by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal
Over the summer, I came across a book at home that I didn’t know we had: Jewish Post-Biblical History through Great Personalities: From Jochanan ben Zakkai through Moses Mendelssohn, by Adele Bildersee. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Cincinnati published it in 1918. While the book is far from up-to-date – it wasn’t even current as of 1918! – it does provide insight into how many Jews viewed themselves and their history prior to the Holocaust.
But who was Adele Bildersee? I “googled” her, naturally, and found out that she was a second generation Jewish-American born in the New York City of 1883. This just so happened to be the year after the first tidal wave of desperately poor, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe reached Ellis Island in the wake of oppressive measures taken against Jews by Russia’s new czar, Alexander III. These measures also led to many terrible pogroms against Jewish communities throughout the “Pale of Settlement,” where, with few exceptions, Jews residing in the Russian Empire were required to live, and which became increasingly densely populated as more Jews living elsewhere were removed to the Pale.
Adele Bildersee was fortunate that her ancestors had left Russia decades earlier; she missed the unpleasantness to come. She and her siblings devoted their lives to the education of young adults and children in New York, both Jewish and non-Jewish. At the time she wrote Post-Biblical History, she had earned a Masters degree and was an Assistant Professor of English at Hunter College and the principal of the Religious School of Temple Beth-El in Manhattan. Later, Bildersee helped found Brooklyn College and served as a high-level administrator there, besides teaching English, for several decades before retiring in the 1950s. (She died in 1971.) In between things, she received a Ph.D. from Columbia.
Why did Bildersee write this book? As she says in the Preface:
…[T]he writer, in many years of experience as a teacher, has found no work on this subject [of post-Biblical history] suitable for practical use in the classroom. The books that glow with all the pageantry of history and with the color of a delightful style are lacking…. The books that display scholarly erudition pile up details to the bewilderment of the average pupil.
Accordingly in this book the effort has been to select from the pages of post-Biblical Jewish history the outstanding personalities; to present the life and work of each in such a way as to illustrate the spirit of Judaism in his time; and in doing this, to analyze and systematize the complex and abstract subject matter so that it may offer the fewest difficulties to the pupil’s mind; and yet not to sacrifice the warm human interest….
Bildersee writes in the ultra-formal, abstract style of 19th century American non-fiction, which apparently, and unfortunately, had its hold on American non-fiction writing well into the 20th century. I hoped that her style would improve as she began to discuss the “great personalities” in post-Biblical Judaism, and I was pleased to find that her prose loosened up considerably as she went along.
What we learn, though, is much more than just who most of the main Jewish scholars were since the 70 C.E. destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, and what they did. We learn that the tragic nature of Jewish history itself profoundly influenced how Judaism developed, based on where they lived, the towns, countries, and regions from whence they were excluded or expelled, where they fled to, and the religious, economic, social, and educational milieu Jews encountered as they willingly, reluctantly, or were forcibly moved from place to place.
And before we proceed any further, note my disclaimer: although Bildersee’s spelling of the names of scholars, other important individuals, and some historical cities are mostly out-of-date, I will be faithful to her spelling, to keep from confusing myself.
After the Destruction of the Second Temple
The author begins her historical survey with Jewish scholar Jochanan ben Zakkai, who Bildersee says had studied under the great Rabbi Hillel and lived in the decades following 70 C.E. He first had to reestablish the Sanhedrin (Jewish judicial body) in Palestine, outside Jerusalem, along with a school for the next generation of scholars. In those days, and for a long time thence, rabbis taught on their own time, out of sheer love of Judaism, since they still had to make a living, whether it was in agriculture or something else. School was closed at “times of sowing and reaping.”
The first major challenge to Jewish studies – and the existence of Judaism itself – came under Roman Emperor Hadrian, who “forbade the study of the [Jewish] Law, and punished mercilessly those who tried to evade his decree.” Continues the author rather graphically, “Those teachers who dared still to conduct schools were wrapped in the scrolls of their Law and set afire, or were torn to a slow death with sharp iron prongs.” And many more such atrocities were to come as history proceeded, Bildersee lets us know. Legend has it that Rabbi Akiba, who defied Hadrian and continued to teach, was condemned to “die by torture” and surprised his persecutors by joyfully reciting prayers, as he suffered, that celebrated God. Before his trouble with the authorities, thankfully, he had given time to organizing the Jewish oral tradition.
Rabbi Meir, who studied under Akiba, continued his mentor’s work of organizing Jewish thought and later became known as the “Jewish Aesop.” His sayings could be quite charmingly, and touchingly, familiar, if expressed somewhat differently from what one might hear nowadays: “Look not to the vessel, but to its contents.” Or: “Despise no one, high or low, for all men are equal before God.”
