The Ethical Will, Embodied: American Jewish Museums and the Women Who Created Them

By Ariel Paige Cohen

We are on the precipice of the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in human history. Over the course of the next 10 years alone, at least $4.1 trillion is expected to change hands from American baby boomers to their millennial and Gen Z children. The United States is currently the country with the most ultra-high net worth individuals, and individuals account for four out of every five philanthropic dollars in the United States (foundations and corporations account for the other 20%). Additionally, of all ethnic groups in North America, Jews give the most to charity per capita as of 2016 reports by Giving USA.[1] As a result, many of those who will be giving wealth to and receiving wealth from their loved ones over the course of the coming decades are, or might become, Jewish philanthropists – that is, self-identifying Jews who are donors, and/or people who give to Jewish organizations and causes. 

History is informing these donors’ giving practices even if individuals aren’t always aware of it. Some scholars are exploring the ways in which philanthropy has defined the twentieth-century evolution of the American Jewish community, including Lila Corwin Berman in her new book, The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex. These important studies show us the processes from history that created the present giving landscape. But the “ethical will” concept and the legacy of cultural philanthropy are both largely ignored in American Jewish studies, and both are vital keys to understanding the history of American Jewish philanthropy as a whole. This article offers two American Jewish museums as case studies for the ways in which the build environment can serve as an embodied version of the ethical will. Perhaps with a greater understanding of the history of American Jewish philanthropy, complete with intergenerational transfers of ethical values and the history of American Jewish museums, the next generation of donors will be empowered to lean on the tools and traditions of Jewish history in their own giving. Further, because Jewish cultural philanthropy was first envisioned by women, this history urges a move toward gender equity to the narrative of Jewish philanthropy. Let us examine what these intertwined histories of Jewish ethical wills and American Jewish museums have to offer us. 

The first Jewish museums in our country with their own independent addresses were created by women in New York and in Boston. Through their visionary writings and donations, these two philanthropists, one a wealthy German Jewish heiress and the other an educated middle-class rebbetzin, promoted a vision that left an indelible mark on American Jewish identity and that shaped the earliest Jewish museums in North America. By creating the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue (famously still extant today) and the historical Jewish Museum of Boston, Frieda Schiff Warburg and Mignon Levine Rubenovitz wrote their own ethical wills, reclaiming and reinventing a masculinized practice from medieval Judaism.

Left: Entrance hall of the Warburg mansion, as it was originally furnished. Right: the entrance as it appears today as the Jewish Museum’s Skirball Lobby; installation view from the exhibition Using Walls, Floors, and Ceilings: Valeska Soares, November 6, 2015-April 25, 2016. Photo by: David Heald.

The ethical will hails from the men of medieval Jewish communities primarily residing in France and Germany. Leaning on biblical precedent, the first medieval writers of ethical wills used Genesis 48 as a template for their own writings and cited it as a bounding decree for fathers to write “moral exhortations” for their children.[2] In Genesis, Jacob gathers his sons and grandchildren before his death and says: 

May the G-d before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully, the G-d who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm – may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly on the earth. (Genesis 48:16).

In medieval Europe, ethical wills were written exclusively by Jewish fathers to their children. They were designed for private, familial use in informal language, revealing the emotional composition – fears, hopes, dreams, frailties – of the author. As Stefanie Siegmund has shown, some ethical wills hailing from the Spanish inquisition commanded readers to do business honestly, wear special clothes on the Sabbath and other occasions, honor one’s body, and practice sexual modesty. As Jacob Marcus has uncovered, some from fourteenth century Germany discuss charity, refraining from speaking out of turn, reciting blessings, and living in primarily Jewish neighborhoods. As Israel Abrams has demonstrated, some ethical wills even enter into Jewish philosophical debates and command children to adhere to one leader or another (for example, Maimonides).

The ethical will was scantly present in the later early modern Jewish communities but has not disappeared from the Western world. During industrialization in the 1880s, wealthy Americans, Christian and Jewish, revived the concept, writing ethical wills as detailed estate plans to be used by their families after their deaths. In the early 20thcentury, chaplains and caretakers for patients in hospice began to help men and women compose ethical wills orally or in writing as a comfort to the dying and an offering to the living. American celebrity physician Dr. Andrew Weil now defines ethical wills as documents of intergenerational spiritual healing, bridging gaps between parents and their sons and daughters. 

In 1926, the first-ever compilation of Hebrew ethical wills was published in the United States by the Jewish Publication Society.[3] During this interwar period, as many American Jews became middle-class, they confronted massive societal changes and decentralized communities. The immigration acts of 1921 and 1924 dramatically decreased the number of Jewish immigrants, and successful American Jews began searching for the instruments of community that would not only keep Jewish global heritage alive but could creatively remake it with each generation. Frieda Schiff Warburg, named JTS’s first female board member in 1937, began to consider creative ways to commemorate and breathe life into the global Jewish experience of millennia past, and to pass Jewish history and ethics on from her own generation to the next. 

 In January 1944, Frieda Schiff Warburg wrote a seminal letter to the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary announcing her donation of the Warburg family’s three-story Gothic mansion on the corner of 92nd street and Fifth Avenue. She envisioned her home as a museum:

With the consent of my children, I am now ready and glad to offer my former home… to the Jewish Seminary of America to be used as a Museum… I would like my gift to be [remembered as]… my affirmation of my faith in the fundamental principles of our Jewish Traditions, which can be helpful and constructive in the problems of the World Today… It gives me great happiness to think that the house… should now continue to live on to further the ideals of our family traditions.

Schiff Warburg’s correspondences and 1956 memoir reveal that she imagined the Jewish Museum as an ethical will to her own children and grandchildren as well as to the American people. When Moses gave the Torah to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, which is often cited as a second template for the ethical will, he predicted their successes if they adhered to G-d’s ethical code. Similarly, in her writings Frieda Schiff Warburg predicted the open-mindedness and successes of the Jews and Americans who would walk through the halls of her former home. Invoking her children and future grandchildren in her letters and speeches leading up to the opening event, Schiff Warburg clarified her mission: to steer future Americans in the directions of cultural pluralism, interfaith dialogue, and artistic richness. 

 In Boston, there was another American Jewish woman moved to display Jewish objects as pleas to present and future Jews to pass along values from one generation to another. Motivated more by fear, loss and devastation than her distal friend Schiff Warburg, Rebbetzin Mignon Levine Rubenovitz of Boston’s prominent Conservative outpost Temple Mishkan Tefila called upon American Jews to “rescue Jewish history from the broken hands of those who live under the malignant skies of Europe.” Levine Rubenovitz began to collect objects and to write about a future Jewish Museum in Boston when the Nazis rose to power in 1933. In 1940, she founded her museum as a model of the “great responsibility” of American Jews: to liberate Jewish objects from Europe and guard them in the United States on behalf of world Jewry. In other words, her museum was her own version of an ethical will, too, pleading for American Jews to keep Jewish ritual objects safe for future generations. In her founding museum document, she wrote: 

Perhaps I have told you enough to convey our underlying purposes – the quiet, painstaking salvaging of the symbols of Jewish values, of Jewish idealism and dignity, at a time when millions of our innocent and unoffending coreligionists were ground into the dust. Here a precious few of Jewish treasures are treasured: Jewish aspirations made concrete. While the guns roared in Europe where our people, martyred, fed the flames, we unceasingly pursued our peaceful task of succoring, albeit in small measure, the things they wrought to express their belief in the sacredness of human personality and its corollary, the faith that freedom would not, must not, perish from the earth.

Now, in 2020, as Jewish elders prepare to leave our earth, many are concerned with imparting their legacies and inherited Jewish values to the next generation. Several years ago, a group of Jews got together to form the Jewish Future Pledge which calls upon all Jewish donors to give 50% of their philanthropy to Jewish causes. American Jews are increasingly turning to outside organizations for help in facilitating conversations with their children, who they hope will be next-generation givers to Jewish causes. Many fear a looming loss of Jewish history, culture, and practice in next-generation America. Some want to invest in the Jewish non-profits that will serve and maintain community for generations to come.

Some Jews are now also reviving an ancient and medieval Jewish concept to pass along their ethics to their children. The ethical will, filled with spiritual, religious, and ethical significance to the Jewish people specifically, is serving a renewed purpose in families and private spheres as we prepare for the world’s largest-ever transition of intergenerational wealth. One might wonder whether the next Frieda Schiff Warburg or Mignon Rubenovitz is on the horizon to explore the ethical will through an altogether new modality. As more ethical wills are being written in the traditional style – with words on paper – I am curious to see whether more will be written in nontraditional styles that set precedent for future Jewish ventures. I predict that women, again, will imagine them. 


Ariel Paige Cohen was a Fordham-NYPL Research Fellow in the Fall of 2020. She spoke about “Feminine Power in the History of American Jewish Museums” in September, 2020.


[1] https://givingusa.org/just-released-giving-usa-special-report-on-giving-to-religion/

[2] I. Abrahams, “Jewish Ethical Wills,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 3, no. 3 (1891): 436–84, https://doi.org/10.2307/1450009, 448.

[3] Israel Abrahams,צואות גאוני ישראל (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1926).

Sefer mitsvot ha-gadol of 1546/7, a story of a used book

by Andrew Pace FCRH’22

The physical qualities of books, regardless of the content of the text itself, such as condition, format, design, fonts, and many more are valuable pointers to show how and by whom a book would have been used during its lifetime. Bibliographical records on the author and publisher can also help the reader understand the style in which the book was written and published. There is no better instance where this is the case than in Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol by Moses ben Jacob of Coucy and published by the world-renowned Venetian publisher Daniel Bomberg in 1546/7. 

Moses of Coucy, Sefer mitsvot ha-gadol (Venice: Daniel Bomberg, 1546/47). Fordham University, Walsh Family Library, O’Hare Special Collections, + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1546 1A

Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol is arguably Moses ben Jacob of Coucy’s most celebrated work. Fordham owns two copies of the 1546/7 edition. The Mitsvot ha-gadol, as it is commonly known, or “Se-Ma-G,” for short, includes the principles of the Rabbinic Oral Law and is divided into two sections: positive and negative precepts.[1] Due to its popularity and importance to rabbinic learning, the Mitsvot ha-gadol had been widely distributed in the Middle Ages and published in print several times as well.[2]

Its first publication took place in Rome sometime between 1469 and 1480, by Obadiah, Menasheh and Benjamin of Rome.[3] Subsequently, it was published in 1488 by Gershom Soncino in Soncino, the Duchy of Milan.[4] According to Israel Moses Ta-Shema, the final publication of this book during the pre-modern era took place in 1546 by Daniel Bomberg.[5] This edition was the last until the nineteenth century. Bomberg’s print shop in Venice, Italy, became famous for its Hebrew publications, including the first full edition of the Talmud, with what would be come a standard foliation of the work. There have also been a number of great scholars who have written commentaries on this work including, Isaac Stein, Joseph Colon, Elijah Mizrachi, Solomon Luria, and Hayyim Benveniste. However, as demonstrated by the lack of publications after 1546/7, the Mitsvot ha-gadol fell out of use, likely because it was replaced by the Shulhan Arukh around the time it was published in 1565.[6]

Fordham’s unexpurgated copy of Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol is bound in a green cardboard cover with brown leather spine. The book measures thirty-two-point-five centimeters by twenty-three centimeters (Figure 1). 

The large size of this book suggests that it was used as a reference book. The worn condition of the cover shows that it was frequently used. 

