Beit Hatfutsot https://www.bh.org.il Museum of the Jewish People Mon, 30 Mar 2020 16:45:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.2.2 https://www.bh.org.il/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-512-32x32.png Beit Hatfutsot https://www.bh.org.il 32 32 500 years ago: The first Jewish quarantine in Northern Italy https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/500-years-ago-first-jewish-quarantine-northern-italy/ Mon, 30 Mar 2020 16:45:31 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=47642 Not only in these trying times, but in the 16th century, the Italian region was the site of a “fatal virus.” Catholic scholars knew the invader well. They “studied” it for 1,500 years, and knew how to identify it from more than two meters away. They heard the primal story for generations – from father [...]

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Not only in these trying times, but in the 16th century, the Italian region was the site of a “fatal virus.” Catholic scholars knew the invader well. They “studied” it for 1,500 years, and knew how to identify it from more than two meters away. They heard the primal story for generations – from father to son and mother to daughter: How the devious “plague” – the Jewish People – murdered their ancient Father and Savior and left him bleeding to death on the cross. The Christian leaders did not admit it, but in their hearts, they knew that they were a mutation of the same “virus.”

Jews had lived in Italy since the days of the Roman Empire. In the late Middle Ages, many of them began pouring into the Land of the Boot following their exile from France and continued oppression under various princedoms in Germany. Most of them journeyed east to Poland, where a mammoth Jewish civilization came into being. But some of them settled in Italy. Their numbers in Italy grew significantly in the early-16th century, following the exile from Spain in 1492. Tens of thousands of Spanish exiles settled in Italy and other Mediterranean countries.

Interior of the Great Ashkenazi Synagogue (Scuola Grande Tedesca) in Venice, built 1528-1529. This is one of six 16th century Venetian synagogues still in existence in the ghetto. Model (Beit Hatfutsot, old Permanent Exhibition)

On those days, Italy was not the sovereign nation that it is today. It was a region divided into city-states: Florence, Pisa, Genoa and the hero of our story on the Adriatic Sea, Venice.

On March 29, 1516, 504 years ago, the Doge of Venice issued an order to create the first Jewish ghetto in history. Jews had been permitted to enter the gates of the city during the day to do business, but were forced to leave at sunset. To facilitate containment of the “virus,” authorities allowed Jews to live in the city – as long as they remained on a remote island far from the city center. The island – the site of a former lead foundry – was called in Italian “Ghetto.” That has since become a generic name for a separate, walled-off neighborhood designated for a specific population.

We have no idea which Italian played the current role of the Israel Health Ministry’s Moshe Bar-Siman Tov, but we do have the orders issued by the captains of the “Catholic Health Ministry” to prevent the spread of the “virus”:

  1. Exit from the ghetto is only permitted when the morning bells ring in St. Mark’s Basilica and until midnight.
  2. Exit from and entry to the ghetto is permitted only through two gates and under the supervision of four Christian guards, whose salary will be paid from the Jewish community’s coffers.
  3. Jewish money-lenders are permitted to leave for the city during limited hours and while wearing a yellow patch on their cloaks. The yellow patch was later replaced with a yellow hat, and then with a red hat.
  4. The following trades are permitted to Jews: Physicians, moneylenders, merchants, and used-clothing sellers – known in local jargon as “strazzarioli.”

Plan of the Ghetto of Venice, 1516-1797. by Architect Sullam, 1930. (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, from Exhibition “The Ghettos in Italy: Venice-Rome,1979)

Historians differ as to whether closure of the ghetto created a relative severance of cultural relations between the Jews and the rest of the population. Some maintain that it was actually a stage in their acceptance in the fabric of European life. Either way, the first ghetto dwellers in history adhered to the biblical principal that “It is a people that shall dwell alone and not be reckoned among the nations” (Bamidbar 23:9) – and they were undaunted by the limits imposed on them. They quickly began to develop a unique and independent culture that marked superb achievement in rabbinic

literature and commentary. Newly clustered in the ghetto, they established synagogues known as “Scole” and each ethnicity founded its own house of worship.

The Jewish community exported many scholars and schools of thought. One of the Venice Ghetto’s best known and colorful characters was Rabbi Yehuda Yehuda Aryeh of Modena, who was active in the city in the first half of the 17th century. On one hand, the sage scholar and true intellectual wrote questions and answers and contemplative texts and composed plays and music. On the other, he was an avid dice player and gambler. The Katzenellenbogen family, the father Meir, the son Judah, and the grandson Saul Wahl, were also well-known – Wahl for a legend in which he was claimed to have been King of Poland for one night.

The Jewish Square (Piazza Giudea), Venice, Italy. Engraving 1747 (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Roberto Milano collection, Italy)

But there is no doubt that the main contribution of all of Venice and of its ghetto were the city’s printing houses. The invention of modern printing, about 100 years prior, occurred in a canaled city that was ready and willing. One publishing house belonged to Daniel Bomberg, a Christian from Antwerp. He established a Hebrew print house on the recommendation of a friend – a Jewish convert to Christianity – who persuaded him to target the “People of the Book.”

Daniel Bomberg’s publishing house earned its name in the pantheon of creation mainly for printing editions of the Babylonian Talmud that were the first to gather all of the Talmudic tractates. Bomberg’s innovation was in its layout of the Talmud, in which Rashi’s commentary and the Tsofot appear on the outer margins of the page.

Bomberg assembled a staff of learned and exacting sages to prepare and proofread the texts for printing. To this day, every edition of the Babylonian Talmud, whether traditional of progressive, follow the model established in Venice. One of the first editions of the Babylonian Talmud published by Bomberg sold at auction five years ago for the astronomical price of $11 million. Another edition will be part of the permanent exhibition at the Beit Hatfutsot Museum of the Jewish People, scheduled to open in October this year.

Menorah in the Venice Ghetto, Italy, 1972 (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Dr. Morris Plust, U.S.A)

The Venice Ghetto was home to the city’s Jews for 281 years. In 1797, when Napoleon conquered the city, the ghetto was dismantled in response to its new ruler’s order. Jews became equal citizens and retained their status when Venice gained its independence in 1848.

Mussolini’s fascist regime and ally of Hitler reintroduced race laws in Italy in 1938. More than 200 of some 1,200 Venetian Jews failed to return from the concentration camps.

Some 450 Jews now live in in the city. Isolated again in these troubled times, this time they join the rest of the city’s and the nation’s residents in the battle against the CoronaVirus.

Translated by Varda Shpiegel

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700 years before Coronavirus: Jewish life during the black death plague https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/700-years-before-coronavirus-jewish-life-during-the-black-death-plague/ Mon, 16 Mar 2020 21:18:11 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=47545 Itamar Kremer  A mysterious disease erupted in the mid-14th century called the Black Death. The disease, caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, began in Mongolia and spread quickly to China. It spread to Europe following a battle between the Mongolians and the Genovese army on the Crimean Peninsula. Dead bodies were catapulted toward Italy, in [...]

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Itamar Kremer 

A mysterious disease erupted in the mid-14th century called the Black Death. The disease, caused by the Yersinia pestis bacteria, began in Mongolia and spread quickly to China. It spread to Europe following a battle between the Mongolians and the Genovese army on the Crimean Peninsula. Dead bodies were catapulted toward Italy, in what appears to have been the first use of biological warfare, if you will.

The disease spread throughout the Old World, killing 20-25 million Europeans and another 35 million Chinese within a decade. As soon as the disease arrived in Europe in 1346, some blamed the Jews for leisurely poisoning wells. When the disease’s virulently fatal nature became clear – mainly in 1348-1349 – it was accepted as fact that the Jews were to blame.

