The grandeur of Constantinople. The inclusive society of Norman-ruled Sicily.
Those are the two places that Gary Fellman would visit if there were a time machine available to transport him back to medieval Europe.
“I would have loved to have seen Constantinople in its prime in the eighth or ninth century,” said Fellman, 69, who is teaching a class on “Jewish Life in the Medieval Era” at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim in Silver Spring.
“Constantinople then was the capital of the Roman Empire, and it would be amazing to see that.
“It also would be fascinating to be in Norman Sicily in the 12th or 13th centuries, when Jews were a key part of society. Norman Sicily for a short period of time was a melting pot, as the rulers really made an effort to accommodate Jews, Muslims and Christians. It would be interesting to see how that worked in real life.”
Fellman takes congregants back to earlier Jewish eras biweekly on Shabbat afternoons following Minchah (afternoon) prayer services and suedah shlishit, the Sabbath afternoon meal.
Rabbi Steven Suson termed Fellman’s course “a learning experience and a community-building program.”
In addition, the rabbi notes, HTAA offers a variety of classes, some in person and others on Zoom, including his exploration of the Shabbat prayer service; Shamai Leibowitz’s take on the weekly Torah portion; Israeli dancing; and beginning and advanced Hebrew reading.Fellman said it’s impossible to give an overall assessment of how Jews lived during that 1,000-year period.
“In some places, Jews were welcomed, were citizens as in the Eastern Roman Empire. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t periods of persecution.”
But both for Jews and everyone else, the medieval period — he defines it as extending from 380 C.E., when Christianity became Rome’s official religion, to 1453 when the Eastern Roman Empire fell, or possibly to the invention of the printing press about 1435 — was important.
For Judaism, the period saw the writing of the Babylonian Talmud and Rashi’s commentary. “Almost all of the critical documents that define Judaism today come out of the medieval era,” he said.
In general, there were “many scientific breakthroughs. So many of the things that we take for granted today, came from that era.” The heavy plough, eyeglasses, blast furnaces and mechanical clocks, to name a few innovations.
An analyst in human resources at the Treasury Department, Fellman has been involved in adult education for more than 20 years. (He has a bachelor’s in history and master’s in industrial engineering and religion.)
It all began when he was president of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Jewish Community. (His employer, IBM, had transferred him to Australia.) The community had two synagogues, which met in the same building and shared kiddush and other events, he said.
“As a volunteer, I taught a class for parents who would drop their kids off at Sunday school, as well as for other interested community members,” Fellman recalled. “The parents would eat breakfast and sit in on my class. They would learn while their kids were learning.”
From that beginning came classes on Jewish mysticism, Jewish sects and denominations, Australian Jewry and other subjects.
The current class on medieval times flowed from a course on ancient history he had been teaching at his former home synagogue, Silver Spring Jewish Center. “I just picked it up from there,” he said.
A traditional Conservative synagogue (“Conservadox”) with 140 member units, Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim would like to attract new members. Suson believes educational opportunities like the one Fellman offers might do the trick.
“People crave learning and knowledge,” Suson said. “By offering opportunities to learn a wide range of topics from exciting teachers, we believe the community will come to know us better.”
Fellman’s teaching style is relaxed, but he has some definite ideas of how he wants the class to progress. His time to teach is limited, he said, but some students haven’t encountered the subject matter in many years — or not at all. As a result, he needs to keep the course moving, while at the same time ensuring that people understand “what the key themes are and what’s driving events.”
He distributes notes for each lecture, allowing students to gain more understanding and detail.
Fellman would be pleased if students left the class with a new perspective.
“It would be great if students learned something and tried to apply it to what’s happening today — looking for parallels to see if people are choosing similar answers to similar situations. Nothing is exactly the same, but there are common themes that keep repeating themselves.”
All classes are free and open to the public. Go to htaa.org or call 301-649-3800 for more information.
Aaron Leibel is a freelance writer.