Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Thanking God for Prussian Victories

To continue our earlier topic of Jews taking a positive attitude towards German rulers, here is the title page for an address of Thanksgiving for a Prussian victory in the Third Silesian War (1756-63).

(See A. S. W. Rosenbach, An American Jewish Bibliography pg. 49.)

The Third Silesian War was part of the Seven Years War, known to American audiences as the French and Indian War. The Seven Years War was essentially a struggle between England and France for control over the North American continent and other colonial possessions around the world. This war is important for American history as it brought the area of Pittsburgh under British control (I went to a middle school in Pittsburgh so the teacher made a big deal about this in American history), gave George Washington his military experience and Britain's later attempt to pay for this war by taxing the colonies eventually helped bring about the American Revolution. Non-Quebecian Canadians can be grateful for this war as it stopped all of you from having to speak French.  

While England and France were fighting overseas, over on the European continent Austria attempted to take back the region of Silesia in what is today the western part of Poland from Prussia. (It gives you a sense how badly off Poland was at this point as it essentially played no major role in this regional struggle largely over its territory.) To do this Austria switched its alliance from England to the Hapsburg's traditional opponent, Bourbon France. (This alliance would have long term consequences in the bringing Marie Antoinette to France.)  Russian and Sweden also joined in against Prussia. Despite being heavily outnumbered Prussia, led by Frederick the Great, managed to fight off the combined forces of Austria, France, Russia and Sweden to a standstill, earning Frederick the Great the reputation as being one of the greatest military commanders in history.

The battle referred to here is the Battle of Leuthen where Frederick the Great annihilated a much larger Austrian force. Naturally the Jewish community in Berlin took a positive view of this victory. What is interesting is that the sermon preached by Rabbi David Herschel Franckel was translated and printed in London and then in New York. England was allied with Prussia against France. It is good to remember that there was a time in American history when it was good and patriotic to say "God Bless the King of England and the King of Prussia."          

Monday, August 29, 2011

Laurence Oliphant on the Baha'i

One of the interesting features of the modern day State of Israel that usually gets overlooked, with all the talk about Jews versus Arabs and the land being holy to three religions, is that Israel is sacred for a fourth religion, the Baha'i, who have their headquarters in the Northern city of Haifa.

Baha'i is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, though unlike modern day Shiism, Baha'i is non violent and preaches tolerance for other religions. How the Baha'i, who mostly live in India, came to be involved with Israel is an interesting story. Essentially after the founder of the religion,  Siyyid `Alí Muḥammad Shírází , the Bab, was executed by the Persian government in 1850, (this seems to be a pattern in the founders of majors religions) his successor, Ṣubḥ-i-Azal, was exiled to Palestine from where he served the nascent Baha'i movement.  

Laurence Oliphant, the nineteenth century Christian Zionist met Azal's son and talks about the Baha'i in his travelogue book, Haifa or Life in Modern Palestine.

It is now forty-eight years since a young man of three-and-twenty appeared at the shrine of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, who made a martyr at Kerbela. He was said to have been born at Shiraz, the son of a merchant there, and his name was Ali Mohammed. It is supposed that he derived his religious opinions from a certain Indian Mussulman, called Achsai, who instituted a system of reform, and made many disciples. Whether this is sor or not, the young Persian soon acquired a pre-eminent reputation for sanctity, and the boldness and enthusiasm of his preaching and the revolutionary sentiments he uttered attracted many to his teaching. So far as I have been able to judge, he preached a pure morality of the loftiest character, denouncing the abuses of existing Islam as Christ did the Judaism of his day, and fearlessly incurring the hostility of Persian Phariseeism. A member himself of the Shiite sect of Moslems, he sought to reform it, as beign the state religion of Perisa, and finally sent so far as to proclaim himself at Kufa the bab, or door, through which alone man could approach God. At the same time he announced that he was the Mahdi, or last Imaum, who was descended from Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, and whom the Shiites believe to have been an incarnation of the Deity. Mahdi is supposed by all Persian Moslems not to have died, but to be awaiting in concealment the coming of the last day. 

