Positively Medieval

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Playing Jewish in the Society for Creative Anachronism.

Around midsummer, participants in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) gather in western Pennsylvania for a week or two of a combination costume party, camping trip, crafts fair and athletic competition called the Pennsic War. Participants dress in medieval styles, practice antiquated arts, study obsolete languages and refer to each other by fanciful medieval names. More than 10,000 people come from as far as Australia for the event.

The legend of the origin of the Pennsic War, polished and embellished for new generations of participants, goes like this:

In Berkeley, Calif., in the middle 1960s, some young folks discussed how they enjoyed thinking about the Middle Ages. The group, including at least one science fiction writer, readers of fantasy fiction and graduate students in medieval history, planned an event at which they would call each other “My Lord” and “My Lady,” would admire each other’s costumes, play ancient music, eat old-fashioned food and also, perhaps best of all, put on shining armor to bash each other with wooden poles. They would recreate everything about the Middle Ages but religious fanaticism, medieval standards of cleanliness and medical hygiene.

So many people wanted to take part in that event, and in subsequent ones, that they needed a venue suitable for a crowd. The application form had space for the name of the organization — which had no name — so one of the founders invented “the Society for Creative Anachronism.”

At these early events, the group chose the reward for winning the armored combat competition; they dubbed the winner a knight. A skillful young student, David Friedman, became the society’s first knight.

 

FORMING A SOCIETY

Around the country, groups planned similar events and applied to join the society. Affiliated groups claimed different geographical areas; associations of affiliated groups became the first monarchies of the known world. Naturally, winners of the heavy list armored competition earned the right to become king. David Friedman became one of the earliest kings.

By then, though, he had become Cariadoc of the Bow, a 12th-century Berber tribesman and also King Cariadoc of the Midrealm, the second-oldest kingdom in the society. As King of the Midrealm, Cariadoc sought to initiate a national event, so he challenged the King of the East to war, sending an arrow to symbolize his belligerent intent. He got no response.

Later, Friedman moved to New York. He took part in society activities there with similar success, and became King of the East. He found the challenge that he himself had issued, and promptly accepted it, breaking the arrow to show his readiness for war.

At about that time, an SCA group had formed in the Pittsburgh area, and the leaders of the Society disagreed about its affiliation. To which kingdom should western Pennsylvania belong? The Society decided to make the Debatable Lands around Pittsburgh the prize for the first Pennsic War. The Debatable Lands would belong to whichever kingdom lost. The leaders named this event the Pennsic War, a portmanteau word combining the words “Pennsylvania” and “Punic” after a long-lasting war of antiquity.
As it happened, the East lost the first Pennsic War, and so took control of the Debatable Lands. King Cariadoc of the East became arguably the first king in history to declare war against himself, accept the challenge and lose.

Thus the legend of the origin of Pennsic 1, the first annual Pennsic War. This August, in the 46th year of the society, “Anno Societas 46,” members of the 19 kingdoms of the known world took part in Pennsic 41. Objective historians may provide corrections to any detail of the legend.

In the terminology of the society, David Friedman is Cariadoc’s mundane name; Cariadoc of the Bow is his persona. King of the East was his role in the society; his rank is now duke.

Every year at the Pennsic War, volunteers teach more than 1,000 classes in medieval studies, or in arts, crafts and the history of the society. When Cariadoc teaches at Pennsic University, he sometimes teaches in persona, dressed as a medieval Berber, behaving like a Berber, speaking in the characteristic idiom of a medieval Muslim, albeit in English. For other classes, Cariadoc speaks as a historian of the society, or as an expert in historical recreation, not identical with any of the other roles.

He teaches courses in many subjects:

• How to make hardened leather armor

• How to make Viking jewelry

• How to use period literature to tell stories in public

• How to redact medieval recipes for use in modern kitchens

• How to understand the history of the society

• How to fully inhabit your persona

• How to behave properly as an Islamic or Jewish persona

 

JEWISH MEDIEVALS

Plenty of Jewish members of the society (Jewish mundane) portray Jewish medievals (personae), but some Jewish mundanes portray non-Jews, and some non-Jews portray Jewish medievals.

The society has rules for personae. Heralds will not register the name of a known real person; for example, you cannot portray Maimonides. You may not claim a title unless you have earned it in the society. You must become a plausible character, a medieval who might have existed, a fictionally possible person from any time before about 1600.

Some veteran members of the society pay almost no attention to persona. One veteran described his persona this way: “A man. From the Middle Ages. Who fights. That’s enough.”

On the other hand, as a herald for more than 20 years, Ulric von der Insel believes that “it all starts with persona. Get the persona right and the rest of the activities of the society fall into place.” (Ulric is the persona of David Cormier of Rhode Island.) Ulric, though not Jewish in any role, has thought deeply about what it means to have a Jewish persona. He worries that anyone who takes on a persona from a different ethnic group runs the risk of inadvertently lampooning that group, of stereotyping. For example, some Jews in period did not observe, he says, but to portray a Jew and not observe Jewish etiquette would betray the society’s goal of showing the best and purest image of the Middle Ages.

Other society members do not share that idealized goal, and happily play the part of pirates.

One veteran member, Reb Elezar ha-Levi (Lew Wolkoff of Harrisburg, Pa.) teaches a course on how to develop a Jewish persona. The course comes with 30 pages of source material detailing authentic  Jewish names, professions and practices from the Middle Ages, just to help people get their roles right.

