Grief and Glory: Use of Hebrew Crusades Chronicles and Piyuttim to Deter Adolescent Conversion

Way back in 2015, what feels like a lifetime ago, I wrote a seminar paper titled “Affective Use of First Crusade Chronicles and Piyyutim to Stem Adolescent Conversion” for a class on medieval conversions. In 2017, I presented a revised version of that paper at the International Medieval Congress at Leeds.

My work has since shifted in multiple ways, and that paper doesn’t fit into my dissertation anymore. But I’ve kept it simmering on a back burner, always intending to do something with it. Now, after a Twitter conversation with someone who encouraged me to write and submit this to journals, I’m working on it again.

The paper I presented at Leeds needs a lot or work and revision – essentially a whole rewrite – to make it journal-submission-worthy. I’m sharing it here as I begin to revise, rewrite, rework it.

Notes: 

The first few sections of the paper lead you through my thought-process and research process because I was still working through these ideas at the time and was far from being able to write decisively and authoritatively. Hopefully, returning to this all after having it rattle around my brain for two years, I’ll be able to write it more seamlessly for publication!



I ’m going to begin with three introductions. First, about how this paper fits into my work more broadly: This paper is really only tangential to my dissertation topic. My dissertation focuses on educational and pedagogical moves in medieval British literature. [Edit: no longer true. My dissertation no longer focuses on medieval British literature, but on contemporary American Haredi literature.] There is a consensus in childhood studies and in medieval studies that various constructions of childhood existed based on differences in class, gender, religion, etc. I’ll be arguing that the ideologies of education and of childhood are dependent as much on differences in the formal conventions of literary genres as on the lived differences of medieval children. This paper is focused on a different geographic area (Ashkenaz) and doesn’t deal directly with educational texts. But it does focus on the ways in which adults try to teach or influence young minds, and that is the focus of my dissertation. [This part is still true.]The argument of this paper is based on an exploration of how these texts may have been used to influence young minds, how adults thought certain moves and associations would affect teenage boys’ decisions.

So now for a brief introduction to the texts and the events they commemorate, with an acknowledgement that this is not my main area of study and I may at times gloss over some of the more important aspects in order to get to my point of interest… In 1096, as Crusaders headed to Jerusalem during the First Crusade, they passed through Europe and killed many Jews who lived in the area called Ashkenaz, particularly in the cities of Speyer, Worms, and Mainz. This tragedy became an integral part of Jewish history – in fact, growing up in a twentieth-century Jewish home and attending Jewish schools, I thought the Crusades were only about the Christians killing Jews – like a precursor to the Holocaust. The Hebrew chronicles and poetry written in the twelfth century to commemorate the tragedy of course also focus on the Jewish victims, with only brief mention of the main purpose of the Crusades – as one would expect from texts memorializing the massacres of Jewish communities.

Susan Einbinder argues that the martyrological poetry was aimed at least in part at an audience of potential converts after the threat of the Crusades had passed – medieval Jews converted to Christianity at times voluntarily due to a variety of factors including social, economic, and political factors. William Chester Jordan claims that adolescent Jewish boys were the group most vulnerable to voluntary conversion to Christianity in the twelfth century. Einbinder draws on that argument to suggest that aspects of the poetry do show signs of being directed at adolescent males rather than (or, in addition to) adults – the poetry sets up the extreme cruelty and evil of the Christian Crusaders in contradiction to the pure and valiant martyrdom of the Jewish teens, which adults hoped would convince teens to align themselves with the pure and valiant (the Jews) rather than the cruel and evil (the Christians.)

The third introduction is about my personal connection to the topic. When I read Susan Einbinder’s argument that the piyyutim, the poetry, were perhaps used to persuade teenage boys not to convert from Judaism to Christianity, my first reaction was – I was baffled. If adolescent boys were at risk for conversion because of the suffering and degradation they experienced as Jews and because of the perceived release from suffering that conversion could bestow – how, then, could poetry which agonizes over the suffering and deaths of the previous generation convince young boys to remain Jewish? If the poetry keeps telling them how bad it is for Jews, wouldn’t that serve to convince them to leave rather than to stay in the Jewish community?  Einbinder does address that, but from my own childhood and adolescence, I could find an answer – I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community, where the Holocaust is invoked often to prove that Jews are the most persecuted people in the history of the world, and there is an expectation that this reminder will engender Jewish pride and a sense of belonging and obligation rather than a desire to leave – in fact, when I left religion, my mother said to me, “you’re demeaning the sacrifices your ancestors made in order to keep the faith.” So, I could begin to see that perhaps stories of ongoing persecution could be used as a means of convincing people to remain part of the persecuted group. Whether or not it works is a different story… But it does indicate that it is thought to be effective.

