Full-page miniature (detail) from the Sister Haggadah, depicting a service in the synagogue, Barcelona, 1350
After the destruction of both the First Temple (586 B.C.) and the Second Temple (70 A.D.), Jews left their ancestral home in Israel to settle in other lands, both near and far. By 1000, Jews were living in communities from Yemen in the south to the Russian steppes in the north, and from India in the east to Iberia in the west. Biblical scholar and historian Gary Rendsburg presents a fascinating survey of selected Jewish diaspora communities from the ancient and medieval periods.
9:30 to 10:45 a.m. The First Diasporas: Egypt and Babylonia
Following the destruction of the First Temple, Jews left the land of Israel in large numbers. Archaeological remains of Jewish life in Egypt and Babylonia include evidence of an outpost of Jewish soldiers and families on Elephantine island in Egypt, near Aswan. Hundreds of cuneiform tablets attest to Jewish mercantile and commercial interests in Babylonia.
11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Two Jewish Kingdoms: Himyar and Khazaria
Himyar, the earlier Jewish kingdom founded in exile, began in 380 in southern Arabia (modern-day Yemen) and lasted for the next 150 years—all before the rise of Islam. Khazaria, located in an area that is now southern Russia, was founded ca. 650 and lasted for more than 300 years.
12:15 to 1:15 p.m. Break
1:15 to 2:30 p.m. The Jews of Italy
The diaspora reached Italy in the 1st century, during the heyday of the Roman Empire. For the next two millennia, until the present day, Italy’s Jews were leaders in scholarly pursuits, including the creation of important manuscripts of the Mishna and the Talmud, and the printing of the first Hebrew books during the Renaissance.
2:45 to 4 p.m. The Jews of Spain
In what was the largest and most prosperous Jewish community during the Middle Ages, Spain’s Jews lived under both Muslim rule (in the south) and Christian rule (in the north). They were obliged to constantly negotiate their role and their space within these two realms. Intellectual life flourished: poetry, philosophy, Bible commentaries, and the production of lavishly illuminated manuscripts. This all came to a sudden end in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews, thereby inaugurating a new chapter in Jewish history.
Rendsburg is the Blanche and Irving Laurie professor of Jewish history at Rutgers University.
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