Gender and the Jewish Archive
Lecture 1: The Jewish Archives of Early Modern Europe
Lecture 2: Records and the Forgotten Jewish Women
Lecture (seminar) 3: Jewish Court Records- Gender and “Jewish Autonomy”
The venue did not record the second lecture, “Records and the Forgotten Jewish Women.”
Elisheva Carlebach seminar Jewish Court Records: Gender and “Jewish Autonomy” transcript:
11 November 2022
Michael Paul Martoccio: I’m Michael Paul Martoccio. I’m an assistant professor here. I work in early modern Europe and Mediterranean history and it’s a true honor for me to once again introduce Elisheva Carlebach to the last event of what’s been a really, really great visit here. Many of you, I think a lot of you have already attended her other events. So I’m not going to sort of go through her entire CV. But Professor Carlebach is a prolific scholar of early modern Jewish history at Columbia University, where she is the Salo Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture and Society, and the co-director for the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. She’s the author of—
Elisheva Carlebach: You don’t have to.
Martoccio: We can just go through. Dozens, many books, dozens of articles, many numerous fellowships. But I think what’s important is today we’re going to workshop this absolutely fascinating paper on basically a small claims court. A Jewish small claims court right on the Danish/German border.
Martoccio: I just wanted to read the title, because I love it. “Big Stakes for Small Claims,” which I think is great. I have lots of questions, but I’ll let you sort of introduce this.
Carlebach: Okay. I’m going to introduce this really briefly on the assumption that some people glanced at this. I will not embarrass anybody. People should feel free to pick at pieces of what they read and ask questions or make interventions. I learned a lot from talking about this material to one or two previous audiences like this one. And I hope to learn from all of you. So just briefly, I came upon these sources more as a social historian. I wanted to learn about the people in the cases. And what happened as I accumulated more and more of these types of community records of all sorts was the sense that the creation of the sources themselves asked me questions that I needed to try to answer. [00:02:19] And that’s part of this larger project, trying to figure out what is the intersection between who creates the record, who preserves the record, why they’re preserving it and what it contains. And I think those questions are questions that almost every scholar or researcher, no matter what your body of sources is that you’re operating on, needs to ask. What isn’t going to be recorded in these sources? Is there a silent subtext that you’re missing? How do you approach that? Again, there are no easy answers. But I think just raising the questions allows us to be better scholars and not approach our sources naively but rather with understanding that what is preserved is very often preserved consciously, either against some narrative or to advance a certain narrative. What is that narrative?
Okay. So there are essentially several, I would say, poles of interest in this paper. One is the recordkeeping itself. And as I had mentioned last night, when a certain gender and class affects the creation of the records and what gets recorded, how does that manifest itself in the record that we look at? The fact that I was able to find for some issues in these records, for example, that of female servants in Jewish households, it was absolutely striking to me that had this been the only record to survive, I would have come away thinking that this was an absolute exception. That the Jewish relationship between employers and servants was completely different than that between employers and servants throughout early modern Europe. Because I know from secondary scholarship all over Europe that there was a lot of sexual mistreatment of female servants. And in this court record, with 1500 small claims, there is not one paternity suit. No such claim ever arises. No scintilla or trace of that aspect of that relationship surfaces.
But when I looked at another record from the same community in which the community scribe kept his own kind of private notes [00:05:19] on things that arose before the public as matters of concern, it was on every page! It was there on every page. The difference between, again, who preserved which types of records was striking. And that’s what led me to this realization that we really have to ask hard questions about our sources. Records are fragile things. Again, the survival of some, especially those that are older or those that are about endangered subjects, we really have to be cautious when we use them.
Okay. And then I’ll say two words about the court itself that this record is based on. For most of Jewish history, three adult males can constitute a court. These are ad hoc courts, which is to say that once the case is presented to them and they resolve the case and issue their resolution, the court dissolves. Those three people might never be asked again to sit together on any proceeding.
Thank you so much. So this is what the volume looks like. Fascinating reading. This is the first. So from the late eighteenth century. I gave you the years, it was 1760s I think it is. Of about fifty volumes that span through the end of the nineteenth century of a similar court for which different types of records were kept. If you have somebody who can read these records and likes to, is interested in these questions, there’s a fantastic dozen doctorates waiting to be written. Nobody has looked at them. I don’t think anybody really understood what these records were. And so they kind of sat there.
So what distinguishes this court first of all is that it’s a standing court. Meaning the same judges sit in the same place at certain specified times. Anybody in the community can register. By which we mean have the scribe or the executive secretary, issue a summons to anybody else to appear before the court. And once an official summons is issued, [00:08:19] that person must appear or they might lose by default. We actually have a record of summonses. Which I didn’t produce here because it doesn’t match exactly the dates of this one. So they’re different summonses. But that just shows you again the proliferation of recordkeeping. Everything has a record.
So it’s a standing court. And part of the purpose of the recordkeeping is to allow retrievability of the decisions. Which is something that you never had with an ad hoc court. An ad hoc court issued its decision. A party might get a writ. Both parties might get a writ of that decision. But if ten or twenty years later or a generation later someone questioned the decision and the documents were lost, which could easily happen, there was no way to prove what the court had decided and by and so forth.