When the Roman Empire, which still occupied Palestine, adopted Christianity, the conditions of Jewish life badly deteriorated. Jews were burdened with heavy taxes and the authorities disrupted their worship, leading to the community’s humiliation and oppression. Thus, the center of Jewish life and learning moved to Babylonia. There work continued on the Mishnah, a kind of restatement of oral tradition, first conceived of by Rabbi Akiba, which sort of made Jewish Law a bit like today’s British and American common law, in which religious teachings were based on a “great body of opinions,” or precedent, that had grown up over time. With the Gemara, a kind of supplement or appendix to the Mishnah, what would soon become known as the Talmud began to take shape. Talmudic sayings appearing around this time include: “The greatest of heroes is he who turns an enemy into a friend.” Or: “Rather be persecuted than persecutor.” (Jews would expertly adhere to the latter slice of wisdom over the coming millennia.)
Life in Babylonia
Jewish scholarship in Babylonia became the go-to source for guidance on Jewish Law for all of the world’s Jews (many of whom had been seeking more hospitable places to live during this time). Bildersee says that Mohammed, the founder of Islam, had tried unsuccessfully to shut down the practice of Judaism, through persuasion, war, and the closing of schools, but eventually tolerated the presence of Jews in an increasingly Muslim world so long as he could tax them.
In this era, roughly the 6th century C.E., heads of Jewish schools, once they reopened, were called “Gaon” (singular) and “Gaonim” (plural). The cities of Sura and Pumbeditha in Babylonia (situated in modern-day Iraq!) became the place for Jewish students from all over the broadening diaspora to travel for a semi-annual “assembly,” where they would discuss previous assignments and receive new ones. These schools took Jewish learning from the third century all the way up to the Middle Ages, when they declined (perhaps due to political and religious conflict) and Jews began looking to Spain, which had become a new Jewish destination, for religious guidance.
Saadia, recruited from Egypt, says Bildersee, was the last prominent Gaon to teach in Babylonia, and a great scholar of Arabian culture as well:
Saadia’s learning was many-sided: it included not only all branches of Jewish knowledge, but also the Arabian culture of his time…. [H]e was not alone in responding to the influence of the intellectual Arabs. Inspired by them, many Jews were rapidly mastering the sciences and the Arabic version of Greek philosophy.
In fact, by now, in the tenth century, Jews in Babylonia were speaking and writing in Arabic and tended to be unfamiliar with Hebrew. Saadia did everyone a favor by translating the Hebrew Bible into Arabic so that both Jews and Muslims in the Middle East could read it.
The Jews in Spain
When the center of Jewish scholarship relocated to Cordova in Spain, the region was governed by Muslims; fortunately, the Jews and Muslims of that time and place got along well, sharing knowledge of science, philosophy, and Far East literature with each other and with contacts in Christian Europe.
The Jewish community and Jewish scholarship in Spain, as portrayed in Post-Biblical History, seem a lot more colorful than they had been in Babylonia. Beginning in about the 10th century, Muslim Spain produced Jewish scholars who were also famed for their poetry: Solomon Ibn Gabirol (spiritual poetry), Moses Ibn Ezra (depressing), Benjamin of Tudela (cheerful), and, most notably, Judah Halevi, whose trade was medicine, but whose prolific writings covered a variety of topics and feelings – joy, grief, nature, God, and a longing for Israel, or Zion.
But the greatest Spanish-Jewish scholar, Moses Maimonides, arose in Cordova during the turmoil of the 12th century, when another contingent of Muslims, says the author, different from the Moors who had theretofore controlled Spain, forced conversions to Islam, sending Christians fleeing to other Christian kingdoms, while “…[s]ynagogues were destroyed, schools were scattered, and the faithful Jews of southern Spain went out into the uncertainty and danger of their perilous exile,” writes Bildersee. Maimonides was and is best known for his work, “Guide to the Perplexed,” which, according to the author, explained to readers how to reconcile Jewish principles with Greek philosophy as taught by Muslims of the time; this was, she says, closely studied by Christian and Muslim scholars alike. Maimonides, also a renowned physician, fled Spain with his family while still a boy due to the aforementioned religious turmoil and, after much bad luck, including the deaths of family members, ended up in Egypt, where he grew up to become a doctor to royalty, and a physician’s physician.
France, Germany, Rashi, and the Rashi Chapel
There were Jewish communities in France and Germany within a few hundred years of the start of the Common Era. Solomon bar Isaac, or, as he was known, Rashi, was born in Troyes, France in the 11th century. As a young student, says Bildersee, he was more devoted to Judaism than to food and clothing, and was known for having spent most of his years as a student in Worms, Germany, the site of one of the two great centers of Jewish learning during this period. The author mentions that, as of 1918, when Post-Biblical History was published, a small building called the “Rashi Chapel” still stood in Worms.
