Monday, April 04, 2011

On the Damascus Blood Libel Haggadah and a Kafkaesque Yom Kippur in Upstate New York, 1928.

I once posted about the "Haggadah" the Times of London posted on its page 3 on August 17, 1840. Since I'm having computer woes, and since it's still interesting and timely, here goes another round.

Here it is, click to enlarge, and also feel free to download it as a pdf (here, or even view it as a Google Doc here):

The background is the Damascus Affair of 1840 where Jews were accused of killing a priest who disappeared in February of that year. Jews were arrested and tortured, and confessions extracted. Since, as far as Western Europe was concerned (or at least the liberal elements), this was 1840, the fact that such a medieval and irrational event was occurring was seen as profoundly disturbing.

The Times carried a lengthy translation of most of the Haggadah, following a story on the Persecution of the Jews at Damascus and a couple of letters, one of whom basically writes that whatever the facts in Damascus are, you can't prove or disprove it from Jewish texts and teachings! His point is that people don't always do what books say they do or do not do, and if we're going to try to marshal evidence from books then we're not really following the proper rules of evidence, and this can blow back in disastrous ways. Although he does throw in a few not-very-nice remarks about Judaism, I hate to say it, but the man is kind of correct. But I digress.

Although it may be true that the facts of one particular case can't be proved or disproved from texts, the fact is that when such an accusation is made people want to know what it is those accused believe and what it is they read. So the Times felt it was a good idea to print a translation of the Haggadah sent in by a correspondent. Admittedly I don't know why anyone would have thought that the Haggadah made any sort of open reference to using Christian blood; and if it did then of course no one defending the Jews would have produced it. Still, given the association of the blood accusation and Passover, apparently it was thought a good idea to show exactly what takes place at the Passover night ritual.

As I mentioned in my older post, the truth is that it left out the שפוך חמתך. But I think it's understandable, since this is an apologetic piece and there was no room for nuance. Furthermore, the reality is that readers of the Times of London in 1840 would almost certainly not believe that Englishmen could possibly be included in הגוים אשר לא ידעוך (the nations that don't know [God]) or described as a ממלכת אשר בשמך לא קראו ([a] kingdom which does not call out in [God's] name). These are clearly speaking about heathens and since Western Europe was busy exploiting and tutoring the heathens all over the world at that particular moment in time, it never would have occurred to anyone that it might have meant Europeans.

Furthermore, even if all this is not true, of course שפוך חמתך still has nothing to do with blood. There's nothing about drops of wine though. I guess the best you can say is that this was before Wikipedia and it really was possible to present edited, apologetic material. Note for readers who may not be understanding everything: nothing of any grave importance was omitted and nothing changes. Just two or three moments that would require to much explanation or make people uncomfortable. So, there is no mention of the prayer Shefoch Chamascha, which asks God to pour out his wrath on the nations which don't know God, no mention of the dripping of wine, no reference to "Blood, fire and plumes of smoke," and no reference to some optional songs at the end, which were in any case certainly well known (at the time they were still trying to sort out if Chad Gadya comes from the House That Jack Built or the reverse. See here for my attempt to do just that, from last year). As I put it in the 2008 post, 1840 "was a time of almost comical erudition about all sorts of obscure topics in the mainstream press." So no deception was or could have been intended. It was simply an effort to help spread the truth about the Damascus incident in particular and blood libels generally.

Most people probably don't know that there was a blood libel; or a near one, in New York in 1928. You can read my friend Dr. Yitzchok Levine's article An American Blood Libel - It Did Happen!

The event is the Massena blood libel. What happened was, a 4-year old girl disappeared. Somehow a rumor began that the Jews of Massena (19 families) had killed her for some ritual purpose. One Jew, who was possibly mentally challenged, was questioned by the police, and he did not leave the state trooper convinced that Jews do not make ritual murders. He told the police that he doesn't know very much about Judaism, and when was asked if "it was true that in the old country Jews had the custom of using Christian blood in the holiday services, passing it on to the members of the congregation," apparently he replied that he didn't know if there was such a custom in the old country, but he knows there is no custom like it in America.

So (!) they hauled in the town's rabbi, named Berel Brennglass, for questioning. It was Erev Yom Kippur. According to one report a crowd of 300 to 400 people were outside the police station, who made some kind of menacing remarks when he was brought in. Time Magazine quotes the line of questioning as follows:
"Is tomorrow a big holiday, a fast day? Can you give any information as to whether your people in the old country offer human sacrifices?"
Naturally he was not only outraged, but shocked, and told them so. It is not only you and I who did not expect a blood libel in the United States, but also Rabbi Berel Brennglass in 1928.

Oh, and thankfully the young girl was found the next day - alive. Here is one record of what occurred in the police station, and afterwards:

To continue where this clipping leaves off, after the girl was found and doctors determined that she was uninjured, she explained that she had wandered into the woods to find her 7-year old brother. She became lost, and fell asleep in the woods over night. In the morning she woke up and wandered around, trying to find her way out, until she was discovered.

On Tuesday - the day after Yom Kippur - the mayor met with some of the Jew in the synagogue, and he admitted that the idea that the Jews may have been responsible for the missing girl was his, and that he regretted it. They told him that they can't accept his apology, because it's not just a local matter.

So national publicity was drawn to the case, after which, the mayor of Massena apologized to Brennglass, and the state trooper was reprimanded and suspended. He apologized, too. Here is what he wrote:
October 4, 1928
Rabbi Berel Brennglass.
Massena, New York,

My Dear Rabbi,

I am writing to say that I regret more than I can tell you and am very, very sorry for my part in the incident at Massena.

After the hearing today, I realized as I did not before, how wrong it was of me to request you to come to the Police Station of Massena to be questioned concerning a rumor which I should have known to be absolutely false. I was terribly excited and fatigued at the time, having been on duty for many hours without food or rest. Otherwise I would have thought of the consequences of such an act and would not have done what I did.

I mean every word of this apology and I hope you will take it in the spirit in which it is written.

Corporal H. M. McCann
Sounds to me like the mayor was a real moron.


  1. Your article says 1928, the trooper's letter seems to be dated 1828. ???

  2. My mistake! Sometimes my head is in the 19th century. I will correct the post so that the trooper's letter is dated correctly, 1928.



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