Floating around in one of the drawers, I came across a printed leaflet. Can’t remember exactly the purpose of the leaflet–they’re usually solicitations for money–but it featured many pictures of rabbinical trips to Palestine, some of such magnificence that the text was at once forgotten.
Here is how one should visit the Western Wall. Nonchalence and a properly shiny topper are in order.
Proper headgear should also be worn by all concerned when a brit milah is performed.

This, needless to say, is not a photograph of a rabbinical trip to Palestine. It’s an illumination on a thing listing “Baalei Berit,” members of the covenant; the content is somewhat less interesting than the costume details. Note also extremely long flowy but narrow tallitot with blue stripes, the piping on the trousers, and the high heels.

The thing in the middle that looks like a parasol, however, is just where the paint has flaked off. This may disappoint some of you, but you should not feel in any way dissuaded from having parasols at your own brit milah ceremonies.

Proper headgear for a baby is a sort of swaddling turban. Someone waving a knife at your nethers is no excuse for slacking off on standards.
Handlebar moustaches are encouraged.
When visiting the Pyramids, the morning-coat and top hat may be dispensed with. A suit and hat fit for the desert should be worn, provided a properly rabbinical demeanour is maintained. Also, make sure to have your photograph taken with a native* holding your camel, as this will make you look kingly and powerful.

* Satirical language

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

What we have today is a lithograph, Das Innere einer Sinagoge in Rom, or Interior of a Synagogue in Rome; click the image at right to see a larger version. It’s by the Swiss artist Hieronymus Hess, and it’s one of a pair, the Rare Book Room doesn’t have the other half of the pair, but Sothebys had some notes about it. The first half of the pair “portrays a Catholic practice of requiring Jews to listen to conversionist sermons which persisted until well into the 19th century” and they’re all staring into the distance as a preacher harangues them. But in our print they’re on home turf and enjoying themselves.

Hess is famous for social caricature and satire. This piece is certainly that. Open question whether you also want to label it antisemitica, Hess not being Jewish (but he hung out with Nazarenes, so he probably had Ideas about Who Is Doing Religion Right, and it isn’t the Jews, so he’s probably disapproving at the least). Christians quite often get on our case for being insufficiently decorous in shul.

So, we have a synagogue interior, that of the Tempio Italiano in Rome. I thought it very odd indeed that the frieze around the top of the shul has the text of “An eye for an eye;” Vivian Mann says many of the interior details are accurate, but she doesn’t mention this specifically, and it seems more likely to be an anti-semitic comment. We don’t usually put bloodthirsty, vengeful verses on our holy spaces.
It appears to be Torah-reading time; there’s what looks like a scroll on the bima, one of those very tall scrolls, and another scroll up at the front by the aron with a crown on.

Bear in mind that particular details of such a picture as this are a heavy mix of artist’s impression and fantasy. There’s no guarantee that the Italian Jews read with three persons on the bima. That said, I’m guessing the guy with the top hat gazing off into the distance is the person honoured with the aliyah, because he isn’t paying attention to the reading. The guy whose tallit covers his eyes is the one doing the reading, because it’s practically a rule that the reader has to be so muffled as to be inaudible. And the one with the tricorn hat is the gabbai, who’s actually the one paying attention.

I think this chap is taking snuff.
I do not know why this chap is climbing on the column, tallit flying, but possibly he wants to leap down and deliver retribution on that guy with the flowing white headgear. It doesn’t seem that his problem is being unable to see the activity on the bima.
These guys I am all too familiar with. They’re saying “Can’t they shut up with the damn leyning? We’re trying to learn Torah here!”
It’s unclear whether this child is responding to the din in the synagogue, or whether he’s an allegorical Jew, equally uninterested in his own religion as the one the kind Christians are trying to give him. Obviously all the Jews here are pretty uninterested in their own religion, but they don’t actually have their fingers in their actual ears. The other two kids in the foreground are a) sleeping b) climbing over the pew back to get away.
Here we have a very pious chap; you can tell he’s pious because he has mighty moustachios, whereas most of the people in the shul have no beards. And right behind him, juxtaposed, is a big fat guy (Jews are greedy) making a hand-signal which I read as “money” but I might be wrong. Perhaps the book he’s holding is an account book; perhaps it’s the Bible and it’s showing how Jews just twist the Holy Law to get money out of it.
The Tablets of the Law above the ark are divided the Christian way, four and six, not the Jewish way of five and five, the way they actually were in that shul (Evelyn Cohen, Vivian Mann, Gardens and Ghettos, p. 255). This points to the picture being a Christian allegory, and our guy here would be an allusion to the moneychangers in the Temple.

Which I could go on about at some length, but this post is long enough already. Suffice it to say that with the amount of administration the Temple was doing, there’s nothing wrong with having moneychangers there, and it’s only a big deal if you correlate piety with poverty. Which some Jews do and some Christians do, and some Jews don’t and some Christians certainly don’t (see various church schisms throughout the history of the church). But it’s used to show that Jews are venial and given to profaning the holy with their everlasting grubbing for money, which is not nice.

I shall leave you with the impressions of another Christian, Samuel Pepys the diarist, upon visiting the synagogue, not witting that it was Simchat Torah:

But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.

Next time, we shall see some examples of Proper Decorum, also featuring a camel.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Right, yo. Click the image to see bigger. I’ve got nothing at all on this one; as I recall, it hasn’t been catalogued yet. No artist, no location, no date, nothing.

So. What are they saying? Bring on the yeshiva jokes.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Today we have:

An Open Letter to the Jewish Married Women Who Are Employed in The Millinery Center, and Also in The Garment and Fur Centers.