The author skates over the turbulent history of the Jews of Worms and the little Rashi Chapel, but I won’t. In a nutshell: Worms wasn’t exactly a place that Jews would look back on fondly. Exorbitant taxes were exacted on Jewish residents. If King Frederick opposed expulsion of the Jews to the outrage of non-Jews, the king relented. The synagogue and Jewish cemetery were destroyed upon the Jews’ exit. During the Thirty Years’ War, Jews succumbed to a “pestilence” that raged in the Jewish quarter in 1632 and 1635. When France invaded Germany in 1689, troops set the Jewish community ablaze and converted the esteemed Rashi Chapel into a “stable and storehouse.”
During what might be considered a quieter period, Jews nevertheless were expelled from Worms and readmitted multiple times. Things had stabilized by the mid-18th century, and the Chapel was restored during the 19th. But 20 years after the publication of Post-Biblical History, the reconstructed Chapel endured more abuse. It and a neighboring synagogue were torched during Kristallnacht in 1938. The Chapel was again rebuilt after the war and today is back in business, as it were, housing a museum that displays, among other things, copies of the Torah damaged during Kristallnacht.
I now return to Rashi. He had the misfortune of experiencing the Crusades as it tore through Central Europe on the way to the Holy Land. “In blind hate and bloody bigotry,” the author writes, “[the Crusaders] threw themselves on the peaceful Jewish communities on the banks of the Rhine and put to death all who refused to be converted. These awful massacres, the victims of which numbered not less than ten thousand, plunged the Jews of Germany and France into the deepest sorrow.”
Rashi, who made his living working in the vineyards and devoting his spare time to Jewish study as a labor of love, like the rabbis of yore, contributed Talmudic commentary, adding his own interpretations, and served as adviser to the Jews of Christian Europe. His writings helped Jews get through these terrible times, and, as of 1918, according to Bildersee, Jews still treasured them. As the author movingly writes:
When schools were destroyed, when teachers were massacred, when repeated expulsions drove the Jews from France, the fine flower of French Judaism was not entirely lost: the Jews of France carried with them to foreign lands their ideals and their books; they carried with them Rashi’s teachings. Pillage, exile, martyrdom – all could be borne so long as they could go for strength to Bible and Talmud, those fountains of inspiration.
One wonders if Rashi’s writings served to comfort during the Holocaust.
Murderous Lies: the “Blood Libel" and the Theft of the “Host”
Another adviser to the beaten-down Jews of Europe was Worms native Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg, who came to prominence in the 13th century, at a time even more terrible than Rashi’s. A subsequent round of the Crusades raged. The quality of European Jewish life commenced a long, downward spiral. Although some Christian clergy objected to the murders of Jews, others encouraged it. Christian heretics, too, were hunted down, tortured, and killed, but at least they didn’t have to contend with two horrible lies concocted and spread by some of the clergy: the “Blood Libel” and the theft of the “Host.” The Blood Libel, which could look forward to a long lifespan lasting several centuries and well into the 20th, claimed that Jews used the blood of Christian children to make their matzos during the Passover holiday, which usually fell somewhat contemporaneously with Easter. Claims that Jews stole the Host, or the consecrated bread of the Church, alleged that, after stealing the Host, they pounded “…it in a mortar until blood flowed from it, or … [pierced] it with knives.” It’s not hard to suspect that these two false claims inflamed the already poisonous, antisemitic atmosphere in Western Europe. And that would be an understatement.
These two false claims resulted in the banishment of all Jews from England in 1290; they wouldn’t return for 400 years. The Jews were also expelled from France.
During this horrific era, the work of Jewish religious leaders became ever more valuable. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was widely sought for religious and practical advice, not only from Jews where he lived and served, but from all over the world. Says Ms. Bildersee: “All the queries as to right and wrong, the problems of ethics and morality, the inquiries concerning the interpretation of the Sacred Word came to the rabbi of Rothenburg…. The subjects on which he passed judgment touched every phase of contemporary life, - liturgy and ritual, rights of property, civil and criminal law, domestic troubles, rules of commerce and finance.”
A very pressing question he found himself addressing was what Jews could do who were unable to pay their taxes and were imprisoned by the authorities. Although the community as a whole could pay the required sum for the freeing of their co-religionists, Rabbi Meir told them, freed Jews would owe the community that money, for the good of the community. The rabbi, who was called, in appreciation of his services, “Light of the Exile,” was later arrested on a trumped-up charge in Lombardy. He forbade his friends from trying to pay the exorbitant ransom demanded for his release, and died in prison. But the authorities refused to release the rabbi’s body for 14 years, until Jews could finally pay the ransom!
Things went from bad to worse during the era of the Black Death of 1348-50. Although Jews and non-Jews alike contracted this extraordinarily contagious, lethal, and disgusting disease, a rumor spread that it had started with Jews poisoning the wells. In the persecution that followed, Jews were burned to death or committed mass suicide. (Thousands were massacred and thousands more fled to sparsely populated regions of Eastern Europe.)
