Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Reform Rabbi Defends the Sabbath

Rabbi Isaac Schwab (1840-1907) was a student of Rabbi Abraham Samuel Benjamin Sofer (Ktav Sofer) at the Yeshiva of Pressburg in Hungry before getting a doctoral degree in Germany and becoming a Reform rabbi in the United States. He served in Portland OR, Evansville IN and Williamsburg NY (long before it was a hotbed for Satmar) before becoming rabbi in St. Joseph MO. His introduction to The Sabbath in History testifies to the lack of Sabbath observance among nineteenth century American Jews, something that Schwab laments.   

The Sabbat, most sacred as it is in its significance, and as yet theoretically planted hard and fast in the consciousness of the generality of Israel as the "perpetual sign between them and God," has yet practically lost in modern days much of its pristine awfulness, and even of the fervid reverence paid to it in ages not so long gone by. Notwithstanding that it is yet generally exalted as a prominently distinctive mark of Judaism, and valued as one of the few remaining bonds of Israel's union, it is alas! too often made to yield to the so-called pressure of modern business relations, and thus compromised as to its sanctity and validity; or it is paltered with and bartered away on various grounds of expediency. On these painful issues of modern Judaism we cannot here dwell. It lies moreover beyond the purpose of these prefatory lines to find fault and point out the different manifest decrease of true attachment for the Sabbath in our day.

The writer is, on the whole, aiming at and inspired by the hope of quickening again, by the light of historical data witnessing to an incomparable self-devotion and loyalty of Israel in the past to the royal bride Sabbath, that sense of superior estimation of this sacred day, which should be the pride and glory of our people at the present, no less than it was in previous times. He aims to rekindle, by the various illustrations put forth in his work, a zealous concern for the Sabbath of the Decalogue in the minds of those, with whom it has slacked through an undue addiction to worldly things and business advantages, and to possibly arrest the Neshamah yetherah "additional soul," formerly sorrowful flight from those too deeply immersed in their temproal pursuits and the material strifes of our racing age, or those too flightily temporizing in their attitude towards the "sign" that is to be "perpetual," and on the perpetuity of which our forefathers, as well of the middle ages as of antiquity (Jewish new-Christians of Spain, who would continue to observe the Sabbath secretly despite the baptism forced on them, were by the inquisitors singled out by the ovservation, from elevated places, that no smoke came out of their houses on the Sabbath, even in rigorous winter; see 'Shebhet Jehudah,' pg. 96) staked their lives from their spontaneous piety and faithfulness to the Law. (Pg. 5-6.)

What I find interesting about this defense of Sabbath observance is that in the end he does not condemn those masses of American Jews no longer keeping the Sabbath even by Reform standards. Instead he turns to history as if to say "The Sabbath has served as a cornerstone of the Jewish people throughout its history. It is not being kept today, which is pity, but far be it from me as to actually talk about it or God forbid make anyone feel guilty."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Where is the Golem Buried?

Rabbi Judah Loew, the Mahral, was one of the leading thinkers of the early modern period. His integration of Kabbalah with the medieval philosophical tradition was critical for the triumph Kabbalah, largely a product of Sephardi culture, within Ashkenazic Judaism. Any attempt to tell the story of how it could come to pass that a rabbi could insist to me that not only is Kabbalah a part of the Jewish tradition, but is "the Jewish tradition" needs to include Loew. (See "A German Hebrew Alphabet Book Based around the Zohar.") Unfortunately discussions of Loew tends to get bogged down in the legend of the Golem, an artificial man of clay, who according to modern incarnations of the tale was created to defend the Jewish community against blood libel accusations. Part of the appeal of the legend is that it is grounded in history. It has the well known historical  figure of Loew as its protagonist, the city of Prague for the setting. The Golem even is buried in a major tourist location, the attack of the Altneu Synagogue under a pile of discarded religious writings. According to run popular story, during the German occupation, some Nazi went up to the attic, stuck his bayonet in the pile and died on the spot