As may be imagined, the sudden appearance after so many centuries of a reformer who claimed to be none other than the long-expected divine manifestation, created no little consternation throughout Persia, more especially as, according to tradition, the time had arrived when such a manifestation was to be looked for, and men's minds were prepared for the event. The Persian enthusiast, as soon as his preaching became popular and his pretensions vast, roused the most violent hostility, and he was executed at Tabriz in 1849, after a brief career of fourteen years, at the early age of thirty-seven. The tragic circumstances attending his death enhanced his glory, for he was repeatedly offered his life if he would consent to abate his claims, or even leave the country. He preferred, however, a martyr's crown, and was executed in the presence of a vast multitude, leaving behind him a numerous and fanatic sect, who have since then been known as the Babs, and whose belief in the founder subsequent persecutions on the part of the government have only served to confirm.
The Bab before his execution gave it to be understood that though be was apparently about to die, he, or rather the divine incarnation of which he was the subject, would shortly reappear in the person of his successor, whom, I believe he named secretly. I do not exactly know when the present claimant first made known his pretensions to be that successor, but, at all events, he was universally acknowledged by the Bab sect, now numbering some hundreds of thousands, and became so formidable a personage, being a man of high lineage — indeed, it is whispered that he is a relative of the Shah himself that he was made prisoner by the government and sent into exile. The Sultan of Turkey kindly undertook to provide for his incarceration, and for some years he was a state prisoner at Adrianople. Finally he was transported from that place to Acre, on giving his parole to remain quietly there and not return to Persia, and here he has been living ever since, an object of adoration to his countrymen, who flock hither to visit him, who load him with gifts, and over two hundred of whom remain here as a sort of permanent body-guard.
He is visible only to women or men of the poorest class, and obstinately refuses to let his face be seen by any man above the rank of a fellah or peasant. Indeed, his own disciples who visit him are only allowed a glimpse of his august back, and in retiring from that they have to back out with their faces towards it. I have seen a lady who has been honoured with an interview, during which he said nothing beyond giving her his blessing, and after about three minutes motioned to her to retire. She describes him as a man of probably about seventy years of age, but much younger- looking, as he dyes both his hair and his beard black, but of a very mild and benevolent cast of countenance. He lives at a villa in the plain, about two miles beyond Acre, which he has rented from a Syrian gentleman of my acquaintance, who tells me that he always turns away so that his face shall not be seen. Indeed, the most profound secrecy is maintained in regard to him and the religious tenets of his sect. 

Not long ago, however public curiosity was gratified, for one of his Persian followers stabbed another for having been unworthy of some religious trust, and the great man himself was summoned as a witness.
"Will you tell the court who and what you are?" was the first question put. "I will begin," he replied, "by telling you who I am not. I am not a camel driver" this was an allusion to the Prophet Mohammed "nor am I the son of a carpenter" this in allusion to Christ. "This is as much as I can tell you to-day. If you will now let me retire, I will you tomorrow who I am."
Upon this promise he was let go; but the morrow never came. With an enormous bribe he had in the interval purchased an exemption from all further attendance at court.
That his wealth is fabulous may be gathered from the fact that not long since a Persian emir or prince, possessing large estates, came and offered them all, if in return he would only allow him to fill his water-jars. The offer was considered worthy of acceptance, and the emir is at this moment a gardener in the grounds which I saw over the wall of my friend's villa. This is only once instance of the devotion with which he is regarded, and of the honours which are paid to him: indeed, when we remember that he is believed to possess the attributes of Deity, this is not to be wondered a. Meantime his disciples are patiently waiting for his turn to come, which will be on the last day, when his divine character will be recognized by unbelievers. (Pg. 105-07)

An English Rabbi's Eulogy for Kaiser Frederick III

In German history Kaiser Frederick III is often seen as the failed last great hope for German liberalism. He supported the liberalization of Parliament along the lines of the English Parliament, was an Anglophile and was married to the eldest daughter of Queen Victoria. Unfortunately he died of throat cancer after being on the throne for just three months, handing Germany over to his son Kaiser Wilhelm II. Wilhelm II's expansionist policies and utter disregard for international treaties mark him, more than anyone, as responsible for the European arm's race of the early twentieth century, spiraling toward World War I. So Frederick III certainly stands as a historical question mark of what might have been, a liberal Germany with close ties to England with the possibility of World War I never happening and even of there being no Nazi Germany.

Considering this, it is interesting to note that we have a eulogy for Frederick III by Rabbi Hermann Gollancz of Bayswater Synagogue in London, which comes across, from our position of hindsight, as remarkably prescient even if the evidence Gollancz brings for Frederick III's philo-Semitism seems a little weak.

