The Art of Gefilte Fish – A Personal Memoir…

What is Gefilte Fish?

This photo to the right is not gefilte fish!  Gefilte fish does not come in a jar! Not where I come from.  Only in America!  “Gefilte” means “stuffed”. “Gefüllter karpfen” in German, “carpe farcie” in French, stuffed carp in English.  “stuffed” means stuffed into the fish, not in a jar!

First, get the fish!

When I was young, living in Belgium, my grandmother, who had emigrated from Poland, was in charge of making the gefilte fish for the high holidays.  Many folks eat gefilte fish at the Passover Seder, but we ate it at Rosh Hashannah, preceding the chicken soup and the rest of the holiday meal.  First, my grandmother Bajla went to the fish store about two weeks before the holiday and ordered two good size live carps. Other, fancier fish could be used but my grandmother stuck with carp, the people’s choice!  The fish store was a small ordinary shop on Rue du Mouton Blanc in the Carré area of Liège, my home town.  Waiting to the last minute was too risky, ordering early meant that you would get the right size fish, about 4 lbs each, and getting live fish meant it would remain fresh to the last possible moment!

My grandmother would bring the fish home alive – how?, I don’t remember – and place it in a large round galvanized steel tub that was used years before to wash and starch clothes.  My grandmother kept the tub in the courtyard of our suburban row house.  Not much room for the carp but they did not seem to mind as far as I could tell.  Then the dreaded moment came!  My grandmother grabbed one of the beasts, wrapped it in a large kitchen towel, and banged its head on the table which rendered it unconscious, or worse…  Same for the second fish.  The poor cyprinus carpii were then promptly moved to the kitchen and gutted.

Time to cook!

Now it was time to cook.  The following recipe is borrowed from a couple of sources  together with personal recollections.

Heads are cut and scales removed.  The fish are gutted and cleaned from the neck down by holding the tail so as not to damage the skin and the tail. If necessary, make a very small incision under the belly without piercing the bile. The fish are then sliced into 2-cm or half-an-inch thick steaks. 

Meat is carefully removed between the skin and the bones from each slice using a small sharp knife.  Keep the central ridge connected to the skin, leave flesh against the bones if necessary. do not hesitate to leave some flesh.

The meat is set aside for the “stuffing” with about four lbs of extra fillets.  Mild white fish such as hake or cod can be used. Pike or whitefish were old country favorites.  

Let the slices marinate with coarse salt overnight in the refrigerator then wash the salt off.  In the morning, chop the fish set aside for the stuffing, along with eight browned onions.  Small fish bones are removed.

Eight eggs and half-a-pound of matzah meal or bread crumbs are mixed in, with salt, pepper and a little bit of oil.

Now comes the “gefilte’ing”

A large cut-up onion and two carrots are laid at the bottom of one or two large pots then filled with cold water half way to the top and brought to medium heat. 

Peppercorns and a bit of sugar are added, no salt.  Fish slices are gently filled with the stuffing mixture and cautiously lowered into the simmering bouillon. 

The back of the heads may be stuffed.  Bones and other fish parts are added to the broth to increase the amount of gelatin.  Lower the heat at the first boil and remove the foam.  Let cook for two and a half hours, adjusting seasoning after a while and at the end of the cooking period.

Let the bouillon cool down, and gently remove the portions onto one or more large dishes, and decorate with carrot slices.  Fill the eye cavities with carrots too.  Strain the broth and refrigerate all overnight.

A Unique Twist

My grandmother added her unique and amazing twist to this recipe:  Over the summer, she collected seeds, also known as stones, pits or kernels from peaches, plums and especially apricots.  These pits have amazing and complex aroma.  Stone fruit seeds contain amygdalin which is believed poisonous when eaten raw but looses its potency when cooked.  Grandma Bajla sliced or broke the dried seeds and added them to the broth while the fish was cooking.  Wow, I never heard or saw this done anywhere else.  Genius, grandma!

At the Family Table

Finally, the large platter is brought to the holiday table, covered with gorgeous slices of gefilte fish, each one a marvel of Old Country cookery and engineering, surrounded by sweet broth jelly and garnished with carrot slices. Red horseradish is not far.  The holiday meal has started but not a word is said or heard.  A reflective mood?  No! each of us is savoring the delicate and rich flavors and watching for sharp bones!   

Happy holidays! 

 

The Beth Elohim Synagogue and Solomon Nunes Carvalho

Immigration

Most of us know about the massive Jewish immigration to the United States from Central and Eastern Europe that started in the late 1800’s.  But less is known about earlier movements to North America.   

Jews began to settle in Charleston, South Carolina in 1695, 25 years only after the English founded Carolina.  These Jewish immigrants were mostly Sephardim who came to Charleston from England, by way of the Caribbean islands. They were attracted by the burgeoning commercial opportunities but also for the religious freedom and personal rights offered and tolerated by the colony’s Lord Proprietors. (Virtual Jewish Library.)  

Ca. 1812 drawing, KK Beth Elohim Synagogue, built 1792-1794, burned 1838. In 1825, South Carolina architect Robert Mills wrote, “It is a remarkably neat building, crowned with a cupola.”

The first Charleston synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), or Holy Congregation of the House of God, was opened in 1749.  The congregation followed the Sephardic minhag (liturgy) of the Spanish-Portuguese communities of London and Amsterdam.  By 1764, the synagogue had moved to a third and larger structure. (College of Charleston.) 

One of the KKBE congregants was Solomon Nunes Carvalho. Carvalho was born in Charleston in 1815 to parents who were themselves born in England, and had moved to Barbados, then to the United States.  Solomon studied photography – a new technology back then! – with his father who opened workshops in Charleston and then Philadelphia.  Solomon was also a gifted painter who later studied with famed artist Thomas Sully

The Great Fire and a Heartwarming Gift 

On Friday evening April 27, 1838, fire broke out at the corner of King and Beresford streets in Charleston, soon ravaging more than 1,100 buildings of all kinds – dwellings, tenements, boarding houses, stores, workshops, kitchens, stables and sheds, and four houses of worship. Synagogue Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim was one of them.  

