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

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East