As I continued to read about the chronicles and the piyyutim, and as I read the texts themselves numerous times, I had another question, this time about the glorification of the martyrs, especially the young martyrs. It would seem that these figures, the young adult males who sacrificed themselves, would be the point of identification for boys in the following generation, boys who are ostensibly the target of anti-conversionary uses of the texts. But the point can’t possibly be to convince these teenage boys to martyr themselves? I began to read about the ideas of martyrdom, and about the uses of these texts in later generations, etc. And again, this is addressed in the scholarship, which emphasizes that the martyrs were not an ideal to emulate. But another memory from my own childhood and adolescence surfaced: the many times I had heard the phrase, “it’s wonderful to die al Kiddush Hashem (in sanctification of God’s name), but it’s much more difficult and much more beautiful to live al Kiddush Hashem.” So again, I could see that rhetoric being employed with the Crusade chronicles and piyyutim as well – the boys would see the impossible choice the martyrs had, and the adults hoped that this would inspire them to live according to God’s principles.

These personal conclusions were borne out as I continued reading. I think it’s important to make this connection, to acknowledge that the kinds of arguments scholars see being made in medieval texts are still used today. And here I leave the personal behind, and get to the analysis of the Hebrew texts themselves…

Both sets of texts grapple with theological ideas like whether the victims of the Crusade massacres were sinful and being punished or were in fact holy and being tested – the resounding conclusion is that they were holy and passed an extremely difficult test set by God, and that this heralds hope for an immediate redemption rather the absence of God’s help seen during the massacres. But these complex problems are dealt with not via theological reasoning but via strong emotional expression: expressions of outrage and despair at God turn quickly into expressions of hope and blessing, making the jump via emotionally-charged language rather than rational explanation. If we accept Einbinder’s claim (as I do) that this body of poetry was utilized to dissuade teenage boys from converting, then it would seem that emotional rather than theological argument was the preferred strategy for preventing young converts. While the prose chronicles are less forceful in their emotional expression and do include some theological reasoning, they also use emotional language. (Of course, the prose wasn’t used the same way the poetry was, as part of the liturgy, and wasn’t as widely read as the poems. But there is of course reason to include them in an analysis of rhetorical attempts to dissuade conversion.)

The reason this matters a lot to me is that Einbinder bases her argument on the following factors: first, “the stylistic features and some of the motifs in Hebrew martyrological poetry suggest that its textual matter targeted an audience characterized by a high level of linguistic sophistication and a high susceptibility to images of vulgarity and pollution” (12). That’s in her introduction, a brief overview of this point. Later, in the chapter where she lays out the full argument, she writes that “young men experiencing the characteristic frustration and volatility of adolescence could see in conversion a powerful way to rebel” (25). This assumes that medieval teenage boys were in essence the same as contemporary teenage boys – frustrated, volatile, wanting to rebel – an assumption I think is made too quickly.

Ephraim Shoham-Steiner, in an essay about madness, conversion, and adolescent suicide among Jews in twelfth-century England, defines adolescence according to a mix of contemporary and historical views: first, there’s the “radical changes associated with puberty,” which in contemporary thought is linked to hormonal changes “causing emotional and personal changes accompanied by a growing awareness of the self and a projected self-image,” at times linked to an identity crisis and defining oneself vis-à-vis others. He also says that adolescents tend to “wrestle with ideological issues rather intensely,” and that adults tend to interpret all of this as “impulsive and incoherent” (73).

The problem with all of this is that it assumes that once the category of adolescence is proven to be applicable to medieval youth (as Einbinder acknowledges that it is an often-contested category), contemporary ideas about adolescence are mapped onto medieval adolescence. While the consensus among medieval childhood scholars is that there was in fact a category of adolescence during the Middle Ages, the characteristics associated with that stage in medieval minds could be different than the contemporary ideas, and could vary widely between Christian communities and Jewish communities. While I saw no reason to discount Einbinder’s and Shoham-Steiner’s assumptions, I did want to check their accuracy. After analyzing the texts for evidence of attitudes toward adolescents via the ways in which adults spoke to or attempted to influence adolescents, I concluded that (according to these texts, at least) these assumptions could be accurate. The ways in which the chronicles and poetry attempt to influence the minds of these adolescent boys indicate that the medieval Jewish Ashkenazic idea of teenage boys does focus on their volatility, and does view their “intense wrestling with ideological matters” as simply “impulsive and incoherent.”

