Jewish Studies

The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe – 5 Minutes with Bracha Yaniv

Bracha Yaniv was recently named a finalist in the Jewish Book Awards for her book The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe. We caught up with her this Jewish Book Week to discuss the sources of inspiration for Jewish motifs and the influence of Torah arks on the design of the synagogue.

Congratulations on being named a finalist in the Jewish Book Awards. What made you focus on the Torah arks of Eastern Europe?

There was a student of mine who wanted to write a seminar paper on the Torah arks of Eastern Europe, but she could not find enough images of arks from Eastern Europe. So I decided to help her in this search. Indeed, at that time no book was available on this subject, or any monographic work on Torah arks of any diaspora.

As most of the Torah arks of Eastern Europe were destroyed during the first half of the twentieth century, any research is dependent on pre-WWII photographs. So this was the first step of my research – the search of what ended up in about 120 images, upon which the research is based.

What can we learn from the arks discussed in The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe?

The Torah arks of Eastern Europe are unique in their iconographic richness. Unlike Torah arks in most masonry synagogues, which were designed by non-Jewish architects, the wooden arks were designed and carved by Jewish artisans. This accounts for the fact that the arks display Jewish motifs, inspired by Jewish literary sources and the reason why they are the focus of the book.

 Your book throws new light on long-forgotten traditions of Jewish craftsmanship and religious understanding. What were your findings when conducting your research? Did you discover anything that you found particularly surprising?

Discussions concerning Jewish art often start with the Second Commandment which accordingly limits the artistic figurative expressions. But the carved Torah arks discussed in this book prove that when Jewish content is expressed limitations are minimised and creative solutions are found. Perhaps the most surprising motif I found was the metaphor of God presented in the form of an eagle, in this case, inspired by biblical literary sources.

 How do you think The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe paves the way for further research into Jewish traditions, art and culture?

The Carved Wooden Torah Arks of Eastern Europe assembles a collection of motifs, part of which were known – others, revealed and deciphered for the first time. So, for the reader who is interested in the meaning of Jewish motifs, the book will be most useful. The contribution of the book to the research of other fields of Jewish art is based on the fact that the Torah ark is the focus of the design of the synagogue as well as the focus of worship in the synagogue. As such, the design of the Torah arks influenced the design of other kinds of artistic media, for example, wall paintings and paper cuts. Now that we understand the motifs carved on the Torah arks, other fields of Jewish art can be better understood.


Bracha Yaniv is Professor of Jewish Art History at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and founding editor of Ars Judaica: The Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art. She has published two pioneering books in Hebrew on the history, design, and iconography of ceremonial synagogue objects.


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Jewish Studies

Journeys from the Abyss – 5 minutes with Tony Kushner

To celebrate the release of Journeys from the Abyss, caught up with author Tony Kushner to discuss the various experiences of Jewish refugees and the importance of history and memory. 

Could you tell us a bit about the book and what inspired your research? Why do you think this is the first study to place Jewish refugee movements from Nazism into a wider framework of global forced migration?

Over the past couple of decades I have been increasingly interested in refugee history. With Katharine Knox, who I wrote what is the first history of refugees in modern Britain, I was surprised how, with a few exceptions, many refugee histories have been totally neglected and, indeed, forgotten. What we did was a form of rescue history, but we also very much wanted to show how refugees have been part of the British landscape for centuries now.

More recently I have taught a special subject on modern refugees and became aware how in the field of refugee studies, historical approaches are very marginal. The focus is on the ‘now’ which whilst understandable, makes it very hard to make comparisons and to know what is, and is not new about the current refugee crisis.

Equally, I have been involved in researching, writing and teaching around the Holocaust and was aware, again understandably, how it has become self-contained as an area of study and reflection. This is true of those who were refugees from Nazism – an area itself which is a little marginal in Holocaust studies.

With the global refugee crisis which has being growing in scale since the late twentieth century, I wanted to bring together the study of Jews who managed to escape Nazism with modern refugee and migration studies with the hope that they could both shed light on one-another. Journeys from the Abyss is the result. Each section on particular Jewish refugee journeys – of women, of children and of ‘boat people’ has a pre-history and a post-history. I am not trying to argue that forced migrants before and after are simply the same as Jewish refugees from Nazism but that we can gain so much from the comparisons and also get beyond the unhelpful idea that some histories are ‘worse’ than others.

You used a variety of sources such as governmental papers, film and museum during your research for this book. How did they influence the book?

I want to study how refugee impacted on everyday life so Journeys from the Abyss uses a very wide variety of sources. It uses more ‘traditional’ archives such as government records and those of organisations involved with refugee work, but also cultural sources including films, novels, memorials, museums and site visits to show a variety of responses and also the relationship between ‘then’ and ‘now’. It meant travelling to sites connected to major moments in migration crises including places such as Haifa and Lampedusa, both intimately involved with the arrival and containment of refugee arrivals. Studying the journey itself forces the scholar into inventive approaches and finding sources is part of the challenge I faced. My aim thus, is to provide a total history – history from the bottom up and top down but also one that combines and juxtaposes history and memory.