Solomon Nunes Carvalho. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Interior, 1838; Oil on canvas. Collection of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Twenty-three year old Solomon immediately started to paint a highly detailed picture of the interior of the synagogue from memory.  A few months later, he presented the canvas to the Beth Elohim trustees “for such compensation as the Board may deem proper to allow”. The sum of fifty dollars was sent to Carvalho by the Congregation!

I had the thrill of seeing this amazing painting and 10 other works of art by Solomon Nunes Carvalho as part of the Princeton University exhibit “by Dawn’s Early Light – Jewish Contribution to American Culture from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War“.  In the exhibit catalog, Dale Rosengarten, co-curator of the exhibit and curator of the Jewish Heritage Collection at the College of Charleston Library remarked:

“The young painter had captured a haunting memory of the beloved temple: light pours through two rows of compass-headed windows evenly spaced along the side walls… The muted tones of the empty sanctuary capture a mood of sanctity and loss”

Solomon’s Ultimate Calling 

Carvalho continued to paint and to develop his photography business.  In June 1849, he opened a gallery in Baltimore offering both oil portraits and a variety of daguerreotypes—a new process that brought the cost of photography down.  In 1853, Solomon Carvalho was invited by Colonel John C. Frémont to join him on his fifth crossing of the continent. The primary objective of the expedition was to pass through the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada Mountains during winter to document the amount of snow and the feasibility of winter rail passage along the route.  Almost every day of the expedition, Carvalho made daguerreotypes, photographing not only the landscape but also the Native Americans and their settlements.  Fremont was thrilled with Carvalho’s work.

“We are producing a line of pictures of exquisite beauty, which will admirably illustrate the country,”

he wrote to his wife, Jessie Benton Fremont. Only one of these daguerreotypes remains. 

Freedom!

Solomon’s family fled Portugal, Amsterdam, London and the Barbados in search of a better and freer life.  The United States provided them with the religious freedom and the economic opportunities they were seeking.  Solomon’s artistic talent and his business flourished.  In an unselfish act, he left his business behind to join Colonel Frémont’s fifth Continental exploration,  leaving an undelible mark on the Country’s history.  In 1856, John Charles Frémont, now Governor of California, became the first candidate of the Republican Party for the office of President of the United States.

A quick look at twenty notable Rabbis…

Hundreds more notable Rabbis could have made this list.  My goal is to give an idea of the intellectual depth and breadth (yes, not much social diversity!) over the centuries: the development of Rabbinical Judaism and its codification, mysticism, the interaction with scientific discoveries, philosophy and other religions, the Holocaust, the return to the Land, and Judaism in a world of technology, globalization, social diversity and integration. You may want to check my companion post for my comments on Rabbinic Judaism in general.

Yohanan ben Zakkai

Yohanan ben Zakkai  (c.30 BCE–90 CE) was an important rabbinical sage who lived in the final days of the Second Temple, essentially marking the transition from the Judaic priestly system to Rabbinical Judaism. Following the destruction of the Temple, Yochanan opened a school near Yavneh that was instrumental in moving Judaism away from sacrifices and towards prayer.  He led the establishment of the tannaim school of thought that became the main contributor to the Mishnah and the Talmud.  He was buried in the city of Tiberias.

Rabbi Akiva

Akiba ben Yosef  (c.40–c.137, Judea}, was a tanna of the latter part of the first century and the beginning of the second century (the third tannaitic generation). Rabbi Akiva is a leading contributor to the Mishnah and to Midrash halakha (religious practice). He is referred to in the Talmud as Rosh la-Hakhamim “Chief of the Sages”.   He was executed by the Romans in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt.

Sa’adia Gaon

Codex_ArabicusRabbi Sa’adiah ben Yosef Gaon   (882/892 – 942 ) was born in Egypt.  His Book of Beliefs and Opinions represents the first systematic attempt to integrate Jewish theology with components of Greek philosophy.  Sa’adia wrote about his opposition to Karaism (the belief that the Tanakh or Old Testament is the only source of Jewish law and theology) in defense of Rabbinic Judaism.  Sa’adia wrote both in Hebrew and Arabic.

RAbbi SHlomo Itzhaki (RASHI)

Rashi (Years 1040 to 1105) lived in Troyes, France, about 200 km Southeast of Paris, an important center of trade in the Middle Ages. Many Jewish merchant-scholars attended trade fairs in Troyes which gave Rashi access to many Jewish manuscripts of the ToseftaJerusalem TalmudMidrashTargum and the writings of the Geonim.  His writings and commentaries were seen as the “official repository of Rabbinical tradition” which ultimately influenced Martin Luther. Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch is considered the first printed Hebrew work.

Maimonides

Moshe ben Maimon was born on March 30, 1135 in Cordoba, Spain.  He fled to Morocco in 1160 then later to Jerusalem, and finally settled in Cairo, Egypt where he died in 1204.  He is mostly known by his greek name, Moses Maimonides, or the acronym of his title and name, RaMBaM.  He was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher.  His major works consist of the 14-volume Mishneh Torah and the Guide for the Perplexed, written to provide rational explanations for traditional Jewish law.   He was heavily influenced by Aristotle, the Greek philosopher.  Maimonides was also the personal physician of the Vizir of Egypt and of Saladin himself.
seder-olam-mishneh-torah Maimonides.JPG
Manuscript of Mishneh Torah, signed by Maimonides, c. 1180 — found in the Cairo Genizra
(source: Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Ms. Heb. d.32, fols 53b-54a)

Nahmanides

Moses ben Nahman, also known as Nachmanides or by the acronym RaMBaN, was born in Girona, Catalonia, Spain in 1194 and died in Jerusalem in 1270.  He was a Sephardic rabbi, philosopher, physician, kabbalist, and biblical commentator.  He was a great supporter of the original Talmudic work in response perhaps to Maimonides breakthrough work and the influence of Greek and Arabic philosophy.  He helped mediate opposition to Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed by allowing its philosophical approach to remain, but prohibiting its study…   In 1263, he was called by King James I of Aragon to participate in a disputation against Pablo Christiani, a Jew who had converted to Christianity.  The RaMBaN clearly won the disputation but was still sent in exile.  Fleeing Christian persecution, he ended up in Jerusalem where he helped re-establish Jewish communal life there following the end of the Crusades.   