This was not a new notion. During the 500 years that preceded the plague, European demographics, urban trade centers and major ports thrived, and Jews engaged mainly in local commerce. Jewish communities were subject to no lack of persecution, including the Crusades and major exiles from England and France in the late-13th and early-14th centuries.

The people of Tournai bury victims of the Black Death, c. 1353

But the plague brought a completely different type of persecution. This was not just economic oppression, unfair taxation, or even marking Jews with a yellow or purple patch. This was real slaughter. The masses ignored Pope Clement VI’s bull that the Jews were not to blame, King Carl IV of Germany’s explicit policy and even the public statements of a significant number of European municipalities. A purely economic matter was at play here. Jewish property was perceived to belong to royalty or cities. Jews worked under licenses, trading, profiting and earning their daily bread in the only occupations permitted to them. Kingdoms and local authorities were thus empowered to announce when and where Jews could be killed, how their property would be divided and by whom.

But the masses did not obey. Extremist religious groups, local actions, a series of religiously, economically and socially based mass murders, and mainly unbridled hatred and fear of the Other ensued.

Hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed. Jews in Basel were burned in a structure created solely for that purpose, walking distance from the casino in which the First Zionist Congress was held 550 years later. More than 1,000 Jews were killed on the night of Valentine’s Day, and Jews were forbidden from living in the city for 100 years. A mass suicide of Jews took place in Frankfurt and the Jewish community of Erfurt was completely wiped out. Information regarding the location of a bounty of treasure, buried by the community’s sponsors, was also erased when the plague began. That treasure was coincidentally discovered during an archaeological dig in 1998. Beit Hatfutsot’s collection includes a wedding ring that was part of that treasure.

The Erfurt ring. part of the Museum of the Jewish people at Beit Hatfutsot collection

Most of the Jews who inhabited and survived the pogroms in Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland emigrated to Poland, where King Casimir (Kazimierz) III displayed a tolerant policy toward Jews and other minorities. A smaller number fled to Spain, where Jews were briefly offered shelter until the pogroms and Massacre of 1391 meant their days were also numbered.

Despite commonly held belief, we cannot say whether Jews died in greater or lesser numbers of the disease than they did of their neighbors. Many historians believe that halacha mandating hygiene practices like netilat yadayim (handwashing), quick burial of the dead, and tahara (ritual purity); and arvut hadadit, mutual responsibility among members of the community protected Jews – at least from death – by reducing the spread of disease. Halacha also contains strict rulings on isolation

during an epidemic like “When there is an epidemic in the town keep your feet inside your house (Bava Kamma 60b.)” or the Halacha’s command against double-dipping: “One should not bite off a piece [of bread] in front of his fellow and put it into the bowl of food from which he eats (Masechet Derech Eretz).”

But one must remember that all Halachic laws were not enforced and observed to the same extent at the time, and that the Jews faced difficult environmental conditions: The Jewish Quarters were typically relatively crowded, located far from city centers and adjacent to city walls. Jewish Quarters in cities along rivers were typically located on their banks, in relatively unsafe areas near forests and wildlife.

Representation of a massacre of the Jews in 1349 Antiquitates Flandriae (Royal Library of Belgium manuscript 1376/77)

We know that many Jews died directly – not just indirectly – from the disease. There is little documentation about the lives of Jews in that period beyond fear, harsh decrees, and persecution. Halacha ceased completely to develop during those decades; yeshivot were dismantled, and the center of learning and religious ruling moved.

Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, Ba’al Haturim, penned the Arba’ah Turim (“Four Columns”), a few years before the plague broke out in Cologne, Germany. The collection of halachot practiced during that period was a testament to Western European Jewish life. It is actually eulogies and depictions of death that shed light on Jewish life during those dark times.

An epitaph for a boy named Asher ben Turiel has remained inscribed on his tombstone for hundreds of years in the surviving Jewish cemetery in Toledo. We can learn a great deal from his father’s farewell to his dead son about how the Jews of Toledo lived:

This stone is a memorial / That a later generation may know

That underneath it lies hidden a pleasant bud / A cherished child

Perfect in knowledge / A reader of the Bible

A student of Mishnah and Gemara / Had learned from his father

What his father learned from his teachers / The statutes of God and his laws

Though only fifteen years in age / He was like a man of eighty in knowledge

More blessed than all sons: Asher – may he rest in Paradise / 

The son of Joseph ben Turiel – may God comfort him /

He died of the plague, in the month of Tammuz, in the year 1349 /

But a few days before his death / He established his home /

But yesternight the joyous voice of the bride and groom /

Was turned to the voice of wailing /

And the father is left, sad and aching /

May the God of heaven / Grant him comfort /

And send another child / To restore his soul /

 

Forty years later, French Jewish physician Jacob ben Salomon wrote a work entitled “Great Mourning,” in which he describes his daughter Esther’s last moments. She died of a secondary outbreak of the Great Plague in 1383, weeks after her brother and sister, Israel and Sarah, also died. Esther expressed her few final wishes on her deathbed: She asked that her money be donated to charity and her clothes to the poor. She asked that her uncle leave the room before her death, because as a Cohen (member of the priestly class), he was forbidden from being in the presence of the dead; and that her husband not come to her side because she was ritually impure according to the laws of niddah. She asked that her husband name a future daughter after her, and that her sister not take her place as his wife. Jacob ben Salomon eulogized his children by noting that during Esther’s final moments, she strictly observed the letter of Jewish law.

May we not know his suffering. Great health to all.

Translated by Varda Spiegel

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The Woman who Founded the First School for Jewish Girls in Northern Africa https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/woman-founded-first-school-jewish-girls-northern-africa/ Sun, 08 Mar 2020 15:46:41 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=47470 “The Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People” was a missionary Anglican organization founded in 1809 in London in order to encourage Jews to convert to Christianity. This mission had emissaries in 52 states and operated as a smooth, perfectly organized, restless propaganda machine. Hundreds of devoted emissaries worked for the organization, about 50% of them converted [...]

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“The Church’s Ministry Among Jewish People” was a missionary Anglican organization founded in 1809 in London in order to encourage Jews to convert to Christianity. This mission had emissaries in 52 states and operated as a smooth, perfectly organized, restless propaganda machine. Hundreds of devoted emissaries worked for the organization, about 50% of them converted Jews.

For those conversion centers, money was a crucial factor. The mission’s leaders targeted young unprivileged Jews as their easy prey. Their tactic included basing in poor Jewish centers worldwide, establishing schools and lure the youth to join the mission by offering material benefits. Their methods and activity were condemned as “catching rotten fish in a golden net”.

In 1875 the missionaries arrived at Mogador, Morocco, following rumors that the city, located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, was home to quite a few fat “rotten fish”.

Stella Corcos’ girls’ school in Mogador, Morocco, 1885-1900c., The Corcos Family Archive, Jerusalem. Courtesy of Sidney Corcos.

Stella Corcos’ girls’ school in Mogador, Morocco, 1885-1900c., The Corcos Family Archive, Jerusalem. Courtesy of Sidney Corcos.

Indeed, Mogador was a vivid port city, where Jewish artisans, rabbis, and scholars formed a vibrant community. Mogador was home to famous merchants such as the Cabessa and Elmalih families, great wise men such as rabbi Haim Pinto and rabbi Avraham Ben Attar, and artists like David Elkayam, known as “the Da Vinci of Mogador”. Due to the large number of Jewish merchants, the port of Mogador stopped working on Shabbat. The elders recall that after the morning prayer of Shabbat, Jews used to leave the Mellah (the Jewish quarter), and walk to the beach, where they would spend the day relaxing and bathing.

