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December 18, 2014 / 26 Kislev, 5775
 
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Posts Tagged ‘Jacob’

Was Jacob Really An Ish Tam?

Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

What kind of man was Jacob? This is the question that cries out to us in episode after episode of his life.

The first time we hear a description of him he is called ish tam – a simple, quiet, plain, straightforward man. But that is exactly what he seems not to be.

We see him taking Esau’s birthright in exchange for a bowl of soup. We see him taking Esau’s blessing, in borrowed clothes, taking advantage of their father’s blindness.

These are troubling episodes. We can read them midrashically. The Midrash makes Jacob all-good and Esau all-bad. It rereads the biblical text to make it consistent with the highest standards of the moral life. There is much to be said for this approach.

Alternatively we could say that in these cases the end justifies the means. In the case of the birthright, Jacob might have been testing Esau to see it he really cared about it. Since he gave it away so readily, Jacob might be right in concluding that it should go to one who valued it.

In the case of the blessing, Jacob was obeying his mother, who had received a Divine oracle, saying that, “the older shall serve the younger.”

Yet the text remains disturbing. Isaac says to Esau, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.” Esau says, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob [supplanter]? He has supplanted me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he’s taken my blessing!” Such accusations are not leveled against any other biblical hero.

Nor does the story end there. In this week’s parshah a similar deceit is practiced on him. After his wedding night, he discovers that he has married Leah, not, as he thought, his beloved Rachel. He complains to Laban.

“What is this you have done to me? Was it not for Rachel that I served you? Why then have you deceived me?” (Genesis 29:25)

Laban replies: “It is not done in our place to give the younger before the firstborn” (Genesis 29:26).

It’s hard not to see this as precise measure-for-measure retribution. The younger Jacob pretended to be the older Esau. Now the elder Leah has been disguised as the younger Rachel. A fundamental principle of biblical morality is at work here: As you do, so shall you be done to.

Yet the web of deception continues. After Rachel has given birth to Joseph, Jacob wants to return home. He has been with Laban long enough. Laban urges him to stay and tells him to name his price.

Jacob then embarks on an extraordinary course of action. He tells Laban he wants no wages at all. Let Laban remove every spotted or streaked lamb from the flock, and every streaked or spotted goat. Jacob will then keep, as his hire, any newborn spotted or streaked animals.

It is an offer that speaks simultaneously to Laban’s greed and his ignorance. He seems to be getting Jacob’s labor for almost nothing. He is demanding no wages. And the chance of unspotted animals giving birth to spotted offspring seems remote.

Jacob knows better. In charge of the flocks, he goes through an elaborate procedure involving peeled branches of poplar, almond and plane trees, which he places with their drinking water. The result is that they do in fact produce streaked and spotted offspring.

How this happened has intrigued not only the commentators – who mostly assume that it was a miracle, G-d’s way of assuring Jacob’s welfare ­– but also scientists. Some argue that Jacob must have had an understanding of genetics. Two unspotted sheep can produce spotted offspring. Jacob had doubtless noticed this in his many years of tending Laban’s flocks.

Joshua Backon has suggested that prenatal nutrition can have an epigenetic effect – that is, it can cause a certain gene to be expressed that might not have been otherwise. Had the peeled branches of poplar, almond and plane trees been added to the water the sheep drank, they might have affected the Agouti gene that determines the color of fur in sheep and mice.

However it happened, the result was dramatic. Jacob became rich: “In this way the man grew exceedingly prosperous and came to own large flocks, and maidservants and menservants, and camels and donkeys” (Genesis 30:43).

Inevitably, Laban and his sons felt cheated. Jacob sensed their displeasure, and – having taken counsel with his wives and being advised to leave by G-d himself – departs while Laban is away sheep-shearing. Laban eventually discovers that Jacob has left, and pursues him for seven days, catching up with him in the mountains of Gilead.