Obadiah of Bertinoro

Obadiah of Bertinoro was born c. 1450 in Bertinoro, now Italy and died before 1516. He is known for his commentary on the Mishnah, integrating explanations from Rashi and rulings from Maimonides. He is also remembered for three letters describing his three-year journey (1486–88) to Jerusalem. The letters include descriptions of the people and customs of the Jewish communities he visited on the way from Italy to the Holy Land.  See additional articles on R. Obadiah here and on Jewish life in early modern Italy here.

Rabbi Yitzhak Luria

10 SephirotIsaac (ben Solomon) Luria Ashkenazi is also known as Ha’ARI. He was born in 1534 in Jerusalem of an Ashkenazi father and a Sephardi mother.  He died on July 25, 1572 in Safed, Israel.  Luria is considered the father of modern Kabbalah.  He is known for his oral teachings, having written only a few poems on his own.  He turned to mysticism as a young man, spending seven years in Egypt as a recluse and focusing on the Zohar, the main work of Kabbalistic commentaries.  He returned to Palestine in 1569 and eventually settled in Safed.  He was known for his impassioned oral teachings referred as Lurianic Kabbalah.  These lectures or teachings were  captured by his disciples led by Rabbi Hayyim Vital, and compiled into eight volumes known as Etz Chayim, (“Tree of Life”.)  R. Luria is buried at the Old Jewish Cemetery in Safed. See more in this article.

Moses Isserles

Mojżesz ben Israel Isserles, also known the acronym Rema was born in 1530 in Kraków, Poland. He died there in 1572.  His father was a well-known talmudist and wealthy community member.  Moses became Rabbi of Krakow at age 20 and estalished a yeshiva there.  Isserles’ major accomplishment was in the area of halakha where he contributed to the Shulchan Aruch authored by Yosef Karo with whom he is said to have corresponded.  His writings also covered Aggadah, Kabbalah, philosophy, and even astronomy.  He served on the Polish Council of the Four Lands.

Joseph ben Ephraim Karo

Joseph Karo, known also as Mechaber (the Author) was born in Toledo, Spain in 1488 to a renowned talmudist father. At age 4, his family fled to Portugual following the Alhambra expulsion decree then to Nikopolis, Greece.  He eventually settled in Safed, Palestine where he served on the Rabbinical Court of Safed (which adjudicated Jewish law in the Southern Ottoman empire and Syria).  He remained there until his death in 1575. 

His major works include Beth Yosef and the Shulchan Aruch. These works sought to standardize Jewish laws and customs following the expulsion and collapse of the Jewish community of Spain.  The Shulchan Aruch is still considered a work of reference today.

Leon of Modena

R. Leone Modena also known as Judah Aryeh was born in 1571 and died in 1648 in Venice, Italy.  Leon of Modena lived a difficult personal life, losing three of his five children, seeing his wife becoming insane and being addicted to gambling himself.  His work focused on the conflicts between the new scientific knowledge acquired during the Italian Renaissance and loyalty to Jewish tradition.  His writings include Ari Nohem, (“The Lion Roars”), a critique of the Zohar, and Historia de ‘riti Ebraici published in Paris in 1635.  This last book was written at the request of the English Ambassador and describes Italian Jewish customs of the time.

Israel ben Eliezer (Baal Shem Tov) 

Israel ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name) or his acronym BeShT, was born around 1700 in Western Ukraine. He died in nearby Medzhybizh in 1760.  Like R. Isaac Luria (see above) he is mainly known for his oral teachings which were documented by other authors later.  Israel ben Eliezer is considered the founder of the Hasidism movement.  As an itinerant teacher’s assistant, he devoted himself to the education of poor Jewish children living in small villages.  He studied Kabbalah(Jewish mysticism.)  He eventually settled in Medzhybizh where he developed a spiritual following.

Hasidism is a Kabbalh-inspired revival movement drawing from, emphasizing and amplifying certain aspects of Lurianic teachings (see above) such as oneness with God, piety, and fervor.  This approach is derived from the BeShT’s life experience and, in part ,in response to the Khmelnitsky massacres of a generation earlier and the false messianic movements of Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank.  Hasidism evolved with the development of “dynasties” led by charismatic rabbis who demand total allegiance from their flock.

Vilna Gaon

Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, also known as the Gaon (genius) of Vilna or the acronym HaGra (“HaGaon Rabbenu Eliyahu”), was born in Sialiec, Belarus in 1720 and died in Vilnius, Lithuania in 1797.  He was a prolific writer on matters of the Talmud, law and Kabbalah but is best known as the leader of the Mitnagdim (opponents) movement (see below).  He encouraged his students to study natural sciences, and translated geometry books into Yiddish and Hebrew, famously saying that Judaism could only benefit from this type of knowledge. When Hasidic Judaism became influential (through proselytism), the Vilna Gaon joined local rabbis in 1777 and again in 1781 in excommunicating Hasids and trying to prevent “inter-marriages”.  The Gaon believed that the main focus of Jewish education should be on the Jerusalem Talmud.