By the end of the 19th century, there were approximately 12,000 members in the Jewish community of Mogador. One of them was Stella Corcos, a brave inspirational woman who dedicated her life to hold out against the Christian mission’s intentions.

Stella Corcos Duran was born in 1858 on the other side of the ocean, in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Abraham Duran, was a wealthy tobacco merchant who immigrated to America from Algiers, and her mother, Rebecca, was from an aristocrat British Jewish family, related to the philanthropist Moses Montefiore. Stella grew up surrounded by governesses and servants and received the finest education.

Then the family moved to England, and after graduating from high school, Stella started to study pedagogy. After graduation, she was a principal of a private school in London, then married in England to Moses Corcos, a successful tradesman from Mogador, in which they settled after their marriage.

Stella Corcos Duran, 1940c.

Stella Corcos Duran, 1940c.

The Corcos family was one of the wealthy and distinguished families in the city, which the Sultan Muhamad Ibn Abdalla invited during the 19th century in order to develop the city’s trade and economy. These families were called “Tujar Al Sultan”, tradesmen of the Sultan. Unlike most of the other Jews in Mogador, who resided in the poor Mellah, the Tujar Al Sultan lived in the established quarter of the kasbah, and were completely alienated from the poor Mellah Jews, which they considered a rabble and would let them enter their club at the Kasbah.

According to one urban legend, one day Stella Corcos was taking a walk in the Mellah, when suddenly she heard angelic voices singing. She came closer and found out they were Jewish girls singing Christian liturgy in a missionary school for Jewish girls. Her heart froze and she decided to fight back, not by a violent or angry act, but rather inspired by “Then shall ye do to him, as he had thought to have done unto his brother” (Deuteronomy 19,19). Stella established a competing school for Jewish girls, the first of its kind in all of Northern Africa. In time her school became one of the finest successful girls’ institutions in the entire Jewish world.

It is a known fact that one way to reconcile between two conflicting sides is to find a common enemy. Thus, encouraged by Stella, the poor Jews of the Mellah and the rich Jews of the Kasbah joined together in the fight against the Christian mission. Stella raised funds from the local community as well as from the Anglo-Jewish philanthropy association “Brit Ahim”, and started to work on her school as soon as she could.

 

Jewish children from Marrakech in a summer school in Mogador, 1945. Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Dr. David Cohen, Bat Yam

Jewish children from Marrakech in a summer school in Mogador, 1945. Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Dr. David Cohen, Bat Yam

Her school was named “Kavod ve-Ometz” (honor and courage) and addressed mainly poor girls, it ended up setting a wonderful model of education and pedagogy. Stella insisted that the teaching language will be English, and lessons in French, Arabic, and Hebrew were also included. Former MK Jacques Amir reported that only when he grew up, as he heard of the school, he finally realized why his Mogador born mother used to speak to him in English mixed with Arabic.

Initially, for lack of means, the school was located in the home of Stella and Moses, later they had enough funds to relocate it in a steady building inside the Mellah. Stella introduced a teaching method called advanced excellency, that directed the girls to self-studying as well as to community volunteering. The pupils studied history, geography, grammar, literature, general education, mathematics, reading and writing, translating, poetry, sewing, piano, and drama.

One Alliance principal who visited the unique school noted that Kavod ve-Ometz could no doubt compete with the best Alliance schools in Morocco. English pedagogues, who came especially to Mogador to inspect the educational wonder, said that Stella Corcos’ institution was even better than similar schools in England and that the students are no less educated than their British equivalents. Surpassing herself, Stella established a theater class, considered the first Jewish theater ensemble in Morocco. A replica of a rare program of one the productions, dated 1888, kept all these years with Stella’s great-granddaughter, Sidney, will be on display in the Trailblazer Women section in the new museum at Beit Hatfutsot, which will open in October 2020.

Gala night’s program of the Stella Corcos girls’ school, Mogador, Morocco, late 19th century. Beit Hatfutsot collection. Original document at Bibliothèque de l’Alliance israélite universelle, Paris)

Gala night’s program of the Stella Corcos girls’ school, Mogador, Morocco, late 19th century. Beit Hatfutsot collection. Original document at Bibliothèque de l’Alliance israélite universelle, Paris)

Following the school’s success, the Christian mission had to depart from Mogador for good. Moses Corcos died in 1907, who supported his wife in her life work, at the age of 45. Stella was left with 6 children she raised by herself while carrying on with her educational career, as well as her husband’s business and assets. Corcos’ school, that in its peak had 225 pupils, was operating for three decades, from 1885 until the mid-1920s. Stella passed away on March 6, 1948, 72 years ago this week.

Two years ago, the city hall of Mogador decided to name a street after Stella Corcos, the outstanding initiator who educated so many of her nation’s women. May this article, in honor of the International Women Day, pave the way for commemoration she deserves in Israel as well.

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The Jewish brothers who invented “Egyptian Mickey Mouse” https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/the-jewish-brothers-who-invented-egyptian-mickey-mouse/ Mon, 10 Feb 2020 12:13:40 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=46770 It almost seems unreal today, but it was a weekly ritual in Israel, from 1968 up until the mid-1990s, long before cables, Netflix or even just multichannel television. Each Friday afternoon, for almost three decades, everyone gathered around the tribal fire of the “Arab film”, an inclusive folk Israeli term referring to films that mostly [...]

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It almost seems unreal today, but it was a weekly ritual in Israel, from 1968 up until the mid-1990s, long before cables, Netflix or even just multichannel television. Each Friday afternoon, for almost three decades, everyone gathered around the tribal fire of the “Arab film”, an inclusive folk Israeli term referring to films that mostly came from Egypt to the young, mono-channel State of Israel. Heartbreaking dramas, tragic romances, tearful breakups and occasional wild comedies within the conservative genre rules – all were basic ingredients in Israeli culture, that caused thousands of workers to skip the holy Friday afternoon nap in order to enjoy a weakly piece of culture from the neighbors (as well as enemies) surrounding them.

Ever since then, the eyes of Israelis are lit with nostalgic affection whenever Egyptian filmmaking or television is discussed. But only a few know about the historical debt of the prosperous film industry in Egypt to one Jewish family who came to Egypt in 1914, and turned Arab cinema upside down.

Mish Mish Effendi, the Egyptian cartoon hero created by the Frankels

Mish Mish Effendi, an Egyptian cartoon hero

The story of the Frenkel family starts like many a tale of travels and immigration, so typical to Jews everywhere for most of the 20th century. Within just 50 years this creative family passed through five stations: Rechytsa in Russia, Jaffa, Alexandria, Cairo, and Paris.

In 1905, Bezalel and Genza Frenkel left the Russian empire following the anti-Jewish riots there. They came to Eretz Israel and settled in Jaffa, where they opened a printing house. When the First World War broke, the Ottoman authorities were suspicious of former residents of the Russian empire, therefore they accused them of being enemy’s agents. With the help of American Jewry, the Frenkels, along with some 10,000 Jews sailed from Jaffa to Alexandria.

Bezalel, who was a photographer back in Russia, passed on the passion for filming and cinema to his children and they used to film themselves whenever they had a chance. The turning point in the family’s story took place in the late 1920s, when Walt Disney’s “Mickey Mouse” was released. According to the family tradition, they decided to introduce animation into the Arab world after watching the iconic Mickey. In order for this dream to come true, they had to travel again, this time to Cairo, the center of the film industry and home of the large theaters.

