To Tell Their Children: Jewish Communal Memory in Early Modern Prague

To Tell Their Children: Jewish Communal Memory in Early Modern Prague

To Tell Their Children: Jewish Communal Memory in Early Modern Prague

To Tell Their Children: Jewish Communal Memory in Early Modern Prague


This book offers an examination of Jewish communal memory in Prague in the century and a half stretching from its position as cosmopolitan capital of the Holy Roman Empire (1583-1611) through Catholic reform and triumphalism in the later seventeenth century, to the eve of its encounter with Enlightenment in the early eighteenth. Rachel Greenblatt approaches the subject through the lens of the community's own stories-stories recovered from close readings of a wide range of documents as well as from gravestones and other treasured objects in which Prague's Jews recorded their history. On the basis of this material, Greenblatt shows how members of this community sought to preserve for future generations their memories of others within the community and the events that they experienced.

Throughout, the author seeks to go beyond the debates inspired by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi's influential Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, often regarded as the seminal work in the field of Jewish communal memory, by focusing not on whether Jews in a pre-modern community had a historical consciousness, but rather on the ways in which they perceived and preserved their history. In doing this, Greenblatt opens a window onto the roles that local traditions, aesthetic sensibilities, gender, social hierarchies, and political and financial pressures played in the construction of local memories.


I myself have written and published [this chronicle] “so that future
generations will know, until the last generation, children will be born
and rise up to tell their children” (Psalms 78:6), inhabitants of the
holy community of Prague, in the country of Bohemia, that we had
enemies with cunning plots…. And the children of Israel raised up
their eyes and cried out to the Lord of their fathers…and our Lord
did not forsake us, and granted us grace before our lord, His majesty,
and [granted grace] to all Israel in all the places they inhabit….

Judah Leib ben (son of) Joshua, secretary to Prague’s chief rabbi, Aaron Simon Spira-Wedeles, wrote these lines after surviving, during the summer of 1648, a Swedish siege on his native Prague, one of the final stand-offs of the Thirty Years’ War. They are part of his introduction to Milḥama beshalom (War for Peace), a chronicle recording those dramatic events. Judah Leib expressed wonder at his own existence and strove to ensure that future generations would appreciate their past. The emphasis the Prague functionary placed on gratitude to God and public recognition of His wonders is central to many early modern explanations of why one would record or remember a particular event. History ultimately mattered, in part, because—and when—it gave evidence of God’s continued providence over Jews and Jewish communities.

The ability to transmit complex memories—and thus to bridge the chasm of death—distinguishes humans from other members of the animal kingdom. Grandparents tell young children about life when they were young; archaeologists use carbon dating to determine details about civilizations gone for thousands of years. The world’s three major monotheistic religions are historical in nature, their foundational narratives based on particular developments in human time. Indeed, Christian history so dominates western ways of understanding our place in time that every other event deemed worthy of remembrance is . . .

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