A Visit to the Jewish Museum of Paris

A highlight of our trip to France was the Museum of Art and History of Judaism (Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme) in Paris.

It’s well laid out and can be enjoyed by Jewish and non-Jewish visitors alike. I’m still traveling, so there’s no time for a long post, but I wanted to share 19 photos that I hope will make readers want to visit this wonderful museum.

Let’s start with Purim items, and begin with one of the older pieces in the museum:

A Purim charity collection box from pre-Expulsion Spain: it dates from 1319.

 

A Purim noisemaker from late-19th-century France, depicting Haman leading Mordecai through the streets of Shushan.

 

One of the many Megillat Esther scrolls on display.

 

A colorful, hand-decorated Megillah.

 

Rooms are organized thematically. Behind the Purim area sits this Chanukah room.

 

Chanukah menorah, 18th-century Poland.

 

A Jewish wedding, circa 1780, attributed to the Italian artist Marco Marcuola.

 

Chumash (Pentateuch), mid-1650s, Amsterdam. Note the decorative touches on the edge of the pages.

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Eighteen Sephardic/Ladino proverbs

Book cover - Collection of Sephardic proverbs.

In 1889, Rabbi Meyer Kayserling published a short book of “Spanish Sayings or Proverbs of the Sephardic Jews.” It contained Ladino versions of Spanish sayings that Sephardim continued to use for centuries after the expulsion. Some of the old maxims had fallen out of use in Spain but survived in the Jewish world, while others are still popular sayings in Spain. It also includes a short section of specifically Jewish proverbs.

Two years ago I translated excerpts of this, quoted in Ángel Pulido’s 1904 book Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language. Here are eighteen of the quoted sayings. The Ladino spellings are Rabbi Kayserling’s. English translations ©2016, 2018 by Steven Capsuto.



He who sells the sun must buy candles.

Quien vende el sol, merca la candela.

A broken pot lasts longer than a whole one.
Mas tura un tiesto roto que uno sano.

If your enemy is an ant, make him a camel when you tell the story.
Si tu enemigo es una urmiga, contalo como un gamello.

If you love a rose, you must ignore the thorns.
Quien quere á la rosa, non mire al espino.

A person who has a quilt but won’t use it deserves no pity.
Quien tiene colcha y no se cobija, no es de agedear.

Better a donkey that carries me than a horse that throws me.
Mas vale un asno que me lleva, que un caballo que me echa.

It is better to fall in a raging river than into gossiping mouths.
Mas vale caer en un rio furiente, que en la boca de la gente.

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Jews of Fez, Morocco: The Burton Holmes photographs (1894)

In 1890s Morocco, Jews in Fez were concentrated in the city’s crowded walled ghetto, the Mellah. (Click photos to enlarge.)

Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is Burton Holmes (1870–1958), the noted American traveler, lecturer and photographer who coined the term “travelogue.”

His first published travelogue includes about 20 photos of the Jewish ghetto in Fez from his 1894 trip to Morocco. By modern standards, his narration often lacks cultural sensitivity, and I do wish he had chosen a broader range of subjects. Even so, the pictures are worth a look. Here are some of them, along with bits of his narrative. 


From the book Burton Holmes Travelogues
with Illustrations from Photographs by the Author
, vol. 1
(1919 edition)

The next day we devote to the Jewish quarter, a distinct and separate city, called the “Mellah.”

The “Mellah” or “ghetto” of Fez.

We approach it through the Hebrews’ burial ground, a place of whited sepulchers, dwellings for the dead, and dingy huts, temporary abodes for living men and women; for there are two populations in the Jewish cemetery, a fixed population of the wealthy dead, a passing population of the living poor. You must remember that in these Moorish cities the Jews are still compelled to dwell apart [from Muslims]… Their houses are confined in the restricted Mellah, where no provision was originally made for an increase of population. Therefore the poorer and the weaker Jews have been squeezed out of its gates and have found refuge here in the city of the dead, where they have built crude huts and begin life anew…

The right to build these shelters in the cemetery was granted by the Sultan to the poor, when the overcrowding of the Mellah proper became a menace to public health…

The Jewish cemetery, a “place of whited sepulchers…”

 

“…and dingy huts.”

 

Poor neighbors of the wealthy dead.

