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December 21, 2014 / 29 Kislev, 5775
 
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Rome’

Does Daniel Levin Know the Location of the Second Temple Menorah?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

The Last Ember

By Daniel Levin

Riverhead, 2009, $25.95

http://daniellevin.com/

 

 

There is no denying that Dan Brown has become one of the most successful contemporary writers on religious art. The Lost Symbol recently sold a million copies on its first day of release, and it would only take 81 such days to surpass total sales of The Da Vinci Code. Perhaps because of his success, many are less than impressed with Brown’s writings. “Usually we read the script, but in this case it wasn’t necessary,” a spokesman for the Roman archdiocese told The Telegraph (UK), explaining why a permit was denied for filming “Angels and Demons” at one of its churches. “Just the name Dan Brown was enough.”

 

Jewish responses to Brown’s books are harder to come by. David Klinghoffer has a great post on the blog Beliefnet titled “Dan Brown’s Jewish Connection,” and another key source is The Da Vinci Code: A Jewish Perspective by Rabbi Michael Skobac, education director of the Toronto branch of Jews for Judaism. “What is most puzzling is why this murder mystery/scavenger hunt with no real character development and a plot that’s little more than one long chase scene has become an international cultural phenomenon,” Skobac writes in the beginning of the pamphlet. The rest of the document continues to attack Brown, though critiquing a novel for its lack of historicity is about as absurd as insisting upon iambic pentameter in a science textbook.

 

 

Nicolas Poussin. “Sack of the Temple of Jerusalem” (1625-26)

 

 

Whatever one feels about Brown’s scholarship and his approach to Judaism, Daniel Levin’s new book The Last Ember, which is modeled on Brown’s bestselling techniques, is good for Jewish literature. Like The Da Vinci Code, Levin’s book can be accused of misinforming readers who aren’t clever enough to differentiate between history and fiction, but it also features a variety of historical facts, many of which are no doubt informed by Levin’s studies as a visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome.

 

Without spoiling the plot of the book, The Last Ember is about former classics student Jonathan Marcus – a lawyer-hero in the tradition of John Grisham – whose firm calls him to Rome to offer his expert opinion on an ancient artifact. Marcus reconnects with an old friend Dr. Emili Travia, a United Nations official, and the two find themselves involved in an international treasure hunt for the Menorah looted from the Second Temple by Vespasian and Titus. The novel has all of the thrills and dangers of the The Da Vinci Code but a distinctly Jewish flavor in the plot’s reliance on Josephus’ history of the destruction of Jerusalem.

 

An anonymous tip delivered in Rome’s Jewish quarter becomes an opportunity for Levin to explain that all the Catholic souvenir vendors in Saint Peter’s Square are Jewish due to a 16th century law from Paul IV. Levin also maintains that all the artifacts in the book are real – including the ancient mode of preserving corpses by embalming them in oils inside Corinthian columns – and that he often found that stories from the Talmudic tractate Gitten corroborate Roman texts.

 

Several other elements of the novel are true. Titus declared on his deathbed that he had committed only one mistake, after an unidentified prisoner escaped the Colosseum, a detail that Levin manipulates as part of one of the novel’s many conspiracies. A large part of the story rests on the question of the Menorah’s whereabouts. The famous depiction of the looted Temple artifacts on the Arch of Titus shows the Menorah being carted off with the Temple trumpets, but in Dan Brown’s line of inquiry one can ask where the Menorah is being taken, by whom, and whether it is even the real Menorah.

 

 

Arch of Titus. 81 CE.

 

Levin also tackles a large political issue, which he says is very real: the destruction of artifacts beneath the Temple Mount. “The novel’s theme of ‘archaeology is politics’ is more relevant than ever,” Levin said in an interview. “The destruction beneath the Temple Mount depicted in the book is based on fact. The Israeli antiquities authority really did find 20,000 tons of archaeologically-rich soil dumped into the valley of Kidron.”

 

Recently, the “top religious official in the Palestinian authority,” Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi denied Judeo-Christian history in Jerusalem and said any artifacts that prove biblical history have been forged, Levin added. “The Temple Mount is the Bermuda Triangle of international jurisdiction,” Levin says. “The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that all illegal excavation must stop, but access beneath the Mount is open only to members of the Waqf.”

 

To Levin, supervision is the problem. A 2007 congressional bill, “condemning the Waqf’s digging activities at the Temple Mount site and deploring the destruction of artifacts vitally important to Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths,” curbed funding to the Palestinian Authority unless the illegal excavations ceased. UNESCO may be able to oversee the site given its role as a world heritage site, Levin said.

 

 

Engraving from a catacomb before fourth century. Courtesy of Daniel Levin

 

 

So does Levin know where the Menorah is? If you read his book you will find a story that is a good deal more probable than Dan Brown’s, but one that is unlikely to help biblically minded treasure hunters. The treasure might be in bringing more attention to biblical history, though. As it becomes harder and harder to find people who aren’t familiar with Robert Langdon, the symbologist, it is important to recognize all the good things Brown has done for the field. And the same can be said about Levin.

