Panel 8: Neigborliness as a Challenge to the Self

Chair: Simone Lässig (German Historical Institute Washington)

Jakub Zbrzezny (University of Aberdeen):
The Clash of Liturgical Calendars, the Clash of Neighborhoods – Jewish Carnival in Christian Lent

At the beginning of the fifth century CE the governors of Byzantine provinces were given a peculiar order. They were supposed to intervene in the way in which Jews celebrated the festival of Purim, which commemorates the events described in the Tanakh in the Book of Esther. The aim of this intervention was to prevent Jews from burning what seems to be a cross-like effigy of Haman, the villain of the Book. In the view of the legislator, this Jewish custom was aimed at mocking Christian faith and therefore had to be stopped. The earliest witness to this peculiar order is preserved in the Codex Theodosianus, a code of Roman Law promulgated in 438 CE. The text of the order or its content reappear in subsequent Byzantine legal sources, which seems to attest to its continuing relevance. Importantly, some Jewish sources from Late Antiquity indicate that the effigy in question was indeed interpreted among the Jews at the time as a figure of Jesus, its original meaning as a figure of Haman notwithstanding. One question continues to puzzle scholars. It is what prompted Jews and Christians to start considering the effigy as a symbol of Jesus at this particular time that is at the beginning of the fifth century CE. In this paper I propose a new answer to this question. I argue that the cause should be seen in a liturgical calendrical coincidence that was noticeable to both parties in urban centres where Jews and Christians shared the public space as neighbors. The carnival-like festival of Purim happened to concur with Lent, which is the Christian period of fasting that precedes the festival of Easter. It is only over the course of the fourth century CE that the length of this fasting period was gradually fixed in the Latin and Greek Church as forty days. This development was influenced by mass conversions to Christianity. It is during Lent that converts were provided with Christian instruction before they received baptism at Easter. Hence, Lent gradually gained its own highly developed liturgical practices. Their performance was dramatized with the contemporary development of the cult of the so-called Holy Cross, the supposed relic of Jesus’s passion and death. In this liturgical context Jesus of Lent met Haman of Purim. In cities with mixed Jewish-Christian populations both figures blended – to an explosive effect. The argument is presented in the paper in the following manner. Firstly, I will outline the liturgical development of Lent and the cult of the so-called Holy Cross in the fourth and fifth century CE. In the light of these developments I will offer a new reading of relevant Byzantine legal sources. Particular attention will be paid to their manuscript tradition, which seems to have been overlooked in earlier scholarship. Finally, I will tentatively consider what this state intervention may mean for cities with mixed populations today, when Purim concurs with Lent in Jerusalem, Fasching with Ramadan in Köln, or ʿId al-Aḍḥá with Tishah bAv in Haifa.

Balthazar Beckett (American University Cairo):
“Something Vulgar in a Holy Place”: African Americans as “Anti-Neighbors”
in 1930s & 40s United States

To this day, in the United States’ mainstream press and collective memory, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal policies are celebrated as examples of progressive policies—this set of policies, it is often said, created jobs, stimulated the economy, set up social safety measures, and helped create a middle class. Yet, in terms of American racial politics, FDR’s tenure marks the exact moment in which the various ethically European groups, which had hitherto existed in a rigid hierarchical relationship to one another, become consolidated in an inclusive, white, and government-sponsored identity—at the very expense of non-white citizens and non-citizens, particularly African Americans. This is especially true in regard to urban development—as the New Deal tore apart multiethnic neighborhood fabrics, creating white suburbs and newly developed sections and impoverished zones inhabited by people of color.
Literary scholarship about this era acknowledges race as an important factor, yet routinely focuses on questions of sense of self and instances of interpersonal animus, following what Jodi Melamed has labeled a “multicultural understanding of culture as aesthetics and identity—unmoored from materialism and the natural world.” By contrast, this presentation intends to focus on housing laws and the policies of real estate in the United States from 1930 to 1960, in order to show how federally funded mortgage programs on the one hand and state-sanctioned divestment from urban neighborhoods on the other hand created a dynamic within urban neighborhoods that ascribed positive value to a (new) pan-European whiteness, while rendering non-white people (by their very symbolic presence) as detrimental and damaging to a neighborhood’s health and future prospects. In this context, black residents, as David Roediger has argued, became “anti-neighbors,” a fact that is mentioned by one of the protagonists in my presentation when she examines her reflection in the mirror and notices that her presence in this neighborhood constitutes “something vulgar in a hole place.”
By reading several (canonical and non-canonical) literary texts—Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and Frank London Brown’s Trumbull Park, all of which were published the same year, 1959, when the effects of the above outlined policies had become plainly visible—this presentation will destabilize the dominant narrative about the process commonly referred to as “white flight”—one that renders the out-migration of whites as a matter of personal (racist) choice, replacing it with a careful analysis of historical context and the systemic urban policies that caused this radical remaking of American urban space in the wake of the Great Depression.