Author Archives: Eli Barnavi

About Eli Barnavi

Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University

Jewish Immigration from Eastern Europe

The period between 1880 and 1924 is perhaps the most well-known in American Jewish history. This is the period of mass Jewish immigration that brought the families of so many contemporary American Jews to this country. Pushed by increasing anti-Semitism and pulled by the economic and social promise of America, these immigrants, chiefly of Russian and East European origin, came in numbers so vast that they remade much of the American Jewish community. The following article describes the ideological and practical characteristics of this immigrant community. It is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People (Schocken Books).

In 1880, in a Jewish population of approximately 250,000, only one out of six American Jews was of’ East European extraction; 40 years later, in a community which had reached four million, five out of six American Jews came from Eastern Europe. Indeed, at that time over a third of East European Jewry had left their countries of origin, and 90 percent of them emigrated to the United States. Such an enormous wave of immigration had a tremendous effect on the American Jewish community. 

jewish immigrants

Ellis Island, 1902

The newcomers tended to cluster in the poorer districts of the metropolises. Most of them settled in the great commercial, industrial, and cultural centers of the northeast (New York in the first place, then Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore) and of the Midwest (particularly Chicago). Certain neighborhoods in these cities became almost exclusively Jewish, congested and bustling with a rich, typically Jewish way of life.


Through hard work and under extremely difficult conditions, these Jews established themselves in the garment industry, petty trade, cigar manufacture, construction, and food production. About 30 years after the beginning of the mass immigration, and not without bitter struggles, the Jewish trade union movement emerged as a formidable force, supported by over a quarter of a million workers. A flourishing Yiddish culture–poetry, prose, and drama–revolved mostly around the themes of the hardships of the Jewish worker’s life, expressing the reality of daily existence within a community of immigrants.


The major achievement of the medieval Babylonian geonim (8th to early 11th century) was the successful promotion of the Babylonian Talmud as the definitive rabbinic source regarding Jewish religious practice. Ironically, the widespread acceptance of the Babylonian Talmud (combined with the decline of the Baghdad caliphate and the impoverishment of Babylonian Jewry) contributed to the demise of the Babylonian geonim, as important, independent centers of talmudic learning emerged in the Diaspora. Reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The Muslim conquests were an important agent of unification for the Jewish communities throughout the diaspora. From the seventh century onwards, the vast majority of Jews were under single rule and part of a large network of commercial ties connecting the different sectors of the Muslim empire. After the Arabs conquered the Maghreb (“the west” in Arab geographic terminology, designating North Africa and Spain), thousands of Jews immigrated there, mostly from the east (particularly from the areas of Iraq and Iran of today). 

The Jewish demographic map reflected a diversity largely due to incessant migrations. Nevertheless, there was a stable framework–a central authority which delegated some of its prerogatives to each community. Existing prior to the emergence of Islam, this structure was consolidated when the Muslim caliphate embraced a world of immense dimensions, obeying first Damascus and then Baghdad.

The seat of spiritual authority of the Jewish world was the yeshivah (academy). Between the eighth and eleventh centuries, this was not simply a learning institute, but also the supreme court and source of instruction for all Jews. The head of the yeshivah, the gaon, was regarded as the highest religious authority, but his responsibilities also included organizing the courts, appointing judges and community leaders as well scribes, ritual slaughterers and other officials. The gaon was authorized to dismiss any one of these, and it was he who exercised the powerful weapon of excommunication.

The Karaites: A Medieval Jewish Sect

Reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

As in the west, so in the east, the Jewish community entered the Middle Ages well equipped with spiritual authority and institu­tional organizations sanctioned by ancient texts and traditions. The central [rabbinic] current of Judaism continued to maintain and cultivate this heritage, but Judaism had other facets as well. New forces began to question the social institutions and fundamental dogmas of the rabbinical tradition. 

The Muslim conquest led to the emergence of two such forces, having more than one trait in common: Karaism and activist messianism. The Karaite “heresy” was to have a long history. Even today there are about seven thousand Karaites living in Israel, where they maintain their separateness by only marrying within their community. But it was only during the Middle Ages that they actually constituted an alternative to rabbinical Judaism.

