GTU scholar editing 3-volume Jewish cultural history

Histories of the Jews have long focused on the so-called societal elite — the kings, the philosophers, the rabbis.

But Professor David Biale is overseeing the first large-scale, collaborative work that will peer into the lives of the average Jews — the yeshiva bochers, the shtetl mothers and even the idol worshippers.

"History isn't only the history of what people did in public, but also what they did in private," said Biale, a Jewish history professor and the director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union.

Schocken Books, which published Judaic studies Professor Everett Fox's earthy Torah translation in 1995, approached Biale at about the same time to become editor-in-chief of a "cultural history" of the Jews from biblical times to the 20th century.

Delving into cultural history — which looks beyond those who traditionally "made history" to examine the lives of ordinary people — has become increasingly popular in the past two or three decades.

History is "not just the elite. It involves all aspects of society," said Biale, whose previous books have focused on such topics as Jewish sexuality and Kabbalah.

The work, which is Biale's largest project yet, will be the first collaborative Jewish history organized out of North America since World War II.

The first of the three volumes isn't due out until 1999, but Biale has already selected the contributors and assigned the historical periods.

Sections will cover such topics as the ubiquitous fertility figurines found by archaeologists in homes of ancient Jews.

"The popular religion of ancient Israel may have been much closer to Canaanite religion than the Bible itself admits," Biale said recently.

"Techines," or prayers written especially for Jewish women in the late Middle Ages in Europe, will also be examined. These prayers, which included references to the biblical matriarchs, would often ask God to protect family members or community members such as unmarried, orphan girls.

Other topics include folklore, art history and rituals used in daily life.

"You look not just at the writings of the rabbis, but at how the culture was actually practiced and understood by the Jewish community as a whole," Biale said.

"The major questions we'll be asking in the work are: `What was the nature of Jewish identity in each period of Jewish history?' and `What were the boundaries between what was Jewish and what was non-Jewish?'"

The 17 contributors include four Bay Area professors: Daniel Boyarin and Erich Gruen of U.C. Berkeley and Steven Zipperstein and Aron Rodrigue of Stanford.

Other contributors come from Yale, Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan University and Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris.

The work's editorial advisory board includes U.C. Berkeley Professors Robert Alter and Chana Kronfeld.

In June, these scholars will come together in Berkeley at a public symposium to create a definition of Jewish culture to ensure cohesion among their essays. The symposium has received a $10,000 grant from the Koret Foundation.

Arthur Samuelson, editorial director of the New York-based Schocken Books, said he is excited about producing a new approach to Jewish history.

"It has never been done before," he said. "It seems to me that it makes an interesting publishing project."