Friday, October 23, 2009

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Poem on Jewish History

We don't often associate poetry with Jewish history but there have been some notable examples.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow traveled to Newport, Rhode Island in 1854. He wrote the following poem after he visited its famous Jewish cemetery.

The Jewish Cemetery at Newport
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

How came they here? What burst of Christian hate,
What persecution, merciless and blind,
Drove o'r the sea - that desert desolate -
These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind?

They lived in narrow streets and lanes obscure,
Ghetto and Judenstrass, in murk and mire:
Taught in the school of patience to endure
The life of anguish and death of fire.

But ah! What once has been shall be no more!
The groaning earth in travail and in pain
Brings forth its races, but does not restore,
And the dead nations never rise again.

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Tree Grew in Amsterdam

"From my favorite spot on the floor," wrote Anne Frank in her diary on February 23, 1944, "I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the sea gulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. When I looked outside right into the depth of nature and God, then I was happy, really happy." Six months later the Nazis discovered the family and fifteen year old Anne was taken to the Bergen-Belsen Conscentration Camp where she soon died.

The chestnut tree, however, survived. Now about one hundred fifty years old, it no longer produces the brilliant colors of changing leaves. But before it too dies, eleven of its branches are being harvested to live and grow again in honor of the young girl whose optimism in front of evil has inspired the millions who have read her story.

Among the locations chosen to inherit one of the sprigs are the White House, the World Trade Center site, the Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas where nine black children were enrolled under the guard of twelve hundred armed soldiers in 1957, and several Holocaust centers. In addition, the Boston Common has been selected for an eleven year old Bat Mitzvah student who asked the mayor to dedicate her religious initiation to liberty and tolerance.

The big chestnut tree will soon be gone. May liberty and tolerance grow with the little saplings.

Friday, October 16, 2009

True Passover Seder Stories

The Jewish Passover Seder has been performed in many different ways and in many different places. Here are several true stories:

A Seder in the midst of a Civil War battle was described by a young American soldier in a letter to his family: Having received matzos and Haggadot, two dozen celebrants "sent parties to forage in the country while others stayed to build a hut for the services...We obtained two kegs of cider, a lamb, several chickens and some eggs." Since they didn't know which part of the lamb was required, they cooked the whole animal, thus making sure they retained the paschal symbol. A brick served for the charoses, which "rather hard to digest, reminded us, by looking at it, for what purpose it was intended." They found a weed whose "bitterness exceeded anything our forefathers enjoyed" It proved so fiery that "we forgot the law authorizing us to drink only four cups, and the consequence was that we drank up all the cider." Quite tipsy, one soldier announced that he was Moses, another Aaron, and another Pharaoh; soon the three stalwarts "had to be carried to the camp, and there left in the arms of Morpheus...In the wild woods of West Virginia, away from home and friends, we consecrated and offered up to the ever-loving God of Israel our prayers and sacrifice."

A group of Jewish prisoners in the Gur Detention Camp in southwestern France created their own mimeographed Haggadah under horrendous improvised conditions. Thousands of Jews existing in almost indescribable conditions celebrated Passover there in 1941 using copies of a handwritten manuscript by Rabbi Leo Ansbacher, understandably incomplete since it was set down from memory by an inmate, Aryeh Zuckerman. It was prepared on stencils with a sharpened stone and duplicated outside the camp. Zuckerman escaped and joined the underground against the Nazis. Ansbacher ended his days in Israel.

Another Haggadah was written and mimeographed in 1941 by Rabbi Leo Cohn in the Lautrec Concentration Camp in France. The introduction explained that "because there has been no famine greater than this... the normal observances, not possible under the current situation, could be abrogated, but only in this year, a year of war." Cohn fought in the French Resistance and was killed while helping children reach Palestine.

Do you have any interesting Passover stories? We'd like to hear about them.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Anti-Jewish" and "Anti-Semitism" - Is there a difference?

Confusion sometimes arises between the designations, "Anti-Jewish" and "Anti-Semitism."  But each term has its own history and meaning.

The term, "Anti-Jewish" developed from religious and general practices considered to be less worthy or more repugnant than those that that were associated with Christian ideals. It was based on ignorance such as the accusations that Jews were Christ-killers, indulged in blood libels* (killing Christian children in order to use their blood in preparing Passover foods), well-poisoning, or desecration of the Host (the wafer used in the Mass). It became explicit in hateful stereotypes such as prominent lips, beaked-noses. and devil-like features which appeared in posters, prints, and illustrated books. Although it could be erased by baptism and conversion, centuries of ingrained attitudes were difficult to change.

"Anti-Semitism" promoted the notion that cultural traits were revealed through lineage. By the nineteenth century, philosophic theories of rationalism became more respectable than degradation or theological systems.The "rational" scientific notion of society became based on "natural" principles." When Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species," 1859, and "Descent of Man," 1871, attributed natural selection rather than the Creator to physical and mental abilities and debilities, some racist theories suggested that an intrinsic "biological inferiority" would - and should - replace Jewish "spiritual degradation."

