Austria’s Dreyfus? The Story of Philippe Halsman, the Man Who Didn’t Murder His Father

Philippe Halsman took some of the most famous photos in the world – hundreds of images of iconic celebrities and pictures adorning the cover of Life magazine and museum walls. But before all this, Halsman was tried in Austria for the unimaginable crime of murdering his own father. Was he truly a cold-blooded killer, or was he an Austrian Dreyfus, persecuted solely for being Jewish?


British soldier at rest. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine during the 1936 Arab Revolt, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Philippe Halsman was one of the 20th century’s most famous photographers. He created iconic photographs of many famous figures of the era, including Albert Einstein, Marylin Monroe, Marc Chagal, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Ingrid Bergman, Betty Davis, Winston Churchill, Henry Matisse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Brigitte Bardot, and Audrey Hepburn. His work has graced no fewer than 101 covers of Life magazine, more than any other photographer. He even collaborated with Salvador Dali for 37 years to create unforgettable images.

Halsman was primarily known for his penchant for photographing people while jumping: “Starting in the early 1950s I asked every famous or important person I photographed to jump for me.  I was motivated by a genuine curiosity.  After all, life has taught us to control and disguise our facial expressions, but it has not taught us to control our jumps.  I wanted to see famous people reveal in a jump their ambition or their lack of it, their self-importance or their insecurity, and many other traits.”

One of Halsman’s most famous photos with Salvador Dali. From: Wikicommons

But Halsman’s past also included a darker, less well-known chapter. In 1928, he was accused of nothing less than murdering his own father. Tried, convicted twice, and imprisoned, he was ultimately forced to leave Austria altogether. But what actually happened? And how did this affair develop into what some have called “The Austrian Dreyfus Trial?

First, some background: the Halsman family of Riga, Latvia was wealthy and well-educated. It spent its summers on family outings throughout Europe, and 1928 was no exception. That year, the family – father and successful dentist Max, mother Ita, 22-year-old son Philippe and 18-year-old daughter Liouba – set out on a trip through the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps.

At one of the Italian hotels they visited, an acquaintance told them of the beauty of the Tyrol mountains, sparking the father’s interest and imagination. After Liouba returned to Paris for her studies, Max insisted that before Philippe left them to continue his studies in electronics at the University of Dresden, the three would go on to the Tyrol. This decision decided the family’s fate.

Before we continue, some historical context is necessary. In 1928, the Tyrol region of Austria was fertile ground for Nazi ideology, and antisemitism was rampant. Although the number of Jews in the region had been minuscule since the Middle Ages, hair-raising tales of Jewish blood rituals were part of the local folklore.

The Tyrol mountains, late 19th century. From a photo album depicting Austrian landscapes, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On the fateful morning of September 8, 1928, Mrs. Halsman decided to take leave of her son and husband, who then set out on a hike meant to last a few days. Two days later, Father and son ascended to the peak of a mountain with the aid of a local guide, who recalled how they were in good shape and often stopped to photograph one another.

What happened next can be reconstructed from witness accounts given during the investigation and trial, including Philippe’s own version of events. Shortly after two o’clock in the afternoon, they passed by an inn at the mountain’s peak, at a height of some 5,900 feet, and began to descend back down the mountain. An hour later, Philippe reached a small village along the way, out of breath, telling of how his father had slipped and fallen from a height of 26 feet into the local brook, and that he was wounded and in need of medical attention.

A young shepherd named Alois Riederer offered to help Philippe and a young girl was sent to get the local doctor. The shepherd reached Max first, finding him dead, with his lower body immersed in water and his head showing many wounds. He tried to prevent Philippe from seeing his father, but the son insisted on approaching and even attempted to lift the body out of the water with the shepherd’s help – to no avail.

Philippe stayed with his father while the shepherd went out to get help, but when Alois climbed up, he accidentally knocked down some stones, something which would have fateful consequences. The traces of blood seemed to show the body had been dragged, but no-one bothered to ensure the crime scene was untouched, since everyone was still operating under the assumption it was an accident. Philippe ran to the nearby city to call his mother; he didn’t want her to hear of her husband’s death from strangers.

A young Yemenite immigrant to the Land of Israel. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On his way there, Philippe encountered a rescue team and returned with them to the scene, not knowing the doctor leading the team was a known antisemite. When they arrived there, the owner of the nearby inn who also reached the location immediately theorized that the son had murdered the father, and despite Philippe’s insistent denials, the doctor believed the story. They then decided to escort Philippe to a nearby town. A German police officer who was nearby volunteered to search the young man; his clothes contained no blood stains, there were no signs of a struggle, and no money was found on his person.

The local coroner arrived at the scene the next day in the afternoon, and Philippe, who had gone through quite a night in lockup, had to be there as well. The scene had been contaminated in the meantime. Testimony was collected without documentation, a stone with blood stains and hairs, identified as the murder weapon, was passed around and mysteriously disappeared. The body had since been moved to the nearby town and the rain that had fallen since the murder entirely transformed the area.