 

Before reading The Last Ember, I hadn’t given much thought to where the ancient candelabrum might be, but once one starts thinking about the question, one finds oneself heading down a really interesting path that is as much about mystery and ancient history as it is about Jewish art. And unlike some other people who have attacked Brown’s books on the grounds that they are fiction rather than scholarship, I think both Brown and Levin ought to be applauded for teaching their readers about Jewish texts, artifacts, and history.

 

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, D.C.

Michelangelo And The Jews

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

A Review of the Book, The Sistine Secrets
By Benjamin Blech & Roy Doliner
2008, HarperCollins, New York

 

 

The Sistine Chapel in Rome is at the very heart of the Roman Catholic universe, the pope’s private chapel in the Vatican and, notably, is one of the most famous tourist sites in history. Millions of people visit each year to view the world’s largest fresco painting painted by Michelangelo in 1512 and, according to a new book by Rabbi Benjamin Blech and Roy Doliner, almost certainly all miss the hidden Judaic messages the artist embedded in ceiling above them.


In their book, The Sistine Secrets, Rabbi Blech, popular author and professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, and Roy Doliner, docent and guide to Rome and the Vatican Museums, make the radical claim that Michelangelo’s Sistine fresco contains many secrets and veiled messages “that preach reconciliation – reconciliation between reason and faith, between the Jewish Bible and the New Testament, and between Christian and Jew. While that claim is ultimately not convincingly proved, the journey of analysis of the complex images rewards the reader with many profound insights about the artwork and the complex nature of Michelangelo’s ideas.


The book is a fascinating and engaging, if at times infuriating, examination of one of the most famous and complex works of art in the world. Michelangelo painted the 12,000 square foot ceiling over the period of four years at the height of the Italian Renaissance. It depicts the narratives of the Creation and the Flood; the four salvations found in the stories of David and Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, Esther and Haman, and Moses and the Brazen Serpent; an odd collection of Jewish prophets and pagan sibyls; and a singular depiction of the Jewish people.


The book’s starting point is the surprising fact that there is not one Christian figure or image out of the hundreds of figures in the entire ceiling of the Papal chapel.  They assert that in defiance of the pope it was Michelangelo who, by sheer insistence, changed the original Christian design to an overwhelmingly Judaic subject. Traditional interpretations of the ceiling have emphasized that this choice of subjects simply presents the ancestors of Jesus and the theological antecedents to the triumph of Christianity.


Blech and Doliner dismiss this as a superficial misreading of the true (and forbidden) content of the ceiling which they assert is a complex presentation of Kabbalistic concepts that preach unity of opposites and refer to many aspects of the seferot. This argument posits that from Michelangelo’s youthful exposure to Neoplatonic ideas, esoteric philosophy, Torah, midrash and Kabbalah, he found himself forever at odds with mainstream Catholic theology; hence the need for “secrets and “hidden meanings embedded in his images.


Finally, they attempt to document the antagonism between Pope Julius II and the artist by pointing out a number of alleged visual insults directed at his patron.   Unfortunately, many of these assertions remain just that because of the flawed methodology of the book.


Perhaps the most grievous problem with The Sistine Secrets is that it’s fundamentally a popular and, therefore, superficial presentation of rather complex artistic, religious and cultural issues. The lack of an index, footnotes and primary and secondary sources makes many of their claims almost impossible to substantiate. Several of their arguments suffer from lack of sufficient quality reproductions. The introductory chapters and many other sections are rife with an endless banter about secrets, hidden messages and forbidden meanings that would have considerable more substance if original sources and documents had been quoted to illuminate the claims.

 

 


Zechariah (detail from Sistine Chapel), fresco (1512) by Michelangelo − Portrait of Pope Julius II, patron of Sistine Chapel

 

Additionally, sloppy writing and what appear to be simple mistakes of facts weaken the overall sense of trust the authors must engender with any intelligent reader. (Were artists really forbidden to sign their works even though we have numerous examples of signed works in the Renaissance?) In their popular “gee whiz writing style, the authors betray their over-investment in their interpretation of Michelangelo’s ideas.   It does not help that their final assertion that Michelangelo’s intention was to “construct a giant bridge of the spirit, spanning different faiths, cultures, eras and sexualities matches much too closely the contemporary “Pave the Way Foundation supported by Rabbi Blech, that is “dedicated to achieving peace by bridging the gap in tolerance and understanding, between religions through cultural, technological and intellectual exchanges.


What should have been an exploration of the significance of a work of art seems to have slipped into advocacy for a preconceived political and social program.  Nonetheless, there is much to glean from The Sistine Secrets.


The Sistine Chapel was designed to be an exact copy of the sanctuary of Solomon’s Temple, duplicating the dimensions found in I Kings 6:2 and even dividing the space into a larger Kodesh and smaller Kodesh Kodeshim with a marble partition grill echoing the curtain in the Heichel. This was part of a well-established Catholic theme of successionism − that the Church was the replacement of Judaism as the one true monotheistic faith. A series of frescos that circle the lower walls reflects this theme, depicting six scenes from the life of Moses opposite six scenes from the life of Jesus. 


