University of Pennsylvania historian David Ruderman acknowledges that academics — himself included — often gear their writing to other scholars, rather than to a general audience. In addition, historians tend to stick to their own intellectual turf, rather than wading into unfamiliar waters.
An expert on Jewish life and thought during the Italian Renaissance — with an particular interest in how traditional Judaism responded to the dawn of scientific discovery — Ruderman said he took a scholarly risk and widened his historical lens with his 2010 book, Early Modern Jewry: A Cultural History, published by Princeton University Press.
More than any work he's written, this one is aimed at a general audience, he said. It also touches on areas that are admittedly not his expertise, such as Eastern European Jewry.
Last week, the 66-year-old Lower Merion resident learned that his effort had paid off; he'd won the National Jewish Book Award for history.
"If it sells a few more books, it will be nice," said Ruderman of the prize, which will be awarded in March in New York.
However, Ruderman doesn't plan to be there; he said that he'll be spending the spring semester in Germany researching his next book, an examination of a 18th-century text that mixes Kabbalah and natural science.
Ruderman, who is also an ordained Reform rabbi, said that with Early Modern Jewry, he set out to argue two distinct but intertwined points.
The first is that the early modern period — that is, between 1492 and the late 1700s — should be understood as a distinct historical epoch, rather than as an extension of the Middle Ages or a preamble to modern times. In other words, the transition to modernity took place more slowly than is often taught.
The second is that, while Jewish communities throughout Europe and the Ottoman Empire lived under vastly different political systems and conditions, it is possible, during this era, to talk about changes taking place in the Jewish world as a whole.
"I try to take these disparate, local histories and argue for certain themes that allow us to speak about a transregional or transnational Jewish culture in the early modern period," he said.
One defining characteristic of Jewish life in this period was the emergence of printed books, which, much like the Internet today, radically transformed how ideas were communicated.
Another defining characteristic of the age was the preponderance of New Christians, or Marranos, who existed on the margins of Jewish life and lived with a hyphenated identity that seems commonplace today, but, he said, was radical at the time.
For 17 years, Ruderman has served as the director of the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, which each year hosts a set of scholars from around the world to spend time researching a common theme. This year the topic happens to be "Converts and Conversion in Jewish History and Culture."
Ruderman noted that a good percentage of the public lectures the scholars will deliver throughout the community this year will focus on the early modern era.
"This category of what I call mingled identities — or braided identities — is a category we know very well in the modern world today. Just enter a Reform synagogue today — half the Jews come from Christian backgrounds."
For more information on the public lecture series, see: www.cjs.upenn.edu/.