To be required to make the initial comment on the subject of this volume is to be struck by the elusive and kaleidoscopic quality of its theme - an impression that Chapters 1 through 3 only reinforce. For a start, whether the geographic focus of study is called (anachronistically) “Germany” or (more accurately) the “Holy Roman Empire,” it is vague at best. The territory covered by the empire did have formal boundaries in late medieval and early modern times, but it included more than Germans, some of whom - to add to the confusion - lived beyond those boundaries. At no time, moreover, was the empire organized into a coherent political structure or centered on a single capital city like London, Paris, or Madrid.
And yet the very disarray may have been the reason that it seemed to offer so interesting a home for Jews. The elusiveness of central authority and the variety of political systems created a landscape that was marked by precisely the cracks and fissures that allowed outsiders to flourish. It therefore seemed almost the agenda of early modern German Jews, particularly after the expulsions of the late Middle Ages, to find places for themselves in the interstices of this fragmented society. To a far greater extent than was true of the relatively stable Jewish communities of Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, and (later) England, they had to thrive in the marginal activities that were available in so localized a polity, with its multiple and contrasting regimes. It was entirely appropriate, therefore, that here, unlike elsewhere in Europe, they often lived in rural areas, in scattered and tiny settlements, and only rarely formed large and visible groupings such as the one in Frankfurt am Main, that echoed the ghettos of Italy. The varied character of their communities has encouraged, in turn, a kaleidoscope of research — studies that seem to lack common threads precisely because they have such disparate subject matter.