These standing courts are, as I said, apparently new in Jewish communities in the later eighteenth century. I don’t know of any earlier. There are two published records now of rabbinic standing courts from the late eighteenth century. One from Frankfurt, which has English summaries of every single decision that was edited by Edward Fram, called A Window on Their World. And one by Jay Berkovitz of the rabbinic court in Metz in the late eighteenth century called Protocols of Justice. Jay has also written a wonderful subsequent follow-up book. And again the question there of gender and women’s property rights and marriage and beyond are extensively treated through the lens of French law and Jewish law. And one of the things he shows is how the rabbinic court in the eighteenth century in Metz very often issued decisions in cases such as guardianship that were not halakhic even though it was a rabbinic court, they did not decide according to rabbinic law because of the fear that women would then take their cases to the non-Jewish course, where mothers were now being given priority in the case of guardianship of minors. Which was not the halakhic, the rabbinic presumption.
[00:11:16] So this opening up of the courts, of the state, to Jews, is something that’s happening slowly over the course of the eighteenth century in parts of western Europe. And that may have been one of the causes of momentum, if you will, to establish this type of court to keep Jews within the Jewish autonomous community system. Because now they had the ability to go forum shopping, if you will. The whole question of legal pluralism is very active here as a background factor, if you will, in opening up these courts.
What’s interesting about this court is that it is not a rabbinical court. It doesn’t pretend to decide anything on the basis of Jewish law. It is a court of, you might say, of peace. Looking to issue compromises, to maintain the harmony of the community. It never or very rarely invokes Jewish law. That, too, is a novum again. Not that judges would try to decide according to what they call in Hebrew פְּשָׁרָה, compromise. That’s not new. Sometimes they’ll actually say in a rabbinical responsum, “This is my decision according to compromise, but not according to the law.” Because sometimes even the law yields a really difficult result or a result that they don’t think is fair. And they have the discretion to decide otherwise.
As far as I know, this is the only record from Western Europe from this period of a Jewish court that is not a rabbinical court. The one I mentioned by Fram and Berkovitz are of rabbinical courts. This one is what I would call a civic court. Moreover, almost all, there are some exceptions, but most of the cases that come before this court involve very small claims, as we said. Which is what made it so appealing to social historians. Here you really have a kind of panoply of everyday life being argued in front of this court. And it’s really fascinating, what are the kinds of objects, business relationships, [00:14:18] things like that that it touches upon? I was fascinated to see how many, you know, there was just this one winner of the Powerball for two billion dollars. I don’t know if anybody’s been following this. (laughs) In the eighteenth century, lotteries, as I mentioned, became very much both a way for poor people to try to better their circumstances for a small investment, but also a public spectacle that people enjoyed. There would be this big lottery wheel and the whole town would turn out to see who the winners and losers were.
And so a kind of enterprise grows up around lottery tickets, where people buy lots of them in groups with one another. And then there are always disputes as to who actually was included in the group. You know, people who said, “Put me in,” but hadn’t yet given their money, are they allowed to claim a part of the reward? I don’t think anything has changed with that. But it was fascinating to see that this is happening before this little civil court in Altona where people did this all the time.
Okay. So as far as gendering, I want to look at the opening lines. But just to give, this is going to be my last comment before we look at something specific, and then open up the floor. Women either came as plaintiffs or as defendants. In approximately 15% of the cases, I looked at approximately 1500 cases in this record. After that, a new scribe took over who had a new principle of keeping records. He only kept, after 1,458 cases, new scribal system comes along that begins to keep records only if the case is still open. So that didn’t interest me as much, although I’m sure he thought he was saving labor and effort and so forth. What I liked about these first 1500 or so cases was that it was all of them, presumably. So that gave me a nice picture.
So beyond lottery tickets, I think that one of the important types of cases that come up especially with regard to women, again, either as plaintiffs or defendants, are the employer/employee contracts between servants [00:17:19] and their employers. Servants do come before the court to complain that their employers stiffed them out of something that was owed to them. Again, we’re talking about really tiny amounts. Sometimes it was a case of a whole contractual system in which a servant had to leave a security, a small amount of money, which many of them didn’t have, for good faith money once they were hired, to show that they intended to show up when their term of service began, and that nobody else could contract with them or they would lose that little security. So questions about when that security has to be returned, how long the term of service actually is, if, you know, one maidservant says, “Well, they threw me out of the house. What was I supposed to do?” And the employer woman says, “I didn’t throw her out of the house. I just cursed her because she did something wrong. But I didn’t actually terminate the service.” Because this was a question of whether they had to pay her for that term or not, whether there was termination for cause or not. So all of these little disputes come up before this court.
Women who act as matchmakers. Sometimes partners will come before the court and say, “Six of us got together and thought of this brilliant match. And it came to be.” And, you know, so who gets the matchmaker’s fee? And how is it distributed? And is a person who thought it was a good idea but wasn’t exactly involved in the thing, that’s another thing that comes up.
And then just many commercial agreements. Women are involved in all types of business, from small loans to commerce and many different types of commodities. Sometimes a loan, sometimes with another partner who is not their spouse. So just acting as their own agents, but in partnership with someone else in the community. And sometimes with spouses.