Although the outside of the book gives the reader a general understanding of its use, the pages tell a whole story in themselves. The title page of the Mitsvot ha-gadol has a large image of an archway with words embedded under the arch, known as a head-piece (Figure 2).[7]

Fig. 2

These words are divided into three sections. The topmost set of words is arranged in two lines of dark black letters which are written in the largest font size out of the four sections. This is the title of the respective section of the book which follows this page. The second section of words is split into two identically-shaped paragraphs, preceded by a line of words with a larger text size than the two paragraphs, but smaller than the first section of words. These paragraphs taper down from a full line to one word at the bottom, resembling two upside-down triangles on top of each other. Moreover, the size of the text of this section is quite smaller than that of the first section and is printed in a different typeset. This text briefly explains the purpose and usefulness the positives precepts which are held in the first part of the book.[8] The third and final section of text presents itself in three lines which are separated by a space. The first line is very similar to the second, except that the first line is written in more of a rounded Hebrew font, while the font of the second line seems to be much more boxlike or square. However, the third line is much different than both. This line is very short and has a larger, broader font than lines one and two. These three lines are likely the closing remarks of the paragraphs in the second section of words. 

While there is much to say about the text of the title page, the relatively poor physical condition of the page is immediately apparent as well (Fig. 2). There is tape all around the edges of the page indicating that there was damage which needed to be repaired. The binding is visibly very worn, weak and appears to have water damage. Finally, there is also writing which was done by hand in between the lines and letters of the above-mentioned three sections of words. Ironically enough, on the inside cover of the book and adjacent to the title page, someone had written, “Writing in this book is prohibited,” about fifteen times in Hebrew (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3

The age of this book is apparent on the page following the title page as well (Figure 4). All over the page are spots and browning that come with the book aging process. This process is known as “foxing.” Besides the foxing on this page, there are also holes in the paper which are seen on the majority of the pages, known as “wormholes.”[9]

Fig. 4

As consistent with the title page, there is also water damage and tape on the edges of the paper. Besides the physical qualities of this page, there is also evidence of Daniel Bomberg’s employment of foliation in the top left corner above the text, which made it easier to navigate a large resource such as the Mitsvot ha-gadol.[10] Furthermore, this page has three large Hebrew letters at the top of the page boxed in by an ornate design, which is displayed in a similar fashion to a head-piece or vignette.[11] One may also note that at the top of the page and besides the ornate box there are large words which most likely identify the section of the book that the reader is currently in. Finally, where the text begins in the first paragraph, the first Hebrew word is capitalized. This typographical method is used to add emphasis and is known as an initial or drop cap.[12] While the first page holds many particular observations, the rest of the book is more or less quite uniformly designed.

Fig. 5

The standard page in the Mitsvot ha-gadol includes two columns of text (Figure 5). Beside the columns and in indented sections of the paragraphs are notes in a smaller font size than the text. These serve as references to the sources in which Moses ben Jacob used. Many of these, but not all, are direct references to the Sephardic Jewish philosopher Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, which is said to be directly cited on at least every page.[13] These pages are numbered in the top outer corners and have large words at the top of the page which identify the section of the book as either the positive or negative precepts.[14] Additionally, at the end of the first section, there are large darkened words which specify that the section is over, and a new section begins with the same archway that is observed on the title page of the book (Figure 6).   

Fig. 6

The Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol was written by Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, who was born in France and, in 1236, became an itinerant preacher in Spain.[15] During the rise of rationalization in Spain, the adherence to the precepts of the Jewish faith became fairly permissive. Consequently, Moses ben Jacob began his work on the Mitsvot ha-gadol to address the precepts and commandments. He arranged, as is traditional, the precepts into positive and negative sections of the book and organized them in such a way that the reader could distinguish which applied to their time and which did not.[16] Although educating its reader on the precepts may have been a primary motivating factor behind the writing of the Mitsvot ha-gadol, Moses ben Jacob also states in the introduction of the positive precepts that, “A man may learn his entire life and still fail to attain knowledge of a particular commandment, and this is due to the length of the Talmud, the dialectic reasoning, and to the fact that one commandment may appear in several places.”[17] So, this book was also meant to be used alongside the Talmud as a reference due to its complexity, and, therefore, the target audience would have been narrowed to scholars who were already immersed in Talmudic studies. Following the great success of the Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol, Moses ben Jacob also went on to author another work. He wrote a commentary on the tractate Yoma which was titled “Tosefot Yeshanim.” This commentary, however, was not published until 1735 in Berlin.[18]

Daniel Bomberg, the printer of Fordham’s Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol, was one of the most prolific publishers of Jewish texts during the 16th century. Bomberg, a native of Antwerp, moved to Venice in 1516, which was the center of Jewish and Christian writing in the 15th century.[19] Here, he opened a print shop and began specializing in printing Hebrew bibles, famously printing the Rabbinic Bible, which became known as the Bomberg Bible in 1517. The Bomberg Bible solidified Daniel Bomberg’s reputation amongst 16th-century printers because, through its many successive printings, it became the golden standard for Hebrew scriptures in the Jewish tradition.[20] In dominating the competitive printing scene, Bomberg also took business from other printers, such as Gershom Soncino, the preeminent printer of medieval Hebrew works and one of the earlier publishers of the Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol (in 1488).  Years later, Soncino wrote, “The Venetian printers copied my books and published, in addition, whatever they could lay their hands on. They tried hard to ruin me…”[21] Clearly referring to Bomberg as a “Venetian printer,” Soncino admits that Bomberg was outpacing him and, subsequently, ruining his career. The very notion that Bomberg could take a work, such as the Mitsvot ha-gadol, from the distinguished Gershom Soncino and print a superior version in his own style is a testament to his success.

         Daniel Bomberg also published dozens of other influential pieces of Hebrew literature. This included works like Sefer ha-shorashim by David Kimhi and Elijah Levita, which goes into detail about the Hebrew language itself, and Hamishah humshe Torah ; Neviim Rishonim; Arba `a Neviim Aharonim ; Ketuvim,” a collection of commentaries on the Old Testament of the Bible compiled from four volumes into one book in 1521.[22] Bomberg also famously printed the first full foliated edition of the Talmud in 1520. A specialty of his, the addition of page numbers made reading texts like the Talmud much more accessible because it allowed people to easily locate sections of the book without having to refer to the chapter and verse. This foliation became standardized in the printing of the Talmud.[23]

         The Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol has engraved its name as one of the most distinguished pieces of Hebrew works in medieval Europe. It presented the negative and positive precepts in a clear and usable way. When the printing press was invented, it was one of the first Hebrew works to be printed, and the book had such success that several distinguished scholars wrote commentaries on the work. Fordham’s copy of the Mitsvot ha-gadol was printed in 1546/7, by the notable printer, Daniel Bomberg, in Venice. This was the last publication of this important halakhic compendium in the pre-modern period and was not republished again until the 19th century. The fact that it survived throughout the centuries and was still studied by scholars in Europe even after it ceased to be published points towards its importance. Furthermore, as evidenced by the physical examination of this book, it was undeniably frequently used, its owners trying to repair and preserve the work. Although it was not published again until the 1800s, it is beyond doubt that the Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol has left a lasting impact on the history of Jewish law and culture. 


This essay was written in fall of 2018, during Andrew Pace’s first semester at Fordham, within a course on modern Jewish history (HIST 1851) taught by Professor Magda Teter. Their essays, some of which will be featured here, were published in a volume “You Can Judge Books by Their Covers Jewish History through Used Books.” Fordham’s Judaica collection prides itself in collecting books that were used and popular, often quite quotidian and ordinary, for they reflect a broader Jewish culture that might not be visible through expensive extraordinary items.


[1] Israel Moses Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy,” Encyclopaedia Judaica 14 (2018).

[2] Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy.”

[3] of Coucy Moses ben Jacob, Sefer Mitsvot Gadol. (Rome: [Rome] : [Obadiah, Menasheh and Benjamin of Rome, ca. 1469-1472], 1469-1480).

[4] of Coucy Moses ben Jacob, Sefer Mizot Gadol (Book of Precepts). (Duchy of Milan Gershom Soncino, 1488).

[5] Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy.”

[6] Conversation with Professor Teter; September 26, 2018

[7] John Carter and Nicolas Barker, Abc for Book Collectors, 8th ed. (New Castle, DE; London: Oak Knoll Press; The British Library, 2004).

[8] Yehuda Dov Galinsky, “The Significance of Form: R. Moses of Coucy’s Reading Audience and His ‘Sefer Ha-Miẓvot’,” AJS Review, no. 2 (2011).

[9] Dialogue with Professor Teter; September 26, 2018 

[10] Professor Magda Teter Class Lecture; September 6, 2018

[11] Carter and Barker, Abc for Book Collectors.

[12] Ina Saltz, Typography Essentials : 100 Design Principles for Working with Type, Design Essentials (Quayside Publishing Group, 2009).

[13] Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy.”

[14] Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy.”

[15] Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy.”

[16] Galinsky, “The Significance of Form.”

[17] Galinsky, “The Significance of Form.”

[18] of Coucy Moses ben Jacob, Tosefot Yeshanim. (Berlin1735).

[19] “Bomberg, Daniel (1483–1553) [Bomberg, Daniel],” The Oxford Dictionary of the Renaissance.

[20] David Shepherd, “Before Bomberg: The Case of the Targum of Job in the Rabbinic Bible and the Solger Codex (Ms Nürnberg),” Biblica 79, no. 3 (1998).

[21] Jacob Rader Marcus, 1896-1995. and Marc. Saperstein, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Source Book, 315-1791, Rev. ed. ed. (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1999).

[22] Daniel Bomberg, Hamishah Humshe Torah ; Neviim Rishonim ; Arba`a Neviim Aharonim ; [Ketuvim]. Nidpas shenit ed. (Venice, Italy: Daniel Bomberg, 1521); David Kimhi and Elijah Levita, Sefer Ha-Shorashim. (Daniel Bomberg, 1546).

[23] Professor Magda Teter Class Lecture; September 6, 2018

On Saying Their Names—Remembering Pittsburgh

By W. David Myers

I arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania via El Paso, Texas and Prague, in the Czech Republic. 

On October 27, 2018, I was in Prague on a research trip when the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation occurred. News was sparse, in large part because mass shootings in the United States are so common that international news organizations now present them as part of the daily news.  11 people were murdered, and others injured, during Sabbath prayer services that morning.  When I returned to the United States from Europe that November, the midterm elections had occurred, and the Pittsburgh tragedy had already faded from the news and the nation’s awareness. Then, in August 2019, a gunman walked into a Walmart in my hometown of El Paso and opened fire with another assault rifle, specifically targeting Mexicans and Latinos, killing 23 and wounding 23 others. The frantic day of phone calls and texts focused attention narrowly on my community (very Latino), my family (half Latino), my childhood friends (mostly Latino). One month later, in El Paso, I was able to visit and to walk the wall of tributes that sprang up spontaneously, and it was there that I saw this message from the Jewish Community Center—of Pittsburgh.  

“The JCC of Greater Pittsburgh Stands with El Paso, Texas.” Photo: W. David Myers

Suddenly it became clear to me that communities seemingly separated by geography, culture, and ethnicity were in fact closely connected not only by tragedy and compassion, but also alas by hate. Pittsburgh, far from El Paso, now seemed very near indeed, and from there it was only a small journey to Charleston, South Carolina, and the church shootings of June 17, 2015, in which 9 members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were gunned down during a bible study.

