The False Messiah: Shlomo Molcho’s Fascinating Life

When Portuguese crypto-Jew Diogo Pires met the daring adventurer David Reubeni, his life took an unexpected course. Converting to Judaism, Pires set off around the globe, learning Kabbalah, inspiring the greatest of Rabbis, attempting to create a Jewish army, and most famously, appointing himself as the Messiah.

"Portrait of a Man with A Turkish Hat", Maurycy Gottlieb, cover art for the book "Le Messie", Marek Halter, The Toby Press LCC, Robert Laffont, Paris

In the Kingdom of Portugal lived a group of Christians. These Christians kept the laws of kashrut, shabbat, and niddah. These Christians prayed from Jewish prayer books and learned from the Torah. These Christians did not want to be Christians, and in fact many claim that they never really were part of that religion. You see, these Christians had been born as Jews, but during the Middle Ages they were faced with a choice: convert to Christianity, leave their home, or be killed. They decided to convert, but in their hearts they still knew that they were Jews, and this secret group of people, known as crypto-Jews, continued to practice and believe in Judaism.

At some point between September 1500 and August 1502 (if you are already thinking that this timeframe is a little liberal, I’m warning you that this may not be the article for you!) a little boy was born to crypto-Jew parents, uncircumcised and denied a Jewish identity. He was named a traditional Christian Portuguese name: Diogo Pires. And for all legal intents and purposes Diogo Pires grew up as a Christian boy. He went through the Portuguese education system, doing well academically, and at the age of 21 he was appointed by the Portuguese King to become the royal secretary in the High Court of Appeals of Portugal.

Portrait of a Man with A Turkish Hat, Maurycy Gottlieb, cover art for the book Le Messie, Marek Halter, The Toby Press LCC, Robert Laffont, Paris

Diogo Pires would have made a name for himself in Portugal no matter what, and he was certainly on his way to doing just that, when fate decided that Pires’s life was about to change forever. He owed this upheaval to a man named David Reubeni.

Reubeni was born in 1490 in Khaybar in the Arabian Peninsula, but as with many aspects of Reubeni’s life, this fact is contested. Some claim that he was actually from India or Afghanistan, but considering that we have no proofs with which to confirm any of these myths, we will assume for our own purposes that the story Reubeni told of his own life is true. And according to Reubeni, he was an Arabian Prince and part of the lost Israelite tribe of Reuben (for which he was named). Reubeni had a brother, Joseph, who claimed that he was the King of the Jewish tribe of Reuben, and at least some of his community believed this to be true as he was granted authority to rule the ‘tribe’ with a group of 70 elders. The supposed Reubenite king and his elders kick off our story by sending young David on an important mission.

David Reubeni was an adventurer by trade and a political activist by choice. Shengold’s Jewish Encyclopedia describes him as “half mystic, half adventurer” as he spent his time learning Kabbalah and exploring Europe, carrying out daring missions on behalf of his brother. Arriving in Portugal in 1525, he began negotiating with the King of Portugal to seek an alliance and ask for weapons and money in order to create a Jewish army which would run the Ottoman Turks out of the Land of Israel and thus enable the Jews to regain control of the region. Reubeni needed resources and allies in order to fulfil this extravagant goal, and believed that Portugal, as a competing superpower to the Turks, would help.

An Illustration of David Reubeni on his horse

Considering that Israel is 75, not 500, years old, we know that this wasn’t a particularly successful mission, but it didn’t deter Reubeni. He stayed in Portugal for some time, secretly teaching Kabbalah to conversos and trying to garner support for his army. It was during one of these Kabbalah classes that Reubeni met Diogo Pires. Pires was completely taken by Reubeni and formed a belief that this remarkable man must be the Jewish Messiah. Pires claimed that he was given divine knowledge of this fact by G-d Himself, and would receive ‘visions’ informing him that Reubeni was the Messiah and would soon save the Jews, gather in the lost tribes of the Israelites, redeem the Land of Israel and rebuild the Jewish Temple. Yet again, considering the fact that no Messiah has thus far come to change the world, we know that this wasn’t the case, but to be fair Pires didn’t have that omniscience, despite his best efforts to persuade others that he did!

Diogo Pires believed that Reubeni had been brought into his world by divine providence, and that his entire life’s work was now laid out before him: to join Reubeni on his travels as a middle-aged groupie and preach on his behalf, convincing the world that Reubeni was the Messiah. Reubeni wasn’t very fond of this idea. For whatever reason, he decided that he would rather not have a super-fan attached to his heels, following him around adoringly on his brave adventures. Think: Donkey and Shrek. But unfortunately, Pires decided that no didn’t really mean no – it simply meant try harder. So Pires decided to circumcise himself and change his name, thus officially (well not really, but officially in his mind) converting to Judaism.

He took on the name Solomon Molcho, which has a deep symbolic meaning. Pires was determined to espouse and crown the next Jewish king, thus picking a name of one of the most famous historical Jewish kings (Solomon) and the name Molcho from the word Melech – king. However, this chosen name also has a deeper significance, seemingly overlooked by most literature on Molcho. King Solomon was actually not born with the name ‘Solomon’ (2 Samuel 12:25) – it was a name given to him upon his kingship due to the fact that he brought peace (shalom) to the Kingdom of Israel. When Pires adopted his goal of bringing the kingship back to Israel, and along with it, peace to the world, Solomon was thus an appropriate name to pick, like King Solomon did so many years earlier. Molcho is also evocative of the world Malach or angel, and as Pires believed that he was an emissary of G-d at this point, labelling himself as an angel seemed fitting.

But Reubeni wasn’t impressed. No matter what Pires, who we can now call Molcho, did, Reubeni was a lone-wolf through and through. However, now Molcho had a bigger issue: as we previously mentioned, being openly Jewish in Portugal was a death sentence, and he had just – very publicly – declared that he was Jewish. So, encouraged by Reubeni, Molcho fled from his home country. Additionally, in a turn of events that must have seemed truly unfair to Reubeni, his reluctant association with Molcho meant that he also had to flee Portugal.