The Frenkel family. Right top: Hershl, left top: David, left bottom: Shlomo. From the film Bukrah fill Mish Mish

The Frenkel family. Right top: Hershl, left top: David, left bottom: Shlomo. From the film Bukhra fill Mish Mish

Bezalel and Genza had three sons: David, an escapist, genius painter; Hershl, a down to earth businessman; and Shlomo, who had technical skills and the phenomenal capacity to make a camera out of almost anything.

“Those three were obsessive, perfectionist filmmakers”, nephew Isaac Rosenblum recalls, in the documentary “Bukhra Fil Mish-Mish” by director Tal Michael, about the brothers’ story. “First they learned by themselves the art of animation and cinema, then for eight months they labored to produce the first animation film in the Arab world ever. David drew thousands of pictures, and Shlomo invented a device that enabled them to screen films to viewers without a special hall, it was something of a premature television set, made of a box, celluloid film, and a lantern to reflect the shots on a small screen. It also included a portable speaker that played the sound.”

When they introduced their film to one famous Egyptian producer, his reaction was “Bukhra fill Mish Mish”, an idiom which stands for “when hell freezes over” (literally “tomorrow at apricot season”). As giving up was not in their vocabulary, they carried on. As a homage to the producer who rejected them, they named the film “Mafich Faida” – no use, and went further on mocking that poor skeptical guy by naming their animated hero “Mish Mish Effendi”, an Egyptian version of Mickey Mouse, an eccentric, lanky fellow with a tarboosh, who always gets into awkward situations, then gets away due to lots of funny gestures and loads of grace and humor.

The wonders machine Shlomo Frenkel invented. From the film Bukhra fill Mish Mish

The wonder machine Shlomo Frenkel invented. From the film Bukhra fill Mish Mish

The film is 8.5 minutes long, it was released in 1936 to theaters in Cairo and Alexandria, and went on playing for four consecutive weeks. People filled the halls and the film won everyone’s admiration everywhere. Soon the family, who lived and worked in a tiny apartment in Cairo, was swarmed with job offers. Their place was filled with film rolls, tape recorders, cameras and the like. “Their studio was in their house, where they used to paint, color, shoot and develop the film”, Rosenblum described, “there wasn’t a single spot in that apartment that was not stuffed with filmmaking equipment”.

Mish Mish Effendi became a national star. Egyptian companies hired them to produce commercials with his character, the government used him for propaganda, the ministry of agriculture purchased a tutorial film in which Mish Mish teaches how to cope with cotton crops parasites. Just before World War II, the ministry of defense asked for a film calling the Egyptians to strengthen the army. The Frenkel brothers were even awarded a national medal.

It seemed as though all their dreams were coming true, and that nothing was going to hold back their thriving career – when the establishment of the State of Israel was declared, and rocked their boat, marking the end of all their hopes and dreams. The streets of Cairo were unrest, violent anti-Jewish riots occurred, shops and businesses owned by Jews were nationalized, Jews were laid off from all official posts, from banks and educational institutes. It is estimated that in 1948 there were some 80,000 Jews living in Egypt. Most of them, like the Frenkel family, were forced to immigrate, leaving everything behind.

Opening shot of Mafich Faida, the first film by the Frenkel brothers, that became popular

Opening shot of Mafich Faida, the first film by the Frenkel brothers, that became popular

The brothers sailed to France, from where they planned to come to Israel, however one Jewish agency man in the Marseille port had other plans. He refused to let them load their cases packed with films, materials, and machinery aboard. Unwilling to leave their life work, they stayed in Paris and settled there. They tried to restart their successful film making there but to no avail. Eventually, they turned to other fields. Didier Frenkel, Shlomo’s son, reported that when one of the uncles died, his father asked him to get rid of all the equipment and original materials, kept in the family’s basement in Paris, however, he could not bring himself to consent. Years later, when he realized he was in fact in the hold of rare old animation films, he handed them over to the French national films archive for preservation, and the Frenkel treasure and life work were thus saved.

This week marks a historical watershed in the history of Arab cinema. On February 8, 1936, 84 years ago, at the Cosmograph hall in Cairo, the first animation film on African soil ever was screened, by the Frenkel brothers. It is time that we honor them.

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Six Feet Under: One Tiny Italian Car – One Moment of Human Grace https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/six-feet-one-tiny-italian-car-one-moment-human-grace/ Thu, 23 Jan 2020 15:11:10 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=46558 Last year, Claudia De Benedetti was launching her book in a ceremony held in Casale Monferrato in Piemonte district, Italy. Her book is fascinating research on the history of her family, one of the renowned aristocratic families in Italy. While delivering her moving speech, she still did not imagine that the real thrill was yet [...]

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Last year, Claudia De Benedetti was launching her book in a ceremony held in Casale Monferrato in Piemonte district, Italy. Her book is fascinating research on the history of her family, one of the renowned aristocratic families in Italy. While delivering her moving speech, she still did not imagine that the real thrill was yet to come. As the event was almost over, a woman in her sixties came upon her and said, my name is Sandra, and I am named after your aunt. After a short pause, she uttered the final jaw-dropper: In fact, I am Pietro Bo’s daughter.

When Claudia was able to speak again, the two women went out to talk in a nearby restaurant, next to the great synagogue in Casale Monferrato, considered one of the most beautiful synagogues in Europe. Soon enough they were reminiscing about the old Fiat 500 Topolino 37, that shall forever bond together the De Benedetti and the Bo families.

The De Benedetti family is an Italian Jewish elite. Their branched family tree reaches the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain and includes Edgardo Mortara, the Jewish boy whose scandalous abduction by Catholic authorities in 1858 resulted in the foundation of the Alliance educational network. Another famous branch includes the Donati family from Modena, from which many famous bankers, jurists, diplomats, and industrialists were descended. Claudia’s great grandmother’s brother, for example, was Angelo Donati, a Jewish Italian diplomat, and philanthropist who used his fortune and connections among Italy’s high officials to save thousands of French Jews during the Holocaust, while serving as the ambassador of San Marino. Claudia De Benedetti is a businessperson, curator, author, philanthropist, and a member of the Maccabi World Union board of directors, as well as the international board of governors of the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot.

The last postcard Claudia’s grandma, Carla Mortara De Benedetti sent to her sister, Lidia Mortara Giron, who immigrated to New York in 1939. In the postcard, she informs her sister of their decision to escape to Stevani. April 5, 1941

The last postcard Claudia’s grandma, Carla Mortara De Benedetti sent to her sister, Lidia Mortara Ghiron, who immigrated to New York in 1939. In the postcard, she informs her sister of their decision to escape to Stevani. April 5, 1941

The following events occurred during the Second World War, in the magnificent Piemonte district in northern Italy. Naturally, wartimes have their typical absurdities, and in the first years of the war, Jews who held Fascist Italy’s i.d’s, were also the lucky ones, who were holding the keys for survival and liberation. This was also the case of the De Benedettis from Turin.

The family owed their prosperity, based on banking, industry, and finances, to the Italian king Carlo Alberto, who in 1848 granted full emancipation to the Jews, after centuries of repression and discrimination. Up until then, the Jews of Turin were not allowed to purchase buildings, join the army or leave the quarter during Christian holidays and processions. For a long time, they were forced to wear a yellow badge and could not study in state official schools and universities.

Mole Antonelliana, mid 19th century according to the position of the tower

Mole Antonelliana, mid 19th century according to the position of the tower

In an act of gratitude, wishing to adorn their city, the Jews of Turin, including the De Benedettis, initiated the erection of the Mole Antonelliana, a celebrated synagogue designed to seat 1,500 worshippers, in the center of town. Today, the pointed building is Turin’s most recognizable landmark. The construction lasted for four decades, due to technical issues resulting from the problematic proportions between the narrow base and the overall height and weight of the structure. Turin Jews had a love-hate relationship with the synagogue, as it represented for them their own situation: based on a national extremely narrow basis. Eventually, perhaps fearing an evil eye, they decided to give the building up and transfer ownership to the municipality in 1877.