The text is fraught with accusation and counteraccusation. Laban and Jacob both feel cheated. They both believe that the flocks and herds are rightfully theirs. They both regard themselves as the victim of the other’s deceitfulness. The end result is that Jacob finds himself forced to run away from Laban as he was earlier forced to run away from Esau, in both cases in fear of his life.

An Honorable Failure

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

Even before they were born, Jacob and Esau struggled in the womb. They were destined, it seems, to be eternal adversaries. Not only were they different in character and appearance, they also held different places in their parents’ affections: “The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was a quiet man, staying among the tents. Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebecca loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:27-28).

We know why Rebecca loved Jacob. Before the twins were born, the pains Rebecca felt were so great that “she went to inquire of the Lord.” This is what she was told: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23).

It seemed as if G-d were saying that the younger would prevail and carry forward the burden of history, so it was the younger, Jacob, whom she loved.

But why, in that case, did Isaac love Esau? Did he not know about Rebecca’s oracle? Had she not told him about it? Besides, did he not know that Esau was wild and impetuous? Can we really take literally the proposition that Isaac loved Esau because “he had a taste for wild game,” as if his affections were determined by his stomach, by the fact that his elder son brought him food he loved? Surely not, when the very future of the covenant was at stake.

The classic answer, given by Rashi, listens closely to the literal text. Esau, says the Torah, “knew how to trap [yodeia tzayid].” Isaac loved him “because entrapment was in his mouth [ki tzayid befiv].” Esau, says Rashi, trapped Isaac by his mouth. Here is Rashi’s comment on the phrase “knew how to trap”: “He knew how to trap and deceive his father with his mouth. He would ask him, “Father, how should one tithe salt and straw?” Consequently his father believed him to be strict in observing the commands” (Rashi to 25:27).

Esau knew full well that salt and straw do not require tithes, but he asked so as to give the impression that he was strictly religious. And here it is Rashi’s comment on the phrase that Isaac loved him “because entrapment was in his mouth”: “The midrashic explanation is that there was entrapment in the mouth of Esau, who trapped his father and deceived him by his words” (Rashi to 25: 28).

The Maggid of Dubnow adds a perceptive comment as to why Isaac, but not Rebecca, was deceived. Rebecca grew up with the wily Laban. She knew deception when she saw it. Isaac, by contrast, had grown up with Abraham and Sarah. He only knew total honesty and was thus easily deceived. (Bertrand Russell once commented on the philosopher G. E. Moore, that he only once heard Moore tell a lie, when he asked Moore if he had ever told a lie, and Moore replied, “Yes”).

So the classic answer is that Isaac loved Esau because he simply did not know who or what Esau was. But there is another possible answer: that Isaac loved Esau precisely because he did know what Esau was.

In the early 20th century someone brought to the great Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, the following dilemma: He had given his son a good Jewish education. He had always kept the commands at home. Now, however, the son had drifted far from Judaism. He no longer kept the commandments. He did not even identify as a Jew. What should the father do?

Shapiro’s Midrash

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Paintings from Midrash by Brian Shapir0

Chassidic Art Institute

November 6 – December 8

375 Kingston Avenue, Brooklyn (718) 774-9149

Noon – 7pm; Sunday – Thursday

 

The midrashic world is a dangerous place to inhabit.  It delves into our sacred texts to fathom their deeper meanings, solve vexing textual and conceptual problems and, finally, make sense of the holy words in contemporary terms.  Midrash is passionate and deeply creative, like the current midrashic paintings of Brian Shapiro.

Sea of Reeds (2010), oil on canvas, 12x12 by Brian Shapiro.

Shapiro is no stranger to Jewish themes; his enormous canvas, Generations, a tour-de-force of Jewish history, was reviewed in this column in August 2010.  Since then, the artist has become increasingly mesmerized by biblical subjects seen through a midrashic lens.  The lure of midrashic interpretation satisfies the need to know the details and specifics of many biblical narratives, i.e. the precise textures of how and why events unfolded in the devastatingly spare Torah text.  For a figurative artist like Shapiro, the multitude of midrashic exposition is a reassuring link with a tangible reality to anchor the text in this world.