A non-Jew with a Jewish persona, Saarah bint Ishaq (Julie Bright of Charlottesville, Va.) shows deep respect for Jewishness. She has learned to sing traditional Ladino songs of the Balkan Sephardim, as taught by a Holocaust survivor from Sarajevo, Flory Jagoda. You can hear Julie’s version of one of these songs on For You Are Made of Stars, a CD by the musical group Balkanize. Saarah also prepares feasts following the culinary traditions of the Spanish Jews of the Balkans; as she describes reducing a sauce of fruit and vegetables to go with couscous and meat, you can hear her love of the Sephardic tradition.

As a student of cultural anthropology, she finds absolutely intriguing those Jews whose cooking still reflects the recipes of Andalusia, whose speech preserves an offshoot of medieval Spanish, whose music, some five centuries after their ancestors escaped from Spain, still sounds somewhat Arabic. She also finds Jewish ritual mysteriously attractive. “I am not going to convert,” she says, “but it seems natural to portray a Sephardic Jew.”

Leslie Reuter, an IT professional from the Philadelphia area, has not yet decided for certain, but she thinks her persona, Leofwynn, will become a Viking. Leofwynn certainly will be different from her Jewish mundane self.

“Let’s face it, I was attracted to the Middle Ages by knights in shining armor, and they were not Jews,” she said. “When the knights put on their shining armor, Jews mostly ran in the other direction.” Besides that, “it would feel like cheating. I already know a lot about Judaism from the Middle Ages. I would not have to do much research to get started.”  Also, “it would not feel enough like playing dress-up.”

Why a Viking?

“Most of the people I camp with at Pennsic already have Viking personae. And I enjoy doing Viking crafts like naalbinding, sprang and wire-weaving.” (Vikings made socks, hats and handbags using naalbinding and sprang; they used wire-weaving to make jewelry).

Naomi Hampson, a Ph.D. candidate in material science and engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, never doubted that she would choose a Jewish persona who lived some time when Jews had some safety and dignity. As Naomi bat Avraham, a 15th-century German Jewish woman, Naomi could keep her own first name and, more important, would not have problems with jewelry. “I could not wear a cross.” Naomi did have some trouble registering her name; although a biblical name, “Naomi” does not appear in many German Jewish sources. It took diligent study to find an example to validate the name.

Naomi was attracted to the society by her interest in archery. In her years with the society, Naomi has learned to make wooden arrows, to carve wood-blocks for printing, to operate medieval printing presses, to make glass beads, to play medieval card games and many other skills. She loves that people in the society have multiple skills and love to teach them. One skill Naomi did not pick up is sewing; her husband learned to sew so that she could have an appropriate wardrobe for society events.

Katie Mendelson’s mother kept a box of costumes in the attic. On rainy days, each child would try on a costume, and together make up adventures for their characters. They had no television. When Katie had children of her own, Purim became the focus of their costuming creativity. She took the radical step of not participating in Halloween; the public school in Ann Arbor made a big deal out of Halloween, so her children took the day off for family activities like horseback riding. Purim was a big deal.

Some years later, when Katie’s son got interested in period archery, Katie and her husband joined the society. She developed a Jewish persona, as Lady Judith bas Rabbi Mendel. Katie had begun observing kashrut as an adult and, in thinking about her Jewish persona, she realized that Medieval kashrut must have made significantly different demands on observant Jews. That became her area of research: Now she lectures on the history of the Passover seder.

 

KEEPING KOSHER

Keeping kosher at Pennsic usually involves camping with people who will allow you separate space for your cooking equipment. Yehoshua (Josh Feil of New York) notes how scrupulously his campmates protect his kosher space. Similarly, Lord Gideon HaKhazar of the East Kingdom observed, “I have never had any problems with being a Jew at Pennsic, or indeed in the SCA. Ever. Indeed, it was non-Jewish SCAdian friends who arranged for my wife and me to meet, and my knight is mundanely a very devout Christian minister.”

Indeed, non-Jewish society members enjoy asking about medieval Jewish practices. Yehoshua recalls his campmates asking how he knew a certain Shabbat song dates back to the Middle Ages. He replied, memorably if not entirely accurately, “It is Jewish; of course, it is period.”

In central Asia more than a thousand years ago, the king of the Khazars converted to Judaism. A Jewish fighter in the society might choose a Khazar persona, as Jews fought in the Khazar army. Khadir bar Yosef HaKhaziri (Hank Steinfeld of Maryland) has devoted years of study to the Khazar empire.

Something to think about: How does a fantasy kingdom differ from a “real” one? The fantasy kingdoms of the known world have borders, taxes, expenditures and armies to protect them; they go to war, just like “real” states, in which people die, though not biological death. True, the fantasy states exist only because people believe in them, but then, as various leaders of the Arab world have recently discovered, “real” states can go out of existence if people stop believing in them, too.

Something else to think about: When someone tells you about her persona, her mundane personality and her position in society, who is doing the talking? What impact does role-playing have on our own selves? Portraying someone who believes in chivalric honor may impact our mundane personality: One veteran member of the society sometimes refrains from an activity because her persona would not approve. Even people who do not belong to the Society for Creative Anachronism play roles, such as graduate student of material science and engineering, or IT professional, or father or political candidate. How do these roles change who we are?

Maybe you would like to play Jewish in the contemporary Middle Ages?

Louis Finkelman of Southfield has been active in the society for about 10 years as Eliezer, one of those Jews who moved from the Rhineland to Spain in about 1300. (Southfield belongs to the Barony of Roaring Wastes in the Midrealm.)

 

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