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A chapter from “Scenes of Jewish Life in Alsace: Village Tales from 19th-Century France”

Below is the first chapter of Auguste Widal’s charming 1860 book Scenes of Jewish Life in Alsace, from a newly published English translation.

Widal grew up in Yiddish-speaking village communities in 1830s France, and his stories evoke a rural Jewish world that was vanishing quickly. The tales first appeared in the French Jewish magazine Archives Israélites starting in 1849. Under the pen name Daniel Stauben, he later revised and expanded them for a mainstream French magazine and for this book.

This new translation restores the Yiddishisms and Jewish wording that Widal deleted when reworking the stories for a general audience. The edition also adds illustrations by Alphonse Lévy, a 19th-century Alsatian Jewish artist whose drawings and etchings mesh perfectly with these tales.


CHAPTER ONE

IT WAS NOVEMBER OF 1856. An invitation from an old friend brought me back to Alsace, to scenes of village life I had known first as a small boy and which I now witnessed again years later with great emotion. As it happened, this short first trip gave me a chance to observe not only the curious characters who populate rural Jewish society in Alsace, but also some striking religious rituals: Friday’s and Saturday’s Sabbath observances, followed by a wedding and later a funeral. These episodes all happened in the order presented here. Imagination played no part in the many events I shall narrate.

The village of Bollwiller, with its large Jewish population, lies a short distance from Mulhouse. Bollwiller is home to Papa Salomon, a handsome old man of seventy whose face exudes wit and warmth. Papa Salomon was to be my host, so I set out from Mulhouse to Bollwiller one Friday afternoon late enough to avoid reaching the village before around four o’clock. Arriving earlier would have disrupted their preparations for Shabbes—the Sabbath. On Fridays, women and girls in Jewish villages do double duty: the Laws of Moses forbid handling fire on the Sabbath, and so besides supper they must also prepare meals for the next day. As I still recalled, Friday mornings and afternoons are hard work, but the evening is one of those rare moments of rest when a Jewish community fully displays its true spirit. For these good folk, when the last rays of the Friday sun fade, so do all the worries, all the sorrows and all the troubles of the week. People say that the Danyes Vage (Wagon of Worries) travels through the hamlets each night, leaving the next day’s allotment of grief on poor humanity’s doorstep. But they also say that this wagon, a painful symbol of country life, halts on Fridays at the edge of each village and will not rattle into motion again until the next evening. Friday is everyone’s night of joy and ease. This is when the unhappy peddlers that you see all week with a staff in their hand and a bundle of merchandise—their whole fortune!—bending their back as they trudge up hills and down valleys, living on water and brown bread… On this evening, without fail, those peddlers will have their barches (white bread), their wine, their beef and fish. In summer, they will lounge in the doorway of their home in shirtsleeves and slippers, and in winter, they will sit behind a nice hot stove in a jacket and a cotton cap. On a Sabbath Eve, yesterday’s deprived peddler would not change places with a king.

Shabbes in the village.

I arrived in Bollwiller just at the Shabbes Shueh: the Sabbath Hour. That is what we call the hour before people go to synagogue. It is when girls touch up their grooming, a bit disarrayed by the day’s extra chores. It is also when fathers, fully dressed except for their frock coat, await the signal calling everyone to prayer. They use this free time to light the wicks of the seven-spouted lamp that all Jewish families have in Alsatian villages, made expressly for them as a fairly faithful replica of the famous ancient seven-branched lampstand. As I walked down the main street, I saw such lamps being lit in several homes. Suddenly, I heard the periodic banging of a hammer at different distances: three knocks on a shutter here, three knocks on a carriage gate there, struck by the shuleklopfer in ceremonial dress. This signal was as effective as the liveliest pealing of the loudest bell. Groups of men and women left at once for services in their Shabbes best, a garb specific to our Jewish villagers: The men wear loose black trousers that nearly cover their big oiled boots, a huge but very short blue frock coat with oversized lapels and a massive collar, a hat that is narrow at the base and widens towards the top, and a shirt of coarse but white fabric. The shirt bears two collars so tremendous that they block the face entirely, and so starched that these fine people must turn their body to look left or right. The women wear a dark gown, a large red shawl adorned with green palm leaves, and a tulle cap laden with red ribbons. A band of velvet takes the place of their hair, which has been carefully concealed since their wedding day. This finery is completed by a beautiful tefilleh (prayer book) printed in Rodelheim and bound magnificently in green morocco leather, which every pious woman Continue reading

A Jewish child’s first impressions of America (1894)

Mary Antin in 1915

Mary Antin in 1915

Mary Antin’s memoir The Promised Land deals with her life as a child and young adult in America after immigrating from Belarus in the 1890s. Her father had come to Boston a few years earlier, and was finally able to send for his wife and four children in 1894.

