The Old Moorish Synagogue in One of England’s Densest Muslim Neighborhoods

Posted by dianamuir on April 21, 2013
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During a trip to England two years ago I drove up to Bradford to see the old synagogue.    I have an interest in historicist architecture – identity statements made in stone – and a passion for Islamic architecture.

Bradford is perhaps the most authentically Islamic of the many Jewish synagogues built in what is known as the Moorish Revival Style.   Handsome Moorish synagogues like the one in Bradford  a dual statement: we are part of the public life of this community, and we are a people with ancient roots in the East.    According to Sharman Kadish, the  Jewish community of Victorian Bradford was mostly made up of Reformed Jews from German-speaking communities in Central Europe, where Moorish synagogues were extremely popular.

A member of the synagogue had agreed to meet me and let me into the building; he very kindly waited as I made several wrong turns, calling him on my cell as I bumbled through roundabouts and no-right-turn signs before finding my way to  Manningham, a south-Asian neighborhood of substantial Victorian town houses and a lovely park bursting with daffodils.  I finally located the synagogue.      The building’s Lombard stripes, Ogee arched windows, and Hebrew inscriptions were unmistakable.

The interior is beautiful, especially the Torah Ark set into an exquisitely carved horseshoe arch.

The Bradford synagogue was part of an admiring wave of Orientalism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century.   Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra was a great best-seller.   Artists flocked to the paint the dazzlingly exotic Near East.   And Westerners built exotic orientalist buildings, like P. T. Barnum’s  house in Connecticut, Iranistan.   The Royal Pavillion at Brighton, England.   Exotic Olana on Hudson.   And the Arab Hall at Leighton House, London.

But the greatest number of Moorish revival buildings were  synagogues.   There were over two hundred Moorish revival synagogues, although a complete count has never been made and some of the smaller European examples may go unrecorded.   A surprising number survive, including  the  Budapest’s exquisitely beautiful  Rumbach Street synagogue, an eight-sided architectural homage to Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock designed by the great Viennese architect Otto Wagner, which, like many old world synagogues, is far more magnificent inside than out.     Americans may know   the soaring minarets of Cincinnatti’s Plum Street Temple, the onion domes of  Temple Beth-El in Corsicana, Texas or the funky Moorish roof line of the little synagogue in Owensboro, Kentucky.

The Bradford Synagogue can take its place among the most handsome and authentic buildings of the Moorish revival, but it must  have looked dramatically exotic in the Bradford of 1880.     On the day I visited the neighborhood, there were a smattering of people in western dress, but the streets of Walsingham at midday on a Thursday were filled with mothers in hijab pushing baby strollers, and clusters of men and boys in shalwar kameez.

The congregation has been kept open until now by the sentimental attachment of members and the children of former members who live elsewhere.   It opened a suburban location years ago; that building has recently closed.

Whether the old Moorish revival building on Bowland Street can continue to function as a synagogue, even with the help and support of its Muslim neighbors, is an open question.    If it does not, it will make a handsome mosque with an exquisite mihrab in the center of one of Britain’s liveliest Muslim neighborhoods.



Before Religion

Posted by dianamuir on April 16, 2013
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Brent Nongbri explains how the West constructed  a category,  and came to believed that it was a valid description of the real world.


Modern Conceit; Review by William T. Cavanaugh in May, 2013  First Things.

Misappropriating Patriots’ Day

Posted by dianamuir on April 16, 2013
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In the divisive, tensely political years when ungrateful colonists destroyed private property of the Boston Tea Party, when mobs attacked His Majesty troops the Boston Massacre and unruly subjects took up arms against a legitimate Parliamentary government and the American Revolution, public commemorations were a tool used by advocates of American rights to increase commitment to their cause.    The revolting Americans celebrated the anniversaries of the Boston Massacre, the Battle of Bunker Hill,  and April 19th – the day a political struggle turned into war at the Battle of Lexington and Concord.   These celebrations were not holidays; they were pro-Independence political rallies.   In 1777 the Fourth of July joined them as one more pretext to rally the sometimes fading enthusiasm of ordinary men and women to support the fight for independence.

