Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into an audience with Napoleon...

Recently I was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I saw this portrait of Napoleon. Evidently, he enjoyed pageantry and symbolism.

Here is an anecdote about the time the rabbi of Dusseldorf went to pay his respects to Napoleon. As you can see, the old rabbi was supported by a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister in, what the writer suspects, was a symbolic gesture for Napoleon's benefit:

This incident occurred in 1811, and as the rabbi of Dusseldorf was, at the time, R. Judah Leib Scheur (d. 1821, age 87), then he must have been about 77 - not 100 as depicted here.

Using tefillin and a Roedelheim siddur to establish bona fides among a 'Lost Tribe' in China circa 1839. Allegedly.

Suppose you were trying to establish contact with a newly discovered colony of Jews deep in China, close to Tibet, in 1839. How would you establish a connection? By pulling out your Roedelheim siddur and putting on tefillin, obviously.

At least that's the story in what most certainly is a fake, but most interesting, letter printed in the Archives Israélites in 1868. Sent in by a man calling himself Jacob Elsaesser (of Alsace), it purports to be an account of the encounter just described. "Elsaesser" writes that in 1835 his friend Adolphe Stempfel, who had been studying to be a rabbi, fell on hard times. As a result he joined a British ship to Calcutta (in a time when many youths in similar circumstances were going to America, adds the Elsesser). During the time of the First Opium War the British discovered a community of Jews deep in China. Reports made it to Calcutta, and a wealthy Jewish merchant there sent Stempfel (you know, if he ever existed) to China to make contact with them. Elsaesser sent the Archives Israélites a letter purporting to be written by Stempfel back to his patron in Calcutta. It printed the letter in three parts. Here's an excerpt:

In the first part, he describes a river that he thought may have been the Sambation. In this, the second part:
"Barely did I hear the cracking of the bamboo floors in the morning, when I put into action my plan. I got into the corner of my room and without saying a word I put on my phylacteries and opened a Rodelheim siddur. I wished you had been here to see this: my host seemed stunned, his face in a stupor. He fixated on my phylacteries and prayer book. He obviously did not expect to find a coreligionist in the garb of a Western barbarian. I enjoyed his surprise, until finally I smiled. He touched my phylacteries and addressed me, but I couldn't understand him. So I replied to him with feeling "Yehudi." He repeated the word and happily shook his head to indicate that he understood me. Unfortunately he could not reply to even the simplest Hebrew words that I addressed him with, which the most simple Alsatian Jew would have understood."
It continues, how the Chinese Jew fetched the rabbi, they exchanged "Schalem-Alechems" and had a very nice, spirited conversation in Hebrew. According to Stempfel, the rabbi said that they are descendants of the Ten Tribes of Israel carried into captivity, and that these Chinese Jews (=Israelites) are shepherds. Stempfel expressed surprise that they are not traders, and hilarity ensues.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The press coverage of the 'first Chasidic rebbe in America,' 1893

Rabbi Eliezer Chaim Rabinowitz, (1845-1916) of Jampol, progenitor of the Skolye Hasidic dynasty, and known as the 'first Hasidic rebbe in America' visited these shores in 1890.

By 1893 he had a congregation of some kind in New York, where visitors petitioned him for prayers, advice and remedies. The New York Herald discovered this and sent a reporter (and an artist) to investigate. Not surprisingly, it portrayed him as a fraud. (Even if it is too long to capture your interest to read, scroll down to see the sketches and the facsimile of one of his handwritten remedies.)

My thanks to Azriel Graber for identifying the rebbe in this piece for me, as well as for his fascinating historical research and conversations I have had with him.

Here is the story, with a follow-up in the Herald, and reaction in the Jewish press to follow in a separate post:

Monday, June 17, 2013

A schoolmarmish interpretation of a verse about harlotry in 1650

I think this is highly amusing. 

First, the background: Plica polonica (Polish plait) was a strange hair disease that was common well into the 19th, and even the 20th century. Basically, it involved the tangling, "felting" of long, dirty hair, but it was much more than dreadlocks - the hairs themselves became engorged and filled with a kind of liquid or pus. According to medical descriptions, it emitted a foul odor. Doctors were divided as to whether it was a condition caused by poor hygiene, or something else, such as drinking foul water. As the name it was known by, "Polish plait," indicates, it was far more common in eastern Europe. Since hygiene was so poor all over Europe, that it was so common in Poland  would have seemed to indicate that there was something unique about Polish conditions - and it wasn't poor hygiene alone - that caused it. It was also observed to grow in animals in Poland, but not elsewhere.