"What will the morrow bring, peace or war?" This question has a double bearing, as far as we are concerned. In the first place it asks: Will the peace of the wider world of Europe, which the remarkable individuality of "Frederick the Good" helped to secure, continue in the future, and for how long?

In the second place, this question has a deep significance for us as Jews. It must be apparent to every one of us that a great wave of intolerance, directed against our people, has been passing over the face of several countries during past years, and of these Germany has been one. 


Can we help calling to mind at the present moment how, as Crown Prince of Germany, he took every occasion to utter an emphatic protest against the attempts of anti-Semites? Do not the words still ring in our ears which his illustrious consort [Princess Victoria] but recently expressed in his name when visiting the flooded portions of Germany? "This anti-Semitic agitation is distasteful to my feelings to those of my husband." It is at the loss of a potentate so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of toleration and religious equality, that the nation of Israel has cause to lament and to inquire, "What will the morrow bring?" (Hermann Gollancz, Sermons and Addresses pg. 271-72.)


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Rabbi Isaac M. Wise on Moses, Judaism and Democracy

At Kline books we have a large inventory of nineteenth century American Reform Jewish apologetics. (See "From the Hirschian Community in Frankfurt a. M. to American Reform.) What I find interesting about these, having grown up with Orthodox apologetics from Artscroll, is a vision of self-assured Reform movement that stood for something and was willing to go on the offensive with those beliefs, confident that the future of Judaism lay with them. This is not a Reform movement trapped by doubts over intermarriage and assimilation, a sitting target for Orthodox polemics. Of course like the present day Orthodox apologetics of Artscroll, nineteenth century Reform apologetics were perfectly capable of going overboard into farce.

I hope to present more examples in the future, but for starters here is Rabbi Isaac M. Wise's preface to his History of the Israelitish Nation (1854) where he beats the drum of the compatibility of Judaism and American Democracy with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm:

Traversing the pathless desert, Moses, the grandest character of antiquity, not only taught the purest doctrines of religion and morals in the midst of an age of idolatry, superstition, and general corruption of morals; but he also promulgated the unsophisticated principles of democratic liberty and of stern justice in an age of general despotism and arbitrary rule; thus becoming the progenitor of entirely new theories which revolutionized the ancient world, and lay at the foundation of modern civilization. Moses formed one pole and the American revolution the other, of an axis around which revolved the political history of thirty-three centuries. Trained in these principles, the Israelites took possession of their land, where they were obliged to contend with as many enemies as there nations around them. Still, after four centuries, we see them triumph over all their enemies, and David and Solomon the lords of the land from the Euphrates to the Red Sea and to the Mediterranean. Industry, commerce, art and science, flourish, and the nation was opulent, enlightened and free. (pg. iv-v.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Medieval Jewish Art (Looks a Lot Like Christian Art)

As has often been noted, medieval Christian art had a tendency to draw biblical figures in contemporary dress. Underlying this perspective was a view of history that did not distinguish between past and present. To the medieval mind there was no real difference between King David and the king of France nor, for that matter, were the apostles really different from priests. If Peter was the first pope then it made perfect sense to paint him as one. One of the important revolutions within the Renaissance in the fifteenth century was precisely the gaining of such a historical perspective. It began in linguistics, when Italian humanists came to the realization that medieval church Latin, let alone Tuscan, was truly different from, and from their perspective inferior to, the Latin of Cicero. The practical implications of this new historical perspective began to be seen in biblical studies with Erasmus' attack on the Vulgate text. Underlying this was a realization that the Bible of the medieval Church was not the Bible of the early Church and not just in terms of Latin and Greek. This proved foundational to the Protestant Reformation; underlying Luther's attack on the Catholic Church was the argument that the Church itself was not the same Church as the one created by the apostles and held out to his followers the possibility of recreating that apostolic Church. For all the focus on the revolution of Renaissance art with its discovery of perspective, in terms of history the arts were behind the curve, continuing to draw biblical figures in contemporary dress for centuries.   

What is interesting is that Jewish art from this period shows the exact same tendencies. This should not be so surprising as medieval Jews, by and large, possessed similar values as their Christian neighbors. Furthermore the artists themselves were not necessarily Jewish. One could work on an illuminated Bible one day and a Hebrew prayer book the next.