So these are the kinds of matters that come up before the court. And I thought one of the things, so this is the, what was notable was that here the word is “Protokoll.” That’s not a Hebrew word. But it’s written in Hebrew letters. And it tells you that there’s something about this court system that’s already very conscious of the non-Jewish court system where records were given that same designation.
So this is what it looks like inside. I don’t know if you can see. [00:20:18] But the cases are numbered. This is the first page of the cases. There’s other things before that that I could talk about. There’s one very detailed case of a woman who died apparently in childbirth during the first year of her marriage. And then the conflict that came up before the court was—I could send anybody copies of these if you ever want to look at them more closely—the conflict that came up was between the husband and the father of the young woman as to who owns the gifts that they received as wedding gifts. The dowry, which in Jewish law, depending on where you looked, the dowry goes back to the woman’s family if she dies within the first or second, depending on where you’re looking at, year of marriage. So many young women died in childbirth during that first year that it became a huge problem for parents who give away, they generally don’t give their daughters large inheritances. The daughters get the large dowries and the sons get the inheritance. But this is a significant part of a parent’s estate. And giving it away to somebody who will then go and marry another woman was a big problem. And this was one of the ways in which it was resolved.
And what was so beautiful about that record, which I didn’t include here, is that you have a list of all the expenses that the husband claimed, he gave out to help his wife, including expenses for a bleeder, somebody who came and bled the woman. Because that was considered a medical intervention. For a non-Jewish doctor, which one assumes is a university-trained person. So you could see kind of as she got more and more ill, the expenses change. The medicines that were prescribed that she needed to take. Pigeons to put on her belly because that was considered an intervention, that they kind of drew out the illness. Don’t ask me questions about where this came from. (laughter) But apparently it was a pretty common medical intervention. So that was one list that was really interesting.
And another one was the artifacts that they were fighting over. Two saltshakers. One for the dairy table and one for the meat table. [00:23:17] And everything else that they had in their little household. It was just a really wonderful thing. That’s before the page. Here it says 24A. There were certain things that came before. But starting here you have one, two, three, four, five. And you’ll notice that these are very, very brief entries. They’re a line or two. They’re summaries. This is not a transcript of court proceedings. Later, in later years, some of the volumes are actually transcripts of an entire proceedings of the court. This party came and argued this, that party came and argued that, the judges decided this. Here all you have is, again, a line or two, sometimes a brief paragraph, a summary of the judgment. So who the plaintiff and who the defendant were, and then a summary of the judgment. And from that you can try and figure out what was at stake.
So I thought what we might do to open our conversation is just look at the very first, it’s not the first entry, it’s just one I picked out. The first few lines of the paper I distributed. Because that’s what one of these entries would read like. And see what we could parse out of it in terms of how to read the source. I really would love to open this up. I’m sure by now people are really tired of hearing me talk.
Ri J. Turner: Okay. I have a boring question.
Turner: The materials that you showed yesterday on the screen were bilingual Hebrew and Yiddish, to some extent. And I was wondering about the language in the register.
Carlebach: That’s a great question. So it is what I call the language of bureaucrats. It is mostly Hebrew, because this is a court. But absolutely will find what I would call reversion to Yiddish, which is the lingua franca. Sometimes you’ll have German words. Sometimes you’ll have Danish words, because this is on the border with Denmark. And at this time, Altona was still a Danish city. That’s another thing we could comment on. Hamburg was a German Hanseatic free city. Altona was a little fishing village that was trying to compete with Hamburg that belonged to the Danish crown. And then there was a third, smaller, Wandsbek Jewish community in proximity. [00:26:17] These three very uneven communities that spanned two sovereign borders and that were governed by very, very different bodies. The senate of Hamburg was very proud of its free city status and never fails to mention that in almost every correspondence.
And Copenhagen was ruled by kings, some of whom were like the German kings of the Middle Ages, completely mad. And it was just a completely different political system. Yet these three communities have this, what I would call an imaginary unity in which they federate and have one chief rabbi, one court system for everybody who lives in both of these jurisdictions, one cemetery system. All their religious functions were united. Mostly in Altona. Because the Lutheran city fathers in Hamburg were very, very reluctant to establish any permanent presence of Jews in Hamburg. That took a long time.
So, by the late eighteenth century, this federation is very rickety, I would say. And it becomes more so as tension grows between Hamburg, which has some ancient claims over the city of Altona, and the Danish crown, which has some ancient claims over Hamburg. And this is not yet resolved at this point. And as very frequently occurs, the Jewish community is something of a bellwether, if you will, depending. So then Jewish inhabitants of Hamburg come sometimes to the court in Hamburg, to the non-Jewish court of the senate and say, “We are citizens of Hamburg. And it’s an embarrassment for you, the senate, to allow us to be summoned to the court in Danish Altona. You should rescue us from that rabbinate.”
Leonora Neville: Fun. I mean, first apologies for forgetting the hour. Sorry about that. I was early for nine.
Carlebach: No, it changed. It’s not your fault.