Three different cities, three different cultures, even three different religious traditions – same fate, similar cause. The United States has stopped listening to the “better angels of our nature” and is drifting back toward a history of violence based on racial and religious hatred fueled by conspiracy theories about children abducted and then murdered for obscure cultish practices.  In this regard, the Pittsburgh attack is particularly instructive. The murderer is an acknowledged white supremacist whose extreme anti-Semitic convictions led him to target the Jewish community specifically. It’s also striking that an explicit motive for his attack was the HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) support for refugees from Central America. He expressed concern about the “migrant caravans” supposedly hurtling northward in an assault on the American border before the midterm elections. El Paso, Texas, one must recall, was and is a major destination for immigrants and more recently refugees. The Jewish community of Pittsburgh came under attack in part for its compassionate response to the very people who would be attacked 1800 miles away and 9 months later. As history shows, any conspiracy theory or hysteria over immigration in the United States will inevitably touch the Jewish community. As William Faulkner famously noted, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” This brings me back to Prague. On the day before  the Pittsburgh attack, I was wandering through the amazing Jewish Museum spread throughout the Jewish Quarter, ending up at the old Jewish Cemetery. Of course it was a melancholy and profoundly moving experience—a graveyard, after all, and one of the few Jewish cemeteries in Central Europe to survive the Nazis. Looking about me, I thought of the vibrant but nonetheless embattled community these graves represented. Their existence—and survival—in a turbulent and often-hateful environment are testimony that for this community, these lives mattered and still matter, not just generally, but in their particularity as Jewish lives. My visit to the Pinkas Synagogue – the second oldest surviving synagogue in Prague—only strengthened this sense, because inscribed on its walls are the names of 77,297 Moravian and Bohemian Jews killed in the Holocaust. “Say their names” is no empty slogan but an affirmation of existence and humanity.

The Pinkas Synagogue, Prague. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

That, for me, is one of the takeaways from the Pittsburgh tragedy, and from those other tragedies that have intersected with it. In the United States today, a central cultural and political debate focuses on whose lives matter. For some, the easy fallback is the claim that all lives matter. On the other hand, in Prague the destruction of the cemetery would have meant erasing not just individual lives, but the life of the Jewish community. Only by preserving the particular was it possible to recognize that Jewish lives counted, that they matter. This is why we must say their names. The same is true for Latinos in my hometown, and for Black Americans in Charleston and elsewhere who have to fight for the simple recognition that Black Lives Matter.  Only when we finally accept this can we move on to some more universal affirmation. 


W. David Myers is Professor of History at Fordham University. He is the author of “Poor, Sinning Folk”: Confession and the Making of Consciences in Counter-Reformation Germany (1996) and Death and a Maiden: Infanticide and the Tragical History of Grethe Schmidt (2012). He is currently the reviews editor of Renaissance Quarterly. Professor Myers is completing a new book, “American Torture and the Experience of the West.”

Jewish theatre in Buenos Aires (1930-1950) and its connections with the New York Yiddish theatre

by Paula Ansaldo, University of Buenos Aires

During the twentieth century, the city of Buenos Aires was one of the main centers of Jewish culture and theatre. The great Yiddish theatre began to flourish in the 1930s when Buenos Aires was established as a Jewish theater city of international relevance. During the interwar period, a large population of Yiddish-speaking Jews settled in Buenos Aires, escaping from European hard living conditions and anti-Semitism. As a result, a rich Yiddish cultural life began to grow, and the city became an attractive destination for intellectuals and artists.

At the same time, by the 1930s, the audiences of the Yiddish theatre in the US were already declining, so the actors and actresses decided to go touring to other countries where the Jewish communities were still eager to see theatre in Yiddish, as it was the case of Argentina. The southern hemisphere had an extra advantage: it benefited from the season’s opposition. This allowed that during the summer break the actors could go to work in Argentina, without the need to completely leaving their own companies. That way, they were able to do two winter seasons: one in the US and another one in South America, one based in New York, and the other one based in Buenos Aires, from where they also traveled to other Argentinean cities, such as Rosario, Córdoba, and Santa Fe, and to the Jewish colonies, as Moisesville and Basabilbaso. They also tour other Latin American cities, such as Montevideo, Santiago de Chile, Sao Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro. This way, many American Yiddish theatre directors and actors, came to Argentina and their work had a profound impact on Buenos Aires’ theatre scene.

Molly Picon at Teatro Excelsior

Between 1930 and 1950, the golden age of Jewish theatre in Buenos Aires, four theatres presented plays in Yiddish regularly: the Soleil and the Excelsior (in the Abasto), the Mitre (in Villa Crespo), and the Ombú (which is where the AMIA is today). In addition to the theatres, some cafes also presented Yiddish vaudeville numbers, such as the Cristal and the Internacional, creating a wide Yiddish theatre scene. The shows were held from Tuesday to Sunday, even with two or three performances on the same day during weekends. The season normally lasted from April to November. And the theatres had always a full house.

The Commercial Theatre in Buenos Aires was organized by a star system. The impresarios brought stars from abroad to lead their companies and completed the cast with local actors and actresses. Thanks to this guest star system, many renowned artists arrived in Argentina and were considered outstanding visits even outside the Jewish theatre community. This happened especially in the case of the actors Jacob Ben-Ami, Maurice Schwartz, and Joseph Buloff, whose repertoire and acting style were completely different from the type of plays (like operettas, melodramas, and light comedies) that prevailed in the theatres of the period, Jewish and non-Jewish also. Anyone who looks into Argentinean newspapers will probably be surprised by the way the theatre reviewers wrote about these Jewish actors. In most cases, the critics didn’t even mention that they were performing in Yiddish. Instead, they focused on their acting skills and abilities, and referred to them as figures of universal theatre, regardless of the language they were using on stage. Many sources show that the critics and actors of the non-Jewish theatre went to see Yiddish plays and were admires of these Jewish actors. The actress Silvia Parodi, for example, says about Ben Ami:

Ben Ami has the gift of making himself understood without the need for language. (…) even without understanding a letter of the text, it’s enough to contemplate his face to feel all the passions and feelings reflected. Silence, attitudes, gestures, say so much that there is no need for more to understand him and admire him.

Review of Ben Ami’s performance at Teatro Soleil
Joseph Bulloff at Teatro Soleil

Therefore, the Jewish theatre was seen by the Argentinean community as a significant phenomenon, especially when the actors brought repertoire that was unknown in the Buenos Aires theatre scene. This was the case of Joseph Buloff’s Death of a Salesman/Toyt fun a seylsman, which premiered in Buenos Aires in 1949 in Soleil Theatre. This was the first time that the Argentinean public saw an Arthur Miller’s play. The show was such a success among Jewish and non-Jewish audiences that in 1950, the prominent actor Narciso Ibañez Menta premiered a Spanish version of the play. This is an emblematic case that shows how the Yiddish Theatre operated as a modernizing force that deeply influenced the theatre scene of Buenos Aires. Its itinerancy enabled, through the use of Yiddish language, the arrival of radical theatrical ideas, modern aesthetics and new repertoires that had not yet been translated to Spanish and neither developed in Buenos Aires’ theatres. 

For these reasons, my time researching at the Dorot Jewish Divison at the NYPL help me to gain a better understanding of the transnational Yiddish theatre network and the connections established between Argentinean and American Yiddish theatre. NYPL materials regarding Joseph Buloff and Ben-Ami allowed me to improve my understanding of their artistic conceptions and how their artistic background, acting style, and repertoire influenced and shaped the Jewish theatre of Buenos Aires.


Paula Ansaldo is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Buenos Aires. In the fall of 2019 she was a Fordham-NYPL Fellow in Jewish Studies. On October 3, 2019 she delivered her talk about ” “A history of the Jewish Theater in Buenos Aires: from the star system to the Idisher Folks Teater (1930-1960),” which can be viewed below.

October 3rd, 6PM Fordham University at Lincoln Center
Paula Ansaldo, “A history of the Jewish Theater in Buenos Aires: from the star system to the Idisher Folks Teater (1930-1960)”

A Maḥzor from Venice 1599/1600

By Michael Pappano FCRH’22

The Maḥzor: ke-minhag k.k. Ashkenazim in Fordham’s collection was published in Venice in 1599/1600 (5360) at the prominent printing business in the Venetian Republic of the era, the Bragadina. This Maḥzor, a Jewish prayer book used on the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, was intended for the Ashkenazi Jewish community. The copy in Fordham’s collection measures approximately 6.19 inches x 8 inches x 2.25 inches, and contains approximately 500 pages. It is missing the title page, and the first pages are hand-written.

Maḥzor ke-minhag ḳ.ḳ. Ashkenazim (Venice, 1599/1600), Spec Coll Judaica 1600 1. The first page here starts with a seliḥah אל ארך אפים אתה ובעל הרחמים

The Maḥzor’s cover is made of cloth-covered board and the binding is made from small twine wrapped tightly together, which we can see because the cover is torn off the spine of the book. The individual threads of the binding can be seen when viewing the front and back covers of the book.

The condition of the book, its binding, missing pages, and handwritten restorations signify that the book was heavily used and must have been passed down to many generations, as attested by multiple signatures on the book’s inside covers, in Hebrew and Italian.

Inside cover of The Maḥzor from Venice, Fordham, Spec Coll 1600 1

For a book so old and so heavily used, it is no surprise that many of the pages have blemishes on them. There is water damage on many of the pages and there is a very large number of tears, folded corners, and creases on most all of the pages. Some of the pages also have holes, likely caused by worms.                                     

This book contains both printed pages and handwritten pages. The manuscript pages are written in a handwriting strikingly similar to the font used by the print shop, demonstrating that printed pages were copied in manuscript to replace missing pages.

Maḥzor (Venice 1599/1600), Spec Coll 1600 1. The page on the left is printed, the page on the right is handwritten to resemble the printed page.

Some printed pages have two columns with detailed page borders and intricate borders around titles. 

The Maḥzor was published by a family-owned print shop that eventually became known as “Stamperia Bragadina,”[i] founded by Alvise Bragadin (c.1500 – 1575) in Venice. A Christian, he eventually began printing Hebrew books when offered the chance. After the press was first established and managed by Alvise, his descendants would take over the family business and would keep it successful into the 18th century. [ii] The first book that Bragadin printed in Hebrew was, according to most scholars, Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in 1550.[iii] This was a very popular book that was published in many editions. The Bragadin family business held a monopoly in the printing business of Hebrew texts for some time in Venice. As a result, the books they published reached many people and places in Europe, North Africa, and the Fertile Crescent. The monopoly ended when a new printing house, Stamperia Vendramina, was established in 1630 by Giovanni Vendramin.[iv]

The presented here Maḥzor was printed by a named printer, Zuan di Gara, better known as Giovanni di Gara, who operated his own printing press but also cooperated closely with the Bragadina, as this Maḥzor attests.

Publishing Competition and Feud in Venice

Marco Antonio Giustiniani, another Venetian publisher, was an ambitious printer. He came before Alvise Bragadin, who began to compete with Giustiniani, and put him out of business. Giustiniani printed many different types of books, including a famous edition of the Talmud, different editions of the Pentateuch with commentaries, works on Jewish law, and more. The feud between him and Bragadin arose over the printing of, Maimonides’ Mishne Torah. Rabbi Katzenellenbogen wrote commentaries in this edition and Giustiniani refused to print. Angered, Katzenellenbogen brought the task to the printshop of Alvise Bragadin who at this point hadn’t yet been publishing Hebrew books.[v] Bragadin accepted the task, and thus began his role as a printer of Hebrew books. Annoyed, Giustiniani printed the book as well, and began to sell it for less than his rival.[vi] In response, Rabbi Katzenellenbogen, who had paid for the printing, went to his distant cousin and leading authority among Ashkenazim in Europe, Rabbi Moses Isserles, seeking to protect his investment in his commentaries. Giustinian’s book was banned as Rabbi Moses Isserles found him guilty under Jewish laws for unfair competition. Angered by the verdict, Giustinian took the issue to Pope Julius III for a trial, urging the pope to examine Katzenellenbogen’s commentaries for heresy. The end result was, that in 1553, Julius III issued a bull ordering the burning of the Talmud and other halakhic works.[vii] This all occurred at a time when Hebrew publications were becoming increasingly questioned and accused of containing blasphemous context.

