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Karen B. Stern
BGC Visiting Fellow
Brooklyn College

Sensing a New Past: Reimagining Jewish History through the Senses

Persistent regard for Jews as “The People of the Book,” reflects both the importance of holy texts in Jewish liturgy and religious study and reinforces a sense of shared history within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But emphases on biblical and rabbinic texts have inadvertently and indelibly shaped investigations of the Jewish past, ensuring that literary sources and perspectives continue to dominate historical narratives and interpretations of archaeological remains and material culture. BGC Fellow Karen Stern’s research offers a novel approach: in considering the sensory dimensions of ancient Jewish life it yields a more experiential and embodied history of Jews in premodernity, outside of textual frameworks. By deploying scholarship of the history of the senses to reevaluate everyday objects, including lamps, hair combs, cooking wares, censers, rattles, and goblets, as well as assemblages of graffiti, coins, and magical amulets once discovered inside homes, markets, synagogues, and burial spaces, the project reimagines a more vivid world of Jews in late antiquity—from all areas of the Mediterranean and regions farther inland in Asia Minor, Syria, and Mesopotamia—in which senses of smell, sound, taste, vision, light, and balance, were integral to experiences of domestic and devotional life.

Karen B. Stern is a professor of history at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She earned her BA with honors in classics at Dartmouth College and her MA and PhD in religious studies from Brown University. Several grants, fellowships, and residencies from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Council of American Overseas Research Centers, and the Getty Villa have supported her research, which deploys methods from fields of archaeology, anthropology, epigraphy, history, and religion to investigate the daily lives and material culture of ancient Jews from different areas of the Mediterranean, Arabia, and Mesopotamia. She is the author of Inscribing Devotion and Death: Archaeological Evidence for Jewish Populations of North Africa (Brill, 2007); Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity (2018; paperback ed. 2020), winner of a 2020 Jordan Schnitzer Book Award through the Association for Jewish Studies (category: Jews and the Arts); and co-editor of With the Loyal You Show Yourself Loyal: Essays on Relationships in the Hebrew Bible in Honor of Saul M. Olyan (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2021). Her current book project considers the lived history of Judaism through the senses.

Tuesday, March 21, 12:15 pm
38 West 86th Street, Lecture Hall

Lunch will be served starting at noon. Registration required.

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