Visiting Roger Williams last Tuesday was an amazing opportunity and a great pleasure to present there. Dr. Jeffrey Meriwether, along with professors Laura D’Amore, Charlotte Carrington, Sargon Donabed, and Debra Mulligan were all immensely welcoming and kind.
That morning, Dr. D’Amore picked me up from the Inn, and she explained that the university has started a new social justice initiative to embrace the historical impact of its founder. That fall, they had their Social Justice Week to initiate conversations across campus. The History department in particular, wanted to contribute to this new venture in innovative ways; hence, the invitation to speak at their campus.
During my visit, I gave presentations to Dr. Carrington’s American History (where they just started a unit on African-Americans during the American War for Independence) and Dr. Donabed’s History of Religion courses (where they are currently studying Western perceptions of indigenous practices versus indigenous perspectives themselves). Afterward, I held “office hours” in the department lounge for students to come and talk about steampunk, and ended up having a long involved discussions about cosplay, Legend of Korra, and Fullmetal Alchemist. Then came my public lecture at 5PM — and look, I have evidence that it happened!
The video is about 50 minutes long, but the lecture runs until 36:53. Afterward is the Q&A with the audience. Additional pictures from the event can be seen on Tumblr and Facebook. The PowerPoint presentation used in the video can be viewed here.
That evening, I had dinner with several faculty members and other guests, including a reporter from Venezuela brought in by Dr. Paola Prado from the Journalism department to speak about reporting under Hugo Chavez’s regime. Needless to say, right before my lecture, the news broke about Chavez’s death, and that was one of the many topics we discussed during the meal.
It was a whirlwind trip, but I enjoyed myself so much. Already, I’ve gotten some very positive feedback (and quite a few new followers, pleasantly enough.) Thanks again to everyone at Roger Williams for being fantastic hosts!
Throughout the Middle Ages, Northern and Eastern European Jews — called Ashkenazim — lived entirely separate lives from their Christian neighbors (who occasionally turned into their Christian persecutors). By monarchs’ mandates, Jews were forced to live in ghettos (generally the worst part of a city), barred from most professions, and made to pay higher taxes. (One monarch forced Jews to buy rejected porcelain that his factories couldn’t sell on all celebratory occasions.) Jews had to wear a yellow patch on their clothing and were frequently forbidden to travel or even leave the ghetto. The blood libel that Jews murdered Christians and used their blood for rituals became common, and entire communities were either forcibly converted or murdered because of it. Some countries expelled all Jews from within their borders, including England. The idea that a Jew could be noble or trustworthy was laughable.
Even without these restrictions on Jews, Jewish communities knew to remain separate from the outside Christian world: there’s even a line from the Ethics of the Fathers that warns against getting involved with the government.1 To marry outside the faith was seen as an act of rebellion, of rejecting the basic precepts of Judaism, and those who did were considered dead to the community. Most Jews in Eastern Europe could read and speak Hebrew but not the language of the kingdom in which they lived: in their daily lives they instead spoke a dialect of Yiddish, reserving Hebrew for prayer and study. A relatively small number of Jews lived outside of the ghetto, protected by their position and wealth.
The state of Jewish thought in that time was relatively poor. While most men and women were at least literate in Hebrew in prayers, few had any personal connection to the words. For the most part, Jewish thought was learning by rote the sayings of the generations before them. The people frequently reverted to mystical beliefs and messianism — most famously Shabbatai Tzvi, the 17th century mystic who many thousands of Jews believed was the embodiment of the Mashiach, the one who will bring about the redemption of the Jewish people. When in 1666 Tsvi was given the option of death or conversion to Islam and picked the latter, Jewish faith was thrown into disarray.
Jewish standing in the world changed perhaps irrevocably because of the Enlightenment, which preached — for the first time in the history of Western Civilization — that all people are created equal, including the Jews. Along with the Enlightenment rose a new movement, the Jewish Enlightenment, called the Haskalah, which comes from the Hebrew word for “intellect”.
Contributor in Sarah Hans's Steampunk World, Winner of the 2015 Steampunk Chronicle's Reader's Choice Awards for "Best Fiction"
Winner of SteamCon's 2013 Airship Award for Community Contributor
About Beyond Victoriana
The Nutshell Explanation Beyond Victoriana is the oldest-running blog about multicultural steampunk and retro-futurism--that is, steampunk outside of a Western-dominant, Eurocentric framework. Founded in 2009, Beyond Victoriana focuses on non-Western cultures, underrepresented minorities in Western histories (Asian / Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern, First Nation, Hispanic, black / African & other marginalized identities), and the cultural intersection between the West and the non-West.