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The Language of Dying: Jewish Women’s Wills in the Premodern Mediterranean

Hosted By: HUC-JIR Jewish Language Project

Rena Lauer, Associate Professor of Medieval History and Religious Studies at Oregon State University, in conversation with Prof. Sarah Bunin Benor of HUC-JIR

Despite the popular idea that premodern Jewish women left little in writing, a significant number of Mediterranean Jewish women organized their affairs in anticipation of death by preparing wills. At least hundreds of these wills survive from before 1650, including at Jewishwomenswills.org. Since Jews were deeply entrenched in the larger legal cultures of the places in which they lived, Jewish women comfortably turned to Jewish and Christian notaries alike to record their wills. The documents reflect women’s last, and at times most urgent, desires, as they related to their families, friends, communities, and material goods.

Many wills were written in high, official languages, like Hebrew and Latin. Some survive in local vernaculars including Spanish, Venetian, Italian, Judeo-Arabic, and Greek. Scholars have debated how much of the voices and choices of women are actually present in Jewish women’s wills. This talk and conversation will think through the questions of Jewish women’s “agency” by considering the linguistic lens: what the languages and linguistic choices of the wills can tell us about the active roles played by Jewish women in the construction of their last wills and testaments.

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