After independence was won and the Treaty of Paris signed, Americans lost interest in celebrating the Fourth of July.   The holiday was  revived to by political activists fighting for and against a proposed Constitution that would replace the Articles of Confederation with a stronger federal government.       New York and Rhode Island were implacably opposed to a federal constitution.    If you read the Constitution carefully, you will find that it says, “Done… by unanimous consent of the states present” at the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787.  What is actually means is: done without Rhode Island and New York.

The fight over ratification was famously bitter in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Virginia, South Carolina and New York.   (Rhode Island didn’t have enough pro-Federalists to stage a debate.)    By mid-June 1788, nine states including Massachusetts, New Hampshire and South Carolina had ratified.   Formally, 9 was enough.  But it was clear to everyone that with New York saying ‘nay’,  if Virginia also refused to ratify the new federal government would be too weak to function.   By June everything hung on Virginia.   Virginia ratified on June 26.

This was the eighteenth century.    The telegraph had not yet been invented.   News of Virginia’s ratification did not reach Albany until the July 3.   On the morning of the Glorious Fourth, feelings were running high as the Anti-Federalists fired the customary 13 salutes, and ignited when they burned a copy of the Constitution.     Federalists – who had  drunk more than was good for them  –  fired 10 salutes in honor of the 10 states that had ratified and were marching home when they met anti-Federalists – who were also three sheets to the wind.   The anti-Federalists were mad as hops over the politically-motivated firing of 10 salutes instead of 13; and they were  armed with clubs, stones, and a field-piece.   The battle lasted 20 minutes.  The Federalists won.  Several men were wounded, one killed. (Appelbaum, The Glorious Fourth, pp. 30-32.)

That, however, was as violent as the battle over the Constitution got.   The fight was  bitter.  Federalists and anti-Federalists formed two opposing political parties and refused to sit down together for dinner on the Fourth of July.   Towns had two speeches, two dinners, two celebrations.    The invective of Federal-era politics can make today’s scurrilous  tweeting sound downright genteel.   But before 1860 and since 1865, the fiercely held differences of opinion over how this country should be governed have been settled by persuasion, compromise and vote.   Not by violence.

Holidays are part of that debate, subject to being used as political tools the way both pro- and anti-Federalists once used the Fourth of July.   Columbus Day, for example, was created as part of the Italian American political struggle to gain recognition as “real” Americans.   It became so popular that Amerindian activists now use it to stake their claim for redress of the  grievances of conquest.  Politics is noisy and messy and groups that enlist holidays to enhance their message may or may not carry their point.

A right-wing group has attempted to appropriate Patriots Day by inverting the nature of the American Revolution, particularly the role of the minute men at Lexington and Concord.

Far from being a set of rugged individualists, the men who stood up to the British Army at Lexington Green were the democratically organized male population of the town of Lexington.   And Lexington was not unique.   In Massachusetts a political consensus was reached long before anyone picked up a musket.    A decade of intense political debate, rallies, marches, Liberty Trees, lithographs, and provocations like the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party had resulted in a population democratically committed to standing up to the Crown in defense of their right to self-government.

Gun powder was stored in church towers at a time when the congregation and the citizenry in most Massachusetts towns were virtually identical, the citizen militia of the Commonwealth was  pledged to act together should the British attempt to impose the imperial will by armed force, and  almost the entire membership of the Massachusetts legislature had convened in Concord, not in the capital at Boston.  Moving the Massachusetts legislature to Concord was not exactly secret, it was clandestine, against the will of the Crown, and done with the full backing of the great majority of the citizens.    The battle, when it came, was not an act of  individuals, it was the consensus decision of the people and government of Massachusetts.

If the modern movement that calls itself a militia and claims to stand on Patriots Day in the footsteps of the men on Lexington Green  really believe that they know how America should be governed, they should do what Sam Adams did and devote themselves to the hard, political  work of persuading their fellow citizens to agree with them.





Nazis and the Greek Revival in Munich

Posted by dianamuir on March 18, 2013
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An odd thing happened to the Kings of Bavaria in 1832.   Greece had just won a war of national liberation from the Ottoman Empire with a major assist form the British and French navies, and both Britain and France felt that providing the new nation state with a  constitutional monarchy would be the best way to ensure stability.   But where to find a King?   The King of Bavaria, Ludwig I, happened to have both an extra son and ancestors who belonged to Byzantine imperial families.   And so Prince Otto of Bavaria became King of Greece, and the Kingdom of Bavaria became the European state with the greatest enthusiasm for  Greek Revival architecture.

