The Jewish Neighborhood: Exploring the Other Side of Medieval Urban Space



Project Director: Prof. Simha Goldin


Tel: 03-6409799


Researchers: Dr. Yitzhak Lifshitz, Dr. Merav Schnitzer, Dr. Nimrod Gaatone 

About the Project 


The medieval European Jewish neighborhood was a physical and social space reflecting unique adaptations of residential needs according to religious laws and the sages' interpretations in the Mishnah and Talmud that took place within the Christian cities of medieval Europe. Understanding the features of Jewish communal life in these cities, as well as the planning rationale of the Jewish urban landscape, is widely unexplored and requires a complex set of interdisciplinary tools, combining the disciplines of history, archaeology, Halacha (Jewish law), folklore, and art. The significance of a unique research of this type is in its ability to shed light upon a critical phase in the development of Jewish thought and, for the first time, the various elements composing Jewish neighborhoods in medieval European cities.  This research aims to analyze not only the physical characteristics of the medieval Jewish neighborhood, but also to address the Jews' self-perception with regard to the space within which they operate, within their own neighborhood and within the larger Christian city. Comparing Halachic materials from the Iruvin Tractate concerning the Jewish neighborhood with non-Jewish historical sources and archaeological data provides a unique glimpse into the urban landscape of Europe's medieval, city-dwelling Jews, illuminating the many layers of meaning implicated in their physical surroundings.  The research team is analyzing a number of sources – including medieval interpretations of the Iruvin tractate by key Jewish scholars in France and Germany; Responsa dealing with neighborly relations and the problems caused by local landscapes and construction on the Sabbath; medieval real estate deeds and registrations that took place in Christian cities; and archaeological remains from medieval cities – in order to understand and reconstruct the medieval Jewish urban space within the European Christian city.


The research team is led by Prof. Simha Goldin, in cooperation with Professor Dr. Johannes Heil, the Ignatz Bubis Chair of the Hochschule für Jüdische Studien in Heidelberg, Germany. Other leading scholars in this field – primarily in Europe – are involved in the project. Within the framework of this project, a series of annual international research workshops has been held to examine new findings; the proceedings from these workshops will be published as a new volume of the Center’s academic journal Michael.  In addition, one or more books on the reconstruction of the medieval European Jewish neighborhood will be published upon the conclusion of the project.



The Economic and Material Culture of Jews in Ashkenaz during the Middle Ages


Researcher: Dr. Yitzhak Lifshitz


Jewish neighborhoods throughout ancient and medieval times were shaped by halachic requirements that guided the Jews’ way of life; halachic sources, therefore, serve as an excellent means of studying the urban landscape of the period.  Dr. Lifshitz’s work focuses on examining medieval European halachic sources, particularly commentary on Tractate Eruvin, as a basis for establishing the interior dynamics – physical, social, religious, and cultural – of Jewish neighborhood building during the period.


During the 2018–2019 academic year Dr. Lifshitz has been focusing on his work on a volume dealing with everyday life and the economy of the Jews of Ashkenaz in the Middle Ages, which includes all of the articles he has written over the last several years. This volume is divided into a theoretical section dealing with the encounter of the ancient Ashkenazi custom with the Talmudic law. The second section includes applications of the theory on several subjects of everyday life. He has completed his work and sent it for review.


Dr. Lifshitz has also begun his next research project on the Maharam of Rothenburg. He wrote a book on the Maharam’s political doctrine that was published by Cambridge University Press in 2015. He is currently pursuing a new study that will deal with the Maharam’s approach to social issues such as marital law and synagogue rulings, as well as his perspective on Talmudic law. Dr. Lifshitz has spent the last semester once again thoroughly examining and analyzing the Maharam’s life and works.




July 2–5, 2018

Dr. Lifshitz represented the Center at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, where he presented a paper entitled “A Gentile is Not the Other: The Unique Case of Ashkenaz”.


Forthcoming Conferences


July 1–4, 2019

Dr. Lifshitz will represent the Center at the annual International Medieval Congress held in Leeds, England, where he will deliver a lecture based on his research entitled “The Peculiar Case of Wooden Utensils in the Jewish Kitchen”.