Neville: But to take up your challenge of like how much we can unpack in this [00:29:19] one little sentence, so we know that we have a widow of a guy, known by his name, not her own.
Neville: But she is able to bring the guy to court, right?
Neville: And she’s able, and the amount is marked in money. So I’d want to question the currency. Did she have currency at some point that this meat seller, who has to pay her in kind, because I note that disparity. He’s paying her in meat, right? But is accounted in coins. So are coins always the account? Or is it often in kind, there’s something special that would let us know that she in fact had at some point lent him money, or gotten money? So I would really want to try to unpack that. I note that she has her deceased husband had a last name, whereas the meat seller didn’t. Is that like a class differential?
Carlebach: Well, I think the meat seller might be known as “the meat seller.”
Neville: Okay. Yeah, yeah.
Carlebach: That might be his actual name.
Neville: I just, you know, I want to do comparisons with this one with a whole bunch of others to see if we can figure out what are the things that enabled her to have this power? Is it merely her state of widowhood? But she’s getting this guy to pay up somehow or other. So is it class? Is it her education? What’s enabling her—
Carlebach: Well the question is whether he took advantage of her because she was a widow and she decided to stand her ground and take him to court for what is not again a huge sum of money and can be repaid with her butcher bill. You know, who’s to hold her to account that he gives her the exact—
Neville: So is it an honor thing? Is it honor more than money?
Carlebach: I think it’s money. You know, with the undertone of maybe taking advantage of her because she was a woman. So maybe she lent him the money. He said he would repay it. He doesn’t. She comes to court and this is how they resolve it.
Martoccio: But it’s actually unresolved, right? I mean, it doesn’t say, “And you must do that within two months” or within six months. And that’s something that comes up in the paper is that these sort of build relationships into the future. And you see that they’re not—
Carlebach: That’s right. So if time goes on and he doesn’t grant her the amount that she is awarded, she might go back to the court. Some of these are ongoing cases. And again, there’s something here about her getting her day in court, and her having that small satisfaction of being declared right, rather than there being much of an enforcement mechanism. And the fact is that they didn’t ask him to repay her in money, even though that’s how the debt was denominated. So he may have claimed that he doesn’t have it. But he could give her in kind. Again, I don’t know. And I really just, I picked this out because this is often how women are referred to. The wife of or the widow of. [00:32:19] We don’t get to hear even her first name. That’s her status. And we don’t, we really don’t get to hear much about the argument and what it’s based on. But the fact that the court awarded her the full amount that she apparently claimed, speaks to what might have happened.
Neville: In comparison with others, can you tell, my instinct is to say it’s a debt issue. But it could be a payment for some other kind of wrong.
Carlebach: The answer is all possibilities, it wouldn’t be a payment in this record for things like an insult. There’s a whole other record book just for honor cases.
Neville: Yeah. Okay. Cool.
Carlebach: It’s this big fat—(laughs) People clearly took out there, again, this is a community now in Altona alone, not counting Hamburg, of about three thousand Jews, which was very sizable. One of the reasons it was so large is because Altona is a late founded city. Again, it began as a teeny fishing village that decided it wanted to compete against Hamburg because it was on the water and could compete as a port city. So the Danish government decided to pour some resources into it to build up the harbor, to attract shipping. And one of the things they did was kind of allow merchants, not just Jews. There was a very sizable Mennonite community in
Altona. But it was very friendly to others to come and settle. And that’s all you need to say to many Jews who are so restricted from settlement almost everywhere else in Europe. And especially to poor Jews who don’t have the assets to establish residency in other places. They flock to Altona giving this community an absolutely huge burden of looking after poor and transient populations that come through.
Martoccio: It reminds me a lot of Livorno, which is set up in almost the exact same way and attracts people from all over, lots of Jews, but people of all sorts of different groups. And it reminded me. You brought up this issue of the lottery, which is absolutely fascinating. Because there’s a lot of work done on the Venetian and Roman lotteries. And I’ve never, ever seen any Jewish population there have a lottery ticket. Because the fear about, lotteries give these poor people this opportunity, [00:35:18] but it also creates a lot of anxiety amongst the elites that people who are undeserving, I mean, it’s not an unfamiliar narrative to us—
Martoccio: —that people who are undeserving are going to win this. And what will that do to the entire social structure? So the fact that those kind of tickets are being circulated around, I mean, it’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen that.
Carlebach: So there are lotteries all over Germany. I believe that if you look at the rabbinical court records in Frankfurt, there might also be lottery tickets. I don’t remember for sure. But I don’t think it’s unique to this place. Anything that comes here to Altona you can be sure is being done in larger cities first. And these are, as they are today, sources of revenue for the municipal government. Allow it to conduct its business. And it works the same way. You know, everybody buys tickets. Part of the income goes to the winner, but part stays with the city. Yeah.
Sunny Yudkoff: I have a question about the act of going to the small claims court. And I’m going to be very anachronistic. But when I think of going to small claims court, it’s quite an effort to make that process. And you write that there are intercessors who are paid, and there’s a whole other economy that gets established. And yet you also said in the paper that there were up to ten cases on a Monday, up to ten cases on a Thursday. Is this sort of, for lack of a better word, the thing to do? Or is it a last resort?
