With Jewish characters occupying such a prominent place in the 1632 story universe, it is important to accurately recreate the Jews of that era. What I have written in the following is intended as a handy resource for anyone contemplating using Jewish characters in fiction they set in this world. I have tried to cover issues that would matter most to a writer trying to invent realistic Jewish characters without more than a cursory glance at matters of theology, except as these would be seen by an outsider observing the Jews of the era. The one exception to this is in the area of Kaballah, where I have delved deeper because this was at the center of the largest controversy in the Jewish world of the era.
In writing what follows, I have tried to consistently transliterate Hebrew words into English using natural spellings of the Ashkenazic pronunciation, since this was the dominant pronunciation in Germany in the seventeenth century. By way of example, consider the word Sabbath, pronounced Shabbos by most Ashkenazic Jews, with the emphasis on the first syllable. In contrast, Sephardic Jews pronounce this as Shabbat, with the emphasis on the second syllable.
Most modern transliterations from the Hebrew follow the Sephardic pronunciation because that is how modern Israeli Hebrew is pronounced. I will not use any of the standard Hebrew to English transliteration schemes that are used in scholarly work. Some of these use diacritical marks unfamiliar to most readers, while others generate bizarre spellings that don't suggest any widely spoken dialect of post-biblical Hebrew. For example, rendering Sabbath as Shabboth.
Unfortunately, there is no one-to-one correspondence between the letters of the English alphabet and the Hebrew aleph-beis. There is one Hebrew letter that can be pronounced as either b or v, so the name Abrabanel and Abravanel are both reasonable transliterations of the same Hebrew spelling. Similarly, another letter can be pronounced either s or sh. In both cases, there are diacritical marks that can be used in the Hebrew to indicate the intended pronunciation, but these are omitted in most written Hebrew.
The glottal ch sound found in many Hebrew words has no English analog. This is used in the words chiam and bruchah, meaning respectively life and blessing, and pronounced as the ch in Bach or Loch Ness. It should be easy for Germans and Scots to pronounce, but it gives many English speakers trouble. Some transliterations use the letter h for this sound, others use the awkward looking kh; given that English readers expect to see ch used for this sound in loan words from Gaelic and German, it is hard to justify these other alternatives.
A final reason for irregular transliterations from Hebrew to English lies in places where both Hebrew and English grammar can be used. Should we construct the plural of mitzvah, commandment, as mitzvahs, following the English rules for plural formation, or should we construct the plural as mitzvos or mitzvot, using the Hebrew rules for plural formation? I will do the latter because it demonstrates how a Jewish character would say the word where a writer might want to emphasize their Jewishness by having them drop in an occasional Hebrew word. I recommend doing this in careful moderation except where you want your Jewish characters to come across as incomprehensible.
In the context of remarks in the novel 1632 about the American habit of using acronyms, it is relevant to note that the Jewish world has been using acronyms for a very long time. The Jewish Bible is known as the Tanach, formed from the initials for Torah, nevi'im (prophets) and ketuvim (writings), with random vowels added to allow it to be pronounced as a word. Similarly, stam calligraphy is used for the texts of the Sefir Torah, tefilin and mezuzot. Many more of these acronyms will be mentioned later, in the section on Jewish names.
Judaism centers on the covenantal obligation of Jews to perform the 613 divine mitzvos that have been identified in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. As a result, Judaism has, at its core, a code of law known as halacha, a word meaning "the path." It is reasonable to compare this to the canon law of the Church, but where Christianity is a matter of faith and can survive without its law code, it is difficult to formulate versions of Judaism that are not centered on the mitzvos.
Jewish law was considered to be binding on all Jews, and throughout most of the European Jewish world of the seventeenth century, Jewish courts were empowered by the Christian authorities to enforce this code of law in all disputes between Jews. Halacha is not just a religious code, for example, it includes a highly developed code of commercial law, and matters of doctrine or creed are not addressed in any depth.
The two primary jobs of a rabbi have traditionally been to serve as a teacher and a judge of Jewish law. It follows that the Talmud, which is the central text of every rabbinical seminary or yeshivah, can be thought of as a law text—although it is much more than that. The Talmud is massive and must be studied in the context of more recent rabbinic rulings. As a result, shorter codes of Jewish law have long attracted readers. In the seventeenth century, the Shulchan Aruch by Rabbi Yosef Karo of Safed was the newest compendium, but it was also somewhat controversial.
