In Memoriam: Elka Beth Klein
Jonathan Ray, Gretchen D. Starr-LeBeau, Steven Fine, Gail Labovitz, and Emily Sohmer Tai, November 2005
From the In Memoriam column of the November 2005 Perspectives
Elka Beth Klein, a specialist in the history of Judaism and medieval Catalonia, died on March 28, 2005, in Cincinnati, Ohio, after a protracted struggle with ovarian cancer. She was 39 years old.
Klein earned her BA summa cum laude, from Yale University in 1988, majoring in history and religious studies. After an additional year of study at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in 1988–89, Klein entered the doctoral program in history at Harvard University. She completed her doctorate in 1996 under the direction of Thomas Bisson, with the support of fellowships from Harvard University, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, the Fulbright IIE Program, and the Real Colegio Complutense. Between 1998–2001, Klein was a postdoctoral Dorot Fellow in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. In 2001, she joined the Department of Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati, where she taught until the final weeks of her illness.
Klein's brief but accomplished career represented a significant contribution to research and teaching in the fields of Judaic and medieval studies. Klein drew upon a wealth of expertise in Talmudic law, language, and literature, as well as medieval Catalan and Latin, to bring new archival documentation and perspective to her study of medieval Barcelona's Jewish community. Prior to Klein's work, studies of Catalonia's Jewish population had emphasized the divide between Christians and Jewish communities within the medieval Crown of Catalonia-Aragon, and focused principally upon the decades directly preceding the riots of 1391. Klein worked beyond this temporal focus to complicate and challenge older views, showing, as she would assert in "The Widow's Portion: Law, Custom, and Marital Property Among Medieval Catalan Jews," Viator 31 (2000): 147–163, that Jews and Christians in medieval Catalonia needed, rather, to be understood as "part of one cultural system."
Klein's dissertation, Power and Patrimony: The Jewish Community of Barcelona, 1050–1250 mined published and unpublished records from the Arxiu de la Corona d'Aragó, the Arxiu Capitular de Barcelona, and the Arxiu Diocesà de Barcelona to trace an overlooked transition in the governance of Barcelona's Jewish community over the relatively neglected 11th through 13th centuries. Klein found that leadership passed during this period from the so-called "courtier-nesi'im," a select cadre of Jews favored by the emerging Crown of Aragon, to elected communal officials in a manner that paralleled contemporaneous power shifts among urban elites throughout Christian Europe. In "Protecting the Widow and the Orphan: A Case Study from 13th-Century Barcelona," Mosaic 14 (1993): 65–81, Klein would meanwhile make her earliest foray into social history, her strongest area of scholarly interest. In various works that followed, such as "Splitting Heirs: Patterns of Inheritance Among Barcelona's Jews," Jewish History 16, no. 1 (2002): 49–71; "Barcelona," in Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 2003), 79–82; scholarly presentations at meetings of the American Historical Association and the Association for Jewish Studies; and in her second book, Community and King: Jews, Christian Society, and Royal Power in Medieval Barcelona (forthcoming in the University of Michigan Press series, History, Language and Cultures of the Spanish and Portuguese Worlds), Klein would expand her treatment of Jewish-Christian interaction to examine such diverse topics as the economic activities of medieval Jewish women, Jewish family law, and the punishment of informers within the Jewish community.
Throughout this research, Klein argued for a pattern of what she termed "selective acculturation" in the legal transactions of Barcelona's Jews, who adapted, rather than passively imitated, the practices of their Christian neighbors. Klein's work also made an important body of previously unpublished documentation accessible to future scholars. Her first book, Hebrew Deeds of the Catalan Jews, 1117–1316 (Barcelona and Girona: Societat d'Estudis Hebraics/Patronat Municipal Call de Girona, 2004), published in English and in Catalan, offered a meticulously annotated edition of 18 Hebrew Shetarot Klein discovered in the Arxiu Capitular de Barcelona. In January 2005, Klein delivered her last scholarly lecture at the Institut d'Estudis Nahmànides in Spain to celebrate the appearance of this volume.
Klein demonstrated an equally pioneering grasp of the internet's potential as a tool for the dissemination of sources, teaching, and scholarly exchange. Along with Hebrew Deeds, Klein's plentiful translations of Rabbinic responsa and documents from the Arxiu de la Corona d'Aragó for The Internet Medieval Sourcebook and other Internet sites made important source materials available as teaching aids for the first time. In 1998, Klein served as editor of the segment "Medieval Jews and Judaism" for The ORB: An On-Line Reference Book for Medieval Studies (http://www.the-orbnet), authoring "The Jewish Community," a lengthy exposition of history and historiography. Syllabi for several of the courses Klein developed at the University of Cincinnati remain available at the Wabash Center Guide to Internet Resources for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion (http://www.wabashcenter.wabash.edu). Klein was also a prolific reviewer and contributor to H-Net Judaic.
Klein was, finally, a generous friend to many fellow scholars in medieval, Hispanic, and Jewish studies, as well as a gifted, caring, and greatly beloved teacher. One colleague, Gila Safran Naveh, described Klein's hospital bed as "covered with student papers, books she was reviewing, course lists she was scrutinizing for approval, syllabi she was modifying," only two weeks before her death. Hailed as "collaborative," "inspiring," and "brilliant" by faculty at the University of Cincinnati, Klein was posthumously conferred with the university's Edith C. Alexander Award for Distinguished Teaching last May. A series of commemorative sessions of Talmudic study were undertaken in her honor at various sites across the United States and Canada during the spring and summer 2005. Plans are underway to endow a scholarship in her name.
In numerous memorials since her death, Klein has been praised as the Eshet Hayil, "the woman of valor," whose convictions sustained active commitments to Judaism, feminism, and global justice alongside her lifelong engagement with history. The tradition of Hebrew prayer in which Klein was so deeply immersed affirms that the memory of a departed one lives on in their acts of goodness. Klein's memory survives in the legacy of learning and friendship she leaves to scores of students and colleagues who delighted in her warmth, kindness, and courageous humor. Klein is survived by her parents, Suzanne Silk Klein and Martin Klein, professor emeritus of African history at the University of Toronto; a brother, Moses Klein; her husband, Yoseff Francus; daughter Dina, 4; and son Shaul, 3.
—Jonathan Ray, University of California at Los Angeles
—Gretchen D. Starr-LeBeau, University of Kentucky
—Steven Fine, University of Cincinnati
—Gail Labovitz, University of Judaism at Los Angeles
—Emily Sohmer Tai, Queensborough Community College, CUNY