Eliezer bar Nathan begins his chronicle with the technical details of where and when, referring to the Torah in the midst of this very briefly in order to say that ״כל הצרות האמורות בכל התוכחות הכתובות בעשרים וארבעה ספרים, כתוב ולא כתוב עבר עלינו ועל נפשנו״ (Haberman 72), “All the misfortunes related in all the admonitions written in the twenty-four books, those enumerated in Scripture as well as those unwritten, befell us and our souls” (Eidelberg 79). In this way, the chronicle of simple historical facts is already set up as an attempt to explain the events theologically, not only to describe them. And yet for the next while in the text, events are described and no explicit theological reason is given for the troubles plaguing the Jewish communities.

Later in the chronicle, there are two clear instances of a kind of explanation. The second one occurs during the narration of a failed attempt by the bishop of Mainz to save some of the Jews by relocating them to the villages of Rheingau, where Bar Nathan says that fleeing was futile, ״כי בעוונותינו ניתן רשות למשחית לחבל״ (Haberman 75), “for because of our sins, the slayer had been given permission to injure” (Eidelberg 84). This is a common explanation for tragedy, but again, doesn’t seem suitable for an attempt to win young boys back to the faith. The first instance, though, is a perfect strategy for playing on emotions of pride in saying that ״וזה הדור נבחר לפניו להיות לו למנה, כי היה בהם כח וגבורה לעמוד בהיכלו ולעשות דברו ולקדש שמו הגדול בעולמו ועליהם אמר דוד ׳ברכו יי מלאכיו גבורי כח עושי דברו״ (Haberman 73), “this was the generation that had been chosen by Him to be His portion, for they had the strength and the fortitude to stand in His sanctuary, and fulfill His word, and sanctify His Great Name in His world. It is of these that King David said: ‘Bless the Lord, ye angels of His, ye mighty in strength, that fulfill His word’” (Eidelberg 80).

Though the boys susceptible to conversionary efforts would not have been part of this generation chosen for their strength, the chronicle’s narrative shifting between communities, community leaders, and brave young individuals does have the potential to inspire a fierce pride and to create an alignment in the young readers’ minds between themselves and these brave chosen ones. (Others have read this shifting between leaders and individuals differently, but this explanation does work here in the context of adolescents…) And although the chronicle does not do this very much, some of the poems make a clear connection between the word בחורים meaning young men and the idea of נבחר, the chosen ones. בחורים does literally mean chosen ones, and the juxtaposition of these words in some poems (particularly אדברה בצר רוחי “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi”) provides strong suggestion that the young men are the best and bravest.

One of the anonymous poems, אדברה בצר רוחי “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi,” uses the explanation of the people’s sins as well, but the nuances there are different.

על התורה אשר בקדושה נחקקה, כלו לומדיה שנתגזרו להפסקה ברית מילה חמחודה וחשוקה, שבתות ומועדים וכל יום צרה וצוקה

חסין יה, שוכן מעלים! מקדם על עקידה אחת צעקו לפניך אראלים, ועתה כמה נעקדים ונכללים – ומדוע לא הרעישו על בני עוללים!

ואנו אין להרהר על הרדומים, כי הם לחיי עד ערוכים ומחותמים: אבל עלינו, כי למאד חויבנו אשמים אשר עברנו מצוות תמימים (Haberman 62 and Carmi 373)

On the Torah which was enacted in holiness, her learners died because they were ordered to stop the precious and desirable bris milah, and the Shabbos and holidays and every day of tragedy and distress.

Almighty Lord, dwelling on high, in days of old the angels cried out to you to put a halt to one sacrifice [akeidah]. And now, so many are bound and slaughtered – why do they not clamour over my infants?

But we must not question the fate of the dead, for they have been destined for eternal life. We must question ourselves, for we have been found very guilty; we have transgressed the precepts of right. (Carmi 373)

There is a clear separation here, again not atypical of explanations of tragedy, between those killed, or sacrificed, and those left to mourn. Those killed are pure and holy – they have sanctified god’s name. Those left to live with the horrors must do a personal accounting of their sins and acknowledge their part in bringing suffering upon the nation. Two stanzas before the line confessing guilt, the poet talks about the holiness of the Torah and those who study it, and claims that the holy students died because they were told to stop practicing bris milah and observing Shabbos and holidays. It suggests the martyrs acted with steadfast refusal to leave their faith and implies that those who survived might not have been strong enough and instead brought god’s wrath on the entire community.

