Tuesday, August 18, 2009

As A Jewish Reenactor

I’ve been feeling very guilty lately, about the fact that I’ve reenacted so many different time-periods, geographies, characters, in so many different settings, but I’ve never reenacted a character that was Jewish. Am I Jewish? Well, sort of. I have only been inside a synagogue once in my life, which probably counts against me, but my mother is Jewish which by Jewish law makes me Jewish. I am not religious, but neither are a lot of Jews that I know. Of all of the holidays that are important to me, one of the most important is a Jewish Holiday. So yes, I am (sort-of) Jewish. But I’ve never reenacted a Jew.

I spend most of my time reenacting Medieval and Renaissance Europe and, let me tell you, there were plenty of Jews around in Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Some really famous ones too. The 16th century rabbi who created The Golem of Prague might be the most famous. Maimonides is known by many as a great philosopher and physician -- we actually mention him in our medieval medicine show, but the kids remember the talk of urine samples and bleeding more than they do the names of philosophers. And 1492 might be famous to Americans for one reason, but for Jews it symbolizes the ultimate exile from Spain, where Jews, Christians and Muslims had lived if not in peace, at least prosperously for many hundreds of years. So there is a ton of cool Jewish stuff to reenact, why don’t people do it?

Most of my recent reenacting has been done at renaissance faires; not all of it, which means my historical muscles have not gone totally flabby. At renfaires you do not often get the most complete picture of Renaissance society, there are an awful lot of knights, princesses, and fairies wandering around the faire. But there are a heck of a lot of gypsies too. So the other day I asked a friend why it is that a roving minority like the gypsies are so well represented while another roving minority like the Jews are so neglected. He answered that the gypsies are sexier, which is true. I also think that it is harder to make fun of the Jews. Renfaires are all about be jolly and gay, and while it is easy to laugh at jugglers, jesters, even knights and princesses, modern Americans might be understandably reluctant to make fun of Jews, even long-ago Jews. So that might be one reason.

For a while I thought it might be that while your average American, religious or not might not have a problem playing the role of a catholic king, they might not want to portray being Jewish if they are not. But since then I have met a number of Jews at the renfaire, playing everything from Italian pirates to English peasants and everything in between so that excuse only sort of pans out. So why aren’t these Jews playing Jews?

My most recent hypothesis is that Jewish custom and culture already has its own historical reenactments in quite a number of holidays. Purim is the Jewish holiday that tells the story of Queen Ester and involves dressing up, sometimes as Queen Esther or the evil Haman that she defeats. The holiday of Sukkot involves the recreation of a hut that nomadic ancestors used to use in the harvest season. Passover is an even better example, not only is the story of the Jews escape from Egypt read at the Passover seder, but the meal is made up of foods that are recreations of foods those Jews ate, or symbolize their struggles, or at least are representative of the cultural connection. Jews have many holidays that involve historical reenactment.

I still hope, that some day I will get the chance to reenact a Jewish persona in a more typical reenactment environment, but for now I will look forward to the next Jewish history holiday and continue on with the reenacting opportunities that come my way, no matter what culture they are grounded in.


  1. This is very interesting to me! And I think you're on to something, as to why Jews aren't portrayed more often. I myself am trying to get in to reenacting for the Rev and Civil War eras. Several members of my family have been doing it for many years, but I've never done it yet. I'm putting my costumes together, and I want to reenact as Jewish women in America during these periods because I feel like it is a majorly under-represented role at reenactments and living history events, especially in the South.

  2. Thanks Rachel,

    I've come across a couple of bits of Jewish Civil War history recently, one is this article of Civil War novels:


    and one is this play on the Civil War also in relation to passover:

    I hope that helps!

  3. A very interesting article! My name is Yvonne Leon from Castelló d'Empúries, a little medieval town in the north of Catalonia (Spain). I belong to a cultural collective that performs many cultural activities (Serfs de la Gleva). The most important is the historical reenactment of the medieval history of the Catalan Jews. Our goal is to show how these people lived, because these part of the history is very unknown here, and ignorance often leads to misunderstanding. For that reason, we try to show that Catalan Jews were the same people than Christian citizens, only with a different religion and culture.
    I leave one video of our video project about the Medieval Jewish history in our village, Castelló d'Empúries. In this case, images about the first conversions in beginning of the XVth century:


    I hope you find it interesting!