Imaginea Evreului în Cultura Română. Studiu de Imagologie în Context Est-Central European

TitleImaginea Evreului în Cultura Română. Studiu de Imagologie în Context Est-Central European
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsGolesteanu, Raluca
Author(s) of reviewed materialOişteanu, Andrei

book. Title translated: The Image of the Jew in Romanian Culture. Study of Imagology in East Central European Context.
2nd edition (containing additional textual sources and illustrations)

PublisherBucharest: Humanitas
ISSNISBN: 973-50-0702-9
Review year


Full Text

The book Imaginea Evreului în Cultura Română. Studiu de Imagologie în Context Est-Central European by Andrei Oişteanu aims to reconstruct the image of the Jew as it has been shaped by Romanians and occasionally also as by Jews themselves. Oişteanu covers an immense amount of time, from the Middle Ages up to (and including) modernity. This attempt, based on a vast range of sources, including classic religious anti-Semitic pieces or the Biblical roots of the legend of the wandering Jew and also pieces of contemporary Romanian literature or the first Zionist meetings in Moldavia, intends to render a comprehensive profile of the Jew (crucially: in singular) as it was established in collective memory and later diversified or simplified by political and economic anti-Semitism. 

The symbol of the Jew is described in his physical, professional, intellectual and religious instances, with a section dedicated to those mystical credos which provided ideological support for rejecting those considered alien to the society. Consequently, Oişteanu, following a 19th century Jewish ethnographer Moses Schwarzfeld, observes that one society defines those different from it according to its own criteria of identity – it follows that the image of the Jew reflects on the image of the one who aims to define it (p. 11).

Imaginea Evreului în Cultura Română is a study of ethnic imagology, of how we perceive theother, and its purpose can be detected in the following three directions. Firstly, it seeks to emphasize the manner and the extent to which Romanian high culture internalized but also altered the stereotypes related to Jews in traditional culture (meaning customs, oral literature, apocryphal religious texts, etc.). Secondly, the work identifies the transformation of the popular (unconscious and passive) anti-Semitism into its intellectual counterpart which was conscious and active (p.7). Thirdly, it shows an insight into how a myth functions (e.g. the distortion of a phenomenon originally rooted in magic in a supposedly secularized environment (p.346)). An example of how a myth works is exemplified by the existence of those stereotypes with general applicability for a community: an “exponent-Jew” (Volovici) is made responsible for the image of the entire group (p.268).

Imaginea Evreului în Cultura Română applies the tools of cultural anthropology, as its author measures the difference between the stereotypical construction of the Jew and the real presence/role of him in the society by analyzing the intellectual and cultural materials which contributed to the widening gap between the two. Thus, mythological explanations, legends, superstitions, popular beliefs, Christian iconography and texts, vulgarized science as well as particular phobias and prejudices are all taken into account, with the final ambition to obtain an objective estimation of the distinction between what Oişteanu calls the real Jew and the invented one, as well as the consequences of this distinction, namely that the wider this distance, the more attempts to demonize the Jew become feasible.
Oişteanu`s study occupies its well deserved place in the domain of Jewish studies, an area which followed an ascendant line in post-1989 Romanian social sciences, compared to the previous communist times when Jewish topics were totally absent or in the best case amalgamated with other one such as those related to Hungarians and Germans. One can remark the constant presence in our period of some publishing houses, like the Bucharest-based Hasefer, the rich contributions to the history of Jewish community in Romania coming from several intellectuals, notably L. Rotman, R. Ioanid, V. Neumann, Carol Iancu, Jean Ancel, or journal which publish original sources on the life of the Jewish communities like Studia et Acta Historiae Iudaeorum RomaniaStudia JudaicaRealitatea evreiască. Moreover, there were some former attempts in the direction of establishing a sub-field of imagology. In this regard we have to mention the work of D.H. Mazilu’s We about the Others. False Treaty of Imagology (Noi despre ceilalţi. Fals tratat de imagologie), that of Viorica Constantinescu’s The Stereotypical Jew(Evreul stereotip. Schiţă de istorie culturală) as well as the printed version of the first international conference on the history of Jews in Romania that took place in 1993. Last but not least, the endeavors of S. Antohi or of the Cluj-based review Apostrof to conceptualize the science of imagology and to promote open debates on how we relate ourselves to the `other` have served as the immediate intellectual context of this book under review.  