Jacob and the Angel purports to depict the epic struggle between Jacob and a mysterious being who is either an emissary of God or the protecting angel of Jacob’s dangerous brother, Esav.  Based on a midrash in Beraishes Rabbah the artist shows the angel holding Jacob’s hand over a roaring fire.  While the midrash expounds that the angel stuck his hand into the earth and a volcano of flames erupted threatening Jacob, the painting doesn’t simply illustrate that event.  Rather, if we observe closely, both figures are indeed struggling not only between themselves, but are significantly repulsed by some unseen force off the left edge of the painting.  In fact, both angel and Jacob are aghast at what they perceive.  Indeed it is the mutual recognition that this primeval sibling struggle will reverberate throughout the millennia.   It seals the fate of soon to be named Yisrael and the nation who will descend from him with a terrible and bloody future.

The theme of sibling rivalry and conflict is of course central to many Biblical narratives, most especially that of Joseph and his brothers.  Shapiro’s Joseph and Brothersis terrifyingly on target.  The brothers, all turbaned except one, appear to be engaged in what in contemporary Israel would be called a “lynch.”   Most of the eleven have staffs that are used to threaten, push and drive the helpless half-naked Joseph off the edge of a precipice.   What is extraordinary is the ferocious compact energy of brotherly hatred revealed in bright daytime clarity.   A lone bareheaded brother is at the extreme left, looking away in concern as he holds Joseph’s many-colored cloak.  In this one bald figure is all the cunning and unacknowledged guilt of fratricide.  This figure represents none other than Reuven who pleaded with the rest not to murder Joseph and yet finally fashioned the vicious lie to his father with Joseph’s bloodied coat.  Here the artist has, by thinking midrashically, actually summoned the literal biblical text most evocatively.

Moses and the Rock (2010), oil on canvas, 24x30 by Brian Shapiro.

While much ancient midrash traditionally has the textual authority of the oral tradition transmitted by the Sages, it also must be seen in the dual contexts of the original textual “problem” and actual date the collections were finally redacted.  Nonetheless, regardless of date, all Torah commentary remains a vibrant source of contemporary understanding of sacred text.  Even a contemporary artist, passionate about the complexities of Torah narrative, can offer unique insights into the stories our tradition celebrates.   Sea of Reeds is an example of Shapiro’s contribution to midrashic exposition.  Significantly, in this exhibition the artist has explicitly offered his midrashic sources and explanations for each of the paintings.

