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The Stains of Culture

An Ethno-Reading of Karaite Jewish Women

Ruth Tsoffar

Award Winner

Anthropology, Gender, Jewish Studies, Religion, Women's Studies

Raphael Patai Series in Jewish Folklore and Anthropology

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Paperback
Published: December 2005
ISBN: 9780814332238
Pages: 264 Size: 6x9
Illustrations: 10 black and white photographs and 1 map
Review

The Stains of Culture can be incisive, thought-provoking, logically sound, and well-written.

— Journal of Folklore Research

A minority within Judaism, the Karaites are known as a ‘reading community’—one that looks to the Bible as the authority in all areas of life, including intimate relations and hygiene. Here Ruth Tsoffar considers how Egyptian Kariates of the San Francisco Bay Area define themselves, within both California culture and Judaism, in terms of the Bible and its bearing on their bodies. Women’s perspectives play a large role in this ethnography; it is their bodies that are especially regulated by rules of cleanliness and purity to the point where their biological cycles—menstruation, procreation, childbirth, lactation—determine their place in the community.

As Tsoffar notes, the female body itself becomes a richly encoded text that reveals much about the Karaites’ attitudes toward the interrelated issues of gender, sex, food, procreation, sacred traditions, time and space, as well as identity. The author illuminates the cultural strategies used by Karaite women to sustain their religious ideologies yet find personally meaningful ways of reading. The Karaites have survived since at least the 8th century by continually contemporizing their culture. Through a study of the rich, animated ritual experience of niddah (menstruation and purity codes in Leviticus), we see how the Karaite women seek to imagine and narrate a new history of purity through their bodies.

The Stains of Culture presents issues of meaning and interpretation in a way valuable to students of women’s studies, anthropology, minority cultural production, scholars of religion and Judaism, especially to those interested in exploring Judaism’s diversity.

Ruth Tsoffar is assistant professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.

Combing textual analysis and ethnographic study, Tsoffar writes on women's bodily practices vis-a-vis patriarchal authority. The Stains of Culture examines women's rituals as forms of 'reading,' precisely in relation to the Karaite community, whose tradition against interpretation is at the very core of its identity.

– Ella Shohat, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University

Expertly matching boldness with subtlety, Ruth Tsoffar explores and analyzes the 'language of blood' (menstruation) that continues to shape and texture the contours of Karaite Jewish quotidian practices. Traversing the contested, male-centered history of 'authentic' Judaism, she effectively positions in high relief the crucial and necessary role of Karaite women as cultural reproducers. Moreover, Tsoffar's brave ethnography is simultaneously a refreshingly honest and theoretically rigorous study of the cultural politics of purity and pollution in contemporary society.

– Jennifer Robertson, University of Michigan

This beautifully wrought and effectively argued first chapter of The Stains of Culture provides an important portent of the book's continued course. Tsoffar clearly has a lot of skill as a writer and researcher, and at its best, The Stains of Culture can be incisive, thought-provoking, logically sound, and well-written."

– Journal of Folklore Research

To read as a Karaite, Ruth Tsoffar tells us, is to attend to the alphabet that spells text, body, and blood. It means compellingly to describe and reenact how a new and ancient community of readers lives and resists a double minoritization that cuts across historical, religious, and gender lines. After this unique and exacting book, one should no longer utter--indeed, read--the word 'Judaism' with much tranquility.

– Gil Anidjar, Columbia University

The study goes beyond the historical confines of Karaites and their culture. This book focuses upon the ethno-readings" of women within one cultural segment of the Karaite community; it is of great value to anthropologists and to those interested in learning more about contemporary Karaites."

– Journal of the American Oriental Society

In The Stains of Culture, Ruth Tsoffar has created a stunning work of scholarship on the Karaite Jews, originally from Egypt, who reside in the San Francisco Bay Area. The Stains of Culture is elegant, evocative, and unique. Assuredly, it will be a classic in the scholarly canon."

– Western Folklore

  • 2006 Elli Kongas-Maranda Prize - Result: Winner
  • 2006 Elli Kongas-Maranda Prize - Result: Winner
  • 2007 American Folklore Society Book Awards - Result: Winner
  • 2007 National Jewish Book Awards - Result: Runner up in the National Jewish Book Awards in Women's Studies
  • 2007 American Folklore Society Book Awards - Result: Winner
  • 2007 National Jewish Book Awards - Result: Runner up in the National Jewish Book Awards in Women's Studies