Although Jews weren’t expelled from Germany, their lives became rather unbearable during this time and would be so for quite a while thereafter. There were the usual burnings, mass murders, and drownings; occasionally, heroic, non-Jewish Germans stepped in to sacrifice themselves in place of Jews. Many German Jews left for Poland, which was a relatively safe place for Jews then. But those remaining behind were financially crushed by ever harsher taxes. Jews were excluded from the handicrafts, but permitted to engage in “trade.” Eventually, they were prohibited from trade, too, and the only livelihoods left them were peddling and money-lending.
They Didn’t Expect the Spanish Inquisition
Jewish living conditions in Spain deteriorated. In the 15th century, priests stirred up their parishioners against Jews, many of whom had amassed wealth and power in Spain. Spanish Jews were required to convert to Christianity or face death. Those who converted became known as Maranos; they often continued to practice Judaism in secret, or tried to. By the time of the Inquisition later in the century, Jews’ Christian neighbors were enlisted to spy on them: “If a Christian noticed that his neighbors put on fresh garments on Saturday [the Jewish Sabbath], or changed their table linen on that day, or called their children by Jewish names, or blessed their children without making the sign of the cross, then it was his duty to denounce them at once to the Inquisition.” Men, women, and children were all subject to being denounced, placed on trial, and tortured, burned alive, or otherwise condemned to death, the latter of which became a town spectacle.
Bildersee makes a point of recognizing that Spanish Christians were often in “violent opposition” to the Inquisition, and that many Spaniards sympathetic to the Inquisition were motivated by sincere religious principles, as were many Christians who participated in the Crusades. But these facts didn’t make the impact of the Inquisition and the Crusades any less terrible.
Fourteen-ninety-two was the year that Muslims and Jews were expelled from Spain. For Jews, emigrating from Spain could be just as bad as staying. They had to leave their wealth and possessions behind. Many were sold into slavery, or murdered as they left the country, or thrown overboard from departing boats. The author points out that Jews had been financiers of Christopher Columbus’s voyages, and that the most prominent map-maker in Spain, whose maps Columbus used, was Jewish. Even many members of Columbus’s crew were Jewish, given that enlisting on a voyage of exploration was a way of escaping Spain. But regardless of contributions by Spanish Jews to Spain’s life and history, they could no longer legally reside in the country of their birth.
Italy, parts of which were controlled by Spain, was a place of refuge, but the early 16th century saw the influence of the Inquisition, and laws were enacted forbidding interaction between Jews and Christians. One of the earliest ghettos was established in Venice in 1516. Overcrowding was the norm. In one such ghetto, 4,000 people were squeezed into only 190 dwellings.
Enter Jewish Mysticism
Many Spanish Jews, including distinguished scholars and benefactors such as Joseph Nasi and Joseph ben Ephraim Caro, ended up in Turkey and rose to prominence there. Isaac Luria, on the other hand, who was born during the early 16th century in Jerusalem to a family “driven from its native land” of Germany, became a new sort of leading Jewish scholar, one whose main subject of study was the Cabala, or Jewish mysticism. To put it simply, his “complete absorption in meditation upon the holy mysteries” led him to the rather hippy-ish conclusion that anger was the root of all evil, and that love was the answer: “Love was one of the conditions which he prescribed for perfect holiness, ‘love of all creatures, including non-Jews’.” Luria advised against killing any animal, not even a worm. To him, prayer led to “new Divine light and a new outflow of Divine mercy.”
As Bildersee relates, Cabala was also the favorite branch of study for Sabbatai Zevi, one of a number of “false messiahs” of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Zevi was, for many Jews, just whom they needed during the varied persecutions of Christian Europe. From the Book of Isaiah, they drew the idea that their sorrows were a kind of “purification,” in which they “… would become worthy of their mission – to be a light to the Gentiles and a blessing to the world, the Suffering Servant through whom the salvation of the world should come.” Even after Zevi, to use modern parlance, had “jumped the shark,” when his attempted wresting of control of Constantinople from the Sultan failed and Zevi turned to Islam, some Jews still believed in him. But the Jews as a people never lost hope that the Messiah would someday come.
Holland and Jews: Perfect Together
The coming of the Messiah would eventually become the favorite topic of Spanish-Jewish scholar and leader Manasseh ben Israel, whose family had fled Spain for Holland, where Jews found they could openly practice their religion without persecution. Holland and Jews (of both well-to-do Spanish-Portuguese origin and the poor who had fled the ghettos) got along so well together, including economically, that kings in other places, such as Denmark, Modena, and Savoy, wondered about welcoming Jews to their kingdoms. The rabbi was a prolific writer; even Christian scholars passing through Amsterdam made a point of visiting him. He was a friend of Rembrandt, who painted a portrait of him, making him look just like the day’s typical Dutchman in his broad, black hat and wide, white collar.