Bilhah Abigail Franks: Early American Jewish Matriarch

Wednesday, October 5th, 2011
(Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from “Early American Jewry, The Jews of New York, New England and Canada, 1649-1794″ by Jacob Rader Marcus, The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1951.)
In general, little is known about Jewish women who resided in America during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Two exceptions are Rebecca Machado Phillips[i] and Rebecca Gratz[ii]. Another is Bilhah Abigail (Levy) Franks.
Abigail was born on November 26, 1696 to Moses (Raphael) and Richea (Rycha) Levy. Levy was born in Germany in 1665 and moved to London when he was a young man. There he had some success as a merchant, but felt there were more opportunities in the New World, so he decided to come to America, arriving in New York City in about 1705. Moses Levy became a substantial merchant in New York and owned a number of ships that transported goods between America and Europe. He was an active member of Congregation Shearith Israel and served for several years as parnas (president) of the synagogue. 
“When he [Moses Levy] emigrated to this country there came with him a man younger than he, but who was destined to play an important part in the affairs of the congregation as well as the city of his adoption. This was Jacob, the son of Naphtali Franks, who was born in Germany in the year 1688, and went from there to London to seek his fortune. He also thought that the New World would offer to him an enlarged field, and while his tastes were literary rather than mercantile, like many others before and since, he realized perhaps that the road to wealth was more rapid through the avenues of commerce than through the efforts of the pen.”[iii]
Jacob Franks had an intellectual bent, was learned in Jewish law, spoke a number of languages, and was called “rabbi” by members of Congregation Shearith Israel. In 1712, at the age of 25, he married Abigail Levy, who was then 16 years old. Jacob became a prosperous New York businessman.
“The Frankses had nine children, born between 1715 and 1742. [Two died before the age of seven.] The family was active in New York’s Jewish life – they belonged to congregation Shearith Israel, where Jacob Franks was one of four men to lay the cornerstone of the new Mill Street synagogue in 1729 and where he served as syndic [president] in 1730 – and they were active in broader Christian society, among whose women Franks counted her best friends. Franks reveled in the openness of New York society, rejoicing in the ‘Faire Charecter’ the family enjoyed among both Christians and Jews.”[iv]
“Jacob and Abigail’s oldest child was Naphtali, which Jewish tradition, based on Gen. 49: 2 I, takes to mean ‘stag’ or ‘hart,’ and hart in German is Hirsch. Like other German-Jewish families, the Frankses called their son Hirsch or Hart; Abigail called him ‘Heartsey.’ Sometime before 1737 Naphtali ‘Heartsey’ Franks was sent to London, where he was thoroughly prepared for the business world by the numerous brothers of his father. Young Franks left home probably in his teens; as far as we know, he never returned to the colonies. Ultimately he became a rich and powerful figure in the London Jewish community. Abigail kept in constant touch with her firstborn through letters.”
“Thirty-seven letters of the Franks family are known to survive, dating from May 7, 1733, to October 30, 1748. All are addressed to Naphtali Franks in England. Thirty-four are from Abigail, one is from Jacob, and two are written by his brother David. They discuss local politics, family and community activities, and aspects of the Franks family’s trans-Atlantic business. But Abigail Franks’s letters are most significant as an early American Jewish woman’s extended thoughts on the fit and fate of Judaism in colonial New York.”[v] 
It is from these letters that we know the following about Abigail:
“Abigail Levy Franks was never called upon to play a heroic role. She was the daughter of a substantial merchant, married to a prosperous businessman who daily grew in prestige and who, apparently, never experienced any serious financial reverses. She was born in an England, which now gave its Jews every opportunity to rise, at least in the economic world. A child of the British world with its budding tolerance and of the English colonial lands with their ever-expanding liberties, she faced the future. Her tongue was English, her script the roman, and she knew and quoted Dryden, Montesquieu, and Pope. She devoured the newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets of the day, read books, and enjoined upon her sons the duty of reading and studying every day while they were still young and the leisure was theirs. She saw that they were taught the painting and the music and the good manners that were expected of the children of the wealthy who moved in the magic circle of the titled and the politically powerful.
“Her children were her life, and if, unlike many women in the ghettos of continental Europe, she did not have to labor for them, she loved them no particle less. She lived and worried for her children with all the intensity of the traditional Jewish mother. Though apparently untutored in Hebraic and Yiddish sources, she was no less intensely Jewish.”
“Unflinchingly loyal to her faith, she [Abigail] was ready to sacrifice herself by sending her beloved children across the sea, to distant England, to a large Jewish community, rather than expose them to intermarriage with Gentiles yet her closest friends were Christians and she was a welcome guest in their homes. She wrote of herself as a ‘patriot’; this land was ‘our country,’ but she could never reconcile herself to intermarriage; she was determined to live and die a Jewess.”
However, it was not possible to send all of their children to England, and in 1742 their oldest daughter Phila eloped with Oliver DeLancey, who was from a prominent Christian family.  
The flight of their daughter and the disclosure that she had been secretly married for six months shocked Jacob Franks and his wife Abigail; they were observant, Orthodox Jews, and objected strenuously to intermarriage.”
In a letter to “Heartsey” dated June 27, 1743 Abigail wrote (the spelling is hers):
My spirits was for some time soe depresst that it was a pain to me to speak or see any one.I have over come it soe far as not to make my concern soe conspicuous but I shall never have that serenity nor peace within I have soe happyly had hittherto.My house has bin my prison ever since.I had not heart enough to goe near the street door. It’s a pain to me to think off goeing again to town and if your father’s buissness would permit him to live out of it I never would goe near it again.I wish it was in my power to leave this part of the world;I would come away in the first man of war that went to London.”
“This was not the last hurt she would feel. [In 1743] son David married Margaret Evans, a Christian daughter of one of Abigail’s close friends. Her younger children seem never to have married at all. Of Jacob and Abigail Franks’s more than two dozen grandchildren, not one of them appears to have passed on Judaism to his or her descendants.”[vi]

