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Overview: History-writing

The sixteenth century brought with it a surge in Jewish historical writing. For the most part, as Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi has pointed out, Jews tended to preserve historical memories through legends and rituals. And in fact, in the medieval period there had been few attempts by Jews to write their history. It is true that chronicles of contemporary Jewish suffering were sometimes written (for example, during the First Crusades), as well as works attempting to establish the historical “chain of tradition” of rabbinic Judaism. But these works did not aim to shape a Jewish historical consciousness. Joseph Ha-Kohen acknowledged the dearth of Jewish historical writing in his work Emek ha-bakha (The Valley of Tears, published in 1575)- “All my people is aware that no author has arisen in Israel comparable to Yossipon the priest, who wrote of the war of the land of Judea and of Jerusalem. The chroniclers ceased in Israel, they ceased until I, Joseph, did arise, a chronicler in Israel! And I set my heart to write as a remembrance in a book the bulk of the troubles that have been visited upon us in gentile lands, from the day that Judah was exiled from its land until the present day.”

The early modern burst of activity in Jewish historical writing was dominated by Sephardim. Of about eight Jewish authors of historical works in the sixteenth century, five were exiles from Spain, one was highly influenced by the Sephardic community, and only two were outside of the Sephardic milieu- Azariah de’ Rossi, who drew inspiration from the Italian Renaissance, and David Gans in Prague. Historians have explained the disproportionate interest in history among Sephardic Jewish writers as stemming from a need to explain the Expulsion. Joseph ha-Kohen, for example, who wrote a lengthy History of the Kings of France and the Turkish Sultans and a Jewish history Emek ha-Bakha, saw his generation as experiencing the “pangs of the messiah,” the throes that were to accompany the culmination of history. He regarded the advances of the Ottoman Turks as a sign of the coming wars of Gog and Magog, France being the representative of Christianity and Ottoman Turks of Islam.

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