Under Jewish law, all prohibitions can be suspended when doing so will save a life, excepting the prohibitions against murder, idolatry and sexual immorality. Dietary prohibitions and modesty rules fall by the wayside if they stand in the way of saving a life, as do the prohibited categories of work on the Sabbath and even the laws against theft. In times and places where Jews were subject to serious persecution, many Jews interpreted the obligation to save lives narrowly, applying it primarily to Jewish life.
The Jewish world of 1632 was a complex one; broadly speaking, it was divided between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, but this greatly oversimplifies the picture. The Jews of Italy, in particular, included an indigenous community dating back to Roman times that was neither Ashkenazic nor Sephardic. This community had its own ritual tradition dating back to Roman times, although by the seventeenth century Italy also hosted Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, most notably in Venice. The Babylonian and Yeminite communities were also distinct.
In general, the division between the different Jewish communities was not one of ideological disagreement, but one of traditions. The Jews of these communities usually agreed that the traditions of the other communities were valid and that, within each community, these traditions had the binding force of law. The greatest differences between these communities were in the prayer book, where one community or the other had made additions to the basic structure of the liturgy mandated by the Talmud, and in minor dietary laws—particularly those surrounding Passover.
In addition to the traditional and ritual differences between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities, there was significant prejudice. Sephardic Jews still remembered being at the center of the Jewish world prior to their expulsion from Spain, and tended to think of their Ashkenazic cousins as uncultured and vulgar. Ashkenazic Jews, in turn, resented this dismissive attitude.
There was also, of course, the matter of language. The mamaloschen (mother tongue) of the Ashkenazic community was Judische Deutsch, formed from German with a liberal admixture of Hebrew roots (laschon is, for example, the Hebrew word for tongue). In seventeenth-century Poland, Judische Deutsch was already well on the road to becoming what we now call Yiddish. In areas where the larger community spoke various local German dialects, it is not clear that Judische Deutsch should be described as Yiddish, and considered as a distinct language, as opposed to just another German dialect. The Sephardic community, in contrast, spoke Ladino, or Judaeo-Spanish, while the Italian community spoke Judaeo-Italian. There was also an indigenous Jewish community in North Africa that spoke Judaeo-Arabic.
All of these languages contained numerous Hebrew words and were written in Hebrew characters. It is fair to say that these languages were mutually incomprehensible with the possible exception of slowly spoken and carefully enunciated Judaeo-Italian and Judaeo-Spanish. Rabbis, many laymen and some women in all of these communities would have known enough Hebrew to overcome any communication difficulties caused by these language differences.
As already noted, the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities had distinct Hebrew dialects. In Ashkenazic, the th sound had become an s, so Ruth was pronounced Roos, and in Sephardic, it had become a t, so the name became Root. There was also a shift in the pronunciation of some vowels and a shift in syllable emphasis. Where Sephardic Jews generally emphasized the last syllable, as in talit or amen, Ashkenazic Jews tended to emphasize the first syllable, talus or omain.
Family names, as we know them today, were uncommon in the seventeenth-century Jewish community. From biblical times to the modern era, all Jews generally have patronymic names, so Moische ben Aaron is Moses, the son of Aaron, and Frumah bat Yosef is Faith, the daughter of Joseph. Jewish marriage, divorce and death records will always give the name in this form, as will Jewish court records. In addition, this form of name is used when a Jew is called up in the synagogue for any liturgical purpose.
There is one general exception to this, the family names Cohen and Levi, which are of biblical origin. The name Cohen, indicating priestly descent, has numerous variants, including Kahn and Kaplan. In the same way, Levi indicates descent from the biblical Levites and gave us family names such as Levine. In formal liturgical usage, these names are appended to the patronymic form, so Samuel son of Moses the Cohen would be known as Schmuel ben Moische haCohain. When the Torah is read in the synagogue, the first and second sections of the reading are reserved for the Cohen and Levite, if any are present. This and a few other minor ritual privileges have ensured the continuity of these family names.
In the seventeenth century, a few Jewish families were using family names approximately as we use them today. Most frequently, these were used as a way of calling attention to relationships with prominent ancestors. For example, many descendants of the noted French Torah commentator and mathematician Gershonides, or Rabbi Levi ben Gershon used the family name Ralbag to call attention to their ancestry; Ralbag was simply the acronym for his full name.
Most of the great Jewish scholars have had their names reduced to acronyms. For example, the eleventh century French biblical commentator from Troyes known as Rashi was Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzach, and the greatest scholar of the twelfth century was the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon of Cairo, known in the Christian world as Maimonides. Aside from Ralbag, however, these acronymic names did not generally become family names.