 History of the Karaites

The Karaites are first mentioned in written sources in the late eighth century. They themselves claim to be descendants of dissident sects of the First Temple period, and the rabbinical tradition traces them back to opposition trends of the Second Temple period. Although no direct affiliation to any particular sect in ancient times has been proven, they could have borrowed some of their customs and forms of organization from certain Jewish sects in Persia. 

karaite shul

Karaite synagogue

The beginnings of Karaite activity are associated with the figure of Anan ben David–a learned and aristocratic man, probably belonging to a family of exilarchs, the leaders of Babylonian Jewry. His immediate followers were a small group of intellectuals who formulated the sect’s tenets and preached them in Jewish centers throughout the caliphate, including Palestine. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, the Karaite communities were protected by eminent members of the sect who had reached influential positions in the ruler’s court. Led by a nasi (prince) claiming Davidic lineage, the Karaites attracted many scholars of distinction in biblical exegesis, law, Hebrew lexicography, and philosophy.

Kabbalah: Origins of a Spiritual Adventure

Reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The Kabbalah (Hebrew for “handed down by tradition”) made its appearance in the twelfth century in Provence, southern France, which at the time was the scene of the Cathar heresy [one of a number of dualistic religious revivals during the Middle Ages]. It reached maturity, however, in thirteenth-century Spain, with the composition of Sefer ha‑Zohar (“Book of Splendor”). Henceforth, the Kabbalah became the main trend of Jewish mysticism, theosophy and esotericism, comprising many different, at times contradictory, ap­proaches. 

Basically, kabbalists wanted to transform Judaism into a more profound inner experience; an experience, so they believed, that could not be attained through a rational and intellectual approach to religion. For them Judaism was a system of mystical symbols reflecting the mystery of God and the universe, and their aim was to discover keys to the understanding of this symbolism.

The Zohar, generally attributed to Moses de Leon, sought to revive a “communion” between the faithful and divinity. The Divine manifests itself in ten Sefirot (emanations) represent­ing an intermediate stage between God and creation. Just as these emanations are contained within the Godhead, so they impregnate all beings outside it. Man is capable, by practicing precise rites, of influen­cing the Sefirot which determine the span and progress of the world. The theory of Sefirot became the backbone of Spanish kabbalist teachings, represented by a great number of images.

In time, two attitudes emerged: one esoteric, which tried to restrict the secrets of kabbalist wisdom to a small circle of initiates; and a second which insisted that it should be widely‑spread, benefiting everyone. Rabbinical Judaism received the Kabbalah with mixed feelings: some rabbis regarded the kabbalists as brave defenders of tradition, whose insistence on a meticulous observance of the commandments was more than praiseworthy; others saw in them dangerous innovators, whose introduction of non‑Jewish elements must be arrested at all costs.

Jewish Historiography

The first article in this series, The Emergence of Jewish History I, addresses the way in which Jewish attitudes toward time affected Jewish perceptions of history from the ancient world through the 16th century. This article examines why and how Jewish historians wrote Jewish history from the 16th century to the present day. It is reprinted from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

In the sixteenth century, the influence of the Renaissance brought about a significant change: curiosity and an interest in novelties [among Jewish and non-Jewish scholars alike] was now no longer necessarily regarded as frivolous. In 1525, for example, Abraham Farisol in Orhot Olam–a book on geography, cosmology, and history–explicitly expressed his intention to amuse the melancholic reader with “true stories, old and new” (denouncing, however, at the same time, licentious poetry and tales recounting ancient battles which had never taken place.) David Gans of Prague wrote in 1592 a Hebrew chronicle entitled Zamah David which addressed “many old and new” topics. A desire to amuse and entertain was clearly one of his intentions: in his introduction, Gans notes that the second part of the book, devoted to universal history, as written in order to provide “householders like myself” overburdened with everyday worries, with a tale to lighten their load.