Historical Context: Burning of the Talmud

The Venetian Republic, in October of 1553, ordered all publications of the Talmud to be burned.[viii] Catholics, those behind the Inquisition, claimed that the Talmud was full of blasphemous assertions regarding God, Mary, and Jesus. Burning the Talmud, a Hebrew publication, affected the printers of Hebrew texts. As a result, the prominent printers Giustinian and Bragadin lost money. Six years later in 1559, the Esecutori ruled that Hebrew books could only be published if they were censored. The printed text would undergo expurgation, and if anyone were to hold unexpurgated books, they would be subject to punishment, such as imprisonment. The Talmud was not allowed to be printed again until 1564.[ix] In 1571, Jews were not even allowed to work at a print shop. The Hebrew presses were now controlled by Christian owners and typesetters. This caused problems as more mistakes were made, complicating the whole process. Jews were then hired to correct and curate the texts if it was permitted by the Catholics in power.[x]

Bragadin Family in Year of Publishing

In 1599/1600 the Bragadin printshop, where the Maḥzor was published, was managed by Giovanni Bragadin, the son of Alvise who took over the press after Alivse had died. He was the head of the Stamperia Bragadina, from 1579 to 1614. Giovanni Bragadin had a standing professional relationship with Aser Parenzo, a prominent editor of the time in Venice. Working with the company for a long time, his loyalty and good-standing relationship with the Bragadin’s was evident.[xi]Giovanni Bragadin’s main competitor at this time was Giovanni Di Gara, though the two frequently collaborated. Di Gara was a prominent Venetian printer that enriched the cultural aspects of Venice with the influence of his press. Between 1565 and 1608, his press issued eight editions of the complete Jewish Bible. Although competitors, both Bragadin and Di Gara published a Torah, Perush ha-Torah meha-ḥakham ha-shalem Don Yitsḥak Abrabanel z[ekher] ts[adik] le-[verakhah]. The colophon of the Torah states that the present work was printed “in the house of the skilled craftsman Zuani di Gara.” Also in this text can be seen 4 crowns; the three represent Stamperia Bragadina, and the added fourth marks the collaboration with Di Gara.[xii]


This essay was written in fall of 2018, during Michael Pappano’s first semester at Fordham, within a course on modern Jewish history (HIST 1851) taught by Professor Magda Teter. Their essays, some of which will be featured here, were published in a volume “You Can Judge Books by Their Covers Jewish History through Used Books.” Fordham’s Judaica collection prides itself in collecting books that were used and popular, often quite quotidian and ordinary, for they reflect a broader Jewish culture that might not be visible through expensive extraordinary items.


[i] Squarcini, F. & P. Capelli. 2016-2017. TRACING THE HEBREW BOOK COLLECTION OF THE VENICE GHETTO. 315. Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.

[ii] “Alvise Bragadin and Stamparia Bragadina,” WUSTL Digital Gateway Image Collections & Exhibitions, accessed September 30, 2018, http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/items/show/8387.

[iii] Maimonides, Moses. 1550. [Mishneh Torah … Helek Rishon. Ṿenetsiʼah: nidpas … Aloṿizi Bragadin. See also, Kellner, Menachem. “On the Status of the Astronomy and Physics in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and Guide of the Perplexed: a Chapter in the History of Science.” The British Journal for the History of Science 24, no. 4 (1991): 453–63. doi:10.1017/S0007087400027643

[iv]“Alvise Bragadin and Stamparia Bragadina,” WUSTL Digital Gateway Image Collections & Exhibitions, accessed September 30, 2018, http://omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/items/show/8387. Yeshaʻyah ben Eliʻezer Ḥayim. 1633. Derekh yashar: ṿe-hu perush kamah maʻaśim yafim, meshalim u-feshaṭim mi-kamah pesuḳim.

[v] Squarcini, F. & P. Capelli. 2016-2017. TRACING THE HEBREW BOOK COLLECTION

OF THE VENICE GHETTO. 315. Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.

[vi] Neil Weinstock Netanel, and David Nimmer. 2016. “Maharam of Padua versus Giustiniani: Rival Editions of Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah”.

[vii] Squarcini, F & P. Capelli. 2016-2017. TRACING THE HEBREW BOOK COLLECTION

[viii] Kenneth R. Stow, “The Burning of the Talmud in 1553  in the Light of Sixteenth Century Catholic Attitudes toward the Talmud.” Bibliotheque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 34 (1972): 435-459.

[ix] Grendler, P. F. (1978). “The Destruction of Hebrew Books in Venice, 1568.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 45: 103-130.

[x] Squarcini, F&P. Capelli. 2016-2017. TRACING THE HEBREW BOOK COLLECTION

[xi] Squarcini, F&P. Capelli. 2016-2017. TRACING THE HEBREW BOOK COLLECTION

[xii] Abravanel, Isaac, Zuani di Gara, Asher Prikhtsu, Zuan Bragadin, Henry Cohen, and Mollie Cohen. 1579. Perush ha-Torah meha-ḥakham ha-shalem Don Yitsḥak Abrabanel z[ekher] ts[adik] le-[verakhah]. Be-Vinitsiah: [Printed by Asher Prikhtsu for Zuan Bragadin].

Antisemitism in Christian America:Then and Now

by Nina Valbousquet

The Voice of Human Rights, a monthly published by The Committee of Catholics for Human Rights. September 1939.

In a picket line of right-wing demonstrators in New York City, a man held a protest sign “We Christians need more father Coughlin”. The picture struck me when I discovered it on the frontpage of The Voice for Human Rights of September 1939, while consulting the journal at the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library. The frontpage offers a snapshot of two contrasting realities of Christian America and antisemitism. On one side, the picture encapsulates the activism of Charles Coughlin’s pro-fascist militant Christian Front, which in 1938-1939 unleashed an unprecedented level of street and political anti-Jewish hatred in the United States. On the other side, the cover title of the Voice, “Catholics Expose ‘Christian Front’”, demonstrates resistance to antisemitism and to the instrumentalization of Christian values by right-wing hatemongers. 

Antisemitism was a divisive topic among American Catholics at the end of the 1930s. Anti-Jewish vitriol seduced some sectors of American Catholicism while outraging others. In the second half of the 1930s, the repercussions of the Great Depression, the political backlashes of the New Deal, and the worsening of the international situation fostered tensions and resentment toward religious and ethnic minorities and immigrants. The propagation of antisemitic myths about both the “Jewish bank” and “Judeo-Communism” reached a new level of mass diffusion. The rise of domestic anti-Jewish agitations included a “tide of Catholic antisemitism” (Father Gregory Feige) empowered by the inflammatory propaganda of Father Coughlin. Christian antisemites accused “international Jews” of taking part in communist and anticlerical movements in Spain, Mexico, the Soviet Union and France, and blamed American Jews for being complicit with their anti-Christian coreligionists. Jewish refugees in America were labelled communists, radicals, and atheists, all plotting to destroy a Christian White America from within. Coughlin, the “Radio Priest”, capitalized on nativist prejudices and stirred up populist fears against Jewish refugees. 

Social Justice, Father Coughlin’s weekly based in Detroit.

In spring 2019, thanks to the support of the NYPL-Fordham fellowship in Jewish studies, I was able to examine more closely this historical subject and conduct research at the Dorot division on primary sources pertaining not only to Christian antisemitism in New York City, but also to Jewish-Catholic collaborations in the fight against bigotry. Alongside rare copies of The Voice and the American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection, I looked at Social Justice, Coughlin’s weekly based in Detroit. Social Justice’s use of religion and Christianity remained a political expediency to serve a right-wing and nativist agenda. Among other “fake news,” Coughlin published in his weekly the notorious antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, from July to November 1938. An article of December 5, 1938 blamed “Judeo-Communism” for the persecutions of Jews in Germany: “German Jews are today suffering persecution because for 15 years after the Great War Germany was prostrated by Communism, headed by Jews under direction of Moscow.” Thus, Social Justice made the diffusion of anti-Jewish sentiments in American seem understandable and legitimate: “Anti-Semitism is spreading in America because the people sense a closely interwoven relationship between Communism and Jewry. […] It is the duty of American Christians to aid their Jewish fellow-citizens in shaking off Communism before it is too late.” The distinction between communist and religious Jews, and between foreign and American Jews was actually a subterfuge to demonize all Jews while claiming that the publication was not antisemitic. Coughlin’s fallacious arguments drew on typical mechanisms of antisemitism such as conflation, generalization, collective guilt, and conspiracy theories.

A cartoon in Commonweal, published on November 18, 1938 in the aftermath of Kristallnacht

An examination of Commonweal, a Catholic weekly of liberal stamp based in NYC, which I was able to consult at Fordham Walsh library, provides a completely different picture. On November 18, 1938, a few days after Kristallnacht, Commonweal published a cartoon and several articles making a plea for European Jewish refugees and asking for the end of the strict immigration quotas that had been implemented in the United States since 1924. Although the cartoon includes stereotypical physical features, its logic of analogy reminds me of current images that have been circulating on social media portraying the Holy Family as refugees from the Middle-East. 

These few examples demonstrate that it is especially timely to further investigate the historical shapes of antisemitism in the United States and to consider both its religious and secular components. While a NYPL-Fordham fellow, I also taught a seminar on antisemitism at Rose Hill campus. Even though at the beginning of the semester not all students were aware of some common antisemitic tropes, they grew increasingly equipped to critically decipher the construction of stereotypes, prejudices, and hate-speech. While most of them knew already about the history of Nazism, they seemed more astonished to discover the roots of a domestic history of antisemitism. Particularly helpful in this regard was the in-class discussion of the Pittsburg shooting and of Jaclyn Granick and Britt Tevis’ article (The Washington Post, October 28, 2018). Learning about the history of anti-refugee sentiments and of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, students were able to grasp better the intersectionality of prejudices and discriminations in the United States and to revise assumptions of American exceptionalism. One of my takeaways from this intense and stimulating semester is surely that much remains to be taught and researched about the entanglement between antisemitism, nativism, and populism in American history. 

Nina Valbousquet was a Fordham-NYPL Fellow in Jewish Studies in spring 2019. While at Fordham she also taught a values seminar on antisemitism.


Nina Valbousque: “Un-American” and “Un-Christian”? Global Antisemitism and Jewish-Catholic Relations in the United States 1936-1945, March 28, 2019, Fordham University.

Jews of India: Highlights from Fordham’s Special Collections

In February 1807, Claudius Buchanan, a Scottish theologian and missionary of the Church Missionary Society, wrote in his letter from Cochin, 

I have been now in Cochin, or its vicinity for upwards of two months, and have got well acquainted with the Jews. They do not live in the city of Cochin, but in a town about a mile distant from it, called the Jews’ Town. It is almost wholly inhabited by the Jews who have two respectable Synagogues. Among them are some very intelligent men, who are not ignorant of the present history of nations. There are also Jews here form remote parts of Asia, so that this is the fountain of intelligence concerning that people in the East; there being constant communication by ships with the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, and the mounths of the Indus. The resident Jews are divided into tow classes, called the Jerusalem or White Jews; and the Ancient or Black Jews. The White Jews reside at this place. The Black Jews have also a Synagogue here; but the great body of that tribe inhabit towns in the interior of the province. I have now seen most of both classes. My inquiries referred chiefly to their antiquity, their manuscripts, and their sentiments concerning the present state of their nation.[i]

Claudius Buchanan, Christian Researches in Asia: With Notices of the Translation of the Scriptures into the Oriental Languages (Boston: Published by Samuel T. Armstrong, Cornhill, 1811), which includes a section about Jews in India on pages 164-206.