Perhaps one of the most interesting facets of the book is the uniquely Judaic interpretations of some of Michelangelo’s works. The world famous Pieta in St. Peter’s is a prime example. The image of Mary holding the dead body of Jesus has one startling anomaly in that she has the face of a young woman. The authors interpret a parallelism of Mary, mother of Jesus, with Sarah, mother of Isaac and matriarch of the Jewish people.  And just as Rashi interprets “The life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and 7 years to mean that as an old lady Sarah nevertheless appeared as a 20-year-old, so too Michelangelo depicted the aged Mary as young. The concept that Isaac was a potential sacrifice and was the forerunner to Jesus as actual sacrifice strengthens this argument.   Positing Michelangelo’s knowledge of Jewish texts indeed opens up an intriguing reading of the Pieta.


Less convincing is their interpretation of the Creation of Eve on the Sistine ceiling. Again the authors posit that it was Michelangelo’s Jewish knowledge that led him to depict Eve emerging from Adam’s side, as the Torah text states, rather than from the more traditional Christian depiction of being created from Adam’s rib. Unfortunately almost the exact same image is found in a relief sculpture on the façade of the basilica in Bologna done 72 years earlier by Jacopo della Quercia, an artist who was an early influence of Michelangelo.


So too are the assertions that Michelangelo had special Talmudic knowledge that caused him to depict the serpent with arms and legs. We see exactly that depiction from a Hugo van der Goes 1470 painting of Adam and Eve. It is not an unusual phenomenon that there was considerable permeability between Jewish and Christian sources of textual interpretations. Michelangelo was hardly unique, and the inclusion of these did not necessitate secret or hidden Jewish messages.


In spite of a number of fallacious claims, the authors do present some other very intriguing observations. The interpretation of the triangular panels in the four corners (David and Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, Esther and Haman, and Moses and the Brazen Serpent) as referring to four exiles and four salvations of the Jewish people, if indeed intended by Michelangelo, would strongly point to a considerable amount of rabbinic knowledge.


Perhaps the most impressive argument Blech and Doliner make for Michelangelo’s uniquely Jewish message is found in the central ceiling panel of the Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden. On the left, Eve turns and accepts the forbidden fruit from the serpent as Adam reaches over her and plucks a piece of fruit for himself. This is, of course, totally contrary to the text and has almost certainly bewildered commentators for 500 years.


What we are actually seeing is the uniquely Jewish and midrashic interpretation that Adam was equally responsible for Eve’s sin. When Adam communicated G-d’s command to Eve, Adam actually added the injunction “nor shall you touch it. That was not what G-d said and, according to the Midrash, exactly that unwarranted addition allowed the serpent to fool Eve into thinking that there was no harm in tasting the fruit. It is more than likely that only the midrashic understanding of Adam’s culpability would prompt Michelangelo to depict Adam as literally eating the forbidden fruit quite on his own without prompting from Eve.


It is clear from both the success and failure of many aspects of The Sistine Secrets that Blech and Doliner have uncovered many complex Judaic meanings in this most famous work of art. What needs to be done is to put their substantive insights into a larger perspective that deals with the many contradictory messages the Sistine ceiling poses.  We shall explore some of these issues in my next review.


Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com.

Caravaggio And Evil

Wednesday, August 8th, 2007

      Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571-1610) was well acquainted with evil. His short violent life careened wildly between prestigious painting commissions from the most powerful men in Rome and drunken street brawls with the lowest of the low. Such behavior led to frequent encounters with the police, lawsuits, duels and finally murder. Exposed early in life to both the deep piety of his small hometown of Caravaggio and the violent tumultuous city life of nearby Milan, his view of life was a kind of brash cosmopolitanism laced with the passionate fervor of the Counter Reformation.

 

         Within a few years of his arrival in Rome, his starkly realistic depictions of contemporary scenes dramatically set in high contrasts of light and dark gained him immediate fame. As he matured, an uneasy synthesis of opposites emerged in some paintings, exhibiting a pictorial paradox that points the way to what one could call a modern sensibility of doubt, unease and disquiet. This is perhaps nowhere more evident than in two paintings created only six years apart and yet separated by one event that would cut his life tragically short. Judith and Holofernes (1599) and David with the Head of Goliath (1606) speak to us across the centuries about the unexpected consequences of eradicating evil from our midst. Additionally, the dialogue between the two paintings addresses the multifaceted nature of evil itself.

 

         Judith is a Jewish book, originally written in Hebrew but only familiar to many now, in Greek versions that date from the Second Temple period. The narrative relates how Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria, intent on ruling the entire world, sends his general Holofernes to conquer Israel. Holofernes besieges the strategic town of Bethulia that blocks his advance on Jerusalem.

 

 


Judith and Holofernes (1599), oil on canvas (56″ X 76″) by Caravaggio


Palazzo Barberini, Rome

 

 

         Once water and food run out the town leaders were desperate, ready to open the gates to the murderous hordes. The beautiful and virtuous widow, Judith steps forward with a plan. After convincing the elders to allow her to approach the enemy camp, she prays to G-d for success in overcoming the general Holofernes, just as G-d had granted success to her ancestor Simon when he avenged the rape of Dinah.