Next to its impressive review of literature, one major merit of this work is its comparative approach. The study is a sustained and coherent comparative project in the sense that the comparisons fulfill several functions, such as the integration of local stereotypes in the larger pool of regional ones, the detection of the geographical sources for some stereotypes of wide circulation in Romanian space and the features of Western anti-Semitism as they relate to and compare with the Eastern one. To express it in the words of Oişteanu: the study intends to show the similarities and differences between the portrait of the invented Jew of Romanian traditional culture and its Eastern and Central European counterparts (p.14).

Therefore, this comparative project is accompanied by a plethora of sources from Ukrainian, Polish and German space (proverbs, literature, recent surveys, studies of imagology (special mentioned of the work by Alina Cała, The Image of the Jew in Polish Folk Culture should be made here). The inclusion of Ukrainian and Polish sources are particularly relevant to the Romanian Jewish case due to the common cultural traits (visible in clothes, in beliefs, etc.) of, for instance, the Jewish communities of Moldavia and of Galicia (migration of people from the latter to the former being an obvious factor in this). This way the source of some anti-Semitic pieces internalized by Romanian folklore can be discovered, such as the stereotype of the coward army of the Jews (p. 247) or of some widely practiced rituals in Romanian space [the tradition of the `lucky Jew` who has to be the first guest after New Year (p. 352), or the belief that the Jews give in autumn one Jew for sacrifice to the Devil (p. 318)].

As for the comparison with the Western imaginary Jew, this endeavor shows its importance in the religious field. For instance, the stereotype of the ritual murder committed by Jews (e.g. the sacrifice of a Christian child for Jewish religious purposes) existed in the West in the medieval period (which was the place of origin of this idea), whereas in the East, in villages, there was widespread belief in this in the modern epoch. The comparison between West and East even helps Oişteanu to compose an overall portrait of the symbolic Jew:  the Western imagined Jew is usurer and desecrates the Christian symbols, whereas its Eastern counterpart has non-productive professions (e.g. selling alcohol). It goes without saying that the stereotypes are typically not Western or Eastern, indeed they are often superimposed on each other and Oişteanu’s strong reliance on the distinction might be questioned.

The sources of Imaginea Evreului în Cultura Română deserve to be treated in a separate paragraph due to their richness and diversity as well as their placement in the text. The book is a pleasant read, though the sources end up sometimes in an agglomeration because of their mixed nature (e.g. literary pieces, memoirs are introduced at once, making it difficult to differentiate between fiction and non-fiction, or what was commonly assumed and what truly existed (p.58)). Yet, the sources are arranged in an accessible way in the sense that the author takes care to make permanent allusions in the text to the paramount sources like those related to the canonization of Western anti-Semitism, or to the history of Romanian Jewish community as well. Therefore, the sources come mainly from what we might call traditional culture (oral productions, magic practices), but also from history, religion, memoirs, ethnography, literature, journalistic productions. They are closely related to the particular stereotype they introduce (e.g. usually the stereotype and its function are presented at several layers: first anthropological, second historical, third political, fourth literary, fifth scientific, and accordingly the sources are selected from these domains). The stereotypes are also historicized, meaning that the author shows the historical and economic contexts in which they were formed and developed (pp.18-22). A word about the graphical sources is in order, since the pictures make up their own book inside the book: these might be engravings from the German but also from the Anglo-Saxon space, anti-Semitic postal cards from the Polish space, Israeli propaganda posters, Romanian painting with Jewish characters, newspaper photos, Byzantine iconography, Ottoman miniatures depicting Turkish or Venetian Jews or Tarot cards.