The funny thing about the story of the Golem's burial is that it was refuted a century ago. The journalist Egon Erwin Kisch (the Kisch family is actually quite interesting and we are in middle of a project involving them) actually went up to the attic and found nothing. As Hans Ludwig Held notes:

For centuries the legend that the Golem was still kept in the loft of the Old-New Synagogue had been current and many delightful tales, some of them humourous ones, are connected with it. This enticed a well-known writer, Egon Erwin Kisch, a son of Prague, to the bold, I might also say hazardous undertaking of ascending into the loft of the Synagogue, in order to look for the "corpse" of the Golem. In a fine piece of word-painting, "On the track of the Golem" he gives us the description of his quest. His trouble was in vain! He did not find the Golem. Then he pursued another clue, supplied by a further legend which he heard of during the war, to the effect that the servant of the exalted Rabbi Loew had carried off the Golem secretly from the loft of the Synagogue and had buried him on the Galgenberg, outside the town.  (Chayim Bloch, The Golem: Legends of the Ghetto of Prague pg. 10)

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mickey the Israeli Children's Picture Book Magician (Not to be Confused with Mickey Mouse)

I finally got around to seeing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, having missed it in theaters when it was out this past summer. (One would think that being in a dating relationship would be an excuse to see more movies.) Impressive film on almost all counts. I do have two criticisms to make.

The majority of the film covers the final battle at Hogwarts as the school fends of an army led by Lord Voldemort with Harry's friends giving their lives to buy time for Harry to solve the mystery of the final Horcruxes, the pieces of Voldemort's soul. (Good thing there have been no body counts for every hour I fail to finish my dissertation.) For all the intensity of the moment the filmmakers fail to understand chaos and panic. We are fed numerous scenes with Harry, Ron and Hermione running through corridors; nothing wrong with playing out dialogue with characters moving between scenes of action. In the background, though, we are constantly seeing students running back and forth. The normal human reaction to danger is to duck and cover unless that danger is coming from a vary specific and identifiable direction, in which case people will run in the opposite direction. The Muppets react to danger by running back and forth across the screen. That is a different movie that came out this past week. (Perhaps I will convince my wife to take me to see that.)   

The climax of the story is when Harry learns that part of Voldemort's soul lies in him. Harry therefore allows Voldemort to kill him in order to bring Voldemort one step closer to destruction. Harry does not quite die; Voldemort only destroys that part of his soul that resided in Harry. In the book, Voldemort's final downfall follows in fairly quick succession. The movie decides to add a pair of extended fight sequences that switch back and forth between Harry and Voldemort and Ron, Hermione and Neville and Voldemort's pet snake Nagini, who serves as Voldemort's final Horcrux. This sort of thinking while understandable in terms of Hollywood's action oriented sensibilities demonstrates a failure to understand the book. Harry's victory over Voldemort is his self sacrifice. Once that happens Voldemort already is finished even if he thinks he has won for a few moments longer. What happens next is almost incidental, an opportunity for the bumbling Neville to be a hero and for Mrs. Weasley to deliver the best timed use of a curse word in all fiction. (For more on the novel see my "A Final Goodbye to Harry Potter.")

On the topic of Harry Potter, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at an attempt by an Israeli children's book author to craft a story about a little boy and his wand. Meet Miki Ha-Kosem, Mickey the Magician.

This is a hand made illustrated picture book by Israeli artist Miriam Bartov, written in the early 1980s. It tells of a little boy named Mickey who discovers a wand and proceeds to abuse it with expected and comic results. Mickey starts off by making various things bigger and giving himself wings. His attempt at flight does not work out so well and he falls onto one of his recently created giant flowers.

Before much longer he is on the run from one of his giant frogs. 

With the book we have a letter in German from Bartov to a Mr. Bergmann of the Bundesverlag in Mainz, pitching the book to the publishing company.

