The letter reveals the greatness of Maimonides as a rabbinic decisor (posek) who relied on his life experience as a war refugee to benefit his rejected people
Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon’s (Maimonides) life experience taught him from a young age that he and his contemporaries were living in an era of destruction in Jewish history. When the great Jewish philosopher was in his early twenties, the Almohad (“the unifiers”) movement came to power in Muslim Spain. The radical Islamic movement’s main goal was to forcibly spread their extreme version of Islam. To this end, they worked to shatter the communal life that had developed in the areas they conquered. “The Golden Age” of Jewish life in Spain had come to an end.
The Almohads conquered North Africa and Andalusia, attempted to eliminate any “foreign influence” on what they saw as “True Islam”, and forced non-Muslims to choose between Islam and death. In many cases, non-Muslims were not given the choice to convert and were executed immediately.
As the conquerors progressed, Maimonides’ family fled to Morocco and the Maghreb, presumably in 1159. It is unclear why they chose to immigrate precisely to the stronghold of the Almohads, especially at a time when the Jewish communities were being annihilated under the orders of the movement’s leader, Abd al-Mu’min. One theory is that the family’s anonymity in Morocco made it easier to hide their Jewish background.
By this period, Maimonides was already engaged in the heated halachic debate on the question of forced conversion among Jews of the Maghreb and Andalusia. Jews who managed to escape the Almohad terror after being forced to convert to Islam, turned to different decisors with the question: What were they to do now?
A famous, widespread halachic decision stated that Jews who were persecuted were to refuse to convert to Islam even if it cost them their lives; this was because the practice of Islam was considered idolatry. The rabbi who published the decision (his identity is unclear) added that Jews who were forced to convert to Islam were not only unable to return to Judaism in freedom, they were condemned to death. When Maimonides heard of this decision, he felt it was his duty to reply. He wrote the Letter of Apostasy and sent it to the persecuted Jews of the Maghreb.
Maimonides’ Letter of Apostasy
From the very beginning of the letter, it is apparent that Maimonides could not contain the rage he felt towards the hasty rabbi who had declared that forced converts to Islam were to be expelled from the Jewish people. He stated that anyone who publishes such a severe decision is like an empty vessel that “should not speak at length”. After reading the rabbi’s decision in full, Maimonides stated that this man was not “clear-headed”.
After completely annulling the rabbi’s authority, Maimonides utilized his profound knowledge of Jewish wisdom and gathered several sources from the Midrash and Aggadah. He wished to show that throughout history, the people of Israel sinned time after time and committed idolatry, yet the Lord forgave them each time they professed repentance. Maimonides further wrote that there were numerous incidents in which even great sages of Israel were forced to pretend and commit sins, while they secretly continued to practice the laws of the Torah.
“If these well-known Heretics were generously rewarded for the little good that they did, is it conceivable that God will not reward the Jews, who despite the exigencies of the forced conversion performed commandments secretly? Can it be that He does not discriminate between one who performs a commandment and one who does not, between one who serves God and one who does not?”. In this, Maimonides concluded that not only were the Jews of the Maghreb who converted to Islam not to be expelled from the Jewish people, but they had become a link in the chain of persecuted Jews throughout the generations.
Maimonides did not stop there; he tried to lessen the sense of guilt and rejection caused by saying the Islamic Shahada – the proclamation declaring “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah”. He clarified to the Anusim (forced converts) that in saying this they were not betraying the God of Israel, as these words were meaningless to those Jews who were forced to utter them. At the end of the letter, Maimonides advised the forced converts to immigrate to regions in which they could return to the embrace of their people and live as Jews leading lives of Torah and mitzvot.
Though Maimonides’ years of wandering came to an end upon his arrival to Egypt in the year 1166, the immigrant and Almohad war refugee never forgot the years of wandering and religious persecution that were the fate of his family and people. To the end of his days he would address himself in his writings as the “Sephardic one” or the “Andalusi one”.
A protest by The 35's calling for the release of 35 year old Raiza Palatnik, a refusenik from Odessa. London, 1971. Photo by Sidney Harris, The 35's Collection, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People
As the lights were dimmed in the main hall of Montreal’s Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier concert venue, the audience gradually came to a hush. This was not just another show. The ticket holders were there to witness a performance by the legendary 200 year-old Bolshoi Ballet in a major Western city during the Cold War era – a rare spectacle indeed. But as the anticipation reached its peak and the curtain was finally raised, something happened. The dancers onstage and the majority of the audience looked on in horror as dozens of people seated in the front rows suddenly rose from their seats and silently filed out of the chamber. When they were gone, only one man was left standing in the large, now nearly empty front section. He was dressed in the pinstripe uniform of a prisoner.