Half a century later, all their concerns and fears came true. The fall of the fascist regime in Italy on July 25 1943, followed by the surrender to the allies, resulted in Nazi Germany’s invasion. Italy was divided in two, the north was taken by the Germans while the allies held the rest of the territories. Dangerously, the De Benedettis and all the Jews of Turin, remained in the unfortunate area.

Claudia’s father Camillo, age 17, with his sister Sandra, age 13, on their first dance after returning to Turin.

Claudia’s father Camillo, age 17, with his sister Sandra, age 13, on their first dance after returning to Turin.

“I was just a kid when my grandma Carla told me about our family’s whereabouts in the Holocaust for the first time”, said Claudia, unfolding the events following the Nazi’s invasion to north Italy. “Rumors about the transports to unknown destinations that never came back reached my grandpa, Giulio De Benedetti. Giulio and Carla did not think twice, they packed and took my father, Camillo, his sister Sandra and their old parents, hasting to leave Turin to a small village called Stevani.

While in the village, the De Benedetti family developed close friendship with their neighbors, a poor family of farmers – the Bo family. Quite often at times of war, class differences disappear, especially when it comes to children. “They were inseparable; you could not find one without the other. My father Camillo, his sister Sandra and the Bo children: Renzo, Ottavio, Pietro, and Corinna.

1937 Fiat 500 Topolino

1937 Fiat 500 Topolino

A few months after the occupation of the north, even the village house became unsafe. Grandpa Giulio realized that had to move on and the family planned to cross the border to Switzerland for a safe haven. The parents were somewhat perplexed, as they owned many pieces of jewelry, diamonds, valuable art items and lots of money, which they knew they could not take with them.

Then the children came up with a brilliant idea. They suggested to put all the valuables inside their small Fiat 500 Topolino 37, that Giulio brought from Turin, and burry the whole car in a large pit. The kids dug the hole in the Bo family’s yard and drove the car inside. When they were done they covered up the entire area, and the Topolino was completely out of sight.

Claudia De Benedetti in front of a memorial plaque on the house in which Angelo Donati lived in Nice, France, in 1940-1943

Claudia De Benedetti in front of a memorial plaque on the house in which Angelo Donati lived in Nice, France, in 1940-1943

Two years later, on July 13 1945, after the end of the war, the De Benedetti family returned to Stevani, for an emotional tearful reunion with the Bo family. Renzo and Corrina once again shoveled the yard, slowly revealing that old Fiat 500, still holding all the family’s precious belongings. Nothing was damaged, nothing was missing.

Though the Bo’s had a treasure just two feet from their living room, that could change their lives; and even though they must have heard about the homicide of the Jews of Europe and knew they had a reasonable excuse for taking the treasure for themselves – they chose to keep it all safe until their neighbors and friends shall return.

This is just one story out of countless similar chronicles. On this upcoming International Holocaust Day, it is crucial to remember the great many non-Jewish good-doers, who risked their lives attempting to rescue Jews, thus beautifully executing the old Jewish command: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man” (Pirke Avit 2).

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The Jewish student who paid with his life for Romanian anti-Semitism https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/jewish-student-paid-life-romanian-anti-semitism/ Sun, 12 Jan 2020 14:44:28 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=46370 “David Falik has been killed by the bullet of Totu and so will die all the country’s enemies, by innumerable bullets which will be fired against the filthy beasts. Totu is a martyr and a hero. Gentlemen of the jury, he must be set free.” (From the closing argument of the leading attorney for the [...]

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“David Falik has been killed by the bullet of Totu and so will die all the country’s enemies, by innumerable bullets which will be fired against the filthy beasts. Totu is a martyr and a hero. Gentlemen of the jury, he must be set free.” (From the closing argument of the leading attorney for the defense in Nicolas Totu’s case, the murder of David Falik.)

It was 1926, in the period historiographers call “between the two World Wars.” Europe was redivided after World War I ended, several years earlier. The Romanians won the historical region of Bucovia (now in Ukraine) in the Continental Monopoly game.

An early 20th-century postcard depicting the Czernowitz Synagogue

For the Jews of the Bucovian capital Czernowitz, the redistribution of this geographic bounty was nothing less than a tragedy. Their newly Romanian status severed a Golden Age, in which the Jews of Czernowitz thrived for nearly 150 years under the rule of the Slovenian Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Hapsburg Kaisers granted the Czernowitz Jews nearly full rights and the freedom to preserve their Jewish identity. This liberty – as is generally the case – fostered varied and opposing privileges.

Wandering the streets in those days revealed a small, cosmopolitan Jewish world. A Reform community, called “those who go forward,” and an Orthodox community, called “those who remain in place,” lived side-by-side in Czernowitz. This Jewish melting pot was joined by Zionist youth movements, Communists, Bundists, and converts to Catholicism who crossed the street to worship in the local cathedral. Czernowitz Jews spoke a Viennese German dialect, peppered with Yiddish and Ukrainian. Yiddish writers like Itzik Manger and Eliezer Steinbarg lived and wrote in Czernowitz; and the city hosted the 1908 “Czernowitz Conference,” considered to be a dramatic peak in the war between Yiddish and Hebrew. Jewish dominance in the city was evidenced in the 1912 mayorship of Jewish Salo Weisselberger.

The second conference of Tzeirei-Zion in Rםmania, Chernovtsy, 1921 (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, bequest of the late David Vinitzki, Israel)

But the end of World War I brought an end to the Hapsburg Renaissance in Bucovina. Romanian farmers began to oppress Jews as soon as the Romanian army entered Czernowitz on November 11, 1918; and Ukrainian farmers joined the Romanian rioters in the mid-20s.

Romania had a long history of anti-Semitism. Despite its commitment in the Berlin Congress of 1878 to grant Jews equality, the Romanian government failed to overcome its unconditional reflex for discriminating against its Mosaic citizens. One explanation for that is envy – plain and simple. The data speaks for itself. In the early 20th Century, Romanian Jewry comprised some 4.6% of the population. They held 31% of Romania’s industrial and commercial enterprise. A Romanian citizen who traveled by train rode on rails laid by the country’s leading and Jewish tycoon Max Auschnitt aka the “Iron King.” When that same traveler went to a bar, he got drunk on beer brewed by the Neuman brothers, owners of the largest and most modern liquor factory in Romania.

The Romanian government recognized the problem, and instead of solving it, added fuel to the fire, launching a “Romanianization” policy. The underlying principle of this racist policy was exclusion of Jews from the public sector thereby sapping their power. To illustrate its impact, note that during the Austro-Hungarian period a quarter of Czernowitz’s Jews served in public roles.

The Central Jewish Bank for credit and Saving, Credit Cooperative founded with the assistance of the Joint Distribution Committee. Czernovtsy, Bukovina, Romania, 1927. (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, Courtesy of Moshe

With enactment of the Romanianization laws, the Romanian government issued a regulation determining that public institutions in the nation use only the Romanian language. The continued employment of senior officials was contingent upon mandatory testing for their proficiency in that language. The majority of Jewish officials, who spoke German, thus found themselves unemployed.

The Romanians so feared the Jews that then-propaganda minister Mihai Antonescu ordered that all the lead molds of records preserving the works of Jewish composers and musicians be destroyed.