From here, the story of Molcho gets a tad sticky. There are many different accounts of what may have come of him after he left Portugal, but we’ll do our best to use all the documents at our disposal to put an actual timeline on his subsequent travels.

All sources agree that Molcho spent time in Salonika soon after leaving Portugal, and we have good reason to believe that this was in fact his first destination after leaving his hometown. This is because Reubeni actually claimed later on, when being associated with Molcho had become a bit of a clout-booster, that he had sent him on an adventurous mission to the Ottoman Empire, which Salonika was a part of at the time. Reubeni doesn’t exactly say what this mission was, but it is more than possible that Molcho was indeed carrying out Reubeni’s will – he certainly had that influence over Molcho! Molcho also claimed in later writings that a divine power had come down to him and directed him to the region – maybe less of a likely story.

Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, Bavarian State Library, Munich, Germany, M. Steinschneider, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, University Library Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt am Main, Germany, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project

Either way, it seems that he ended up in Salonika, where a community of dedicated Jews were practicing their religion. Molcho was drawn to these Kabbalists and studied with them intensely. He was skilled at deciphering Kabbalistic codes and understanding the nuances of the mystical teachings, and he was soon accepted into Joseph Taitazak’s Bet Midrash. Joseph Taitazak, also known as the Maharitats, was one of the most preeminent Kabbalists in the Jewish world. He was known across Europe and the Land of Israel for his mysterious teachings and customs. He was a leading Talmudic scholar and writer, and was convinced by Molcho’s claims to legitimacy. In fact, he financially supported Molcho throughout his stint in the Ottoman realms where Molcho was lovingly accepted by the Kabbalists.

The Deeds of Shlomo Molcho”, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York, NY, USA, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Sefer Hamefoar, Shlomo Molcho, the Ben Zvi Institute, Jerusalem, Israel Ms. 235, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” Project

Molcho studied with the best of the best in the Jewish world, of course spending time in deep discussion with the Maharitats, but also learning with Rabbi Joseph Karo! Karo authored one of  the most important books in Judaism: the Shulchan Aruch, which remains the most comprehensive and widely-consulted book of Jewish law to this day. In fact, being the author of this book is such a big deal that Karo is often simply referred to as “the author” or even “our master.” So it is VERY cool that Molcho studied with him. It’s even cooler that some of Karo’s works actually mention Molcho and the deep respect that the esteemed Rabbi had for him. As a final name-drop, it’s also important to say that Molcho inspired Shlomo Alkabetz in his highly revered works. Alkabetz is the scholar who wrote the piyut (hymn) Lecha Dodi, as well as a wealth of vital books on Talmud, Kabbalah and more.

Joseph Karo (Bet Yosef), The Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Of course, all of this boosted Molcho to fame, and he soon had a growing group of students and followers who hung on his every word. He spoke and published works on Talmud, Tanach and Kabbalah, and preached his beliefs throughout the Ottoman Empire. One such belief was that the Messiah would be crowned in 1540, and many of his loyal followers believed him. They were wrong. But they didn’t know that yet, so they still revered Molcho and all that he had to say, and his students would often beg him to write down his sermons and publish his works, including his ideas of how the Jewish redemption would play out. In 1529 he finally agreed and published many of his sermons in a compilation which he titled “Derashot,” although it was actually renamed “Sefer ha-Mefoar” later on.

Derashot, Shlomo Molcho, the British Library, London, England, G. Margoliouth, Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project
Derashot, Shlomo Molcho, he Ben Zvi Institute Jerusalem Israel, digitized as part of the National Library of Israel’s “Ktiv” project

After this, it seems that Molcho did a bit of traveling. Sources place him in Tzfat, Bavaria, Amsterdam, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Constantinople, with loyal followers in each of these places and a wealth of his own published works now following him around. He documented his letters and dreams in Chayat Kaneh, his ideas of Kabbalah and the messianic days to come, as well as additional letters and even a song he composed in Kitvei Shlomo Molcho.

It is also worth mentioning that by this point Molcho had changed his tune, as was pretty inevitable, and he now believed, after a dream he claimed to have had in 1526, that he was the Messiah. Poor Reubeni had been replaced.

Despite it being a bit complicated to track his exact gap-year-esque travels around the globe, we do know that Molcho arrived in Italy in 1529 and by 1530 he was residing in Rome. Some strange things happened in Rome, but then again strange things seem to be the theme of Molcho’s life, so by now we can come to expect it.

Shlomo Molcho’s Kabbalistic graph, from Kitvei Shlomo Molcho: (The Collected Writings of Shlomo Molcho), edited by Zev Golan and Rinat HaBerman, the National Library of Israel collections

To start, while Molcho was preaching at the Great Synagogue of Rome to a large crowd of Jewish and Gentile followers and interested passers-by, Molcho predicted that there would be a flood in October of the same year. Sure enough, on October 8, 1530, a huge flood engulfed Rome! With his new-found meteorologist hobby, Molcho subsequently and accurately predicted an earthquake which he said would shake Portugal in January of 1531. As promised, on the 26th of January 1531, an earthquake was indeed felt throughout Portugal!

Pope Clement VII heard about these phenomenal feats and asked to meet with Molcho. Deciding that Molcho was the real deal, he granted him protection from the Inquisition and the rising tide of antisemitism that was sweeping across Europe. This was the nail in the coffin for Molcho who was now convinced without a shadow of a doubt that he must be the Messiah. In Sanhedrin 98a, it is written that the Messiah will endure a period of suffering in his lifetime. This came as a blow for Molcho as he had never really experienced suffering. What a shame! But it was no problem, he thought, because he could always inflict suffering on himself! So, Molcho donned the dress of a beggar, found a bridge over the river Tiber which was frequented by sick and poverty-stricken homeless people, and declared a 30-day stint of suffering, in which he refused to stand up, eat meat, drink wine, or be happy. Satisfied with this, he went home after 30 days, took a nice long bath (presumably) and got to work on his arts and crafts. He made a yellow flag bearing the word “MACCABI” – an abbreviation of the verse in Exodus 15:11 which says “Who among the mighty is like unto G-d”. This flag was with him until his (spoiler) eventual demise!

Shlomo Molcho’s handwritten signature, including his hand-drawn flag, Sefer Chayat Kaneh – Chazon Shlomo Molcho, the Gershom Scholem Collection, the National Library of Israel

Before long, Molcho heard news which made his heart sing: his old pal Reubeni was in Italy too, and wished to see him. The pair were reunited, but this time Reubeni saw what a following Molcho had garnered and took him a lot more seriously. This was a bad decision for Reubeni, as you’ll soon see.

By this time Molcho had hatched a plan to fulfil his messianic role and start saving the Jews, so with Reubeni in tow, the pair traveled to Regensburg in 1532, where the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V held court. Molcho and Reubeni were granted a private audience with the Emperor and the three of them engaged in a private conversation which lasted more than 2 hours. It would be amazing to know exactly what was said during that conversation. Unfortunately, we do not. However, there are letters from the court, found decades later, which give us an idea as to what the men discussed. These letters posit that Molcho proposed a joint Jewish-Christian army which would fight against the Emperor’s enemies and conquer the Land of Israel for the Jews. Alternatively, Josselman of Rosheim, an advocate for German and Polish Jews in the imperial court, wrote in his memoirs that Molcho hadn’t been trying to conquer the Holy Land but rather spent the meeting encouraging the Emperor to mandate that the Jews must fight against the Turks and regain their religious freedoms. A third account which appears in the Encyclopedia Britannica states that what Molcho really wanted from the Emperor was money and arms so that the crypto-Jews could stand up for themselves and fight the Ottomans.

Whatever the contents of their discussion, it seems clear that Molcho was trying to form some sort of army to fight the Turks either (or maybe both) in the Land of Israel or closer to home. Molcho assumed that since the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottomans were two of the world’s competing super-powers, the Emperor might be interested in pairing up with Molcho and the Jews to fight against their mutual enemy.

He was wrong. Charles V hated his idea so much that he labelled Molcho and Reubeni as heretics and threats to the order of power. He sentenced Molcho to a trial in Mantua, and Reubeni to imprisonment in Spain. During Molcho’s trial, he was given a choice: revert to Christianity and continue living his life as a good Catholic, or die. Molcho rejected this offer, and chose the death of a martyr. He was burned at the stake. Reubeni also died not long afterwards in prison, and many believe that he was actually poisoned while incarcerated.

Shlomo Molcho, formerly Diogo Pires, lived a life as interesting, meaningful, and confusing as they get. He fought for his beliefs all the way to the end, refusing to give up on what he always said was his path. He may not have been a Messiah, but he did at least try to stand up for the Jews. He may not have been a prophet, but he did gain the respect of some of the leading Jewish figures of his time. He may not have been a scholar, but his books are still widely circulated and read. His life may have been an enigma, but we can still see him for the determined, ambitious man that he was, and know that he undoubtably left his own unique, albeit somewhat bizarre, mark on Jewish history.

Where the Wild Jews Are: Maurice Sendak’s Real Life Monsters

For the monsters in the book "Where the Wild Things Are", Maurice Sendak had in mind people he actually knew. The dark themes of his children’s books, which have been the subject of repeated criticism, reflected the world he inhabited

Writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak against a background featuring characters from his book "Where the Wild Things Are", photo: Clarence Patch

“And when he came to the place where the wild things are

they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth

and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws

till Max said ‘BE STILL!’

and tamed them with the magic trick

of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once and they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.”

From Where the Wild Things Are

“Scary.” “Gloomy.” “Not suitable for children.” “High potential for nightmares.” These were some of the criticisms used to describe Maurice Sendak’s books.

In Where the Wild Things Are, young Max encounters terrifying creatures with pointed teeth and sharp horns after being sent to his room without supper. In In the Night Kitchen (1970), a boy barely escapes drowning in a pot of cake batter, and in Outside Over There (1981), yet another boy is kidnapped by goblins. But despite the dark themes (or maybe because of them?) Maurice Sendak’s books have been a huge international success.

Maurice was born in 1928, the youngest of three children, to Polish-Jewish immigrant parents. His mother Sarah didn’t speak a word of English when she arrived in the United States on her own at the age of sixteen in the early 1920s, following a terrible quarrel with her mother. His father Philip also arrived alone from Poland. Philip’s father, a communal rabbi, cut ties with his son when he decided to leave home and move to the States. From careful reading between the lines of Sendak’s books, as well as from various interviews with the author, it appears that the melancholic atmosphere of his parents’ home, each of whom had left their family behind after a falling out, greatly influenced Maurice and his work. Of course the looming shadow of the catastrophe of the Jewish people in those years also played a part.

Maurice Sendak as a baby with his family, 1928. From the book: The Art of Maurice Sendak

Sendak himself said that he did not grow up in a happy home. His descriptions of his childhood and the atmosphere at home are characteristic of the stories of second-generation Holocaust survivors. Although his parents did not experience the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand, it was nevertheless a pervasive presence in his communal and family space in Jewish-Yiddish Brooklyn. Gloom was an integral part of his home life as a child, and he conveys this in his work.

In his books, he acknowledged the less agreeable parts of childhood and the cruelty and loneliness that can accompany it. “I refuse to lie to children,” he said. That is why, rather than beautifying reality, he chose to write also about the less pleasant experiences of childhood that would be familiar to every child. And perhaps this is precisely the secret of his success.

From Where the Wild Things Are

The clearest example of this is Sendak’s description of his inspiration for the famous wild creatures of Where the Wild Things Are:

“The wild things are my aunts, uncles and cousins who came from the old country, those few who got in before the gate closed, all on my mother’s side. These people didn’t speak English, only Yiddish. And they were unkempt. Their teeth were horrifying. They had hair unravelling out of their noses. And they’d pick you up and hug you and kiss you. ‘Aggghh. Oh, we could eat you up’, they’d say. And we knew they would eat anything. Anything.”

Sketch for Where the Wild Things Are, 1963. From: The Art of Maurice Sendak

The diasporic Jewish context permeated Sendak’s childhood. One tragic personal memory stands out: on the day of his Bar Mitzvah, his father received the terrible news that his entire family had perished [in the Holocaust]. Not a single relative remained alive. He collapsed on his bed and refused to get up. Thirteen-year-old Maurice walked into his father’s bedroom and screamed at him: “You gotta get up, you gotta get up!” And he did. The event took place as planned, but Sendak was left with terrible feelings of guilt for the way he behaved to his father.

In interviews later in his life, Sendak’s descriptions of his parents were unbearably harsh. “They should have been crazy,” he said. These were traumatized, angry people who lived miserable lives.

Sendak didn’t like school, and started drawing at a young age. His first works were very “Jewish.” The first book he illustrated was called Good Shabbos, Everybody, published in 1951 by the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education.

Another Jewish-themed work written and illustrated by Sendak was Chicken Soup with Rice—a lovely book that teaches toddlers about the months of the year, and describes how chicken soup—the traditional Jewish dish known as a cure for almost everything—is suitable for every month.

His parents did not particularly appreciate his work and were even disappointed when he took a job as an illustrator instead of going to university. However, a momentous reconciliation occurred when Sendak was asked to illustrate the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Nobel Prize-winning writer. This was something his parents could be proud of.

Before starting work on the illustrations for Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories Maurice pulled out his parents’ family photo albums from Poland. Inside he found pictures of his father standing next to his tall handsome brothers and women with long hair adorned with flowers. He went through all the albums, selecting some of his father’s relatives and some of his mother’s, and drew them with great precision. His parents burst into tears when they saw the drawings and recognized their relatives. Maurice cried with them. He recalls this as a special moment in their relationship when they realized that thanks to him the memory of their beloved relatives had been made indelible in the book.

Maurice Sendak’s maternal grandparents. From the book The Art of Maurice Sendak

In a way, Sendak saw himself as a Holocaust survivor. He always remembered that he was alive by chance; that if his parents had not boarded the ship from Poland when they did, he would not be here. He and his older brother chose not to have children. “People always ask me,” he once said, “if I am so interested in children, why don’t I have children of my own. The answer is simple: I think I would be a failure as a parent. And I hate to fail. I had a very troubled childhood. As an adult I didn’t feel I had the right qualities to be a parent.”

Maurice Sendak passed away in 2012, at the age of 83. As a person who came from a Jewish-Yiddish background, his life was characterized not only by melancholy and a deep uncompromising desire to tell his truth, but also by a sharp sense of humor. An interview with Emma Brockes of The Guardian just a few months before his death captured his sarcastic wit: The reporter, arriving at his house in rural Connecticut, was greeted first by Sendak’s big German Shepherd named Herman (after Herman Melville).

When Sendak came out to meet her, he whispered to her: “He doesn’t know I’m Jewish”.

Life Inside the World’s First Ever Ghetto

In 1516, the Venetian Republic changed the course of Jewish world history by opening the first ever Jewish ghetto. Amidst deep persecution, segregation and humiliation, the oppressed Venetian Jews were somehow able to create a thriving society in their enclave, and soon Jews were even attempting to get inside!

Images of the Jewish Ghetto, Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

If you ever visit Venice, take the train to St. Lucia Railway Station, and cross the scenic bridge in front of you. Turn right onto the Fondamenta de la Misericordia and continue for a couple of minutes. Before long, you’ll start to smell the rich fusions of Jewish and Italian food wafting out of one of the Kosher restaurants. The smell of fried artichokes stuffed with meat and fragrant sardines mix with freshly baked challot and homemade humous, and if you continue to follow your nose into the Jewish quarter, you’ll notice that you’re in a part of Venice quite different from its surroundings. The second sign that you’re in the right place is that you will notice that you’re looking up a lot more – the buildings here are taller than almost any other area in Venice. You will also see how closely packed together they are, and on a rainy day you may even find yourself stranded as the small alleyways fill up with water.

Soon enough you’ll start to recognize various Jewish establishments: a glassblowing workshop carefully molding fragile shofars and chanukiahs, a sweet shop selling traditional Jewish Italian delicacies, a Jewish hotel, a Jewish cultural museum tracing the history of the Venetian Jewish people, and of course, sooner or later you will find at least one of the five remaining synagogues which still stand in the Jewish quarter.

Images of the Jewish Ghetto (1, 2, 3,) Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Looking at this busting, vibrant area, you may believe that Jewish life in Venice has always been successful, happy and thriving, and to an extent you would be right – but this prosperous history took place against a backdrop of deep antisemitism and segregation. The Venetian Republic at times did almost everything in its power to break down and wipe out the Jewish community of Venice, but it was in the face of this persecution that the Jews expressed the limits of human strength, as they found ways around the oppressive regime and built a society which was so fruitful that it actually grew, rather than diminished – not only were the Jews able to raise families in Venice, but new immigrants often applied to move in, seeking a better life! How this was possible from within the confines of a ghetto and deep antisemitic oppression is testimony to the resilience of these admirable Jews.

Jews have a long history in Italy, and in Venice in the early 16th century the community was thriving. Despite making up only 923 of the city’s 160,208-strong population (according to the 1555 census,) the Jews were overwhelmingly wealthy and controlled many businesses in the region. Most of them were merchants who made healthy profits, rousing their neighbors’ jealousy, and they of course practiced customs and rituals which many non-Jews could not understand, making them alien and strange in the eyes of their peers.

Hence, antisemitism continued to grow and the Jews were “othered” time and time again. Unsure of what to do with this strange segment of the population, the laws regarding Jews fluctuated regularly, alternatively banning their commerce, then realizing that the economy would struggle without said commerce and thus reinstating it; taking away their rights, then realizing that this made the Jews even more reclusive as a community until eventually the government just reinstated them; banning their religious practices, but then realizing that this simply drove their practices underground, making them harder to keep an eye on, so reverting this law too – it seems that no one knew what to do with the Jews!

Stone depictions of the struggles of Jews in the Venetian ghetto, 2011, Venice, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

No one, it seemed, aside from Doge Leonardo Loredan. Leonardo Loredan was born to a noble family in 1436 and became a talented statesman. In 1501 he was elected the 75th Doge of Venice, a position he held for 20 years. He was known for being fearsome and shrewd in matters of war, understanding the law in depth, partaking in an auspicious marriage, and fathering 9 children who also held important leadership roles. He was also the man who created the world’s first ever Jewish ghetto (it should be noted that there had been previous cases of Jews being confined to particular urban enclaves,  but the term “ghetto” was first associated with the Venice Jewish community).

On the 29th of March, 1516, Doge Leonardo Loredan sat down with his senators to discuss what to do about the Jews. This problem had been plaguing Venice for long enough and Leonardo Loredan was determined to be the one to solve it. After hours of intense conversation, they came up with a decree which was enacted immediately: the Jews would be totally and legally isolated from the rest of Venetian society.

With the backdrop of the Holocaust, we may be used to the idea of a ghetto, but in 1516 this was a completely new phenomenon which had never been attempted before. To start, one small area was designated for the Jews to live in. The idea was simple – the Republic of Venice would completely control the lives of the Jews in exchange for their right to practice their religion within the borders of this ghetto.

Images of the Jewish Ghetto (1, 2, 3,) Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The first task was to pick a site. Today we know it as the Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto,) but back in the 1500s this area was just a small and unassuming part of town, best known for its cannon-making foundry. Molten metal was poured into a mold and formed into cannonballs for use in war. This was a dangerous and monotonous task, so the Doge figured that it was the exact sort of job that should be done by the Jews. Hence, the small Jewish enclave was to be built near the factory. Eventually, when the Ghetto Vecchio was deemed too small to hold all of the city’s Jews, the Ghetto Nuovo (New Ghetto) was also added to the site.

Located in the Cannaregio Sestiere of Venice (one of Venice’s six districts,) this area wasn’t only chosen for its foundry, but also for its bridges. The ghetto only had two bridges with which people could use to enter or leave, meaning that if they were closed, the entire ghetto could be essentially trapped inside. From 6pm each evening until St. Mark’s Campanile Belfry rang its largest bell (the Marangona) at 12pm the next day, the ghetto was closed-off entirely. No one could come in or out. Christian guards circled the ghetto on boats after dark, making sure that no Jew attempted to brave the canals and escape during the night. Any Jew who was found by the surrounding neighborhood’s surveillance teams outside of curfew would face harsh penalties including imprisonment and financial losses.

The ghetto was also closed off with high walls, and the surrounding quays were bricked-in to make coming or going virtually impossible without permission. The Christians who had previously lived in the area were moved out into the far superior homes and villages which once belonged to the Jews, and the ghetto became known as a dark and imposing place which locals would avoid at all cost.

Plaque commemorating prominent Jews of the Venice ghetto, 2011, Venice, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The word “ghetto” has a number of possible origins. The word geto means foundry, which was the main factory in the area, but it’s also linked to the words gatwo (street,) borghetto (little town,) and gettare (to throw away unwanted items). Oxford University claims that these etymological theories are speculative at best, but Marcella Ansaldi, the Director of the Jewish Museum in Venice, agrees with the theory that the word ghetto comes from gettare, symbolic of the “throwing out” of the Jews from the rest of the city.

By the end of the year 1516, 700 Jews already inhabited the ghetto. The Jews were promised military protection and the freedom to practice their religion within the ghetto confines, but aside from that, the laws were harsh. Jews had to wear identification markers to alert others of their religion, their tax and rent was much higher than that of non-Jews, the living conditions were poor and cramped, and only a few jobs were available to them. Most Jews worked as moneylenders, doctors, traders and salesmen, but some were also forced to work in the pawnshops of Venice at low rates set by the government. Because Jews struggled to enter and exit the ghetto, many simply couldn’t find meaningful employment.

Jewish books printed in the Venetian ghetto:                                                          Fugger’s First Venetian Miscellany on Kabbalah, 1548, Scribe: Yaakov ben Yosef & David ben Moshe,
Venetian Biblical Commentaries, 1552, Scribe: Meir Yishai ben Yehiel,
Machzor, 1642,
Slichot, 1735,
Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

As time progressed, it also became difficult for their trade industry to continue, as foreign Jews were restricted from staying in the ghetto for work and trade from the year 1541. Only if government officials explicitly allowed a Jewish trader into Venice would they be permitted to attempt to find accommodation in the already overcrowded ghetto, but the terms of their stay were still limited to a few days and they could not bring any family members with them. That, therefore, was essentially the end of Jewish prosperity in Venice, at least for a little while. Most Jews went to work in the cannon factory or took up selling secondhand items and clothes to make a modest living.

However, as time went on, the community of Jews in the ghetto grew steadily. 100 years later they had reached a population of over 5000! This was not a mistake – Jews really did start trying to move into the ghetto! For all the struggles that the Jews had to endure, they started to find ways to excel at life, despite their confines. Working with what they had, they began opening butchers, bakeries, and shops which were popular with all locals, and money started entering the little quarter. Soon it became a market hub for Venice locals and visitors, and as Jews would only spend their own money inside the ghetto, there was a strong inflow and little outflow.

The tall buildings which housed far too many people grew even higher, making room for all the new immigrants. Today these buildings are in desperate need of restoration lest they collapse, and a few different local groups have set out to preserve the most important of them already.

This newfound Jewish money was used to build new and better infrastructure. Some of the most important constructions were the synagogues: The German Jews built their Scuola Grane Tedesca, the native Italians had their Scuola Italiana, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews formed the Scuola Spagnola, the Levantine Sephardim built the Scuola Levantina and the Ashkenazim erected the Scuola Canton.

Scuola Levantina in Venice (1, 2, 3,) 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Scuola Italiana in Venice (1, 2,) 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection,  the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Scuola Canton in Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Scuola Grande Tedesca in Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel
Scuola Grande Spagnola in Venice, 2011, Photographer: Vladimir Levin, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

The Scuola Grane Tedesca, or the Great German Synagogue, was the first synagogue to be built in the ghetto, in 1528. It still exists today and appears to be a fairly traditional Ashkenazi synagogue, but now it is used as a museum, not a house of prayer. The second synagogue constructed was the Scuola Canton, just four years later. The Ashkenazim were increasingly noticing a rift between the Germanic and French Venetian cultures, so the French decided to break away and form their own community and build a new synagogue, the Scoula Canton, for the Provençal Jews, which would include French architecture and additions to the prayer service. Today this synagogue is also part of the Jewish Museum of Venice.

Next, the Scuola Italiana, or the Italian Synagogue, was built in 1575, to service the local-born Jews. The native Jews were not in the area because of trade or business but because of ancestry, and were therefore the poorest of the groups. Thus, it is the smallest of the synagogues, housing only 25 worshippers. Despite a lovingly-decorated interior, no money was left to enhance the synagogue’s façade, so it remains unremarkable as a building, and blends into its surroundings.

Constructed only 5 years later, the Scuola Spagnola, the Spanish synagogue, was home to the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490s. Constructed so shortly after the Scuola Italiana, the Spanish Jews wanted to behave according to local customs, so followed the lead of the Italians and only decorated the inside of the Synagogue, leaving its exterior bare and unremarkable. This synagogue still functions as a house of worship between the start of Passover and the end of Sukkot each year.

In 1541, the Venetian government came to an arrangement with some Levantine merchants who had also originally fled Spain. The Venetian government allowed them to live and trade in the ghetto, and so it was that in 1689 they opened the Scuola Levantina – the first synagogue to be built from scratch and not in a pre-existing building. They wanted it to be larger than the Spanish synagogue and couldn’t find a building that would fit the bill, so they constructed their own!

Between all these communities, the ghetto Jews spoke Venetian, Italian (yes, it’s different to Venetian,) Judeo-Spanish, French, German, and Hebrew, which was the language used in traditional Jewish documents such as Kettubot.

As commerce grew, books, and especially religious books, began to emerge from the ghetto. Soon enough, printing presses were set up to print books in Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish, and many famous works were produced from within the ghetto, such as the 1609 Venice Haggadah which is one of the most famous Haggadot in the world. The first press-printed edition of the Talmud, the Bomberg Talmud, was also produced in Venice at this time, instantly becoming a best seller and taking the Jewish world by storm. The riveting story of this Talmud can be found here.

Venice Haggadah of 1609 (1, 2, 3, 4,) Folios, Printer: Israel ha-Zifroni of Guastalla, CJA,  Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Venice Haggadah of 1599, Fol. 2, Printers: Shlomo Hayyim and his son Avraham, CJA, Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

So it was that the Jewish ghetto in Venice grew to become well-known around the world, and increasing pressure was put on the Venetian government to dissolve the harsh rules that governed the ghetto, but these pleas fell on deaf ears. Finally, in 1797 after more than 250 years, Napoleon and the French Army of Italy captured Venice and commanded the Venetian Republic to disband. Two months later, on the 11th of July, 1797, the ghetto finally opened its borders and shed its laws of discrimination.

Napoleon declared that Jews would be treated as equals, and Venice would no longer be allowed to operate under a system of segregation. The ghetto was renamed Contrada dell’unione (The Union District) to represent their reunion with the rest of Venice, but many Jews remained in the district, although under happier circumstances.

Today, the former ghetto still represents the Jewish Quarter of Venice, and it is a hub for religious life in the city. Around 450 Jews live in Venice today but only about 30 of these Jews (around 12 Jewish households), still live in the ghetto area, due to the fact that it’s a very expensive zone.

All 5 synagogues still remain standing, and the 3 central ones are bordered by a Jewish Museum which explains the history of Jewish Venice. Today’s religious Jews tend to worship at the Levantine Synagogue in the winter as it’s the only synagogue with central heating, but they use the Spanish Synagogue in summer as it has a nice breeze. All 5 synagogues host religious lessons, Talmud classes, children’s Jewish studies, courses in Hebrew, and other events. There is also a Jewish kindergarten, yeshiva, Judaica stores, and old age home in the area of the Old Ghetto.

Jewish items from the Venice ghetto:                                Torah Amulet, 1700s,
Torah Coronet, 1600s,
Torah Crown, 1755,
Book binding, 1550, Yishai ben Yehiel, Yaakov ben Yosef, Itzhak ben Elijahu Manosh,
Center for Jewish Art Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the National Library of Israel

Each year thousands of visitors, both Jewish and not, come to see the ghetto, attend the International Conference on Hebrew Studies held there, or join one of the other Jewish conferences, exhibitions and seminars which also take place in Venice at different points during the year. The floating canal-boat sukkah and floating chanukiah also attract crowds of tourists at the appropriate Jewish festivals.

Unfortunately, rising water levels and lack of proper construction means that many of the buildings in the ghetto are falling to ruin, but renovations are beginning to occur, and as Jewish infrastructure once again offers good job opportunities, Jewish families are slowly beginning to move back into the area.

After 500 years, it is hard to know exactly what life must have been like for the Jews living in the world’s first ghetto, but of some things we can be certain: the Venetian government did all it could to take away the rights and freedoms of the Jews in Venice, subjecting them to harsh discrimination, unfair rules, financial hardships, and restricting their freedom of movement. Yet, even in the face of this, the Jews decided that they would not be trampled on and they continued to stand strong, making the best of a very bad situation. They not only got through the period with dignity and grace, but they also managed to do so with financial success, a growing community, new and exciting places of worship and infrastructure, and success on all terms. If there’s a lesson to learn here, it’s that even in the face of antisemitism and adversity, Jews can, and will, rise up time and time again.

The Jewish Designer Who Transformed the Future of Modernism

World-renowned designer Josef Frank rebelled against artistic norms, delivered scathing critiques of fellow artists, and was repeatedly forced to defend his identity. Despite this, he became one of the most famous, if also one of the most controversial, Jewish designers in history.

Josef Frank's original watercolor from a 1936 tufted carpet, The life of Josef Frank, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

“We should design our surroundings as if they originated by chance,” wrote Josef Frank in his essay Accidentism. This may seem like a strange sentence from a celebrated interior designer – someone famous for placing color, light and object with such focused intention. But Josef Frank was never going to fit into the mold and adhere to the conventions of those around him – it simply wasn’t in his nature as a defiant, opinionated, Jewish artist.

In the agricultural, Ashkenazi Jewish village of Heves in Eastern Hungary, Isak and Jenny, two young religious locals, fell in love and were betrothed to one another. Moving to Austria to start a new life of opportunity together, they gave birth to a son and named their little boy Josef – little did they know how important the name Josef Frank would become.

Josef Frank grew up to be a proud Austrian, and a creative, opinionated youth. He enrolled to study architecture at the Vienna University of Technology, and it was there that, despite his professors’ best efforts, he discovered a hatred of interior design. “Away with universal styles,” he wrote. “Away with the idea of equating art and industry, away with the whole system that has become popular under the name of functionalism.” – The idea that homes and buildings should be fashioned by a designer who has never experienced those spaces and will never have to live in those spaces frustrated him. He believed that a home was a sanctuary and not something to be filled with artistic yet essentially useless objects.

But, as most of us turn away from the things that we despise and pursue other passions in their place, Josef Frank did the opposite. He ran towards interior design head first, and decided that instead of abandoning architecture to those whom he felt didn’t do it justice, he would enter the field himself, and rip up the rulebook from within.

In 1921, only two years after Frank and his unconventional attitude had been accepted into the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, his father Isak passed away. Isak and Jenny were traditional Jews and Josef knew that it was important for them to be buried in Jewish graves. He went and sought out the Jewish section of the Vienna Central Cemetery, looking for two side-by-side plots for his religious parents, but he couldn’t find a grave that pleased him.

Grave of Isak and Jenny Frank in the old Jewish section of the Vienna Central Cemetery. It was designed by their son, Josef Frank. Via Wikimedia Commons

Thus he was faced with his first real-life design task. He wanted to create a set of Jewish gravestones that would satisfy his parents’ traditional roots, while remaining true to his own ideals of functionality, so he came up with a simple modernist design. This morbid project resulted in Josef Frank’s fateful realization that object design was an area he excelled in, and pursing this dream together with two other prominent designers of the day, he set up Haus & Garten in 1925, a design and furniture company that focused, in the words of architectural journalist Marlene Ott, on “the use of light, flexible and convenient, stand-alone pieces of furniture, combining different forms and materials, and allowing homeowners to arrange them according to their own precise needs.”

In this way, Frank rebelled against the prominent Austrian trend of Gesamtkunstwerk, the idea of creating a complete stylized interior in which everything has its own place and comes together to form one singular piece of art. Instead, Frank focused on workable items which would allow each individual to customize their own space, rather than conform to uniform standards.

Terrazzo 1885-1985, Josef Frank commemorative poster, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

So it was that Frank found himself looking for a way into the already crowded European design market, but he had an edge that many others lacked: his religion. Many of Frank’s peers and community members were middle- and upper-class Jews with money to spend on home furnishings. The majority of Haus & Garten’s clients in those days were therefore rich Jews who had ties to Frank and his family, and helped boost his brand to fame. Design historian Elana Shapira writes that Frank “developed a unique principle of empowerment in design during his early career while designing the homes of members of Viennese Jewish families.”

It was ironically while he was rising to artistic fame with the help of his Jewish roots that life started to turn on its head for Josef exactly because of this Judaism. As the Nazis came to power, Josef Frank had the foresight to know that this would not be a positive development for him. He decided to move to Manhattan and the relative safety offered by the USA, but soon after meeting his Swedish wife Anna, she convinced him that he would be both safe, and able to continue flourishing as a designer, in Sweden, and together they moved to Anna’s home country, where Frank gained citizenship in 1939 and lived out the rest of his days in the Scandinavian town of Stockholm.

Josef Frank’s application to emigrate from Austria, Application submitted in Vienna (Austria), May 14, 1938, the Vienna Jewish Community, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel
Josef Frank’s application to emigrate from Austria, Application submitted in Vienna (Austria), May 14, 1938, the Vienna Jewish Community, the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, the National Library of Israel

It was there that he found Svenskt Tenn, or more likely, Svenskt Tenn found him! Just 9 years earlier, the wonderfully artistic Estrid Ericson had set up her design company, and it was soon flourishing. When she hired the controversial Austrian Jew Josef Frank, she was taking a huge gamble, especially as his Jewish genealogy meant that his citizenship in Sweden wasn’t guaranteed to be permanent, but the risk paid off and Frank helped boost the firm to become the most prominent design company in all of Sweden (IKEA hadn’t yet been founded!)

Svenskt Tenn order form, 1985, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

Frank believed that design should be an answer to the day-to-day functionality of life, and reflect modern needs. Pursuing this ideal, he mixed trends from the past with future predictions, and created a new way of designing which shocked many. In the media, he was criticized for his “feminine interiors,” and he was often forced to swim against the tide of modern-day architectural norms.

Despite this, Josef Frank fit into Swedish society well, and he loved the socialist values that he was greeted with. As the Nazis continued to rise to power, it was not just Jews who sought refuge in neutral Sweden, but many minority groups, and those who were fleeing what would become the battle grounds of World War ׀׀. Many of these refugees ended up in Sweden, for which the country was not well equipped. But that’s where Frank fit in. He had experience designing functional homes, and was commissioned by the municipal government to create vast social housing blocks for these fleeing Jews and refugees, many of which are still standing today. In stark contrast to other social housing, these blocks were attractive and meticulously designed with aesthetics in mind. Blending together livability and beauty was, after all, Frank’s objective. This may seem normal to us, but actually this was one of the many forays that led to his expulsion from the International Congress of Modern Architecture, who found that he held an “increasingly critical attitude” towards the harsh functionalism, metals, and concrete on which they believed that the new world would be constructed.

The life of Josef Frank,  the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

But Frank was not only a master of design, he was also an intellectual. Brother of philosopher Philip Frank, Josef did not escape the curiosity gene which was so clearly part of his DNA. Frank’s assistant Ernst Plischke said of him that he “wasn’t really an architect, but an intellectual who built ideas.” Most of Frank’s time was spent in deep philosophical ponderance of architecture, and he wrote widely on the topic, including authoring architectural novels which spanned 400 pages or more! After his death, another 800 or so pages of manuscripts with his musings on design were found, and wait eagerly to be published.

Most of Frank’s writings were derisive criticisms of modern design, which he said was led by “extremists.” As a man who had experienced the Nazi uprising, it is unclear how he could have believed that glass coffee tables represented extremism, but he acutely felt that home designers were misguided. He thought that houses were becoming art galleries instead of places for living, and one can only image what he would have thought of the stylistic minimalism which is so popular today! He was probably the first proponent of what we might call ‘Scandi’ design – simple spaces with lots of room to move around, and furniture carefully placed to meet the needs of its occupants.

In his work Accidentism, he attacked German designers, saying that their “applied art has become a problem and destroyed the whole meaning of those objects with which it has become concerned, filled them with pathos, and hence rendered them useless.” It is clear to see what he means but the critique is perhaps a tad unfair, as his own furniture design was sometimes whimsical or colorful and often made use of space in unconventional ways too. But above all, Frank really never did stray away from his priority of well-being, saying that “one can use everything that can be used and making sure that if nothing else, his furniture would be comfortable and agreeable to use. He was widely criticized for his usage of patterns and upholstery, as well as vivid colors and movable furniture. He left blank spaces in rooms, intended for users to fill, in stark contrast to the predominant attitude of filling a designed space. Almost every prominent Scandinavian and German designer had some comment on Frank, and often they were not positive. Thankfully he could dish out the scathing remarks as fast as they were received.

Josef Frank was constantly under attack for his ideals and creations. But more than that, he was under attack for his identity. He had suffered greatly under the auspices of antisemitism, and despite the fact that his Jewish connections had bolstered his career, they also nearly brought about his downfall. Some German artists didn’t take his criticism seriously, assuming that it was just a rebellion against their country’s complicity in the Holocaust, and they saw his insurgence against traditional European art as one born from a place of trauma and rejection.

Josef Frank’s original watercolor from a 1936 tufted carpet, the Josef and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Folklore Research Center, the National Library of Israel

In fact, Frank became so distressed by constantly having to defend his Jewish identity that he decided to distance himself from religion altogether. Despite having been born to traditional Jewish parents, Frank didn’t follow religious customs, and promised that Judaism’s influence on his art was negligible. It is a great shame that the negative forces of antisemitism pushed Frank to abandon his roots, especially as this Judaism was what propelled him into architecture in the first place.

Even further, his art almost seems reactionary to his Judaism. Take, for example, his candelabra – a gorgeous set of candle sticks, fused together with gold tubes – they look exactly like Shabbat candle sticks, aside from only being created in sets of 3, never 2, forbidding a Jew to use them for sanctification of the Sabbath. Or his dishes – beautiful glass kitchenware, which he labeled as “for lobster and seafood” – meals which are decidedly non-kosher. A candlestick in the shape of a sun – reminding the viewer of Christ’s halo and also portraying a symbol prohibited to depict in Judaism. Add to this the even more explicit Christmas baubles, Easter decorations and an entire dining set created for a “crayfish party”. His only noted Jewish design (his parent’s gravestones) was of tragically morbid origins. Frank’s rebellion against Judaism makes sense in the context of his life – it was due to his Judaism  that he was forced to flee his home country, and many critics discredited him, believing that his fame was due only to his Jewish connections. His troubled relationship with Judaism shines through in his work, but despite this, his philosophy was Jewish in its entirety – to make use of life’s offerings, to utilize spaces to host guests, lay down roots, and feel safe in one’s own family-friendly home. Despite his insistence on secularity, there is something uniquely Jewish in his large dining tables, bright table cloths, pomegranate and grape vine patterns – these are pieces that simply couldn’t help but fit into the home of an Ashkenazi Jewish bubbe.

Josef Frank left behind a rich and full legacy. He wanted design to be “fun and accessible,” but he felt that he had not succeeded in this goal. “Everyone needs a certain degree of sentimentality to feel free. That will be lost if we are forced to make moral demands of every object, including aesthetic ones,” he wrote in Accidentism, but he supposed that he never quite managed to convince the world around him of this value. He died not knowing what an impact he had made on the future of modernism, and feeling lonely and isolated. He had abandoned his religion, his home country, and belittled many of his peers in pursuit of his one true passion, and despite dedicating his life to a philosophy of design, he had not managed to convince many people of its correctness.

Memorial plaque for Josef Frank in Vienna’s 4th district, Wiedner Hauptstraße 64, Feldkurat Katz, via Wikimedia Commons

Depressed and disconnected, he passed away, not quite understanding how celebrated he had really been. Maybe he was not able to convince the whole world of his own beliefs, but it didn’t mean that people didn’t listen. They did. In the 1980s, there was an upsurgence in demand for his joyous and colorful works, which started to do exceedingly well on auction floors. IKEA decided to model some of their pieces after his signature style of modernism, and now his designs sell for tens of thousands of dollars. If only he could have seen that his life was not in fact a waste, as he sometimes believed it to be. In actuality, he is surely one of the most celebrated of all Jewish designers, and maybe even one of the foremost designers in world history.