The history of Jews in India is long and complex. The Jewish population is diverse, with different groups claiming different roots and histories. There are the Jews of Cochin, some of whom claim millennia long-history, some, known as the Paradesi, can trace their roots to early modern Sephardic Jewish traders. There are Jews of Madras, whose roots go back to Sephardic traders from Livorno, Amsterdam, and other places of Western European Portuguese Jewish diaspora. There are also Bene Israel, whose language and culture until the nineteenth century was largely Marathi, and who settled in Mumbai.

Maḥzor li-yeme ha-seliḥot ṿe-Hatarat nedarim ke minhag kahal kadosh Sepharadim (Bombay: Shelomoh ben Salạm Sharʻabi, 5601 [1840]), SPEC JUDAICA 1840.1

Fordham has several items related to that history. One of them is a Maḥzor according to the Sephardic rite for the High Holidays printed in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1840. This small, 40-page-long book, bound in a repurposed paper wrapper with inscriptions in English and Marathi, belonged in 1870 (or 1872) to a man named Jacob “inhabitant of Bombay.” Fordham is only one of four other libraries in the world holding this item.

Maḥzor li-yeme ha-seliḥot ṿe-Hatarat nedarim ke minhag kahal kadosh Sepharadim (Bombay: Shelomoh ben Salạm Sharʻabi, 5601 [1840]), SPEC JUDAICA 1840.1, owner’s signature and repurposed paper wrappers serving as cover.

The Bene Israel community were introduced to Hebrew by both the Cochin Jewish community and European missionaries. As a result, Bene Israel were gradually encouraged “to align and modify their religious practices to accord with more conventional expressions of Judaism.”[ii] A rare copy of a textbook for Hebrew instruction in Marathi and English is found at Fordham. Written by Ezekiel Mazgaonkar (1875-1951), it was first published in 1910 in Bombay, then republished in several editions. Fordham’s copy is the second edition, published also in Bombay in 1920. There were eight additional editions, the last one in 1966. Only three libraries worldwide have copies of this edition: Fordham, University of Florida at Gainsville, and the National Library of Israel.

Ezekiel Mazgaonkar, Le-lamed bene Yiśraʼel = Hibru vācanapāṭha = the elementary Hebrew reader (Bombay: Printed at The Lebanon Type & Litho Works, 1920), SPEC JUDACIA 1920.1
Ezekiel Mazgaonkar, Le-lamed bene Yiśraʼel = Hibru vācanapāṭha = the elementary Hebrew reader (Bombay: Printed at The Lebanon Type & Litho Works, 1920), SPEC JUDACIA 1920.1
Basant, 1942

The Indian American Jewish artist Siona Benjamin, who spoke at Fordham on August 18th, 2020, recalls her childhood in Mumbai, “the oil lamps, the velvet-and-silver-covered Torahs, a chair left vacant for the prophet Elijah.” Siona Benjamin comes from the Bene Israel in India. As she remarked, discussing her art, “having grown up in a Hindu and Muslim society, educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian schools, raised Jewish in India, and now calling America home, I have always had to reflect on cultural boundary zones.” Her art brims with cross-cultural references to different religions or cultural icons, from American pop art to Bollywood, from Jewish symbols to Christian and Hindu references. Fordham’s Special Collection has a few artifacts from Bollywood, the “Hollywood” of Bombay, among them are press booklets of two films with Pramila, a Bollywood star and film producer, born in Calcutta in 1916 as Esther Victoria Abraham: Basant (1942), the highest grossing film of 1942, in which she played Meena, and Beqasoor (1950), the seventh highest grossing film of Bollywood. (A recent documentary Shalom Bollywood traces the history of Jews in Bollywood, including Jewish actresses like Pramila.)

Besaqoor, 1950
Poster for “Yahudi,” a 1958 Bollywood film by Bimal Roy.

One of the most fascinating films that came out of Bollywood is the 1958 film Yahudi, directed by Bimal Roy and based on a play Agha Hashar Kashmiri, an Urdu poet also known for adaptations of European plays, including by Shakespear, into Urdu. Yahudi is set in the Roman Empire. The play was based on the 19th-century play The Jewess, which inspired the opera La Juive by Jacques-François-Fromental-Élie Halévy that premiered in 1835. The film, the opera, and these nineteenth-century plays draw on the plot developed by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 play Nathan the Wise. Made in 1958 in India, Yahudi also spoke to the India-Pakistan partition and the impact it had on interreligious relations, especially poignantly since some of the stars were Muslims who remained in India after the partition.


Blue Like Me: The Art of Siona Benjamin


Siona Benjamin, Finding Home #79, Lilith, 2006.
Siona Benjamin, Finding Home #82, Joseph, 2006.

Below is a video of Siona Benjamin and art historian Ori Z. Soltes discussing her art.

This program was co-presented with Be’chol Lashon’s speakers’ bureau. For 20 years, Be’chol Lashon  has been addressing questions of diversity within the Jewish community. For more information see their website www.globaljews.org


[i] Claudius Buchanan, Christian Researches in Asia: With Notices of the Translation of the Scriptures into the Oriental Languages (Boston: Published by Samuel T. Armstrong, Cornhill, and sold by him, by A. Lyman & Co. Portland; H. Whipple, Salem; Thomas & Whipple, and E. Little & Co. Newburyport; S. Butler, Northampton; A. Shearman, Newbedford; H. Brewer, Providence, Hale & Hosmer, Hartford; Beers & Howe, Newhaven; Whiting and Watson and John Tiebout, Newyork; E.F. Backus, Albany; George Weller, Newark; D. Allinson and Co. Burlington; W.W. Woodward, Philadelphia; J. Kingston, F. Lucas, Jr. and P.H. Nicklin, Baltimore, 1811),  171.

[ii] Mitch Numark, “Hebrew School in Nineteenth-Century Bombay: Protestant Missionaries, Cochin Jews, and the Hebraization of India’s Bene Israel Community,” Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 6 (2012):  1767.

Jews, Race, and the Story of Ethiopian Jews

Famine in Ethiopia of 1983-1985 led to over one million deaths, with hundreds of thousands refugees leaving the country. Among those refugees were Beta Israel, Ethiopian Jews, who found their way on foot to Sudan. As neither Muslims nor Christians, they were persecuted in Sudanese refugee camps. In an international operation, later called Operation Moses, thousands of Beta Israel were rescued and brought to Israel between November 21, 1984 and January 5, 1985.

In Israel, state agencies, social workers sought to integrate the refugees into a new life in Israel. Passover of 1985 would be their first Passover in a new home. That year, the Office for Cultural Integration of Ethiopian Jews (Misrad le-kelitah ruḥanit shel yehudei etiopia be-Israel) published a bilingual haggadah in Amharic and Hebrew, Haggadah shel Pesaḥ, edited by Yosef Hadana, Chief Rabbi of Ethiopian Jews, translated by Yona Bugale.

Haggadah shel Pesaḥ, Amharic and Hebrew, edited by Yosef Hadana, Chief Rabbi of Ethiopian Jews, translated by Yona Bugale (Bnei Brak: Misrad le-kelitah ruḥanit shel yehudei etiopia be-Israel, 1985). Fordham, O’Hare Special Collections and Archives, Walsh Family Library.

The process of integration was not easy, Israel’s rabbis questioned the refugees’ Jewishness requiring conversions, while within the Ethiopian Jewish community, traditional values and practices were challenged, including traditional gender roles. Among those refugees was Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen, whose compelling film “400 Miles to Freedom” combines a deeply personal story with broader questions of trauma, race, gender, and identity. Mekonen’s deeply personal story also raises questions that were a driving force for early Jewish historians, even those focused on mostly European Jewish history: how Jews survived for thousands of years and maintained their Jewish identity as a tiny minority settled among other peoples. But the film also raises broader questions about what it means to be Jewish and how the Jewish community accepts its own diversity.

On August 6th, Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen discussed his film and family story with scholars of Beta Israel, Steven B. Kaplan, a professor emeritus of African studies and comparative religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he also served a Dean of the Humanities, and the author of many books and articles on the history of Ethiopian Jews, including The Beta Israel: Falasha in Ethiopia: From Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century, and Kay Shelemay, the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University and the author of Music, Ritual, and Falasha History (1986), A Song of Longing: An Ethiopian Journey (1991); and Ethiopian Christian Chant: An Anthology (3 vols., 1993-97), among others.

The conversation can be viewed on our YouTube chanell

And you can watch “400 Miles to Freedom” on Vimeo:

Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen’s compelling film “400 Miles to Freedom” from from Seventh Art Releasing

This program was co-presented with Be’chol Lashon’s speakers’ bureau. For 20 years, Be’chol Lashon  has been dealing with diversity in the Jewish community. The organization also supported the creation of Avishai’s movie. For more information see their website www.globaljews.org

COVID-19 Series: Moshe Krakowski Interviews Rabbi Eli Steinberg

Eli Steinberg, a rabbi and writer active in Jewish communal politics in Lakewood, NJ 

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Eli Steinberg, a rabbi and writer active in Jewish communal politics in Lakewood, NJ (the center of Yeshivish haredi life in America). Alongside writing about Jewish communal issues, he has also written on broader aspects of American politics and policy. I know Rabbi Steinberg through my research on haredi education and culture, having spent many years looking at how haredi communities navigate secular and religious knowledge and culture in schools, and how haredim develop an epistemology and world view through a close school/community relationship. 

In my research, I observe classes, and talk to teachers and students, as well as to members of the broader haredi community. In that capacity I have often used the insight and perspective of a number of haredi insiders who are deeply connected to the pulse of their respective communities. Rabbi Steinberg is one of those insiders—someone who is involved in haredi communal affairs and is able to articulate his perspective using modes of discourse more common to the secular world. In a way this is the inverse of my position. As an academic working at a research institution, I am entrenched in nonharedi society, but I am able to engage with haredim using the language and discourse of haredi life. I believe that this partnership has allowed me to characterize insider perspectives with a great deal of fidelity, to understand the experiences of haredim, as well as the underlying dynamics of haredi world-view development.

Because COVID-19 has so significantly impacted the haredi community, and because of the attention haredim have received in the popular press, I wanted to speak to Rabbi Steinberg to understand how the Yeshivish haredi community in Lakewood has experienced the virus. Prior to our interview he sent me a short written piece describing his perspective on this issue. 

Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood. Photo the Lakewood Shopper.

In this piece he discussed the explosion of cases (and deaths) in Lakewood following Purim celebrations in March that led to a tremendous viral spread. He wrote about how the communal rabbinic leadership shut down synagogues and schools, despite the centrality of Torah study to this community’s sense of self. He further described the sense of confusion that permeated the community, as updates on the virus came via “cholim lists,” which list the Hebrew names of the ill so that community members could pray for them. Finally, he focused on the degree of antisemitism community members faced, as Orthodox Jews as a whole were held responsible for the actions of a few scofflaws, and Jews once again found themselves accused of bringing the plague to their gentile neighbors.