A high point in the annals of Romanianization involves a Jewish boy named David Falik. The story begins with the wrongful failure in matriculation exams of 40 out of 69 Jewish students in a high school in Czernowitz. That their failure was tendentious is witnessed in the fact that all the non-Jewish Romanians passed the exam. The parents of the failed students refused to remain silent. They quickly gathered at the school’s gates to protest the fabricated test results.

The German “Czernowitzer Morgenblatt” newspaper reported that when an exam proctor named Diaconescu left the school grounds, Jewish student David Falik asked him, “Why did you do that?” Diaconescu replied, “It’s none of your business!” Falik shouted, “Down with Diaconescu,” and the gathered protestors began to attack the Romanian teacher. Diaconescu was actually escorted to safety by two other Jews, a police officer named Rotenberg and a Jewish wagon driver who happened on the scene.

Jews in front of the Russian Church at the market square, Chernovtsy, Romania, 1910’s (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center)

The “Matriculation Scandal” headline rocked the Romanian soul. The average Romanian could not stomach the fact that inferior Jews dared to oppose and attack a Romanian teacher – their flesh and blood. Indictments for attacking a public official were issued to 24 Jews, including David Falik. When the Jews left the courthouse in Czernowitz – on the second day of the trial, November 10, 1926 – a student named Nicholas Totu from the city of Iasi was waiting for them. Nicolas pulled out a pistol and shot twice “point blank” at David Falik, who fell in a pool of blood.

More than 3,000 Romanian attorneys volunteered to defend Nicolas Totu. His trial was rigged from beginning to end, and when the jury acquitted him despite his confession that he murdered Falik in cold blood – the crowd roared in joy. Wrapped in a Romanian flag, Totu was carried on his supporters’ shoulders out of the courtroom.

The murder of David Falik and the kangaroo-court trial of Nicolas Totu shocked Romanian Jews. But most nonetheless chose to repress their circumstances and carry on with their lives. Until 16 years later, more than half of Romanian Jewry was exterminated in the Holocaust.

(Translated by Varda Spiegel)

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About miracles:  Reflections on the concept of miracles for Hannukah https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/miracles-reflections-concept-miracles-hannukah/ Sun, 29 Dec 2019 12:06:29 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=46134 Once upon a time there was a man – says the Talmud – whose wife died in labor. The man was so poor that he didn’t have the money to hire a wet nurse for the new baby. And then a miracle happened. According to the Talmud, the man grew breasts bursting with milk. Rabbi [...]

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Once upon a time there was a man – says the Talmud – whose wife died in labor. The man was so poor that he didn’t have the money to hire a wet nurse for the new baby. And then a miracle happened. According to the Talmud, the man grew breasts bursting with milk. Rabbi Yosef said: How great is the man for whom this miracle was performed. Rabbi Abaye replied: Moreover, how terrible is the man for whom the natural order of Genesis was transformed.

The story in Talmud Shabbat 53b presents two approaches in Jewish thought to the concept of miracles. The first views a miracle as confirmation of the reality of a divine power capable of reordering things, intervening in the laws of nature, and bending reality according to will. The second approach believes that heavenly wisdom is embodied in the laws of nature themselves. That approach maintains that what makes an event a miracle is in the eye of the beholder. He may willingly choose to interpret it as an arbitrary and meaningless coincidence. And he may willingly choose to experience it as part of a plan expressed in a number of stories by an all-knowing storyteller, who intentionally planted the event in space and time. As Albert Einstein famously said: “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

Hanukkah in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, Israel, 1950s Photo: Leni Sonnenfeld (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, Sonnenfeld collection)

Leading representatives of these opposing approaches to the meaning of a miracle existed in Jewish thought. Among the renowned supporters of blatant divine intervention in the laws of nature were the Ramban and Rabbi Yosef of the aforementioned Talmud story. The Amora Abaye and the great Ramban were the dominant proponents of the principle that God’s will is embodied in the laws of nature. The Rambam maintained that events perceived as miracles derive from a divine plan sourced in the Creation – that they do not actually depart from the laws of nature. That is to say that miracles are part of the natural reality, and that what makes them miracles is our belief that they are.

The Hannukah story provides a fascinating glimpse of shifts in the approach to miracles the throughout generations. The story actually contains two miracles. One miracle is that of the cruse of oil that lasted eight days; and the other is the glorious victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucids.

In their capacity as the Jewish diaspora’s then-ministers of education and culture, the sages determined that the main focus of the story was the miracle of the cruse of oil. A miracle that comprises a change in the laws of nature themselves, and proof of God’s external intervention in natural reality. These sages’ focus was motivated by their wish to instill hope in an anguished and dispersed diaspora. Placing the cruse of oil at the center of holiday ritual evoked the Shepherd telling his flock that miracles could happen – that despite their seemingly dark and desperate external reality, God had not abandoned them.

Hanukka in Leningrad, USSR, 1983 Photo: Rita Sue Charlestein, USA (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, courtesy of Rita Sue Charlestien, USA)

When the Jewish People returned to its Land, the Zionist leaders returned the miracle of the Maccabees’ victory to the center of Hannukah. Because the Maccabees’ victory against the Greeks belongs to the second definition of the miracle – that is, it does not necessitate a shift in the laws of nature – we returned to a subjective view of the miracle.

One can see the Maccabean victory from both perspectives. From the atheist perspective viewing the Maccabean victory as the outcome of coinciding events, in which confluence arbitrarily led to victory; or from the religious perspective which ascribes the victory to the intentional hand of God. As is written in the Al HaNissim prayer that we read in synagogue on Hannukah.

“You in Your great mercy, stood up for them in their time of trouble…You took their revenge; You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.”

There were voices in the Zionist Movement reflecting both sides. The rebellious pioneers of the Second and Third Aliyot associated the Maccabean victory with the rise of the Jewish People – they strove to expropriate the miracle from the Divine and transfer it to man. In their minds, this was neither miracle nor divine plan, but the effective act of flesh-and-blood people. This approach is expressed in the well-known Hannukah song “Anu Nosim Lapidim,” written in 1930:

“No miracle befell us… We quarried rock until we bled – And then there was light!”

In contrast, there were voices in the Zionist Movement who viewed the Maccabean victory as they did the return of the Jewish people to its Land: The outcome of a divine plan, the Dawn of Redemption and cosmic miracle that returned the Jews to history.

New Immigrant family from Pakistan lighting Hanukkah candles, Israel 1972. Photo: Leni Sonnenfeld. (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, Sonnenfeld collection)

At his seminal commencement speech at Kenyon College author David Foster Wallace told the following story: “Two guys are sitting in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after the fourth beer. And the atheist says: ‘Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’ And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. ‘Well then you must believe me now,’ he says, ‘After all, here you are alive.’ The atheist rolls his eyes. ‘No, man, all that was was a couple of Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.’”

Wallace’s anecdote is the whole story in a nutshell. The same exact experience can have completely different meanings for two different people. It depends on those people’s differing patterns of belief, and the different ways in which they construct meaning from experience. Which of these guys was right? The atheist who saw his rescue as a chain of random and meaningless incidents, or the religious guy who believed that the two Eskimos were cued by a supreme producer conducting human drama.  The beauty – or in this case, the miracle – is that it is completely in the eye of the beholder.

Happy Holiday!

(Translated by Varda Spiegel)

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A Complex Tale: How Agnon Received a Bittersweet Gift in His Final Years https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/a-complex-tale-how-agnon-received-a-bittersweet-gift-in-his-final-years/ Thu, 12 Dec 2019 13:23:42 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=45879 December 10, 1966 – 53 years ago. The clock ticks past 16:00, as the crowd waits in Stockholm’s opulent concert hall for the Nobel Prize winners. The honored guests are waiting anxiously for four stars. Three will herald the end of Shabbat. The fourth is the shining star of Hebrew literature, Shai Agnon. Soon after [...]