Jewish Women’s Adornment in the Medieval Jewish Neighborhood: Cultural Exchanges


Researcher: Dr. Merav Schnitzer


During the 2018–2019 academic year, Dr. Schnitzer has expanded her research on Jewish women’s adornment practices during the Middle Ages to consider Jewish women’s undergarments. This research is based on both Christian sources on the fashion of the time and the changes it underwent, as well as the responsa of Halachic scholars on the topic of changes in the fashion practices of Jewish women in the urban milieu of the Middle Ages. As Dr. Schnitzer had previously discovered was the case with trends in jewelry, so, too, she has found evidence that the changing fashions of Christian women influenced those of the neighboring Jewish women. These changes created a conflict between the leading fashion and the Halachic precepts regarding the laws of Eruv and immersion in the mikveh. The Jewish women who lived in the commercial and fashion centers of Champagne and Île-de-France dictated the fashion, which then spread out among women in other communities throughout France and even beyond. During the past year Dr. Schnitzer’s research has focused on an unusual brassiere that is described in Halachic sources. In this instance, too, the wearing of the brassiere created a tension and a disparity between the perspective of women on their bodies and the Halacha. The wearing of this garment also exposed the conflict between the dictates of fashion and the dress codes that were common among Christian women in the city. It seems that Jewish women served as a model for Christian women, even when the fashion stood in opposition to the dress codes practiced in the Christian city.


There have also been new developments in the earlier aspects of Dr. Schnitzer’s research: the key jewelry that she discovered several years ago at the Musée de Cluny in Paris was the central exhibit in an exhibition that opened in May 2018 in the city of Rouen, France exploring the daily life and material culture of the Jews of Northern France during the Middle Ages. In July 2019, it will feature as the key exhibit in the Colmar Treasure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.




“The Key of the Colmar Treasure”, Savants et Croyants. Les juifs d’Europe du Nord au Moyen Âge, Musée des Antiquités, Reunion des Musées Métropolitains, 2018, pp. 229-230, ed. Nicolas Hatot.


Forthcoming Publications


“The Missing Key in the Treasure: Cultural Exchanges and Women’s Adornment in Medieval Europe”, Michael, volume 18, Tel Aviv University.




May 24-27, 2018

Dr. Schnitzer represented the Center at the Exhibition Savants et Croyants. Les juifs d’Europe du Nord au Moyen Âge, Musée des Antiquités, Reunion des Musées Métropolitains.


Forthcoming Conferences


July 1–4, 2019

Dr. Schnitzer will represent the Center at the annual International Medieval Congress held in Leeds, England, where she will deliver a lecture based on her research entitled “Debating Style: Jewish Rules and Women's Fashion in Medieval Society”.



A Western Sephardi “Genizah”: Letters of Eighteenth Century Sephardi Merchants and Insights into their Daily Life

Researcher: Dr. Nimrod Gaatone


During a research tour in an archive in the southwest of France, Dr. Gaatone came across a series of 56 letters (a total of 99 pages), handwritten in Spanish, by a Jewish merchant from London. They were sent between 1766–1768 to his brother-in-law, who resided in Bayonne, a port city on the southwest coast of France. The Atlantic in-laws were Western Sephardi Jews. The Western Sephardim were the direct descendants of the Marranos, the Crypto-Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula between the middle of the sixteenth century and the middle of the eighteenth century in fear of the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions.


The Western Sephardi diaspora, or “the Spanish-Portuguese Nation” as it was called by its members, was a global familial and commercial network erected by the Iberian refugees in their new hubs, among them: Amsterdam, London, Hamburg, Livorno, Bordeaux, Bayonne, and the Caribbean Islands, where many of them went back to practice Judaism openly and established communities. The Western Sephardim developed a unique approach to Judaism that emphasized the Bible and demoted the Talmud. Also, they took pride in their Iberian origins and put a lot of effort into preserving it and differentiating themselves from other Jewish communities.