Carlebach: So there are people who you might say are repeat customers. (laughter) And I’m sure, you know, even today there are people who use litigation as a means of advancing some interest or other, or just because it seems that they’ll never be satisfied with the status quo and that’s a means of asserting themselves. I think again it had a busy docket. And I’ll show you just one more. There should have been another slide. I guess it didn’t come. It doesn’t matter. It’s fine. I just wanted to show you the index to this volume, which is alphabetized according to last names, according to the Hebrew. And for that, if there are last names. But if there aren’t, then first names. And within each alphabetical designation, there’s no further alphabetization. [00:38:18] So if there were twenty Abrahams coming before the court, it’s really hard to find the one that you’re looking for. But just the attempt at creating a finding aid is interesting.
Neville: Mm hmm. Right.
Carlebach: As I said, it’s a populist community with a lot of poor people. More so than in most other contemporary Jewish communities because of the, despite the fact that the community has this very strict membership guidelines. To be a tax paying member, you have to have a certain income, you have to pay a certain amount of taxes. But there’s a lot of transience. A lot. I would say somewhere between 10 and 15% of the population at any given time were servants. When we say schoolteachers, we don’t think of the unionized people who have all these rights today in the schools. Think of yeshiva students who may be in their late teens who haven’t yet settled down and who get hired by the community to teach the children of the poor. Because as we said, those who could afford it hired private instruction. Everybody was required to instruct their children, to have them schooled, up to a certain point in Jewish schooling. They had to know how to read the Bible, they had to know how to pray. They had certain things that they had to know how to do. They didn’t have to send them on for higher education. That was reserved for the brilliant children or those of the very wealthy. And most parents who could afford it hired a private tutor. By which we mean again usually a teenage yeshiva student. So they are another transient population. And there are others. Again, all kinds of others. People passing through for whatever reason.
So there’s a lot of suspicion of strangers or others. Going into any kind of partnership with someone who says, “I’m here to invest some money. Do you want to go into partnership with me?” can lead to all kinds of fallout. So in terms of was it the thing to do? That’s a great question. I can’t tell you. Because remember that there are other courts. This is the civil small claims court.
There’s also a rabbinical court. And then there’s also the non-Jewish court system in the [00:41:18] same city. And Jews really did have the opportunity to choose their venue. And that’s something that the Jewish community tries to direct. They’ll say, you know, we even have a kind of sub-legal pluralism within our own community. You could come before the lay court or you could come before the rabbinical court. Don’t go to the non-Jewish court. Why? Because first of all, it undermines our authority and allows them to come in, into business that we think should be better adjudicated in-house, so to speak. But also because we don’t want to be a nuisance. Remember that they’re still tolerated as a minority. And that could still be revoked.
In 1745, Maria Teresa (1717-1780) evicted, expelled, all the Jews of Prague. Which had been a Jewish community since medieval times. A very populous, totally unexpected. And eventually she asked them to come back. But that’s in the mid eighteenth century. And that’s still happening in certain parts of Germany, too. There are, some new person becomes the prince of whatever. And while his predecessors have permitted it, he might be Catholic, they might have been Protestant, or vice versa. And things just change. And the Jews have to pick themselves up, leave everything behind, and move. And that’s still happening. So they’re very conscious of the tenuousness of their existence. And they don’t want to be a burden to the city or to the state. They want to be able to say, “We’re peaceable. If we have conflict, we’ll resolve it inhouse. We won’t bother you.”
Cara Rock-Singer: So this picks up on that maybe more than the paper itself. And it’s a little bit related to the question I asked last night about knowledge production. And I come at this much more as an anthropologist. So asking different questions of these materials. And maybe they’re unanswerable. But I’m curious to think more, hear more, about what you think about again the kind of like knowledge production element in this insofar as not just what has changed with the knowledge of it being written down. But also about how the community, if there’s any way to parse how the community thinks differently of itself [00:44:18] as an entity, as a unit. How that possibility for forum shopping even existing, and the kind of porousness that that allows. And even the distinction within the community of there being the rabbinic versus the civic court. So I guess I’m curious to think about or hear about how even those relations that they are starting to recognize, the new forms of relations that are possible, if that has any effect, too, on the way communities think about identities. I mean, not probably from these records, but more broadly. Obviously there’s the sort of always present threat of being expelled. But even within the communities themselves, how their bonds and their relations and their kinship are reconfigured.
Carlebach: Okay. So I like the question. And I’m going to refer you first of all to a young scholar who just started a new job at NYU called Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg. I don’t know if that name means anything to you. But she is specifically engaged in the question of knowledge production in rabbinic sources in the late medieval/early modern period. I hope her work will, some of her articles have appeared, there’s an article in AJS Review. But she’s preparing two volumes out of her dissertation. So that will satisfy NYU’s tenure—(laughter)
Rock-Singer: Yeah, that was a rough job, I heard.