             We know that what happened to the descendents of the Frankses was, sadly, not an isolated event in American Jewish history.



[i]See “Rebecca (Machado) Phillips: Colonial Jewish Matriarch,” The Jewish Press, April 7, 2006 (http://www.jewishpress.com/pageroute.do/17894).

 

[ii]See “Rebecca Gratz: Champion Of The Unfortunate,” The Jewish Press, December 1, 2006 (http://www.jewishpress.com/pageroute.do/20057).

 

[iii] The Levy and Seixas  Families of Newport and New Yorkby N Taylor Phillips,  Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society (1893-1961); 1896; 4, AJHS Journal.

 

[v]Ibid.

 

[vi]Ibid.

 

 Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Caring For Bubbie – A Privilege

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis:

My mother lives with me and needs a great deal of attention, as do my four children. It seems as if everyone is pulling at me at once, and I don’t know in which direction to turn first. All this stress has definitely affected my mental and physical health. I suffer from backaches and stomach trouble and lack the patience necessary to be a good wife and mother.

My husband feels the best solution might be to place my mother in a retirement home, but I find the prospect very painful. I don’t think I could live with myself if I did that.

My friends tell me I am a fool and should learn to think of myself rather than allow others to take advantage of me. There are times I am tempted to follow their advice and run off someplace by myself and forget everything.

My Dear Friend:

Many of us, when confronted by difficulties, daydream of flying to some distant land where we can forget all our problems. However, reality dictates there is no escape – for no matter how high or far the plane flies, eventually it must land with the same cargo that was loaded aboard. Therefore, rather than indulging in fantasy, let us try to resolve your problem in a constructive manner.

The greatest joy one can experience comes from being part of a loving family. But as with all gifts, this happiness comes at a price. For example, if you love someone and that person is hurting, you will feel his or her pain, and if you are unable to alleviate the suffering, your anguish will be even more intense. Therefore, I understand your agony over your mother’s infirmity and her inability to care for herself, but I cannot see why you should feel a conflict between caring for her and your children.

To honor and revere your mother is not your responsibility alone, but must be shared by your husband and children as well – and children are never too young to learn that responsibility. To revere, love and care for Bubbie is their privilege and should never be regarded as a burden. Not only should you enlist their aid in being attentive to your mother’s needs, you should make them understand how blessed they are to have a Bubbie living with them. It is a zechus, a great merit, to ease the pain of a grandparent, to divert her with a story or a song and to bring a smile to her face.

One of the outstanding women in Jewish history was Serach, the daughter of Asher. She lived for many centuries, and in the days of King David was renowned as Isha Chachama – the Wise Woman. Why was she granted this awesome honor? What was unique about her? Why was she so special?

She would comfort her Zeyda, the patriarch Jacob, by singing to him and offering words of consolation and hope. “Od Yosef chai” — “Joseph still lives” – she would sing again and again after Jacob was shown Joseph’s bloody coat. It was for having performed this great mitzvah of honoring and comforting her grandfather that she was granted her incredible longevity and wisdom.

Not every family has the merit of caring for elderly grandparents, so instead of resenting the mitzvah, teach your children to embrace it with love.