The flyer isn’t dated. I assume it’s sometime in the 30s when lots of Jews were working in these areas, being ministered to by our Nathan Wolf, amongst others.

[The original is in ALL CAPS. I'm going to type it in lowercase to spare your eyes.]

Due to the fact that there are many Jewish married women who are employed in the above centers, and many of these Jewish women observe the laws of Jewish family purity such as “Niddah–Mikvah–Tvillah!”…

[I never did that mitzvah with an exclamation mark, perhaps that's why it never vibed for me?]

…also whereas many of these women, after a day’s hard labor at the office or factory, probably had to travel several miles to a modern kosher public mikvah to perform the ritual ceremony of immersion, because there was no such mikvah in the vicinity where they reside, therefore, it would be desirable and convenient to many of these women, if a modern kosher mikvah would be built in a good location on the West Side between West 14th Street and West 42nd Street, New York City.

Due to the fact that there is a very large basement in the synagogue of West 34th Street between 8th Avenue and 9th Avenue, as a matter of suggestion, this particular basement of the synagogue, would be a good location to build a modern kosher mikvah there.

(This propaganda campaign about the construction of such a mikvah–has been made possible by a young American Grand Rabbi of the Lower East Side of New York City. It can also be much better if such a modern kosher mikvah can be constructed in a separate building by itself, thus assuring more privacy to the women who come to such a mikvah, than it can be done in this synagogue, because this particular synagogue usually has many worshippers during the evening services, but as the expense of building a separate building would probably be very large, therefore if the mikvah shall have to be built in the above located synagogue, it would be advisable also to build a special entrance to the basement, thus at least assuring some privacy.

You have to admire the chutzpah of this, don’t you? Someone from the LES (i.e. nowhere near 34th St) is merrily suggesting that the 34th St shul undertake a major building project because it has a nice big basement. Don’t know about then, but now that basement is a function space, and I should imagine the basement was used for meetings and suchlike then as well. It’s a bit like dispatch 7, in which another flyer was very happy to boss us about; mikveh-building campaigns are all very well, but do people have to be so bossy?

I also wonder, just a bit, whether many of these women really were travelling several miles after work to a mikveh. I had the impression that immigrant Jews were more interested in theatre and labour unions and other preoccupations of the emancipated than in mikvaot, but I readily admit that my knowledge of New York’s Jews in this period is patchy at best.

On the subject, have any of you ever heard that some women believed that touching a Torah scroll was a substitute for going to the mikveh? One Rabbi Steinberg mentioned it to me casually the other week, but didn’t have more to say than that, and I’d like to hear more about that. It makes sense, in a way, if you think that Torah scrolls are ultimately pure and holy and that that is transmitted by touch. Anyone got anything more about that?

Anyway, the 34th St shul is still there and functioning, and I happen to know the rabbi (hi, Jason!), so I called him just to see if he’d ever heard anything about this mikveh project, but he said as far as he knew there’d never been a mikveh there. Which doesn’t surprise me! I thought maybe I might go and try digging through the shul archives and seeing if the idea was ever raised at board meetings, but decided I have other things to do with my time. However, if any readers are ever interning there and don’t know what to do with themselves, they should go have a dig and see. (Talking of bossing people about. Be glad I’m not telling you to go build a mikveh.)

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Possibly the best rabbinical business card ever; the rabbi “Gives Fatherly Advice to All,” and on the back, makes sure that you know “Ladies Invited.”

Text of front:

Tel. CHickering 4-2316 [that's when you still had to call the exchange, and there were actual live people manning a switchboard]
בית מדרש הדגול
556-7th Avenue, N.Y.C.
Cor. 40th St

Dr. N. Wolf, Chief Rabbi

The back of the card is in Yiddish, reproduced below. In sum, it says if you have kaddish, yahrzeit or yizkor, you should come to a real Yiddischer schule, with a real grosser rov. A beit midrash that’s always open where you can learn and daven. The rabbi, Dr N. Wolf shlit”a, has his credentials listed, with the promise of lovely sermons. He also has an open door for family troubles, divorces, marriages and so on. It also mentions that the destitute can come to the shul and get a meal and a suit of clothes.

קדיש? יאהרצייט? יזכור?
קומט איו אן אמת׳ר ידישער שוהל
מיט אן אמת׳ן גרויסען רב
א בית מדרש תמיד עפאן
מ׳לערנט מ׳דאבינט דארט כסדר

הרב הגאון דר. נ. וואלף שליט״א
(דער יונגער געלערטער און מחבר
פון שו׳ת און אוצר החנים ומועדים)
איז אימער אין פלייס און ברענגט
אן עולם מיט זיינע זיסע דרשות.

בעראט זיך מיט איהם וועגען אללעס,
שלום קאורט אין פעמילי טראבעלס
בית דין אפפיס גט׳ן, קדושין ריידעס.

אפפיס פון התאחדות הרבנים.
בית ועד למשכילים ולומדים
דא איז ניט קיין שוהל וואו מען
שפייט אויס און מען געהט אוועק
נור דיא האוז פון אברהם אבינו
פון תורה עבודה וגמילות חסדים
ווא ארימע לייט עססען און טרינקען
און בעקומען איוך א מלבוש

There isn’t a synagogue there now. The building there presently was completed in 1923, so it’s about the right period, but it’s presently offices (it’s here on google maps, and go to street view).

Museum of Family History lists it as an ex-synagogue of Manhattan, with Dr Wolf being rabbi in 1948.

So what was he up to before that?