Carlebach: Yes. But she’s going to do it. But she’s very interested in that particular aspect of some of these records. So just to take a stab, which I know won’t satisfy you, at your question, I think there is a lot of self-consciousness in the creation of these records as a reflection of a community’s character. And the character that they try to project is one of we are a place of justice. That’s why we have all these courts and all these avenues for redress. We are just people. And our community organization reflects that. We are a place of mercy and kindness, and all our charitable institutions reflect that. [00:47:18] So there are characteristics of the community that they pronounce at various occasions. They are very articulate about that. And that’s the character they want to project outward and inward. Both to their own constituents, as we are the best place for justice. And again, that against the obvious competition of the opening of non-Jewish courts, even on a lower level, to Jews. But also we are a place of justice so, again, to introduce a sense of let’s have communal harmony. And that is a pronounced, there’s a pronounced self-consciousness, I would say. Occasionally somebody will be unaware enough to say we’re not going to put this in writing. (laughter) Which I always love and wish they would have just said it. But the fact that that always means that they don’t want to inscribe something, that were it to come to the attention of a non-Jewish government that it would reflect poorly on themselves as subjects, later as citizens. There’s this tremendous self-consciousness about the creation of these records and what that says about, again, the community itself and its own sense that they’re not there yet as a right. They have been granted a privilege, which means it could be revoked.
Daniel Stolz: I was curious to know more about the enumeration of the cases in the record. This goes back. It’s probably a knowledge production question, but it really goes back to what you said about the finding aid and sort of thinking about the scribes and what they thought a legal record was for that they were creating. And they seem to have had some different visions about what that was. So I’m just curious if you’d say more about how the cases are enumerated. Does it start at one on every page? Is it by date?
Carlebach: No. It goes through to 1,458. Every single one enumerated. There are a few errors, like where a number will be skipped or repeated. But they’re all in Arabic numerals, as you see, which is unusual for Jewish records. It’s usually following the Aleph-Bet, which each letter also has a [00:50:18] numerical value. Moreover, these don’t have dates, all of them. But later, they do. And the dates are always to the Jewish date.
Stolz: Can you tell how many cases were decided on one day?
Carlebach: So they heard, because I have a docket, we actually have a list of the summonses, they were only able to schedule ten cases per working day. The working days were, in antiquity, the market days. Mondays and Thursdays. Which are the days until this day that the Torah is read in brief during the morning services. So those were more obligatory. It was really hard to skip those days. And since people were around, it was probably after services that the court then sat for however many hours it was open. They did schedule double sessions on the week that a holiday, a Jewish holiday, would fall, because that would sometimes mean that two or three weeks in a row could go by without there being a free day for the court to work.
Stolz: I guess what I’m wondering is to the extent that this was an unusual system, as you say, using the Arabic numerals, for example, is there anything you could surmise about how the scribe thought it would be used?
Carlebach: Yes. And again, let me see if I can pull it up on my phone. What I wanted to show you was the index, like a dictionary, you know, Aleph, Bet, Gimel, each page listing the, yeah, there you go. How did you get that?
Martoccio: We can’t reveal our secrets. (laughter)
Carlebach: Okay. Yeah. So, ignore my little paper there. That’s a way of remembering after I take many photographs which manuscript it is. So here you can see, beginning with the Aleph, each person’s name and the number of the case. So that if you were interested in Itzik, whatever his name was, son of Ephraim Heckscher, who was actually one of the city community leaders, if you were interested in following his case, you’d just flip to case number 329. They’re all listed in order. So that was the point of this. It didn’t actually, I don’t think he went to the end of the alphabet. But the fact that at the end of the creation of these cases, somebody went back and tried to create the finding aid tells you that one of the purposes was retrievability. [00:53:18] There was no point in recording these many, many cases unless there was a way to easily retrieve the resolution. And so the entire creation of this particular record was about the resolutions and how to find them. This was not the original protocol, again. This was in its entirety, perhaps, just a finding aid. Yeah.
Jackie Krass: I want to that point you made when you were answering Cara’s question about how they want to present themselves to the larger community. It’s really interesting. Because I was thinking about this the whole time. It’s like a self, you know, it’s created with using Aleph-Bet Jewish language, which obviously alphabet and dating system and everything is. So did these documents come before like a non-Jewish leadership? Do they get translated?
Carlebach: So sometimes they do. Generally it’s not good news for the Jews when somebody says, “We want to see your records.” It’s kind of like getting a summons from the IRS, “Bring all your papers with you.” Famously in the early seventeenth century, there was a case in Frankfurt that came before the non-Jewish court. Because one of the litigants went to them. And then they asked to see all the community’s records, which they brought to the, I think it might have been the imperial court, which had a branch in Frankfurt because it was an imperial city. And it ended up in the court putting all kinds of restrictions on the Jews. Because Jews are doing this?! They’re doing that?! This surprised them. And it had to do at that point with getting permission to print books. Famously you couldn’t do it now without an imprimatur. Before that, Hebrew books in that region had kind of gone under the radar and other things like that.
