What’s a Festschrift? (39 cents)

Festschrift is a German word that is used in many languages to describe a book which is published to honor an individual upon his or her birthday, retirement, or other important life event. I recently came across a Festschrift written to honor Raphael Patai upon his 70th birthday (the book was published in 1983). Patai was an extraordinary scholar, and taught at Hebrew U., the Technion, Columbia, U. of Penn., NYU, Princeton, Ohio State and Fairleigh Dickinson. He was the author of many books (he wrote almost 20 subsequent to the publication of this book, between 1983 and 1996) and even more scholarly articles. Most of his books centered on various aspects of Jewish history. Wikipedia calls him a Jewish “ethnographer, historian, Orientalist and anthropologist”.

Some years ago, I read through one of his books, “The Jewish Alchemists”. Besides being an intellectual tour de force, it told what was to me a unique story, making two points that I recall. First, that because Christianity so restricted most scholarly inquiry (reminds you of Islam today) for fear that it would lead to heresy, scientific advances were left to the Muslims, the Jews and a few free thinkers (such as Isaac Newton) and the Jews, throughout pre-modern times, were central to scientific inquiry. And second, that alchemy was not a fool’s false science – it was science before the discovery of atomic particles (and therefore before the invention of chemistry as a science) and the alechemical searches led to the later discoveries. It was a long, technical and detailed book – clearly a scholar’s work. But it was fascinating to the general reader, none the less.

So, I was interested in this Festbook, and wondered what it would contain. Looking through the index and seeing subjects that interested me, I decided to read through the book (it contains 23 articles in English, and a few in Hebrew, which I obviously skipped). While some of the articles were beyond me, and some left me a bit cold, I was surprised at the variety of topics, and at how much there was of interest.

Here is a sampling:

The first section of the book, after the biographical selections, is titled “Folklore and Literature”. I was especially interested in an article entitled “The Idea of Folklore: an Essay” by Dan Ben-Amos of Hebrew University. He defined folklore as being traditional, irrational and set in rural areas. He then talked to each of these attributes – and how a folk story had to have an uncertain authorship, so that it can be attributed to the entire society. And known to more than a limited group of society members. And that various folk tales may have nothing to do with each other, but by common consent they are grouped together as part of a society’s inner personality, with each element taking on a universal aspect, even if by origin they are not at all universal.

Other articles in this section deal with the treatment of evil in Jewish tales, provide a history of various Yiddish sayings, a comparison of various Jewish and Arab folk tales, a history of a particular common folk tale (the ugly wife, who turns beautiful, in spite of maltreatment by the husband), and the universality of birds with magic powers. The final article, perhaps misplaced, gives a rather full account of the insertion of Jewish characters in the literature of the world through the 1940s, when Jewish literature went mainstream.

The next section, titled “anthropology”, only has two essays, neither of which is very strong. One deals with Jewish authors ignoring the Holocaust (which I don’t think was true at the time it was written), and the other attempts to describe Syrian Jews in New York in the 1960s – mainly based on the author’s recollections of a study he did twenty years earlier.

The Zionism, Israel and Middle East section was much stronger. It started with an interesting (to me, of course) article on how the Young Turks felt about Zionism during the time they were in control of the Ottoman Empire (the author couldn’t reach a conclusion, because different Turkish leaders had differing opinions – all being political, not ethnic or religious). It was followed by an article dealing with selectivity in writing biographies and memoirs – how do you decide what to include and what to exclude (especially, how do you treat personal information – is it irrelevant or crucial to understand a public character)? There was a review of various writings by a Lebanese Christian moderate – who turned out to be not so moderate on closer analysis. And then a very interesting short biography of Zionist leader Chaim Arlozorov who was mysteriously slain on a Tel Aviv beach in 1933. He was 34. Then, a detailed article about the relationship between Mapai leadership and the religious parties during the early years of the State of Israel. And a disappointing article about growing up Jewish in Cairo between the wars.

The last English language section dealt with Biblical topics. Cyrus Gordon wrote about the structure of Israelite society reaching an unusual conclusion – that, in spite of how the Jews have viewed Biblical Israelite society, it was in fact, simply a warrior society – we fought, we won, we took the land, we became the aristocrats. Simple as that – and very well written. Next was an article by Savina Teubal on the role of women in the ancient Near East (similar to the book of hers I read years and years ago). And, unfortunately, a very weak (I thought) article purporting to be a psychological study of Moses based on the two instances where he struck a rock to get water for the Israelites.

So, a Festschrift is a compilation of essays, about varying topics connected in some way with the person being honored by the book. The range of these essays was pretty broad, but unfortunately, so was the quality. With Patai’s scholarship being so strong, I can’t help but wonder what he thought of the contents of the book. (I am sure he appreciated the book itself)

But perhaps this is the way it is with a Festschrift. You ask a number of people to write something. They are all people whom you believe have a strong connection with the honoree. You give them a general topic or choice of topics. You give them a deadline, and perhaps a maximum number of words. Everyone (or almost everyone says ‘yes’, but then it turns out that some of the invitees don’t know what to say, or don’t have time to write something sufficiently profound, or perhaps they just don’t write well.

I guess the individual pieces in a Festschrift are just like blog posts. Now, I understand.

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