Series explores how artists use Jews in their work

A new Mandel Center lecture series kicks off at 4 p.m. today

Marinus van Reymerswaele "The Calling of Saint Matthew"

David Nirenberg always questioned the incongruous presence of Jews when he read works by Shakespeare, George Herbert and the great poets of the Renaissance. Why so many Jews in literature, when there had been none living in English society for hundreds of years?

Similar questions arose, he said, when he was viewing paintings from the period: Why were so many Jews portrayed in the art of Christians? What work were they doing for the artists, the patrons and the viewers? The answers, it turns out, had as much to do with how Christians thought about art as with how they thought about Jews.

Nirenberg, a professor of medieval history and social thought at the University of Chicago and a contributor to the London Review of Books, The Nation and The New Republic, will share his research and theories in a three-day lecture series called: “Judaizing Aesthetics: Painting, Poetry and Politics,” beginning at 4 p.m. Monday in the Mandel Center for the Humanities auditorium [MCH G3]. These are the first programs in a new, annual Mandel Lecture Series sponsored by the Mandel Foundation.

“Why does Christopher Marlowe, or the Elizabethan Jacobean stage fill itself with Jews when there were no Jews? Why, for example, does Shakespeare choose to explore the limits of language and of contracts by creating a Jewish character in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ when there hadn't been a Jewish community in England for some three hundred years? What made Shylock so meaningful?” Nirenberg asks.

Or why does a painter like Jan van Eyck put Jews in the foreground of his painting “The Fountain of Grace,” when there were virtually no Jews living in the Low Countries, van Eyck's homeland? Or why, a few centuries later, does a great political writer like Edmund Burke write that the Jews are the instigators and victors of the French Revolution, when the Jewish population of France was close to 0.1 percent? What makes such a claim meaningful to him and his contemporaries, as a way of making sense of the political events of their time? 

“It’s a really interesting question — how we think with Jews, and how our ways of thinking about the world creates figures of Judaism, which we then put into our creations,” Nirenberg says.

Coming to campus will be a sort of homecoming for Nirenberg, as he spent his first two years at Brandeis when his father worked as a mathematics lecturer between 1966-1968. In addition, Nirenberg’s great aunt Denah Lida was on the Brandeis faculty for three decades in the Spanish department.

Development of the new lecture series is the result of collaboration between Ramie Targoff, professor of English and director of the Mandel Center, and six colleagues on the center’s steering committee.

“Nirenberg was chosen to begin the series due to his broad, national reputation,” Targoff says. “He is a historian and professor but is also a public intellectual. In addition, he works in a very interdisciplinary manner in the fields of history, Jewish studies, European cultural history and art history.” Targoff says she expects the lectures to draw an audience with a wide range of interests.

Eugene R. Sheppard, associate professor of modern Jewish history and thought, says Nirenberg’s first book “Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages” took research to new levels.

“It’s very rare,” Sheppard said, “that you have a scholar who can command the different languages and textual traditions and has the rigor of archival research to be able to explore Islamic, Christian and Spanish communities in Aragon, Catalonia, Valencia.”

Rather than dealing with a general mapping of violence for a broad period, Sheppard said, Nirenberg “looks to very specific events and specific places and people” of all kinds, including those on the fringes of society.

You get a completely different understanding of how the Crown of Aragon is relating to its population by looking at these seemingly marginal figures, says Sheppard.

“It’s the combination of linguistic competency, methodological rigor and historical sensitivity to groups that would normally be brushed off into the margins that is so unusual about Nirenberg’s work,” Sheppard said.

In the spring of 2013, critic James Wood, staff writer for the New Yorker and professor of the practice of literary criticism at Harvard, will take the podium.

“With these first two speakers we tried to appeal to both the literary side of the humanities as well as the historical and more political side of the humanities,” says Targoff.”

The lecture series will consist of three formal lectures and an informal seminar that will later be published into books by University Press of New England. Targoff says that the lectures will be given by scholars in the humanities as well as humanistic writers and artists whose work reflects the mission of the Mandel Center of enriching and deepening humanities scholarship across multiple disciplines.

Lecture One: “Judaizing Aesthetics: Painting, Poetry and Politics.” Monday, March 19 at 4:00 p.m. in MCH G3 Mandel Auditorium.

Public reception for the Mandel Lectures in the Humanities: Monday, March 19, from
 6 to 7:30 p.m.
 in the 
Mandel Atrium.

Lunch Seminar: “Painting Between Judaism and Christianity: Two Callings of St. Matthew (Van Reymerswaele and Caravaggio). "Tuesday, March 20, from 
12:30 to 2 p.m. 
in MCH 303, Reading Room. Lunch will be served. No RSVP needed.

Lecture Two: “Why Every Poet is a Jew.”
 Wednesday, March 21, at 4 p.m. in MCH G3 Mandel Auditorium.

Lecture Three: “Sovereignty of the Spirit, or Sovereignty of the Flesh?”
Thursday, March 22, at 4 p.m. in MCH G3 Mandel Auditorium.

Categories: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

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