By the mid-eighteenth century, slowly, as states begin asserting their rights and trying to centralize their bureaucracies over all of their subjects—they’re not really citizens yet—but they want to centralize bureaucracy. And that means trying to incorporate some of these sub-societies—not just the Jews, but also the Jews—into the larger matrix of the city. Or the state. And that meant fascinatingly training French judges and German judges in Jewish law so that they could hear [00:56:18] and adjudicate cases. Because a contract is only valid within the legal system in which it is created. And you can’t really understand what a ketubah is, for example, a marriage contract, or many of the business terms that are based on Talmudic or even biblical legal terms without knowing what those were. And so you have a whole branch of legal studies for non-Jews in the law schools. And that’s why you have a lot of translation of certain Jewish texts. Volumes of Talmud translated into Latin. Who’s reading this? People who are studying for their law boards in eighteenth century Germany are studying these texts so that they could serve also as judges for Jewish cases. So you can actually see as the time progresses more of an attempt at integration of Jews into the larger system, which ultimately leads to the disintegration of Jewish communal autonomy. And that’s the whole point of what you might call emancipation. Jews don’t get to have their own subsociety within the larger society; they will now be subsumed along with everyone else.
Krass: It’s hard not to think of like contemporary Hassidic systems in New York.
Carlebach: Well, read David Myer’s recent book and Nomi Stolzenberg, who is his wife. They together authored a book [American Shtetl] about a very interesting attempt in New York to create an autonomous village which is all Hassidic. The initial impulse for that was to try to get public funds for children who needed special education. It’s very expensive and the Hassidic community could not bear the cost of it itself. And the public school system would not supply teachers to Hassidic schools because they’re religious schools. And somehow out of that impasse came their idea of seceding from the larger village that they were in and forming their own. Which could then qualify for federal funding for special needs children.
Brandon Bloch: Yeah. Thanks so much. I’m wondering if you would talk more about the judges in these civil cases. So who were they? Did they have some kind of legal training? Like how are they paid? What did they do on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays? (laughter) [00:59:18] So if they’re working, right, was this a fulltime role for them? And then going along with that, also on what basis are these being decided and legitimated? So if the decisions are not based on Jewish law, the Halakah, they’re not, you’re looking to Danish law. So when they say, you know, while four measures of meat is worth eight marks and eight shillings, where are they getting that from and how was that sort of being recognized as legitimate?
Carlebach: Okay. So who were the judges? Sadly, they never mention who the judges are in this summary record. Some of them can be rabbinically trained. Some of them are lay people who have commercial experience. Being appointed judge can be a salary position. But in many cases, when you’re talking about men of commerce rather than rabbis, it was a voluntary and honorary appointment. So what were they doing the rest of the time? They were pursuing their own business interests. For the most part. Remember that there’s going to be a rotating list of who sits on this court. Even if it’s a standing court, it’s not always the same judges. But it’s always the same court. So that’s something important to keep in mind.
Unlike, again, in a rabbinical court, everybody has to have training and has to be acceptable to the chief rabbi, who was chosen on the basis of great scholarship. As opposed to men of commerce, who could be learned in Jewish law but who don’t make the rabbinate their primary occupation. Because this is such a large Jewish community, one assumes that people who sat on these courts were highly literate in Jewish law and maybe literate in business, contract law, of the non-Jewish system that they were a part of because they partook of it. Many of them have non-Jewish partners and they knew a great deal about how to construct contracts and what they meant.
But the legitimacy is the key factor here. There is very little basis. Again, they don’t claim to be administering based on a certain body of laws except for the communal ordinances. And what is their reinforcement mechanism? Very often, community pressure. [01:02:18] They have extreme measures at their disposal. They can expel somebody from the community. They can suspend someone from being allowed to hold various religious privileges. So as we mentioned last night, that person can’t be called up to the Torah reading. That’s an embarrassment and an insult for people who cared about it. As time goes on and the population becomes more assimilated into the non-Jewish culture, more and more people didn’t care. And that just made that reinforcement mechanism much weaker.
They could impose fines. But again, there’s a limited mechanism for collecting them. In Altona, every fine that was due, 50% of it went to the royal coffer. And that was a way of the Jewish community having an enforcement mechanism beyond its own recognizance. Because that way they could say, “Well, if you don’t pay, the royal intendants will come after you. And that will be bad news for you.”
But it’s really based on, again, community regulations, communal enforcement. You know, what happens if this butcher doesn’t pay up? She could come again before the court. Do they have the right to seize his assets? Sometimes. They can try. Violence was not a great way of mitigating violence, which was the whole point of this court. So again, limited enforcement power.
It’s much stronger in an earlier age, in the seventeenth century, when having the community’s approbation and communal membership were absolutely necessary for life. That meant that the community had a much greater power over its members. But when you’re talking about the later eighteenth century, it’s beginning to erode.
Turner: I wanted to point out the sentence that you have in the middle, that the official recording and archiving of the decisions of the Jewish civil court in the second half of the eighteenth century may be seen as a means for the Jewish community to preserve its raison d’être in an age of new challenges to its existence. Like going on this question that you’ve raised before as far as how the court records present the community. It seems like you’re also arguing that not just the content [01:05:18] of the record but the very act of creating the record is performing something about this separate existence of the community in a time when that’s under threat. And I was wondering if you can develop that argument more as far as the archive being acts.