 

         As she enters the camp, her beauty beguiles all who see her and she is immediately ushered into a lavish banquet with Holofernes. He is impressed with her beauty, wit and piety (she insists on eating only the kosher food she brought for herself). In anticipation of seducing her, he consumes much wine and retires in a drunken stupor. She enters his bedchamber alone, takes his sword and prays again; “Strengthen me this day, O G-d of Israel! Then with all her might she struck him twice in the neck and cut off his head” (Judith 13:6-9). Her maidservant enters and collects his head. Once out of the camp, the decapitated head is displayed for all to see and the invading army flees in terror. Jerusalem, the Temple and the Jewish People have been saved by the courage of Judith.

 

         The Book of Judith is not found in the Jewish canon (possibly because of the prominent use of a sword by a woman, a violation of the prohibition seen in Deuteronomy 22:5 that prohibits “kli gever, man’s equipment” for women). Nonetheless, it is seen in numerous Jewish contexts. The story is illustrated in the Rothschild Miscellany (1450-80) and The Prague Haggadah, printed in 1526, shows Judith posed with her sword and the head of Holofernes on the page illuminating the verse “Pour out your wrath upon the nations” She stands opposite Samson who similarly defended the Jewish people from the attacks of their enemies.

 

         This motif appears atop numerous 18th century menorahs (her connection with Judah Maccabee is obvious), especially on the beautiful silver Boller Menorah (1706-1732) found in the Jewish Museum. The story is extensively illustrated in Christian art as a motif of “virtue overcoming evil.” The artists include; Donatello, Mantegna, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Giorgione, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Correggio, and notably Michelangelo’s pairing of Judith and Holofernes opposite David and Goliath on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

 

 


“Pour out your wrath on the Nations”, (1526) Prague Haggadah


Jewish Theological Seminary of America

 

 

        Caravaggio’s depiction is startling for both its violence and complexity. In this one painting the artist presents three points of view concerning of the eradication of evil: the victim, the old hag and the young heroine. The handsome Holofernes, suddenly awakened, is shocked in his own death. In mid-scream, he grasps the bed sheets that were agents in his own destruction, a river of blood spurting from his neck separated from his head. Anxiously observing the assassination, the old maidservant eagerly awaits the prize. She represents a mature woman well acquainted with male barbarism, lust and violence. In her angry eyes this is an act of judgment, if not vengeance. It is she who will fittingly receive his severed head.

 

         Judith’s ambiguity is disarming. The strength of her arms holding his hair and slicing with the sword signify exactly how determined and sure she is. Yet she pulls back, her brow furrowed in consternation. She is recoiled by the reality of a life coming to an end. Her youth, grace and beauty all bespeak the feminine role to give life, and to fulfill and create. Nonetheless, to save her people, she must deny her essence; she must annihilate him and destroy the threat of his army. Bravely, she grasps his head as she would a piece of meat to slice for dinner.

 

         Unlike most religious paintings of the Counter Reformation, this Caravaggio is not triumphant and self-assured. It recognizes that even when one must decide to confront evil and obliterate it, the act of violence necessarily affects us. With Judith, after this heroic act she is no longer simply the young lovely widow. Thrust into history, her youthful innocence is tarnished.

 

         David and Goliath, painted six years later, elevates his examination of evil to an intensely personal level. In May 1606, Caravaggio was involved in a brawl that escalated into a swordfight in which Ranuccio Tomassoni was killed. Caravaggio fled Rome and eventually reached Naples, where he spent a year. Early in this period he allegedly painted this work to be sent to the papal court in a plea to annul his sentence, as a kind of pictorial confession of his remorse.

 

 


David with the Head of Goliath (1606), oil on canvas (48″ X 39″) by Caravaggio


Galleria Borghese, Rome

 

 

         In this work, David is but a young lad forced to confront the wicked Goliath who taunts him, saying; “Am I a dog that you come after me with sticks? And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. come to me, so I may offer your flesh to the fowl of the heavens and to the beast of the field!” He was determined to further disgrace Israel and so David was forced to defend his people and their honor, and indeed he triumphed. Goliath was slain by a well-aimed slingshot. David decapitated him and thereby terrified the Philistine army into a chaotic defeat (Samuel I 17:41-54).

 

         But again Caravaggio’s David is no poster boy hero. With sad eyes and furrowed brow, he sorrowfully gazes at the head of the stricken Goliath, practically asking him, why did you force me to slay youwhy did you challenge G-d’s people? The sharp angle of the sword parallels David’s outstretched arm holding Goliath’s expressive head, creating the graphic metaphor that David could not have truly contemplated the personality of Goliath without first killing him. The meaning of this gesture deepens once we become aware that the face of Goliath is a self-portrait of the 35-year-old Caravaggio, weary, worn and defeated.

 

         The enormous empathy one feels for both David and Goliath allows us to see Caravaggio pondering his own image, mourning how the evil that seems so deeply ingrained must be eradicated.

 

         The parallels between the two paintings are startling. Each involve decapitation, each slayer grasps the hair of the victim, each utilizes the sword and arms as parallel agents of destruction, each involves a hesitant executioner, each knocks the evil protagonist out with either wine or a stone, and finally, each painting gives us insight into the emotions of the “victim.” Indeed, in each painting one might say that the protagonist is also trapped in the role of victim.