In this excerpt, Antin describes her first days in America. As a 12-year-old just off the ship, she saw their poor neighborhood very differently than native Bostonians viewed it:


Anybody who knows Boston knows that the West and North Ends are the wrong ends of that city. They form the tenement district, or, in the newer phrase, the slums of Boston. Anybody who is acquainted with the slums of any American metropolis knows that that is the quarter where poor immigrants foregather, to live, for the most part, as unkempt, half-washed, toiling, unaspiring foreigners; pitiful in the eyes of social missionaries, the despair of boards of health, the hope of ward politicians, the touchstone of American democracy…

He may know all this and yet not guess how Wall Street, in the West End, appears in the eyes of a little immigrant from Polotzk. What would the sophisticated sight-seer say about Union Place, off Wall Street, where my new home waited for me? He would say that it is no place at all, but a short box of an alley. Two rows of three-story tenements are its sides, a stingy strip of sky is its lid, a littered pavement is the floor, and a narrow mouth its exit.

But I saw a very different picture on my introduction to Union Place. I saw two imposing rows of brick buildings, loftier than any dwelling I had ever lived in. Brick was even on the ground for me to tread on, instead of common earth or boards. Many friendly windows stood open, filled with uncovered heads of women and children. I thought the people were interested in us, which was very neighborly. I looked up to the topmost row of windows, and my eyes were filled with the May blue of an American sky!…

Union Place (Boston) where my new home waited for me

The three small rooms into which my father now ushered us, up one flight of stairs, contained only the necessary beds, with lean mattresses; a few wooden chairs; a table or two; a mysterious iron structure, which later turned out to be a stove; a couple of unornamental kerosene lamps; and a scanty array of cooking-utensils and crockery. And yet we were all impressed with our new home and its furniture. It was not only because we had just passed through our seven lean years, cooking in earthen vessels, eating black bread on holidays and wearing cotton; it was chiefly because these wooden chairs and tin pans were  Continue reading

Bucharest’s lost Sephardic world: A letter and photos (1904)

Lazar Ascher, president of Bucharest’s Sephardic Kehilla, president of the Bucharest Sephardic Jewish Primary Schools Society, early 1900s.


Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is Lazar (Lazaro) Ascher, a board member of several Sephardic organizations in Bucharest, Romania, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He was a brother of Moscu Ascher, the noted Jewish philanthropist and educational reformer.

In this letter, Lazar writes about Bucharest’s “Spanish Jews” (Sephardim). The synagogue he describes is the Great Spanish Temple, also called Kahal Kadosh Gadol and Kahal Grande. That beautiful building, seen in photos below, stood at 10 Nedru Voda Street from the 1810s until the Iron Guard pogrom of 1941, just months before the Holocaust began.

You can find the complete 1904 letter and other correspondence from Sephardim of that era in Ángel Pulido’s book Sephardic Jews and the Spanish Language.


EXCERPTS FROM A LETTER TO
SENATOR ÁNGEL PULIDO, MADRID

[Translation from Spanish
© 2016 by Steven Capsuto]

Bucharest, February 16, 1904.

I was… overjoyed to learn that you are writing articles about the Spanish Jews, and that you want me to send photographs of our Synagogue and School. I’m glad to say I acted quickly and had photos taken of two parts of the Synagogue’s Moorish-style interior and of the facade. I also had pictures taken of our Jewish Community Schools for boys and for girls. I hope these are of use…

Great Spanish Temple of Bucharest, 1904.

The Synagogue, built in 1817 and rebuilt in 1852, has 350 seats for men downstairs and 150 for women up in the gallery. The left and right galleries have entrances separate from the lower-level entry.

Great Spanish Temple, Bucharest, looking toward the bimah, 1904.