Ben Israel believed that, before the Messiah could come, three preconditions had to be met. First, the lost tribes of Israel were to be found and reunited with the Jews. Jewish travelers seemed to think that the lost tribes had ended up in South America, Tartary, and China, says Bildersee. Second, Jews would have to experience a huge amount of punishment; that was easy, they’d been cooperating with that requirement for quite some time already. Third, the Jewish diaspora had to expand to all corners of the planet. To this end, ben Israel hoped to get Jews readmitted to England. He advocated to Oliver Cromwell and other English leaders their return, but even though he engendered much interest, he also stirred up old animosities, such as fear of economic competition and the Blood Libel. Although the English never officially welcomed back the Jews, the barriers were informally broken and, within 10 years, a large, Jewish community had grown up in London.
Baruch Spinoza is Excommunicated
Next, Bildersee turns to two Jewish thinkers who, in Holland, were excommunicated from Judaism. One such thinker was Uriel da Costa, a Marano, who, in desiring a return to the faith of his ancestors, chafed at all the rules for daily living found in the Talmud. He loudly complained that Jews were devoted to the body at the expense of the soul, and that Jews did not believe in the soul’s immortality. Dutch Jews were horrified at this public criticism; not only did they disagree with his representations of Judaism, but they also feared that Christians might take offense from some of da Costa’s pronouncements. Bildersee says that excommunication was an idea that Jews borrowed from their Christian persecutors during the Inquisition. Thus, they excommunicated da Costa three times. (A glutton for punishment, he kept pleading to be taken back.) Da Costa became an enemy of Judaism and authored hostile, anti-Jewish works.
The more prominent Jew to be excommunicated was Baruch Spinoza, whose family had also fled from Spain to Holland, where Spinoza was born in 1632. His problem, as an adult scholar, was his very logical mind that led him to believe that the “reasoning power of man” must govern one’s beliefs. Explains the author: “His ardent desire for truth in all things, at all cost, led him to apply this standard to religion, to the Judaism of his day.” While Spinoza had been a student of Manasseh ben Israel and studied the writings of Maimonides, he also was devoted to secular subjects like “classic antiquity,” as well as math, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and medicine. He was familiar with Descartes. These interests didn’t necessarily conflict with Judaism, but his questioning mind led him to teach non-religious reasoning to young people, worrying the Jews tremendously. And what if Christian authorities learned of his adherence to logic to the exclusion of all else, which also conflicted with Christianity?
So his fellow Jews excommunicated him, and they arranged with the authorities to have him banished from Amsterdam. Thus, Spinoza lived apart from Jews, but continued his studies and writings while eking out a living as a lens grinder. He was recognized as a great thinker, but not a great thinker within the bounds of Judaism.
The Emancipation of the Western European Jew
Bildersee concludes her book with a lengthy chapter on Moses Mendelssohn, born in the Germany of 1729. At the time, the only places of relative calm for Jews were Holland and England. Germany was particularly bad:
…[Jews were] hooted at and stoned in the streets, hemmed in by the walls of the ghetto, excluded from agriculture, the trades, and the professions, barred from universities, denied public office, forced into mean occupations.
All this persecution left its mark on the mind and soul. With no means to defend himself against the overwhelming numbers of his oppressors, the Jew bowed his head and slunk in the shadows; in obscurity he avoided unnecessary risk.
The author says that, in Jews being denied free intercourse with their Christian neighbors, they “… came to find their own resources all satisfying. They no longer wished to share the thoughts of a civilization which they beheld at its worst, - in its violent persecutions and its cramping, crippling, maddening restrictions.”
Mendelssohn came to be instrumental in the emancipation of the Western European Jew (Eastern Europe had its own, unique set of problems, not addressed in Post-Biblical History), although the fact that this was the Age of Enlightenment and earth-shaking revolutions were in the offing probably played at least as vital a role. He started out humbly as a starving scholar who had followed his favorite teacher, Rabbi David Frankel, from his birthplace of Dessau to the ghetto of Berlin, where the rabbi had taken a new teaching job. Over time, Mendelssohn’s opportunities improved; he was self-taught in many secular areas of study, including the Latin, French, and German languages (Jews lived so apart from their Christian neighbors that they didn’t speak the local language).
When a young man, he met the “intellectual young Jews of Berlin,” with whom he discussed philosophy and literature. These new friends were his eventual connection with a non-Jew, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who was an enemy of bigotry, unlike many other non-Jews, and had no qualms associating with Jews. In fact, Lessing based his noted work, Nathan the Wise, on his friend Mendelssohn, who would become known amongst the non-Jewish literati. Mendelssohn even beat out a young Immanuel Kant for best essay on a question of metaphysics, as judged by the Berlin Academy. His work, Phaedon, or the Immortality of the Soul, says Bildersee, was translated into numerous languages and became a worldwide bestseller.