While that does not seem effective in inspiring good feelings in the youth and would rather inspire resentment at being called sinful, most of the other rhetorical constructions in both the poetry and prose ensure that the young readers would be identifying with the martyred heroes and not with those too weak to resist. The next stanza in this poem does that: ״חי עולמים, בצל כנפיך אנו בורחים, כי נשארנו עגונים ואנוחים מבלי להשתתף לתלוי שוחחים – פגר מובס, יבושו כל אליו בוטחים!״ “O everlasting God, we seek refuge in the shadow of Your wings. We have been abandoned, alone and suffering, because we refused to bow our heads before the crucified one, a corpse trampled underfoot. Let all who put their trust in him be put to shame!” (Carmi 373). Although the poem calls out the survivors for having sinned, the rhetoric negates that and instead places them in the category of those who sacrificed their lives for god – “we have refused to bow…” As Einbinder points out, the poems tend to ignore the individuals who did convert or were forcibly converted, while the prose chronicles do mention them (Einbinder 20). But the chronicles, particularly Bar Nathan’s, even as they relate conversions taking place, go to great efforts to present these converts in a heroic light as well. There is the instance of Master Uri and Master Isaac with Isaac’s two daughters all killing themselves after having been forcibly converted (Eidelberg 84), where it is obvious that the conversion was not a result of weakness and that they were spared from death not because they were unworthy of being martyrs. Their suicides make it clear that they are just as holy and above suspicion as those killed by the Crusaders. Their suicides, of course, are their acts of martyrdom.

The chronicle also mentions those who converted, or who were converted forcibly, and did not martyr themselves. Again using language evoking vivid images of vile putrefaction, the chronicle says, “שסופם מוכיח על תחילתם, שלסוף לא חשבו את יראתם עי אם לטיט ולצואה” (Haberman 73), “the later acts of those thus coerced are testimony to this beginning, for in the end they regarded the object of the enemy’s veneration as no more than slime and dung” (Eidelberg 81). Rather than leave an opening for the vulnerable teens to say, “but these people converted and made it!” the chronicle states clearly that even those who escaped dying, which the teens might connect to their own potential escape from hardship and degradation, knew by the end that their new environment was associated with “slime and dung.”

A technique which does tie fierce pride and community to faith-based identification is the relating of events to significant moments in the Jewish calendar or week. The connection is made between the calendar day when the Jews began to prepare themselves to receive the Torah and the day when the community of Worms began to seclude themselves and prepare to sacrifice themselves. The destruction of Cologne as ״ויהרסו בית הכנסת ויוציאו את ספרי התורות ויתעוללו בהם ויתנום למרמס חוצות, ביום נתינתה, אשר הרעישה הארץ ועמודיה יתפלצון״ (Haberman 76), “the foe destroyed the synagogue and removed the Torah scrolls, desecrating them and casting them into the streets to be trodden underfoot” happened “on the very day that the Torah was given, when the earth trembled and its pillars quivered” (Eidelberg 85), drawing a distinction between the holiness of the Jews on that day and the profanity of the Christians. A few times, bar Nathan mentions that the destruction began or the first person was killed on Shabbos or as Shabbos was about to begin, implying an inherent holiness to the action further imbued by the holiness of the day. As the youth admire the heroism and bravery for its exciting qualities, the overt connection to religious faith and bravery would (or would be hoped to) strengthen the affective bond of the youth to the Jewish faith.

Though the lack of theological discussion is obvious, a staple of lamentations – that of crying out to god and either pleading for redemption or accusing him of ignoring those pleas – is employed in the chronicle to serve a kind of theological purpose. Exclamations like ״העל אלה לא תפקוד בם. ועד אנה תביט בוגדים ותחריש״ (Haberman 76), “O God, will You not punish them for these acts? How long will you look on at the wicked and remain silent?” (Eidelberg 85) do raise the question about why god stands by and does not protect the Jews, but at the same time they answer that question with the implicit expectation of eventual salvation. Twice bar Nathan uses the sentence ״העל אלה תתאפק יי״ (Haberman 75 and 80), “Wilt thou restrain Thyself for these things, O Lord?” (Eidelberg 83 and 90), with the expectation obviously being that he will not. The poetry as a general rule employs more anger and accusation in these anguished cries, but the prose embeds answers within the questions.