Aryeh Levin

Aryeh Levin was born near Bialystok, Poland in 1865 and passed away in 1969 in Jerusalem. He was also known as the “Tzadik (“saint”) of Jerusalem” for his work on behalf of the poor and the sick.  He attended yeshivoth in Poland and immigrated to Ottoman Palestine in 1905.  In 1931, he was officially appointed Jewish Prison Chaplain and visited Jewish prisoners, often interceding to have their death sentences commuted.  Inmates universally praised the rabbi’s warmth and sincerity, and the honor and respect with which he treated them. He was also known for his visits to the sick at Bikur Holim hospital in Jerusalem and in Bethlehem.  Rabbi Aryeh was asked to mediate an incident where a young child was refused a second portion of chocolate pudding in the school cafeteria and spilled the entire container in anger.  After the young child promised never to do it again, the Rabbi asked him, “Do you really like chocolate pudding?” “Yes,” he answered. Reb Aryeh continued, “I love chocolate pudding too. I brought two containers of chocolate pudding so let us sit down and eat some chocolate pudding together.”   See this article for more stories.

Joseph B. Soloveitchik

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik also known as Rav, was born in 1903 in Pruzhany, Belarus, a descendant of the Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. He died in 1993 (aged 90) in Boston, Massachusetts. He grew up in Eastern Europe and attended University in Berlin from 1924 until 1932 when he graduated with a Ph.D. in epistemology and metaphysics.  He then emigrated to Boston where he ran an orthodox school.  In 1941, he became head of the Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University in New York City, succeeding his father.  He ordained over 2000 rabbis over his lifetime and promoted instruction for women.  He sought to combine the best of Jewish scholarship with the best of secular wisdom and is considered the father of Modern Orthodox Judaism.  His best-known work is The Lonely Man of Faith which addresses the need to stand alone in the face of monumental challenges.

Yehouda Léon Askénazi

Rav Yehouda Léon Askénazi, also known as Manitou, was born in Oran, Algeria in 1922 and died in Jerusalem in 1996.  His father was the head rabbi of the city of Oran.  He fought as a soldier in World War II, moved from Algeria to France and developed a vision that bridged the religious and secular worlds, becoming one of the spiritual leaders of 20th century French Jewry along with André Neher and Emmanuel Lévinas.  In 1968, he moved to Jerusalem and opened and ran the Mayanot Jewish Studies Center until 1988.  The focus of his teaching and writing is on the meaning of the identity of Israel and of Biblical, explaining Hebrew concepts and themes through the use of universal terminology.   (essay in French)

Ovadia Yosef

Ovadia Yosef , also known by his arabic name Abdullah Youssef, was born in Baghdad, Iraq in 1920 and passed away in Jerusalem in 2013 at the age of 93.  He emigrated with his family to Jerusalem in 1924.  His family was very poor. He rapidly progressed in religious school while at the same time supporting his family.  He was ordained rabbi at age 20.   He is considered one of the foremost Sephardi Talmudic scholars and rabbinic judges of the last 200 years. He favored so-called “open-source Torah” and the work of 16th Century Rabbi Yosef Karo (see above) as opposed to the closed mystical Kabbalah that has been in favor in the ultra religious community.  In 1973, he was elected Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel.

Yosef attracted criticism during his lifetime and after his death for some of his political and religious views as explained in the 2013 Haaretz articles by David Landau (“The Political Kidnapping of a Torah Phenomenon“) and by Anshel Pfeffer (“The Great Opportunities Missed.”)   The articles ascertain that, despite his personal success, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef was used by the Ashkenazi religious establishment for political purposes. He entered politics when he founded the Israeli Shas party to better represent Sephardi and Mizrahi religious minorities but still failed to make significant differences in the lives of his constituents.

Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, also known as Yitz Greenberg, is a Harvard-educated Jewish-American scholar and author who identifies as a Modern Orthodox rabbi. He is known as a strong supporter of Israel, and a promoter of greater understanding between Judaism and Christianity. Wikipedia.  Rabbi Greenberg was born in Brooklyn in 1933.  He founded and led the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership (CLAL) from 1974 through 1997. CLAL is a leadership training institute, think tank, and resource center that links Jewish wisdom with innovative scholarship to deepen civic and spiritual participation in American life.  Rabbi Greenberg is the author of many books and articles.

David Hartman

Rabbi David Hartman was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1931 and passed away in Jerusalem in 2013. He attended Yeshiva under Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik but then pursued philosophy degrees from Fordham and McGill Universities, rejecting what he perceived as the intellectual insularity of Ultra-Orthodoxy.  He served as rabbi in Montreal for 10 years before emigrating to Israel in 1971 and founding the Shalom Hartman Institute in 1976.  His teachings and writings encourage a greater understanding between Israel, the Jewish Diaspora and different Jewish affiliations.  He favored diplomacy with the Palestinians and peace and social justice in Israel. Another post on this blog is devoted to his essay entitled “Auschwitz or Sinai”.  Learn more: Tablet, Jewish Week, and David Hartman’s interview with Krista Tippett.

R. Deborah Brin

Deborah Brin, born in 1953, is one of the first openly gay rabbis and one of the first hundred women rabbis. She was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and led Congregation Nahalat Shalom as their rabbi in Albuquerque, New Mexico for about 10 years. She co-edited the poetry section for the Reconstructionist prayer book KOL HANESHAMAH: Shabbat Vehagim, and has written an article chronicling her experience leading the first women’s prayer service and Torah reading at the Western Wall for the book Women of the Wall.

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Rabbinic Judaism: A Missed Opportunity?

This post is a companion to my post on twenty notable rabbis coming later today.  One of the conclusions of my research for the 20 rabbi post is that Rabbinic Judaism, with a few notable exceptions, missed an opportunity to make significant contributions to World theology and to mankind, and at the same time, isolated the Jewish people and failed to protect it from persistent persecutions from other nations.

