Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Portrait of the Maskil as an old Johnny Cash.

I think you are likely to agree with me that this man looks just like an aged Johnny Cash, or at least what Johnny Cash would have looked like in 1856:

You know I'm right:

In any case, the story of Hermann Hedwig Bernard, born Hirsch Ber Hurwitz in Uman is quite interesting.

When the rebbe Rabbi Nachman of Breslov lived in Uman, a number of maskilim lived there too, preserved in the Chasidic memory as notorious heretics. Among them was Chaykel Hurwitz (1749-) and his son Hirsch Ber (1785-1858). According to a Breslover tradition, Reb Nachman moved to Uman specifically so that he could live near the Hurwitzes. Strange it is, but the tradition further tells that he would counsel certain depressed Chasidim that he personally draws strength from living so close to these maskilim and the fact that he separates from them, although his separation seems to have involved playing chess with them and having them read German stories to him.

Chaykel was a wealthy merchant - his mechutan's daughter married a grandson of the Noda Beyehuda, and those kinds of shidduchim didn't come cheaply. Anyway, he wrote a Yiddish book about the early history of America called צפנת פענח which he published in 1817. This book was evidently extremely popular in its time. Writing in Sholom Aleichem's 1888 די יודישע פאלקס-ביבליאטהעק A.B Gottlober recalls that Hurwitz's book was so popular that אז כמעט אלע יודען האבען עס געלעזען , almost everyone read it. Not only that, but the Jewish women put away their Tzeenah-reenah and their techinos and were only reading "Columbus" (as I suppose it was popularly called). Can you imagine the effect of this best-seller on a rural populace that knew nothing of America? It's no wonder that Chaykel and his group were regarded as dangerous and heretical. Gottlober himself recalls this from 70 years earlier (עס איז שוין דרינען געוויס 70 יאהר) that he read it too and his imagination was kindled and he sailed along with Columbus on his ships, and dreamed of the "wild Indians" (די אמעריקאנישע ווילדע מענשען). He writes that even after he was married and had learned many seforim, even including Chassidisher and Chabad books, he still enjoyed reading it.

(c.f. this book to the 1860s dispatches from America in the Hebrew journal Ha-maggid by American rabbi Henry Vidaver, which Solomon Schecter credited with introducing him and many other sheltered individuals to the New World, as Schechter put it, "a continent on which, according to my simple conceptions, people should stand on their heads, and yet somehow managed to walk erect and free and even move quicker and with a surer pace than we, with all our drill of thousands of years.)

Here is Gottlober's words:

Incidentally, Israel Zinberg (writing in the Soviet Union in the 1920s or 30s) notes that Chaykl Hurwitz's Tzofenas Paneach had by then become a rare item. Do not be misled to think that because it was rare over 100 years later that Gottlober is not telling the truth regarding the book's popularity. Such popular books are the most likely to end up in the trash. I remember about 25 years ago there was a thin little tract full of stories of hashgacha pratis. I think it was published in Lakewood and had a yellow cover. Everyone was reading it. Have you seen one lately?

What's really cool is that Zinberg footnotes his thanks to YIVO of Vilna for providing him access to a copy of this book. I myself saw this book because it is digitized on HebrewBooks.org. Where did HebrewBooks copy it from? From the YIVO Library now in New York City. Thus, the same copy of this book which we can see is probably the one Zinberg read.

Here's the stamp on the book itself, followed by the listing at HebrewBooks:

In any event, this Chaykel Hurwitz of Uman's son Hirsch Ber was himself a notorious maskil, in truth, far more notorious for he was directly involved in educational reform and headed a school in Uman. He is also quoted in the book Славны бубны за горами, или Путешествіе мое кое-куда 1810 года as telling it's author Ivan Mikhailovich Dolgorukov that "we Jews should be forbidden to wear our shameful dress" in response to Dolgorukov's question what he lacked to feel happy. When asked why he didn't just dress however he liked, he replied that he didn't want to upset his mother who was very pious.

Here is his name on the subscription list to Yitzchak Ber Levensohn's Teuda Be-yisrael (published in 1828, but the list was compiled in '23-'24):

Although Teudah Be-yisrael was certainly the Russian maskilic manifesto, see here where it is claimed that the Vilna av beis din felt that the only thing which could have improved the book is if it had been written by the Vilna Gaon.

As noted above, Hirsch Ber is known to Chasidic history for his games of chess with the rebbe Reb Nachman and also for having read aloud German stories to him. For a fairly complete discussion of the relationship between him and the Rebbe Nachman, see Chaim Liberman's "Rabbi Nakhman Bratslaver and the Maskilim of Uman," published originally in Yiddish in the Yivo Bleter 29 (1947) and also in English a few years later in the YIVO Annual. The complete article in Yiddish can be read in his Ohel Rachel v. II here or in Hebrew in volume II, here. His article on Hurwitz himself can be found in vol. I, here.

In any case, in 1825, having incurred insurmountable debts, Hirsch Ber Hurwitz moved to England and was reborn as Herman Hedwig Bernard, a professor of Hebrew at Cambridge - and a Christian. He published a number of books (mostly about the Rambam). After he died, his pupil Frank Chance, published his comments on the book of Job in 1864 (link). The frontispiece of the book includes his portrait, where amazingly we see this former maskil of Uman, who played chess with the rebbe Reb Nachman, in 1856 looking very much like an elderly Johnny Cash. Chance notes that he usually wore his hair considerably longer - it so happens that he had a hair cut only days earlier. Chance also writes that Bernard purposely tried to look melancholy when he posed for the photograph, as befitting one who was blind (!), but in reality he was a very cheerful, rather a sullen person. Chance also notes that he personally worked with the artist to render a less gloomy looking version - the result you see above. One wonders what the photograph looked like.