Apparently Mickey the Magician was never published. One suspects that it might have something to do with it being too similar to another Mickey the Magician.  


As far as we can tell, there are two copies of this book in existence, our copy and one in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Exodus from Egypt and Modern Revolutions

Judah David Eisenstein was an unheralded pioneer in the field of American Judaica publishing. Working in the early twentieth century, he edited and published numerous collections of Hebrew source material such as Midrash and Jewish polemics anti-Christian polemics. His work remains useful if you can get your hands on it. Here is a piece from the introduction to his Haggadah. Eisenstein follows a common Jewish apologetic troupe troupe from the period, Judaism and democracy. The idea being that Judaism is not only compatible with American style democracy, but was the source for it. In the service of this cause, Eisenstein is even willing to put in a good word about the Puritans. The Haggadah first came out in 1920 so the Russian Revolution also is mentioned.     

The exodus of Israel from Egypt is the greatest event in history of Israel and also in the history of the entire world. The children of Abraham Isaac and Jacob were the first to teach the dwellers of the world that it was possible for men enslaved under harsh masters to throw off from them their yoke and leave for freedom. And from them others learned to do likewise. The story of the exodus from Egypt was studied by the enlightened pure people living in America (Puritans) and it came into their hands to rebel against the rule of England in the year 1776 and proclaim freedom to all those living in the United States. And this thought inspired the French in their rebellion against their harsh rulers in the year 1789. And from them evolved the rebellion in Russia against the oppressive Czar and his regime that had already decayed in the year 1917. Just that the idea of freedom and the spirit of freedom never came to the rebels in a straight path rather in a crooked manner. But there is no doubt that the first source to rebel flowed from the Israelites leaving Egypt. (Ozar Perushim we-Ziyurim el Hagada Shel Pesah pg. iv.)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

An Original Handwritten Letter from Victor Hugo

Every once in awhile one comes across a truly unexpected treasure. At Kline Books we recently came into possession of the complete works of Victor Hugo (1802-85)  in English printed in the nineteenth century. One of the volumes contained a letter from none other than the author himself, written in 1864 to an American named Charles Havens Hunts. At this point in Hugo's life he had been in exile from France since 1851 when Napoleon III declared himself emperor. Hugo lived on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel where he took up residence in the Hauteville House. Hunts had recently written a biography of Senator Edward Livingston (1764-1836), an American political reformer and advocate of prison reform. Victor Hugo wrote to Livingston as a young man in 1834, when the latter was serving as the United States minister to France, praising him for his humanitarian efforts. Hunts included this letter in his book and sent Hugo a copy. Hugo is writing back to express his thanks and his admiration for both Livingston and Hunts.    

Hauteville House - 15 Mars 1864. Monsieur, precisely 30 years ago, in March 1834, I sent the letter you have mentioned in your remarkable book to Senator Livingston. Today, I stand closer to him and you. It is called "Law of Progress." The honest and sincere men that walked before them, often coming from opposing factions, always end up united. You too, are sending me an excellent book. This is the work of a noble and serious mind. I wish you all my best for the appeasement and enlargement of your illustrious republic. It will triumph for liberty. Acknowledge the expression of my sincere cordiality.

Victor Hugo 

Monsieur Ch. Havens Hunts, author of the Life of Edward Livingston

Letters like the ones written to Livingston and Hunts should give one pause from thinking of Hugo simply as a French writer. Much of Hugo's work, including Les Miserables (1862) was written in exile in English territory. Furthermore Hugo's interest in humanitarian causes led him to take an interest in the United States and form friendships with Americans.   

Yiddish Edition of Charles Darwin's Descent of Man

We have here a Yiddish translation, done by Y. A. Merison, of Charles Darwin's 1871 follow up to Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. It was published in 1921 in New York by Max N. Maisel (1872-1959), who ran a publishing company, The Grand Street Press of Literature and Knowledge, devoted to printing and disseminating scientific literature in Yiddish. Organizations like Maisel's are a side of Yiddish culture that is very easy to overlook today when Yiddish is almost the sole dominion of the Ultra-Orthodox. There was a time when Yiddish was a powerful secularizing force.