One of the central concerns I had in the interview was to understand how information moved through the community, and how community leaders and members made decisions in response to the virus. This, in particular, helps us understand how haredim are navigating the desire to open up with the desire for public safety, something that many outsiders have questioned. Are they opening up schools and shuls too soon? Are small businesses violating orders? In response, many haredim wonder why they have been singled out. Why, for example, are police officers so quick to shut them down, while leaving others alone? They feel that they have been treated with a double standard. These concerns provide a subtext to our conversation below, as Rabbi Steinberg both describes and defends his community as an insider who has deep connections to the outside world of politics and policy. Acutely aware of the sometimes-negative perception of haredi communities in many circles, Rabbi Steinberg took pains to point out that his community responded much like any other community: with confusion, fear, and the desire to protect themselves from the virus. These desires, however, were expressed in a decidedly haredi register.

COVID-19 Series: Watching “Unorthodox” during COVID-19

The Beginnings and the Endings: Watching Unorthodox during COVID-19

By Jessica Lang, Professor and Chair of English and Newman Director of the Wasserman Jewish Studies Center, Baruch College, CUNY

The Netflix four-part miniseries Unorthodox, loosely based on the 2012 memoir by Deborah Feldman by the same name, debuted on March 26, 2020, the same week that millions of Americans were impacted by stay-at-home orders for all but essential workers. Numerous media outlets reported that within the first weeks after its release, Unorthodox was among the platform’s most-viewed content. The word “quaranstreaming” was coined to capture viewer bingeing. Watching shows during a pandemic, especially newly released ones, emphasizes one of many practices that have become our new normal: a communal activity done in isolation from one another. We all watch together while we are apart.

Anika Molnar/Netflix

Unlike the book on which it is based, which unfolds in chronological order, the editing of Unorthodox holds viewers in a present, a recent past, and a more distant past, all of which are interwoven together, appearing and disappearing unexpectedly. Told this way, Unorthodox is a fractured story with multiple beginnings and endings, “befores” and “afters,” a feature that resonates even more when watching it in a COVID-19 landscape. Viewers move around not only in time but also in our relationship to the different representations of the main protagonist, Esty, with each beginning magnified because of its nonchronologic position.

We first see Esty as a married woman, who, childless, remains apart from other married women in her ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg. We see her next as a stranger in a strange city, Berlin. We then see her in an earlier period, as a girl who is, as she describes herself to the young man soon to become her husband, “different.” Raised by her grandparents with a mother who had, according to family lore, run away, and father who is a charpeh, a disgrace, Esty offers viewers glimpses of other beginnings that demarcate other pasts and fall outside the framing of the series.

The interplay between time, setting, and perspective is deliberately irregular and unpredictable, asking that viewers collect and connect the fragments they are given and create a narrative out of them. A delicate thread, created through music, holds these fragments together. In the first episode, as Esty seats herself on the steps outside her mother’s apartment building in Berlin, the opening strains of Schubert’s “An die Musik” are heard. The setting abruptly switches to an unmarried Esty setting the Shabbes table at her grandmother’s house, when a soprano’s voice starts singing what is perhaps Schubert’s best-known lied:

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden, Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,         Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb’ entzunden,    Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,     In eine beßre Welt entrückt!       O blessed art, how often in dark hours, When the savage ring of life tightens round me, Have you kindled warm love in my heart,
Have transported me to a better world! Transported to a better world

The song reappears towards the end of the last episode, only this time the singer is Esty, who, having applied for a scholarship to a music school in Berlin, chooses to audition with the song she heard in her grandmother’s home, the one her great-grandfather, with his own fine voice, loved to listen to in Hungary, before the war when “so viel vorloren,” so many were lost. The melody of the song is simple and clear, as is the meaning of its words: music, the champion of art, ignites warmth and light in times that are wretched, offering an alternative, however fleeting, to the darker world around us.

After they hear “An die Musik,” the judging panel asks Esty to sing another song, one better suited to her tonal range—“something different,” as one judge frames it, recalling the sense of difference that has long set Esty apart. Esty squares her shoulders, closes her eyes, and, with no formal practice, launches into another song heard earlier in the series. A number of male wedding guests sing “Mi Bon Siach” as Esty walks towards the chuppah at her wedding. In a reversal of that scene, as Esty begins the song in her audition, her abandoned husband enters the auditorium and hears her voice.

The One who knows the speech of a rose among thorns The love of a bride and the joy of lovers He will bless the groom And the bride.Mi bon siach shoshan chochim, Ahavas kallah, misos dodim,        Hu yevarech es hechassan V’es hakallah.    מי בן שיח שושן חוחים אהבת כלה, משוש דודים הוא יברך את החתן ואת הכלה

It’s possible for us to understand Esty’s singing of these two songs in the final episode as sacrilegious—that music for her is salvational as faith never could be. Moreover, Esty’s two solos at the end of Unorthodox can—and maybe should—be understood as a declaration of selfhood. As she takes the stage to sing she makes a vocal public pronouncement, one that is declarative and deliberate, and one that by her community’s estimation violates strictly enforced standards of modesty for women.

And yet the invocation of the elte zayde by Esty’s bubbe as the two listen to a soprano singing Schubert’s 1817 work, and Esty’s tribute to her grandmother—and moments later her husband—as she explains why she chose the song for her audition, connects generations, places, eras, and traditions. It weaves together the varied beginnings and endings, including Esty’s grandmother’s death and the birth of her child, and suggests that Esty’s rendition draws her in some ways closer to her past even as she launches herself into a new way of living.

Esty gives us a sense of what lies ahead—a mix of multiple pasts, presents, and possibilities, and the unequivocal need for the transformative capacity of art to create new understandings about ourselves in a world that in some ways will be permanently changed.


Jessica Lang is Professor and Chair of English and Newman Director of the Wasserman Jewish Studies Center, Baruch College, CUNY

COVID-19 Series: The Pandemic through Hasidic Women Artists’ Voices

by Jessica Roda, PhD, Georgetown University, Center for Jewish Civilization

Hasidic women are often portrayed in the mainstream media through a Western feminist framework, which assumes that women can only gain agency by leaving their faith. Two media events during  the COVID-19 crisis have reinforced this narrative:  The first is media coverage of the ultra-Orthodox response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its domination by male voices of rabbis, doctors, and male community leaders on various platforms, while women, such as journalist Efrat Finkel, are rendered invisible and unheard. The second event is the release of the Netflix drama Unorthodox, a miniseries based on Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir of the same name, which follows a hasidic woman named Esti, who can only end her suffering and shine as an artist by leaving her Brooklyn community for the secular, inclusive, multicultural, and artistic Berlin.

Dobby Baum, April 12, 2020, Concert-Talk on Zoom and Instagram 

Although the ultra-Orthodox are known for their opposition to the Internet, some hasidic business owners find it necessary to be connected. Other ultra-Orthodox Jews use technology by choice. Among them are Dobby Baum, Malky Media, Devorah Schwartz, Sarah Dukes, Bracha Jaffe, Devorah Leah, and Chany Rosengarten, each of whom I discovered online in the last two years. These women come from a mixed ultra-Orthodox background, representing Bobov, Chabad, Ger, Litvish, and Satmar communities. They are particularly active on Instagram, where they promote their businesses, music, films, lessons, performances, and albums. The application serves as a marketing tool and springboard to create a community of followers. Ultimately, their use of Instagram might lead to their broader recognition, and to a range of contracts for live private and community performances. Dobby, Malky, Chany, Sarah, Devorah S., , Bracha, and Devorah L. are each building a new image of Orthodox womanhood. Implicitly, they are creating a counterpublic space (Hirschkind 2006; Fader 2020) in response to a mainstream religious space.

My intention is never to diminish the suffering of OTDs (Off the Derech, people who left ultra-Orthodoxy) or to dismiss the lack of action from some religious leaders, yet I felt the need to give voice to the Hasidic women whom I had the privilege to meet in person during my fieldwork and whom I follow on Instagram every day. To demonstrate the oversimplification of hasidic women’s agency, I would like to call attention to contemporary ultra-Orthodox women artists’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis.

Because modesty is central to their way of being, the majority of their activities occur live among only women and girls. The artists were preparing to perform and screen their films during Passover, but found their income compromised by the coronavirus outbreak. Like many around the world during this challenging time, they must fulfill their raison d’être by boosting their online presence and creating new opportunities for artistic collaboration.

Dobby Baum, Live Concert on Zoom and Instagram, April 2020, Borough Park (NYC)

During the pandemic, viral videos have surfaced of neighbors singing from their balconies in Italy, Spain, and France; songs such as “The Coronavirus Rhapsody”; and diverse compositions urging us to stay home and wash our hands. Similarly, Orthodox female artists have provided creative responses to the crisis online. They continue their women-and-girls-only performances via live concerts on Instagram and Zoom, where hundreds of girls and women participate from around the world. Their notable releases include their first collaborative video, “A Song for Lori,” in honor of Lori Kaye, who was murdered in the Poway synagogue shooting. Dobby Baum’s “It Is Meant to Be,” a response to COVID-19, is also noteworthy. As evidenced by their concert-conferences on Zoom, they have used this moment to constantly engage with their online viewers about the pandemic and the importance (and challenges) of staying at home. With thousands of followers––and more to come––they are reinforcing a sense of community and sisterhood. Crucially, they are reinventing their religiosity by means of technology and media. In doing so, they challenge narratives that imagine them as silent members of their religious society.

Postcolonial feminist scholars, such as Saba Mahmood and Serene Khader, have argued that critiquing Western secular feminism is necessary to prevent the oversimplification of the concept and experience of agency. Their argument is certainly relevant when it comes to the realities of conservative groups and families. These aforementioned scholars impacted how I understood my observations during my fieldwork with hasidic women in Montreal and New York City, and how I understand the online activity of ultra-Orthodox women artists.

The girls and women of Unorthodox cannot openly pursue their artistic aspirations. Dobby, Malky, Chany, Sarah, Devorah S., Bracha, and Devorah L. present a challenge to the show’s characters, as they seek new avenues to reinforce their religious belonging while challenging it from the margins.  


Jessica Roda is an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. She is currently an assistant professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is working on her second book, Beyond the Shtetl: Hasidicness, Women’s Agency and Performances in the Digital Age, in which she investigates how artistic performances empower hasidic and former hasidic women to act as social, economic, and cultural agents. Jessica Roda was a fellow at Fordham in 2017.

COVID-19 Series: Archives on Lockdown

Archives on Lockdown: The Pius XII Papers at the Covid-19 Age by Maria Chiara Rioli

When he announced the opening of the Pius XII Archives on March 4, 2019, Pope Francis could not have known that the date scheduled for this event a full year later – March 2, 2020 – would coincide with the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe.

The Vatican Apostolic Archives, formerly Vatican Secret Archives, Sala dei indici (Index Room)

Historians welcomed with great interest Francis’s speech about access to the Vatican archives related to the Eugenio Pacelli’s pontificate (1939–58), which have not been accessible until now. The opening of these archives inaugurates unprecedented possibilities of enquiry for scholars.[1] The full scope of what the archives reveal – both about Pius’s wartime role as well as much else – will only fully emerge after years of study. This documentation will open up new questions, reframe hypotheses, and challenge former interpretations.

At midnight sharp in the Vatican City – 6pm at my New York desk – on October 1st, 2019, I reserved my place in the reading room in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, as dozens of other scholars in the world did as well. In the following months I contacted other Vatican archives – in particular the Archives of the Secretariat of State and the Archives of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches – to ensure the possibility that I would get access to this newly released documentation, essential to my Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral project on the history of a community of Jewish converts to Catholicism within the Latin diocese of Jerusalem in the early 1950s.

