Research Cluster

To encourage interdisciplinary exchange, the research projects are assigned to topic-specific clusters. At the cluster level, workshops will take place annually at changing locations and/or online. The forum also provides a platform for a discussion of the different topics of the single projects. The various clusters are supervised by the Mercator Fellows and members of the program committee.
Interim reports and research results will be published here.

Cluster A: Historical and Contemporary Constructions of Jewish Cultural Heritage – Processes, Forms and Objects of Cultural Transmission

With the establishment of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (science of Judaism) in the 19th century, academic research on and documentation of Jewish heritage emerged. In particular, the upswing of the jüdische Volkskunde (Jewish Folklore Studies) at the turn of the 20th century led to the increasing inclusion of Jewish cultural objects in academic research. In this context Jewish tradition and culture were considered beyond their textual foundations.
The simultaneous emergence of music collections of Jewish cantors (e.g. Eduard Birnbaum Music Collection, and the Hebrew-Oriental Melody Collection (1914-1932)) illustrates that ‘Jewish collecting’ not only followed certain academic, Zionist, and national interests. The motives for collecting were also rooted in two ethical pillars of Judaism: the halakha (religious law) and tzedaka (charity). These intentions were fundamentally different from those underlying the majority of Jewish collections today. Yet, historical-scientific and present-political interests intertwined in constructing Jewish heritage even before the Shoah.
Regarding this priority program, the driving forces and different manifestations of collecting and preserving as sine qua non of the construction of Jewish heritage are to be traced: its primary forms, its secularization upon entry into modernity, its different conceptions in Central and Eastern Europe, and its radical reorientation after the Shoah.

After World War II, a new process of rediscovery and preservation of the Jewish cultural heritage in Germany and other European countries began. Against the backdrop of coming to terms with the past and a hesitant establishment of a specific culture of remembrance, this process aimed, among other things, to build a foundation for renewing Jewish life in the present ‘new Europe.’ The measures of preserving Jewish cultural heritage are often bound to certain expectations. These can be combating antisemitism, promoting cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, or preserving specific as European ascribed values, such as democracy and tolerance.
The meanings and motives of heritage and preservation also differ. In Western Europe, the remembrance of Jewish cultural heritage and the commemoration of the Shoah became the cornerstone of a ‘European memory.’ Jewish cultural heritage here tends to be perceived as positive, homogeneous, and transnational; the aspect of cultural reparation is predominant. Due to the later beginning confrontation with the Shoah and the destroyed Jewish life-worlds in post-Soviet Eastern Europe, Jewish cultural heritage tends to be perceived there as national, diverse, and dissonant. Therefore, it is more a matter of filling the gaps created by communist ideology as of demonstrating democratic principles and multicultural ideals.

The following questions will be illuminated in Cluster A:

  • How did concepts of collecting, researching, and preserving Jewish cultural heritage develop and evolve in the disciplines?
  • What role does the ‘lost’ play in heritage discourses as (im-)material and/or virtual reconstruction?
  • What do digitization, virtualization, and networking mean for the cultural heritage discourse?
  • Who are ‘shareholders’ who are ‘stakeholders’ regarding the construction of Jewish cultural heritage?
  • Who researches Jewish cultural heritage at what times and with what intentions?

Cluster B: Jewish Cultural Heritage in/as Social and Ritual Practice – Transmissions and Innovations

Cluster B not only asks about the material and intangible culture in academic discourse but also about the self-perception of Jewish communities. What role did (and does) heritage play for Jewish communities in the past and present? At least in part, ‘modern’ Jewish communities in Europe define themselves through their synagogues or community centers, but to some extent also through traditional objects or even their own (Judaica) collections. For example, this includes Torah scrolls, shrines, or manuscripts no longer in use. In this respect, Cluster B examines the influence of social and religious structures on material manifestations (e. g. buildings, furnishings, and Judaica). Furthermore, the related projects will illuminate to what extent concepts of heritage play a role for communities. Intangible values, in particular, the Talmudic and theological tenets of Judaism, such as the sanctification of place, receive little consideration in national and regional heritage preservation policies but shape Jewish attitudes toward cultural heritage and heritage policy.
Against this background and due to its fragile diasporic existence, it is necessary to ask how Judaism has valued and continues to value the physical manifestations of its religion and culture. How relates this to the ascription of values from outside?
Thus, an emic perspective on Jewish cultural heritage will be at the center of the discussions, i.e., the view of Jews on their cultural heritage. In this regard, concepts such as dissonant heritage or reconciliatory heritage will be considered more comprehensively.

The following questions will be illuminated in Cluster B:

  • What was/is valued in Jewish communities, with what connotation?
  • What is presented and handed down to ‘others’ as Jewish heritage?
  • How does the intangible cultural heritage of Jewish communities relate to the tangible heritage?
  • What role did and do museums (Jewish museums, museums with Jewish connotated objects, memorial sites, learning sites, cultural centers…) play for the heritage discourse?
  • How did and does the (state) preservation of historical monuments – as the custodian of a heritage that is not defined in terms of specific groups – deal with places and objects of Jewish culture and history?
  • What does Jewish cultural heritage mean in the local and regional context?
  • Can there be a preservation of Jewish heritage ‘without Jews’? For whom and for what?

Cluster C: Cultural Sustainability and Jewish Perspectives – Jewish Agency versus Ideological Appropriation of Jewish Culture

In this cluster, the hitherto dominant focus of the cultural heritage discourse on Jewish life in the past will be reconsidered by looking at the Jewish collective itself. In particular, by examining practices of preserving and transmitting traditions in the present for the future. In this sense, the concept of cultural sustainability will be explored from a Jewish perspective. In doing so, notions of the cultural continuity of Judaism (as religion, culture, and ethnicity) will be linked to discourses on cultural sustainability. That includes questioning the patrimonialization of Jewish culture and the relations of various share- and stakeholders to concepts like time, space, context, and the ‘other.’ This new conceptualization allows it to formulate a  ‘Jewish’ model of cultural sustainability. Therefore inscription of Jewish knowledge and thought into discourses on cultural heritage is required. This change in perspective directs the focus away from the transience of Jewish culture towards its present and possible future.
The reconsideration of Jewish cultural heritage from the perspective of cultural sustainability chosen here serves to break the previous cycle of patrimonialization. This cycle is usually defined by politically motivated top-down processes concerning the administration and management of cultural heritage that increasingly disconnect it from the lives of its (original) bearers. As a result, the bottom-up processes of preserving and transmitting Jewish culture remain invisible.

Central questions that will be discussed in Cluster C are, for example:

  • What insights can be derived from Jewish concepts of cultural preservation, such as Tikkun Olam or L’dor va dor, for general cultural heritage processes in the future?
  • To what extent can a consideration cultural sustainability better expose the dynamic relations of Jews to non-Jewish parts of society?
  • To what extent cultural sustainability offers new ways of thinking about Jewish cultural heritage?
  • To what extent does Jewish heritage act as a barrier or enabler to cultural sustainability?