Visitors to Munich can see the Bavarian enthusiasm for  the idea that a local boy had become King of Greece on display in the Neue Pinakothek, (museum for nineteenth century art) where entire rooms are filled with views of Greece; in the Bavaria National Museum (a decorative arts museum), where a model of Otto stands in full costume tsolias; at the enormous  Hall of Fame that Ludwig built in Greek Revival style featuring a monumental statue of Bavaria cast from Turkish bronze cannon captured at Navarino (the battle that liberated Greece); and – this is the segue to Nazis –  at the Koenigsplatz (Royal Square).   Here Ludwig built a large plaza  with a monumental ceremonial arch in the style of the entrance to the Acropolis at one end, and two, grand, Greek Revival buildings facing one another across the broad plaza, one designed  to hold Ludwig’s genuinely spectacular collection of Greek antiquities.

This is how the plaza stood in 1933, three monumental sides; the fourth, an unfinished canvas when Adolph Hitler decided that he was an Aryan, somehow a descendant of the ancient Greeks.   He finished the Koenigsplatz by filling the fourth side with a pair of Ehrentempels (Honor Temples), edifices in an Art Deco version of Greek Revival dedicated to the worship of the Nazi spirit, represented by sarcophagi containing the bodies of the Nazis who died in the Party’s failed 1923 attempt to take over the government (the Beer Hall Putsch).   Flanking the Ehrentempels were a pair of large office buildings known as the Fuhrer Buildings housing Nazi Party operations,  and beyond them,  an entire neighborhood of buildings that housed Party operations.  The most notorious was the Braunes Haus (Brown House), the building that became Nazi Party headquarters in 1930.     The old Konigsplatz had become the heart of darkness, the center of National Socialism, the place where the great Nazi rallies were held.

The Baunes Haus was destroyed by war.   In 1947 the American Army of Occupation dynamited the Ehrentempels.   The art deco columns are gone, but the solid, stone foundations remain, covered by weeds.

The post-War German government altered the Konigsplatz by planting grass in place of the pavements where the Hitler Youth had marched.   The Fuhrer Buildings still look much as they did when Hitler knew them, both are still in use,  one as an art school.

Sixty years passed and the question of what to do about the foundations of the Ehrentempels remained.   To many, the best solution seemed to be to root them out of the ground and build something new in their stead.   But as time passed a consensus grew around the idea of treating them as Germany has treated its Nazi past.   That is, to admit that it happened, that Germans once enthusiastically built and worshiped at these shrines of race-hatred, face the past, and build a better future.

That future is now rising beside the overgrown foundations of the old Ehrentempels, on the site of the Braunes Haus where Hitler once had his office.   The building of the NS Dokumentationszentrum München (Documentation Center of National Socialism, Munich), a new museum of the Nazi period, is under construction.


Himyar kingdom and Bowersock’s Throne of Adulis

Posted by dianamuir on March 14, 2013
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G. W. Bowersock has written a  little book (in an Oxford series of short books about iconic objects) pegged to a sixth century monument in the form of a stone throne erected by an Axumite (Ethiopian) king in the ancient Red Sea port of Adulis.  The book is nominally about the politics of the Red sea region and Arabian peninsula in the period  shortly before the birth of Muhammad, but it is written in a way that make it appear that Bowerstock is still fighting the political battles of the sixth century, or making that century a pretext to put forward his views of twenty-first century politics.

The great powers of the period, the Zoroastrian Sassanian Empire of Persia and the Christian Byzantine  Empire were, as Bowersock has described them elsewhere, “Empires in Collision“, with all the messy wars, massacres, and refugee flows that such collisions entail.     The regional powers along the Red Sea were the Monophysite Christian Kingdom of Axum (modern Ethiopia), sometimes allied with the Byzantines.   And the Jewish Kingdom of Himyar (modern Yemen), sometimes allied with the Sassanian Persians.