In the beginning…

The genius of Judaism, or Hebraism (Note 1) I should say, is the idea of One God.  Maybe the original Hebrews borrowed the idea from another place or another tribe in Canaan or in the Euphrates region, but Abraham and his cohorts made it work.  Monotheism became and is now the leading and most successful World theology.  The Rabbinic system of Judaism took off after the second destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 BC and replaced the priestly system that was in place then. The early rabbis felt that they needed to rebuild the religious foundation of a people who had just lost its land, power and temple for the second time in 600 years.  One of their priorities was to write down and discuss Jewish laws (Halakha).

The good…

Positive

Rabbinic Judaism has some important and positive attributes: it values intellectual honesty and justice, it is (or was) largely a merit-based, democratic system (no central authority.) Rabbinic Judaism formed the basis of a Jewish education system long before other nations, providing opportunities for dissenting opinions, and generally advocating a positive, life-affirming approach.

The bad…

Here are some areas where, in my opinion, Rabbinic Judaism fell, and still falls, short:

  • NegativeWith a few exceptions, discourse in Rabbinic Judaism has been narrow, focusing as I said above on conduct and obedience (Halakha).  Rabbis have spent millions (perhaps billions!) of hours on minute and obscure details of little or no importance to the Jewish as a whole.  One could argue that Rabbinic practices contributed to the isolation of the Jewish people.
  • I mentioned intellectual honesty as a plus, but Rabbis often use(d) convoluted, illogical and obscure arguments such as numerology or “miracles” in order to  make a point.
  • The Rabbis created a closed system of Yeshivoth where deep religious knowledge was shared and discussed within the system and rarely outside of it.  Those who attended yeshivoth often came from wealthy families who could support the students (Note 2).  successful rabbis were often connected in the community and politically astute.  They competed for lucrative positions in wealthy Jewish communities.
  • The Rabbis’ focus on halakhic minutiae has, in turn, hindered or precluded them from addressing important religious issues that could benefit all nations in the areas of morality, equality, oppression of minorities, compassion, interfaith unions, personal choices, etc.
  • To complement this thought, it is my observation that the most impactful rabbis and sages are the ones who were able to bring into their closed loop environments non-Jewish sources of knowledge, and integrate this knowledge into their own work.  For instance, Sa’adia Gaon integrated components of Greek philosophy, Maimonides was heavily influenced by Aristotle, and David Hartman used modern philosophy which he integrated with his Talmudic knowledge (Note 3).

A modern creed…

Modern-Space-Living-Room-Window-DesignCaring for strangers is mentioned more times in the Torah than any other commandment.  Yet morality is a topic seldom addressed in Rabbinic Judaism, except in the context of the law.   Early Christianity, on the other hand, was able to address some of the social and moral issues of the time while leveraging Judaism’s overall framework (Note 4.)

The Rabbinic “us versus them” model likely contributed to Jewish isolation in the World and missed an opportunity to share the strength and true meaning of the original biblical message.  Today, Judaism needs a new framework in tune with our science and fact-oriented world, a framework that focuses more on values and morality than halakhic details.  Morality has the power of truth, said Maimonides.  Judaism needs to become an open and moral religion, a modern room with windows. “Judaism beyond the (kosher) kitchen” as David Hartman said (Note 3).

Notes:

(1) One idea, attributable in part to Rabbi Leon Askenazi is that Ever (the original Hebrew), grandson of Noah, is really the founder of Judaism.  I will post on this. later.

(2) Just an example:  “At age fifteen, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi married Sterna Segal, the daughter of Yehuda Leib Segal, a wealthy resident of Vitebsk, and he was then able to devote himself entirely to study.”    Rabbi Akiva married the daughter of the Ben Kalba Sabu’a, a wealthy citizen of Jerusalem, etc.

(2) It is no coincidence that I mention Rabbi David Hartman who created the Shalom Hartman Institute.  Rabbi Hartman was a philosopher and leader of the Modern Orthodox Movement .  Some of the ideas in this post originate with his teachings and vision.  The first post on this blog was devoted to a short but critical essay by Rabbi Hartman called “Auschwitz or Sinai“.

(3) Early churches met almost exclusively in homes. These gatherings became close, supportive communities that shared resources, including money, when someone was needy. They became surrogate families. Not only that but they were radically egalitarian—something novel in the Roman world of that day. Paul made his ringing announcement that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

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The Amazing Travails of Tobias Cohn, Inventor of Modern Medicine

Eleazar Cohn, a Jewish physician, emigrated from Safed (then part of the Ottoman) to Poland in the late 1500’s – early 1600’s.  Eleazar’s son, Moses, also a physician, moved to Metz, France to escape the Chmielnicki (Khmelnytsky ) pogroms.  Tobias Cohn (Cohen, or Kohn in Polish) was born in 1652 in Metz.  At age 21, Tobias returned to Poland with his elder brother where he pursued traditional Jewish studies  in Kraków .

First Jewish Student in Germany

Portrait_of_Tobias_Cohn_Wellcome_L0014928Coming from a renowned family of physicians, Tobias ultimately wanted to graduate with a medical degree from the University of Padua (Margalith, 2007,) the Harvard of the time…  But he decided to try to get into the Frankfurt-an-der-Oder University first.  In 1678, Tobias and his friend Gabriel Felix of Brody appealed directly to the Grand Elector of the State of Brandenburg Friedrich Wilhelm who agreed to sponsor their studies.  The scholarships came with conditions: Tobias and Gabriel had to learn German and volunteer as Hebrew teachers to Friedrich Wilhelm. Wilhelm was interested in “going back to the sources” of the Old Testament, spurred by the Protestant Reformation. Tobias Cohn later wrote that his knowledge of the Scriptures, the Talmud and the Midrash had not prepared him well for the scientific approach that was taught at the school and for the interactions with other students [1]

Padua

Related imageTobias and Gabriel eventually left Frankfurt for Padua, where they joined a number of Jewish students from Italy, Poland and other European countries at Solomon Canegliano‘s (1642-1719) preparatory school. Tobias described Canegliano as one of the greatest physicians of his time.  Tobias and Gabriel eventually entered the University of Padua and graduated in June 1683.  The first Jewish medical students graduated from the University of Padua in the fifteenth century.  For most of the Middle Ages and the early Modern Period, Padua was the only medical school in Europe where Jewish students could study freely.