After all this, the suspect was finally asked to give his own version of events. But Philippe, who according to one of the passing tourists said that he was ahead of his father when he heard a yell, now added another detail – that he saw his father fall. The investigator didn’t dwell on this point at the time, but he did make a note of the discrepancy and insisted on asking Philippe where he was exactly when his father fell. Here Philippe erred: he thought the stones Alois accidentally knocked down the day before marked the spot where the fall occurred. In fact, he mistakenly placed himself precisely where his father had fallen. On September 13, the body was subject to an autopsy, and the pathologist determined that Max was murdered by blows from a sharp object. The fact that no blood or weapons were found on Philippe made no difference, and Philippe was arrested that day.

A female pioneer milks a cow. Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The local media was quick to plant the idea of the murder in the minds of the locals, and even before the trial began, the press had concluded that the son murdered his father in cold blood with repeated blows to his head. The police themselves only began to question witnesses two weeks after the murder, after all the locals were already convinced Philippe was guilty.

Every detail took on a life of its own: the fact that Max carried his son’s knapsack supposedly showed the son’s lack of respect for his father. The fact that they had ordered two separate bedrooms was an indication that their relationship was rocky. This was all compounded by rampaging conspiracy theories: the son murdered his father to spare his mother from an abusive marriage; the son fell in love with a woman his father objected to; the father had a life insurance policy with his son as the sole beneficiary; and so on – as far as imagination would take them. Worse, the family’s request to leave the father’s body untouched and deliver it to them to be buried as quickly as possible – as Jewish law requires – was seen as a family conspiracy to conceal the murder they all knew occurred. The desire to bury the father in shrouds rather than a coffin was taken as proof that the family did not respect the memory of their father.

The police went along with a public convinced of Philippe’s guilt and treachery. Nothing that hinted at his innocence was looked into. When tracks were found in the ground that fit neither Philippe nor anyone on the rescue team – no effort was made to identify who made them. Max’s head contained injuries from a sharp object that was never found, Philippe’s light clothes had no blood on them, yet still – nothing was investigated.

Two weeks after the murder, blood-stained Austrian money bills were found at the scene, hidden under a pile of rocks. Pictures taken from the scene of the crime proved that this pile was not there when the body was found – but once again, there was no follow up by the police. The similarity of this case to a number of other murders in the area at the time also suggested Philippe was innocent. It didn’t matter.

Tel Aviv Port. Photo: Photo taken by Philippe Halsman while on a visit to Mandatory Palestine in the 1930s, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The first trial of Philippe Halsman began on December 13, 1928, and lasted just four days. Standing before a biased jury, head prosecutor Dr. Siegfried Hohenleitner laid out his theory of Philippe’s guilt. The fact that Philippe was aided by one of the best lawyers in Vienna, Richard Pressburger, only worked against him. The locals didn’t care for the liberal atmosphere of the Austrian capital, and the defense attorney’s Jewishness didn’t help, either.

During the first two weeks following his arrest, Philippe wasn’t even allowed to speak with Pressburger. For its part, the police didn’t cooperate with the defense or provide it with information. This forced the defense to take the line that Max fell to his death and was hit by a stone along the way. Pressburger argued that Philippe did not push his father since relations between them were good, and family and friends were put on the witness stand to attest to this.

But Philippe’s behavior at trial worked against him. He appeared too confident, condescending, and self-righteous. It was his own testimony that really got him in trouble. On the witness stand, he told of how his father went to the side of the path to urinate while he kept going. Then, he heard a yell and saw his father lean strangely and fall off. He claimed it took him two minutes to get to the scene, but the prosecution then presented the details he’d given at the time of the incident: the place Philippe said he was standing was just two steps from where his father fell, which meant Philippe must have been lying. The defense tried to argue that Philippe had been in a state of shock, and made an honest mistake in placing his location, but the jury had heard enough.

Thus, without evidence proving his guilt, without any motive for premeditation, and without heeding exculpatory evidence such as Philippe’s clean clothes, and in a general atmosphere that automatically condemned a Jew as a murderer, the jury convened to make a decision. It came very quickly.

By a majority of nine to three, the jury declared his guilt, and the court sentenced Philippe Halsman to ten years of hard labor and one fast day a year on the anniversary of his father’s murder.

“A judicial crime is being committed against me”, The Sentinel, December 28, 1928, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

In prison, Philippe tried to take his own life with a blade from a pencil sharpener he’d managed to dismantle. In the meantime, his lawyer tried to have a mistrial declared, arguing that the conviction was based on insufficient evidence, and that certain other evidence was hidden from the defense. The Supreme Court accepted the appeal, but decided the retrial would take place in Innsbruck in the Tyrol rather than in Vienna, a serious blow for the defense.