 In other words, history was acknowledged as a form of literature which could alleviate the fatigue of individuals encumbered by the hardship of earning a living and supporting a family, just as it could relieve the anguish of a nation exhausted by the tribulations of exile. History, suggests the Renaissance historian, is not only a legitimate form of entertainment, but also a source of consolation: the historian or chronicler would choose for his subject a particular period of history in which the cycle of persecution and deliverance evidenced the constant presence of Divine Providence.

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire emerged as a great political and military power in the early 14th century—but only in the wake of the expulsion of the Jews of Spain did the Ottoman Empire become a Jewish center. Tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from the Iberian peninsula made Salonika, Constantinople and other cities of the Ottoman Empire their new home, bringing with them the latest European developments in technology, medicine and artisanry.

However, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire and its Jewish community entered a period of decline that would continue until the “sick man of Europe,” as the Ottoman Empire came to be known, met its demise after World War I. The following article is reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The Ottomans began to emerge as a great political and military power from the early fourteenth century. Uthman, founder of a dynasty, came from a small Turkish principality, which in time grew into a vast empire. The swords of his successors brought to an end the centuries‑long Greek influence in the south of the Mediterra­nean basin, replacing it with Muslim domination. Extending deep into the European continent, Ottoman expansion turned Vienna into an outpost of Christendom.

The Greek‑speaking Jewish communities, which the immigrants from Spain and Portugal later called “Romaniots” or “Gregos,” were all under Ottoman rule at the time of the fall of Constantinople–renamed Istanbul–in 1453. The Arabic‑speaking Jews (“Mustarabs” in the idiom of the Iberian refugees), were the other important indigenous group. They lived in “Arabistan”–countries conquered mainly during the reign of Selim I (1512‑1520) and of his son Suleiman the Magnificent (1520‑1566). For all the Jews the conquest was a salvation, as their situation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries under Byzantine and Mamluk rule had been extremely difficult.

Then, in the wake of the expulsion from Spain (1492) and the forced conversion in Portugal (1497), tens of thousands of Iberian Jews arrived in Ottoman territories. As all that was required of them was the payment of a poll‑tax and acknowledgement of’ the superiority of Islam, the empire became a haven for these refugees.

Emancipation In Muslim Lands

The emancipation of Jews who resided in Muslim lands differed in pace, process, and product from the emancipation of their coreligionists in Western Europe. These differences are all the more fascinating in light of the fact that the Western European nations directly influenced Jewish emancipation in the Muslim lands. The following article, which describes the process by which western and eastern spheres of influence collided over the question of Jewish citizenship in the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, is reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The change in the legal status of Jews in Muslim countries was part of a general process of westernization that took place in these societies between the end of theeighteenth century and World War I. Basically, this meant the revocation of the Pact of Omar–the series of regulations applied to the dhimmis (protected Christians and Jews) from the days of the first caliphs (religious and civic rulers of the Muslim world who claimed succession from Muhammad). Indeed, the advent of European-influenced reform, which left its mark on all countries in the Middle East and North Africa (except Yemen and Iran), brought with it considerable improvement in the social and political status of the Jews throughout the Muslim world.


The western powers’ concern with minorities–including Jews, Christians, and Greeks–in the Islamic countries was not simply humanitarian in nature. Dealing with these minorities conveniently served as a means of intervention and control in regions of great strategic and economic importance. For example, Sultan Abd Al-Majod’s proclamation of two important decrees, the Hatt-i-Sherif (1839) and the Hatt-i-Humayun (1856), which inaugurated a whole series of measures granting equal rights for all communities in the Ottoman Empire, were issued as a concession to European pressure.