In 1934, the New York Times describes Rabbi Wolf on voting day: Rabbi Wolf is the lone voter in his precinct, and he votes about 11am, posing for pictures, but the election officials have to sit around until polls close at 6, whereupon they have to count the vote. Here his shul is the Times Square Temple at 240 West 38th St. By 1938, the Palm Beach Post has a similar story “…Rabbi Nathan Wolf of the Times Square Synagogue, the only person in his industrialized district eligible to vote, cast his ballot in a barbershop. Four election officials, two policemen and about 100 spectators watched the proceeding…” but he’s now in the 42nd Precinct, not the 40th, from which we deduce that they were in the 7th Ave building by then.

He was apparently a bit creative when it came to raising a minyan: In a 1936 issue of the Jewish Floridian: “Midtown New York is being treated to the sight of a sandwich man advertising Yiskor and Kaddish services at the Temple and Centre of Times Square…The rabbi of the Temple is Dr. Nathan Wolf…” Context: this is the Garment District in the 1930s, an area crammed full of Jewish immigrants working in garment manufacture. There were quite a lot of shuls in the area servicing the workers; I imagine that R’ Wolf’s “Always Open” temple was quite attractive to shift workers and so on who were trying to cram a bit of communal Judaism into their lives. Best guess is that his shul, like many others of the area, declined as the area ceased to be full of Jewish immigrants.

In 1939, he put out an encyclopedia of festivals and holidays, which is available at hebrewbooks, and if someone wants to read the introduction and tell me why he felt the need to write it, go ahead. He seems not to have got further than volume 1, Rosh haShana, and possibly volume 2, but that might be an English-language version of volume 1. Couldn’t see.

He was way into shidduchim, being the Secretary of the Shatchonim Association (shidduchim, that is–someone who arranges dates). Shadchan gets five percent of the dowry, how about that? There’s a fabulous article in the Milwaukee Journal of 1936, Tinted Toes Help Girls Get Higher Quality Husbands:

The Marriage Brokers’ association its business booming–reported Friday that tinted toe and fingernails are getting girls more and better husbands…”Every year there is more business,” announced Rabbi Nathan Wolf, secretary…”For example, the girls say ‘Do men like painted nails?’ I say ‘Listen, they want to marry a lady, a pretty one. So make yourself beautiful. Ruby, rose–they look nice. Color your nails if you want to. Even your toenails. It will be a surprise for him.’…The association believes a girl should be beautiful, young in comparison to the man’s age, well educated and have a dowry of some kind…

Plus ca change, that is to say. You should read the whole thing. By 1946 he was president of the association.

Apparently German refugee ladies were popular in the marriage brokering market, because they weren’t picky (I lost the link; you can find it on google). I do wonder what he did during the war, and after, and when he died, and suchlike, but I need to go slay orcs with my boyfriend on the computer now.

Anyway, it really is the best business card.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Click to see bigger

This caught my eye because it’s just weird to print a newspaper by lithography from a handwritten original. So I went a-searching, and discovered that this was the first Yiddish-language newspaper produced in America. Now the lithography makes much more sense; to produce a Yiddish newspaper you need a newspaper press and a set of Yiddish type. I think Yiddish books were being printed in New York at the time (based on a sort of general impression of an existing and literate community), but not periodicals, so it would make sense that the producer just didn’t have access to a newspaper press which could set Yiddish type.

They were also backed by Tammany Hall, which at this period was a rather unpleasant organisation controlling local politics, heavily Irish-immigrant, with violence and corruption, so perhaps Yiddish printers (in a nascent immigrant community) didn’t want to get involved?

Here are some sources from the internets:

The first entry in what would become a crowd of Yiddish newspapers in America, Di Yidishe Tsaytung first appeared on March 1, 1870, a self-described “weekly paper of politics, religion, history, science and art” with the English title, “The New York Hebrew Times,” emblazoned above the Yiddish logotype. Its publisher was I. K. Buchner, like so many of the first Yiddish editors a Lithuanian Jew devoted to the subjects of the New Enlightenment. It took its editorial material from German and other European Jewish periodicals, and was quickly scorned by English-language Jewish publications. The uptown Jewish Times said, “Buchner’s Yidishe Tsaytung is a weekly publication written in the Jewish and German-Polish jargon, and its contents are as laughable as its language. It provides reading material entirely suited to the recently imported Russian Jews, and is a shining example of Middle Ages superstitions and naivete.” The paper, produced by lithography, cost six cents, and loyally followed the party line of Tammany Hall. It finally expired in 1877.

–from Live and be Well, Richard F. Shepard, page 186.

The first Yiddish periodical published in America, Di yidishe tsaytung, was founded in 1870 by J.K. Buchner. He generally published his paper, which was subsidized by Tammany Hall, prior to election time or when a sensational story promised high sales…Its masthead identified it variously as a monthly and a weekly, but as few as fifteen issues appeared in a period of seven years; at most three issues are recorded extant today. The first commercially viable Yiddish dailies were published in the 1890s and in 1917 New York City alone had five dailies with a combined circulation of 600,000.

From the Jewish Theological Seminary’s exhibition catalogue People of Faith, Land of Promise.

And that bit about “three issues are recorded extant today”…this is one of the perks of doing volunteer work in a rare book room…

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

This is DR9 R30, but there’s nothing much in the catalogue about it, which is too bad. It’s a token of appreciation for someone from his co-religionists, in Italian, dated Genoa 1956 (click image to see bigger). We’re looking at it because it has a pretty border, more or less; nothing particularly innovative or unusual I think, a modern presentation of a mediaeval style, but it’s a nice example of how you can use very simple techniques to make a very dramatic document.

If you look closely, you can see that the three-dimensional effect is achieved with two shades of a colour, applied fairly arbitrarily, and white highlights. But it’s boldly done, and with vivid colours, so it fools you into thinking that it’s a lot more intricate than it really is.

