Why would they do that?
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Why would they do that?

Rutgers professor looks at history of conversion & alleged forced circumcision and murder — in medieval Europe

Considering that it was likely to be dangerous if not deadly, and considering as well that the idea of joining a pariah group rarely appeals to anyone ever, why did medieval western European sources ever mention Christians converting to Judaism?

Why on earth would someone do that?

When Paola Tartakoff was doing research for her first book, “Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250-1391,” she was looking for the stories of Jews who converted to Christianity. That’s overwhelmingly what she found — but there were these other mentions.

Dr. Tartakoff — who is a professor of history and Jewish studies at Rutgers and chair of the school’s department of Jewish studies — also discovered a footnote to an article about the Jews of Norwich, England, “that was about the accusation that Jews had snatched a Christian boy off the street and circumcised him to convert him to Judaism.” That was in the 1230s. There was a trial.

“In that same decade, English chroniclers recorded this trial; in a little paragraph they transformed the story into an alleged attempted Jewish murder, so instead of saying that Jews were accused of having seized and circumcised a boy, they wrote that Jews had seized and circumcised a Jewish boy in preparation for crucifying him, in a parody of the story of Christ.”

Dr. Tartakoff specializes in Jewish medieval history in western Europe. “I was intrigued,” she said. “I knew of no other accusation about seizing a child to circumcise him as part of an attempted ritual murder.”

That research has resulted in her new book, “Conversion, Circumcision, and Ritual Murder in Medieval Europe.” She will talk about the case and her book on Zoom for Rutgers’ Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life on March 3 at 7 p.m.; see the below for details.

She wanted to know more. “What was the lost background of this story? Who was this child?” We know that his name was Edward. We know that he survived, and he testified in court, when he was about 9 years ago, about something that seems to have happened to him when he was about 5. We know that something in fact did happen to him. “In his testimony, he gives a very detailed account of how the Jews circumcised and renamed him.”

Dr. Paola Tartakoff

The larger questions that this information raised for her were “who was converting to Judaism? Why were they converting? What were the Jewish attitudes toward it? And what did the Christian authorities know, and how did they respond?”

“After my first book was published, in 2012, I turned to these questions, and I found that they were fundamentally intertwined.”

Dr. Tartakoff was able to go back to her sources — some in archives, some published, in languages including Hebrew, Latin, “and what we call Romance vernaculars; French, Italian, Spanish, as they existed in the Middle Ages.” They’re each different but related to each other and to the Latin from which each developed. “I can read all of them, some better than others,” Dr. Tartakoff said.

She discovered that “during this period, Christian authorities repeatedly persecuted the Jewish community and punished Jews on charges of converting Christians to Judaism. Prior scholarship hadn’t really systematically analyzed this before. I tracked down those cases, and I found that Christian authorities were conflating two different phenomena.

“One was that a very tiny number of foreign Christians did convert to Judaism. But the main thing is that some Jews who had converted to Christianity were returning to Judaism.”

To the Christian community, anyone who had been baptized was Christian. To the Jewish community, anybody who was born halachically Jewish remained Jewish. “The two groups saw it differently,” Dr. Tartakoff said. “This showed the gap between Jewish and Christian perceptions of the exact same events, and it shows how subjective the observations could be, but also how subjective the identities of these religious travelers could be.

“They represented the whole spectrum. Some of them absolutely had been baptized at sword’s point. Others had quote-unquote voluntarily decided to convert. It was an escape valve. They needed to escape the Jewish community and start afresh — and then they realized that being a Jewish convert to Christianity was really tough. You are in no man’s land.”

During this time, “whereas Christians are imagining or portraying Jews as preying on Christians, trying to convert them to Judaism, Jews are making no real attempt to convert Christians to Judaism, but in some cases they are making real efforts to bring Jewish apostates back to Judaism.”

This is the original summary of the trial records of the Norwich circumcision case, from the National Archives in London.

The story of young Edward — a sad story, no matter what the hidden truth might be — unfolded not long before the Jews were expelled from England in 1290. Dr. Tartakoff has some educated guesses on what the story might have been, which she’ll unfold on the Zoom talk.

She’ll talk as well about circumcision, which is an indelible mark on a man’s body; now, when most American and European men are circumcised, it’s not a marker of identity in the way that it was in the Middle Ages. “It was a permanent, verifiable mark,” she said.

It also leads to a discussion of the idea of ritual murder; “starting in around the late 15th century, it’s incorporated as an alleged step in the process that serves to further demonize the Jews.

“One is by portraying Jews as performing a gory and cruel mutilation on an innocent Christian victim.” It evoked images of Christ’s bleeding on the cross, and of Jews as alleged Christ killers. Paradoxically, however, it also made the idea that Christian men could possibly be willing to undergo such mutilation in order to convert to Judaism oddly impressive. “It was seen as a daunting rite of conversion. It was something that freaked out Christian authorities.”

Although the number of Christians who converted to Judaism was small, it seems that “at least half of the born Christians who converted who we know of were clergy,” Dr. Tartakoff said. “I hypothesize that they were drawn to Judaism intellectually.” Many of those converts learned Hebrew in order to study the Torah in its original language. “They studied with rabbis. They were interested in Jewish interpretation and commentary on the Bible.” Sometimes Christian clergymen would cite Rashi, whom they’d read in the original, she said. “The Jewish hierarchy was aware that this was dangerous, and they tried to restrict it. The fear was that there could be unintended consequences in these intense learning partnerships.”

We only know about Christian clergymen who converted to Judaism because of the statement they made when they were tortured, before they were burned at the stake, so we can’t be entirely sure how true the statements were, or how representative their content. But we do know that it happened.

What about women? It’s harder to tell, Dr. Tartakoff said. “We do have tombstones of Christian women who converted to Judaism, and we have references to individual cases. Usually all we know is that they end up married to Jewish men, but we don’t know which came first.” We don’t know if they converted in order to marry a Jewish man, or if they converted and then found a Jewish man to marry. “We do know that Jewish and Christian authorities were really paranoid about romantic liaisons across the divide, but that doesn’t prove anything,” she added.

“One of the challenges of this project was that there is so little surviving evidence of any kind,” Dr. Tartakoff said. That’s why her geographic range — from England to Italy — had to be so wide. “I am very careful to be upfront about that in the book. I am bringing to light some broad trends, but I am not arguing that the situation was the same everywhere, or that things didn’t change over time. Sometimes people do very local studies, when there is enough evidence, and that is super valuable, but the questions I was asking were too broad for that.”

Dr. Tartakoff will touch on those broader questions as she tries to answer the mystery of what happened to Edward, the allegedly kidnapped-for-circumcision-and-murder child, in 1230, in England.


Who: Dr. Paola Tartakoff and Dr. David Shyowitz, associate professor of history and Jewish studies at Northwestern University

What: Will talk about her new book, “Conversion, Circumcision, and Ritual Murder in Medieval Europe,” with a close-up look at the story of 5-year-old Edward

When: On Wednesday, March 3, at 7 p.m.

How: On Zoom

For whom: The Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life at Rutgers.

How to register: Go to BildnerCenter.Rutgers.edu

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