Christianity was, of course, a religion of converts in its early years in Ethiopia, but in the fourth century it became the state religion.   Himyar is understood  to have followed a parallel path,  converting to Judaism by the late fourth century (p. 87).   But since Himyar did not  continue to be a Jewish kingdom, even less information about the conversion period has been preserved than in Ethiopia.

The Jewish kingdom of Himyar  arose in the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, flourished, then fell to an Ethiopian invasion backed by the Byzantine Empire.   In the 520s it was led by  Jewish king named Yusuf (Joseph).   Archaeologists have found a fourth century synagogue in the ancient seaport of Qana in the Hadramaut. (p. 80)    But the Jewish kingdom itself left no historical records, and, while some inscriptions have been found, most of what is known of it comes from Syrian Christian sources notable for their hostility to Judaism.  Scholars in Persia and Byzantium had little interest in writing about this relatively unimportant region.

Bowerstock is part of a small group of scholars drawing on ancient sources and a growing but still small number of recently unearthed inscriptions to increase our knowledge of the Arabian region before Islam.  But the number of sources is so few, and so much of what we do have from ancient sources was produced by partisans in the clash of empires and faiths, that most scholars approach sixth century Arabia with extreme caution.

Bowerstock was asked to write a  a small book about a single very interesting object addressed to a general audience, and this may account for the oddly sweeping and definitive nature of a number of his statements.

In this period of intense competition between two great empires, it does not seem strange that the Axumite kingdom should have converted to  Monophysite Christianity, or the the Himyar kingdom should have converted to Judaism.   Each conversion event gave the converting dynasty the advantage of leaving pagan practices to join the rising trend toward monotheism, while not coming directly under the control of the Byzantine church.   And, possibly, in the case of  Himyar, of offering a new , monotheistic state religion  that would enable the small, border kingdom of Himyar to seek the Sassanian aid necessary to maintaining independence form the Byzantine Empire.   The sources are so paltry that the political and popular pressures on a fourth century Himyarite king are largely a matter of guesswork, but it is jarring to find Bowerstock describing the conversion of the Himyar kingdom to Judaism as  “improbable” and “bizarre”.(p. 4)    It is difficult to see why it is   “bizarre” that a Jewish, monotheistic kingdom (Himyar) should have arisen on the eastern side of the Bab-el-Mandeb, but not bizarre that a monotheistic (monophysite) Christian kingdom like Axum should have arisen on the western side.

Bowersock then categorically asserts –  citing scholarship on Sabaic epigraphy – that “from 380 onwards polytheism utterly disappeared form South Arabia”.(p. 83)   Even if we discount the possibility that pagan  inscriptions may yet turn up, the absence of pagan inscriptions is hardly the same as the absence of pagans.   Further archaeology is extremely likely to turn up ongoing use of polytheistic images and practices, unless Arabia is unlike every other part of the ancient world.  Such sweeping assertions may be the result of attempting to summarize great swaths of material for a popular audience, but they make thisreader acutely uncomfortable.

The “traditional Arab pagans” are portrayed in this book as passive victims of Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish powers, Bowersock asserts that they  are  “the only losers”  (p. 5) in these wars.   Yet surely it is an an oddly exclusive judgment when writing about a Jewish kingdom decisively conquered by a Christian army, that was itself shortly to be conquered by the armies of Islam.

In a very short book with little detail beyond the in depth analysis of the Throne of Adulis itself, Bowerstock makes space to engage in extensive discussion of Jewish atrocities, including what he describes as an “anti-Christian pogrom” that attained notoriety in ancient and medieval Christian texts.   “Pogrom” is an oddly archaic term to apply, but Bowerstock cites it and a series of 38 martyred Christian bishops, priests and monks apparently killed in the early fifth century  to assert “that the Azqir and Najran martyrs constitute incontestable evidence for the persecution of Christians by their Jewish overlords.”(p. 85)   According to Bowerstock, it was  this “brutality”   – and not imperial ambition – that “provoked” the Ethiopian invasion to which Arabian Christians “owed their salvation.”(p. 86)      Christian, Zoroastrian and polytheistic armies and kings do not commit atrocities in this book.