The date was June 17th, 1974.
This unusual demonstration was part of a historic protest movement. The group responsible was an organization known as “The 35’s”, or more formally – “The Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry”. Formed in London in May of 1971, the group was named in honor of Raiza Palatnik, a 35 year old Jewish woman who had been imprisoned in an isolated cell five months earlier in Odessa in the Soviet Union. Palatnik was accused of “keeping and distributing materials slanderous to the State” and had even dared to request to immigrate to Israel. She had not been allowed any contact with her parents or lawyer.
Upon hearing of the Palatnik case, a group of some thirty-five British women, most of whom were around the age of 35, gathered outside the Soviet Consulate in the United Kingdom, dressed in black, with signs calling for Raiza Palatnik’s release. “Towards the evening it was decided that we would sleep on the streets, and that had never been done since the suffragettes” says Zelda Harris, a founding member of the group.
Only around a dozen women spent the night on the street, but it was enough to get the attention of passersby who hooted and waved at them. “Taxi drivers were stopping and saying “Would you like a cigarette girls?'” Harris recalls. “At six o’ clock in the morning, we hadn’t hardly slept anyway, we got up and opposite us was a very swanky hotel, and we crept in, it was deadly quiet…we walked straight in to the ladies room. Imagine, thirteen women in black dresses, looking a bit scruffy…We had to wash up and use the toilet. The manager came in and said ‘Who are you? What are you doing?!'” The media loved the stunt.
Within hours, The 35’s received word from an Israeli diplomat that Palatnik, a quiet librarian turned political prisoner, had finally been moved to a regular jail cell. The tiny protest had made a real difference. The following week a thousand women in black from all over the UK marched along Whitehall to the Foreign Office. “That’s when we knew we had a movement” says Harris.
The group took up the cause of Soviet Jewish prisoners of conscience and “refuseniks” – the term given to Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate and then persecuted for having asked. Among the prisoners they advocated for were such figures as Eduard Kuznetzov, Sylva Zalmanson, Ida Nudel, Anatoly Sharansky and Yuli Edelstein. Within a few years, The 35’s had branches in nine different countries spanning both sides of the Atlantic.
They targeted symbols of Soviet power and prestige, and few symbols were as prestigious as the famous Bolshoi Ballet which toured the world’s great cities, with the goal of promoting Russian and Soviet art and culture. The dancers travelled under the watchful eye of their KGB guards, who were there to prevent any threat to the performers, as well as any defections to the West. The soon-to-be famous ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, however, was able to successfully slip through the net in Toronto, only a few days after the disrupted Montreal performance, before officially requesting political asylum in Canada.
Less than two weeks later, in London, members of The 35’s again protested outside a Bolshoi performance. “People actually tore up their tickets and threw them out the car window” according to Zelda Harris. Inside the concert hall, white mice were let loose among the audience, and nails were thrown onstage. Harris attributes these actions to right-wing groups who also protested against the treatment of Russian Jews. She stresses that The 35’s steered clear of any form of violence.
The Soviet Embassy demanded that stronger action be taken after “only a few” of the protesters were arrested, threatening to cut short the visit if the safety of the dancers was not guaranteed, according to The Sentinel. The British Foreign office made clear: “…we regret the demonstrations because we want the Bolshoi to be a success”.
Indeed, the actions of The 35’s did not always receive widespread support in their own countries. Barbara Oberman, a leading member, attempted to raise the plight of Soviet Jewry in a meeting of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. She told the Jerusalem Post in 2007: “They responded in a polite British way, whose subtext read that I was a Jewish housewife who knew nothing, was not positioned to take any kind of action and should go home and busy myself with more appropriate matters”.
The 35’s, however, were not to be deterred, quite the opposite. Their tactics were designed to generate shock value and thus grab the media spotlight and public attention. They didn’t have the numbers to organize massive rallies, but their unorthodox methods often landed them on the front page. The organization was heavily influenced by the women’s liberation movement which was at its height at the time. The 35’s made ironic use of various traditional stigmas which often defined the role of women, and particularly housewives, in Western society. Harris describes the prevailing approach of the protests as “Look like a woman, don’t look like a man. If you’re gonna come out, put some makeup on and smile.”
