, Jonathan Israel’s European Jewry in the Age of Mercantilism 1550–1750 remained the only such treatment of Jewish early modernity. Ruderman’s Early Modern Jewry advances Jewish historiography by showing that regionally specific Jewish histories can and should be meaningfully analyzed together.
Debra Glasberg Gail is a graduate student in Jewish history at Columbia University.