The struggle for control of Himyar was protracted, and since few details are known, Bosersock is forced to paint with a broad brush, first “a Christian presence… somehow managed to supplant the Jewish rulers and assume control of the country in the early sixth century” (p. 93), followed by “subversive Jewish activities against the relatively new Christian regime.” (p. 95)   At this point according to Bowerstock, with a Jew again on the throne of Himyar,  “Confessional solidarity would have undoubtedly impelled the negus (Axumite/Ethiopian king) to undertake this campaign…”(p. 95)

Well, maybe, although few kings have ever waged major campaigns motivated exclusively by “solidarity” with co-religionists.   What we know about Ethiopian motivation comes from Christian  sources,  notably the inscription on the Throne of Adulis, and the text is  “triumphalist.”    Bowerstock assures us that this triumphalist “tone…  accords well with (the king’s) mission of avenging the deaths of many Christians at Narjan  and of assuring the security of many Christians who would reside in Arabia”.(p. 103)    Bowerstock  appears to this reader, at least,  to be defending an early sixth-century invasion which I will assume was as bloody and destructive as other ancient wars of conquest, on the grounds that it would make Arabia safe for the “many Christians who would reside there” once the existing Jewish kingdom was destroyed.   It sounds more like royal propaganda than historical analysis of royal reasons for conquering a wealthy neighboring kingdom, which in this case include loot, revenue, eliminating a rival kingdom, and gaining control of a major and highly profitable shipping route.

The Throne of Adulis succeeds in opening a small window into the Red Sea region before the advent of Islam, but Bowersock’s writing, especially his  hearty approval for the “energetic Christian ruler”  who attacked a Jewish kingdom in what appears to have been an unprovoked war of imperial expansion, strikes what can only be described as a very odd note.








The Potemkin Village of Soviet Yiddish Nationalism

Posted by dianamuir on November 28, 2012
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On the night of August 12, 1952, a group of Yiddish writers was executed on Joseph Stalin’s orders for the crime of writing while Jewish.  The executions, remembered as the Night of the Murdered Poets, were the tragic culmination of the grand romance between Jewish intellectuals and Marxism.  Author Nathan Englander now has a new play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, based on a short story he wrote about the murders.  He imagines the 27 imprisoned writers in a Russian prison cell, caught between the Marxist promise of a brotherhood of workers, liberating the oppressed to create a bright new world, and the reality of Soviet Communism.  In Englander, the murdered writers have found their bard.

In Marxist theory, national identity is a shallow, ephemeral phenomenon.  Nation-states, a modern invention created by self-interested capitalists and politicians to manipulate the masses, will evanesce with the coming of the Marxist utopia.  In reality, Lenin and others in the Socialist International exploited the Tsarist empire’s national liberation movements, which were, struggling for self-determination, in order to bring about the revolution.

When the revolution came in 1917, the victorious Bolsheviks announced that each of the peoples oppressed by the Tsars would have a sovereign nation-state; these states would form a union of equals building the Marxist future—a Soviet Union.  Each liberated nation would have the right to its own schools, newspapers, and even national theaters in its own language.  The catch was that all these cultural institutions would have to be “national in form, socialist in content.”  And the structures of self-government were hollow: in reality, all power was held by the Communist Party Central Committee.

Nevertheless, the 1920s saw the flourishing of a remarkable Jewish cultural nation within the Soviet Union.  Jewish schools taught Marxist doctrine in Yiddish—but not Hebrew or Jewish texts.  There were government-supported Yiddish newspapers, publishing houses, even a Yiddish National Theater—but all the stories they told were correctly Marxist.  To the extent that Jewishness is defined as having a positive relationship with God, Torah, Jewish tradition, or Israel, Yiddish-speaking Soviet Jewish nationalism was intensely anti-Jewish.

The dedicated Jewish Marxists of the Yevsektsia, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, carried out an aggressive secularization campaign.  Breadcrumbs were added to town water supplies at Passover.  Stores were opened and synagogues closed on the Sabbath.  These and other anti-religious measures were sometimes enforced by thugs, sometimes by such legal techniques as requisitioning a synagogue for use as a worker’s committee room.  There were campaigns of intimidation against parents who might have tried to teach their children Hebrew and Torah.