This is a principle many of you would do well to absorb ;) Simple techniques done with confidence mean striking work.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

A clip from a testimonial,* signed by appreciative members of an Italian community in 1956. In the subsequent sixty years, note how one of the substances in the black ink has spread out around the signature, giving it a sort of halo. Ink can be funny like that. It’s one of the reasons artists use “archival-quality” materials–the idea is that they aren’t going to do this. Not sure how they know.

* Before you start grumbling: you’ll see the whole thing next time, so hang in there.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Drawer 9 has a lot of pretty things like this:

Image copyright Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Used with permission. Click to see bigger.

They’re mostly in Italian or Latin, and they have the most lovely illuminated borders, with coats of arms of cardinals.

What they are are testimonials. When you supplied things such as furniture to cardinals’ households in seventeenth-century Rome, they might give you a testimonial, which you could use to secure business from other households. JTS has lots of these from a family named Ambron, who were merchants supplying a lot of things to a lot of people.

The testimonial might also give the holder permissions and privileges for other things. You might be allowed to be treated as a member of the cardinal’s household (“don’t mess with this person or I the cardinal will mess with you”), or to live in a fancy district outside the Jewish ghetto, or to travel freely and trade within the Holy Roman Empire. All things that regular Jews couldn’t necessarily expect. The Ambrons supplied the Vatican’s army, as well as the cardinals at home and abroad, so after a time they were guaranteed a market as well.

I admit that my eye was caught mostly by the prettiness of these, but they are also very interesting. This family, the Ambrons, eventually built up a whole network of merchant trading across Europe, part of the Jew-as-trader narrative.

I don’t know what happened to them eventually. There’s one testimonial issued in 1804 “during the Napoleonic occupation of Tuscany,” saying that they have the job of supplying the military there. I suppose that when Napoleon broke the power of the Pope and emancipated everyone including the Jews, Jews who relied on papal preference didn’t fare too well. And then when the papacy’s power came back I suppose they were much more anti-Jew than before, even if the Ambrons had been in a position to supply them with stuff, but war doesn’t always treat networks of merchants kindly.

Other pretty elements from various testimonials, which I’d like to adopt into calligraphy pieces sometime or other:

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

I thought this picture looked familiar when I saw it in the drawer. It’s the inside of the Great Synagogue at Stockholm, which still has organ at its Shabbat services, and is most particular about employing a non-Jewish organist to play.

So what is this? An old-school Reform confirmation certificate, from 1939. (Click image at left to see bigger.)

First it has space for the name and birth-date of the confirmand, and it goes on, in Swedish, “has been confirmed with official religious studies according to Mosaic law on [date]”

Then a bunch of pesukim. First couple of lines of the Shema, you shall love your neighbour as yourself, do justice love mercy and walk humbly from Micah, and a slightly random bit from Kohelet: the dust shall return to the earth it came from, yet the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

And a space for the signature of “rabbi of the Mosaic community”

It’s also endorsed along the side saying “only valid as proof of confirmation”. I wonder what else they thought people might try to use it for. Proof of Jewishness, for marriage?

With the date as 1939 I wondered if they might be worried about Nazis; I knew Sweden was neutral in the war, but apparently they weren’t clear on to what extent they’d be able to maintain that, and according to Wikipedia Sweden let the Germans use their rail network. They also ended up taking in lots of Jewish refugees, including all the Jews of Denmark–I had no idea about that. But thinking about it, I don’t suppose the Nazis cared especially if you had a confirmation certificate or not. I don’t know. Anyone have information on that one?

[Thanks to Anonymous Friend for translation from Swedish.]

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

This is an illustration from a larger poster paying tribute to the Jewish composer, Zavel Zilberts, special call number DR8-R22. The poster’s from Lodz, 1918; it’s in Yiddish, which is why I didn’t photograph all of it.

What caught my eye–and hopefully also caught yours–was that the music is written right-to-left. Makes sense, given that Hebrew goes right-to-left and he was a Hebrew liturgical composer, but you more usually see Hebrew music notated by transliterating into a left-to-right alphabet.

There’s a biography of Zilberts at Naxos. It says that Zilberts had been working in Moscow, but had to leave in 1914 when occupations permitted to Jews were restricted. He got stuck in Lodz during the war and worked there, and after the war went on to the USA; I imagine the poster is saying, hey, thanks for all your work here in Lodz, best of luck in your new home.

There’s a synagogue with a choir in Montreal. I wonder if they ever do any of this stuff–the choral music from pre-war Europe.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

This is from the wedding of Julius Lorsch and Rebecka Cahn, special call number DR6-R36. A Hochzeits-Hagada, dated 1911, Fulda.

I like the little photos stapled to the top here. Julius has a very traditional German Yekkish käppchen, and Rebecka looks like she has those over-the-ears buns that were in style in the 1920s.

Julius and Rebecka perhaps had a sentimental attachment to Pesach; they have a Wedding Haggadah, which follows the form of the Pesach Haggadah. I assume it featured at the wedding dinner; it’s full of cute little poems about the couple. Maybe written by their friends or family?

The front reads:

das ist
Seder und Erzählung
von der Verliebung, Vehrlobung und Verheyratung
des ehrengeachteten und frommen
Herrn Dr. Julius Lorsch
und der hochachtbaren, fürnehmen und minneglichen Jungfrau
Fräulein Rebecka Cahn

Here’s one of the poems. I chose this one because it shows us that Becki was also Dr. Cahn.