While the Vienna press began writing in support of Philippe’s case and against the biased trial he was subject to in the Tyrol, the attitude was the opposite in the region itself. The local press was entirely swept up by the populist spirit opposing the “socialist-Jewish” winds blowing from Vienna.

The retrial started almost a year later, in September 1929. This time, the defense took the line that Max was apparently murdered by another person, but the defense found itself constantly refuting lies from the prosecution and fighting a war of attrition against local public opinion that was clearly opposed to Halsman. For instance, it was claimed that Philippe witnessed the autopsy of his father with complete calm from the window of the inn where he was detained. The defense was forced to prove that no window in the inn provided a view from which the autopsy could be seen. Many expert opinions the defense tried to submit were rejected for baseless reasons, but slides of the wounds to Max’s head and his father’s severed head were allowed to be shown in court, despite the request of the family not to do so.

For various reasons, the trial had to take a break for a month. During this period, the Halsman affair became a battleground between liberal Vienna, which increasingly supported the defendant, and the conservative periphery. Scandal after scandal began to emerge. In the middle of the second trial, for instance, a witness appeared who claimed that on the day of the murder he was approached by a man covered in blood. He said he provided the man with clothes before helping him cross the border into Italy. A few days later, the same witness claimed he’d made the whole thing up and had received money from Halsman supporters to give this false testimony. In the end, Philippe Halsman was convicted a second time. This time, just seven of the twelve jurors decided that he’d murdered his father, but nine agreed to the manslaughter charge. He was sent to four years of hard labor, an annual fast day, and was required to cover the costs of his trial and imprisonment.

“He is said to have gone mountaineering with his father, and when the two of them reached a precipice he threw his father down and killed him” – The Palestine Bulletin, October 20, 1929, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Philippe started a hunger strike, and this time the defense decided to appeal to the Supreme Court. In a detailed, 100-page document, the defense explained why the verdict should be set aside. The court deliberated on the request for three days, after which it announced that there was no reasonable ground for intervening in the verdict, although this did not mean the court took a stand on Philippe Halsman’s guilt or innocence.

All Philippe had left was worldwide public opinion. Even before the court decision, Jewish author Jacob Wasserman published an open letter to the President of Austria to intervene on Halsman’s behalf and pardon him, a letter which reminded many of Emile Zola’s letter in defense of Alfred Dreyfus. Halsman’s family asked that he be released on humanitarian grounds due to his contracting pneumonia and his poor physical state. Within weeks, the Austrian Justice Minister was bombarded with petitions from within Austria and around the world, calling for his pardon. The minister eventually decided to simply avoid the question of the pardon altogether, instead allowing Philippe to stand before the parole board after having served half his sentence.

Jacob Wasserman’s letter drew comparisons to that of Emile Zola, J. The Jewish News of Northern California, December 13, 1929, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Efforts to free Halsman continued, and in September 1930, he was finally released from prison, but this was not the end of his travails. As a former convict and foreign citizen, he was immediately expelled from Austria. He could no longer return to his studies and therefore decided to rest and recuperate in Czechoslovakia and then in Paris, where his sister Liouba resided.

The public crusade for Halsman did not end there, as his supporters tried to get him acquitted entirely. To that end, they even recruited Sigmund Freud to come to the defense of a convicted criminal for the first time. Freud dismissed the prosecution’s claim that Philippe acted out of an Oedipal complex and lent support to the argument that trauma was what led Philippe to believe his own testimony. But the prosecution did not stand idly by and worked to prevent the acquittal. The Justice Ministry ultimately stayed out of it and the case remained closed. Philippe remained a convicted felon.

Meantime, Halsman flourished professionally in France. He worked as a freelance photographer and even arrived in British Mandatory Palestine on assignment for a French magazine in 1936, taking pictures which can now be viewed via the National Library of Israel website. He opened a studio in Paris and fell in love with Yvonee Moser, a young female photographer. The couple soon married and had a daughter. As the Nazis were approached Paris, Halsman sought a visa to America for his family. Just before the Germans entered the French capital, Yvonee and their daughter left for New York, along with Philippe’s mother and sister. He was only able to secure a visa for himself later, thanks in no small part to the personal intervention of Albert Einstein.

A report on the death of Philippe Halsman, Maariv, June 29, 1979, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

While everyone knew him in Paris, no-one knew him in New York. Still, Halsman slowly made a name for himself in photography circles in the Big Apple. He met the artist Salvador Dali and together they worked on some fascinating collaborations. His first cover photo for Life magazine soon followed. But the stain of the trial and murder conviction didn’t disappear so quickly. In 1943, his criminal record was discovered and he faced expulsion from the United States, his newfound asylum. Fortunately for him, noted author Thomas Mann came to his aid and Halsman managed to prevent his own deportation.

After this, Halsman focused on leaving his past behind him and building a new future. History and the collective memory of this famous photographer suggests he succeeded. Halsman would live to see his criminal record expunged in Austria in 1973. On July 25, 1979, he died in New York, leaving behind thousands of famous images – as well as a familiar story about a Jew subjected to an unfair trial.

