Thursdays, March 5, 12, 19, and 26, 2020
Contrary to popular belief, magic played an important role in the daily life of Jews in the premodern world. This was especially true in the home—and chief among the domestic events that called for magical intervention was childbirth, both dramatic and dangerous before modern advances in medicine and hygiene. Carefully prepared amulets were hung on the walls of the birthing room, the baby’s crib, the mother, and even the baby, making use of centuries-old rituals and texts.
This course, taught by an internationally recognized historian of Jewish art and folklore, will explore the protective amulets used in connection with childbirth in Jewish communities East and West. In order to understand why and how amulets were produced, we will first examine the approach to and place of magic in Judaism. Drawing on the disciplines of art history, folklore, and anthropology, we will learn to analyze the textual and artistic background and meaning of the amulets, the secrets of “practical Kabbalah” behind their making, who made them and for which sectors in Jewish society, and the beliefs and traditions associated with their usage. We will look together at visual evidence of Jewish childbirth magic: ritual objects, illuminated Hebrew manuscripts and printed books, books of customs (minhagim), and occasionally also images portraying Jewish life made by Christians of the time—in addition to folk tales, and oral testimonies collected from immigrants to Israel from the countries in question. The course will concentrate on items produced in the early modern to modern period in Europe and the lands of Islam, from Germany and Poland to Morocco and Kurdistan.
The course format will be primarily lecture-based with questions and discussion encouraged! A small amount of optional reading will be offered to supplement the lectures.
$40 for four sessions (free with PennCard). Class size is limited, and registration is required.