והיא שעמדה
Das alles hat ihm beigestanden
Hat behrümt ihn gemacht bei allen Bekammten
Man hat ihm viele angetragen
Doch keine wollt ihm recht behagen
Denn seit dem grossen Trennungsschmertz
Besas Rebecka allein sein Hertz.
Er macht eine Eingabe an Dr. Cahn
Führt alle seine Dorzüge an,
Auf die gestüsst, er sich getraut,
Verlangen zu dürfen die Becki aus Braut.
All this served him,
Gave him fame among all his acquaintances.
Many have been suggested to him,
But none would be to his liking,
For since the great pain of separation,
Rebecka alone possessed his heart.
He petitions Dr. Cahn,
lists all his advantages,
leaning on which he dares
to ask for Becki as a bride.

Thanks to Phillip Lipman for translation. You see it isn’t Great Poetry or anything, but it’s Telling The Story of The Couple, like the haggada tells the story of the Jews. Which is cute.

For your edification, here are all the pages. All images, as usual, copyright Jewish Theological Seminary of America, used with permission, click through to see larger versions. Anyone with good German who wants to translate the whole story of the couple is more than welcome to share it with the rest of us!

Page 1

Page 2

Page 3

Page 4

Page 5

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Regard, if you will, this photograph of a Torah scroll.

All images copyright Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Used with permission.

That’s a Metro card under there. A Metro card is the same size as a credit card. This is a real handwritten originally-kosher sefer Torah, and it’s smaller than a credit card. It’s three inches high.

Here’s another picture:

Speechless? I was. When I took it out of the drawer and opened it I was expecting one of those silly paper scrolls they give to kids, and there was this…Just wow.

I’m guessing the scribe was accustomed to writing very small tefillin, in which the script is about this size, and decided to do a Torah scroll. For a commission? For artistry? Don’t know. The rollers are ivory, and it has a cover crocheted from gold thread. (You may remember this video, of a very tiny scroll with beautiful accessories. The scroll there is five inches high.)

Here’s a close-up of one of the text sections.

What do we know about it? It’s old–the ink is faded, the parchment yellowing. It handles like an eighteenth-century scroll I worked on this summer, although it might not be quite that old. You can tell it’s probably not later than the mid-nineteenth century because the columns start neither בי”ה שמ”ו nor all-vavs, and there is fashion in these things, and probably if you were going to put in the effort to make something like this you’d do it in style, so to speak. It’s written in an Arizal script, which places it in eastern-ish Europe in a Chasidic-influenced community.

The parchment is thinner than printer paper, and in this photograph you can see the altered texture, greyish colour, and squashed-up lettering that denotes an erasure. Take a few moments to marvel, if you will.

Handling this scroll was something special. Don’t mind telling you I was speechless for about five minutes after realising what it was.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Today we have a Shtar Halitza, which we might translate Contract promising release from levirate marriage. If you recall, Torah says that if I marry Reuven and he dies childless, I have to marry his brother Shimon in order to have children in Reuven’s name. If Shimon isn’t keen on that idea, he does halitza and frees me to go and marry Uri.

If you think about it, levirate marriage brings up some pretty unholy tensions. If Shimon wants to marry me because I’m awesome, that’s kind of icky because I’m his brother’s wife. On the other hand, if Shimon wants to marry me only to do his holy duty of getting a child on me, that’s pretty miserable for me. So in general it’s much better that we should do halitza and just not go there.

Halitza becomes the standard expectation (read this article, A Writ of Release (Weisberg & Sarna), for a lot of background and interesting stuff), but if I don’t have halitza, I’m not free to marry someone else. Religiously speaking. So, if Shimon doesn’t want to give me halitza, I can’t marry someone else. This gives Shimon a horrible amount of power over me, and many men took to requesting extortionate fees from their brothers’ widows.

So, communities had an idea! Before I get married, I should get a contract from Shimon and Levi and all my beloved’s brothers, promising that they won’t do anything of the sort.

Here’s the contract that Jeanette, daughter of Nathan Marcus haCohen Adler, had with the brothers of Ascher Anschel Stern:

זכרון עדות שהיתה לפנינו עדים ח”מ ברביעי בשבת שלשים יום לחדש ניסן שהוא ראש חודש אייר שנת חמשת אלפים ושש מאות וחמש עשרה לבריאת עולם למנין שאנו מנין כאן עיר המבורג איך שבאו לפנינו האחים כ”ה יהוד’ המכונה ליב וכ”ה יעקב שי’ בני המנוח מה”ו מאיר שטערן ז”ל ואמרו לנו הוו עלינו עדים כשרים ונאמנים וקנו מאתנו בק”ג אג”ם וכתבו בכל לשון של זכות ויפוי כח המועיל ואף חתמו ותנו ליד מ’ יענטא תי’ בת הרב בק”ק לאנדאן והמדינה מה”ו נתן אדלער הכהן אשת אחינו הרב בק”ק פה מה”ו אשר המכונה אנשיל להיות לה בידה לעדות ולזכות ולראיה

On April 19th, 1855, in Hamburg, the brothers Yehudah, known as Leib, and Yaakov, sons of Meir Stern, appeared before us, and instructed us to be true and fit witnesses, and we took from them a symbol of acceptance, and wrote in fit and legal language and signed and delivered to the hand of Miss Yenta, daughter of the rabbi of the community of London and the Empire Nathan haCohen Adler, the wife of our brother, rabbi of the community here, Ascher, who is known as Anschel, for her to keep as proof.

[Note the Ashkenazic spelling of "London". This isn't standard; the usual way is לונדון because the Sephardim got there first and established the spelling. These Hamburgers were evidently very Ashkenazic.]

It’s also interesting that the lady is Yenta. The family tree wonks at Geni.com think that the woman who is married to Ascher-Anschel Stern and the daughter of Nathan Adler is named Jeanette. Certainly she could have used both Yenta and Jeanette, but why aren’t both on the document? Did she start using Jeanette at some time after her marriage?