Great Spanish Temple, looking toward the organ, 1904.

Our Community has had its Boys’ School since 1730. The school did not originally have its own space, but in 1817 four rooms were built for it on the grounds of the synagogue, and in 1894 the current building was erected. It is overseen by a five-man Committee. The Institute bears the name “School for Sons of the Spanish Israelite Community”…

The Spanish-Jewish Primary School for Boys. It was previously known simply as the Talmud Torah, which is what the sign over the door says. By 1904, this and the girls’ school were prestigious private elementary schools whose students attended free of charge, thanks to  funding from the Halfon family foundation.

Our Community has had its Girls’ School since Continue reading

Three Yiddish theaters in New York City and their immigrant audiences (1906)

Exterior of the Grand Theatre

New York’s first purpose-built Yiddish theater, the Grand, opened in 1903 and was bought by actor–producer Jacob Adler in 1904. While the People’s Theatre nearby was staging popular fare, Adler’s Grand Theatre often presented literary plays ranging from Shakespeare to the modern realist dramas of Jacob Gordin. [Photo from the book Jewish Immigrants in Early 1900s America: A Visitor’s Account.]


Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is a reporter for the Washington, D.C. Evening Star who wrote a feature in 1906 about foreign-language theaters in New York. In the excerpts below, the anonymous writer describes the plays and ambiance at three well-known Yiddish theaters of that era: the People’s, the Kalich (formerly the Windsor), and the Grand.

Except as noted, the photos and captions are not from the original article. Future posts about Yiddish theater will look at sources that are more specifically Jewish, but this colorful “mainstream” article, with its you-are-there feel, seemed like a good starting point.

It is conceivable the writer might be exaggerating slightly. (Did almost every production at the Grand really end after midnight?) But most of the information matches what I have read in Jewish materials, right down to the prompters at certain theaters who would read the whole script aloud during performances to remind the actors of their lines.


QUEER PLAYHOUSES
in New York That Are Patronized by Aliens

PLAYS IN FOREIGN TONGUES

Nightly Delight of Audiences of Different Nationalities

LEADING JEWISH THEATER
Where Dramas by Suderman
and Hauptman are Given Long
Before they Appear on Broadway

(Evening Star, March 10, 1906)

 

[The People’s:]

…In the very heart of the Bowery stands the People’s Theater, large and pretentious, with signs in Yiddish which proclaim that a melodrama is going on within. The place is always crowded, and there is no fashionable lateness about its audiences. They scramble in as soon as the doors are open. Stout matrons with children at their heels, pretty, dark-eyed Jewesses, long-bearded patriarchs, vegetable venders, ol’ clothes men—they are all there, they and their families. It is a good-natured, animated crowd. As the theater fills there is a hum, then a buzz, and presently the gallery begins shouting and stamping its impatience.

Two photos of Bessie Thomashefsky

Bessie Thomashefsky—half of the famous Yiddish theatrical couple of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky—was beloved for her performances in musicals and comedies at the People’s Theatre. Here she plays the title roles in Dos Grine Vaybl, oder Der Yidisher Yenki-Dudl (The Greenhorn Wife, or The Jewish Yankee Doodle) and Der Griner Bokher (The Greenhorn Boy), both from 1905. [Photos and caption from the Jewish Immigrants book.]


The melodramas offered are like our own thrillers of the “Two Little Vagrants” order, but the scenery and costumes are Continue reading

Purim in 1907 Tunisia: Charity, revelry and Haman’s funeral in the Hara

The Hara (Jewish quarter) of Tunis in 1886.


There are perhaps 1,500 Jews in Tunisia in 2017. Within living memory, though, the country had a Jewish population of more than a hundred thousand.

From the 13th to 20th century, in the capital city, Tunis, the Jewish quarter was a poor neighborhood called the Hara. It was home to an intense, often insular Jewish community that spoke Judeo-Arabic.

This 1907 article suggests that the Hara celebrated every aspect of Purim in a big way: commemorating the story of Esther, widespread charity and hospitality, and, for some Jews, heavy drinking (of which the author clearly disapproves).

The writer’s description of Purim foods may be slightly “off,” but the article gives a vivid account of celebrations in what was once a vibrant Jewish neighborhood in North Africa.