 

         But there are important differences. Judith is young and innocent of death, forced to eradicate an animal force that would consume her before destroying her people. Caravaggio’s David is different. For him, the conflict seems more of a personal struggle within the artist himself, a failure to control that which corrodes and slays the soul. Judith had to kill an illicit passion whereas David put to the sword his own hubris. These paintings contrast the evil within and the evil without.

 

         There are some who say that the painting of David and Goliath foretells Caravaggio’s own demise. In the four years left of his life Caravaggio continuously implored his influential friends to obtain a papal pardon from the death sentence he incurred. He fled to the island of Malta and then Sicily and finally, goes back to Naples. In each location he painted a handful of portraits and many masterpieces of religious art. His output was strong and confident, yet he felt he had to plead his case in person and remove the shadow that hung over his life. A pardon seemed imminent, and so he set out to return to Rome. He never made it. He died mysteriously, perhaps of malaria, perhaps murdered. His body was never found; at 39, the evil of violence finally consumed him.

 

         But he left a brilliant record in these two paintings of his confrontation with the evil that still stalks our world and still haunts our souls.

 

         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com 

The Arch of Titus: Am Yisroel Chai

Wednesday, July 25th, 2007

         I walked slowly away from the Coliseum in Rome. Completed in 80 C.E. by the Emperor Titus it was used for almost 500 years for countless gladiatorial games and bloody spectacles. Some speculate that it was initially financed from the booty taken from the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70. A murderous monument to Roman civilization, indeed.

 

         Turning my back on its horrors, I entered the Via Sacra, the well-worn street that leads to the Roman Forum and its triumphal entry, the Arch of Titus. The infamous arch towers over the ruins of the Forum and echoes the larger Arch of Septimius Severus at the opposite end. As I approached the 50-foot high monument on a late Friday afternoon in July it was swarming with tourists gawking, snapping pictures and resting in its shade, preparing for their next adventure. Few seemed to grasp the gravity of this site.

 

         The Arch of Titus was built in 81 C.E. by the Emperor Domitian, the brother of Titus, to commemorate the victory over the Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It marks the utter military defeat of the Jews in the face of paganism and what easily could be seen as the beginning of the creation of the Christian world. More importantly, it memorializes the severance between Jews and G-d that lasts to this day. The Diaspora from our Land and our Avodah still gnaws at the Jewish soul.

 

 


Arch of Titus, view from Roman Forum

 

 

         On the inside of the arch looking toward the Forum are two surviving marble reliefs that face one another. On the right, Titus is seen triumphantly entering Rome while the left parades the spoils from the Temple. The silver trumpets, the Show Bread Table and finally, the Golden Menorah, are clearly displayed. I sat down and covered my eyes in sorrow at our punishment. Seeing the Arch of Titus and its relief sculptures I was a direct witness to G-d’s wrath.

 

         Trying to contain my grief, I realized that this ancient work of art needed to be seen in its historical context, just like all works of art. My immediate personal reaction was only the first step to uncovering its larger meaning. What struck me immediately was the extremely prominent place that the Arch of Titus occupied. For hundreds of years as Romans approached the Forum, the heart of their far flung Empire’s administrative, social and religious life, they would see the Latin inscription that crowns the arch just as we see it today: “The Senate and The People of Rome [dedicate this to] The Divine Titus Vespasianus Augustus, [son of] Divine Vespasian.”

 

 


Coliseum, Rome

 

 

         The proud acknowledgement by the Roman people and Senate of Titus’s achievement in subduing the stiff-necked Jews is especially impressive when we consider how many other worthy foes the Romans had conquered. Before subduing the Jews, the Romans had conquered Macedonia, Greece, Carthage, Spain, Central and Southern Italy, Sicily, Gaul, Germany and Britain. And yet, it was this conquest that first greeted the Roman elite. As an expression of this, the arch is adorned with multiple figures of the Roman goddess Victory, proclaiming triumph. On the façade facing the Coliseum and the façade facing the Forum two spandrels (triangular shapes above the archway) boast two giant winged beings bearing trophies of celebration.

 

         The elaborately decorated soffit (underside) of the arch shows a central panel depicting the Apotheosis of Titus, his image carried aloft to heaven by an eagle. It was common in this era for the Roman Senate to deify their emperors once they died (hence ‘Divine Titus’). This visually crowns the two relief panels on the inside of the arch. In both relief panels the figures are moving in the same direction, toward the Roman Forum, dramatically reenacting the triumphal procession that actually occurred when Titus returned from defeating Jerusalem and Masada in the year 72 C.E.

 

 


Arch of Titus, detail

 

 

         Facing the Forum, the right side shows Titus standing in a quadriga (4-horse chariot) that is led by the goddess Roma. Just behind him, a winged Victory crowns the general with a laurel wreath while alongside the chariot he is accompanied by a youth, representing the Roman people and an old man representing the venerable Senate. The four horses impatiently stride forward, their passion in sharp contrast to the calm dignity of the marching soldiers and lictors carrying ceremonial fascia of royal office. The conquering Titus seems impenetrable and undefeatable. In fact, Titus died at the age of 40, a mere 11 years after he defiled the holy Temple. The Gemara in Gittin 56b famously relates how G-d tortured Titus with a tiny gnat that knocked around in his brain for seven painful years until he died. Not surprisingly, no trace of his real future is to be found in the proud marble depiction of triumph.