It was common to use the name of a home town as a last name. For example, the merchant and Talmudist Simon ben Eliezer was known as Simon Günzburg after his birthplace; he lived in Ulm for a while and was also known as Simon Ulma. He was famous enough that his descendants carried on both of these names as family names, giving rise to the modern names Günzburg and Ginsberg as well as Ulma and Ulman.
When someone had an extremely common name, for example, Yehudah ben Avraham, there was a need to distinguish them from others with the same name. The most prominent person with such a name in any given community generally got to keep the name, while others needed to add something. The Abravanel family, for example, is probably descended from a prominent resident of Seville named ben Avraham; other ben Avrahams from Seville would have had to use a different name. The question of whether it should be transliterated Abravanel or Abrabanel is fair. The former transliteration is more common, but because the letter v is pronounced more like an f in German, the latter transliteration would be more likely in German lands.
In the mid-seventeenth century, Rabbi Schlomo ben Yitzach of Frankfurt had a very common name. There were many Solomons who were sons of people named Isaac. To distinguish him from others of that name, he was sometimes called Solomon Rothschild. The name Rothschild, in turn, was used because his father Isaac, the leader of the Frankfurt Jewish community, lived in a house with a red shield hanging over the door. These shields were put up in the Frankfurt Jewish quarter in the early 1600's at the insistence of the Christian authorities. At the time, the name Rothschild had no special meaning, and in fact, Schlomo ben Yitzach also called himself Solomon Bacharach and would probably have preferred that name if the Christian authorities had not imposed the name Rothschild. His descendants, on the other hand, continue to take pride in the name Rothschild to this day.
Nicknames were common in the Jewish world of the seventeenth century, and it was common for Jews to go under variant names in different circles. Yitzach of Frankfurt, for example, was probably Isaac Frankfurter to his Christian neighbors. To his close friends and colleagues, he was probably Yitz. In German, if you could address him informally in German as du, you would call him Yitz; if you had to address him formally, with Sie, he would be Yitzach. To his wife or mother, he might have been Yitzelle (little Yitz).
Names in translation also occurred. The name Chiam became Vidal in Judeo-Italian and Ladino because it means life. The names Tzvi and Ari, meaning deer and lion, became Hirsch and Loew in Judische Deutsch. The name Loew became a family name as early as the fifteenth century. Rabbi Yaakov Loew ben Chiam, born around 1480, was Reichsrabbiner or chief rabbi of the German Jews. The most famous member of this family was the Maharal, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague (1525-1609). Today, the Maharal is remembered as the creator of the Golem of Prague; this legend may have been unknown in the mid seventeenth century but his work on whether it was permissible to use automatic mechanisms to do work on Shabbos was fairly well known.
The master of the house, baal beis in Hebrew, was known as the balebus in Judische Deutsch. Any familiar but also highly respected man was likely to be addressed as Reb, used as a title of respect, but only with his first name. The honorific Reb is close in value to Mister, as it was used in the nineteenth century, which is to say, as a title for the master of the household; any balebus was therefore entitled to this honorific. The honorific Rav was appropriate for rabbis only, and the wife of the rabbi would be the Rebitzin. Tradition discouraged unmarried men from serving as rabbis.
Women of the seventeenth-century Jewish community sometimes had Hebrew names but in other cases, they had German or distinctly Judische Deutsch names. The Maharal's children included Gitele, Tilla, Rachel, Leah, Vögele and Realina. Some biblical names, such as Eve or Rebecca would rarely be heard in their German form, but rather, they would be pronounced in their Hebrew form, Chava and Rivka except in dealings with non Jews.
The laws governing the Jews of seventeenth-century Europe encouraged them to support themselves through the loan business. In exchange for being allowed this one source of income, Jews were forced to pay special taxes. In areas with significant Jewish populations, these "Jew taxes" were a major source of income. For the nobility, raising the Jew taxes and having the Jews pass these on as high interest rates was a safe way of squeezing money out of the their subjects because borrowers generally directed their anger at the Jews for the high interest rates instead of blaming the government.
The Jews of the seventeenth century generally lived within walking distance of synagogues because of restrictions on the distance a person could travel on the Sabbath and a prohibition on riding on the Sabbath. When possible, Jews lived in walled and gated compounds within towns and cities; Jewish law encourages this because the prohibitions on carrying on the Sabbath relax considerably if you are within a walled area, called an eruv, although the city walls themselves would suffice.