Ma’aseh Tuviyah, 1708

In 1700, Tobias Cohn completed the manuscript of his book “Ma’aseh Tuviyah,” meaning Tobias’ Works, or Opus, in Hebrew.  The book was officially published in June 1708 (or 1707) by the University of Padua.  The book was printed a total of five times in Venice between 1708 and 1850, followed by seven further editions most recently in Brooklyn, New York, in 1974, and in Jerusalem, in 1967 and 1978.

The book brings together a view of the “new sciences” with the traditional Jewish view of science and medicine.  The first part of the book covers five chapters:

  • ‘The Upper World’ (corresponding more or less to metaphysics),
  • ‘The World of the Spheres’ (astronomy),
  • ‘The Lower World’ (geography),
  • ‘The Little World’ or ‘Microcosm’ (ethnography), and
  • ‘The Foundations of the World’ (alchemy).

The second part includes three main chapters:

  • ‘A New Land’,
  • ‘A New House’ and
  • ‘The House Watch’ or ‘Guard’.

This corresponds to the traditional division of medical texts into three parts: physiology, pathology and therapy (limited here to hygiene). A third part includes:

  • ‘A Garden Enclosed’ (gynecology and obstetrics),
  • ‘Fruit of the Womb’ (pediatrics), and
  • ‘A Fountain Sealed’ (on sterility).

The chapter titles in the first part of the book relate to the idea of the “world”, and those of the second part to the theme of novelty and the house. The headings in the third part all derive from the Bible, particularly the Song of Songs (Lepicard.) The book also includes a section on medical botany and a list of remedies.

The House Metaphor

Another important feature of the book is the scientific and medical illustrations it provides.

s130

The illustration above is part of a chapter on pathology in the medical part of the book, the section entitled ‘A New House’.  To the left of the illustration is the figure of a man with an open chest and abdomen, exposing the main internal organs.  A Hebrew scroll separates this figure from that of a house with four floors on the right of the illustration (Lepicard.)  In accordance with common practice in anatomy texts of the period, the organs are marked with letters.  On the scroll, the letters, in alphabetical order, are followed by the name of the designated part of the house, and that of the corresponding organ.

Where is the heart?  The reference letters and accompanying text show that the cauldron is located in the kitchen of the house. It represents the stomach. The heart is on the floor above, hidden behind a latticework grille. The heart belongs on the upper floor as Tobias said, where it can benefit from fresh air without being too exposed.  The “kitchen” level below corresponds to the bodily functions as understood at the time.  Tobias’s decision to write his book in Hebrew was likely driven by his desire to bring the “new science” to his Jewish community.

On the Road Again…

After Padua, Tobias Cohn went back to Poland and practiced medicine for a while then moved to Adrianopole (today’s city of Edirne close to Turkey’s borders with Greece and Bulgaria.)  There, he became the physician to five Ottoman sultans (Muntner, 2007,) moving to Constantinople (Today’s Istanbul) then Jerusalem in 1724 until his death at the age of 77 in 1729.

 

Footnotes and Sources

[1] Louis Lewin, The Jewish students at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, in: Yearbook of the Jewish Literary Society 14 (1921), S. 231 f See also Richarz, entry, p.34…

David Margalith, Cohn, Tobias ben Moses, in: Encyclopedia Judaica: Bd. V, Detroit 2  2007, S. 44 f.; Asher Salah, La République des Lettres. Rabbins, écrivains et médecins juifs en Italie au XVIII siècle, Leiden/Boston 2007, S. 182-184.

Carsten Schliwski, Tobias Kohen (1652-1729) – the first Jewish student in Germany: Tobias Kohen as a Jewish student in Germany, from: Andreas Speer, Andreas Berger

A convincing case for accepting that Tobias Kohen and his friend were in fact the first Jewish student (Lewin, students, S. 222-226.)

Tobias Kohen, Ma’asseh Tuviyyah. Vol. 1, Venice 1707, pp. 5b.  The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America owns a first edition of Maaseh Tuviah, with the call number of RB 144:4. The book was published in Hebrew and consists of one volume containing multiple works, for a total of 321 pages.

 

David B Ruderman, Jewish thought and scientific discovery in early modern Europe, Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2001(c. 1995), pp. 100–17, 229–55.

For biographic information, see also J O Leibowitz, ‘Tobie Cohen, auteur médical de langue hébraïque (1652–1729)’, Revue d’Histoire de la Médecine Hébraïque, 1964, 63: 15–24.

Solomon Conegliano, ‘Preface to Ma’aseh Tuviyah’ (in Hebrew), in Tobias Cohen, Ma’aseh Tuviyah, Venice, 1708. It is not unusual to find 1707 as the date of publication. The Hebrew date (tav-samekh-zayin – 5467) can correspond both to 1707 and to 1708.

D. Kaufmann, ‘Trois docteurs de Padoue: Tobias Moschides – Gabriel Selig b. Mose-Isak Wallich’, Rev. Etudes Juives, 1889, 19:293-298.

D. Kaufmann, ‘Une lettre de Gabriel Felix Moschides’, Rev. Etudes Juives, 1896, 32: 134-137.

Figure 1. Tobias Cohn (1652-1729). From T. Cohn, Ma aseh Tobivvah. Venice, Stamparia Bragadina, [1708], front. engr. (Copy in the Wellcome Institute Library, London.)

To Life! – Le’ Chaim!

Recent scientific news tell us something our ancestors already knew:  life is precious, life is rare!   On this day of remembrance, let us praise life.  Let us praise the Godly and magical concept of life that brings us all here together: humans and animals and plants.