The book addresses the experiences of Jewish refugees. How did you go about researching their experiences? Did any of these experiences particularly stand out to you?

As a social historian, I have always wanted to bring in the voices of ordinary people. In Journeys from the Abyss this means the testimonies of a wide range of refugees – Jewish and non-Jewish. I have thus used a wide range of oral histories, autobiographies and other sources in which we can access the perspectives of forced migrants. These are used critically which is not to say I am dismissing them in importance – quite the contrary. How people remember and re-remember their experiences is vital. Whilst there are many testimonies that stand out, perhaps that of Lore Segal is the most remarkable for me. Her writings are astonishingly self-aware and reveal the dilemmas of being a refugee in the modern era. Lore’s family were dispersed across the world and she shows, if it somehow still needed to be explained, how it is not easy being a refugee.

 How to you think the book paves the way for further research into the forced migration of Jewish refugees during the nineteenth and twenty first centuries?

The goals of the book are ambitious and there will be some way to go before those in Holocaust studies will place the Jewish refugee experience in a longer tradition of forced migration and, equally, those in refugee studies will take history seriously. Journeys from the Abyss is a start but also a challenge to those working in both fields. I sincerely hope that both established and younger scholars will take it much further.

Tony Kushner is Professor of Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, Parkes Institute and History Department, University of Southampton.

More information on Journeys from the Abyss by Tony Kushner.

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Jewish Studies, News

What’s Next for The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization and LUP?

Liverpool University Press is delighted to announce an exciting new partnership with The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. We asked Connie Webber, Managing Editor at the Library, to tell us more about the Library and its plans for the future.

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization was founded in 1965 by Louis Littman, in memory of his father, how has the press grown and developed since its establishment?

Louis Littman founded the Library as a charitable endeavour and a true act of love. He had no knowledge of publishing but was strongly committed to the task he set himself, and he worked tirelessly to achieve his aim. For some twenty-two years, until his untimely death in 1987, he personally approached authors to write for him on the subjects he considered important, and took an interest in how the research and writing progressed. He was very much a gentleman publisher, and in many ways he was a pioneer-before he established his Library there was very little publishing of academic books in Jewish studies; indeed there was very little academic Jewish studies! It was partly due to him that the field grew as it did. In the thirty years since Louis Littman’s death, the Library has developed beyond his wildest dreams: now publishing up to ten books a year for a readership spread around the world, it has come to be recognized as a leader in the publication of academic books in Jewish studies, even though the field itself has grown very considerably in the meantime.  Its prestige is due not only to the reputation of its authors but also to the professionalism of its editorial, design, and production team, who are unstinting in their efforts to produce first-class books. Through a charitable foundation, the Littman family continues to make it possible to invest significant resources into all stages of the publishing process, including the translation of important works of scholarship from other languages. Littman’s success has been due to a combination of vision and a dedication to quality, coupled with the availability of funding to make it all possible.

What do you look for in a new book project?

Following the guidelines laid down by Louis Littman, we aim to publish works that will stand the test of time and be considered definitive in their area. We seek solidly based research that offers new insights while being accessible to the educated non-specialist as well as to scholars, and to non-Jews as well as to Jews. All proposals are carefully peer-reviewed to ensure that each book makes a real contribution to the field. Positive reviews, awards, and professional accolades all attest to the success of the endeavour.

 Do you have any particular favourites from the Littman series? Are there any books on the list that you would recommend to someone encountering the series for the first time?

It’s very difficult for me to choose favourites from the list. It’s a list that has built up over fifty years, covering a very wide range of subjects. Similarly it’s not easy to recommend where one should start. The Littman Library is a veritable treasure trove: it’s a question of what one is interested in. There are books on liturgy, history, philosophy, mysticism, and theology; on women’s studies, cultural studies, and art history; on the Sephardi world and the Ashkenazi world (including the annual Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry, with 29 volumes published to date); there are biographies and works of literature, including translations of classic works.

Finally, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization was founded with the mission to explore, explain, and perpetuate the Jewish heritage, how can the partnership with Liverpool University Press help to further the success of this mission?

Our decision to partner with Liverpool University Press stemmed from the conviction that this partnership would give us access to a much wider market, thanks to their experienced sales and marketing team, and particularly to the various electronic marketing platforms on offer for print editions. Another major factor is sure to be the new Littman E-Library, making our books available for the first time in digital form. That was a long-cherished hope of ours, but something that was beyond our ability to achieve on our own. We were impressed by LUP’s dedicated, experienced, and enthusiastic team, and by the accolades they have received from the industry. We feel confident that we will work well together towards a long, fruitful, and mutually beneficial partnership.

To welcome the arrival of Littman at Liverpool University Press, we are offering 40% off all available titles from 6th-10th March. Use code WELCOMELITTMAN on our website.


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