Long after your mother is called by G-d, your children will remember those special years when Grandma was part of their lives, and that is a treasure no one will ever be able to take from them. The best way to train children is through example. If you wish your children to feel the joy of the presence of their grandmother, then you and your husband will have to show them the way. Through your attitude you will have to demonstrate that to care for your mother is a privilege you wouldn’t barter for anything in the world.

Once you make your children active participants in this family responsibility, their resentment will disappear. Instead of feeling put upon, they will feel honored and want to give of themselves, and through that giving they will become better people. And one day, when old age catches up with you and your husband, your children will remember the love you showered on their Bubbie and, with G-d’s help, will impart the same to you.

As far as your friends are concerned, don’t let their opinions bother you. They are just parroting the meaningless words in vogue nowadays: “Think of your own happiness; don’t let anyone take advantage of you.” Can honoring one’s parents be regarded as being taken advantage of? What happiness can you have if your mother is hurting? Do your friends imagine you are a machine without a conscience who can simply block your mother out of your heart and mind?

Now, I do not minimize the sacrifice that is demanded of you, but we are a nation that has lived by these sacrifices – parents living for their children, and children, in turn, living for their parents. That’s what life is all about. Giving. The bottom line remains: if you inspire your family to join you in honoring Bubbie, that which at first glance seemed to cause a conflict will act as a catalyst to unite your household.

I can assure you that Bubbie will forever be enshrined in the hearts of your children as a legacy of love.

As City Bungles Snow Cleanup, Communal Organizations Fill Void

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

The city that never sleeps was brought to a virtual standstill this week as a blizzard dumped nearly two feet of snow on the New York metropolitan area – and countless miles of streets remained unplowed and all but impassable several days after the flakes stopped falling.

 

Irate New Yorkers did not take kindly to the slow pace of the city’s cleanup efforts and inundated their local officials with phone calls demanding to know when their streets would finally be cleared.

 

Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind called for the resignation of New York City Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, saying “this lack of response is nothing less than criminal.”

 

Hikind said he was appalled to discover that the funeral of a friend’s mother had to be postponed – despite the Jewish tradition of burying the deceased as soon as possible – because of the dismal street conditions.

 

City Councilman David Greenfield blasted Mayor Michael Bloomberg for clearing the streets in Manhattan while ignoring the city’s outer boroughs. Greenfield described himself as astonished to discover that twelve snow plows were sitting, unused, in the Boro Park sanitation garage on 19th Avenue, because the Department of Sanitation did not have enough employees available to drive them due to personnel cuts made by the mayor.

 

“Why in the world does the city buy trucks and not hire people to drive them? That’s insane,” said Greenfield.

 

Councilman Eric Ulrich, who was instrumental in helping Bloomberg receive the backing of the Republican Party in Queens, criticized the mayor for suggesting New Yorkers use their snow days to take in a Broadway show.

 

“I think people are starting to question his leadership ability,” said Ulrich.

 

As New Yorkers attempted to dig out their cars and waited for streets to be plowed, volunteer communal organizations were struggling to keep up with weather-related challenges.

 

Hatzolah, the volunteer ambulance corps, was inundated with double the number of calls usually received.

 

Severe snowstorms always create additional medical emergencies, particularly among the elderly. But with difficult road conditions persisting in and around New York City, Hatzolah members found themselves transporting women in labor and individuals undergoing chemotherapy, dialysis and other medical treatments that cannot be postponed.

 

Additionally, Hatzolah was busy covering a backlog of some 1,300 calls that could not be accommodated by the city’s 911 emergency response system.

 

Navigating the unplowed streets in neighborhoods such as Brooklyn, Queens and Far Rockaway proved especially difficult, with Hatzolah members forced to park their vehicles on main streets and walk to their destinations. Often, five, six or more members responded to a call in order to carry a patient back to their vehicle, often parked quite some distance away.