A word about his converting to Christianity. Although there is no doubt that it made his achieving a professorship easier, it was not required. His predecessor at Cambridge was Joseph Crool who not only was an unconverted Jew, but he openly opposed missionary activities directed at Jews. Further, he also opposed the Emancipation of British Jews, which of course made him a favorite of the opposers in the general, non-Jewish society. He opposed emancipation out of - you guessed it - frumkeit. He felt emancipation meant assimilation. This from the professor of Hebrew at Cambridge. Crool had some other quirks, one of which was wearing a kind of cummerbund made of parchment that had all sorts of Hebrew written all over it.

Back to Bernard. Now, Frank Chance was a loyal, devoted pupil. Writing of his master one can't help but be struck at his awe and devotion, his interest in every minute detail and mannerism, his boundless love and devotion. Irony of ironies - Hirsch Ber Hurwitz gained his own Chossid. Chance was simply floored by Bernard's (as we will now call him) Hebrew knowledge. He gushes about how Bernard could just read and write Hebrew fluently, while professors of Greek and Latin always need concordances and other aids. In other words, Frank Chance had never met an educated Jew who had learned alef-beis while yet a toddler. Not to minimize the numerous deficiencies which can be met or found in plenty of even so-called successfully educated Jews, ability to handle the language fluidly in some fashion is often not among them. Chance also published a facsimile sample of Bernard's Hebrew handwriting which simply tickled him pink:

First of all, Bernard had written this while already blind. Chance was really impressed by that. Secondly, he seems fascinated by the fact that it was written in cursive Hebrew. Chance gives an interesting footnote intended to show that this form of writing Hebrew was little known in England. It seems a Polish Jew was arrested in London, and the police didn't know what was written on some papers found on him. They consulted Samuel Lee the professor of Hebrew at Cambridge who could not translate it because he could not read it, or even recognize it as Hebrew. He sent it to Bernard, calling it "Polish," ostensibly because the arrested Jew was from Poland. Chance surmises (and probably Bernard told him) that Lee didn't even know of the existence of cursive Hebrew, but I doubt that. I bet all he meant was "Polish cursive Hebrew which I can't read."

This book contains a biographical sketch of Bernard, written by Bernard, which is notable for one especially dishonest ambiguity: he writes that he grew up in Uman and that his parents were Austrian, and that his native tongue was German. Not, chas ve-sholom, Jargon. He also neglects to mention that they were Jewish. Now this was no surprise to anyone, for everyone knew his Jewish origins. But Chance footnotes that he was under the impression that Bernard's father converted to Christianity, thus he was raised a Christian. He writes that Bernard's daughter told him that. It's possible that she made this up, or more likely, that is what her father told her.

It seems that one of Bernard's secrets was his access to otherwise inaccessible Hebrew texts. Most Christians interested in Hebrew only knew the famous stuff (e.g., Kimchi) but someone like Bernard was in a position to make use of some more obscure texts. Evidently he was a big fan of Yehuda Leib Ben-Zev (having published a translation of certain educational text written by Ben Zev under the title Hamenahel, the Guide of the Hebrew Student). So Chance's Job includes a translation of Ben Zev's introduction to the book of Job, with extensive notes. This is pretty fascinating, as I don't know if any other English translation of a leading maskil's approach to the Bible via his introduction to one of its books exists (hi Dan!).

In any case, Bernard may have liked being a Herman Hedwig Bernard more than a Hirsch Ber Hurwitz, but that doesn't mean that the old fella forgot him, or that he didn't have a private life which he obscured from his students.

An 1850 letter to Bernard by Ya'akov Goldenweiser was published in the latter's 1864 book עלים לתרופה subtitled Leaves for a Healing, being a collection in the Hebrew language, consisting of original poems and translations from Modern Languages, Friendly Correspondence and Epitaphs, etc. (link). Goldenweiser beautifully promises that the proceeds from the sale of his book is for the benefit of the ill, for בקור חולים, and it is dedicated to Moses Montefiore.

Many writers have called attention to a letter written by a famous maskil Jacob Eichenbaum, known for his mathematical expertise, to Bernard - from whom he is supposed to have learned mathematics. In this letter, Eichenbaum really chastises Bernard for his apostasy. The letter itself was published in the Russian haskalah periodical Zion in 1862 (and as a separate pamphlet in 1867).


  1. Chaykel Hurwitz (1749-)

    Chykel hurwitz is still alive after 261 years. That is impressive!

  2. I honestly thought the first comment would be "He does not look like Johnny Cash."

  3. So how long before Hebrewbooks is "forced" to take it down? It's happened before.

  4. Re: "I don't know if any other English translation of a leading maskil's approach to the Bible via his introduction to one of its books exists (hi Dan!)." Hi, S. Would you count Sabato Morais' English translation of Shadal's "Critical and Hermeneutical Introduction to the Pentateuch"?

  5. If hebrewbooks took the only the things it "should" take down, it would never have any time to put anything new up.

    Dan, I guess I meant a bonafide Meassefist/ Biurist. Actually, I don't really know what I meant. I think I just wanted to get a rise from you.

  6. Fred, I think you're missing a word or two in that response.


    Looks a bit like Andrew Jackson.

  8. Not William Henry Harrison?

  9. The late gvadshitzer rebbe rabbi Shapiro of BP pointed out to me that in one of his books the Rival claims that his relative the Ruzhiner approves of the book. And the rabbi says that family traditon agrees with this.

  10. Very good post. I'm facing many of these issues as well..

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