David Ruderman (University of Pennsylvania). Visiting lecturer.
Beyond the dialectic of ghetto vs. integration: towards a new vision of Jewish cultural history in Italy.
Over a decade ago two prominent scholars of Italian Jewry, David Ruderman and Robert Bonfil, entered a debate that resulted in many studies and exchanges of ideas within and without their academic circles.
Bonfil, an Italian historian who settled in Israel and teaches at Hebrew University, challenged the conventional view of the ghetto as a “dark parenthesis” in the history of Italian Jews, that had been propagated through the works of Cecil Roth and -to some extent- Attilio Milano. For Bonfil – Ruderman explains “The ghetto represented a kind of revolution in the Jewish condition, signifying the beginning of a change in Christian attitudes toward Jews; the adoption of a kind of middle position between unconditional acceptance and expulsion; an entitlement through segregation, which meant a relatively more liberal treatment of the Jewish minority even when it became more expendable economically; and a radical change in the Jewish mentality. Jews were now more urbanized and concentrated in the heart of the largest Italian cities, more polarized, both economically and culturally, attuned to the sounds and sights of the Christian majority, and secure in their new neighborhoods. In the ghetto communities, the kabbalah or cabala – embodying the mystical tradition of Judaism – and the new Jewish confraternities performed the paradoxical task of restructuring religious notions of space and time, separating the sacred from the secular, and even serving as ‘an agent of modernity’”.
Moving beyond these two views, Ruderman seeks to grasp the methodological and contemporary significance of the dialectic articulated by Bonfil, and reminds us once again that “All history is ultimately contemporary history, and – (…) in contrast to the optimism and enthusiasm for Western cultural values shared by Roth and his contemporaries, the mood of Bonfil’s book is markedly different. The Renaissance, despite its great promise, reveals itself as a barbaric universe”.