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"Minhag Italia": Negotiating Jewish modernity in the nineteenth century through the prism of Italian prayer books

The aim of this project is to carry out a digital and conceptual analysis of nineteenth-century Italian Jewish prayer books (Siddurim and Maḥzorim), in order to challenge the traditional narrative about some fundamental categories of Jewish modernity: the divide between Orthodoxy and Reform and the importance in modern Judaism of the differentiation among three of the most prominent Jewish groups in Europe: Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Italkim. Heuristically, the present research project expects to blur the boundaries among these categories. While maintaining their existence, this investigation will aim to show how the distinctions among them transpiring through the liturgy are in many cases less evident than traditionally thought. Liturgical changes are highly relevant for understanding a Jewish group’s (self)perception and historical developments, because they mirror not only the transformation of key concepts like messianism or salvation, but also the changing relationship to the surrounding society. The assumption is that such liturgical modifications, prompted by the need to fit Judaism within modernity, were oftentimes cajoled by similar internal and external factors. In other words, Orthodoxy and Reform, as well as Italkim, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, mutually influenced one another, when reacting to new instances of modernization and adaptation to majority society. On the one hand, this analysis will show the specificities of the different rites in connection to their geographical location and Jewish group of reference; on the other, it aims to test the hypothesis that some liturgical changes in each of these groups were also in reaction to alterations that occurred in competing groups. This project sets out to argue that these processes ultimately resulted in ritual rapprochement among them.
The starting hypothesis is that investigating the prayer book as a historical source and not merely as a 'static' liturgical text can reveal cultural, social, and political change. A liturgical object may also be considered as a historical source, if one interrogates it with an apt set of questions. Nineteenth-century Italy is an ideal setting for the proposed analysis, because of the simultaneous presence of the three aforementioned Jewish groups, the relevant dynamics Orthodoxy/Reform, and the substantial socio-cultural changes Italian Jews underwent across the age of civil emancipation. This encounter with modernity had a deep impact on Italian mainly Orthodox Jewry, which had to develop its own adaptation strategies to it, including modifications of the liturgy, also as a reaction to innovation instances proposed by the Reform movement. Showing substantial interactions among all the aforementioned Jewish groups, the Italian setting will of course be placed within its European dimension, in order to show its relevance for the Jewish Studies and general historiography beyond the geographical reference of the examined sources.