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December 10, 1966 – 53 years ago. The clock ticks past 16:00, as the crowd waits in Stockholm’s opulent concert hall for the Nobel Prize winners. The honored guests are waiting anxiously for four stars. Three will herald the end of Shabbat. The fourth is the shining star of Hebrew literature, Shai Agnon.

Soon after Shabbat ends, a posh car pulls up to the Grand Hotel. An elderly couple sits in the back seat in their finest clothes. Agnon, wearing a large black kipah, pulls out an electric shaver to quickly remove a day’s worth of stubble. The woman, Esther nee Marx, glances at her watch and gives her husband a worried look while straightening his collar. “Estherlein, my darling,” Agnon quips smirking to his wife, “I’ve waited for them for so many years. Nothing will happen if they wait a few minutes for me now.”

S.J. Agnon (1888-1970) in his house in Jerusalem, Israel, 1950s (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center, Dr. Paul Arnsberg collection)

Irony was a central tool in Agnon’s works. The greatest compositor of Eastern-European Jewish life truly loved his characters. Because of this great love, he did not hesitate to take them down in the thinly-veiled irony emblematic of his writing. They were rounded figures, you know. As in life itself. And as in life itself, Agnon’s journey to the most coveted title in international literature – that of Nobel laureate – was replete with bittersweet irony.

As Dan Laor wrote in his article for Haaretz, “War of the Words: The Intrigues Behind Israel’s First Nobel Prize Win,” Agnon’s anticipated Nobel Prize took decades in coming. The concept was born in the Hebrew press as early as 1938, when “The Bridal Canopy,” an English translation of his Hebrew novel, was published. But for various reasons, at that time the idea did not come to fruition.

The second time was nine years later. Agnon was still in the throes of writing “Shira” when the motion to nominate Agnon for the Nobel was hatched in the halls of the Hebrew University. The architect of that move was Samuel Hugo Bergman, the university’s first president. Bergman enlisted intellectuals in and beyond the university to promote the plan. But to his surprise, when he contacted Professor Josef Klausner – a prominent historian and literary researcher of his day – adamantly objected.

Professor Josef Klausner, 1912 (Central Zionist Archives)

“Agnon is a galuti (Diaspora-minded) writer,” Klausner blasted. “His work never managed to rise to a human height and his main strength is in Galician folklore.” Crazed with envy, Klausner suggested that poet Zalman Schneur was a worthier candidate for a Nobel Prize nomination. The literary researcher didn’t just talk the talk – he walked the walk, enlisting writers and academics to present Schneur’s nomination while Bergman attempted to promote Agnon.

Agnon and Klausner lived at that time a mere 100 meters from each other in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood. When Agnon heard Klausner’s words, he gave as good as he got. He served his revenge cold. Very cold. Agnon’s monumental novel “Shira,” published 30 years later, featured an entire chapter devoted to a ludicrous professor based on his neighbor and adversary Klausner named “Professor Bachlam.”.Holtzman notes that the chapter titled “At Professor Bachlam’s” is, “Apparently the wickedest and cruelest thing that Agnon ever wrote…a salvo of toxic barbs intended to ridicule every aspect of Klausner’s endeavors – and his personality and manners.”

But in a complete U-turn, the irony backfired first to Agnon’s detriment. In 1958, Klausner passed away and the Jerusalem Municipality’s cultural committee decided to name the street on which he lived in his name. Imagine how Agnon felt passing the street sign bearing his adversary’s name on a daily basis and picking up the letters in his mailbox to see his nemesis’s surname on the front.

Agnon in his last years, Jerusalem (Beit Hatfutsot, the Oster Visual Documentation Center)

The third attempt to nominate Agnon was in 1951. But in what looked like magic, the Schneur camp rose up again to try to thwart the motion. But Agnon’s fan base was bigger this time, and Schneur’s nomination was foiled. In order to increase his chances, Agnon flew quickly to Sweden to meet with influential intellectuals and writers. But the intended blessing turned into a curse. Not only did Agnon endure another disappointment and failure to win the prize, but he suffered a heart attack during the visit and was hospitalized in Stockholm. “It is a great honor that is worth one making a mockery of oneself,” said Agnon on another occasion – and the Nobel Prize seems to be the greatest honor of all.

In 1966, only 15 years later, the longed-for announcement arrived: The Nobel Committee for Literature decided for the first time in history to grant the prize to a Jewish writer who wrote in Hebrew. The Hebrew language waited 2,000 years for the Prince from Buczacz to finally wake her from her slumber with the kiss of his words.

But every rose has a thorn. The sweetness of this victory was tainted with an acrid drop. Agnon actually received half of the whole prize. He was forced to share the glory with German-Jewish poet Nellie Zakas. A genius of literature like him was worthy of keeping the entire prize to himself, but Agnon swallowed the bitter pill. Agnon’s regular readers can’t miss the thinly-veiled but piercing irony in the message to the Nobel committee in his address at the awards ceremony: “Before I conclude my remarks, I will say one more thing. If I have praised myself too much, it is for your sake that I have done so, in order to reassure you for having cast your eyes on me. For myself, I am very small indeed in my own eyes.” The humility is directly proportional to the talent.

Agnon was 78 when he won the Nobel Prize. He went to his final reward in February, 1970, four years later.

(Translated by Varda Spiegel)

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All in the Family: The Debate that Ripped Apart 18th-Century Polish Jewry https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/family-debate-ripped-apart-18th-century-polish-jewry/ Mon, 09 Dec 2019 12:42:15 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=45835 Winter 1759. Some 2000 Jews – men, women, and children – gathered in the central square in front of Lvov, Poland’s cathedral. All but the wailing infants were mum. The frigid bone-penetrating cold was beginning to claim victims. The occasional sound of a body hitting the ground was heard. Elisha Shor – of the famous [...]

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Winter 1759. Some 2000 Jews – men, women, and children – gathered in the central square in front of Lvov, Poland’s cathedral. All but the wailing infants were mum. The frigid bone-penetrating cold was beginning to claim victims. The occasional sound of a body hitting the ground was heard.

Elisha Shor – of the famous Rohatyn Shors – was among the Jews in the square. He begged the cathedral’s leaders to give at least the elderly and the babies food and shelter. He told them that the Council of Four Lands, the central Rabbinic authority of Polish Jewry, had issued a bill to excommunicate them. The council has accused us of Sabbateanism, heresy, and lawlessness, he said. It is forbidden to rent us a home or hire us, and our children have been expelled from educational institutions. We are starving.

The Church elders knew very well that in those days, the fate of a Jew who did not belong to the community was a painful death. The Bishop of Lviv told Elisha, “You will be given shelter and food on three conditions. First, that you publicly declare that your Talmud spreads lies about Jesus. Second, that you confess to using the blood of Christian children to bake matzas. And third, that you convert to Christianity.” Elisha Shor turned around to face the 1,999 questioning pairs of eyes. They stared at him in nerve-wracking anticipation. He took a deep breath, stood up straight, and told the bishop, “That is what we will do.”

Jonathan Eybeschutz 1694-1764

How did we arrive at this cataclysmic moment? Our story begins 65 years earlier. In 1694, a baby named Jonathan Eybeschutz was born in the city of Pinchov, Poland to Sheindel nee Tzuntz and Rabbi Natan Neta, an offspring of Rabbi Natan Neta Shapira the “Megale Amukot (revealer of the depths).” Eybeschutz, who grew up in a family of sages, was known to be a child prodigy and brilliant Talmud scholar.

