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Danger: Women with Books
Thursday, November 30 @ 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm
The profession of safrut, of the sacred scribal arts, has, traditionally been thought of as “man’s work” both from an halakhic (legal) perspective and from a sociological one. Yet the very first illustrated Scroll of Esther that has come down to us has the signature of a female scribe, women copied Torah manuscripts in book form in societies as conservative as Yemen, and wealthy women in Italy wrote manuscripts, had liturgy “reformed” to reflect specifically female concerns, and are depicted within manuscripts. This series, with Vassar professor Marc Michael Epstein considers the effects (and the perceived dangers) of women who write and illustrate sacred texts.
November 1, 2023
SESSION 1: Women, Books and the Seder
It is notable that the hand-written and illustrated manuscripts of the Passover Haggadah often depict their patrons holding and reading from books. It is particularly striking when women appear. But these illustrations a variety of questions. Do they reflect actual practices? Were such practices normative? And if they do not represent the way things were for the medieval Jewish patrons, why do they appear at all?
November 9, 2023
SESSION 2: Re-writing the Rules: Women, Halakhah and the creation of Jewish Books
Are you the kind of person who stays for the credits at the movies? Well, if you were a scholar of Jewish art, you would then certainly read the colophons of manuscripts—the short concluding texts that can contain patron names and/or information about artists. Fascinatingly, a number of these have come down to us in which women have literally inscribed their participation in the creation of sacred texts. What was the halakhic (legal) position on such practice? To what does the fact that it occurred testify?
November 16, 2023
SESSION 3: To Write Holy Words: A Soferet Encounters the Sacred
Professor Epstein will be in conversation with Jen Taylor Friedman about her practice as a soferet (scribe) and the experience of writing a variety of different types of manuscripts, including the first Torah scroll known to have been created by a woman.
November 30, 2023
SESSION 4: Queering The Torah Text: Strange Letters and A Woman’s Hand
There are still patrons in the world today who commission Jewish manuscripts. Some are ostensibly Orthodox, yet they insist on female scribes. Why? This session will explore the creation of one of the most radical (yet deeply traditional!) manifestations of this impulse, the creation of a Torah scroll full of “strange letters,” a little-known tradition that is being revived in our own day.
Winner of the 2015 Jewish Book Award in Visual Arts for Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts, Marc Michael Epstein is the product of a mixed marriage between the scions of Slonimer and Lubavitcher Hassidim and Romanian socialists, and grew up, rather confused, but happy, in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently Professor of Religion at Vassar College, where he has been teaching since 1992, and was the first Director of Jewish Studies. At Vassar, he teaches courses on medieval Christianity, religion, arts and politics, and Jewish texts and sources. He is a graduate of Oberlin College, received the PhD at Yale University, and did much of his graduate research at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He has written numerous articles and three books on various topics in visual and material culture produced by, for, and about Jews. His book, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (Yale, 2011) was selected by the London Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of 2011. During the ‘80s, Epstein was Director of the Hebrew Books and Manuscripts division of Sotheby’s Judaica department. He continues to serve as consultant to various libraries, auction houses, museums and private collectors throughout the world, among them, the Herbert C. and Eileen Bernard Museum at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, for which he curated the inaugural exhibition, and the Fowler Museum at UCLA. He is the Director of Beit Venezia, the home for International Jewish Studies in Venice, Italy.
CSP Partners: Beth Israel (San Diego, CA), Beth Israel Congregation (Waterville, ME), Center for Small Town Judaism (Waterville, ME), Congregation Adath Jeshurun (Elkins Park, PA), Congregation B’nai Tzedek (Fountain Valley, CA), Congregation B’nai Israel (Tustin, CA), Jewish Collaborative of Orange County, Temple Bat Yahm (Newport Beach, CA), Temple Beth David (Westminster, CA),Temple Beth El of South Orange County (Aliso Viejo, CA), Temple Beth Ohr (La Mirada, CA), Temple Beth Shalom (Needham, MA), Temple Beth Sholom (Hull, MA), Temple Beth Sholom (Santa Ana, CA), Temple Emanuel (Newton, MA), Temple Judea of Laguna Woods, CA, Town & Village Synagogue (NYC, NY), University Synagogue (Irvine, CA), Valley Beth Shalom (Encino, CA) & Walnut Street Synagogue (Chelsea, MA)