A Visual Kingdom: The Red Jews in Yiddish Culture

Bearbeitung: Prof. Dr. Rebekka Voß

 

The Red Jews were a mythical people that was fabled to reside in isolation, at the fringes of the known world, and envisioned as a tribe of ruddy-faced, red-headed Jewish warriors, replete with red beards and bedecked in red attire. They are generally identified with the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel who, according to a familiar Jewish legend, had been living in an unknown place since becoming exiled in the eighth century BCE when the Assyrians destroyed their ancient kingdom. The red variant of these lost tribes, which is far less known today, was a singular invention of late-medieval German vernacular culture. The “Red Jews” is unique to German with one notable exception: this idiosyncratic figure and descriptor were adapted into Yiddish, the German-Jewish vernacular. However, these two cultures developed the Red Jews differently, perceiving of their redness in contrasting shades.

 

The imagology of the Red Jews highlights the interconnectedness of Jewish and Christian notions of otherness and identity in bright relief. Yiddish culture re-appropriated the Red Jews by inverting the original Christian color symbolism: the pejorative implications of the red body was transformed into a proud badge of self-assertion. The journey of the Red Jew – from its beginnings as a medieval Christian notion into the Ashkenazi imagination in late medieval- to early modern periods, then into modern Yiddish culture, where this figure persists and continues to be re-envisioned through the present – is the focus of this project. In spatial terms, it traces the Red Jews across Central and Eastern Europe, to the present-day Yiddish-speaking communities of Israel and North America.

 

This book studies the visualizations of the Red Jews and the politics of seeing. I argue that the distinctive coloring of this fictive people is not merely a descriptive flourish but, rather, their depiction engages the human fascination with the visual stimuli, particularly the sensual appeal of colors. Sight becomes a medium for conveying identity. As such, the Red Jews render identity visible. By considering color symbolism and its role in bridging religious and linguistic communities, as well as social cohorts, this volume focuses on a mode of analysis that has previously been neglected in Jewish Studies scholarship. The Red Jews were a purely vernacular phenomenon, limited to German and Yiddish and absent from Latin and Hebrew, the formal linguae francae of religion and learning; therefore, their characterization reveals cultural perceptions of a Yiddish audience whose views often remain invisible in history. Since color is accessible across educational strata given its independence from literacy, this visual quality transmits its meaning more readily than other media. Thus, the Red Jews are especially suitable for negotiating attributes associated with the Self and the Other among ordinary Jews and Christians in shared Germanic-Yiddish spaces.

 

The myth of the Red Jews provided a visual idiom for vernacular Jewish identity in Ashkenaz which simultaneously responded to contemporary modes of viewing and color symbolism that enabled even the unlettered to participate. The Yiddish re-appropriation of the Red Jews is a story about power: whereas Christians viewed the Red Jews with an accusatory gaze, through the Yiddish lens, this image was appropriated in an effort to negotiate a sense of place vis-à-vis the Christian majority. This reversal emphasized Jewish agency, countering a hegemonic vision that reflected Christian political and social oppression. In this study, I attempt to demonstrate how the Yiddish Red Jews created what Stuart Clark, in his study on vision in early modern Europe, has called a “visual field” that “was tantamount to a visual kingdom.”

 

This project maps distinct phases of cultural appropriation of the Red Jews by Jews and Christians from the Middle Ages through the twenty-first century. In each historical stage and cultural space, new ways of seeing are inscribed onto this figure, in response to shifting social, religious, and political concerns. The development of the Red Jews sheds light on popular vistas that are often occluded from the historical record, thereby, bringing these non-elite perspectives into discussions of major developments in Jewish and European history. In relation to the study of sight and color codes, this book contributes to the understanding of the articulation of self-awareness and the construction of vernacular Jewish identity as a result of visual cultural encounters. This work also touches on the vitality of vernacular culture by showing how the premodern motif of the Red Jew informed modern Yiddish literature and Jewish arts, and how the Jewish redhead became a paradigmatic figure in twentieth-century Jewish social critiques and political thought.

 

Publikationen:

  • R. Voß, „Eschatological Avengers or Messianic Saviors? Violence and Physical Strength in the Vernacular Legend of the Red Jews“, Early Modern Workshop: Resources in Jewish History 10 (2013): Jews and Violence in the Early Modern Period; http://fordham.bepress.com/emw/emw2013/emw2013/4/
  • R. Voß, „Entangled Stories: The Red Jews in Pre-Modern Yiddish and German Apocalyptic Lore“ AJS Review 36,1 (2012), pp. 1-41.

Beitrag in "Forschung Frankfurt" (3/2011):

Warum die Roten Juden rot sind...