איך שרצינו ברצון נפשינו הטוב שלא באונש והכרח כלל כי אם בלב שלם ובנפש חפיצה ובדעה שלימה ומיושבת והננו מודים בנפשיכם היום כמודים בפני ב”ד חשוב וראוי בהודאה גמורה שרירא וקיימא דלא להשטאה ודלא שלא להשבעה ודלא להשנאה ודלא למהדר ביה מן יומא דנן ולעלם.

That we desire, of our own free will, not coerced or forced, but with a whole and complete heart, a free soul and a complete, settled understanding. And these declarations shall be as those made before a great bet din, absolutely fitting testimony, valid and binding, not a joke, and not a shavua, and not with intent to be bad for her, and not with intent to benefit her, from this day and forever.

איך שאם ח”ו יעדר וימות אחינו הרב בק”ק פה מה”ו אשר המכונה אנשיל הנ”ל בעלה של מרת יענטא הנ”ל בלי זרע קיימא ותהיה אשתו מרת יענטא הנ”ל זקוקה לחלוץ.

That if, God forbid, our brother the aforementioned rabbi of this community here Ascher who is known as Anschel, husband of the aforementioned Miss Yenta, should pass and die with no viable issue, and the aforementioned Miss Yenta should be in need of halitza.

אזי מתי שתתבע אותנו לחלוץ לה מחיובים אנחנו לפוטרה בחליצה כשרה והגונה בחנם שלא נקח ממנו* ומכל ב”כ אפילו שוה פרוטה בעולם תיכף ומיד אחר כלות שלשה חדשים להעדרו של אחינו הרב בק”ק פה אשר המכונה אנשיל בעלה הנ”ל ח”ו כשתהיה ראוי לחלוץ. ובלבד שהיבמה תלך אחר היבם וכל זמן שלא נפטרנו בחליצה כשרה בחנם כנ”ל תהא היבמה נזונית מניכסי מיתנא ומוחזקת בהן.

That when she should request of us halitza, we will be bound to free her with a fit and valid halitza ceremony, freely, and we will not take from him ["Him" is probably a typo, compare the text in the Nachalat Shiva, siman 22, some thirty years later than this document] or from her representative even the value of a pruta, ever. As soon as three months have elapsed since the passing of our brother the aforementioned rabbi of this community here Ascher who is known as Anschel, her husband, God forbid, when she is free to conduct halitza. This provided that the woman comes to the man. While we have not freed her with a fit, freely-granted halitza as above, the yavamah will be sustained from the estate of the deceased and shall control it.

Wives in Jewish law don’t inherit automatically, brothers do; this stipulation makes it inconvenient for them to withold halitza.

כל הא דלעיל קבלו עליהם האחים כ”ה יהוד’ המכונה ליב וכ”ה יעקב שטערן שי’ הנ”ל בחרם חמור ובשבועה דאוריתא ובת”ך בפועל ממש על דעת רבים שלא יהא התרה והפרה כלל כי אם על דעת אשת אחיהם מרת יענטא תי’ הנ”ל בביטול כל מודעות ובפיסול כל עדי מודעות עד עולם בכל לישנא דאמרי רבנן דפוסלין ומבטלין בהון מודעות. ושטר חליצה זה לא יפסול ולא יגרע כחו בשום ריעותא וגריעותא בעולם מכל מה שהפה יוכל לדבר והלב לחשוב ולהרהר.

All the above the aforementioned brothers Yehudah, known as Leib, and Yaakov Stern, accepted upon themselves [various phrases meaning that this is Serious Business] that it shall never be annulled or revoked except by the will of the wife of their brother, Miss Yenta, in annulling all admissions and invalidating all witnesses to admissions, eternally, in language used by the rabbis to annull and invalidate such admissions. And this shtar halitza shall not be invalidated nor its strength lessened by any means at all ever, by anything the mouth can say or the heart think.

ויהא הכל נידון ונדרש לטובת ולזכות וליפוי כח בעלת השטר. וידה על העליונה ויד המערער על התחתונה. ויהא כח לשטר זה כאלו נעשה בב”ד חשוב דלא כאסמכתא ודלא כטופסי דשטרי וקנינא מן האחים כ”ה יהוד’ המכונה ליב וכ”ה יעקב שי’ בני המנוח מאיר שטערן ז”ל למרת יענטא תי’ בת הרב בק”ק לאנדאן והמדינה מה”ו נתן אדלער הכהן נר”ו אשת הרב בק”ק פה מה”ו אשר המכונה אנשיל נר”ו בן מה”ו מאיר שטערן ז”ל על כל מה דכתוב ומפורש לעיל במנא דכשר למקניא ביה. הכל שריר וקים.

And all this is to be judged and interpreted for the good and the benefit and the strengthening of the holder of the shtar. And her hand is above and the hand of any appellant below. And the strength of this shtar shall be as if it were made by a great bet din, and is is not asmachta and not a mere formalism. And we made kinyan from the aforementioned brothers Yehudah, known as Leib, and Yaakov, sons of Meir Stern, on behalf of Miss Yenta, daughter of the rabbi of the community of London and the Empire Nathan haCohen Adler, the wife of our brother, rabbi of the community here, Ascher, who is known as Anschel, son of Meir Stern, concerning all that is written and expounded above, with an appropriate instrument; all is valid and binding.

I find it interesting how hard this document insists that it REALLY IS REAL AND PROPER OKAY. That sounds to me like the language of something aware that it’s standing on shaky ground, something trying rather too hard to sound real. It seems like it’s trying too hard to say “I am enforceable, dammit! Don’t you dare ignore me!”, which I think was probably its main problem. It’s not something I’m aware of being done today.