 

         Opposite the triumphant Titus is the relief of the spoils taken from the Temple. The men carrying the Golden Menorah have hoisted it up on long poles. They have pillows on their shoulders and laurel wreaths on their heads as they stride forward. There seems to be 12 men carrying the Menorah and another eight carrying the Show Bread Table. In front of the Table two silver trumpets are also carried. It is notable that many more individuals are shown in this procession than in the triumphal entry of Titus. We see behind the figures, four placards held aloft that proclaim the victories, conquered cities and peoples of Titus.

 

 



Menorah, Show Bread Table; Marble Relief


 

 

         This procession is much more animated than the staid Titus opposite, and it marches purposefully to enter into a carved arch at the extreme right. This depiction of the Porta Triumphalis uncovers the deeply religious nature of the triumphal procession. The passage through the Porta Triumphalis was meant to purify the returning soldiers of the bloodguilt incurred in battle. Additionally, the presence of the victorious general passing through this gate was thought to bring a blessing upon the Roman capital itself. The victory march would then make a ritual procession to a series of sacrifices and dedications of the spoils. The entire ceremony would culminate in the Roman Forum at the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maxiums, offering additional spoils, sacrificing “white oxen to Jupiter, laying a laurel branch and wreaths in the lap of the god’s statue.” The triumphant general and the Senate would then share in a sacred feast. What we are seeing in this relief is not just a victory parade; it is an aspect of pagan worship using the sacred objects from the holy Temple.

 

         The tragic aspect of the Arch of Titus did not cease with the collapse of the Roman Empire in the end of the fifth century. In 1555 Pope Paul IV ghettoized the Roman Jews and forced them to swear an “oath of submission to the Pope” under the still standing Arch of Titus. This arch carries the full weight of G-d’s anger at His people and the cruelty of His agents.

 

         And yet, as I looked around the arch on that July afternoon, I realized that this sordid history was not the whole story. The Arch of Titus, now presiding over what is left of the Roman Forum, is a complete and utter ruin. Uncovered and restored in the 19th century out of archeological curiosity and, more recently touted to foster tourism, for 1,500 years both the arch and the Roman Forum were abandoned; the Forum at best put to use as a cow pasture and quarry, the arch incorporated as part of medieval fortifications.

 

 


Triumph of Titus; Marble Relief

 

 

         The Jews meanwhile had set about reconstituting themselves, forging an authentic Jewish life without a Temple, somehow surviving without its degree of holiness. We were wildly successful as we codified the Mishnah and Gemara, codes of Law built upon generations of pious practice and rebuilding of countless communities. Our journey since Titus has been arduous to be sure, filled with tragedy as well as triumph, but we cannot deny that we live in a blessed generation – yeshivas filled to overflowing, Jewish communities blossoming around the world and our nation repossessing our Land. As we look at the Golden Menorah on the Arch of Titus we can rise above the sorrow that we feel and know that this same image adorns the seal of the sovereign and proud State of Israel.

 

         Years ago, when I first visited the Arch of Titus, I remember seeing graffiti scribbled in chalk under the relief- Am Yisroel Chai. That is how I still understand what this ancient monument means.

 

         References to Roman religion and triumphal celebrations are from “The Origins of Roman Historical Commemoration in the Visual Arts” by Peter J. Holliday (California State University, Long Beach) Cambridge University Press, 2002.

 

         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com 

The Jewish King Of Poland

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2007

      Saul Wahl’s story is one of the most intriguing of all the legendary stories concerning Polish Jewry. It is said that he occupied the throne of Poland for a single day, August 18, 1587. During his brief time serving as Polish royalty, he supposedly enacted numerous laws protecting the Jewish population of Poland.        

    

      Those who study genealogy say that he was the ancestor to many illustrious Jews, including many great rabbis of the Halberstam line from Sacz, Rokeach of Belz, the Ropshitzer dynasty and the Katzenellenbogen line, among others. The secular Jewish world – including Martin Buber and Helena Rubinstein – can also trace their family roots to this interesting personage.

 

      The story of Saul Wahl begins with the visit of a troubled prince to Rome. Lithuanian Prince Nicholas Radziwill, surnamed the Black, desired to do penance for the many atrocities he had committed while a young man. Thus he undertook a pilgrimage to Rome in order to consult the pope as to how best he could have his sins forgiven. The pope advised him to dismiss all his servants and to live for a few years as a wandering beggar.

 

      Following his year of wandering, Radziwill found himself destitute in the city of Padua, Italy. His appeals for help were not heeded, and his story of being a prince was received with scorn and ridicule. He finally decided to appeal to Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen, the rabbi of Padua. The latter received him with marked respect by treating him with much kindness. The rabbi furnished him with ample means for returning to his native country in a manner befitting his high rank.

 

      When it was time to depart, the prince asked the rabbi how he could repay him for his kindness. The rabbi gave him a picture of his son Saul (who years before had left for Poland) and asked the prince to try and find the boy in one of the many yeshivas of that country. The prince did not forget the request.

