In 1391, after years of vitriolic anti-Semitic sermonizing in Spain, anti-Jewish riots broke out in Seville. From Seville, the unrest spread to Cordova, Valencia, Toledo, Barcelona, and elsewhere. By the time the violence ended in 1392, thousands of Spanish Jews had been forcibly converted to Christianity and thousands more had been killed.
A century earlier, a Spanish Jewish philosopher named Abner of Burgos had voluntarily converted to Christianity. He spent the following decades publishing treatises that claimed to uncover a code within Jewish texts, such as the Torah and the Talmud, that revealed Jewish rabbis had known Jesus was the Messiah and worked to cover it up.
There’s a tendency, says Associate Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Ryan Szpiech, to draw a link between Abner of Burgos’s writings to the later riots. Spziech thinks that impulse—to attribute causation by virtue of proximity—is tricky without more evidence. Even though the chronology works, he says, the former event did not necessarily cause the latter, even though a shared culture made both possible. These kinds of big and profound questions—about causal relationships, about the different ways that people think and speak—are important for lots of people to think about, not just scholars.
“These things have to be understood in their very particular social circumstances,” Szpiech says on an episode of Frankely Judaic, a podcast on Jewish thought, theology, and culture from the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. (Frankely Judaic is available on iTunes and other podcast platforms.) “If we can get history writing away from this kind of causal thinking that sees these acts of violence and moments of crisis as necessary conclusions to earlier events, perhaps we can see these as things that can be avoided rather than things that must come to pass.”
It’s a specific and somewhat specialized kind of argument that Szpiech is making—that certain assumptions that have been made about events 600 years in the past should be reexamined and reimagined. But there’s a lot in and around the issues at play in Szpiech’s research that is resonant to the world we see out our window and in our newsfeeds in 2019, says Frankely Judaic podcast producer Jeremy Shere (A.B. 1994), especially the relationship between toxic discourses and public acts of violence.
“I’m always thinking about the audience and who is going to be listening to this,” Shere says. “We try to think about it in very broad terms. That means that we have to explain enough so that people will understand what we are talking about, why it matters, and what’s at stake. To get someone to listen to something for 20 minutes, you really have to keep them involved.”
Frankely Judaic covers a wide variety of topics. One episode explores the significance of nineteenth century cafes in the social and intellectual exchange of Jewish communities; another taxonomizes the ritual medicine and healing practices in Roman antiquity; yet another outlines the historical discrimination and political activism of Mizrahi Jews, including the founding of the HaPanterim ha-Shehorim, a Black Panthers-style organization based in Israel.
“The topics can be really specific,” Shere says, “and often the episodes are about something granular enough that most people who aren’t specialists in the field won’t know much about—or necessarily care about if they stumbled across it in a scholarly journal. Our challenge is about how to turn that material into something that a casual listener can engage with.”
A Beginning, Middle, and End
The Frankel Institute for Advanced Judaic Studies, run through the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, invites scholars and artists from around the world to participate in a yearlong research program in Ann Arbor annually. Each year is organized around a theme, such as Medieval identities, Yiddish language, and translation.
Jeffrey Veidlinger, the Joseph Brodsky Collegiate Professor of History and Judaic Studies and the director of the Frankel Center, was searching for ways to translate the work of the institute’s fellows for a broader audience. He approached Shere about a possible partnership.
“Talking to Jeff [Veidlinger], I knew that we wanted to put storytelling at the center,” says Shere, a longtime radio and podcast producer. “That meant using anything to help the story come to life, including music and sound effects. We would produce it as a narrative, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
Judaic studies potentially has a large audience, says Veidlinger, but the scholarship is often presented either as unedited interviews or recorded lectures. Veidlinger saw room for something that could take full advantage of the opportunities available to a broad-audience podcast—one that “distilled cutting-edge scholarship into digestible stories.”
“It’s one thing to read about somebody’s research in a magazine story,” Shere says. “But there’s a unique power to encountering research in an audio form. It’s more intimate. It’s not just an idea; it’s an actual person and you can hear how interested they are in what they’re talking about. It can really humanize the research.”
“The general public is craving informed analysis of the world today,” Veidlinger says. “As a public university, we have an obligation to help meet that need.
“The idea of a learning community that serves the public has always been at the forefront of Jewish thought. Medieval rabbinical sages, for instance, were expected not only to study but also to serve their communities as judges, teachers, and leaders. I see this as a compelling model for the modern American university. We study not just for its own sake, but also to make a difference.”