Weisberg and Sarna seem to suggest that the State of Israel’s declaring halitza mandatory has something to do with it, that and the Holocaustic wiping-out of most communities where it was done. Also I think perhaps longer life expectancies, smaller families, and rising divorce rates have made refusal to grant a get more of a problem. It’s a similar problem; rabbinic courts these days tend to lack enforcement methods, so if a guy says “Shan’t” there’s not a lot you can do about it.

The catalogue number for this piece is SCN DR10-R36, and it says that Jeanette is Yenta bat “Edgar haKohen”, an error which I trust will be fixed post-haste. A little further into the drawer, DR10-R43 contains both of Johanna bat Shraga’s wedding documents, her ketubah and her shtar halitza from her groom’s brothers–I didn’t photograph them because they’re in completely impenetrable handwriting–doubtless Jeanette’s ketubah is somewhere, but I don’t know where.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

DR8-R12b is a Tribute to Nathan Marcus Adler, from the Jewish community of Hanover. (Check out Wikipedia; he has an epic hat, and even more epic sideburns.)

The Tribute is dated 1879, the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination (according to the JTS catalogue). As well as the numerical date, it has a nice Hebrew chronogram:

Image copyright Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Used with permission.

That is, שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת, four words from Malakhi 2:7, For the priest’s lips guard knowledge, and they shall seek the law at his mouth: for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. The large letters with dots over them–שכהישד–add up to 639, and 5639 in the Jewish calendar corresponds to 1879 in the Christian one.

My alma mater has a chronogram; one of its alumni went on to build the Dyson-Perrins laboratory building in Oxford, and it has a plaque saying baLLIoLensIs feCI hyDatoeCVs o sI MeLIVs. This means “I, Waterhouse of Balliol, made this. Would it were better.” (Note that this is an extreme of pretentiousness; Waterhouse had to render his name into Latin to get it to work.) Date comes out to 1914.

Latin ones have a different feel; some (or preferably all) of the Roman-numeral letters (you know, IVXLCDM) make up the date. If you can’t get it such that all the number-letters make the date, you have to indicate which ones you want people to read. Since all letters in Hebrew have a numeric value, if you want to do it most elegantly such that all the letters make the date, you have a lot more flexibility in how you compose your date, but much less ability to pad your sentence with filler words.

Anyway, Adler was the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1845-1890. He was a scholarly type, with a university degree and all. He was also a cohen. So this is a great verse to attach to him.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Image copyright Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Used with permission. Click to see larger version.

Today’s picture is of someone’s bar mitzvah invitation, from the early 1980s. Note how the invitation is printed with blue stripes and trimmed with fringe trim exactly like the scarfy tallitot beloved of Reform shuls.

Can’t decide if this is sort of cool or dreadfully cheesy.

The point of bringing you this, though, is that this kid is still alive. I googled him, just out of curiosity, and he went on to be something perfectly ordinary, real estate or something I think. And is married and has kids and lives somewhere in New Jersey.

And this is the case for a great many of these dispatches–they are things belonging to people who were once quite ordinary, getting along with their lives, but now they’ve turned into history.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Images copyright Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Used with permission. Click to see larger version.

DR6-L16 contains two items: a flyer and a wedding invitation.


Dear Brothers and Sisters:
I beg you with great respect. I am a refugee in this country. I have fled from the Iron Curtain (Budapest), where I had my own Beth Hamedrash. Now, I have to marry off my dear daughter very soon. I beg you to help me as much as possible. You should also take part in this Great Mitzvah Hachnosas Kaloh.

In merit of that Mitzvah you should have long life, happiness and luck in every way.

With blessing and best wishes, I am

Very sincerely yours,


Hachnasat kallah is about making sure a bride has what to set up house with and funds to have a wedding. If you move in frum circles you get hit up regularly for money for poor brides like this.

“Marry off my daughter” rubs me up the wrong way, honestly. “I need lots of money so that someone will take my daughter off my hands because they wouldn’t take her free with a pound of tea,” is what I hear. Okay, this has been the way of the world for centuries, or millennia, but it’s still annoying.

It also seems sort of chutzpahdik to say “giving me money is a big mitzvah, you should do it,” but I guess you get good at that if you run a yeshiva.

Anyway, he apparently did pretty well out of it; the daughter got married in due course, and note the fancy invitation with embossing and monogram, and the wedding venue was Gold Manor, apparently a Simcha Palace.

For funsies, I looked up Gold Manor, where the wedding was held. It’s now the site of Black Veterans for Social Justice, but I’m not good enough at American architecture (or Google archaeology) to know whether the building on Google Street View is the one that was there in 1953. But I did find an anecdote about Gold Manor in 1954, from Philip Fishman’s book A Sukkah Is Burning:
…the Tzehlemer Rav was then asked to be the mesader kiddushin (the rabbi responsible for the wedding sacraments). After the wedding ceremony the rav was nowhere to be found. He had left the wedding hall with the ketuba–the traditional wedding document required by Jewish law to be given to the bridge–still in his possession. Apparently, he had not yet been paid for his services. Either my father or my older brother eventually found him outside the wedding hall, wrote him a check, and obtained the ketuba’s release.

I like that.

I couldn’t find anything at all about Yosef Weiss, or E. Miriam his daughter, or Chanandl his son-in-law. Pity. It’s a rather sad reflection on how things went generally; all these scholars who managed to avoid getting killed in the war or trapped by communism, who came to America, where Torah learning was very very different; less of it, for starters, and already-established yeshivot, for another. The lucky ones found money and followers and joined the learning scene, and the unlucky ones sank into obscurity.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Feb. 25th, 2013 02:18 pm)

And now, dessert!

Menu item 13: Frozen Squishies, אשישי קפאין.