 

“Even if we could get the ambulance down the street,” said Hatzolah executive board member Heshy Jacob, “there is no clear access from the sidewalk to the street to load the patient into the ambulance. You would literally have to load the patient over a tremendous wall of snow into the ambulance. We still have to walk the patients to our vehicle which is often quite a distance away.”

 

Despite the difficulties involved, Jacob stressed that Hatzolah was still handling all its calls not only in a timely fashion but with the dedication the Jewish community has come to expect.

 

“We received a call at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday night in the middle of the blizzard from someone whose father was having chest pains and decided to drive himself to the hospital but had to pull over because he wasn’t feeling well,” said Jacob. “The son only knew that his father was parked somewhere on Allen Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We sent two ambulances out to search for him, checking every non-moving car we saw on Allen Street that had its lights on until we found him and got him to the hospital. To 911 this would have been just another call, but to us it was a person, someone’s father, and we made it our business to go out and find him.”

 

Members of Hatzolah were going beyond the call of duty in dealing with the large volume of calls coming in.

 

“We have had members working 24/7,” said Flatbush coordinator Moishe Wulliger. “We have guys who are up all night long taking call after call after call. It is rough but our members are really coming through and really giving it their all.”

 

With city streets virtually impassable, Hatzolah broke with tradition and allowed members who own four-wheel drive vehicles to use their own cars to transport patients.

 

Upstate New York received just a few inches of snow, so Catskills Hatzolah sent its four-wheel drive ambulance down to the city. A Boro Park resident who owns a Hummer left the car with Hatzolah. “You can have it for the week, just don’t crash it,” he said.

 

In an effort to deal with the multitude of calls, Hatzolah turned to organizations such as Shomrim and Shmira as well as people who own four-wheel drive vehicles, asking their assistance in transporting people in non-medical situations.

 

Mayor Bloomberg, for his part, asked New Yorkers to be patient and defended his actions at a Tuesday press conference saying “we are doing the best we can.”

The Portuguese-Jewish Cemetery In Ouderkerk aan de Amstel

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

Beth Haim, the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel

Kerkstraat 10, 1191 JB Ouderkerk aan de Amstel

http://www.bethhaim.nl/

 

 

There is something profound and soothing in the ancient Jewish practice of using the euphemism beit chaim, “house of life,” to refer to a cemetery. It is as if the rabbis did not even want to coin the phrase beit mavet, “house of death,” for fear of inviting the evil eye.

 

Walking on a cold and rainy day through the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk, about five-and-a-half miles south of Amsterdam, it was impossible not to appreciate the euphemism on a completely different level. Somehow, the cemetery Beit Haim, which dates back to 1614, is still very much alive.

 

 

 

Most of the 6,000 marble memorials in the oldest part of the cemetery (the full cemetery contains more than 27,500 tombs) have sunk into the ground. Walking through the cemetery and later over tea in a house on the burial grounds, Dennis Moshe Ouderdorp, caretaker of the cemetery, and Jewish tour guide Vera Querido agreed that the 17th century Sephardic Jews who introduced the marble stones must have known they would sink. Perhaps the transience of the heavy stones embedded into the unstable ground even appealed to them, Querido suggested.

 

            What is clear is that the cemetery is home to an impressive group of Dutch Jews, from Menasseh Ben Israel, a diplomat who petitioned Oliver Cromwell to permit Jews to return to England and who was a close friend of Rembrandt’s, to Baruch Spinoza’s parents (Spinoza himself is buried in a church in the Hague) to Eliahu Montalto, French queen Maria de Medici’s doctor.

 

 

 

 

It is common knowledge that several artists, most famously Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682), painted the Jewish cemetery at Ouderkerk. Two pieces by Ruisdael, which are partially imaginative (ruins of a castle in the background are completely manufactured), even include Montalto’s tombstone.  In an interview about five years ago, Ruisdael scholar Seymour Slive, Gleason professor of fine arts emeritus at Harvard University, called Ruisdael’s imagination one of his strengths, adding that his “genius is that he is not an ape of nature.”