In the weeks before the opening of the Pius archives, the spread of the Covid-19 in Europe, with its epicenter in Northern Italy, made many scholars doubtful about the possibility of opening the archives in those conditions. Some historians preemptively cancelled their research journeys. The archives opened as scheduled, immediately accompanied by some polemical jabs between Johan Ickx, the director of the historical archives relating to the Vatican’s Section for Relations with States, and the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, about Pius’ role during the Shoah and the risks of an apologetic use of the documents.[2]

In the first week of March, the spread of Covid-19 accelerated. On Friday, March 6, the first case was registered in Vatican City. Around 10am that morning, scholars were informed that the reading room of the Secretariat of State archives was closing that day. The other Vatican archives shut down too. On Sunday March 8, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the lockdown of the whole country. The critical situation in Italy means that any provision for reopening for libraries and archives, including in the Vatican City, is still uncertain.

In those first days after the opening of the archives, historians had just confronted a small part of this new documentation: in the Vatican Apostolic Archive, scholars can request a maximum of 5 boxes per day, while in the Archives of the Secretariat of State, whose digitization could allow quicker and more efficient research, the access is limited by the closure of a part of the documentation, particularly from the years 1949–58. Now, much of their research is on hold or much delayed. The first conference, scheduled for June 2020 at the French School in Rome, that was aimed at revisiting the Pius pontificate in light of the newly-released documentation, has been postponed to Spring 2021.

For my research, however, these days have been indeed precious and fruitful. I am able to consult documents on the premises of the establishment of the Association of Saint James, the correspondence between the Secretariat of State, the Congregation for the Oriental Church, the Apostolic Delegation of Jerusalem and Palestine, and the Church of Jerusalem. These records allow the historian to reconstruct a much more complex narrative of the relations between the Rome, the Jerusalem Church, the State of Israel, and the Jewish world, often represented only in terms of “conflict,” “opposition,” and “absence of contacts.” I made use of this archives in my book Tribulationis Tempore: The Latin Church of Jerusalem in the Palestine War and Its Aftermath, 1946–56, forthcoming with Brill.

At the reopening of the archives, an attentive examination of the documents contained in the section “Ebrei” at the archives of the Secretariat of State, the correspondence of the Berlin and Paris Apostolic Nunciatures deposited in the Vatican Apostolic Archive and other collections will certainly contribute to a more accurate appraisal of the role of the Holy See during the Shoah. At the eventual end of the lockdown, unlocking the archives will allow new narratives to be constructed and to circulate.

Maria Chiara Rioli is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Global Fellow at the universities of Ca’ Foscari in Venice and Fordham in New York within the REL-NET project: “Entangled Interfaith Identities and Relations from the Mediterranean to the United States: The St James Association and Its Transnational Christian-Jewish Network in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”


[1] David I. Kertzer, “What the Vatican’s Secret Archives Are About to Reveal,” The Atlantic, March 2, 2020 https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/what-vaticans-secret-archives-are-about-reveal/607261/

[2] See Rossella Tercatin, “Is the Vatican trying to distort how Pius XII behaved towards Jews?”, Jerusalem Post, March 4, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/is-the-vatican-trying-to-distort-how-pius-xii-behaved-towards-jews-619644

Passover 2020 and The Iconography of the Plagues

The Golden Haggadah, second quarter of the 14th century, Spain, British Library MS Additional 27210, 12v. Four plagues: frogs, lice, “arov” (wild beasts), and murrain.

As we endure the pandemic of COVID-19, the plagues from the story of Exodus and the Haggadah acquire a different meaning. The iconographic representation of the plagues can already be found in medieval illuminated Haggadot, like the 14th-century Spanish haggadot: Golden Haggadah and the “Brother Haggadah,” now at the British Library. Both begin with a sequence of magnificent illuminations depicting the story of Exodus.

The “Brother Haggadah”, third quarter of the 14th century, Spain. British Library, MS Oriental 1404, fol. 5r. Plagues of boils (top) and hail (bottom)

The “Brother Haggadah” has depicts eight of the ten plagues, skipping the first (blood) and the last (the killing of the first born). Both the Golden Haggadah and the “Brother Haggadah” were were commissioned by affluent Spanish Jews. These are two of several surviving illuminated haggadot from Spain. Among the other known Spanish haggadot are the so-called Sarajevo haggadah and the Rylands haggadah from the the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

Histoire de la Bible et de l’Assomption de Notre-Dame, France, Paris, between 1390 and 1400
The Morgan Library and Museum, New York, MS M.526, fol. 14r

Christian illuminated bibles, especially the so called moralized bibles, also included illustrations of the plagues. Here is a late 14th century French bible, now at the Morgan Library, Histoire de la Bible et de l’Assomption de Notre-Dame, France, Paris, between 1390 and 1400 (MS M.526). Folios 12r-14v depict the scenes from Exodus relating the ten plagues. Here is the plague of locust. On top right Moses speaks with Pharaoh, depicted as a king, and at the bottom right Moses speaks to God, who is depicted as Christ.

The iconography found in many modern haggadot does not draw from these medieval examples, but rather from the iconography developed in the printed haggadot of the early modern era. This is the case for the 1946 Haggadah from Cairo. Below are images of the first five plagues: blood, frogs, lice, ‘arov (wild beasts/swarms), and murrain.

Below are images from a haggadah issued for the first Passover after the end of World War II. It was published in a Displaced Persons Camp in Fernwald in 1946. The Haggadah’s wine stains show it was used for a Passover seder (below). The pages below illustrate the dependence of modern haggadot on premodern iconography. The bottom image, marked by wine stains, shows the section shefokh ha-matkha (“Pour forth thy wrath”) section of the Passover Haggadah, which must have been particularly meaningful in 1946.

The break away from that “traditional” imagery came only from the more artistic modern haggadot, such as the 1969 El Al Haggadah.

Haggadah shel Pesah (Hagada for Passover) edited by Shaham Lewenson, Printed for El Al 1969. Fordham University, SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1969 1

To see more –though not all– examples of Haggadot from the Fordham collection, see the catalogue of the exhibition “Haggadah and History,” which was on view in 2019.

“Sarasohn vs. The Workingmen’s Publishing Association”: Socialism, Capitalism, and American-Jewish entrepreneurs in the Yiddish Press in 1890’s New York

By Yael Levi, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On August 22nd, 1898, the Jewish-Russian journalist Phillip Kranz, pseudonym of Jacob Rombro, received a subpoena from the Supreme Court of New York City. Kranz and other writers and editors of the “Workingmen Publishing Association” learned that “the action is brought to recover damages for libel, for a willful, reckless and atrocious libel.” The plaintiff was Kasriel Hirsch Sarasohn, the most important Yiddish and Hebrew press publisher in New York at the time. Sarasohn was represented by his son Abraham, a young and successful lawyer.

The trial revealed some of the most fundamental tensions in the Yiddish press in 1890s New York: orthodox versus secular; capitalism versus socialism; a family business versus a workers‟ organization, popular journalism versus cultural elite journalism, etc. All of these tensions presented themselves openly.

Dos Abendblatt, 1898, NYPL-Dorot Jewish Division

The cause for Sarasohn‟s complaint was an article from the socialist Yiddish daily “Dos Abendblatt” (The Evening Paper; founded in New York on 1894). The socialist daily had been attacking Sarasohn for months, publishing one investigation after another about his misuse of charities, as well as misrepresenting himself as a friend of the workers‟ class supporter, a supporter of the Zionist cause, a charity organizer – thus gaining support, good reputation and capital – while using them eventually for his own profit. Sarasohn demanded 20,000 dollars for the damage to his reputation within the Yiddish speaking community in New York.

Sarasohn was born in 1835 in Paiser, Suwalki County in North-Eastern Europe. His brother in law, the typesetter and editor Mordechay Yahlomstein, escaped to America in 1861, and on 1865 he wrote back to Sarasohn, recommending him to immigrate to America and to found a printing business. Sarasohn settled in New-York in the early 1870s and opened a small printing house. The business grew successful, and the Sarasohn family would later become a prominent force in the Yiddish and Hebrew press in America.

The defendants in the trial, Phillip Krantz and Bernard Feigenbaum, were also Jews from an East-European origin. They came to America in the early 1890s with a solid socialist ideology. After arriving to New York they were involved in writing and editing the socialist weekly “Arbeter Tsaytung”, and later the socialist daily “Dos Abendblatt”, both of which funded by the Socialist Labor Party.

The articles against Sarasohn were originally published in Yiddish; the plaintiff provided a transcript and an English translation to the court. Soon enough the trial shifted from Sarasohn‟s misdeeds to the political affiliation of the defendants. In an article which was published in “Dos Abendblatt” during the trial under the title “Sarasohn informs the court on us as anarchists”, the paper claimed: “Sarasohn writes in his prosecution that we are heretic socialists, „anarchists‟, „demons‟, hoping thus to convince the American jury”. According to the journalist, Sarasohn aimed to put “socialism on trial.”

On his final address to the jury, Sarasohn‟s lawyer – his son Abraham – accused the defendants of being “socialists, anarchists, nihilists […] He told the jury that we are coming from a country (Russia) when every written line must be signed by a policeman, and because of that when we came to this free land – where there is freedom of the press, we misuse this freedom”. The verdict of the trial, given on March 1901, was in favor of Sarasohn; the jury accepted his claim and decided that the “Workingmen‟s Public Association” will pay him 3,500 dollars plus trial expenses.

The fact that Sarasohn was accusing the socialist journalists of being Russian is counterintuitive: after all, he came from a not so far region three decades earlier; he surely didn‟t think any of his newspapers were misusing the very same freedom of the press. However, by using this argument, Sarasohn was able to differentiate between himself, the “good” immigrant, and the socialists, the “bad” immigrants – a very useful differentiation in Fin-de-Siècle America.

This legal case can serve as a key for understanding the ideological and political trends of Jewish immigrants from Eastern-Europe in the first two decades of mass migration. It can also shed light on two major types of economic immigration and Americanization. These types represent different aspects of American capitalism in the 19th century: the worker(s) and the entrepreneur(s).

Sarasohn was different from his opponents in the type of the project each of them ran: “Dos Abendblatt” was an ideological and political project, rather than a profit-oriented business. Sarasohn on the other hand had a family business, not very different from other immigrant entrepreneurs in the late 19th century: it was a small scale project, ran and operated from his home at 175 East Broadway during the first years; his children were his typesetters and later became his business partners; and he didn‟t have any local background both financially and administratively. Put it this way – Sarasohn was an immigrant and an entrepreneur.

Sarasohn’s enterprise – a weekly and later a daily newspaper in Yiddish – was indeed an early form of American Jewish entrepreneurship. He had to count on family labor, communal support and home-based production. But Sarasohn‟s sweatshop was different: his product was a “Jewish” product. Unlike a pair of pants, a tie or a box of cigars – it couldn‟t have been produced and couldn‟t have been bought by non-Jews. Sarasohn needed typesetters who could read the Hebrew Alphabet, and he counted on Yiddish readers to buy his newspapers. The type of the project can also explain why Sarasohn was so worried about his reputation in the Yiddish speaking world: it was his clientele.

The 1890s New York Yiddish press represented vividly the Yiddish worlds of the city, and the main ideological debates were represented in its papers both as a subject and as an object. As the Sarasohn case shows us, understanding the role of the Yiddish press in the Jewish community of the East Side is crucial for portraying the historical and political context of the era.

Yael Levi was a Fordham-NYPL Research Fellow in Jewish Studies in the spring of 2019. Below is the lecture she delivered at Fordham University in April 2018.

“But We Survived”: The Unsettled Memory of Polish-Jewish Survivors in the Soviet Union by Lidia Zessin-Jurek

Many unhappy returns

The majority of Polish Jews who survived World War II did so in the Soviet Union, some in the gulags of Siberia, experiencing forced labor, hunger, and illnesses. When they returned to Poland at the end of the war, they often encountered hostile Christian Poles. The hostility of their former neighbors brought about  feelings of betrayal and loss, which are ubiquitously described in the accounts of returning Jewish refugees. Very few of the survivors stayed where they had previously lived. Confronted with postwar antisemitism, most of them chose to leave not only Poland, but Europe altogether, the continent that inflicted upon them wounds that could never heal.