 


 

      Upon his return to Poland, the prince visited every yeshiva in the land, until finally he discovered Saul in Brest-Litovsk. He was so captivated by the brilliance and depth of Saul’s intellect that he took him to his own castle, provided for all his wants, and supplied him with all possible means for continued study. The noblemen who visited Radziwill’s court marveled at the wisdom and learning of the young Jew. As a result, the fame of Saul spread throughout Poland.

 

      When King Stefan Batory died in 1586, the Polish people divided into two factions, the Zamoyskis and the Zborowskis. There were quite a number of candidates for the throne, but the contending parties could not agree on a successor. Polish law stipulated that the throne not remain vacant for any length of time and that if the electors could not agree on a candidate, an outsider should be appointed “rex pro tempore” (temporary king).

 

      This honor was offered to Radziwill. But he refused, saying he knew a man who belonged to neither party and who, in wisdom and goodness, was far superior to any one else he knew. That man possessed only one very slight shortcoming; but if his election was unanimously approved, he (Radziwill) would identify him. Accordingly, Saul’s name was solemnly proposed, and amid great enthusiasm (and shouts of “Long live King Saul”) Wahl was elected to this high office. (The name “Wahl” was given to him from the German word wahl, meaningelection.)

 

      There is a disagreement as to the length of his reign. Some say that he ruled for only one night, while others say his rule lasted for a few days. All, however, agree that Saul succeeded in passing a number of very wise laws, among them some tending to alleviate the condition of Poland’s Jewish populace. Although this story is not supported by any historical data, it gained the belief of the people.

 

      Noted genealogist Dr. Neil Rosenstein has written an interesting book (with sources and genealogy charts) on this subject. The book, Saul Wahl: Polish King For A Night Or Lithuanian Knight For A Lifetime, is published by The Computer Center For Jewish Genealogy. The ISBN is 0-9610578-8-2.

Title: A Passover in Rome

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2005

Title: A Passover in Rome
Author: Henry Welch and Rose Kryger
Publisher: Vantage Press, New York, NY

 

At Rose Kryger’s funeral, her son Meir, now a physician in Winnipeg, was surprised to learn from the rabbi’s funeral oration that his mother had some bottled up secrets and had yearned to be a writer. After the week of shiva, he discovered a spiral-bound notebook and some audio cassettes in a drawer.

A text of over 200 pages, written in Yiddish, was the only valuable heirloom that Rose Kryger bequeathed, and hers is a story of an indomitable survivor of the Second World War, and her narrow escape from persecution. Neither she nor her nuclear family ever fell in the hands of Nazis, nor were they interred in concentration camps.

This is a story of survival that simply had to be told, complete with pathos and even a bit of humor.

Henry Welch, Rose Kryger’s nephew Zvi, and the co-narrator of this book, relates the story of a Polish-Jewish couple who were hidden by their local Catholic parish priest, disguised as servants. After the war, they were so grateful to him for saving them from the Holocaust that they offered to convert and become Catholics. Their decision having been made – they were baptized and lived for years as Catholics until one day, some Jews who had survived returned and renewed their Jewish community.

The husband and the wife grew nostalgic as they saw Jews shopping for fish on Fridays and preparing for Shabbos and attending services in the local shul. They admitted to themselves that there was something missing in their lives, so they too decided to prepare and enjoy a real Shabbos meal, with gefilte fish, chopped chicken livers, and roast goose – the works!

Then their priest came by and discovered them eating meat on a Friday, the man wearing a kippah with a wine glass in hand making Kiddush. The Shabbos candles were lit and the table was set with a big, crispy roast goose. He barged in, bewildered and confused and said: “You can’t eat goose on a Friday.”

The Jew put his fingers in a glass of water and sprinkled a few drops at the goose and said: “goose, goose – you are no more goose – you are now a fish.”

Rose apparently began her manuscript as a result of a family gathering at a Passover celebration in Rome in 1984. After the discovery of her “work in progress,” her nephew Zvi added his own story in between hers and the combination fleshes out a truly fascinating story.

There are many thousands of stories about this era, told and re-told by the survivors and their families, but few cast a happy ending as this one does, or are as spell-binding and entertaining.

Is This Something To Parade About?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2003
Dear Rebbetzin Jungreis:

I am writing to you from Jerusalem. My family and I made aliyah 15 years ago. One of the reasons why we took this step was because we wanted our children to be raised and nurtured in the holy air of Jerusalem, in a Torah atmosphere, and above all, to share in the incredible return of our people to the land.

Much has changed during this period. Today, in our beautiful holy city, we live in constant fear. Every day, I send my children off to school with the prayer that HaShem watch them and grant them a safe return. I worry, each and every moment, for the life of my husband, who has no choice but to go to work every day by bus. With it all, however, I don’t for a single moment regret our decision to make aliyah, and I thank G-d every day for having granted us the privilege of living here – this, despite the fact that my sister was the victim of a terrorist attack which left her handicapped and with constant headaches. But she, too, will tell you that she would never consider leaving Jerusalem. Life has not been easy, but we love it here, and as much as we live with fear, we have faith that HaShem will protect us.