The young writer became an exemplar of his “race” in Germany and used this status to advocate on behalf of oppressed Jews in other countries by recruiting friendly non-Jews to the cause. One such recruit was a Prussian leader, Christian Wilhelm Dohm, who wrote, Upon the Civil Amelioration of the Condition of the Jews (1781). Amelioration argued in favor of “equal rights” for Jews in earning a livelihood and the free exercise of their religion. This work seems to have led to the enactment by Emperor Joseph of Austria of laws allowing Jews to “learn handicrafts, arts and sciences, and, under certain restrictions, to follow agriculture.”
Mendelssohn was able to answer a backlash of antisemitism by arranging for the German translation of Manasseh ben Israel’s work, Vindiciae Judaeorum, and writing a preface pleading for tolerance, freedom of thought, and legal equality. He wrote his own work, Jerusalem or Upon Ecclesiastical Power and Judaism, in which he advocated for the separation of Church and State and opposed excommunication in the case of either Christians or Jews. Soon, the non-Jewish, French leader, Count Mirabeau, followed, with Upon Mendelssohn and the Political Reform of the Jews (1787).
The walls of the ghettos were crumbling, says Bildersee. Mendelssohn encouraged his fellow Jews to learn German by translating the Torah into the German language, and included with this translation Hebrew commentary summarizing the works of great Jewish scholars of the past. This piqued the interest of German Jews in both the German language and the “old classic Hebrew.” Since the increasingly emancipated Jews of Germany also needed a general education, Mendelssohn established a German-Jewish school in Berlin that taught not only the Bible and the Talmud, but also modern languages and a “complete secular course of study.”
Bildersee Ignores Recent Jewish History
The author in 1918 concludes her survey of Jewish history with the end of the 1700s. There is no mention of any of the events of the 19th or early 20th centuries, not the conviction (and later exoneration) of the French-Jewish Captain Alfred Dreyfus on trumped-up charges of treason, and certainly not the plight of Jews in Eastern Europe. Nor does she acknowledge the momentous establishment of the modern Zionist movement by the secular, Austrian Jew, Theodor Herzl, who argued in The Jewish State (1896) that the real answer to persistent antisemitism was the creation of a homeland for Jews.
Instead, Bildersee concludes with a peculiarly unrealistic optimism:
The Jews of to-day live the Jewish life in the modern world, not as outcasts in the hemmed-in world of the ghetto, not as aliens in lands of exile, but, for the most part, as free citizens of free countries…. The story of Jewish life and thought from his [Mendelssohn’s] day to ours is a record of attempts to work out the great problem…. [Now, the]… interpretation of ages of persecution and restriction merges into the interpretation of an age of freedom and enlightenment.
Missing from Post-Biblical History is any mention of the great Ashkenazi Jewish culture of Eastern Europe, where, in fact, most European Jews lived and from whence most American Jews can trace their ancestry. Also missing is any reference to the Central European birth of the post-Biblical, national tongue, if you will, a thousand years ago. This was Yiddish, spoken primarily by Ashkenazi Jews, as distinguished from the Sephardic Jews of North Africa, Spain, Portugal, and parts of Western Europe.
Yiddish was a mixture of various languages, particularly Middle High German, Romance and Slavic tongues, Hebrew, and Aramaic (the language of Jesus) that sort of linguistically traced the movements of Jewish populations over the centuries. Nor does Bildersee acknowledge the Yiddish theater or the Yiddish literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I suppose that if Bildersee had included the things I’ve indicated that she left out, the book would have been twice as long and, admittedly, would have dramatically departed from her intention of portraying the development of Judaism through a study of the chief Jewish scholars of the ages, written in a student-friendly way. Even so, a postscript referring to some of what she left out would still have been welcome, and made her book seem a little less artificially limited in scope.
To this day, the greatest Yiddish literature, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is recognized as coming from the pen of Solomon Rabinovich, whose pen name was Sholem Aleichem (Hebrew for “peace be unto you”). If you don’t think you’re familiar with any of his work, the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof, is the best popular example of Aleichem’s storytelling.
It’s time for another disclaimer: Sholem Aleichem’s first name has been variously spelled as Sholom and Shalom. (In fact, his real last name has also been spelled Rabinovitz.) But, for consistency’s sake, I will spell the first half of his pseudonym as Sholem except when referring to or quoting from a publication using a spelling variant.
Aleichem’s work is filled with humor, poignancy, and affection for the people from whom he was somewhat divorced, since he lived a well-to-do, urban existence, far away from the poor, Jewish shtetl (village) of the Pale of Settlement to which, with few exceptions, Jews of the Russian empire were restricted, as I have said.
