Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life



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Paul Harvey

Here's a short review of a very interesting sounding new book that will interest some here. There's also a companion website to the book with photographs of material culture from Jewish life in the Atlantic world, study guides, and other images, here. More discussion of the book also may be found at the Sephardi Mizrahi Studies blog. Of the companion website, the author says: By sharing the images used to create this book, I hope to enable students, scholars, and family historians to trace the paths that early American Jews (and their objects) took, as well as to gain a richer sense of their everyday lives.  In the collection, you will find images from many of the key ports where Jews settled in North America and the Caribbean, as well as several crucial ports from which they immigrated (Amsterdam, London Hamburg). While the majority of these images relate to Sephardim, you will also find comparison images for non-Jewish artifacts to help people understand both what made Jewish life distinctive and how Jews adapted to meet local tastes and trends.”

Leibman, Laura Arnold.  Messianism, secrecy and mysticism: a new interpretation of early American Jewish life.  Vallentine Mitchell, 2012.  388p bibl index; ISBN9780853038337, $69.95. Reviewed in 2013jan CHOICE.
Leibman (Reed College) has written an extremely ambitious and significantly innovative study of Jewish colonial history. Through combining the study of what she describes as a "material biography" and Jewish religious beliefs centering on messianism, the author deciphers and retells the story of Jewish life in early America with energy and originality. Among the material objects that Leibman studies to illuminate this story are realia such as ritual baths, food (kosher and otherwise), clothing, gravestone markers, portraits, furniture, and religious books. As for the religious views of colonial Jews, she emphasizes that the "daily belief in the Messiah impacted the behavior of Jews in the Atlantic World." This belief entailed the classical hope for a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem, the return of the Jews to the land of Israel and the end of the millennium-long exile, and the resurrection of the dead. Indeed, Leibman even argues that there were active messianic believers who secretly followed the 17th-century pseudo-Messiah Sabbatai Zevi. Although she brings forward a great deal of novel, intriguing evidence in support of these views, Leibman almost certainly exaggerates the aspects of messianism and secrecy in this early Jewish community. Nevertheless, this is an important, original study libraries will want to own. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All academic levels/libraries. -- S. T. Katz, Boston University

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