Explanation 13: Song of Songs 2:8 says סמכוני באשישות, sustain me with raisin-cakes. Jastrow says that ashisha comes to mean any pressed kind of food, also a jug or contents thereof. So this might be a frozen raisin-cake, or it might be an ice-cream cake (if that isn’t horribly anachronistic) or it might be iced punch.

Menu item 14: Stewed fruit.

Explanation 14: Proverbs 31 says Give unto her the fruit of her hands.

Menu item 15: Tree fruit

Explanation 15: This is a non-rabbinic one; the citation is the proverb “The fruit does not fall far from the tree.” Why a sudden non-rabbinic thing? I have an idea, which we’ll get to.

Menu item 16: Grapes

Explanation 16: (Sow) grape seeds with grapevines, says Pesachim 49a.
Here’s the context. The Talmud is talking about the desirability of marrying certain kinds of people (social commentary like whoa; go learn that whole section, it’s fascinating), and says:

תנו רבנן: לעולם ימכור אדם כל מה שיש לו וישא בת תלמיד חכם, וישיא בתו לתלמיד חכם. משל לענבי הגפן בענבי הגפן, דבר נאה ומתקבל. ולא ישא בת עם הארץ – משל לענבי הגפן בענבי הסנה, דבר כעור ואינו מתקבל.

That is, it is taught in a baraita that one should sell everything he has and marry the daughter of a Torah scholar [and do remember that it is sages writing this], and marry his daughter to a Torah scholar. This is like planting grapes among grapevines; it is fitting and fruitful. And one should not marry the daughter of an ignoramus; this is like planting grapes among scrub, it is distasteful and not fruitful.

So serving grapes at the wedding is commenting that this is a fitting and fruitful match involving a Torah scholar.

Menu item 17 (note that 17 isn’t written י”ז as it usually is, it’s written טוב; I think that’s rather nice): Black coffee.

Explanation 17: I am black and comely, says Song of Songs 1.

Menu item 18: Champagne.

Explanation 18: This is another bit where you really really need to go learn the whole section of Talmud (Shabbat 67a). It’s just fascinating; it’s talking about things which are and are not forbidden on account of being darchei ha’emori–irreligious shtick non-Jews do, unfitting for Jews. For instance, peeing in front of a pot to hasten its cooking is forbidden because it’s darchei ha’emori, but putting a chip of mulberry wood in it is fine.

Saying “Wine and life according to the rabbis!” is another thing that’s not forbidden. Rashi seems to be saying that “Wine and life!” is a general thing the non-Jews say when drinking wine, but if you add “according to the rabbis” that makes it kosher.

So the champagne course here wishes the couple a blessed and frum life.

Note that the family have put in a lot of effort to get the number of menu items up to 18, to the extent of quoting a non-Jewish proverb for item 15. I assume this is because 18 is the number associated with life, luck, etc.

ABD Wasserman said “I don’t know; was Chai a thing then?” and the answer appears to be yes it was; not the yud-chet symbol people wear on necklaces and whatever, but the idea that 18 is a good number, especially for donations, seems to have been around since the early chasids, if not before. So 18 is probably no coincidence, and is yet another symbolic element on this menu.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Today, drinks.

Menu item 10: Wine.

Explanation 10: Psalms 128 says “Your wife shall be a fruitful vine.”

Menu item 11: Beer.

Explanation 11: מכי רמו שערי באסינתא, From the time they put barley into the asinta, Ketubot 8a.

Ketubot 8a is discussing the early formation of the wedding-meal liturgy. Today, the standard practice is that during the seven days after the wedding, if the bride and groom are at a meal with at least one person who hasn’t already participated in the wedding festivities, and a minyan is present, a special Invitation to Recite Grace After Meals is said, and a set of extra blessings is added to the grace. In the Talmud, it seems that all these elements are negotiable.

Regarding the Special Invitation, it seems that possibly you said it whenever your household was infused with weddingish joy, for example if you had a wedding guest staying for up to a year after the wedding (!). And also before the wedding. How long before the wedding? From the time you put the barley into the asinta to soak, to make the beer for the wedding feast.

Menu item 12: Seltzer (מי געש, volcano water).

Explanation 12: Reference to Proverbs 5:18, Let thy fountain be blessed, and rejoice with the wife of thy youth.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Back to the menu at this wedding feast.

Menu item 4: מרק, soup.

Explanation 4: תמרוקי הנשים. This one is a pun on Esther 2:12, וששה חדשים בבשמים ובתמרוקי הנשים “six months with scents and ointments for women.”

Menu item 5: דג גדול, a big fish.

Explanation 5: Song of Songs 2 says ודגלו עלי אהבה, his banner over me was love. I guess it’s just a play on dag, diglo, and gadol.

Menu items 6, 7, and 8 are meaty items, grouped together with the phrase from Genesis “And they shall be one flesh.”

Menu item 6: בשר, meat.

Explanation 6: Genesis 2 says ויאמר האדם זאת הפעם עצם מעצמי ובשר מבשר, the man said of the woman, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.

Menu item 7: Baby birds

Explanation 7: Psalm 128 says בניך כשתלי זיתים, your children shall be like olive shoots. A touch macabre, perhaps?

Menu item 8: לשון צלוי, roast tongue.

Explanation 8: Proverbs 31 says ותורת חסד על לשונה, the Torah of lovingkindness is on her tongue.

Menu item 9: ושלישים על כלו

Explanation 9: The menu says: אם שלש אלה לא יעשה לה. These are two verses from Torah: And officers (shalishim) over the whole, explained by another verse which explains the three (shalosh) obligations of a husband to his wife. But what does shalishim mean in a food context? Potatoes and two veg? A family joke? Some sort of sauce? From context, it’s something that goes with meat dishes…any ideas?

Tomorrow, the drinks courses.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.