PURIM IN TUNIS
by Mebasser

(Archives Israélites, March 21, 1907.
Translation from French ©2017 by Steven Capsuto.)

Passover is almost here, but perhaps it is still not too late to talk about Purim. In the Courrier de Tunisie, we find a piece by our contributor Mebasser, with picturesque new details about how Jews in Tunis celebrate the victory of Mordecai and Esther over Haman:

On the Saturday before Purim—known as Turnip Saturday or “Shabbat el Lefta,” which refers to a local legend—the young Jewish boys of the Hara are in the habit of celebrating Haman’s death. This mock ceremony is most unusual.

Early that morning, the boys gather in a very old house that lies in ruins at the heart of the Hara, in a place called the kharba.

There, as best they can, they use whatever they find at hand to fashion a small effigy—the kind that people try to knock over at a fair by throwing balls at it. This represents the famous Haman. They place him on a funeral litter and begin walking with it. They are followed by “Haman’s ten sons,” each with a funeral pall or wreath of similarly crude construction. This procession, numbering about a hundred urchins at the outset, travels through all the streets of the Jewish quarter, singing a popular Continue reading

Purim on enemy lines: a French Army rabbi and a minyan of Algerian soldiers celebrate at the front (1915)

Zouave soldiers crossing a river in northern France in World War I, preparing to attack German trenches. A large minority of the North African Zouaves were Jewish. [Image from the London periodical The Graphic, April 10, 1915.]


Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is a rabbi who served in World War I. Under the pen name “A Jewish Chaplain” (“Un Aumônier Israelite”), he wrote articles about his wartime experiences for the French Jewish magazine L’Univers Israélite.

In 1915, he was chaplain to the Jews in an Algerian division of Zouaves (French light-infantry forces, originally recruited from African countries that France had invaded and colonized). Below, our anonymous rabbi tells us how he and his minyan sought Purim joy and comfort in perilous conditions, close to the front line.


Memories of Purim at the front

(L’Univers Israélite, March 24, 1916.
Translation from French ©2017 by Steven Capsuto.)

Circumstances keep me from celebrating Purim among soldiers this year, and so my thoughts return to a year ago when I was just starting out as a chaplain.

I arrived at the front a few days before Purim. At my request, I had been assigned to an Algerian division. I suspected there must be a number of our believers there, but I did not know any of them and did not know how to find them. I considered trying an approach that had served me well a few weeks earlier in Saint-Denis, when I had wanted to identify some Jews among the Zouaves stationed there. I had posted myself outside the door to their quarters, and each time a Zouave came out, I would ask, “Do you know Shema Yisrael?” “No, I don’t,” replied one. “Which company is he in?” asked another. “I knew someone with a name like that, but he’s not here anymore.” After other disheartening responses, finally one Zouave’s eyes lit up at my question, letting me know he had understood. Through him, I met other Algerian Jews, but one after the other, they were all Continue reading

The Jew who told Immigration he was Muslim, and the Ladino newspaper that helped him (1911)

American immigrant stories often start with the person’s life in the U.S., but gloss over the process of being admitted as an immigrant. Getting through the immigrant processing centers was stressful. There were language barriers, crowds, slow-moving lines, stringent medical and financial restrictions, and official questions that forced immigrants to guess what answers the officers wanted. Often, they guessed wrong.

Today we’ll look at the personal experiences of some specific would-be immigrants, as reported in 1911 and 1912 by the U.S. Jewish newspaper La America.

La America (New York), June 9, 1911, featuring the story of immigrant Gabriel Capelouto. Note the Yiddish text in the left column. This Ladino-language paper briefly experimented with front-page Yiddish content to raise Ashkenazic Jews’ awareness of their Ottoman neighbors.

When La America first wrote about Gabriel Capelouto of Bodrum, Turkey, he had been detained at Ellis Island for several weeks and was about to be deported. Capelouto had made the long journey from Turkey to Argentina. There he boarded a ship for New York (without his wife, Sinoru, or their two children) en route to Atlanta, where his wife’s brother, Reuben Galanti, was waiting for him. That’s when things started to go wrong.

In Buenos Aires, people warned Capelouto to expect prejudice in the United States. They told him the U.S. government would turn him away if they learned he was a Jew. Acting on that Continue reading