In Praise of the Jewish Illustrated Manuscript

Sept. 3 2015

Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, edited by Marc Epstein with essays by several experts, presents hundreds of examples of Jewish artistic creativity drawn mainly from the medieval period. As Sara Lipton notes, the volume gives the lie to the notion either that Jews have no appreciation for aesthetics or that Jewish art is “all caftans and camels or dancing violinists.” She writes (with images):

The gorgeously illustrated volume . . . should challenge almost all assumptions about Jewish identity, difference, or art. Its twelve instructive chapters and 287 full-color images survey a stunning array of illustrated books made for Jews from the 12th to the 21st centuries. There are legal works slathered in gold leaf, and haggadot and prayer books whose margins bloom with botanically accurate flora and fauna. Although such manuscripts served Jews’ religious needs, Epstein repeatedly emphasizes their similarity (in style, composition, quality, and cost) to books made for contemporary Christians and Muslims.

Skies of Parchment also contains a number of secular manuscripts that have nothing to do with the practice of Judaism. Only the Hebrew lettering tells us that the dashing, turban-wearing protagonist of the verse epic The Book of Conquest is a Jewish rather than Persian hero. . . .

In most cases, the figures depicted in these books share the clothing, habits, and surroundings of the majority culture. In a 13th-century French miscellany, King Solomon is arrayed like a Capetian king. A teacher chastising his pupil could be any university-educated Christian pedagogue, and an illustration from a Spanish Haggadah depicts Moses and his family returning from Midian in a way almost identical to (indeed, they are directly modeled on) Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing to Egypt.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Haggadah, Jewish art, Manuscripts, Middle Ages

In Gaza, Israel Must Try to Restore Deterrence While Avoiding War

Oct. 22 2018

Early Wednesday morning, a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the city of Beersheba, striking the courtyard of a home. (The woman who lived there, and her three children, barely escaped.) Israel responded swiftly with airstrikes, and the IDF reported that this weekend was the quietest along the Gaza separation fence since March 30, when the weekly riots there began. Yet some 10,000 Palestinians still gathered at the border, burning tires and throwing stones, grenades, and makeshift explosives at Israeli soldiers on the other side. Meanwhile, writes Eran Lerman, Jerusalem faces a difficult decision about how to proceed:

The smaller terrorist organizations in Gaza—Islamic Jihad, which operates as a satellite of Iran, and radical Sunni groups inspired by Islamic State—are the primary ones that want to ratchet up the violence into a full-scale war. For them, a major war in Gaza could be an opportunity to build themselves up on the ruins of Hamas. It also looks as if Iran, too, has an interest in escalating the situation in Gaza and pulling Israel into a war that will detract from its ability to focus on its main defense activity right now: keeping Iran from digging down in Syria.

The third player consistently working to worsen the situation in Gaza and torpedo Egypt’s efforts to broker a cease-fire is the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas, for whom—as he once said in Jenin— “the worse things are, the better.” . . .

All of these considerations are counterbalanced, paradoxically, by Hamas’s interest in continuing to dictate the terms of any cease-fire with Israel while refraining from a war, which the Hamas leadership knows would be self-destructive. Its moves to escalate the conflict—arson balloons, breaches of the border fence—have been intentionally selected as ways of taking things to the brink without toppling over into the abyss. . . .

And Israel? A harsh, well-defined blow is vital for it to maintain its mechanism of deterrence. A missile hitting Beersheba is not a trivial occurrence. However, as far as possible, and given the broader considerations of the regional balance of power as well as Israel’s fundamental interest in avoiding a ground war, it would be best to make the most of Egypt’s mediation.

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More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Palestinian Authority