Let me return to the main question the book aims to answer, namely: which are the precise characteristics of the invented Jew in Romanian space and in its Central and Eastern surroundings? The first section describes the physical features of the archetypal Jew. This can be summarized as follows: the one who is different, he/she looks and smells differently. The Jew is depicted with specific anatomical features (hooked nose, prominent lips, ritual beard and locks, freckles), the color of the freckles is extended to the hair and the skin, entering the metaphorical, religious dimension, illustrated by the legend of `red man` as the one who is associated with the Devil (notably, Judas was represented with red hair and beard in medieval icons). The imaginary Jew is dirty (here again there is a religious allusion) and he gives off garlic or onion flavor. On the other hand, the stereotype about the Jewish woman is that she is elegant, beautiful and a good house-keeper (which might be called “positive” characteristics). The particularities of the clothes Jews wear are usually signs of exclusion imposed by the society they live in: the yellow star, Judenhut, etc.

The second chapter discusses the stereotypes in the region concerning the nature of the professions of Jews. As is well known, this imagined Jew lives like a “parasite” on the otherwise “healthy body” of the society. In this conception, the Jew is either doing commerce or sells alcohol, both occupations being perceived as dishonest and at times even satanic. The image of the Jew as salesman, always capable of negotiating and making a good deal (by cheating, if needed), won out against the in reality much more frequent occupation of the Jews residing in the region (artisanship). This stereotype can be seen behind the widespread image of the Jew who is ready to sell (out) feelings, values.  

The third part focuses on the moral and intellectual portrait of the symbolic Jew. Here one witnesses the mechanism of transforming a positive feature into a negative one detectable in the way of reasoning (”he would be a good person, such a pity he is a Jew”): the Jew is seen as intelligent in the sense that he is cunning (he deceives people). The invented Jew has intellectual capacities above the standard (supposedly coming from the tradition of interpreting the Talmud). At the same time, the imagined Jew is cowardly and the prototype of the traitor (deriving mainly from the frequent Christian interpretation of the Biblical example of Judas), hence the Jew in the army will end up selling the sacred cause of the nation, religion, etc.. The archetypal Jew is blind and deaf to the truth preached by Christianity, hence his soul must be tormented.

The mythological portrait consists in several instances in which a specific community perceives the Jews. The most pregnant is the image of the Jew who burns in hell (in both Catholic and Byzantine iconography), hence the tight association of the Jew with the Devil (an image that was exploited by the Nazis as well). Another mythical role ascribed to Jews is the one of witchcraft: the Jew can change the weather (bring rain). The legend of the `wandering Jew` (that the shoemaker Ahasuerus was cursed by Jesus to wander permanently as he did not let Jesus rest on his way on Via Dolorosa) had only limited circulation in Moldavia and the Old Kingdom – it was imported to Transylvania from the German space where it flourished in the Middle Ages. In this section, the legend of the jidovi (that of a mythical gigantic, rich people, exterminated by the Deluge) is also introduced.

The book ends with the religious portrait of the Jew. As one could expect, the perspective of the traditional culture (and not only) is exclusively Christian, therefore, the Jews are guilty of murdering Jesus, and through a sort of extension also other saints. They desecrate holy Christian objects as a sort of repetition of “their” act of killing Jesus.

From reading this work one gets the impression that the stereotypes concerning Jews have better chances of survival and persistence in those geographical areas where Jews are either few or became extinct (p.309), precisely because they have been highly persistent and the gap between them and reality widened over time. In other words, the image can survive its “genuine content” and get reproduced. A second, most significant idea is that the invented Jew has influenced and at times nearly determined its “really existing counterpart” (p.402).

Having acknowledged these pessimistic findings, the need to differentiate between the invented and the real Jew by means of scholarship became a necessary task for researchers in the domain, and also for those who are committed to raising awareness. Therefore, textbooks, specialized hours in schools for the study of the history of Romanian Jewish community, and, perhaps most importantly, studies which assess the contribution of Jews to Romanian culture are meant to decipher the identity making mechanisms of the kind presented by Oişteanu, at least ideally speaking. Moreover, a proper understanding of this past should go hand in hand with acts of remembrance of the traumas inflicted on Romanian Jews in the last century. Oişteanu mentions in the beginning of the book that Romanian Jewish community ranked as the fourth largest in Europe in the 1940s with around 800.000 members. According to an indication of their numbers in 2002, there remain altogether 6.179 Jews living in Romania...