I am writing to you, at this time, in reference to a story which appeared in the 10/05/03 issue of The Jerusalem Post, which disturbed me no end. I am referring to the impending International Gay Festival and World Parade, with its hundred of thousands of revelers, that is scheduled to be held in Jerusalem two years hence. That such a parade could be planned for
Jerusalem is a colossal desecration of HaShem’s Holy Name, and it is outrageous that not one of our elected officials has seen fit to speak up. The newspapers reported that when questioned, the spokesperson for Mayor Lupolianski (who is our city’s first Haredi mayor) stated that “this is a police matter and not a municipal decision”. The Jerusalem police
spokeswoman also skirted the issue, saying that ” the police only provide the security permits for such events and that it is way too early to even discuss the planned parade. The last such international parade, which took place in Rome in the year 2000, saw about half a million participants, so you can imagine the Chilul HaShem that something like this could entail.
I cannot believe that such a desecration of G-d’s Name, would be even considered for our holy city. As menacing as the constant threats from the Arabs are, the possibility of a gay parade is even more frightening. Surely the mayor realizes that according to our Torah, homosexuality is one of those sinful abominations which can lead to disgorging the inhabitants from the land” (Leviticus 18). How then can he remain silent?

Whoever I have tried to discuss this subject with has told me that we residents of Jerusalem have enough on our plates right now and shouldn’t waste time worrying about things that may or may not happen two years down the road.

While this argument is not without merit, I am also a firm believer in preventive medicine. A battle waged at the 11th hour, when the event is imminent, can become very ugly and fierce. The time to act is now, before things get out of control. Since no one here seems to be alarmed, I thought that I would write to you. If you would comment on this subject, your
readers would be inspired to write to the mayor and to the various elected officials of the Municipality of Jerusalem, as well as to the elected officials of the Knesset, it might just make an impact and avert disaster.

My dear friend:

I am in full accord – there is nothing like preventive medicine, and while two years is a long
period of time - especially nowadays when there is so much volatility in the world and you never know what will happen from one moment to another - we nevertheless have an obligation to raise our voices in protest. The very possibility of such a desecration taking place in Jerusalem if left unchallenged, places a blight on all of us.

To be sure, in our 21st century liberal climate, to speak out against such an event would, in many circles be regarded as politically incorrect. Many who have raised their voices have been vilified, and accused of bigotry and archaism. Our Torah laws however, are not subject to majority consensus or that which is in vogue. “Like the doings of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, you shall not do; like the doings of the land of Canaan, wither I bring you, you
shall not do. Neither shall you walk in their statutes…” - meaning that we are not to emulate the lifestyles of the nations among whom we live. It’s one thing when such aberational behavior is celebrated in Rome, New York, or Paris, but it’s something else again when the holy city of Jerusalem becomes the setting.

Even if the entire world regards homosexuality as a viable life option, we Jews live by a different code of rules. Our standards of morality emanate from our Torah, and not from that which is in vogue. Phrases such as “meaningful relationships”, “moral relativism”, “majority consensus” or “consensual relationships between adults” cannot suspend our laws. The Word of G-d stands eternally and calls upon man to temper his passions and live in sanctity.

There is nothing new about our society’s endorsement of homosexuality. Such endorsements were prevalent throughout history. It was rampant among the generation which preceded the flood. It was the accepted way of life in Sodom (hence the word “sodomy”); it was rife among the Canaanite pagans as well as in many ancient civilizations including Rome and Greece, but throughout, we clung to our Torah even when we were mocked and persecuted for doing so.

In time, much of our Torah’s moral code became the guiding light of Western civilization and served as a moral compass to distinguish between right and wrong. Thus, if an individual deviated from that code, he was aware that he was in violation of G-d’s commandments and there was hope that, one day, he would summon the spiritual stamina to return.

All this altered in the 60s when laws regulating moral conduct collapsed and everything became permissible. This “new morality” was accepted by all segments of society and became so all-pervasive that people feared voicing their protests. To free themselves from feelings of guilt, they enlisted clergy to endorse that which G-d forbade. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Jerusalem represents such an attractive venue for organizers of a gay parade. But
even as no amount of blessing can render pork kosher, so too, no matter how many gay people gather in Jerusalem, Torah Laws cannot be altered. It is we who must bend our will to that of our Creator and not the reverse, and even if we regard G-d’s Laws as repressive, we must nevertheless learn to master our impulses.

We live in a chaotic, morally turbulent world – each and every one of us is in need of G-d’s compassion and forgiveness – and that is how we must relate to one another if we are to resolve this issue and invoke G-d’s mercy. But it is one thing when an individual succumbs to the weakness of his flesh and something else again when he pronounces G-d’s commandments
obsolete and publically celebrates and parades his transgressions in G-d’s holy city of Jerusalem.

May I suggest that we all unite in preparing for the real celebration - the real parade, and that is that long awaited day when we will behold the fulfillment of the prophecy: “Out of Zion shall go forth the Torah and the Word of G-d from Jerusalem.” That will be a parade worthy of G-d’s Holy City and G-d’s Holy flock.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/rebbetzins-viewpointrebbetzin-jungreis/is-this-something-to-parade-about/2003/12/03/

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