Emancipation in Tunisia was precipitated by the Batto Sfez affair, which concerned a Jewish coach-driver executed in 1856 for having blasphemed Islam. Scandalized, Jews and Europeans in Tunisia sent a delegation to Napoleon III requesting his protection. The emperor responded immediately: he sent a squadron and ordered the commanding officer to instruct the bey (the provincial governor) to implement the principles of the Hatt-i-Humayun. On September 9, 1857, the "Pacte Fondemental" proclaimed equal rights to all Tunisian subjects, freedom of religion, and the abolition of the jizya, the humiliating poll tax imposed on all the dhimmis. The Muslim masses, however, regarded the pact as further evidence of capitulation to the Christian west, and an insurrection of tribes ensued. While the revolt resulted in a suspension of the pact, it also led to increased European pressure to stabilize the region and ultimately to the establishment of the French Protectorate in Tunisia in 1881.

Hebrew Manuscripts in the Middle Ages

Reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

In the manner of other Mediterranean civilizations, the ancient Hebrews first used scrolls made of papyrus and later of leather parchment. Abundant samples are provided in the collections of papyri from Yeb (Elephantine), Assuan and Edfu in Egypt, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the fragments found in the Judean Desert.

During the first centuries of the Christian era in the west and the Middle East, the scroll was gradually replaced by the codex: folded sheets sewn together in the middle–the book. The codex had obvious advantages over the scroll which was written only on one side of the parchment and was awkward to handle. By the fifth century AD the use of the scroll had disappeared almost entirely.

Image from a medieval edition of the Passover Haggadah. Photo: Ms. 444 First Cincinnati Haggadah, Klau Library, CincinnatiHebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

The Jews, however, were slow to adopt the codex; its spread is attributed to Christianity. There are no extant Hebrew codices dated prior to the ninth or tenth centuries. But from the late Middle Ages thousands of manuscripts were preserved, written in Hebrew in a wide variety of styles from all over the diaspora.

These surviving texts of both religious and secular works are but a minute portion of Jewish literary production during those centuries. Outstanding proof of the enormous amount of Jewish writing is provided by the Cairo Genizah–the immense archive containing over 50,000 worn and damaged books produced by the single community of Fostat (Old Cairo) in 250 years.

A treasure of invaluable historical and literary importance, the Genizah manuscripts are also objects reflecting the material and artistic culture which produced them. In these hand‑written books are harmoniously combined diverse technologies and handicrafts, the art of design and graphic creativity, the principles of two‑dimensional architecture and aesthetic traditions, literary and calligraphic styles, the art of illustration and illumination–a magnificent introduction to Jewish cultural history of the early Middle Ages.

The dispersion of a literate Jewish population contributed to the particularly wide geographical dissemination of Hebrew writing. Hebrew characters were also used for texts in other languages such as Aramaic or Arabic and German Jewish dialects. Hebrew books were produced in Christian Europe, in Muslim Spain, in North Africa, in the Near and Middle East, and as far as central Asia. Each geo-cultural area produced its own style in the art of the manuscript, exhibiting both the uniqueness and cohesion of the Jewish community as well as the influence of the local environment: Latin in western Christendom, Greek in the Byzantine sphere, Arab in the Muslim world.

The rich variety is particularly evident in the three types of script–square, mashait (intermediate), and cursive–but is revealed in other material and aesthetic elements as well: the parchment and later the paper, the ink, the collation of the sheets, design of binding and title page, illumination, and illustration. Over time six principal types evolved: Ashkenazi (France, Germany, England, and central Europe); Italian; Spanish (Iberian peninsula, Provence, and North Africa); Byzantine; Oriental; and Yemenite.

The Second Commandment, prohibiting the making of “graven images,” did not prevent illumination of manuscripts during the Middle Ages. The style of illumination was dependent on contemporary fashions in each region. Thus it is difficult to define a Jewish style, although there are certain distinctively Jewish motifs.

For example, animal‑headed figures became one of the main Jewish motifs in southern German Hebrew illumination of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The absence of capital letters in the Hebrew script led to the decoration of initial words, or sometimes whole verses. Another peculiar Jewish element was the use of minute script to form geometric or floral design.

The spread of the printing press in the sixteenth century signaled the end of the manuscript as an independent art. Although unpublished texts–and in more impoverished regions even printed works–continued to be copied by hand until recent times, these were essentially imitations of printing.

