Disability and the Destruction of Jerusalem

Fusing her passion for ancient Rabbinical culture with expertise in gender, sexuality and disability critical theories, the research of Julia Watts Belser (Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University) builds fascinating conceptual bridges between the early and modern.   Her session ‘Disability and the Destruction of Jerusalem: Gender, Sex and Flesh in Early Jewish Narrative’ at Glasgow University yesterday explored violence and disablement as a powerful metaphor for metropolitan devastation and colonial domination in Hebrew texts.  Whilst the event was

 The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 (1850). Image in the public domain.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus, A.D. 70 (1850). Image in the public domain.

not directly project-related, I felt certain that attending would enhance my wider appreciation of Jewish identity and cultural memory.

A small turnout – due to the summer recess and a coterminous graduation ceremonies – enabled the planned lecture to seamlessly morph into an informal seminar, facilitating discursive analysis of various Midrash (passages from Lamentations and the Bavli Gittin).  A fertile exchange of ideas revealed the multiple ways in which the body impaired by war has been retrospectively imagined in ancient Jewish texts.

Penned between the 5th and 7th centuries, these trans-temporal texts re-conceptualize the earlier destruction of the Second Temple, and the ensuing cultural and political occupation.   Firstly, we explored how passages from Lamentations configured imperial oppression as effecting physical changes in the body, so conspicuous as to render “Zion’s precious people” unrecognizable: the potent imagery of their once bright and ruddy skin now “dry as wood” and shrunken “on their bones” expresses imperial subjugation through physical degeneration and emaciation.

Consideration then turned to the story of Rabbi Tsadok – “a small, shriveled old man” exuding a quiet yet extraordinary spiritual power procured through frequent fasting enabling him “to teach one hundred sessions” although he “eats but a single fig.”  The Roman authorities duly enforce medical intervention, ensuring that “little by little” his frail body “was restored.”  The disabled body is thus represented as a site of political protest: implicit in this rehabilitation discourse is the premise that to restructure the body as functional – according to the definitions imposed by the dominant regime – is to neutralize personal and religious power by undercutting the agentic right to intentional self-denial.  The Rabbi’s chosen self-disablement is emblematic of his unwillingness to conform to Roman hegemony.

Contrastingly, extracts from the Bavli Gittin, a Babylonian Talmudic text, dwell upon the post-destruction Jewish body as still exquisitely beautiful.   The Roman captors are depicted as utterly decadent – reveling in opulence and covetousness – epitomizing the weakening of the state and pre-empting its downfall.  Despite acknowledging the sexual abuse and subjugation of Jewish subjects, however, the text is clear that they remain physically undiminished and unstigmatised in the corporeal sense.  Indeed, in an radical departure from prevailing and expected gender paradigms, the Bavli Gittin deals empathically with women as victims of sexual violence and conceptualizes the violated female body as the personification of shared corporate, communal and divine loss.

Julia’s expert analysis of these passages emphasized the ethical imperative to consider the absence of the dismembered, amputated, nameless and faceless in this genre of literature: her work is a timely reminder that the politics of memory and storytelling inexorably influence exactly whose stories are told.   Her forthcoming publication, Corporal Catastrophe: sex and flesh in the ruins of Jerusalem, promises to be a fascinating read.



Undergraduate Research Placement Scheme

Logbooks and registers of Garnetbank Primary (above) were amongst the sources explored by Susannah. Image created by Thomas Nugent (2009) and reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence

Logbooks and registers of Garnetbank Primary (above) were amongst the sources explored by Susannah. Image created by Thomas Nugent (2009) and reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence

During the last fortnight, my usually-solitary archival research has been ably and happily assisted by Susannah Fitzgerald. A recent History and Politics graduate at the University of Glasgow, Susannah’s well-conceived dissertation compared the responses of Glasgow and Manchester Jewish communities to the thirties refugee crisis. It has earned her a very well-deserved first class Honours degree. Here are Susannah’s reflections on her all-too-brief time with project, working with the collections of the Mitchell Library and the Scottish Jewish Archives Centre:

Upon beginning my research placement on the Jewish Lives, Scottish Spaces project, I found my understanding of the project’s topic matter to be a mix of familiar and foreign, accustomed and unacquainted. Having undertaken my own research into refugees in Glasgow in the 1930s, I had a fairly solid understanding of this subject and Jewish communal life in Glasgow during the first half of the twenty-first century. However, having inhabited Scottish Spaces my whole life, my knowledge of how these were impacted and developed by Jewish Lives was fairly limited out with this narrow focus. My participation in the project has thus allowed me to build on prior knowledge and interests whilst expanding these interests into new areas.