At some demonstrations, passersby were asked to come and taste morsels from a typical meal provided to laborers in a Soviet prison camp:
14 oz. black bread
1 cup hot water
1 oz. herring
2/3 cup soup
3 oz. potato or 1 cup of raw cabbage
In April, 1972, Jewish Soviet scientist Sergei Gurevitz was sacked from his post and forced to take a job as a cleaner in a laboratory. Like Palatnik, he too had applied for an exit visa to Israel. In response, The 35’s quickly announced that Bayswater Road, the location of the Soviet embassy in London, would be “unusually clean” the following Tuesday. When the day arrived, a phalanx of broom-wielding housewives positioned themselves outside the embassy and proceeded to sweep the grounds, in solidarity with Gurevitz and others who had suffered similar persecution.
On a different occasion, The 35’s rented a goat and paraded him down Bond Street while they themselves dressed as prisoners and wore nametags of actual refuseniks. The goat, which quickly escaped its bonds and ran off, was meant to symbolize the treatment of Soviet Jews, who many felt were being made the scapegoat of the Cold War struggle between the two great superpowers of the time.
By this point, the British authorities were keeping close tabs on the group. Harris tells of a demonstration during which she donned a lion suit, to protest the fact that the British rugby team, nicknamed “The Lions”, was going to play the Soviet Union. “Suddenly the detective in charge sidled up to me and said to me: ‘I know you’re in there Zelda,’ and I said ‘How in heaven’s name do you know it’s me?!’ And he said ‘Because I know your height, I know the size of your feet, I know the sound of your voice.’ They knew everything! They had files on all of us.”
Another tactic was the enlistment of celebrities and leading public figures to the cause, such as actresses Ingrid Bergman, Jane Fonda and Haley Mills, as well as philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre in particular, was a major achievement for The 35’s, as the French intellectual had expressed pro-Soviet views in the past, and the support of such an influential figure had great significance in leftist circles.
The group took it upon itself to maintain constant contact with the prisoners and resfuseniks still held in the USSR through phone calls and tourist visits. They also kept in touch with families of prisoners, offering encouragement and information regarding the status of their imprisoned relatives, while also sending birthday and holiday greetings, as well as books, siddurs, matzos and other gifts.
“Adopt a Prisoner” campaigns were organized in which group members, as well as sympathetic families and politicians, would be assigned a prisoner to keep in touch with. Using these methods, The 35’s were especially effective in collecting up-to-date intelligence on the status of the prisoners and refuseniks, information which was then passed on to the “Nativ” organization.
Today, the actions of The 35’s are widely acknowledged as having played a key role in raising awareness of the plight of Soviet Jewry. This public awareness was often translated into political pressure, which in many cases resulted in the release of prisoners and refuseniks.
Raiza Palatnik, the woman whose ordeal started it all, was finally released after two years in prison, in December, 1972. She was soon allowed to immigrate to Israel, where she found work at the National Library. According to Lizetta Amir, a veteran librarian, and Rini Goldsmith, the director of the Foreign Language Catalog at the Library, Palatnik was a strikingly impressive, strong-willed woman, who never shied away from voicing her opinion and was highly respected for her courage and her successful struggle to reach Israel.
Most of the remaining refuseniks in Soviet Russia were allowed to leave in 1987, as part of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) policies. With the fall of the USSR in 1991, all restrictions on emigration were lifted.
On November 7th, 2019, an event commemorating The 35’s was held at the Israel Intelligence Heritage and Commemoration Center at Glilot. The event was organized in collaboration between the Prime Minister’s Office – “Nativ” and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The occasion celebrated the unveiling of archival collections belonging to members of The 35’s and preserved at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. The evening was also an opportunity to tell the story of this group of British Jewish women who fought for the rights of refuseniks and prisoners of conscience being held against their will in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 80s.
When Heinrich Heine Revealed His Thoughts on His Conversion to Christianity
Several months after he was baptized, the poet Heinrich Heine wrote to his friend about the frustration, disappointment and remorse that this action had brought about.
Portrait of Heinrich Heine by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1831
It was his “entry ticket”. He saw it as a necessary step to open the gates of the German cultural world. It would serve as his seal of approval, certifying unconditional Germanism, the full and complete removal of all obstacles. If he could have written his own story, he probably would have chosen a simpler path for the hero’s role he was forced to play. One can assume with a high degree of certainty that, given another option, he would not have chosen to convert.