Here are some examples from the fourteenth century I found from the introductory volume to The Bird's Head Haggada of the Bezalel National Art Museum of Jerusalem

The giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai from the Tripartite Mahzor. The Israelites look like medieval Jews with the traditional pointed Jewish hats. (No medieval Ashkenazi Jews did not wear shtreimels or black fedoras. Try your luck with the Sefardim.) Why the women look like demons is a mystery to me. But notice Moses dressed like a king and Aaron, the high priest, looking like, of all things, a bishop. This is particularly ironic as medieval Christians tended to draw positive biblical characters like Abel in Christian clothing while making villains like Cain look like Jews.

Here the Leipzig Mahzor gives us Pharaoh's army as a band of armored knights. One wonders about the crescent banner; are the Egyptians supposed to be Muslims?

The Duke of Sussex Pentateuch shows the four sides of the Israelite camp. What should the armies of Israel be dressed in to prepare to invade the Land of Canaan, but crusader armor. (See Jews and Art: Secret Transcripts.) 


The Yeshiva University Student Strike of 1906

When I was in my first year at Yeshiva University, the workers went on strike demanding higher wages. There were lots of chants for YU to "practice what it preached." As a school that preached to its students about the need to not just sit and study, but set a good moral example in the world, allowing things to degenerate to a point that the mostly black and Hispanic workers felt the need to go on strike was not exactingly helpful. Now it should be noted that YU has a history of strikes. In fact one can say that it was born through one. Alexander M. Dushkin in his 1918 book Jewish Education in New York offers a brief history of the beginning of YU: 

In 1897 "arose" the Yeshibath Yitzchak Elchanan, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. The term "arose" is used advisedly because this school was not "organized" until much later (1908). The manner in which the school originated is very significant of the social psychology of the immigrant orthodox Jew from Eastern Europe. "Some pious Jews found out that there were a few young men who would like to devote their entire time to sit and study (the Talmud) if someone would provide them with food. These Jews, therefore, (themselves by no means opulent)" collected among themselves $5.00 every week and gave two of these young men $2.50 per week each, if they would sit and study. Gradually the number of young men increased, and a school "arose." Apart from the "good deed" of encouraging young men "to study the Torah for its own sake," it was also hoped that the students would prepare themselves to act as rabbis. Practically no teachers were required, since these young men had previous Talmudical training. No school house was needed, a room for this purpose being set aside in the building of the Yeshibath Etz Chayim. No supervision was necessary, except that of the lay Mashgiach (overseer), who made sure that the young men earned their "two and a half per week," by constant application.

But as the students became more Americanized, they realized that Talmudical study alone was not sufficient preparation for even the most orthodox rabbi in the country. They began to demand that secular studies also be provided for them. Another cause for dissatisfaction arose from the fact that the directors opened several classes for younger boys. There was misunderstanding in this institution also, as to whether its aim should be to prepare well-versed immigrant young men for the American rabbinate, or give Talmudic training to younger children. The dissatisfaction expressed itself again and again, and culminated in a "strike" of the students in 1906. An appeal was sent by them to the Jews of New York, demanding "(1) that they learn systematically the right thing at the right time; (2) that they be given permission to learn the Hebrew language, Jewish culture, (i. e. not only Talmud) and Jewish history; (3) that the program of studies include the English language, history, and the general sciences; (4) that they be taught oratory and public speaking; and (5) that their material support be so arranged as not to make it necessary for them to make special request for very little thing needed." This quaint appeal was signed by "all the pupils of the Yeshibah." The students threatened to leave the institution in a body, and actually carried out the threat. They removed for a short time to a little "Klaus" (private synagogue of a "chevra' or society). But an agreement was finally reached. The Yeshibath Yitzchak Elchanan was limited to higher Talmudical studies, and the Yeshibath Etz Chayim was to be only an elementary Yeshibah. The other demands of the pupils were also met. Upon the new basis the Yeshibah was "organized" in 1908. At this time it was housed at 156 Henry Street. Recently, in 1915, it combined with the Yeshibath Etz Chayim, as the Rabbinical College of America. (Alexander M. Dushkin, Jewish Education in New York pg. 76-78.)

