Picturing Yiddish: Gender, Identity, and Memory in the Illustrated Yiddish Books of Renaissance Italy

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Picturing Yiddish: Gender, Identity, and Memory in the Illustrated Yiddish Books of Renaissance Italy, by Diane Wolfthal. Brill Series in Jewish Studies, 36. Leiden: Brill, 2004. 283 pp. $146.00.

The purpose of this important study is to question a series of assumptions widespread particularly in the field of art history: "that images of ritual in early Yiddish books are mirrors of reality; that their Christian counterparts are neutral and objective; that illustrations in secular Yiddish books are irrelevant to an understanding of Jewish history; that art history should focus on beautiful images; and that Jews in the past formed a uniform group, who shared the view that rabbis were central and women peripheral to their society" (p. 203). The author attempts to refute these assumptions by means of an analysis of five "profusely illustrated volumes that were created in northern Italy during the sixteenth century" (p. xxv): three books of customs (a manuscript, Paris BN ms. héb. 586, and two printed books, Venice 1593 and 1600) and two secular books-the romance, Pariz un viene (1594), and the collection of fables, the Ki-bukh (1595). Since the vague topics designated by the book's subtitle never become the focus of the study, the only principle that attempts to unify the analysis of these diverse materials is the fact that the books are all illustrated and in Yiddish, which as a principle of cohesion is sometimes too tenuous. The author's strength is in her expert analysis of the images and their interrelation with the surrounding texts and their connections with their original audiences. The volume's most important accomplishment is its reproduction in high-quality photographs of 188 illustrations from the five focal books (about half of which are from the Paris manuscript, which are then systematically described and catalogued, pp. 211-250). The volume concludes with a very useful bibliography (pp. 251-74) and index.

There are, however, several problematic assumptions that complicate the analysis, including the author's own unacknowledged "anti-elitist" project, which is manifested in her aggressive challenge to several theses proposed and accepted in the still primarily male-dominated scholarly establishment and in her (inconsistent and contradictory) championing of the work of the non-professional artist of the Paris manuscript. First, she sharply castigates several generations of apparently elitist scholars for their descriptions of the images in the Paris manuscript as "coarse," "comical and shabby," "childish, naïve, and caricature-like," "primitive," and "devoid of all artistic worth" (pp. 5, 20), although she then herself consistently echoes those evaluations in her own description of the drawings (pp. 15, 20, 21, 69). Secondly, she assumes that the audience, patrons, and even authors of books of customs such as the ones here analyzed belong to "the middle ranks" or "an intermediate sector of the Jewish community," basing this assumption solely on the fact that these books are not expensively produced (cf. pp. 14-15, 21, 76). It is thus particularly problematic when she designates the scribe/artist of the Paris manuscript as "a member of the middle ranks of Jewish society" (p. 63), since he is obviously educated enough not merely to participate passively in the textual culture of Judaism, but to synthesize a broad range of texts from that learned tradition in order to produce an accessible vernacular digest, illustrated by pertinent images that function, as Wolfthal aptly points out, almost as glosses on the text (pp. …