The traditional division into types of script disappeared not only because of the printed letter, but also as a result of the expulsion from Spain and the settlement of Iberian Jews in other places. Nevertheless, the art of the manuscript was revived in the eighteenth century in central Europe and in Germany with the fashion of copying illuminated Passover Haggadot and books of blessings.

The tradition of copying the Pentateuch on scrolls to be read in synagogues, as well as phylacteries, mezuzot, and divorce bills, continues to this day. Written in minute script, following strict rules, this work is done by specially trained expert scribes (sofer setam).


Jews living under Christianity–in places like Rome, Worms, Cracow, or, after, 1248, Spain–were subject to two different ruling powers: the church and the state. The following article describes the relationship among these entities in the Middle Ages. It is reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

It was during the central Middle Ages, between the First Crusade and the Black Death, that the Catholic Church defined its policy towards the Jews. Its attitude was based on the Augustinian doctrine which ascribed an historical mission to the Jews as witnesses to the truth of Christianity. Their existence within Christendom was portrayed as double testimony. As the original recipients of God’s messianic prophecies, and despite having rejected them out of blind wickedness, the Jews indirectly attested to the authenticity of these same prophecies. At the same time, their status as a despised nation, living in ignominy and misery, was testimony to God’s wrath and to the intervention of Providence, constantly penalizing them for having rejected Christ. 

This theological approach implied an acceptance of the continued presence of Jews. Yet many tried to undermine this relatively tolerant leaning. Talmudic texts which stressed the supremacy of the Halakhah [Jewish law], as its decisions were not based on the dubious claim of supernatural inspiration, were exploited by learned [Christian] theologians.

churchIn the twelfth century, Peter Of Cluny (the Venerable) and the instigators of the “trial” against the Talmud in the following century, fulminated against the pretensions of the Jewish Law, denouncing it as an illegitimate, even diabolical, addition to the Scriptures. Post‑biblical Judaism, they said, could be defined as a form of heresy and therefore legitimately extirpated. But the Papacy cut short such ideas. There was no way in which the Church could condemn the Jewish notion of Oral Law and Tradition without compromising its own claim of being the sole interpreter of the Holy Scriptures.

Jewish Printing

Reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The appearance of the printing press in Europe [in the mid-1500’s] coincided with a major turning point in Jewish history. Two great centers of medieval Jewish culture–in the Iberian Peninsula and in German cities–were wiped out by expulsions. New centers were emerging in their place: in northern Italy, Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland for Ashkenazi Jewry; in central Italy and in commercial cities in western Europe and the Ottoman Empire for Sephardi Jewry. 

The printed letter arrived at precisely the right time, as the classification and organization of the enormous literary corpus inherited from the Middle Ages was becoming an urgent task. The medieval canon of texts was primarily based on local traditions; now this was changed and a new canon was created, based on the printed word. Furthermore, the Hebrew printing press increased the Hebrew readership, transforming the composition of the intellectual elite. In short, as in non‑Jewish society, printing caused a major revolution which was social as well as intellectual.Medieval Printing Press

Conceptually, the Hebrew incunabula (“cradle books,” printed in the fifteenth century) still reflected the era of manuscripts. Early books were printed with no title page or pagination, and in small editions. The majority consisted of books needed for daily use, such as prayer books for various rites, collections of religious precepts, Talmud tractates, and biblical commentaries–above all, Rashi’s commentary. The latter, a monumental work by the eleventh‑century erudite scholar from Troyes, became the principal textbook for Torah study throughout the Jewish world, and was printed in at least six editions before 1500.

Hebrew printing shops mushroomed within a very short time. Italy was the earliest and largest center of Hebrew book production, supplying intellectual nourishment to the entire diaspora. Istanbul and Salonika, where refu­gees from Spain established the first Hebrew presses in the Ottoman world, and Prague, Cracow, and Lublin in Ashkenaz, produced works intended mainly for local consumption. In addition to religious hand­books, the printing press in each of these places issued a wide variety of works which reflected the local tastes of the time.

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