So perhaps when the workers asked YU to "practice what it preached," they really should have been calling the students to come out and strike in honor of their 1906 forbearers.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Converso Conquistador

While I have been a history buff since at least the second grade, throughout elementary school I went through a number of phases during which I obsessed about different subjects such as the American Civil War, World War II and the Russian Revolution. (It is always good to show diversity in one's interests.) The first of these phases was the Spanish Conquistadors, largely helped along by Ronald Syme'' mini-biographies. I did not find out until college that he was one of the leading classical historians of the twentieth century.

Admittedly this must seem an odd choice. Firstly, these Conquistadors did cause the deaths of millions of natives through the various illnesses they brought over with them to the New World and promptly massacred and enslaved everyone who was left. I must admit that it took me awhile to pick up on that fact as Syme was remarkably good at tip toeing around that topic. Not wanting to trouble the minds of young history buffs or their parents I guess. Then again, considering my command and conquer, take over the world sense of humor, perhaps that was the point. Secondly, this was the same Spanish government that expelled its Jews in 1492. Killing Native American minor side point; how do you go about cheering for Jew haters?

So it was to my great comfort to learn about Hernando Alonso, a converso Conquistador, who fought with Hernando Cortes in Mexico. Alonso was burned at the stake in 1528; something to do with getting caught twice baptizing a child. (G. R. G. Conway, "Hernando Alonso, A Jewish Conquistador with Cortes in Mexico." The Jewish Experience in Latin America pg. 178-200.) So there we go. I get my own personal killing, raping, pillaging Jewish Conquistador. (Do these things come in action figures?)      

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Books for Jews in Displaced Persons Camps

There is a story told about the Klausenberger Rebbe when he was in the DP camps after the Holocaust. He saw a little girl walking around without socks. He began to berate this girl for her lack of proper attire. She responded: rabbi how can I worry about socks when I do not have food to eat. In the end he gave the girl his socks. He, the rabbi, agreed to do without and give up on his honor for the sake of a little girl he had never met.

I was reminded of this story after looking at a pamphlet published by the World Jewish Congress in May 1945. This is in the days after the defeat of Nazi Germany as camp survivors were being placed in DP camps and news of the Holocaust was reaching the world at large. In the back is an ad for aid for Jewish refugees, though it is not for food and medicine.

Books for liberated Jews in Europe in Yiddish and Hebrew and books of Jewish interest in any other language are urgently wanted - Please help in sending all the books you can and we will transmit them to the Jewish libraries on the continent and to the assembly camps - Joint Book Supply Committee under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress (British Section) 55 New Cavendish Street London W1.

One can be shocked at the naivete of the bureaucrats at the British Section of the World Jewish Congress to set up a committee simply to make sure that Jewish refugees in DP camps had books to read. One assumes that most of the people in these camps had other things on their minds besides for reading. Then again what better way for the people of the book to pick up from the greatest disaster in their history then grab a good book in Yiddish, Hebrew or any other language.   

The Nazi Threat to World Peace May, 1933

At Kline Books we have a large collection of World War II and Nazi paraphernalia, not all of which we publicly advertise (and the enlightened one will understand and keep silent).

An example of this is a supplementary bulletin published by the Joint Foreign Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association in May of 1933, months following the Nazi takeover of Germany. It offers a snapshot of the opening stages of Holocaust with quotations from newspapers from Germany and England and statements from British and German leaders. Such texts are particularly interesting as no one at this point knew how this was all going to play out with a second world war and a Holocaust.

Here is a statement by one member of the British Parliament.  

Nevertheless, one of the things which we were told after the Great War would be a security for us was Parliamentary institutions in Germany; that she would be a democracy with Parliamentary institutions. All that has been swept away. You have dictatorship - most grim dictatorship. You have militarism and appeals to every form of fighting spirit, from the introduction of duelling in the colleges to the Minister of Education advising the plentiful use of the cane in the elementary schools. You have these martial or pugnacious manifestations, and also the persecution of the Jews, of which so many hon[or]. (Pg. 30-31.)

In case you have not yet guessed it. The person who said this was Sir Winston Churchill.

Notice the educational policies he points to. Many conservative Republicans today bemoan the banning corporal punishment in schools. One wonders what they would make of their idol Winston Churchill placing government support of corporal punishment in schools as a first sign of Nazi militarism?

