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Jewish life then and now

NEW YORK, Dec. 9 (JTA) — Jewish life sure was different the last time the millennium turned.

Children married as young as age 11. Men often traveled long distances buying and selling spices, needles and silks, while their wives managed the family business from home.

Girls were generally not educated in schools, and Jews settled in certain areas based solely on the goodwill of local landowners.

In the year 1000, Jews were spread throughout the globe in communities large and small from Babylonia to Spain and North Africa, and to the Byzantine Empire, whose capital was today’s Istanbul.

Babylonia, today known as Iraq, was the seat of Jewish religious scholarship and authority. From famous academies, or yeshivot, flowed religious writing, teaching and a dissemination of Torah commentary so wide that it reached the far corners of the Jewish world.

In Spain, during what is now called Jewry’s Golden Age, tremendous cultural creativity took root, expressed in poetry and the adaptation of secular forms of expression to Jewish themes.

Although there were marked differences among the various empires in which Jews lived, it was, on the whole, a time of flourishing economic stability and some political engagement, though Jews lived completely separate religious lives from the non-Jews around them.

As a result, the turn of the first millennium was a complete non-event for Jews, according to scholar Daniel Frank, assistant professor of Near Eastern languages and cultures at Ohio State University.

“Christians seemed to be aware of the existence of the millennium, and their millennial concerns were a driving force in the Christian world at the time, but Jews lived by their own calendar.”

In the decades before and after the year 1000, horrifying threats were periodically posed to Jewish physical survival. Jews were valued for their contributions to local economies but just as often reviled for being “unbelievers.”

Unlike the current era, when Jews are challenged from within by assimilation, the threats then were from without. Persecution was a hallmark of the years bracketing the end of the first millennium, as periodic physical attacks were forced upon Jews by Muslims, Christians and Berbers.

Well before the First Crusade, which was called by Pope Urban in 1095, the entire Jewish population of several towns was decimated by rampaging mobs who murdered children, women and men.

It wasn’t until the approach of 1100 that the first Christian millennial madness was seen, say scholars.

The First Crusade, which began in 1096, “happened because people were looking at the end of the century and saying, ‘We will have missed our new kingdom” with the return of Jesus “if something doesn’t happen,’ ” said Ephraim Kanarfogel, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in New York.

In the decades leading up to that point, while there were tensions between Christians and Jews, the two groups interacted in the Byzantine Empire through business, said Kanarfogel.

“Jews did a lot of trading, some of it international, bringing goods to and from the East, and in local commerce. Around the year 1000 there were some Jewish landowners, but that wasn’t common,” he said.

In the 10th century, Jews were making their way to the Ashkenaz — Rhineland Germany and France — encouraged to settle by Christian rulers for economic and political reasons, said Ohio State’s Frank.

“Jews were attractive to Christian rulers because they were international traders, but they were powerless, so their loyalty would be unquestioned since they couldn’t serve as the agents of another army.”

Christian landowners, some of whom were also churchmen, signed treaties with the Jews promising them physical protection while at the same time preaching against Jews and Judaism in church, according to Judith Baskin, chair of the department of Judaic studies at the University at Albany of the State University of New York.

Jews were tanners, metalsmiths, and engaged in other similar trades and industries. It is clear, from both Jewish and church documents, that Jews employed Christians and Christians employed Jews, said Kanarfogel.

Church officials passed laws against Christians working in Jewish homes as servants and wet-nurses “because Jews were not supposed to dominate Christians,” Kanarfogel said, adding that the church also passed laws prohibiting Christians from eating kosher meat, since the Jews wouldn’t eat nonkosher meat.

In Ashkenaz, boys were usually given Hebrew names, and taught Hebrew along with the local vernacular.

Girls, though, were bestowed with names no different than those of their Gentile neighbors, such as Brunnetta, Fleur de Lis, Floretta, Glorietta, Liquoritizia and Polcelina.

Jewish girls were, with occasional exception, educated at home and taught to be literate in the local language. A few elite women, the daughters of rabbis, had some Hebrew learning, particularly if their fathers didn’t have any sons, according to Baskin.

Children were commonly married between ages 12 and 14, and sometimes as young as 11. Partly as a result, the mortality rate of young women was high due to death during childbirth, Baskin said.

Once established in adulthood, though, women were very active in their family businesses and often controlled the family’s economic resources.

Rabbinic responsa are the source of many details about Jewish life at the time, and one, from a 10th- century German rabbi, says that it was the custom of men to put their wives in charge of financial matters, according to Baskin.

It was also a time of important change in the halachic status of women. Around the year 1000, Rabbi Gershom of Mainz, who was viewed as the first important religious decisor of Ashkenaz, ruled that polygamy was no longer acceptable for the Jews of his region, and that a man was no longer permitted to divorce his wife without her consent.

In the Islamic empire that ruled Spain, where the lingua franca was Arabic — something spoken by both Jews and Muslims — the majority culture had great influence on the Jews.

“Jews were expanding their cultural horizons beyond those with which they had been familiar for 1,000 years,” said Alfred Ivry, a professor of Jewish philosophy and Islamic philosophy at New York University and a leading authority on medieval Jewish life.

“You didn’t have secular poetry or science prior to this ever in the Jewish experience,” Ivry said.

In the 11th century came the shining example of Jewish success in medieval Spain, Shmuel HaNagid, a political and military leader, a philosopher and a poet. He headed the Jewish community in Grenada, where his meteoric rise was the highest achievement of a Jew in Muslim Spain.

Babylonia, meanwhile, was the center of religious strength in the medieval Jewish world, say scholars.

The reach of the leading rabbis, the Gaonim, was so great that the first Jewish prayerbook, compiled by the Gaon of Sura, was written in about 875 at the behest of a Jewish community in Northern Spain, said Frank. “Despite the far-flung nature of the Jewish community, communication existed across great distances and even one so far away as Spain would turn to an authority in Babylonia.”

Twice a year the Gaonim would run monthlong study retreats, said Frank, right before Passover and Rosh Hashanah. Men would travel from throughout the Mediterranean world and possibly Northern Europe to study there, he said.

Paradoxically, increasing Jewish literacy both extended the reach of the Babylonian rabbis and reduced their influence. Once the far-flung communities knew enough to establish their own religious leadership, around the end of the 10th century, they stopped sending money to support the yeshivas in Iraq.

A mounting threat to Jewish unity from within was the split between the Rabbanite Jews and the Karaites, who were a powerful movement at that time. Karaism, which exists in a much-weakened form today, denies the validity of the Talmud and the rabbinic tradition.

Around the turn of the millennium, the Karaites began to challenge the authority of the rabbis, said Ivry, and as a result were often denounced in rabbinic literature as heretical.

Documents found in the Cairo Genizah, texts found in the 19th century, show that Karaite and Rabbanite Jews often cooperated on a personal level, and though they were denounced by official spokesmen of the community, said Ivry, the two groups would present a unified front for political purposes, much as today’s fragmented Jewish community pulls together in the face of anti-Semitism

“The last turn of the millennium was, like many other years, a crossroads,” said Ivry.

The central lesson of that period, he said, is that “life for Jews is good now, but who knows what will be in the future? Things can go many different ways.”

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