It Sounds Better in French… or Does It?

What happened when rabbinic courts in Morocco were under the authority of the French colonial government?

A "Ketubah", a traditional Jewish marriage contract from Kenitra, Morocco, 1951, the National Library of Israel

You never know what you’re going to find in an archive. A single, seemingly innocent page might be evidence of something quite large. That was certainly the experience of NLI archivists while cataloging the mid-20th century archive of the Beit Din of Kenitra (also called Port Lyautey), a costal Moroccan town north of Casablanca.

Archives of rabbinical courts and Jewish self-governing institutions are common. They tend to contain summaries of court decisions and the reasons behind them, notarized agreements or receipts, copies of standard contracts or documentation, or details of appointments and administration of the court. They differ of course from time to time or place to place, but there are many commonalities. One of those commonalities is the insistence that internal Jewish communal and court records appear in Jewish languages whether forms of Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, Hebrew, or others.

Medieval and early modern Jews benefitted from a great deal of cultural and political autonomy. Local non-Jewish officials granted the Jewish community rights and obligations, expecting Jews to regulate their own internal affairs, raise money for Jewish use, pay taxes to local governments, litigate disputes, and generally keep community members in line. Jewish communities were granted authority to tax members, and even punish them with fines, excommunication, and sometimes corporal punishment. Jewish communities functioned as autonomous governments over the Jewish residents.

Naturally, governance requires record keeping. The Jewish languages in these records made life easier for communal leaders, and the documentation was designed to keep internal Jewish affairs in the hands of Jews, particularly the leaders themselves. Take a typical pinkas, or record book, from the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main.

A pinkas (record book) from the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main  (1552-1802), the National Library of Israel

The community leaders kept their records in a language that only Jews could understand, and in many cities restricted access to those record books even from lay Jews. Only community leaders could get access to them.

Similar documents exist from Jewish communities in the Arab world, where Jewish communal legislation was recorded in manuscripts that summarized the local communal bylaws, regarding things such as appointment to leadership positions, taxation, sumptuary laws, and fines or punishments for disobedience. One such document, an example of among literally hundreds of similar ones held at the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, includes lists of 18th-19th century Jewish communal ordinances from Fez and Meknes in Hebrew, written in professional scribal hand.

A pinkas containing 18th and 19th century records of the Jewish communities of Fez and Meknes, written in Hebrew, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel

Court decisions, contracts, and receipts were also recorded, again largely in Jewish languages. One example, from the NLI’s collection, documents a 1753 Hebrew-language agreement between the Jewish community of Fez and a local Jewish seller of beans and seeds. He would gain exclusive rights to sell his wares to Jews, in exchange for a fee he would pay to the communal coffers.

A 1753 Hebrew-language contract containing an agreement between the Jewish community of Fez and a local Jewish seller of beans and seeds, the National Library of Israel

Records like these provided important resources when problems arose, someone violated a rule or agreement, or an issue came to be adjudicated. Laypeople also needed documentation of economic transactions, in case of disagreement after financial deals. But, since Jewish communities were largely autonomous, responsible for their own affairs, there was no need to make Jewish documents accessible to non-Jews by using the local vernacular.

But the archival materials from the Beit Din of Kenitra in the mid-twentieth century held by the NLI were not in rabbinic Hebrew, but in French. Jews in Morocco spoke French during the colonial era, but it is not common at all to find rabbinical courts or halakhic documentation conducted in the vernacular. Why, then, would the Beit Din use French?

The answer stems from significant reforms that the French colonial government in Morocco made in regulating Batei Din [rabbinic courts]. To understand these reforms, it helps to compare the situation to Jewish courts that exist in the two biggest centers of Jewish life today, the United States and Israel. The model in the United States, where religious courts have no formal governmental authority whatsoever, involves entirely voluntary institutions. The government has little say in how they operate, and those courts act only for themselves and their constituents. The model in Israel is the reverse. Some religious courts are formally part of the state itself. They have no independence at all from the state.

But the French colonial government in Morocco offered a different, hybrid, suggestion. The colonial government wanted to reform the relationship between the Beit Din and the colonial authorities. Beginning in 1918, the French protectorate began to systematically reform Jewish communities and their institutions, modernizing them by limiting their authority and linking them to new, modern bureaucracy. They created Jewish rabbinic courts that would operate based on Jewish laws, but would be subject to the oversight of the colonial authorities, who would authorize the Batei Din to make decisions about internal Jewish affairs, particularly regarding marriage, divorce, and family law. Once the Jewish court had acted, the French Protectorate required systematic information about decisions, personal statuses, litigants’ obligations, or divorce settlements and their financial consequences. The French Protectorate demanded that the Jewish Beit Din take responsibility for personal status, and therefore also take responsibility for systematically reporting things to the government.