 

Slive, who claimed that Ruisdael did not paint the cemetery for Jewish patrons (both Ouderdorp and Querido agreed with that assessment), called the painting an allusion to the “transience of all life, and the ultimate futility of humankind’s endeavors.”

 

Despite puddles of water obscuring the faces of the tombstones, it was easy to see transience everywhere. Several stones contained skeletons (one full skeleton swings a sickle) and hourglasses, often with wings – all symbols borrowed from non-Jewish artistic traditions and adapted to Jewish memorials. The double tombstone of Rebecca Ximenes (died 5453 or 5454) and her daughter Esther features similar iconography.

 

 

 

 

            Rebecca’s stone shows her namesake, the biblical Rebecca drawing water for Eliezer’s camels (Genesis 24), while the stone for Esther, who died a mere 27 days after her mother, shows a pair of arms emerging from the clouds using an axe to chop down a tree. The symbol suggests that just like the tree, Esther’s life has been cut short. Two putti weep at the bottom of Rebecca’s stone; a winged hourglass resting on a skull and cross bones appears at the top of Esther’s stone.

 

Biblical figures and episodes appear in several other stones. A double stone for Mordechai Franco Mendes (died 5448/1687) and his wife Sara Abendana (died 5456/1696) contains four biblical narratives: the binding of Isaac, David playing the harp, Jacob’s dream and Abraham forging a peace treaty with Abimelech’s general Phicol.

 

Four crying putti figure into the double stone of Rachel (died 5455/1695) and Hana Vega (died 5461/1701). Rachel’s stone contains an illustration of the meeting of the biblical Jacob and Rachel, as Rachel tends her father Laban’s sheep. Hana’s stone includes a depiction of the biblical Chana, mother of the prophet Samuel.

 

 

 

 

King David playing his harp appears prominently atop a stone for David Da Rocha (died 5469/1708), and an inscription identifies the deceased as not only someone who shared the biblical king’s given name, but also a fellow musician. The gravestone of Moses de Mordechai Senior (died 5490/1730) might be the most ambitious in its depiction of 11 biblical scenes: Moses with the Ten Commandments, Haman leading Mordechai, David playing the harp, Abraham looking heavenward, Jacob’s dream, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, Judah and Benjamin.

 

Despite all the biblical characters, it was hard not to compare many of the tombstone illustrations with a work displayed at Museum het Rembrandthuis, Rembrandt’s house-turned-museum. Jan Ewoutsz’s 1537 woodblock print, “Allegory of Human Transience,” shows a skeleton with his hand on a man’s shoulder. The man holds an hourglass in one hand, and his other arm is wrapped around a very muscular looking baby. The skeleton points to an inscription: “Nascendo Morimur,” “As we are born, we die.”

 

With minimal rearrangement and massaging, Ewoutsz’s work could look exactly like the tombstones of the cemetery at Ouderkerk some 100 years later. On the one hand, this means that there is nothing unique in the artistic program of the tombstones. Like the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, there are even nudes depicted on the stones, which suggests an open-minded approach to the sacred burial process.

 

But it would also be a mistake to focus exclusively on the derivative nature of the stones. Whether or not their designs and motifs were innovative, the Portuguese Jews of 17th century Holland saw importance in decorating their tombstones lavishly. It should not surprise us that such a burial ground attracted the attention of artists like Ruisdael and Romeyn de Hooghe. And if Querido is right that the use of imported marble might have been some kind of postmodern (or pre-postmodern) attempt to arrange for even the stones themselves to decay and sink into the water, that would be a very interesting artistic approach to their burial program indeed.

 

 

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

 

 

I am indebted to L.A. Vega’s Het Beth Haim van Ouderkerk: The Beth Haim of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, which provided much of the background on the cemetery. This article is the first in a series on Jewish Amsterdam and The Hague, which is based on a trip sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/arts/the-portuguese-jewish-cemetery-in-ouderkerk-aan-de-amstel/2010/12/08/

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