I recommend reading Selected Stories of Sholom Aleichem, with a loving introduction by the late writer, Alfred Kazin. It was published in 1956 as a part of Random House’s Modern Library series. Kazin writes:
It is this kind of European, seasoned, familiar pleasure in the national circle of one’s own people, that lies behind Sholom Aleichem’s stories. But what kind of enjoyment can these people derive from being Jews, since they are incessantly harassed by the Russian government, and are surrounded by peasants who are usually anti-Semitic and can easily be goaded, with the help of the usual encouragement from the government itself and a lot of vodka, into making pogroms?.... The answer is that one enjoys being a member of a people because one shares in the feast of their common experience.
This is the fabled strength of “the old country,” which deprived Jews of Eastern Europe of every decency that we take for granted, but allowed them to feast unendingly on their own tradition – and even to enjoy, as an unconscious work of art, their projection of their fiercely cherished identity.
In this milieu, a story like “A Country Passover” is surprisingly benign in tone, even if it cleverly focuses on the Blood Libel without actually referring to it by name, or identifying exactly what it alleges. In this story, two boys, Jewish Feitel and non-Jewish Pedka, are best friends who do everything together and don’t understand their respective parents’ anxiety about the boys’ friendship, especially around Passover time. On the day of the first night of Passover, all of the matzos have been baked for the eight days of the holiday. The chums do their usual countryside exploring, which makes them late reaching home, to the consternation of parents, clerk, mayor, constable, sheriff, and inspector. Feitel’s parents “…stood in the middle of the crowd explaining, defending themselves, making all sorts of motions with their hands.” Both boys are angrily scolded and slapped by their fathers in their respective houses. Feitel’s mother says to his father: “Ah, if Pesach [Passover] were only over already. I hope it goes by without trouble. For my part it could have gone by before it started.”
After his punishment, non-Jewish Pedka listens to his mother talk with the other “peasant women”:
Such queer stories they told! There was one about a child who had been lured into a cellar by some Jews on the eve of Passover. They kept him there a day and a night and were just about to begin torturing him when people heard the screams of the child, came running from all directions, and rescued him. His body had already been pierced on four sides in the sign of the cross. The woman who told the story was a heavy, red-faced, blustering creature in a wide headdress. The other women, in their brightly colored kerchiefs, stood around her in a circle listening to the story, shaking their heads and crossing themselves. “Poor child,” they said, “Poor little thing.” And some of the women looked at him – at Pedka. And Pedka couldn’t understand why they looked at him so strangely and what the story had to do with him and with Feitel.
Pedka is lucky that his parents do not believe in the Blood Libel – or at least it seems they don’t. Happily, the day after the boys frightened their parents and the village by being late coming home, the fear is gone:
“Well?” Feitel heard his father say joyfully to his mother the morning after Passover, as though some great good fortune had come to him. “You were afraid, just like a woman. Our Passover is gone, their Passover is gone, and nothing has happened.”
“God be thanked,” his mother answered….
Feitel’s father has apparently forgotten how worried he was just a day earlier, when the village was in a panic over the missing boys.
In the documentary, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness (2011), although those who are interviewed try to keep a focus on the folksy humor of Aleichem’s tales, darkness definitely overtakes laughing. There is plenty about the pogroms that left Jewish villages in ruins and littered with dead bodies. Photos provide the evidence in the film, if anyone is skeptical, about the impact of these murderous riots. The viewers see what it must have been like during the Crusades or the Inquisition and how this violence presaged the Holocaust. There are the charred remains of loved ones, and rows of the dead. A pile of corpses is topped by the body of a little girl still in her dress; her last indignity is the very visible evidence in the picture that her underwear is missing.
Though of a privileged background, notes the film, Sholem Aleichem and his family were not immune to the terror of the pogrom. In 1906, they temporarily fled their Kiev apartment for a fortress of a hotel in the city to escape anti-Jewish rioting. It clanged and crashed and roared for three days outside, as they hid, trembling. (This was just one of hundreds of pogroms encouraged by the authorities throughout the Russian empire; they occurred in the wake of a failed anti-czarist revolutionary attempt.) The incident prompted them to leave the country; Aleichem ended up in New York, which he never really liked. He thought, we are told, that America was changing Jewish culture for the worse. Aleichem longed to return to the unchanged people for whom he had so much affection, which he did do, for a time, touring the Pale and performing public readings. But he ended up returning to New York and, in 1916, dying a Jewish hero’s death. Hundreds of thousands of Jews took to New York streets to honor him.