Let us acknowledge that we are all products of life, first and foremost by smiling at one another!  Today! Smile at your goldfish, at your tomato plant, at your neighbors and at strangers.,

Let us remember kindly those who brought us life, our parents and their parents and their parents.  Let us remember the innocents of all nations and all faiths who perished at the hands of others,

Let us acknowledge our difference of opinions but recognize the miracle of life that unites us all.

To life, Le’ Chaim!

Shalom Italia

Yesterday, I had the great privilege of attending the World Premiere of Shalom Italia, a brand new documentary by Israeli film maker  Tamar Tal Anati, at the American Film Institute Silver Theater in Silver Springs, Maryland.

shalomitaliaThe movie tells the story of the three Anati brothers, ages 73, 82 and 84, who set off on a journey to find a cave in the woods of Tuscany, Italy.  This cave is the place where they remember hiding as children with their entire family to escape the Nazis. Each brother has a different recollection of the events that took place some 70 years ago, and each brother approaches this adventure differently.  This delightful movie overlays the humorous interaction between the three brothers with a reflection on the importance of memories on our lives.

I could not help but draw a parallel with the story of my parents who were both hidden during the war and survived the Holocaust as well.  My father was hidden on a farm, not unlike the three brothers picture in the movie.  My mother lived under and assumed Christian name while her parents lived hidden in a basement.  Like the Anati brothers, my parents owed their lives to the generosity and courage of Christian men and women who protected them during the war.  My mother kept a very close relationship with her saviors, the George family, until her death.  Like the Emmanuel Anati, my parents and my grandmother were always reluctant to speak about this period of their lives, perhaps repressing these memories.

Following the showing, we had the great fortune of having a question and answer session with Tamar, the film maker and with Reuven who traveled for the Premiere. This was a great moment that added to the significance and pleasure of the event.  The movie is expertly edited, and professionally put together. I would highly recommend that you look for any showings in your area.  In the meantime, enjoy the trailer below 🙂

 

The Antwerp Bible

The Antwerp Bible (its official name is “Biblia Sacra, Hebraice, Chaldaice, Graece et Latine: Philippi II. reg. Cathol. pietate, et studio ad sacrosanctae ecclesiae vsum, Christoph Plantinus excud.“) was printed between 1568 and 1573 by Christopher Plantin in Antwerp (now Belgium.)

The Catholic king of Spain Philip II financed the project and sent Spanish theologian Benito Arias Montano to Antwerp to watch over its translation in five languages.  The Bible comprises eight volumes and was printed in 1100 copies.

  • The first four volumes contain the Old Testament. The left page has two columns with the Hebrew original and the Latin translation, the right page has same text in Greek with its own Latin translation. Underneath these columns there is an Aramaic version on the left-hand page and a Latin translation of this on the right-hand side.
  • Volume 5 contains the New Testament in Greek and Syriac, each with a Latin translation, and a translation of the Syriac into Hebrew.
  • Volume 6 has the complete Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek, as well as an interlinear version that has the Latin translation printed between the lines.
  • The last two volumes contain dictionaries (Hebrew-Latin, Greek-Latin, Syriac-Aramaic, grammar rules, list of names, etc.) that were of value to scholars.

For printing the Hebrew text Plantin used among others Daniel Bomberg’s Hebrew type, which he had received from Bomberg’s nephews. Bomberg was a Christian printer and publisher of Hebrew works. He was born in Antwerp and died in Venice in 1549.  After having learned from his father, Cornelius, the art of printing and of type-founding, he went to Venice, where, from 1517 to 1549, he published many editions of Hebrew works.

A complete copy of the Antwerp Bible is on display at the Plantin-Moretus Museum (the site of the original printing press), including the typefaces which were designed for this project.

Photo: http://drc.usask.ca/projects/archbook/archbook_admin/images/FisherG-10_00137.jpg

Rabbi Jacob… (Jews in Paris in the 13-14th Century)

My francophone friends will look at the title of this post and immediately think of the movie “The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob” (French: Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob) featuring the great Louis de Funès.

But this is about another Rabbi Jacob!

This Kosher Pizza joint in the Marais Jewish neighborhood of Paris was likely not a XIIIth Century establishment…

Jewish life in the Paris region in the middle ages was a veritable roller coaster.  Local edicts would allow Jews to live in Paris, only to be reversed 20 years later.  Yet, Jewish communities would re-establish themselves quickly, principally along trade routes.  In 1182, King Philippe II ( Auguste) seizes the debts owed to Jews and their real estate, forcing synagogues to become churches.  Jews are called back in 1198.  They are partially expulsed in 1253, but a royal order gives them access to old cemeteries and synagogues.

In 1272, there are signs of Yeshivots on the right bank of the Seine. In 1283, Phillipe le Hardi, Duke of Burgundy, enabled the community to expand somewhat.  During the 13th Century, there were about 4,500 to 7,500 Jews or 3% to 5% of the total population of about 150,000.  Yet, 20 years later, the Jews were driven out of Paris by Philippe le Bel in 1306.

This brings us to the cemetery at the rue Pierre-Sarrazin…

ruepierresarrasin18981.jpeg

The building under which the Jewish Cemetery was found. (Photo dated 1898)

In 1849, during work on a building belonging to Louis Hachette on the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin, about 80 headstones were uncovered, belonging to a Jewish cemetery dating back to the XIIth Century.  This large cemetery was contemporary to a prosperous era for the Jewish community of Paris.

What about Rabbi Jacob?

One of the most amazing headstones found at the cemetery of the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin is that of Rabbi Jacob, son of Rabbi Haïm. (see below)

85-004665

Inscription
Traduction (Nahon, 1986)

זאת מצבת קבו[רת]
ר[בי] יעקב ב[ן] הר[ב]
חיים שנפטר
לגן עדן יום א
פרשט אמר
שנת שלשה
עשר לפרט
תנבה

This is the headstone of
Rabbi Jacob son of Rabbi
Haïm who left us for
the garden of Eden the first day
of the parasha Emor
in the year three
ten of the computus 
May his soul be bound up in the bond of life

The headstone was discovered in 1849 and given to the Museum of Cluny in Paris (Museum of the Middle Ages), cataloged in 1912, and given to the Paris Museum of Jewish Art and History.  The estimated date of Rabbi Jacob’s death is April 17, 1253.

