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)”