Please, Tell Us More!

Professor Epstein with an interested young person /Courtesy of Marc Epstein

I’ve been teaching at Vassar since the late twentieth century (1991, to be precise, if you can believe it) both in Religion and Jewish Studies. I’m interested in majority-minority relations: how Christianity started out as a subset of Judaism and how that changed over the centuries as well as how Jews and Muslims maintained their identities in the heavily Christian European Middle Ages. I work a lot with art and artifacts, teaching courses like “Religion, Art and Politics,” “A Hundred Gospels And The Confused, Conflicted Life of Jesus” and “Kabbalah: Jewish Mysticism.” Often I share with students what culture looks like when it is produced for a minority within a larger and often hostile majority—how it may encode messages of protest or dreams of subversion.

One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is the somewhat bizarre Griffins’ Head Haggadah, which was created in what is now Germany, probably in Mainz, around 1300, and now resides in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. It is one of the masterpieces of art made for Jewish patrons in the Middle Ages—the earliest surviving illustrated version of the text of the haggadah—the “script” of the Seder, the service for Passover Eve. The Griffins’ Head Haggadah possesses all the classic qualities of a perpetual enigma. Within the rather modest field of Jewish visual culture it is, in its own unassuming way, as mysterious as the Pyramids of Giza, the
monoliths of Easter Island or Mona Lisa’s smile. The manuscript’s 47 remaining folios are graced with two full-page illuminations and 33 pages containing marginal illustrations that depict a variety of figures—young and old, male and female—enacting the narratives of the Exodus and engaged in the religious observance of Passover eve.

Curiously, although provided with the bodies of human beings, these figures are in most cases represented not with human heads but with the countenances of sharp-beaked and sharp-eyed birds. In some cases, these bird heads are supplemented by animal ears. To the twenty-first-century eye, the juxtaposition of human bodies with birds’ heads is quirky, disquieting and seemingly impenetrable. It is susceptible to all the most compelling modes of interpretation; it is a riddle to be solved, a treasure hunt to be embarked upon.

Esther (as dove) before Ahashverosh (with blank human face) per Esther 4:11
/Courtesy of Marc Epstein

In my research for my book “The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative & Religious Imagination” (Yale University Press, 2011), I developed what was an initially controversial but now universally accepted thesis that the creatures depicted are not, in fact, birds, but instead griffins, lion-eagle hybrids present in the biblical accounts of the Israelite Wilderness Tabernacle and, later, in Solomon’s Temple. For medieval Jews in the German lands, these creatures had political, as well as religious, resonances.

The Imperial Eagle evoked Jews’ status as servi camerae regis: “serfs of the Imperial Chamber.” Jews were both subject to special status as “slaves of the Emperor,” but also—as the Emperor’s personal property—protected in the Holy Roman Empire. The Lion of Judah simultaneously reminded Jews of their identification with their own heritage and tradition. Indeed, Jews killed in the Crusade massacres/martyrdoms in Mainz, where the manuscript was likely made, were described by the mourners who survived them as “lighter than eagles” in the way they lived and “bolder than lions,” in the heroic manner in which they faced their tragic deaths. Non-Jews in the manuscript are depicted as blank-faced; their erasure visually demonstrates a strong political response to anti-Jewish sentiment among non-Jews and its consequences in anti-Jewish violence in the Christian Middle Ages.

Now, I am involved in a collaboration with scribe Jen Taylor Friedman to create a new manuscript in the style of the Griffins’ Head Haggadah, using the same unique medieval Ashkenazic script and “cast of characters”— griffin-headed Jews of various types, and blank-faced non-Jews—in the context of a Megillah, a Scroll of Esther, for use on the Festival of Purim.

Jen is a soferet (Jewish ritual scribe). In 2007, she became the first woman known to have completed a Torah scroll. Educated at Oxford, she became interested in halakhah (Jewish law) and calligraphy, and by a “chance combination of happy circumstances” she met a sofer (a male scribe) who helped her realize that becoming a soferet would allow her to pursue both interests. Taylor Friedman continued her scribal studies in Jerusalem and New York City, the mentor of a small, but growing, number of female scribes.

A sample of the project: left, the Griffins’ Head Haggadah, right, Jen Taylor Friedman’s sample calligraphy, on parchment.
/Courtesy of Marc Epstein

The manuscript, with the same dimensions as the Griffins’ Head Haggadah but in scroll form, will be researched, designed, laid out and executed as a special new Intensive in Jewish Studies. This is an exciting and innovative project, promoting new, hands-on ways of learning about the way art was planned, designed and created in the Middle Ages. It exemplifies our new Intensives program—it is an initiative through which students can translate classroom learning into practical research and experience. That work then circles back to enhance their understanding of what is being taught in the classroom and extends outward into their real-life practical experience. It’s so great for me to actually be able to create a “new-old” work of art like this one with the wonderful and creative students I have the pleasure of teaching and learning from. It’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of mine.

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