A French document from the archive of the  Kenitra Beit Din containing a statistical summary of past court decisions, including marriages and divorces, between 1944 and 1964, the National Library of Israel

This created new record-keeping responsibilities for the court. They could not simply run their own business, by Jews for Jews, in Jewish languages. Instead, the French and local authorities required systematical paperwork from the Jewish community. The Beit Din would collate its decisions about personal status, translate the decisions into French, and send them off to the local authorities. This practice continued even after Moroccan independence in 1956. The archive of the court in Kenitra includes such reports for the years 1944-1964. It even includes some long-term statistics, summarizing the total number of marriages and divorces performed during those years.

In terms of the content, the archive of the Kenitra court is fairly typical. But the small change in language is actually a microcosm of much more dramatic changes taking place in the relationship between Moroccan Jews, colonial Europeans, and local Muslim populations.


The Kenitra Beit Din Archive has been cataloged and made accessible thanks to the kind donation of the Samis Foundation, Seattle, Washington, dedicated to the memory of Samuel Israel.










When Abraham and Plato Met in Barcelona

Medieval Barcelona was a unique meeting spot of Eastern and Western culture. A place where Jews, Muslims and Christians could mix. It was in Barcelona that the "first Jewish scientist" and one of the great Christian translators of the day conceived an ambitious plan to bring the wisdom of the Islamic and ancient worlds to an awakening Europe

The solar system according to Abraham Bar Hiyya, "Tzurat Ha'Aretz VeTavnit Kadurei HaRekia" (The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres), 1494, the National Library of Israel

There is an ancient Chinese curse that says: “May you live in interesting times”. Abraham Bar Ḥiyya indeed lived in interesting times. Yet, he managed to turn that curse into a blessing.

In 1065, around the time of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s birth, most of the Iberian Peninsula (today’s Spain and Portugal) was an integral part of the Islamic world, and had been for centuries. During his lifetime, the peninsula’s northern Christian kingdoms began conquering large swaths of territory from the Muslims. The Crusades taking place at the same time in the Middle East further spurred the “Reconquista” – the Christian re-conquest of Iberian lands from the hands of the infidels. Armed with the power of religious fervor and the sword, they managed to conquer all the cities in the north and center of the Iberian Peninsula.

One would assume that in a period of religious wars, Jews would suffer persecution. Images of the Inquisition, expulsion, forced conversion and Jewish martyrs being forced to hide their Judaism come to mind.

However, during Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s own lifetime, very little of this came to pass. The Christian kingdoms remained relatively tolerant towards the Jews. The Muslims on the other hand, now the losing side in the conflict and on the defensive, began persecuting Jews and legislating strict regulations against them in the territories they still controlled.

Abraham Bar Ḥiyya grew up in a still-tolerant Muslim world and pursued higher studies in Zaragoza, which was a flourishing cultural center. But like many Jews living in those turbulent times, he eventually had no choice but to bid farewell to the world of Muslim culture and science and relocate to one of the nearby Christian kingdoms.

Abraham chose Catalonia, settling in its capital, Barcelona. There he met many Jews who were unfamiliar with Arabic and the rich world of Islamic science that also preserved the wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome. He decided to undertake the task of making the realms of science, geography and astronomy accessible to Jews. He began composing scientific essays in Hebrew, in which he combined his own knowledge with translations of ancient and Islamic sources. Yesodei HaTvuna U-Migdal Ha’Emuna (“The Foundations of Understanding and the Tower of Faith”) was an encyclopedic scientific work that summarized all the accumulated knowledge from the ancient and Islamic worlds relating to mathematics, geometry, astronomy, optics and music. Unfortunately, only the introduction and the first few parts have come down to us.

Drawing of Barcelona in the Early Modern period (1563), by Anton van den Wyngaerde

In Ḥibbur HaMeshiḥa VehaTishboret (“Treatise on Measurement and Calculation”‘), which was intended as a reference book for land surveying and contained complex formulas of arithmetic and geometry, Abraham not only included a basic collection of sources for the novice, but, in a first for the European reader, also the complete solution to the quadratic equation. The many and varied books of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya rightly earned him the accolade – “the first Jewish scientist”.

The book Tzurat Ha’Aretz VeTavnit Kadurei HaRekia (“The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres”) presented for the first time in Hebrew the geographical sciences of both the Islamic and ancient worlds, including the earth’s relationship to other stars and to the moon and the sun. Abraham Bar Ḥiyya went on to write many more books, including works on the Hebrew calendar, astronomy (which included the first appearance of trigonometric functions in Hebrew), philosophy and Judaism.

Illustration of a solar eclipse, from Tzurat Ha’Aretz VeTavnit Kadurei HaRekia (“The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres”) by Abraham Bar Ḥiyya, Switzerland, 1546, the National Library of Israel

And now we come to the second hero of the story.