The work of prominent scholars such as Yosef Kaplan, Jonathan Israel, Gérard Nahon, Lois Dubin and David Sorkin, shed light on the evolution of the Western Sephardi diaspora, its unique culture, the community life in its main centers and the alternate path to modernity of Western-Sephardi “Port Jews”, that was distinct from the European Haskalah. However, research of the Sephardim’s economic activities is still ongoing and far from completion. In addition, very little is known about their private lives.


The importance of these letters is that they discuss both business and personal issues. It is a sort of Western-Sephardi "Geniza". Therefore, Dr. Gaatone has chosen to follow the example of S.D. Goitein’s Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders (1973), and offer an annotated edition of the letters. This broad and varied research is based on a subchapter in Dr. Gaatone's doctoral thesis.


The goal of the research is twofold: first, to discover more on the commercial practices of the main partners in the network, the two Jewish in-laws; second, to become acquainted with their daily habits. On the commercial aspect, the scale of their business, their business partners, and what routes they used to transfer merchandise between them and to their business partners will be considered. On the private aspect, the structure of the Western-Sephardi family and the role of the women, the use of spare time, and whether Jewish family members mingled with non-Jews or kept to themselves and their community members will all be explored.


After concluding this preliminary inquiry, Dr. Gaatone will compare its results with the results of relevant studies, such as research by the Canadian historian Richard Menkis on the Gradis family of merchants from Bordeaux in the Atlantic rim, and by the Italian-American historian Francesca Trievllato on the Ergas and Silvera family company, from Livorno in the Mediterranean basin. This work will provide answers to the following questions: Was the code of honor and trust indicated by Trivellato with respect to merchants in the Mediterranean valid for merchants in the Atlantic? On the personal aspect, did the rapprochement indicated by Trivellato and Menkis, with respect to the commercial relations between Sephardi merchants and non-Jewish merchants, influence the personal connections between both populations?


The collection of material for this research is a very complicated, difficult task as most of it is spread around different countries (France, Spain, UK). So far, the following steps have been taken:

  • The scan and translation of the core material, that is the series of letters mentioned above.
  • The collection of materials regarding the commercial activities of the network and each of its members. Relevant documents were found in archives in southwest France, such as the departmental archives of the Atlantic Pyrenees in the cities of Pau and Bayonne, and in northwest Spain, such as the departmental archives of Vizcaya in Bilbao.
  • A query was sent to relevant archives in the UK, namely the archives of the city of Dover, whose port served the London in-law for the shipping of merchandise, and the archives of the Portuguese Jewish community in London. According to the answers received, relevant documents may be found in both archives.

The next step will be the collection of materials in the English archives mentioned above, and the completion of the collection of materials in archives in the southwest of France, such as the departmental archives in Bordeaux. These will provide a clearer understanding of the Jewish in-laws' private lives. For example, assets they may have possessed, their activities in their respective Jewish community, and registrations they may have in government establishments (police, courts, border passages, etc.).


Forthcoming Publications

Transformations économiques et sociales de la communauté séfarade occidental dans l’espace atlantique au début de l’ère Moderne : le cas de la communauté juive de Bayonne, 1723-1790, Collection de la Revue des Etudes Juives, Paris/Louvain, Peeters, forthcoming.



January 31, 2019

Dr. Gaatone represented the Center at the conference held in honor of the late Professor Gerard Nahon, which took place at the Jewish Museum in Paris. He delivered a lecture entitled “Métropoles et Périphéries Séfarades d'occident : le cas de l'industrie du chocolat des Juifs de Bayonne au xviiième siècle”.


February 24–26, 2019

Dr. Gaatone represented the Center at the annual conference of the Latin-American Center, which was held at the University of Florida, entitled “The Jews and the Americas”. He delivered a lecture entitled “Chocolate, Free-masons and Integration: The Jews of Bayonne (France) and the Americas in the 18th Century”.


Forthcoming Conferences

June 24–26 2019

Dr. Gaatone will represent the Center at the Annual Conference of the SEFARAD Academic Society, which will be held at the University of Lisbon. He will deliver a lecture entitled: “Leadership in the Western Sephardi Diaspora: The Case of David Alexander from Bayonne”.


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