From the Hirschian Community in Frankfurt a. M. to American Reform

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch led what was probably the most successful Orthodox Jewish community during the nineteenth century in Frankfurt am Main. In a sense Hirsch's decision to lead a breakaway community in Frankfurt, rejecting the Reform establishment, has come to be the definition of Orthodox Judaism. (From an academic perspective, there was no such thing as "Orthodoxy" before the nineteenth century; you had traditional rabbinic Jews and those who were not. Orthodox Judaism like Reform and Conservative Judaism is a specific reaction to and therefore a product of the Enlightenment, emancipation and the subsequent breakdown of traditional Jewish life without the protection of the traditional kehillah structure.) This is not to say that everyone who came out of this Hirschian community (or Hirsch's own family for that matter) remained Orthodox. I recently came across two leading figures of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American Reform Judaism, Prof. Kaufmann Kohler and Jacob H. Schiff, with connections to Hirsch. The funny thing about both of them is that they both saw the Hirschian Orthodoxy of their youth in very positive terms. 

Dr. Kaufmann Kohler (1843-1926) studied not just with Hirsch, but also R. Simon Bamberger, Dr. Marcus Lehmann, R. Jacob Ettlinger before coming under the influence of R. Abraham Geiger as a university student. He came to the United States in 1869 where he assumed an active leadership in the Reform movement, playing a major role in the Pittsburgh platform of 1885 and helping to found the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He succeeded R. Dr. Isaac M. Wise as President of Hebrew Union College in 1903.   

Speaking about R. Samson Raphael Hirsch before the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1908 in honor of the hundredth anniversary of Hirsch's birth, Kohler stated:

It may sound paradoxical, and yet it is true, that without knowing it, Samson Raphael Hirsch liberated me from the thraldom of blind authority worship and led me imperceptibly away from the old mode of thinking, or rather of not thinking, into the realms of free reason and research. His method of harmonizing modern culture, with ancient thought, however fanciful, fascinated me. His lofty idealism impressed me. He made me the Yeshibah Bachur from Mayence and Altona, a modern man. The spirit of his teachings electrified me and became a life long influence to me. Samson Raphael Hirsch was imbued with the spirit of cultured humanity. In all his sermons and writings he deplored the narrowness of the Ghetto view, which estranged Jews from the world in which and for which they should live and work. His teachings were a bold attempt at a revival of Orthodoxy. He tried to galvanize its dry bones by the power of his fertile, resourceful and vigorous mind. (Studies in Jewish Literature Issued in Honor of Professor Kaufmann Kohler, PH.D. on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday pg. 3)

Jacob H. Schiff (1847-1920) also emigrated from Germany to the United States and became a leading  financier and philanthropist. Schiff's work ranged from arranging a major loan to the Japanese government during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 to being a major supporter of the funding of Jewish education in the United States, donating money to Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University. Cyrus Adler, in his biography of Schiff, notes:

[Schiff] had been reared in the rigid school of Frankfort Orthodoxy, of which Sampson Raphael Hirsch was the leader. Upon his arrival in America, he became a member of the Reform Synagogue, and so remained during all his life. ... There were, however, curious lapses in Mr. Schiff's adherence to the Reform Synaogue, and he frequently said that no Jew could be a good Reform Jew unless he had once been an Orthodox Jew. ... He strictly abstained from all secular occupation on the Sabbaths and festivals, and always visited the synagogue on Saturday mornings. On Friday evening, before dinner, he read the services to his family, and that evening was his family evening. The Seder services at passover were always a great occasion, never to be forgotten no matter what the circumstances. (Cyrus Adler, Jacob H. Schiff pg. 26-27.)

Apparently Schiff even held a Seder while he was in Japan with matzah brought over from San Francisco.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A German Hebrew Alphabet Book Based around the Zohar

I am most certainly not a supporter of the recent pop Kabbalah movement. First, it degrades an important part of Jewish tradition. Second, as a Maimonidean Jew, Kabbalah is an element of the Jewish tradition that I take as suspect of being idolatrous and as likely to blame for Sabbatai Sevi. My only hope is that this popular interest in Kabbalah will lead to more academic chairs for the study of Kabbalah. To paraphrase the late Rabbi Saul Lieberman: Kabbalah may be nonsense, but the study of Kabbalah is scholarship. Anything that gets me a job is certainly scholarly.

That being said I present to you a piece of popular Kabbalah. German artist Josua Reichert does a lot of work with alphabets. For example he produced an alphabet book that is the smallest in the world. What I have here is his Otiot book on the Hebrew alphabet.


Reichert offers a truly eye-opening way of visualizing Hebrew letters.