Christian law, based on the papal bull of 1555, required that all Jews living under Christian rule live in the Jewish quarters of their towns and required that the gates to the Jewish quarter be closed on Sunday, lest the Jews spoil the Christian Sabbath. The gated Jewish quarter provided some protection from mob violence directed against Jews, particularly around Easter when attacks against Jews were common enough to be described as traditional.
The term ghetto itself was relatively new in the 1630's, dating only to 1516, when the principality of Venice restricted Jewish residence to an area formerly occupied by a foundry, or ghetto, in Venetian Italian. Many German towns had Jewish districts organized along a single long street; in most such towns, the district was known as the Judengasse—Jewish lane. The most famous Judengasse was that of Frankfurt am Main.
Despite papal and imperial decrees that all Jews be confined to the Jewish quarters of towns, there were Jews living outside these quarters. Such Jews were known as Shutzjuden, or protected Jews, and they lived outside the Jewish quarters only because they paid Shutzgeld, protection money, to the local noble. In effect, this Shutzgeld was a bribe to the noble in his role as magistrate to have him overlook the decrees he was legally charged to enforce. By the seventeenth century, status as a protected Jew was generally governed by a contract that could be inherited. In some areas, Shutzgeld was a major source of income to the local nobility.
Jewish commerce with non-Jews was strictly limited. Jews were forbidden to sell new goods, join guilds, bear arms or hold public office. Aside from money lending, the only other businesses generally permitted were trading in used goods such as scrap and rags.
In the seventeenth century, the restrictions on Jewish occupations began to soften. Jews had to be careful about this, carefully constructing legal fictions in order to bend the rules. For example, where a Jew could not legally buy and then resell some product, he might legally act as a broker, taking delivery of the product from the seller, delivering it to the buyer and taking care of the cash transfer for a fee. Restrictions on Jewish commerce were generally more likely to be enforced in areas with significant Jewish populations; they were weak where Jews were few and far between.
The word "gentile" itself is worthy of note. In the Jewish world, the term used would invariably have been goy, or goyim in the plural. In Hebrew, this word means exactly the same thing as the Latin gens, a race, a people or a nation. As used in Judische Deutsch, the word goy became a synonym for gentile; it only had negative connotations because, until recent times, it was a safe assumption that if a person was a Gentile, he was likely to be anti-Jewish and therefore dangerous. Jews did trust some Gentiles, but such trust was rare, conditional, and risky. All Jews were generally familiar with stories about Gentiles who had proven themselves to be trustworthy through many years and then had betrayed that trust.
One story, in particular, illustrates the risks of such trust. Over the centuries, there have been many churchmen who extended considerable protection to the Jews, only to withdraw it. Martin Luther is the most famous example; early in his career, he urged that Jews be treated with great respect, but once he concluded that such tolerance would not convince large numbers of Jews to convert to Christianity, he wrote On the Jews and their Lies (1543), one of the most anti-Semitic works ever written. Luther went so far as to say "We are at fault in not slaying them." As a result of this change, the Jewish communities of many of the new Lutheran lands faced persecution so severe that essentially all of the Jews were driven out.
Of course, the term "anti-Semite" would be entirely unfamiliar to any resident of the seventeenth century. It is a nineteenth-century term, coined by Wilhelm Marr when he wanted a respectable and scientific sounding term for the older Judenhass—literally, "Jew hatred."
In general, when Jews and Christians interacted, there was a very strong asymmetry. Christians were urged by their tradition to do everything they could to convert Jews, while Jews were urged by their tradition not to talk about Judaism to non-Jews. For the past thousand years, the experience of the Jewish community with such dialogue had been extremely negative. The Catholic Church had organized many disputations in which Jewish and Christian scholars were pitted against each other, but the outcome of these disputations was generally preordained and frequently fatal for the Jewish participant. As a result, genuine interfaith dialogue was extremely rare and when it occurred, it was almost always conducted in private.
In the context of 1632, for example, it is quite likely that Rebecca Abrabanel would have been quite reluctant to say much about the depth of her own allegiance to Judaism to Michael Stearns for several years after she married him. He might not even notice small observances she maintains while living with him, and when he does, he may completely misunderstand their significance.
In general, in every age, Jews have dressed more or less like their neighbors. Examination of medieval illuminated manuscripts makes this quite clear, as does examination of the works of several seventeenth-century artists. There are, however, some distinctively Jewish elements to clothing.