In his youth, he believed that stubbornness paid off, and indeed this turned out to be the case on more than one occasion. His father and uncle insisted that he enter the thriving family business, but he was intent on a life of art and creativity. Eventually, his obstinacy won out over that of his family, and they agreed to finance his higher education. In 1819, Heine began studying law at the University of Bonn.
Six years later, after three different universities, a semester-long suspension and even an invitation to a duel that never took place, Heine finally graduated from Göttingen University. A doctorate of law was not the only thing awarded to the 28-year-old in July of 1825. That same month he was also given his new name – Christian Johann Heinrich. Heine received the name after being baptized in a Protestant church in the nearby town of Heiligenstadt. Using this name, he would come to be recognized as one of the greatest poets and writers of the nineteenth-century.
As part of the continued discussion of Heine’s Jewishness, his writings have been poured over in search of every trace and reference to Jewish culture and religion. The references found were combined to create a 300-page volume. From the volumes of writings Heine produced during his life, only a single letter of his is preserved in the National Library of Israel. As you will soon see, it sheds a great deal of light on the feelings of the poet in regard to his conversion to Christianity.
On January 9th, 1826, less than a year after his conversion, Heine sent a letter to his classmate and confidant, Moses Moser. The letter was composed in the Heine family house in Hamburg and is full of secret references and codes between friends. It even mentions the name of a certain publisher (“the bastard Govitz”) on whom Heine sought revenge after the delayed the publication of a story Heine sent him. Toward the end of the letter, Heine proceeds to address the true source of his own distress: his baptism. He felt torn and confused, and expressed to Moser his difficulty in writing or thinking about “external things.”
Heine believed that German-Christian society, which demanded that its Jews abandon their religion in order to ascend its ranks, had exposed its true nature in light of his sacrifice. From other sources we learn that Heine expected that his conversion would help him win a coveted academic position, an expectation that was ultimately dashed. “Isn’t it strange,” he asked Moser, “I just converted to Christianity and already they are angry at me for being a Jew?”
There is a certain note of irony in Heine’s words that dulls the sting of the situation. “Now I am hated by both Christians and Jews. I am very sorry that I converted to Christianity, and I have not felt better since. Quite the opposite actually, since I seem to be surrounded by bad luck – but enough of that, you are too enlightened not to smile at it.” He added, “I think I’m better off than I know.” The likely truth is that his harshest critic was, of course, himself.
Thoughts on German
By 1831, almost six years after his baptism, Heine had had enough of German censorship and repeated criticism of his work and moved to Paris. Two years later, all of his works (including those not yet finished) would be confiscated due to a decision reached by the states of the German Confederation. The converted writer would become something of a refugee, who spent the rest of his life in exile in France.
In his new residence in Paris, Heine would make the most of his new life. He was able to mingle in the most sought-after circles, socialize with great personalities such as Alexander Dumas and Frederic Chopin, his name would become ever more famous, and his works (those that were written in Germany and those that he would write in Paris) would eventually become renowned the world over.
Neither the feelings of rejection nor the fear of a nationalist takeover of German politics could overcome Heinrich Heine’s longings for his native land. His homesickness would remain with him until his death on February 17th, 1856.
This article was written with the assistance of Dr. Stefan Litt, of the Archives Department at the National Library of Israel , and Chaya Meier-Herr, Director of the Edelstein Collection at the National Library.
Robotkin Butcher Shop on Hessel Street. Photograph by Shloimy Alman
In May of 2019, during an extreme heatwave that hit Israel, a forest fire near the town of Modi’in forced Manchester-born Shloimy Alman and his wife Linda to evacuate their home in Moshav Kfar Daniel where they have lived since making Aliyah in 1978. Fleeing for safety, Shloimy grabbed just three items: passports, family photo albums and 7 boxes of color slides of London’s old Jewish East End that he’d taken in the mid-1970s.
The slides had sat inside Alman’s cupboard for more than 40 years but, during that week, I had visited from London to interview Shloimy and scan these previously unseen images. The images have since been printed and were displayed in an exhibition titled ‘Vanished Streets’, at London’s oldest Ashkenazi synagogue Sandys Row, on Sunday, the 6th of October, 2019 as part of the European Day of Jewish Culture.