Regarding my own research, this was based on an undergraduate dissertation which examined the responses of the Jewish communities of Glasgow and Manchester to the refugee crisis in the 1930s, prior to the outbreak of war. Therefore, perhaps most interesting in this regard was our research at the Mitchell Library. In flicking through the records for the Lord Provost’s Fund for Refugees and locating refugee children in Garnetbank Primary School’s admission registers and logbooks, my knowledge of the topic was expanded beyond a specifically Jewish focus to seeing how the problem was tackled in tandem with the city’s non-Jewish inhabitants. Moreover, these records documented how refugees began to weave their lives into the fabric of the city, creating new pockets of Jewish life to replace the ones they had lost.

However, much of my research on the project introduced me to new aspects of Jewish life. What was new was not so much an appreciation of the depth and warmth of Jewish communal life in the city as an ability to become more acquainted by those who created it. In particular, this accolade was afforded to Sophie Geneen, the ‘Mother of Glasgow’. In reading about her life and accomplishments, from hosting wounded soldiers in her kosher hotel to co-founding a charity for poor brides, what came through was not only her significance to the Jewish community but to the Gorbals as a whole.

Moreover, the extent of the Dorrith Sim collection provided insight into the way a remarkable individual negotiated her Jewish identity, particularly through the juxtaposition of her family heirlooms and the photo albums of her early childhood in Germany with her own voice recorded in detailed letters and writings as she built her life in Scotland. Most interestingly for me, it linked my established interests to new findings, putting life and experience to the mere names and numbers I had engaged with before.

It is this personal aspect which, for me, makes preserving and digitising history so important. Though many may know the facts, it is the people behind them that make history truly interesting and make archival research such a rewarding experience. To make this experience more accessible and to promote an understanding of the way Jewish communities have both developed within Scotland, and contributed to the development of Scotland, is an important endeavour. It is a task that I am happy to have been able to spend the past two weeks contributing to, in however small a manner.

Copyright and Digitisation

On Tuesday, Victoria Stobo and Kerry Patterson of CREATe (the RCUK Centre for Copyright and New Business Models in the Creative Economy based at the University of Glasgow) hosted informal copyright training at the SJAC. Kerry related a little about a project she had been working on, which explores the application of rights clearance and copyright legislation to the digitisation of the Scrapbooks of the poet Edwin Morgan (1930-60s). She was accompanied by Postgraduate Researcher Victoria – her PhD uses surveys and case studies to understand how copyright affects digitisation. Both ably, thoughtfully and comprehensively answered the many tricky questions posed to them by the director, volunteers and project staff.

First they explained the fundamentals – copyright occurs at the point when an original work is created. Most unpublished archival materials are in copyright until 2039, and for many materials copyright endures for the life of the creator plus seventy years. Orphan works – materials created by an untraceable or unidentifiable rights holder – could be make available, provided it could be demonstrated that prior diligent search had been fruitlessly performed. The Intellectual Property Organisation (IPO) website contains comprehensive guidelines on how to search, and facilitates the registration of orphan works. The focus was very much upon addressing the practicalities of digitising, publishing and displaying archival materials, identifying and minimising risk.
The extent to which oral history transcripts could be reproduced, digitised or published if the interviewee was deceased was assessed. It was concluded that heirs should be consulted for permission, even though the signing of a consent form by the participant might arguably be understood to constitute an implied licence. Other issues discussed included conventions for the crediting of images supplied to the researcher by the Centre, whether the rights of photographs taken by a freelancer and published in a newspaper belong to the individual or the publication, the copyright of the paperwork created by now defunct organisations.

Striking a balance between mitigating risk and enhancing accessibility, in the final analysis, were considered to be key to successful digitisation. Much, of course, depends upon the extent to which the organisation is risk averse. Following the session, Victoria and Kerry were treated to a tour of the Centre.

Undoubtedly many more questions will arise once the process of digitisation begins in earnest in January 2017. In the meantime, I for one left reassured that workable solutions to the potential pitfalls digitisation were available.