In my father's dream synagogue, the one he builds with his Reform rabbi friend when they both get tossed out of their respective movements, there are going to be a pair of floor to ceiling length lava lamps. I figure Reichert's letters might work well in this setting.

In addition to the letters, Reichert matches his prints with quotations from the Zohar on the meaning of these letters.

I have to hand it to Reichert; unlike most people trying to make use of Kabbalah, Reichert actually seems to understand what he is working with. In attempting to create kabbalistic art, he chose the medium of letters as opposed to visual images. This brilliantly captures one of the central dilemmas of kabbalistic thought; how does one visualize God, who is, by definition, beyond all images? (See Elliot R. Wolfson, Through a Speculum that Shines.) One of Kabbalah's solutions has been to focus on the Bible itself and particular the Hebrew letters within it as manifestations of the divine.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Palestinian Art Nouveau Song of Songs

One of the duties of a historian to society is to point out to people that much of what they take for granted as "traditional values" is in fact about nearly as modern as the modern values being denounced. (I am sure that on some other planet or in some alternative universe historians are appreciated and lauded by society as guardians of good sense and judgment. If someone knows the way to such a world please tell me and I will gladly move.) An example of this is the social taboo against nudity as sexual enticement. This has far more to do with nineteenth century Victorian concerns over the disintegration of social mores in the face of Enlightenment skepticism and later biblical criticism and Darwinian evolution than the Middle Ages let alone biblical society. The very nature of pre-modern societies, the close proximity in which people lived without formal bathrooms, made nudity a fact of life.         

Perhaps in the future I will bring some practical examples from medieval art, but for now I will stick to Song of Songs from the Bible. Read this book and give all the pious speeches you want how this book is an allegory for the relationship between God and man or the Nation of Israel. But then ask yourself how it could be that western society up until modern times was that comfortable with "pious" eroticism that such a book could have been canonized. How is it that today a Haredi publishing company like Artscroll would feel the need to give an "allegorical" translation? (If anyone could speak about how Song of Songs has feared with modern day Evangelical Christians, I would love to find out more about that.)  

In this spirit I would like to present Zeev Raban's illustrated Song of Solomon, printed in 1930 Palestine. (It is possible that the plates were actually done in Germany as Palestine lacked the facilities for such a task.)

This work is an example of the Israeli art nouveau Bezalel school of art. This style of art has an affinity to nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite work and much of the early twentieth century Christian biblical art that is still found in Bibles and children's books today.

The difference here being that Raban proved perfectly comfortable in translating the spirit of the author to visual form, mixing the spiritual with the erotic.    

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Hebrew Bible in the Shadow of Nazi Germany

One of the hardships of being a Jewish medieval scholar is that it seems that the Christians get to produce all the cool art and illustrated bibles. So I hope to show some examples from our collection here of Jewish art. Admittedly much of this art is modern. As with the case of the writing of Jewish History, (See Yosef Yerushalmi's Zakhor) one suspects that one of the ironic results of the breakdown of traditional Jewish life in the nineteenth century, was a turn to Jewish art. Jews needed to prove to their gentile neighbors that they also possessed a culture, with a history and works of art, equal to theirs. So who is to say assimilating Jews cannot make positive contributions to Jewish culture.   

To start things off, here is the Berlin Soncino Bible from 1931.  

It is one of 850 copies printed. Does not actually have pictures, but has some really interesting typeface by artist Marcus Michael Douglas Behmer (1879-1958), who designed a completely new font for this project. 

For those interested in the history of Hebrew printing, the typeface used here would later influence the Koren Bible. 

As with just about anything involving Jews and 1930s Germany, the Berlin Bible's story does not have a happy ending. It was published by the Society of Jewish Bibliophiles, the Soncino Gesellschaft, in 1931. This was supposed to be the first complete limited "bibliophilic" edition of the Hebrew Scriptures. With the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933, this did not happen. The Soncino Gesellschaft was closed down in 1937. In the end the Berlin Bible takes its place in history as the last Hebrew Bible printed in Germany prior to the war. Supposedly the interspersed use of red type was meant as a prayer for a salvation that did not come.  (See Abraham Karp's From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures in the Library of Congress.)  

Now it would be really neat if this Bible came in its original binding. Unfortunately what we have is only a post-war cloth rebinding. Still it is one of the standouts of our collection here.