Since baptism or conversion could not be inherited, anti-Semitism explained that nothing could wipe clean the taint of Jewish blood. In 1881, the first avowedly anti-Jewish newspaper, "L'Anti-Juif" initiated attacks based, not on the religious component of Judaism, but on Jewish heritage alone. Ethnic "purity" suggested that race was the ultimate power that impelled or motivated society. Even as many believed those ideas were on solid scientific grounds, those arguments found their way ultimately into Nazi ideology.

Of course, to the Jews who suffered over the centuries, the distinctions between anti-Jewishness and anti-Semitism hardly mattered.

* The blood libel accusations are particularly ironic, given that Jewish dietary laws prohibit the consumption of blood.  Properly koshered meat is soaked in salt water (which is discarded) in order to remove as much blood as possible.  Passover matzah also has strict guidelines for its production, and the idea that it contains blood is absurd.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Jews' Expulsion from, and Return to England

Did you know that King Edward I of England expelled his three thousand Jews in 1290? He appropriated their houses to pay off his debts, and established a policy which essentially emptied the country of some of its most affluent traders and tax payers.
Fast forward to seventeenth century Amsterdam. Its rabbi, Manesseh ben Israel, believing that he could hasten the messianic age through the resettlement of a Jewish community in England, shrewdly pointed out to Oliver Cromwell, a devout Puritain as well as the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, that the prophecies in Deuteronomy 28:64 and Isaiah 11:12 precluded the return of the Messiah until the dispersion of the Jews had reached "from one corner of the earth to the other." Since England was synonymous with "corner of the world" (Angle-Terre), the Second Coming awaited only the admission of the Jews.To that end, the rabbi composed the "Esperanca de Israel" (Hope of Israel) in 1650, dedicated it to Parliament, remiinded its members that God and the world were watching, and at Cromwell's invitation, left for London.
The religious potential of the rabbi's theories should have been irresistible to the millenarian Puritans who assumed that the Jews would finally acknowledge Jesus. Of course, the monetary advantages they might secure to the Durch were certainly not overlooked. But the response was to rehash tales of Jewish lust for Christian blood, to charge that Jews would attempt to convert the populace, encroach on England's commerce, and take over the churches. Nevertheless, Cromwell bypassed Parliament - and public opinion - and permitted the Jews to quietly, but unofficialy, return. The resettlement did not attract large numbers - perhaps three thousand by 1690 - but it was largely free of intolerance and allowed the establishment of a cemetery and a synagogue.
It is thought that the original edict of expulsion has never been officially abrogated. Are there any scholars among you who know if that is so? 

Monday, October 12, 2009

Consideration for the Poor and the Weak (and Women) in Jewish Law

Even in ancient times, Jewish law provided protection to the poor, to the weak... and to women. It also encouraged Jews to enjoy the pleasures of life.

Hospitality was encouraged, the rights of the poor were stressed, while the mandate to love - or at least respect - one's neighbor was obligatory. Jews taught the pleasures of marriage and family, recognizing the need to rejoice in the body as well as to elevate the mind - for had not the Babylonian rabbi Abba Areca decreed that "a man will have a demerit in his record on Judgment Day for everything he beheld with his eyes and declined to enjoy."

It was possible for women to be financially secure and active when other cultures diminished the roles. Marriage laws were enacted to protect women who had few civil and personal rights. In the event of a husband's death, her brother-in-law  was expected to marry the childless widow in order to carry on the family name. If he refused, the halitzah ceremony was enacted, a public humiliation at a time when an heir was of fundimental importance. The widow spits on the ground and removes the unwilling gentleman's shoe while reciting "so shall be done to the man who will not build his brother's house."  Unappetising, yes, but then Henry VIII of England married six times, cutting of the heads of two of his wives, in order to secure a male heir. Such are our foibles and fears.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Jewish Narrative: Introduction to this Blog

You don't have to be Jewish to be interested in Jewish history. The Jews were important players in world events from almost the beginning of recorded time. Jewish stock produced Moses, Jesus, Paul, Spinoza, Disraeli, Freud, Marx, and Einstein.

Mark Twain wrote in 1899 "If the statistics are right, the Jews contribute but one per cent of the human race... His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruce learning are away out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers... and he has done it with his hands tied behind him."

While religious, ethnic, and racial hatred have beset all of mankind, in length of time and relentness of purpose no other people have endured the unhappy forturnes of the Jews. But their history transcends a recital of pain and misfortune. They gave the world unique ethical systems. Their Sabbath day of rest and study gifted a society that knew weeklong drudgery and endless toil. Their festivals, rituals, and customs offered more than legislation, more than aesthetics; they inculcated tradition and cultural continuity and offered opportunities to alleviate the bad and savor the good. Mainstream Judaism historically denied magical practices or human sacrifices, restricted slave ownership, regulated tillage of the soil, and limited the collection of debts.
In this blog I will discuss how Jews resolved - or failed to resolve - basic issues among themselves and well as how Jewish culture interfaced with Christianity, sometimes as colleagues, more often as dissenters. 

I am interested in the development of Jewish art, which I define as works by Jewish or Christian artists whether or not they are friendly or antagonistic. And I may say here that some baptized as well as indifferent Jews were morbidly anti-Jewish and did as much harm as any.

By the way, anti-Jewish and anti--Semitism are not the same. I'll talk about that another time.