Merison also wrote a childcare guide titled Muter un kind (1912) What does Darwin have to do with parenting? Well the Grand Street Press also distributed birth control literature by Margaret Sanger and Ben Zion Liber so clearly there was a connection in Maisel's mind. Now it makes sense to me to, if you are a good Darwinist, hand out birth control literature to immigrants to keep their population in check. But why would you then turn around and let them in on the plan?

To the best of my knowledge, Darwin did not get the company into trouble but the birth control literature did run afoul the obscenity laws in force at the time. I guess the tactic of saying things in Yiddish as a way of dodging gentile censors, so beloved by later generations of Jewish comedians, did not cover contraceptives.

Presumably our secularizing immigrant Jew would also desire to learn English and would soon be able to read Darwin in the original. Thus one assumes this is for people fresh off the boat. Why would someone think that new immigrants, with all of their concerns in adapting to a new country, first and foremost of them being to learn English, needed to make their way through Darwin. I could understand translating Israel Zangwill's play The Melting Pot or Uncle Tom's Cabin (this book actually helped by great-grandfather learn English as an immigrant) to teach people about American culture, but a scientific treatise that few English speakers ever read?

One can only imagine:

Dear Ma,

I have successfully reached the United States and am adapting very well to my new environment. Not to worry, I am using protection. I have my copy of Darwin's Descent of Man. Yes it is in the Mama-lashon. And I have some Margaret Singer (Sanger, Singer what's the difference) as well. So not to worry about grandchildren; I have that all under control.

Your beloved yingilah,

Chaim Dovid  Horowtiz (soon to be Harvey Drew Howard)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Moses Mendelssohn and the Rabbi David Frankel Sermon

In regards to my previous post on Rabbi David Frankel's sermon of thanksgiving after the Prussian victory at Leuthen, S. kindly pointed out that the sermon was likely the product of Frankel's famous student Moses Mendelssohn.

I managed to track this to Alexander Altmann's biography of Mendelssohn. Here is the relevant passages:

No account of Mendelssohn's exercises in ars poetica would be complete without some mention of his synagogal hymns and sermons. The young bel esprit was by no means averse to putting his talents at the service of the Berlin community. The chance to do so was provided by the Seven Years' War. When Austria and Saxony opened hostilities against Prussia toward the end of 1756, the Jews of Berlin added to their daily prayers the recital of certain appropriate psalms and a special prayer composed in Hebrew by Hartog Leo and translated into German by Mendelssohn. Frederick II's surprising victory at Rossbach caused great jubilation and was celebrated by a thanksgiving service in the synagogue on November 12, 1757. Mendelssohn, again, translated a Hebrew text, a hymn written by Hartog Leo, into German. It was published by the community, and it seems that it has also been planned to publish Mendelssohn's German version of a sermon preached by Chief Rabbi Frankel. Another great victory, at Leuthen, was duly celebrated on December 10. 1757. The same pattern was repeated, but this time both the hymn and the sermon were published in German. According to the title page, the sermon had been "delivered" by Frankel and then "translated into German" (omitting Mendelssohn's name). In fact, however, Mendelssohn had written the sermon, as he remarked in a letter to Lessing that, on internal evidence, can be dated about December 15, 1757: "I shall no longer swear to anything in the world after it has come to pass that I write a sermon and praise a king. I also translated some Hebrew thanksgiving hymns into German, and these are printed." This sermon, which is the one praised in Lessing's letter of December, 1757, is the earliest known specimen of modern Jewish preaching in the German tongue. It has a slightly philosophical flavor and reflects the spirit of the Enlightenment. (Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study pg. 67-68.)

So Mendelssohn authored the sermon and translated it into German. This still leaves the question of who translated the sermon into English and how did it come to be published in London and in New York?