Conclusion…

Jewish life survived the Middle Ages despite incredible odds.  Communities were regularly pushed from one place to another, losing their fortunes, places of worship and cemeteries.  The headstones found under the Hachette building on the Rue Pierre-Sarrazin are a miracle of history.  And the history told through them enables us to better appreciate the struggles and the extraordinary resilience of our people.

The oldest synagogue in the United States

TouroSyn_credit

See a March 2019 update below 

The story of the Touro Synagogue reveals the complexity and beauty of Jewish history, and the ability of the Jewish people to adapt in order to survive, a couple of themes that I have highlighted on several occasions in this blog.  The story of its community spans the Western Hemisphere, dating back to the Middle Ages, and played a significant role in the independence of the United States.

The Touro Synagogue

The Touro Synagogue is located in of Newport, Rhode Island on the East Coast of the U.S., a 2-hour drive from Boston, Massachusetts.  The synagogue was dedicated in 1763 and as such is considered to be the oldest synagogue in the United States.  The synagogue is considered one of the ten most architecturally distinguished buildings of 18th century America and the most historically significant Jewish building in the United States.The synagogue was designated a National Historic Site in 1946.  It still serves an active congregation and each year greets over 30,000 visitors who come to see the magnificent interior and hear its remarkable story. 1280px-Touro_Synagogue_National_Historic_Site_TOSY1087

Services at Touro Synagogue are orthodox and follow the Nusach Sefard liturgy.  At its dedication in December 1763, the Touro Synagogue was the center of Jewish life in Newport. It anchored the community during the height of
Newport’s prosperity and stood through the town’s near destruction in the Revolutionary War. As it approaches its 250th anniversary, the Synagogue remains a vital part of the Jewish community in Newport and serves as the home for Congregation Jeshuat Israel, the spiritual descendants of the congregation that built it.

Origin of the Congregation

In 16touro-synagogue-national-historic-site-158, the small but growing colony of Newport, Rhode Island received its first Jewish residents. Fifteen families came from Barbados, seeking the greater religious tolerance that Rhode Island offered.  These families were descendants of  ‘Marranos’ who fled the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal that had migrated from Amsterdam and London to Brazil and then the islands of Suriname, Barbados, Curaçao and Jamaica.   By 1677, the community realized the need to acquire land for a Jewish cemetery. Two of the original immigrants, Mordechai Campanal and Moses Israel Paeheco, purchased the lot at the corner of what is now Kay and Touro Streets for this purpose.

Marranos

Throughout most of the Middle Ages, Portuguese Jews (Sephardim) enjoyed unparalleled freedom, wealth and power. They occupied key positions in government, academia, and commerce, and especially the professions of medicine, science and law.  In 1496, King Manuel of Portugal tried to keep his most learned, creative and productive subjects, not to mention his personal physician, tailor, royal mathematician, royal astronomer, his government financiers, etc.  He encouraged “his” Jews to convert to Christianity. He tried to persuade and cajole them, even bringing converted rabbis from Spain to preach to them.  The New Christian secret Jews became known as Marranos, from the Portuguese “marrar”, i.e. forced, or from the Aramaic-Hebrew Mar Anus, a forced one.  The philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Frances Sanches, Uriel Acosta, Montaigne, and David Ricardo were all Marrano descendants.  Indigenous Marranos did survive nearly 300 years following the Inquisition. In 1920, Samuel Schwarz, a Polish engineer working in Portugal, encountered a community of Marranos in the interior of Portugal (Belmonte) who had managed to preserve some of the secret rituals, including prayers, of their ancestors.

George Washington gets in the act…

Marranos who came to the American colonies were free to profess their Judaism.  Aaron Lopez, the wealthiest merchant of the thirteen colonies was born Duarte Lopez in Lisbon.  He provided money and ships to George Washington during the War of Independence.

The United States won and became independent and politically free, but would there also be religious freedom?  On 17 Aug 1790, Moses Seixas of the Touro Congregation wrote to George Washington, asking him for assurance in the new political climate.  President Washington replied, promising that the United States would never support religious bigotry or persecution:

…The Citizens of the United States have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation.  All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.  It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent national gifts.”

And then he went further:

…while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.

Washington’s commitment has remained a cornerstone of American values.  His letter “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport,” written a year before the Bill of Rights was ratified, is on display at the Touro synagogue.

The Letter From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 21 Aug 1790

The Letter From George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, 21 Aug 1790.

Inscription marking the entrance to the Touro Cemetery (Newport, Rhode Island) - photo credit: Peter Radunzel

March 2019 Update:
Who owns the Touro Synagogue?

Touro Synagogue rimonim

For years, Congregation Jeshuat Israel, the congregation that worships at the Touro Synagogue, has struggled to make ends meet. The Congregation decided to put up for sale
Colonial-era  ceremonial bells, called rimonim, to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for $7.4 million.

Congregation Shearith Israel of New York objected to the sale and sued the Newport congregation (Oy!,) on the basis that they owned the Touro synagogue building and the rimonim. They also wanted the Jeshuat Israel congregation of Newport to be evicted from the Touro building and site. The New York Congregation argued that it owns Touro under terms of an agreement between the congregations dating from 1903. In May 2016 a federal judge ruled in favor of the New York Congregation. Congregation Shearith Israel appealed but lost and Congregation Shearith Israel was awarded ownership on August 2, 2017 by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston.

On March 18, 2019, the United States Supreme Court declined to take up the case; the lower court ruling that Congregation Shearith Israel owns Touro remains in place. (See article.)

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