The name of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya eventually spread to the Christian world that was then taking its first steps in the field of science. An Italian mathematician and astronomer by the name of Plato of Tivoli heard about the wisdom of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya and wanted not only to learn the basics of Islamic science from him, but also to disseminate his knowledge to the Christian world. Their meeting in Barcelona led to a longstanding friendship and collaboration. It is likely that Plato of Tivoli came to the city especially for this purpose. The Italian moved to Barcelona and lived there for about twenty years, where he continued to learn from the Jewish sage. Together, these two men, a Jew and a Christian, conceived a particularly daring and ambitious plan.

Abraham Bar Ḥiyya knew Hebrew, Arabic and Catalan, the language spoken in Barcelona. Plato of Tivoli knew Italian, learned to speak Catalan, and was of course fluent in Latin – the language of science and of European literature of the Middle Ages. And so, the two scholars embarked on a collaboration to translate into Latin the scientific writings of the ancient and Islamic worlds. Abraham would translate and explain to Plato in colloquial Catalan what was written in the Arabic sources, and Plato would translate and write it down in Latin. Together they compiled precious texts that became seeds of scientific knowledge, soon to spread across Christian Europe.

The duo translated a famous work by Ptolemy of Alexandria into Latin – the Tetrabiblos (Τετράβιβλος) or Quadripartitum (90–168 CE), which deals with philosophy, astrology and the constellations. This translation was studied for hundreds of years – in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – in universities all over Europe. The book’s positive reception allowed other works by Ptolemy to be accepted, thus indirectly contributing to further developments in the fields of science and medicine in Europe.

Imaginary portrait (1584) of the astronomer and geographer Ptolemy of Alexandria (90–168 CE), whose book Tetrabiblos, on philosophy and the constellations, was translated into Latin by Abraham Bar Ḥiyya and Plato of Tivoli

Plato and Abraham worked together on other translations from Arabic of mainly astronomical and astrological writings, including the work Kitab al-Mawalid (“The Book of Birth”) by the scholar Abu Ali al-Hayat (770–835), the works of al-Battani (858–929) and much more. It’s worth bearing in mind that astronomy and astrology, which at that time were inextricably intertwined, contained a great deal of geographical information, complex calculations of angles, volume and area, as well as rich and valuable mathematical information.

But Plato of Tivoli was not satisfied with just translating other sources. He also wanted to share Abraham’s own wisdom, which he had written down in Hebrew, with the Christian world. Relying on the Hebrew he had learned during the years of their joint work, Plato of Tivoli, apparently after his friend’s death, translated the Treatise on Measurement and Calculation into Latin, thus bringing to the Christian world the basics of geometry, trigonometry and the science of algebra. The chapters dealing with division, including the complete solution to the quadratic equation, which were studied by many European scholars, greatly influenced the development of mathematics in Europe. Liber Embadorum, the Latin translation of Treatise on Measurement and Calculation, was one of the direct sources of inspiration for Practica Geometriae, by the well-known mathematician Fibonacci (Leonardo of Pisa, 1170–1250).

Abraham and Plato, a Jew and a Christian living in a war-torn region in 12th-century Spain, sat together and distilled the best of the Jewish, Islamic and European-Christian worlds of knowledge. What might have been a curse became a blessing in the form of a meeting of cultures and scientific progress. Indeed, the Middle Ages may not have been so dark after all.

In the Edelstein Collection for the History and Philosophy of Science at the National Library of Israel, there are a number of books by Abraham Bar Ḥiyya, including the Treatise on Measurement and Calculation, The Form of the Earth and the Pattern of the Heavenly Spheres and the Quadripartitum, Plato of Tivoli’s and Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s joint translation of Ptolemy’s book. 21st century readers of Hebrew are in for a thrill when they realize that they can open up and read books on science and geography that were written over nine hundred years ago by one of the wisest and most prolific Jews who ever lived.

For all of Abraham Bar Ḥiyya’s books in the Edelstein collection at the National Library of Israel, click here.

Protestant Lord George Gordon, AKA Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu

Eccentric politician Lord George Gordon spent most of his peculiar life rallying against Catholics and exasperating the King of England, until he decided, after his first stint in prison, to convert to Judaism. Thus, protestant Lord George Gordon would come to be known as the holy Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu.

Lord George Gordon, The Birmingham Moses, printed by: William Dent, Published by: J Dickie, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

The “malicious, seditious and libelous Lord George Gordon” (in the words of Australian Rabbi Ronald Lubofski) may not have immediately caught the attention of the National Library of Israel. After all, what does a Protestant politician, who spent most of his life rallying against Catholics and being labelled as a madman and a nuisance to the King of England, have to do with us? The answer would probably have been nothing at all, had he not decided after his first stint in prison, to, of all things, convert to Judaism. Lord George Gordon would come to be known as Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu, and live his final years as a faithful(ish) Jew. This is his wild story.