Carlebach: So just to kind of backtrack for a moment, the challenge to the very existence of the Jewish community is coming out of Hamburg where the senate of Hamburg begins to see the separate communal administration by the Jews as somehow interfering with its own sovereignty over its subjects. It does not come out of Denmark, Altona, which allowed Jews to retain their own municipal or sub-municipal bureaucracy longer than any other part of Europe as far as I know. Well into the second half of the nineteenth century, this Jewish court had recognition by the royal courts in Copenhagen to continue functioning and have authority. So that’s again, we’re dealing here with a kind of tension between different authority-giving bodies. And the creation of the records I see as a way of asserting that this is a serious court. We are taking our self-administration, if you will, as a very serious matter. And we’re modeling our records roughly on those of a real court. Which it was in certain respects.
Doney: We have five minutes before she has to catch a cab to the airport. (laughter) Just as a—
Carlebach: So I do want to say in those five minutes if anybody, first of all, if anybody wants to see these records, this record is completely digitized on—
Carlebach: —the National Library of Israel’s website. If anybody needs help finding it or accessing it, I’m happy to be in touch with you about that. And so are many of the other community records from across Europe now. As I said, the KTIV website, K-T-I-V, is a digitization project of the National Library that tries to aggregated digitized records and manuscripts of all kinds into one space where you could find the links to libraries [01:08:18] across Europe, the Middle East, the Americas. It’s really a marvelous site for people who are working in Jewish language materials. That’s first.
Second, my email address, Skye has it. It’s on the website of Columbia University’s history department. I’m so happy to be able to follow up with anyone who wants to. It sometimes takes me a day or two to get back to you, but I enjoy the engagement and I really apologize for having to kind of talk and run.
Neville: Could I just—
Neville: I feel there was a great sense of where this goes in the later period. I’m wondering could we just have a bit more of how it developed? Because it strikes me as a system when your city gets too big for everyone to know everybody.
Carlebach: Yes. Yes, absolutely.
Neville: And it’s a situation where it’s a response to the crisis of getting too big. When do you think that this sort of system got going?
Carlebach: So we know when the community was founded. These are late communities founded in the seventeenth century, sometimes by a handful of families who get a privilege. And then they say, “Well, we can’t be here without at least ten people for our quorum to pray with. And we need a kosher butcher and we need a baker and we need a candlestick maker.” (laughter) And little by little, the community grows. And again, if they don’t make too much trouble and they contribute to the economic and social prosperity of the unit into which they are permitted, again, Hamburg was quite resistant to Jewish settlement. And the way Jews get there is through a back door. Like so many other parts of Italy and parts of Germany, it’s Sephardic Jews who come as Catholics—
Carlebach: —who first come in, settle, and eventually it was a Lutheran city. Eventually it became more advantageous to be Jewish than to be Catholic. You find that in England. That’s how the first settlement of Jews in England comes about, resettlement after medieval times, and so forth. So that’s the basis for it.
The Ashkenazic community quickly grows larger than the Sephardic community. And yes, I think you’re absolutely right. Records like this, with these type of finding aids, would only be necessary where people didn’t know one another. So that’s when we talk about transients, but also just a larger community. Maybe the city, the aldermen, if you will, knew one another. [01:11:18] But many other people were simply not known. And now you have to keep records to keep track of who they are, where they are and I don’t know if you were there when I showed the earliest community record that’s extant from the 1530s. In Friedberg, which is maybe a half an hour from Frankfurt today, there you see that nobody has anything but their first name.
Carlebach: And the records were very minimal. Just what they owed in taxes. Really a few other things. So you can, that showed me how the system, and that wasn’t the first volume, unfortunately, but that’s the only one that survives, shows you how the recordkeeping burgeoned. There are dozens, maybe over a hundred different types of records from this federated community of Altona and Hamburg and at Wandsbek that are still surviving. And that is just a treasure house for historians of all kinds of aspects of Jewish life in that period.
Neville: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Thank you.
Doney: Please join me in thanking Professor Carlebach for the last two days. (applause)
Carlebach: Thank you all again for being a great group of discussants. And every time I think about this material, I get, I become aware of other aspects of it. And I’m sure you’ll find some of your questions reflected, if I ever got to finish writing something about—unfortunately I’m immersed in them for many, many years. And I keep on thinking of them in different ways, and discovering new angles. And it’s become my long-term project.
Neville: Thank you.
Martoccio: Thank you.
Carlebach: Thank you again for coming. (sounds of people leaving, multiple conversations)
George L. Mosse Program in History
UW-Madison Department of History
UW-Madison Center for German and European Studies
Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies
Elisheva Carlebach is Salo Baron Professor of Jewish History, Culture, and Society, and Co-Director, Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies, Columbia University. She is the author of The Pursuit of Heresy (National Jewish Book Award); Divided Souls: Jewish Converts to Christianity in Early Modern German Lands; Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe (AJS Schnitzer Prize) and Confronting Modernity: 1750-1880, volume 6 in The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization. She has held fellowships at the New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers, the Katz Center at University of Pennsylvania, and the Tikvah Center at NYU Law School. She served as Editor of the AJS Review and as President of the American Academy for Jewish Research. In 2017 she was awarded the Lenfest Distinguished Faculty Award of Columbia University.