In addition, there were superstitions attached to this condition. The people believed that a Plica was a supernatural phenomenon and the growth of one did not indicate a health problem, but on the contrary - it indicated the relief of a health problem. Growing one was lucky, it meant you had an illness but were getting better. The people who grew them did not want to cut them off, and since it was seen as having magical properties, people rubbed things into their hair - honey, dirt, etc. - to try to induce the formation of one. Although it became closely associated with Poland (and discussions of the Plica make appearances in rabbinic literature), and it could obviously be found wherever hygiene was lacking, there are apparent references to it even in Shakespeare, where it is called an elflock. In one issue of the Philosophical Transactions from 1746, there is an article about an English country woman born in 1645, and her Plica polonica, which she had grown beginning at age 14. So despite the stereotype, it could be found all over Europe. 

Thus, the background. In 1650 a clergyman named John Trapp published a commentary on the Book of Proverbs.

Commenting on the verse in chapter 7, verse 10, "And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of a harlot, and wily of heart." Trapp gives the following comment and mini-sermon:

Trapp means to explain the Hebrew for "attire of a harlot, the "שִׁית זוֹנָה." He explains that this is a kind of tightly fitted, plaited garment. He then cites the Latin of Lavater, referring to something plaited, which he glosses are pleated garments or plaited hair. This is "the attire of a harlot." But since in Latin "plaited" is "plica," since Lavater wrote "vestitus in quo plica," this reminds Trapp of the dreadful condition Plica polonica. This has nothing at all to do with the verse. But since he is talking about the attire of a harlot, a sinful way of dressing, since the word sounds the same, he cannot resist bringing this up:

"Let such take heed to the plica polonica; that dreadful disease."

This has nothing to do with anything, but it probably could strike revulsion and fear in the heart of the reader, just as Trapp intended.

I am reminded, and friends I showed this too are reminded, of various teachers who moralized in precisely this associative way. So here is John Trapp, teaching a verse in Proverbs, 350 years ago, the way I've been assured some teachers try to spread the value of tznius in contemporary schools.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

One of those unimpressed synagogue visitors, 1721

This page is an account of one English visitor to a synagogue in 1721. As you can see, he was bewildered by  the men keeping their hats on, no kneeling, calling out to get a pinch of snuff, worshipers coming in an hour, two and more late, the disharmony between some praying, some singing [prayers], and some talking of business.

Note the expression "he [who held the Torah] sat him down on his A----se with his Hat on his Head." "A----se" is, of course, "Arse." In 1721 the word was not yet the vulgarity it is today, (hence its use in a text like this), but was already emerging as an impolite word - hence the modest use of hyphens. In the prior century, in many texts the word was used normally and not considered particularly vulgar at all. But as David Crystal writes (The Story of English in 100 Words), as polite euphemisms for buttocks increased, primarily in the 18th century, the rudeness level of this word increased.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

A group of New York Jewish merchants apply for Denizenship in 1712

This is the Application for Denizenship (I made that title up) to Queen Anne of Great Britain for Nathan Simpson and Samuel Levy, on behalf of themselves and Moses Levy, Moses Michalls [sic], Moses Hart and Mordica [sic] Nathan. The fellows were Jewish merchants in New York who "found themselves lye[ing] under many difficultys in their Trades as Merchants for want of being free Denizens," so they filed this petition.

Simson and Levy ask "that they may pertake of your Majestys Royall favour to be made Denizens of Great Britain and esteem'd as such..."

Included are several recommendations. For example, one Joseph Levy writes that they "are very well known to severall of the best Jews in London" and are "deserving of her Majestys favor."

Another is from Lord Cornbury, the Earl of Clarendon, the - I do not make this up - transvestite former governor of New York. He writes that the men "are Persons well-known to me, they are of the Jewish Nation and were (and I suppose still are) considerable traders in New York" - at the time he was governor - and they "behaved themselves as good Subjects ought to doe all which I most humbly certify."

לשנה הבאה בני חורין - A Haggadah for a Federal penitentiary

Here's some pages out of a most interesting Haggadah, or perhaps parts of a Passover program, produced for Jewish inmates at the federal prison in Fort Dix. Definitely worth a look.

I made the PDF, but the images come from here.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Ex-Kaiser Wilhelm on the Controversy Between Christianity and Judaism, 1926

Here's something interesting. An article - actually, compiled from a written correspondence - in English by the ex-Kaiser Wilhelm II. The topic: that the Jews simply won't accept the divinity of Jesus, and that is an unbridgeable gap. Note his written text (in English) on p. 5 (660), about Moses Mendelssohn.


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