A fascinating pictorial survey of life in and near the Pale of Settlement during and just after Sholem Aleichem’s life and death is Yiddishland, with essays and photo captions by Gerard Silvain & Henri Minczeles. One sees Jews in every aspect of their lives; at the market, at work, in a couple of major towns (Vilnius in Lithuania and Lodz in Poland), celebrating holidays, at school, in the hospital, at the cemetery, in politics, at the Yiddish theater and, yes, after anti-Jewish massacres. Pogroms continued through and after World War One. One heartbreaking scene caught on camera is of a row of dead, Jewish children killed in a 1915 pogrom in Yekaterinoslav, Ukraine. But even pogroms couldn’t destroy the Yiddish-speaking population of Eastern Europe. Genocide did, as the Yiddishland editors indicate. In just a few, short years, Eastern European Jewry was, for all practical purposes, erased from the Earth, as if they had never existed. We do have plenty of literary, cultural, and physical evidence of “Yiddishland”; artifacts have been kept or recovered, but it’s no longer a place.
Observed one interviewee in Laughing in the Darkness, “America has been good to the Jews.” This is true, even if America hasn’t been so “good” to certain other minority groups, but America is still evolving, striving (one hopes) to do better. And the Jewish experience in America has not been without problems; non-Jewish America, too, has had to grow out of its antisemitic feelings and practices.
Informally, Jews were excluded from certain parts of corporate America and from country clubs, and the numbers of those admitted to some of the best universities was limited. The Ku Klux Klan included Jews among the people they targeted. Even in New York City, which the editors of Yiddishland note had become the “largest Yiddish center in the world” at the turn of the last century, antisemitism took a toll. During the observance of the Jewish New Year in October 1905, the New York Evening Post reported:
The … more than congested condition of the East Side streets caused by this great outpouring of worshipers made them almost impassable. It was during this part of the observance of the Jewish ritual that the Jew baiting occurred. Most of the trouble took place at Pike’s Slip where members of the Cherry Hill gang pulled the beards of the worshipers and in other ways maltreated them. Other ruffians from … the Delancey Street approach to the Williamsburg Bridge pelted the men, women, and children with stones. Several of them were injured. There were several fist fights, and several of the policemen who were on duty refused to make arrests when appealed to.
This article appears in one of my most treasured books, Portal to America: The Lower East Side 1870-1925 (1967), edited by Allon Schoener, which photographically and through reproduced articles from the New York press depicts life for immigrants – with a focus on Jewish newcomers – on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. My grandparents came through Ellis Island and a number of them first lived on the Lower East Side.
When Louis Armstrong, one of my favorite musicians, was a boy in New Orleans, he worked for a Russian-Jewish, immigrant family, the Karnofskys, helping them sell scraps. They fed him dinner, made it possible for him to buy a cornet, and encouraged him to play and sing. Their loving treatment of him made a huge impression. And he noticed how non-Jewish New Orleans residents treated the Karnofskys, as he related in Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words (1999), edited by Thomas Brothers: “I was only Seven years old but I could see the ungodly treatment that the White folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for.” And: “But the Jewish people in those early days was having problems of their own – Along with hard times from the other white folks nationalities who felt that they were better than the Jewish race. And they took advantage of every chance they had to prove it.” (Note: the italics and capitalizations in Armstrong’s reminiscences are his.)
The most tragic case of antisemitism recorded in America resulted from a kind of Blood Libel. Leo Frank, a Jew from Brooklyn transplanted to Atlanta, Georgia, where he superintended a pencil factory, was convicted in 1913 and sentenced to death for the murder and mutilation of a 13-year-old girl who worked at the factory. When, in 1915, the governor commuted his sentence to life in prison, enraged vigilantes decided to impose the death penalty themselves, kidnapped him from his prison cell, and hung him from a tree in Marietta where he died.
It is generally believed today that Frank was an innocent victim of antisemitism, and that an African-American janitor who worked at the factory and was the main witness against Frank at trial actually committed the crime. The lynching led to the triumphant resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia and the founding of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.
But Leo Frank remains the only Jew to have been lynched in the United States. Since that incident, the position of Jews in American life has steadily improved over time. Certainly, Adele Bildersee’s career as a New York educator was evidence of the promise that lay ahead for Jews in the United States. Ninety-eight years later, one can honestly say that, overall, “America has been good to the Jews.”
America has a way to go still, given the bigotry openly expressed by our President-Elect against almost every minority group out there, and that one of his chief advisers has put out antisemitic rubbish. Many of our President-Elect’s supporters, too, whether white supremacists or relatively unaffiliated but bigoted individuals, have been open in their public expressions lately, given the lack of restraint of the man they voted for and those he surrounds himself with. It’s an unsettling time. One hopes that today’s poisonous political rhetoric is short-lived. When the U.S. is racially, ethnically, and religiously inclusive, it’s better for Jews, as well as African-Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, and, frankly, everyone.
(c) Elizabeth J. Rosenthal 2016, all rights reserved