Both of these match the functions of each set in terms of influencing young men. Even with the chronicle’s craft in evoking emotion, it is more logical than the poetry and it is understandable that the author would want to at least gesture toward a level-headed answer. If dissatisfaction with being a part of a community which suffers so much was a possible impetus for conversion, giving the youth a place to express anger at their situation was vital, especially when the speaker of the poem was one of the leaders of the community. For a few moments, everyone, both the scholarly old and the rash youth, could be united in their anguish and could acknowledge that believing that god will make things right does not take away the pain of the moment. Validating that emotion for adolescents would be more crucial in convincing them to stay with the battered community than any theological reasoning.

Playing on the emotions of the reader in relation to family, closer to home than the general community, the texts also set up the youth as a link between generations past and future. The examples of this are interestingly divided neatly, so that the prose chronicle contains more descriptions of fathers in this context and the poetry more descriptions of little children, especially younger siblings. Bar Nathan recounts many stories involving sons and fathers. One is skillfully crafted not only to showcase Jewish familial pride and legacy, but at the same time to juxtapose Christian expectations with that.

״וקידש מר שמואל ב״ר אשר את השם לעיני השמש וגם שני בניו אשר עמו. לאחר שנהרג, הוא ובניו, התעוללו בהם וגררום וירמוסם בטיט חוצות, ויתלו את בניו על פתח ביתו כדי להתעולל בו״

(Haberman 77)

“Samuel, the son of Asher, sanctified God’s Name for all to behold, as did his two sons who were with him. After he and his sons were slain, they [the Crusaders] defiled their bodies by dragging them through the muddy streets and trampling them. Then they hanged his sons at the entrance to his home in order to mock him” (Eidelberg 86).

The Crusaders intend this action of hanging his sons at his door to be an insult, displaying their own power and the sons’ degradation and therefore the shame brought upon the father. To the Jews, however, this would have been a symbol of great pride, albeit a somber pride, since the sons followed the father’s lead and martyred themselves for god’s glory, never succumbing to pressure. This works as a method of showing young teenagers how their dedication to their faith could bring their parents joy and pride even among grief.

The poetry plays on another aspect of adolescent pride by addressing the reactions of younger siblings and children more generally. אדברה בצר רוחי  “Adabra b’Tzar Ruchi” describes how ״צעקת ילדים איך גדלה! רואים אחיהם נשחטים בחלחלה, האם קושרת בנה פן בפרכוס יחללה, והאב מברך על השחיטה לכללה״ “the children cried aloud! Trembling, they see their brothers slaughtered; the mother binding her son, lest he profane the sacrifice by shuddering; the father making the ritual blessing to sanctify the slaughter” (Carmi 373). Since we’ve accepted that medieval Ashkenazic adolescence is similar to the contemporary idea, I’ll venture to say this: Teens usually can’t resist the idea of having an effect on their younger siblings, and the image of the little ones being so affected by their own sacrifice could have a strong impact on the way they behave. Obviously, they’re not expected to die in order to have this effect on their younger siblings. But as a ploy to get adolescent boys to think about themselves as role models or exemplars for their younger siblings, this moving description of children watching their older brothers die is very powerful.

There’s a lot more to be said about how the texts, both the poetry and the prose, attempt to influence teenage boys. Einbinder includes a question of whether the poetry was effective in these methods, whether it did stem the tide of conversions. There seems to be no real way of drawing direct correlations between the literature and the trends of conversion, and therefore no way of knowing whether the perceived efficacy of these methods worked, whether the way the writers thought teenage minds worked matched with the way teenage minds actually worked. (I know a few rabbis who would love to know which methods work – the director of Agudath Israel loves to call the current trend of youth leaving Orthodox Judaism a “hemorrhage,” though I’m fairly certain he has not read Shatzmiller…) However, it does seem important that the modes of persuasion are similar to some of the modes still used today in some Jewish communities. My work on medieval British literary modes of education and patterns of thought about how children’s and teens’ minds work, etc., suggests (at least so far, as I’m still toward the beginning of my work) that they differ greatly from contemporary modes and patterns.


Afterword:Reading this through again now, it seems so obvious to me that my dissertation shifted from medieval British Christian texts to contemporary American Haredi texts.

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