Born in London to rich parents of Scottish nobility and a long line of dukes, George Gordon had every privilege available to a young boy, except for a sane family. His parents were first cousins, and both considered to be a screw short of a toolkit. Only a year after George was born in 1751, his father died, leaving him alone with his peculiar mother and a step-father not much older than himself!

But at least he didn’t spend too long in his bizarre childhood home. By age 11, he was enrolled in boarding school at Eton, but soon ditched the studies for a sailor’s life in the Royal Navy. It was here that he was first considered to be an eccentric, as he petitioned for something wholly unsavory to the upper class at that time: better rights and working conditions for working-class sailors. This penchant for human rights meant that Gordon was never promoted to anything beyond the rank of lieutenant, and he eventually decided to hand in his notice upon finding out that his regiment would be shipped (literally) off to America to fight for the British colony. A believer in American independence, another view which made him liable to claims of insanity, Gordon had no wish to fight against his beliefs, so he quit his maritime role.

The Australian Jewish News (Sydney), 29 October 1993, ‘“Lord George Gordon (Israel ben Avraham ha-Ger)”, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

George Gordon thus found himself a rich and unemployed bachelor in London in the early 1770s, and like many other men of his stature, he turned to a career in politics. Rich white Protestants in those years were reaping the benefits of a system totally in their favor, but our 22-year-old protagonist set out to campaign predominantly for the black community, slaves, and better social conditions for the poor. The working class obviously adored him for this, but his fellow politicians thought him strange indeed. Regardless, feeling nostalgic for his Scottish past, he set out to run for MP (Member of Parliament) of Inverness-Shire, a working-class county in which he was most popular. Unsettled by the competition, the existing MP for Inverness-Shire put some hefty financial pressure on the Gordon family, promising that if George pulled out of the race for this seat, he would make sure that he won a seat in another borough instead. And that is how George Gordon became Lord George Gordon, MP of Ludgershall, South England (If you aren’t familiar with UK geography, this is about as far away from Scotland as you can get!)

But George Gordon was not particularly adept for the House of Parliament. He roused the support of his fellows by berating the opposition party with rousing speeches, but would just as eagerly rain down thunderous criticisms of his own party! He was fiercely opposed to the American War of Independence raging at the time, and spoke out against the King on more than one occasion (a crime for which the punishment would have been death if he was believed to have been sane). The good news was that for all of his theatrics, people didn’t take Lord George all too seriously, and he got away with his antics with nothing more than eye-rolls and head-shakes.

Elsewhere in England, by the 1770s, the once-persecuted Catholics had been regaining their freedoms after some years of anti-papal discrimination. As such, Parliament proposed repealing the law which banned Catholics from fighting in the British Army. Lord George, however, may not have been as crazy as we might think, for he saw through these supposed pro-Catholic sympathies and knew that this bill was just a rouse to enlist more soldiers to fight against the Americans. With this in mind, he started campaigning to entrench the law which stripped Catholics of their rights. These anti-Catholic campaigns, paired with his background as a member of a vehemently Protestant family, resulted in him being elected as the President of the Protestant Association in 1779.

Gordon while head of the Protestant Association, Adamsk commonswiki, via Wikimedia Commons

His following grew rapidly, and aroused the sympathy of Protestants around England and Scotland, and on June 2nd 1780, he led a demonstration, 60,000 strong, to protest Catholic emancipation. As Gordon entered the Houses of Parliament, the huge crowd rioted outside. Gordon ran in and out of Parliament, alternatively delivering stirring speeches about the misplaced loyalties and anti-nationalism of the Catholic Church, and reporting on the internal proceedings to the eagerly waiting crowd outside. With all this excitement, “The Gordon Riots” began in earnest, with shouts of “no popery” heard all over London. Catholic chapels were burnt, houses pillaged, and politicians beaten up. It was days until the army restored command with their shoot-to-kill orders, but by then close to 500 people had died in the riots and exactly a week later, when the ruckus had quietened somewhat, Lord Gordon was arrested for high treason against King and country.

Artist’s depiction of the Gordon Riots, from King Mob: The Story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780, Christopher Hibbert, World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, cover image by R. Bran

Author Lloyd Paul Stryker wrote that Gordon had acted “most wickedly, maliciously, and traitorously did ordain, prepare, and levy public war against our said lord, the King”, but Gordon hired the phenomenal lawyer Thomas Erskine as his defense, who argued that Gordon had not intended to insight treason and could thus plead not-guilty. The jury also considered Gordon fit for an insanity plea and thus found him innocent. But in the 9 months of waiting that had proceeded the trial, George Gordon had seemingly done some teshuva, and was now reconsidering his lifestyle.