When he turned bar-mitzva age, a tragedy befell his family: His father passed at a young age, leaving him an orphan. Before he died, his father asked Rabbi Meir Eisenstadt – known as the “Panim Me’irot” for his major work, “Shu”t Panim Me’irot” – to adopt his son and see to his education.  The loyal rabbi fulfilled his friend’s last request. Eybeschutz moved to Rav Meir Eisenstadt’s home in Prossnitz, Moravia and continued to excel in his studies.

This was the point at which the man who fired the opening shot in this war appeared. Among the young teachers appointed by Eisenstadt to teach Eybeschutz was Rav Yehuda Leib Prossnitz, a secret Sabatean and student of Rabbi Nehemia Hayun, a well-known 18th-century leader of Sabateanism. The young teacher and his charge shut themselves in a room and – in addition to studying the fine points of Talmudic pilpul and Halachic ruling – they devoted themselves to studying the Kabbalah, reading the Holy Zohar, and examining known Sabatean literature like the “Raza DeMehimnuta,” attributed to Sabbatai Zevi. Sabbateanism enchanted the talented boy. He devoted his days to the Torat Hanigla rulings of poskim (mainstream religious commentators), and his nights to the Torat Hanistar commentary of Kabalistic sources.

A brief aside. While this sounds anachronistic to us, a bitter struggle took place throughout the 18th Century between the Sabbatean movement and the rabbinic establishment. A near half-century after Sabbatai Zevi’s death, his ideas spread like wildfire throughout Europe. For example, it was said in 1726 about the city of Nadvorna, Galicia that “everyone in the entire city is Sabbatean,” and that “all the gifted scholars there [in Rohatyn, Ukraine] were Sabbatean” or in Yiddish, “Shabbtai Zvinikes.” The rabbinic establishment feared the anarchistic principles embodied in Sabbatean doctrine and the explosive Messianic material it contained. The elite required obedience and the Sabbateans were a thorn in their sides that must be expunged.

Let’s return to Jonathan Eybeschutz. The boy did not limit himself to Sabbatean concepts – he had plenty of Shas Mishna study and poskim rulings under his belt. And in 1710, he was privy to a worthy match with a Torah genius of his ilk. Her name was Elkele and she was the daughter of Rabbi Isaac Spira, the Chief Rabbi of Prague, after he was married, Eybeschutz served as a rabbi in the Great Beit Midrash in Prague, considered the greatest Beit Midrash in Europe.

In 1725, the troubles began. A complaint about Eybeschutz’s affinity for Sabbateanism was filed with the Prague Rabbinate. Eybeschutz was subsequently obligated to subject himself to a humiliating ritual during Kol Nidrei Yom Kippur services in the Great Synagogue of Prague. He was forced to face the entire Jewish community of Prague and admit that he was a Sabbatean. And that was only the beginning. A number of years later, Eybeschutz was offered the position of chief rabbi of Metz. There too, a surprise awaited him. It turned out that Elkele’s aunt lived in Metz and was coincidentally the widow of Rabbi Yaakov Reicher, the city’s chief rabbi who died not long before Eybeschutz’s arrival. When Eybeschutz’s name was mentioned to replace her husband, “Aunt Gittel” announced that she was present at an event that took place during Kol Nidrei services in Prague and that she refused to let Eybeschutz – who was tainted with Sabbateanism – replace her husband. She failed to heed sage advice to “keep this all in the family.”

Jacob Emden’s tombstone, the Jewish cemetery in Hamburg-Altona (Holgerjan, WikiMedia)

But the Metz affair was only a promo for the major storm that would erupt in 1750, when the leaders of the Jewish community in Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbek  – an area known as the Three Communities – offered Eybeschutz the prestigious position of chief rabbi of that district. For Eybeschutz, this was a dream come true. For another man, it was a living nightmare.

Yaakov Emden, who is known as the Ya’avetz, was the son of the Hacham Tzvi Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch and the grandson of Rabbi Zalman Mirlesh. Both of them had served as chief rabbis of the Three Communities.  When Ya’avetz heard that Eybeschutz was to be seated on what was once his father’s and grandfather’s rabbinic throne, his response was “over my dead body.” Ya’avetz, a Torah genius in his own right, declared a war to the death against Eybeschutz and the Sabbateans.

Ya’avetz established a printing house for no other purpose than to print 20 books to thwart Eybeschutz’s appointment. You heard right: Only to condemn Eybeschutz and the Sabbateans. But that didn’t satisfy him. Eybeschutz’s step-brother was none other than Rabbi Meir of Biala, Ya’avetz’s brother-in-law who was also coincidentally a representative of the Council of Four Lands – the rabbinic authority over all of Polish Jewry. Ya’avetz dispatched his brother-in-law to oppose Eybeschutz, his step-brother. And from that moment forward, the council waged a McCarthyesque witch hunt against Eybeschutz and the Sabbateans. This culminated in events including the “Lvov Excommunication” in which 2,000 Jews were forced to convert in that city’s cathedral.

The five years in which Rab Eybeschutz served as the chief rabbi of the Three Communities were overshadowed by the battle against him. Ya’avetz relentlessly attacked him until Eybeschutz finally surrendered. He died exhausted and emotionally scarred in 1764.

*The story appears in Professor Rachel Elior’s book “Israel Baal Shem Tov and his Contemporaries*

(Translated by Varda Spiegel)

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Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot’s Annual Gala – NYC 2019 https://www.bh.org.il/news-and-events/museum-jewish-people-beit-hatfutsots-annual-gala-nyc-2019/ Sun, 08 Dec 2019 10:37:59 +0000 https://www.bh.org.il/?p=45774 “Essen with the Best: A Night to Celebrate All Things Food” – Museum of the Jewish people at Beit Hatfutsot’s Annual Gala took place the evening of December 2 2019 at the Ziegfeld Ballroom and honored our dear friend Joan Nathan. It was an evening to remember featuring the best and the brightest in the [...]

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“Essen with the Best: A Night to Celebrate All Things Food” – Museum of the Jewish people at Beit Hatfutsot’s Annual Gala took place the evening of December 2 2019 at the Ziegfeld Ballroom and honored our dear friend Joan Nathan.

It was an evening to remember featuring the best and the brightest in the world of Jewish food. Joan curated a delicious meal for the evening, and guests were treated to a one-of-a-kind food extravaganza, including interactive food displays, remarks from Michael Solomonov, food stories from Boris Fishman, Mark Federman, and Dani Dayan, and a silent auction featuring high-end items from a variety of chefs, restaurants, and wineries across the United States and Israel!

(Photos: Melanie Einzig)

Irina Nevzlin, Chair of the Board of Directors of The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot and President of the NADAV Foundation

Honoring Joan Nathan

Becky Sweren, Daniel Pincus (President, American friends of Beit Hatfutsot), Dan Tadmor (CEO, Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot), Claudio Pincus and Irina Nevzlin

Yossi Siegal, Irina Nevzlin, Ambassador Dani Dayan (Consul General of Israel in New York), Larry and Millie Magid

Robert Gottesman, Merav Oren, Tzili Charney and Dan Tadmor

Michal and Dr. Avraham Kadar

Nancy Spielberg and Irene Pletka

Mike and Sofia Segal with Shula Bahat (CEO of Beit Hatfutsot of America)

Alana Newhouse (founder of Tablet magazine)

Chef Michael Solomonov

The silent auction

The Ziegfeld Marquee on Gala night

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