These survivors have been easy to find. Among them are acclaimed authors, directors, economists, philosophers, linguists, scholars, estate managers, doormen, family members, and neighbors. However, few were interested in hearing about their past. Now the moment has come to hear their stories.

Rita Blattberg Blumstein, Like Leaves in the Wind (London ; Portland, OR : Vallentine Mitchell, 2003). Call number: DS135.P63 B5863 2003

Dancing on the Titanic

Rita Blattberg Blumstein compares the last weeks her family spent in Krakow before it all started – the war, the Holocaust, the Gulag – to dancing on the Titanic. Her beautiful, cozy life, sheltered by her parents’ love, was interrupted abruptly and irreparably. Yet, until her father died, Rita Blattberg Blumstein said in 2002, “I never thought of myself as a Holocaust victim.”

Jack Pomerantz, Run East (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997) DS135.P63 P664 1997

Jack Pomerantz had never been outside his little town of Radzyń when his odyssey began: “I didn’t know how to go east. I followed people. And I walked. I kept walking many days. In a kind of stupor.” His long trip led him to Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Siberia, Kazakhstan, and then back to Poland.

Joachim Schoenfeld from Lwów (Lviv) recalled how in the wake of WWII for the first time in the long history of Jewish persecution, refugees had found all the gates to the lands of the ‘free world’ closed: “The 3.5 million Polish Jews found themselves trapped. Not knowing where to go, they moved about aimlessly on the roads and highways like ants to avoid being trampled by a giant’s foot.”[i]

Life-saving deportation to Siberia

Hundreds of thousands of such lives were thus interrupted and thousands of people set on a move. Their eastward exodus began after the German attack on Poland. From the east of Poland, simultaneously occupied by the Soviet Union, the Jewish refugees were sent further to the Soviet interior and forced to hard labor, exposed to hunger and bitter cold.  Returning to Poland at the end of WWII they learned about the tragic fate of relatives they left behind under the German occupation. Torn between feelings of shock, grief, guilt, and relief, they considered their experience of minor importance and kept silent. Only recently have some of the Poland-born Jewish exiles to the USSR begun to convey the stories of their survival.

https://digital.library.cornell.edu/catalog/ss:3293915 Soviet Gulags, 1947 from https://persuasivemaps.library.cornell.edu/

Survivors

They were now both Holocaust survivors and survivors of the Stalinist terror. They were often the only members of their families to remain alive and by far the most numerous group of the few Polish Jews who survived the war. This difficult Soviet chapter of the Holocaust survival, largely overlooked, has recently been the core of research projects conducted by international scholars.[ii]  In the course of their work, they may achieve more inclusive re-definition of Jewish survival, normally associated with the horror of having gone through the death camps or with a difficult hideout among Christians.


Lidia Zessin Jures was a 2018 Research Fellow in Jewish Studies at Fordham University and the New York Public Library. She is currently in the Department of Modern Social and Cultural History at the Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Science in Prague

[i] Rita Blattberg Blumstein, Like Leaves in the Wind, London: Valentine Mitchell 2003; Jack Pomerantz, Run East: Flight from the Holocaust, Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press 1997; Joachim Schoenfeld, Holocaust memoirs: Jews in the Lwów Ghetto, the Janowski Concentration Camp, and as deportees in Siberia, Hoboken, N.J : Ktav Pub. House 1985.

[ii] See the work by, inter alia, Atina Grossmann, Laura Jockusch/ Tamar Lewinsky, Katharina Friedla, John Goldlust, Markus Nesselrodt.

In Honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s Day 2020

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day we wanted to highlight The Freedom Seder: A New Haggadah from in our Judaica collection. The Freedom Seder was held at the Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, DC, in 1969 and was attended by hundreds of participants, Jews and Christians, black and white.

Passover of 1968 came on Aprl 12, just eight days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and three days after his funeral. Days after the “Holy Week Uprising” was quelled. That year, Arthur Waskow, one of Jewish peace activists at the time and a future founder of the Shalom Center, felt that the Passover holiday spoke to the struggles of the time. As he told NPR’s Code Switch, for that Passover, “I wove the story of the liberation of ancient Hebrews from Pharaoh with the liberation struggles of black America, of the Vietnamese people, passages from Dr. King, from Gandhi.”

Saul Raskin, Haggadah shel Pesah (New York, 1941). Fordham University, + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1941 2
Saul Raskin Haggadah for Passover (New York, 1941), Fordham O’Hare Special Collections: + SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1941 2

In 1969, the anniversary of Dr. King’s death fell on one of the days of Passover, and Arthur Waskow along with other activists organized the Freedom Seder. For that occasion, Waskow created a “new Haggadah,” one that combined traditional elements with those relevant to the times, using the Saul Raskin Haggadah, which he had been given in 1946 for his bar mitzvah, and adapting it by adding new voices, among them Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt, Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner, Emanuel Ringelblum, and of course Martin Luther King Jr.:

No, the moments of resistance have not been bloodless. The blood of tyrants and the blood of freemen has watered history. But we may not rest easy in that knowledge. The freedom we seek is a freedom from blood as well as a freedom from tyrants. It is incumbent upon us not only to remember in tears the blood of the tyrants and the blood of the prophets and martyrs, but to end the letting of blood. To end it, to end it! For as one of the greatest of our prophets, whose own death by violence at a time near the Passover were member in tears tonight—as the prophet Martin Luther King called us to know: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers. But the principle of nonviolent resistance seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites-acquiescence and violence. The nonviolent resister rises to the noble height of opposing the unjust system while loving the perpetrators of the system. Nonviolence can reach men where the law can not touch them. So—we will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will not hate you, but we cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws. And in winning our freedom we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process.”

The Freedom Seder Haggadah was first published in the Ramparts magazine, and, according Waskow, this was “the first Haggadah, certainly the first widely circulated, that celebrated the liberation of other peoples as well as the liberation of the Jewish people.”

The Shalom Center, founded by Rabbi Waskow, has posted a 10 minute video of the 1969 seder:

A New Exhibit at O’Hare Special Collections: Media Technology and the Dissemination of Hate

by Magda Teter, The Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies

Technological advances can lead to positive social change. Technological innovations have helped create, preserve, and disseminate knowledge. In medieval Europe, the introduction of paper lowered the costs of manuscript production and record keeping. The invention of movable type and the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century made books more easily accessible. The innovations in the production of paper in the nineteenth century, and in printing methods made newspapers, postcards, and color books possible. Photography, radio, and films facilitated new forms communication of news and entertainment. In our lives the Internet has provided new ways to communicate and learn. But along positive change, technological advances have often also been harnessed to less laudable goals, allowing for access to and dissemination of not only “useful” or “respectable” knowledge, but also of hateful stories, derogatory images and stereotypes.

In June 2019, the Council on Foreign Relations concluded that “Violence attributed to online hate speech has increased worldwide.” Twenty-first century media technology has been shown to facilitate dissemination of hate–bullying on social media; chat groups that allow for racist and antisemitic individuals to find like-minded communities; bots amplifying hateful messages. But while the media technology we live with is new, the phenomenon of harnessing new technology for hateful purposes is not. Anytime communications technology advanced, hatred spread as well. The exhibition explores how different technological breakthroughs facilitated the propagation of hate: in Europe—anti-Jewish and antisemitic images and tales, in America—antisemitism and racism.

Bible moralisée/Bible de Saint Louis (Facsimile edition, M. Moleiro, 2000-2004; original, 13th century, between 1226 and 1234, now at Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada, in Toledo)+ SPEC COLL LEACH 2000 2 V.1

Derogatory anti-Jewish iconography emerged at the end of the 12th century not to channel anti-Jewish sentiments but rather to amplify Christian piety. With time this anti-Jewish imagery gained more explicit hateful meaning. Still in the Middle Ages its reach was relatively limited— church art seen only locally, or precious manuscripts seen by few, such as here the splendidly illuminated Bible moralisée—the medieval picture bible—made for King Louis IX of France between 1226 and 1234, on display here. 

The breakthrough came with the invention of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century, which resulted in the first mass produced commodity—the printed book. Along came also cheaper pamphlets and broadsides. While the printing press allowed for the diffusion of knowledge, laws, and devotional texts, the new technology was also employed to disseminate anti-Jewish images and texts. These previously localized, or obscure, images or tales now had a broader reach. Books, even those that only tangentially discussed Jews, helped spread ideas and images—often false and spurious—about Jews and Judaism to a much wider audience. On display is the lavishly illustrated Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493, which included, among thousands of other stories, some eleven stories about post-biblical Jews, all of them spurious and derogatory. While there were books specifically focused on anti-Jewish content, sometimes books not meant to convey explicitly derogatory ideas captured the state of current knowledge, effectively replicating biased epistemological models, the works of Johannes Buxtorf or Bernard Picart in Fordham’s collection can serve as examples.

Hartmann Schedel, Weltchronik, also known as the Nuremberg Chronicle, originally published in Nuremberg in 1493 in both Latin and German, republished in German in a full size facsimile edition in 1933.
19th-century technology made publishing daily newspapers, postcards, posters, leaflets, songbooks, joke books, and other ephemera, possible. These too were harnessed to propagate hateful stereotypes.

But until the nineteenth century book production was still quite expensive: paper was made through a protracted process from rags, text had to be set from individual types, and any illustrations had to be either carved in wood to make woodcuts, or engraved on copper plates. But in the nineteenth century, wood pulp paper, lithography, rotary press, and offset printing made printing cheaper and more widely available. This facilitated the development of daily newspapers, with front-page color images, as well as postcards, posters, songbooks, joke books, and other ephemera. These too were harnessed to propagate hateful stereotypes much more widely through news and entertainment.

Irene Harand, Azoy? Oder Azoy? Der Emes vegen anti-Semitism [This? Or That? The Truth concerning anti-Semitism.] (Vienna: Karl Popelka, 1933). First published in German as “So? oder so? Wahrheit über den Antisemitismus” (This? or that? The Truth about Antisemitism). The title of the publication “This? Or That?” is tied to the cover design, presenting a choice between “this,” represented as a swastika or “that,” represented by the scales of justice. It was also issued in Yiddish (on display) and in Polish. A recent acquisition.

But these hateful challenges did not go unanswered. Jews, as well as non-Jews, often became allies in the fight against hatred, turning to religious values for moral support, celebrating festivals together, and organizing for a better future.

The Common Road to Freedom Passover Haggadah (Prepared for the Religious Action Center of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1985). First edition, prepared the Shabbat Hagadol Social Action Sabbath in 1985. In English with some Hebrew. It is an example of a joint response to racism and antisemitism. A recent acquisition.

The exhibition “Media Technology and the Dissemination of Hate” is on view until May 31st, 2020 at the O’Hare Special Collections at the Walsh Family Library at Fordham University, Rose Hill Campus.

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The exhibition was co-curated by Sally Brander FCRH ‘20, Clare McCabe FCRH ‘20, and Magda Teter, the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies, with contributions from students in Professor Teter’s seminar on antisemitism (HIST 4308) from Fall 2018 and 2019, and assistance and support from Linda Loschiavo, the Director of the Walsh Family Library and Vivian (Wei) Shen of the O’Hare Special Collections.

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The exhibition would not have been possible without the generosity of Mr. Eugene Shvidler, whose gift to Fordham’s Jewish Studies program helped start Fordham’s Judaica collection.