Lord George Gordon, The Birmingham Moses, printed by: William Dent, Published by: J Dickie, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the British Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

There is no known reason that Lord George Gordon decided, in these 9 months of uncertainty, that Judaism was the path for him. But The Australian Israelite newspaper posits that the violent rifts within Christianity led him to seek a religion which was less divided, and that the “uniformity” and rigidity of Judaism may have been a safe-haven for him at a time of such uncertainty. We do know that Gordon exchanged some letters with other Jews during those months, seeking to learn more about the religion. He also started practicing Hebrew and petitioned the London Jewish community for political and financial support. Some actually say that his conversion was done purely out of greed. His main electorate had until now been the working class, and he possibly hoped to raise funds within the Jewish community to help secure a more affluent borough in the next elections.

Either way, by the end of his 9-month trial, he had written to Rabbi Tevele Schiff of Duke Street Synagogue, the Chief Rabbi of London, asking to be accepted as a Jew. He was declined. Rabbi Schiff was unclear about Gordon’s motives and turned the eccentric former MP away. But this didn’t deter Gordon. He instead traveled north to Birmingham, where another large Jewish community resided. After donating 100 pounds, a significant amount of money in those days, to the Singer’s Hill Synagogue, he was given the honor of reading a misheberach (benediction) in synagogue, and Birmingham’s Rabbi Jacob agreed to convert him. Gordon underwent Brit Millah, learned Torah, started praying daily, grew a beard, donned a kippah, and started keeping the laws of Shabbat and kashrut. Once an accepted member of the Jewish community, he returned to London where he attended synagogue services and again brought community acceptance with some generous financial contributions.

Tevele Schiff (Chief Rabbi of London), original oil painting in the possession of the Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabbi D Rabbi Yosef Herman Hertz, the Avraham Shwadron Portrait Collection, the National Library of Israel

He renamed himself Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu, dressed in traditional Hasidic clothing, and took off with his tefillin in tow, to Paris. In France, he spent his free time getting on Marie Antoinette’s nerves and making enemies with the French ambassador Jean-Ablthazar d’Adhemar, who sent out a warrant for his arrest. Instead of accepting defeat, Gordon fled to the Netherlands, but they didn’t particularly want him either and dispatched him back to England with a second warrant on his head. Returning to the UK, he pledged to keep a low profile, but in 1786 he was called to bear witness in a Christian legal trial which was taking place on Shabbat. Gordon plainly refused his civic duty to travel to the court on his sabbath and after so long spent dodging the law, he was finally sentenced to five years of incarceration in Newgate Prison.

The Australian Jewish News (Melbourne), 22 August 1969, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

In prison, Lord George Gordon remained religious, putting on his tallit every morning, and creating a minyan from the prison’s selection of Polish Jewish immigrants. He hired a Jewish maid to cook kosher prison food for him, ordered kosher meat, wine and Challah for Shabbat and often invited the other prisoners to feast with him. But Gordon was still far from being a nice Jewish boy. He was also hugely judgmental, saying that Jews who didn’t grow a beard were “shameful” and refusing to give charity to anyone who he didn’t consider pious enough. He wouldn’t interact with any Jew who didn’t keep the mitzvot to their fullest extent, and looked down upon those less religious than him.

The Australian Jewish Herald, 4 February 1937, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

But overall, this fanatically Jewish inmate fared well, and when five years were up, he was finally set to be freed. He was summoned to court for release, but this release depended on two conditions: a promise of future good behavior, and a bail fee. On January 28, 1793, Lord George Gordon was marched into court. In polite society in those days, hats were only to be worn outdoors, and to wear a hat inside a courtroom was an obnoxious insult. The issue was that Gordon was wearing his hat as a kippah, and refused to part with it for even a moment. When the guards eventually removed it by force, Gordon pulled a nightcap and handkerchief out of his pocket. He stuck the nightcap on his head and secured it under his chin with the hankie. For a man trying to prove his sanity, this was not a good look.

Then came the issue of the bail. Despite having more than enough wealth, he refused to pay. “To sue for pardon is a confession of guilt” read the court transcripts. His friends and family tried to step in and pay the bail on his behalf, but again Gordon refused, saying that he was innocent and would therefore not allow a penny to be given in his name. Gordon therefore found himself back in his Newgate cell. What Gordon didn’t know was that this decision would not just determine his freedom, but also his life.

This was because a horrid case of Typhus was sweeping through the prison, claiming many lives, and Gordon was not immune. By October he had caught the disease and on November 1,1793, Lord George Gordon, otherwise known as Yisrael Ben Avraham, died, allegedly while reciting the Adon Olam prayer. Gordon’s burial was left to his family, who ignored his newfound religious persuasions and chose a church ground as his final burial place.

The Westralian Judean, 1 March 1931, and The Australian Jewish Times, 19 February 1970, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

Soon, the name Lord George Gordon was forgotten by most. If mentioned at all, it was almost invariably because of the Gordon Riots, or his anti-colonialist campaigning. His eulogy was simple, and reads as follows: “The leader of the no-popery riots, Lord George Gordon eventually became a Jew and died a madman – his sudden accession to greatness must have turned his head.” Rest in Peace Protestant Lord George Gordon, otherwise known as Reb Yisrael Ben Avraham Avinu.