I work at Sandys Row as the resident archivist and historian. The president there, Harvey Rifkind, is a great friend of Shloimy’s and told me about this unique collection of images from the 1970s of a world that has now largely disappeared.
Shloimy started taking these pictures in 1977. He was in his early twenties back then, living in Manchester and attending a Jewish Youth Workers’ conference in London. He arranged to meet the Yiddish poet Avraham Stencl who he had heard a great deal about growing up – his father, Moishe, had previously contributed many articles to Stencl’s monthly Yiddish magazine, Loshn un Lebn.
On their first walk, Stencl led Shloimy to Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in London that was established by Sephardi Jews in the seventeenth century. “He walked very quickly for an old man, I had trouble keeping up with him. As we walked and talked, in Yiddish of course, he pointed out places on the way, where the Jews’ Free School had been, the site of the Jewish Soup Kitchen, Bloom’s restaurant on Whitechapel High St and the many small synagogues, which were still operating.”
Shloimy was amazed by the amount of Jewish institutions, shops, and people still evident. “People kept telling me the Jewish East End was dead but for me, coming from Manchester, it was buzzing with life and activity.”
They passed run-down tenement blocks and stopped briefly at Whitechapel Library, known as ‘the university of the ghetto.’ After their walk, Shloimy went with Stencl to a “Friends of Yiddish” meeting. There were about twenty people there who were all very welcoming. After this first visit Shloimy began attending these meetings regularly whilst visiting his parents-in-law in London. “I wanted to be in that atmosphere that my parents so loved, to hear Yiddish literature being spoken and talked about again. It was most important.”
After his initial walk around Whitechapel with Stencl, Shloimy started exploring by himself, often drifting around the streets coming across things by accident. “Knowing that places like Commercial Road were important, I’d wander along and see a Jewish shop name and photograph it.”
He spent days recording Jewish life, from shuls to delis, shops, market stalls, and traders. He recorded the textile-trimming merchants. He recorded kosher poulterers on Hessel Street. “Shop after shop, stalls with chickens plucked and hanging from a barrow, they were all surviving, all doing business, it was still a rich Jewish landscape.”
He took photographs of kosher wine merchants, the Grand Palais Yiddish Theatre and the Kosher Luncheon Club. He took slides of the Jewish bakeries – Free Co., Cohen’s, Kossoff’s, Grodzinski’s and bagel shops in East London. “They were all friendly, loved me coming in and chatting in Yiddish and taking a picture.”
He went into the Soup Kitchen on Brune Street, which was sending out pre-packed food to elderly Jews living in the area. On Brick Lane, he photographed Jewish booksellers, newsagents, textile merchants. “All these places existed, everything the community needed – it told me how large the community still was.”
On Cheshire Street he saw the work of Jewish cabinet makers outside their workshops and during one visit he managed to get inside the Cheshire Street Synagogue, “which was the most remarkable find, it was a Shabbat and the door was slightly open so I went inside and saw all this beautifully lathed woodwork done by the cabinet makers of the street.”
He photographed the entrance to Black Lion Yard, once known as ‘the Hatton Garden of the East End’ because of all the jewelry shops there, although most of the street and shops had been demolished by then. He took pictures of the Whitechapel Waste, of the market stalls and street life, of Stencl selling his magazine to an alter bubby (old grandmother), the London Hospital, the nearby Brady Street dwellings. He explored the back streets, visited little shops, tobacconists, market stalls and Jewish delis. “Roggs was my favorite, he’d always be in that old vest, sticking his great hairy arms into a barrel of cucumbers he pickled himself.”
He photographed the window of the room on Tyne Street where “Sholem Aleichem stayed on his way to America from Odessa.” Most of the time Shloimy walked alone but sometimes Stencl would join him.
Shloimy fell in love with the area and documented what he saw. He said, “I am not a photographer, I make no claim. The reason that I started this is I wanted to be able to show my children about Jewish life in England before I immigrated to Israel. It was obvious to me that what I was looking at was soon to vanish. It might be because I was an outsider that I saw this so acutely or because I had already witnessed this disappearance of Jewish life in Manchester. For an intense period of time, I photographed what I considered important landmarks and eating places of Jewish London.”
His photographs capture the era absolutely and survive as a unique record of a disappeared world.
A catalog of the exhibition photos can be ordered direct from Sandys Row Synagogue here.
This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.