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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Die Jüdische Gemeinde von Frankfurt/Main in der frühen Neuzeit: Familien, Netzwerke und Konflikte eines jüdischen Zentrums, by Cilli Kasper-Holtkotte.  Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010.  736 pp, numerous tables.  $266.00.


Including more than 250 pages of data drawn from a wide range of archival materials, as well as an extensive index, Cilli Kasper-Holtkotte’s impressive volume is a very welcome and extremely useful tool for scholars interested in the history of the Jews in Frankfurt am Main in the early modern period. While the Jewish community in early modern Frankfurt was one of the largest and most important in Germany and all of central Europe and while it has received a significant amount of attention in the scholarly literature—with particular focus on the ghetto, regional economic development, and anti-Judaism—this book adds a level of detail and engages numerous sources in a way that has been infrequent for Frankfurt or most other early modern Jewish communities. Treating the themes of families, social and economic networks, and internal conflict within the Jewish community, and written by a leading and productive scholar of German Jewish history, this volume promises to be of value for anyone involved with early modern Judaism or early modern German history, but also social history more broadly.

              The primary focus of the book is the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with long and extensive discussion of the period around the Fettmilch uprising and the 1670s and 80s. The end point for coverage is 1711, when a fire in the Jewish quarter arguably transformed the social and political conditions of that community. After a brief introduction to the scope and theme of the study, Kasper-Holtkotte offers a general orientation to the history of the Jews in Frankfurt, focusing on the Jewish quarter, communal organization, legal responsibilities, and privileges, as well as various taxes and financial obligations. In these pages she provides detailed background information about the size of the Jewish population and the number of Jewish houses from the end of the fifteenth through the early eighteenth century. She also provides intricate details about various taxes and financial conditions within the community and in relation to the city and the empire. The discussion of communal organization itself, however, is quite brief and a bit disappointing, given the extent of previous studies and the importance of this issue for later discussions.

              Building upon this general foundation, Kasper-Holtkotte next digs deeper into the economic and financial world of the Jews in early modern Frankfurt, starting with the rapid increase in Jewish financial activity in the city after the middle of the sixteenth century, with the Frankfurt fair as an important launching pad for Jews. Most Jewish moneylenders in Frankfurt did not have a very expansive geographical operation. As Michael Toch has previously demonstrated, the scope of most of this moneylending was also not particularly large. Just after mid century, women comprised approximately 16 percent of the creditors. Thirty-nine percent of the money loaned was by the fourteen most active (male) lenders. By the seventeenth century, the extent and volume of Jewish money business and trade of goods increased rapidly. Kasper-Holtkotte reviews the leading Jewish lenders and provides illuminating detail, based on a wide range of sources, including legal suits. These are among the richest pages of the volume, offering as they do significant insights into communal social and political structures and family organization (including marriage strategies) and networks. Placing Jewish economic activities within a broader regional perspective as well, Kasper-Holtkotte devotes an important analysis to the role of Jews in minting and currency changing. In this section, Kasper-Holtkotte again focuses on the leading families in this economic activity as well as the potential for anti-Jewish legislation and sentiment that such activity could arouse. Finally, she quickly reviews Jewish involvement in the trade in textiles and precious metals and stones.         

              Arguably the heart of the book is chapter 3, which covers nearly 250 pages and examines conflicts and their resolutions during key periods and events in the history of the Jewish community. Kasper-Holtkotte focuses especially on the period of the synod of 1603, the expulsion between 1614 and 1616, the internal communal clashes of the 1620s (especially debates over communal governance and the election of officials), and the 1670s and 80s (paralleling a financial crisis in the city and involving conflicts between extended family groups). Kasper-Holtkotte begins by presenting details of a range of intriguing cases regarding various forms of poor behavior, criminality, and communal punishment that will be of interest for researchers, and the findings and cases may also be used profitably as exemplars within the classroom. Kasper-Holtkotte also compares conflicts between Jews and non-Jews in the period, noting spikes in accusations against Jews as well as placing such conflicts within broader communal, civic, and imperial politics. Throughout she provides rich context and helpful details as she weaves a complex tapestry of communal hierarchy and social and political competition. Kasper-Holtkotte also frequently provides supporting statistics and examples drawn from her extensive review of archival materials, and supplemented by review of various civic, territorial, and imperial legislation. 

              In Chapter Four, Kasper-Holtkotte delivers a meticulous overview of central families—with biographies and discussion of business relations and networks, as well as lists of residences. Of particular interest to scholars of early modern German Jewry will be the discussions of the extended Oppenheim family and an analytical overview of the location of various Jewish residences within the Jewish quarter. Kasper-Holtkotte also traces Jewish migration to Frankfurt and offers a very helpful table of foreign Jews in the Judengasse in 1620.

              In the concluding comments, Kasper-Holtkotte notes that an examination of conflicts within the Jewish community offers the opportunity to understand multi-faceted social relations and internal community dynamics, as well as relations with various external groups and authorities. These conflicts were related to broader political and economic crises in the city and region, but also to changing dynamics within the Jewish community itself, which pitted various families against one another in a search for communal power. This led to two conscious strategies on the part of Jewish protagonists: the construction of a narrow network of leading families from Frankfurt, Friedberg, and Worms and the construction and expansion of a geographically expansive network with other communities. Marriage was a key in both of these strategies. Such strategies, which were similar to those of other early modern German Jewish centers, could both bind important Jewish centers and cause splits within the broader Jewish community.  

              Taken as a whole, this is a most impressive volume that brings to light many important archival resources and provides a cogent and coherent picture of the complexities of one of the most important Jewish communities in early modern central Europe. The details, document summaries, and tabular information will be very useful to many scholars working in a wide range of fields. While Kasper-Holtkotte provides some overarching analysis in the concluding section and at various points throughout the book, frequently the presentation is highly synthetic and does not always take the opportunity to extend the analysis, especially through comparison with developments in other Jewish centers or in the more general population of Frankfurt. While several Hebrew sources are referenced—most notably memory books—there is little attempt to mine the limited but important writings produced by Jews, such as customs books and rabbinic responsa, that might add to the broader picture (no matter how carefully such sources would need to be utilized). In the end, however, this is a masterful study that will help to advance an already significant field with the presentation of important new sources, the helpful contextualization of well-trodden sources and events, and the discussion and application of recent scholarly methodologies and themes in the realm of social history.

Dean Phillip Bell

Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies