The Yankee Talmud Gives a Different Spin on Purim of 1892

Purim is upon us! And it so happened that the 1892 American elections happened at around the same time. And so Gershon Rosenzweig, a Hebrew author and Jewish immigrant to the New World, wrote "Tractate America", to answer the question of who will win the election – the one with the most gold.

The large wave immigration of Eastern European Jewry to America began in 1881. For them, America was an unknown country, but was also “der goldener medinah”, a country which promised a safe haven, liberty and equal rights, regardless of religion.

The immigrant Jews saw America as a completely different diaspora than Europe. It was a place where they could continue to live as Jews while taking part in building a new and improved society; a far-cry from the intolerant and tyrannical regimes they left behind.

However, the utopic image of the new land was contrasted with a negative reality of America: an America whose citizens were low class immigrants, an America whose new lifestyle threatens Orthodox Jews, an America devoid of Torah and fear of God.

America, the capitalist country who truly did worship a golden calf.

Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe are received with open arms by their American brothers, late 19th century. From the book “In the Footsteps of Columbus: Jews in America”, The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot, 1987

In a world without internet and television, it was authors and journalists who painted the picture of America for the Eastern European Jews, people like famed Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem (Shalom Yaacov Rabinowitz) and Gershon son of Zalman Leib Rosenzweig who wrote a humorous Purim tractate about the improper characteristics and the ugly deeds and customs “which the Americans are not immune from”.

Rosenzweig was born in Bialystok in 1861. He studied and worked there as a teacher, and in 1888 left to build himself a new future in America. He lived in New York, where he worked in different professions: teaching, a worker in a shoe store and Yiddish journalism. Concurrently he worked “to bestow a Hebrew newspaper on the Jewish people in America”. His love for his beautiful new country did not blind him to its shortcomings, which he wrote about in his special parodic and cynical writing style.

In his own words, he was one of the Americans “who knows this country, and the livelihood and the rottenness [in Hebrew – מחיה וקלקלה a play on words found in the Grace After Meals] within it, and not those who live across the sea and see dreams in America”.

His most famous parody is “Tractate America”, a humorous “Talmudic tractate” in which he criticizes the materialism, spiritual poverty, greed and servitude to money which were also part of Jewish life in America. He wrote especially for Purim and the 1892 elections of that year.

Tractate America from the Yankai Talmud, Gershon Rosenzweig. New York, 1892. Signed by the author.

Rosenzweig wrote the tractate in Talmudic language, in the style of the Talmud with the commentary of “Rashi”. So, for example, one of Rosenzweig’s imaginary “sugyot” (Talmudic topics) asks: Why America?

And the ‘Talmud’ answers: “Because empty [in Hebrew – reikim] and reckless people came to it, and it is the place of an Ama Reika (lit. an empty nation – a stupid nation)”. And: “Because it cleanses [in Hebrew – memareket, a play on the word America] the sins of sinners who become pure in it and of unfit people who become pedigreed in it”.

The humorous Tractate America continues: “Ten statuses came first to America, and they are: murderers, thieves, reporters (of Jews to the secular authorities), ignitors of houses, printers of banknotes, sellers of souls, false witnesses, bankrupt people, people who were excommunicated and rebellious sons. And there are those who say even girls who were tempted”.

Rosenzweig also explains that Tractate America is part of the “Yankai” (Yankee) Talmud. Why Yankai? In the name of the Yankees – the residents of the north eastern states of the USA and “in the name of the citizens who absorbed [yank]) the Torah of America in their childhood“.

It’s All About the Gold

The first edition of Tractate America was published in New York in 1892, which was also an election year. The president elected in those elections was Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th president – the only president in American history to be elected for two non-consecutive terms of office.

This was his second term of office. Cleveland was known as being arrow-straight, a warrior against corruption, and a sworn capitalist who supported reducing taxes and believed that federal government should limit its involvement in economic issues as much as possible.

Part of his election campaign revolved around the American currency policy. At the time, Cleveland fought for “the Gold Standard” – linking the currency to gold, which enabled any person to enter any bank and exchange his banknotes for gold. In the period which preceded Cleveland’s term of office, the dollar was linked not only to gold, but to silver as well, which was less stable.

This caused fluctuations of the economy, which continued, and even worsened, during Cleveland’s term of office. Through no fault of Cleveland’s, his second term of office is known for a series of economic disasters: a railway company collapsed, hundreds of banks closed, thousands of farmers and business owners went bankrupt, the stock exchange plunged, and the country fell into a deep economic crisis. The crisis was so deep-seated that it destroyed the Democratic Party and caused it to split.

So how is a president elected in America? Here are several related “sugyot” found in Tractate America, possibly even on the backdrop of that tumultuous election, and the “Gold Standard”:

How are Presidents elected in America?

Each and every president appointed in America, is appointed by casting lots. What are lots? Bribery.”

According to Rosenzweig’s humorous Talmud, no president is elected without bribing his voters and scattering his gold to “the politicians“.

He adds:

“It says in the Mishna, the gold buys the president and the judge and Rabbi Yankee says even the tyrant.”

This is followed by a scholarly discussion whose conclusion is: “From here we learn that anyone who has gold becomes pleasant, good and pure“.

Don’t believe it? Here is the “sugya” before you:

In humorous tractates and newspaper articles Rosenzweig continued to write satire about the difficulties experienced by the Easter European immigrants and their new lives in America… he is also known for “Tractate Lies” about April Fools’ Day pranks and “Tractate Camouflage” about Purim costumes.

Rosenzweig died in New York in 1914, but has never been forgotten. His works from the “New World” of the time are read and reread to this day by Hebrew readers who find them to still be as relevant ever.

Gershon Rosenzweig

Lucie Dreyfus and Her Fight for Her Husband

The personal letters Lucie Dreyfus sent to her husband Alfred and the extensive correspondence she conducted with the authorities reveal the tremendous efforts she exerted and the personal aspect of one of the most notorious anti-Semitic affairs in history.

Lucie and Pierre Dreyfus, a photograph from 1891. The Dreyfus Family Collection

On October 15, 1895, Alfred Dreyfus, an officer with the rank of captain in the French General Staff, was asked to report to headquarters at nine in the morning in civilian clothing for “an examination of the trainee officers”. Despite the puzzling request, the captain remained unperturbed and parted from his family as he did regularly. It was a pleasant morning, and his three year old son Pierre insisted on escorting him to the front door. The memory of this parting, Dreyfus later wrote in his memoirs, is what helped him cope with everything the following years sent his way.

Colonel du Paty de Clam, who was sent to question Dreyfus, wasted no time and dictated a document to the captain under express orders that he “be fastidious with his writing”. At the end of the dictation, the colonel rose wildly from his chair and declared “I arrest you in the name of the law, you are accused of a serious crime of treason.” Dreyfus was imprisoned in a military jail and was forbidden to contact his family.

“The Martyr”, Graphic (an illustrated weekly newspaper), London 1899. From the National Library collections

During a period of increasing national paranoia – a period in which the French Republic was rife with rumors and reports of treason and the sale of secrets to the German arch enemy – the suitable scapegoat had been found in Alfred Dreyfus.

When a secret document containing a series of military secrets was found being offered for sale, suspicion fell on Dreyfus, the only Jewish officer on the French General Staff. At the end of a short military trial he was convicted of treason and sent to lifelong exile on Devil’s Island, which is close to the shores of French Guiana in South America.

The story did not end there. Before being sent to Devil’s Island, the astounded Dreyfus was forced to undergo a terrible ceremony of degradation in which he was denounced as a traitor to the Republic. During the ceremony, which was held in the courtyard of the military school in Paris, he was stripped of all his ranks, his sword was taken from him and broken and the furious crowd which had gathered screamed anti-Semitic expletives at him.

Despite the drastic deterioration in his physical and mental health during his time in jail, until his dying day, Drefus refused to believe that it was hidden anti-Semitism in the army which led to his terrible ordeal.

Alfred Dreyfus, stripped of his ranks, Le Petite Journal, January 13, 1895. From the National Library’s collections

Upon his arrest, he was given the opportunity to choose the only “honorable way out” in such cases – a loaded revolver was placed in his cell to enable him to take his own life. To the jailers’ great surprise, Dreyfus refused to make use of the revolver and continued to protest his innocence. From the moment he was denied his freedom and his personal dignity, Dreyfus’ family decided to serve as his mouthpiece and worked tirelessly for his acquittal.

While his brother Mathieu acted within legal and diplomatic channels to obtain a re-trial and acquittal for his older brother, Lucie Dreyfus – Alfred’s beloved young wife – decided to invest all her energy into improving the new prisoner’s living conditions.

She sent him letters regularly, in which she updated her husband about their children, his brother’s tireless efforts for his acquittal, and of course, offered him words of encouragement and compassion. In a letter sent on January 16, 1895, Lucie wrote worriedly: “How are you my poor beloved, do you not feel weak because of the prison regime, you, who are in such need of fresh air and movement?”

Lucie’s letter to her husband, Paris, January 16, 1895. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

It can be assumed that she was aware of the conditions in which her husband was imprisoned, and that she knew Dreyfus spent his five years on Devil’s Island living in a filthy shack. Temperatures sometimes reached 120 degrees fahrenheit. No amount of pleading from her would have changed the basic circumstances of his imprisonment, and therefore she tried to ease his lot in different ways. She conducted extensive correspondence with the Ministry of the Colonies, which was responsible for prisoners such as her husband.

On July 2, 1895 she received a reply: “Madame, you contacted our offices in order to receive permission to send fifty bottles of condensed milk to your husband (…) as according to law the exile Dreyfus has the right to take care of his needs and his food at his own expense, I do not oppose you sending these food products directly to Guiana…”

A letter from the Ministry of the Colonies to Lucie Dreyfus, July 2, 1985. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

Other letters which she sent and received from the Ministry of the Colonies prove how persistent Lucie was in her fight to improve her husband’s conditions. Documentation from the archive reveals that Lucie received a letter from the Minister of the Colonies himself, André Lebon, informing her that he rejected several books she sent to her husband under the pretext that their pages were not properly cut.

Letter from the Minister of the Colonies to Lucie Dreyfus, May 5, 1896. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

Resourceful Lucie found a solution, and in a later letter the director of the prison informed her that all the travelogue books she sent to her husband were approved and  passed on to the prisoner.

In 1899, the pro-Dreyfus coalition (known as the “Dreyfusards”) succeeded in securing a re-trial for the convicted officer. When Dreyfus was informed about the re-trial, he immediately sent a moving letter to his wife’s parents – the Hadamards – in which he expresses deep gratitude to their daughter for her support, support without which he would not have survived the grueling period of imprisonment. Why did Dreyfus send the letter to Lucie’s parents? The opening lines provide a clear answer: “If my letter should reach you before my return to France,” he writes to Lucie’s parents, “I ask that you hug Lucie and our dear children on my behalf, in anticipation of the overwhelming joy yet to be felt when I hold them in my arms, and when I will finally be able to help Lucie forget the long years of terrible suffering through a peaceful and happy life.”

The letter Alfred Dreyfus sent to Lucie’s parents. Iles de Salut, June 4, 1899. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

The military tribunal which convened to review Dreyfus’ case found the accused guilty once again, this time of less severe treason, and he was sentenced to ten years in prison. The legal battle originally seemed to have been a further defeat for his supporters (led by Mathieu and other relatives). However, a month after the verdict, the President of the Republic pardoned Dreyfus – on the condition that he confess to his crime. Due to the heavy pressure exerted on him by Mathieu and his many other supporters, he reluctantly confessed. As soon as he was released he began to take action to obtain complete exoneration from any suspicion of treason.

The pain in confessing to the most despicable act a soldier in the service of the Republic could commit, as Dreyfus himself saw it, was dimmed only by the reunion with his wife and children.

The military establishment refused to recognize his innocence, and it was only in 1906, after a long trial, that the judge ruled that all the evidence and claims against Dreyfus were not credible and issued a final ruling exonerating Alfred Dreyfus of any guilt. Despite Dreyfus’ desire to return to the army, his poor state of health (the result of prolonged imprisonment in sub-human conditions) prevented him from continuing to serve the Republic. He was released from all military service a year later. He returned to the army during the First World War and stood by the Republic during one of the most brutal wars in history.

Alfred Dreyfus passed away in 1935, 29 years after receiving the presidential pardon and his freedom.

In 1975, Jeanne Dreyfus-Levi, Alfred and Lucie’s daughter, decided to transfer part of the Dreyfus Family Archive to the National Library of Israel. Out of feelings of closeness and affection for the State of Israel and the Jewish people, she ensured that the most personal and moving family letters dealing with the Dreyfus affair be transferred to the Library.

Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus in their later years. From the Dreyfus Family Archive at the National Library of Israel

The article was written with the generous assistance of Dr. Betty Halpern-Gadez of the National Library of Israel’s Archives Department.

Natan Sharansky’s Little Book of Psalms that Survived the Soviet Prison

During the darkest period of his eventful life, a small black book gave light to the imprisoned Natan Sharansky, symbolizing his connection with his wife and with the Land of Israel

Natan Sharansky's Book of Psalms

“On January 20th, 1980, my birthday, I was impatiently waiting for a congratulatory telegram from home…The next day I received an unexpected surprise – a real birthday gift! – when the official in charge of storing the prisoners’ belongings brought me a tiny book with a black binding, my Book of Psalms!”

(Fear No Evil, Natan Sharansky, translated by Stefani Hoffman, Random House New York, 1988)

This is how former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky describes a rare moment of joy which he experienced on the 21st of January, 1980, when his prison officer gave him back his little black Book of Psalms. The book provided Sharansky with renewed hope throughout the long years of his imprisonment. He was never to be separated from this book ever again.

Natan Sharansky with his Book of Psalms

The book accompanied Sharansky during his most difficult years in prison. In his autobiography, Sharansky tells of how the book, given to him by his wife Avital on the eve of his arrest, was confiscated. As a religious book printed outside the Soviet Union, it wasn’t exactly recommended reading material in the Soviet prison system. At one point, when Sharansky was being transferred from one prison to another, the book was temporarily returned to his possession.  The prisoner took advantage of this opportunity and tore out the page which indicated the book had been printed in Israel. When asked about it later, Sharansky described it as a “book of folklore”. It was only thanks to this that the prison authorities finally agreed to return the book to him.

“The Psalm book was the sole material evidence of my mystical tie with Avital. What impelled her to send it to me on the eve of my arrest? And how did it happen that I received it on the day of my father’s death? The reading of the Psalms not only reinforced our bond but also demystified their author. King David now appeared before me not as a fabled hero or as a mystical superman but as a live, indomitable soul – tormented by doubts, rising against evil, and suffering from the thought of his own sins.”

In 2014, Natan Sharansky visited the National Library of Israel. One of his meetings was with the director of the Conservation and Restoration Department, Timna Elper.

“I was so excited to meet Sharansky,” she said, “I told him of the impact that the story of his Psalm book, as he described it in his autobiography, had on my life.” Sharansky then pulled the tiny book out of his pocket and showed it to her. It wasn’t in great shape, as could be expected after years in a Soviet prison.

Upon seeing the state of Sharansky’s book, the Library administrators who accompanied the visit offered to restore it.


Natan Sharansky’s Book of Psalms, before and after restoration

The book was given thorough treatment in the Library’s facilities.  The heavily damaged cover was restored, torn pages were mended and and the many eroded page corners were treated using the Conservation and Restoration Department’s unique techniques. Finally, on the 8th of May 2014, the Psalm book was returned to its excited owner.

Sharansky receives his Psalm book after its restoration

Towards the end of his autobiography, Sharansky writes about his very last moments of imprisonment, all those years ago, just before he stepped onto the plane that would take him to freedom:

“Where’s my Psalm book?

“You received everything that was permitted,” answered the intellectual in an unexpectedly rough tone. He signaled to the tails to take me away. I quickly dropped to the snow.

“I won’t move until you give me back my Psalm book.” When nothing happened, I lay down in the snow and started shouting, “Give me back my Psalm book!”

The photographers were aghast, and pointed their cameras to the sky.

After a brief consultation the boss gave me the Psalm book. I got up and quickly mounted the ramp.

In a dark world of suffering and injustice, one small black book gave light to the imprisoned Sharanksy. It was a reminder of his Jewish heritage. It was a reminder of his wife, Avital, who gave him the book before his arrest. It was what provided him with the strength to survive those most terrible times.


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Ephraim Moshe Lilien: “The First Zionist Artist”

According to E.M. Lilien, Zionism would be the art of the new Jews through which the new Jews would represent themselves.

Ephraim Moshe Lilien at his desk, 1902. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection

In December 1901 the art nouveau artist Ephraim Moshe Lilien joined his compatriots in the Fifth Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. There, he became part of an art revolution. Lilien, along with the Democratic Faction led by Martin Buber and Chaim Weizmann, called on the World Zionist Organization to adopt a program of Hebrew culture and a greater degree of democracy within the organization

At the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901. Theodor Herzl can be seen in the center along with other Zionist who’s who of the day. E.M. Lilien is sitting on the floor on the bottom right. From the National Library’s Photography Collection

One of Lilien’s most famous pieces of art was the Jewish National Fund (קק”ל) emblem and logo which you can see below. The Fifth Zionist Congress’ most memorable accomplishment was the establishment of the Jewish National Fund.

Jewish National Fund postcard, ca. 1901,Warsaw Levanon Company

Lilien’s friendship with Martin Buber enabled his art to become not merely Jewish, or nor be an artist with who worked with Jewish themes, but to be a Zionist artist and thus part of a movement that was not merely political and social, but cultural as well.

The illustration Lilien created for the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901-02. Warsaw Levanon Company. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

Lilen’s part in the art revolution began he attended the Fifth Zionist Congress. Born in Drohobycz, Galicia (now Ukraine) in 1874. By 1889 Lilien went on to study painting and graphic techniques at the Academy of Arts in Kraków until 1893. It was during that time that Lilien studied under the painter Jan Matejko, considered one of Poland’s greatest historical painters  from 1890 to 1892. Initially his art wasn’t specifically Zionist; at least he didn’t think so. But in 1900 he published his first major art project: He illustrated biblical scenes and Jewish images in the book “Juda, ballads of Börries von Münchhausen”, which is, ironically enough, a Christian retelling of the bible

Dancing in Ancient Israel, an illustration from “Juda”, 1900, reproduced on a postcard published by Charlottenburg

He didn’t shy away from contemporary Jewish issues in his art.  When the Yiddish poet Morris Rosenfeld’s book, “Poems from the Ghetto”, was translated into German, he was commissioned to illustrate it for the German audience. He very seriously and diligently illustrated the suffering of the Jews as they migrated from one form of poverty in Eastern Europe to another in America, where the majority of immigrants became peddlers or sweatshop workers exploited by factory managers.

Eternal Vagabonds, ca. 1903, Warsaw Levanon Company. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

In 1903 the Russian persecution of the Jews came to a head during the Kishinev Pogroms. The Russian Empire’s oppression of Jews made it clear to Lilien that anti-Semitism had to be fought both politically and culturally and that the victims had to be honored.

“In Honor of the Sanctified Dead of Kishinev”, ca. 1903. Of Maxim Gorkis Zbornik, Berlin. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

It seemed that Lilien decided that art would be the gentle sledgehammer with which Jews would break the chains of the Diaspora. And the art of the new Jew would represent the new Jew. The illustration below shows the tension between the opposing forces of the Jewish world at the time. One line shows religious, traditional Jews moving backwards, whereas the other line shows modern, muscular Jews moving forwards towards the horizon.

Father and Son, ca. 1904. Verlag Zion, Wien. From the National Library’s Postcard Collection

Lilien went on several expeditions to the Land of Israel on behalf of the World Zionist Organization. One of these expeditions was with Boris Schatz in 1906, when they established the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, the emblem of which is Lilien’s design. Lilien also taught the school’s first class in 1906. Lilien didn’t stay at Bezalel or in the Land of Israel after that first year. He returned to Berlin in 1907, but continued to visit the Land of Israel periodically until 1918.

The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design emblem

Lilien died in Germany in 1925 at the age of 51. A street in Jerusalem is named for him.

E.M. Lilien in his studio in Berlin, ca. 1910. From the Schwadron Portrait Collection

Information for the article gathered from The Art and Artists of the Fifth Zionist Congress, 1901 and Zionism and the Creation of a New Society.

The article was written with the help of Dr. Gil Weissblei.

All illustrations are by E.M. Lilien.