Dr. Benjamin Gampel's teaching and research take him from synagogues across the United States to archives on the Iberian Peninsula that date back to medieval times to the JTS classrooms where he is most often found teaching undergraduate, graduate, and rabbinical students. Dr. Gampel is the Dina and Eli Field Family Chair in Jewish History at JTS. He teaches courses in medieval and early modern Jewish history, with a special focus on the medieval Sephardim, and lectures widely on the entire range of Jewish history. An energetic scholar and teacher, Dr. Gampel is dedicated to bringing the history of the Jews to a broad public audience. He has addressed synagogues and lay groups, organizations of all stripes, and scholarly conclaves.
Dr. Gampel spent close to a year doing research in local archives in Spain for his first book, The Last Jews on Iberian Soil. He also edited the volume Crisis and Creativity in the Sephardic World.
Your first book was The Last Jews on Iberian Soil. Now you're writing a book about the riots and forced conversions of Jews to Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula in 1391 and 1392. What has it been like to research these topics?
As a historian, my particular expertise is in Sephardic Jewry, and the documentation that I'm interested in comes from archives and repositories of documents that have been kept since medieval times. For my first book, I examined the last generation of Jews who lived in the Kingdom of Navarre, in what is today north central Spain. There are royal archives, city archives, church archives, village archives that are centuries old; to go around this province of Spain that was formerly a kingdom, and extract this information and deduce what took place during those last twenty years, was just breathtaking. I had a sense that I was bringing people and situations to light that were simply unknown.
My present project originally began as a work on the last century of Jewish life in Sepharad. But I found so much archival information on 1391 through 1392 that it is now a treatment of the ten months during those years when riots broke out in the Kingdom of Castile and in the Crown of Aragon. Not only were Jews harmed, and their institutions destroyed, but many Jews were forcibly converted to Christianity. So the book is now really a daily report on what took place during those ten months. The documents that I'm looking at very often have not been seen by anyone else in the last six hundred years. And that's really exhilarating. Not only reinterpreting knowledge, but simply discovering it for the first time.
Is the book only about the experience of Jews during those years, or does it encompass other people and communities in Iberia?
Thanks to the extraordinarily rich archival sources in Spain, I'm able to re-create what it was like as these riots spread from city to city. Most of my information has a royal provenance, comes from royal sources and people involved in royal government: the king, the queen, the duke who is later to be king. Part of my book—and this is something I could not have foreseen before I began the research—is a treatment of if and how these powerful individuals who could protect the Jews actually did so.
The book has therefore also become an essay on power, Jewish attitudes toward power, and Jewish reliance on central authority. The queen, for example, was very concerned about the Jews and about the financial gain she received from the Jewish community. It turned out she was also interested in producing an heir, and she was pregnant, and became quite ill during the time of the riots. I could trace that she writes letters to a variety of communities, intending to protect the Jews, and suddenly the letters drop off. I could correlate that with other information from the archives and see that she had to stay in bed and really wasn't able to help. So even if you have somebody as powerful as a royal official, and here it's a queen, who's willing to protect the Jews—what's their personal life like? Even if the Jews do sometimes rely on governments to protect them, that is only as good as the ability of a government to be protective at a particular moment. Who's in charge? What are the institutions?
So this subject that you write about and teach is directly relevant to our own times, not just the Jewish and Iberian world of six centuries ago.
Jewish history in the medieval period encompasses Jews under Islam and Christianity. Over the last number of years, these issues of how Jews have related to both Muslims and Christians have come into the forefront. So something that might have been seen as an esoteric topic is now of moment. It not only has moment for the students, it has moment for the larger Jewish community and general American society. People want to know how minority religious groups got along together, what their relationships were with the religious civilization that was dominant at the time.
When it comes to teaching, what makes JTS a notable institution?
Something that is exceptional, extraordinary about teaching here at JTS is not only the scholarly environment we've created, but the many different populations of students we encounter here, from undergraduates to rabbinical students to students finishing a doctorate. That's really an exceptional opportunity that you can teach at so many levels. It requires you to give the same material that you've used before different voices, voices that will capture the students in front of you.
You also teach and speak outside JTS, presenting these topics outside academic environments. Are these issues easy to convey?Speaking across the country to the larger Jewish community adds another level. You reexamine ideas that you have expressed in a strictly academic fashion within the halls of an academic institution and make them come alive for the larger community. This is one of the grand benefits of teaching at JTS. It's not only your class; through your scholarship you feel you're part of a larger whole, the Jewish community of the United States, the Jewish community of the world.