Yet, until 1928, Jewish prayer and practice were, technically, legal.  Some observers—even some secular Yiddishists—looked at the Potemkin village of a flourishing, Yiddish-speaking Soviet Jewish nation and thought it real.  Thus, the Yiddish poet Dovid Hofshteyn returned from Palestine to Russia in 1926, and a number of Marxist intellectuals returned from other countries.  The last of the well-known returnees was novelist and poet Dovid Bergelson, who went home to Russia in 1934.  He is undoubtedly part of the inspiration for Englander’s character Moishe Bretzky, compellingly played by Daniel Oreskes, who has some of the play’s sharpest and funniest lines.  Bretsky must account to himself for having so loved the Yiddish-speaking Jewish world of Russia that he returned to it even though he knew Communism for the fraud that it had become.

By 1928, Russia had become a totalitarian state controlled by Joseph Stalin, who, though born a Georgian, was dedicated to the imposition of Russian culture on the entire Soviet empire.  Englander ratchets up the pressure on his Yiddish writers by putting an important proposition into the mouth of a Stalinist functionary, chillingly played by Byron Jennings as a man who is simply doing his job.  Part of that job is believing the anti-Semitic lies he is required to tell.  In order for a lie to have power, he explains, it has to be believed.

The Yiddish writers murdered by Stalin were not dissidents or anti-Communist activists.  Some were men like Vasily Korinsky, persuasively played by Chip Zein, who worked to build the Marxist dream, and, at some point, began to lie to himself about Marxist reality.  Yet, at the point when it became necessary for good Russian Communists to believe in a nefarious international Jewish conspiracy, it also became necessary for Jewish Marxists to confront the truth about the world they had helped create.  Englander has written both Korinsky and Bretsky so well that playgoers may squirm with the uncomfortable self-recognition.

The 27th man of the play’s title, played by Noah Robbins, captures hearts as a youth so filled with ideas that he can hardly write fast enough to get them all down.  But at the heart of the story is the character of Yevgeny Zunser—acted by Ron Rifkin, who doesn’t so much play an aging Yiddish writer as inhabit one.  Here is a man who once watched an entire Jewish civilization go up in the smoke of a burnt offering to the anti-Semitic ideology of Nazism; now he is slated to become a victim of Stalin’s decision to annihilate the world’s largest surviving Jewish community.  Knowing this, he behaves with humanity, moral intelligence, and unshakable dignity.

By 1928, Stalin had enough control so that he could end the pretense of Communist support for the self-determination of peoples within the Soviet Union.  This was a Russian empire, and Stalin was determined that its peoples of would become Russian or be extinguished.  He intended to deport the Jews to an empty patch of ground along the trans-Siberian railway, a plan stopped only by his death in 1952.

The play’s staging and set are starkly perfect and, in the final scene, achieve a fearsome power.  This is compelling theater, and was especially on a night when another intensely anti-Jewish government was shooting at Jews.  But, unlike the Yiddish writers, Israel’s Jews are not helpless victims of a totalitarian regime; they live in a democracy and defend themselves with a citizen army.

Jewish Ideas Daily, Nov. 28, 2012

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Nathan Englander’s Twenty-Seventh Man

Posted by dianamuir on November 18, 2012
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The twenty-seven men are Nathan Englander’s evocation of the Yiddish writers executed by Joseph Stalin in 1952 on the infamous Night of the Murdered Poets.   Executed for the crime of writing while Jewish, they were sentenced in a Russian show trial held as part of the Stalinist decision to annihilate Jewish culture in the Soviet Union.   Stalin’s planned mass deportation of Jews to an empty patch of ground along the trans-Siberian railway was halted by Stalin’s death in 1952, but the great Yiddish writers were already dead.


The Twenty-Seventh Man was one Englander’s first published stories, he has turned it into riveting drama that challenges the mind as it engages the heart.


Daniel Oreskes, Ron Rifkin, Noah Robbins and Chip Zien are a compelling cast.  Robbins captures hearts as a youth whose head is so bursting with ideas that he can hardly write fast enough to get them all down.   Ron Rifkin doesn’t so much play an aging Yiddish writer as he inhabits one.   Through him we experience the pain of watching the Jewish world go up in the smoke of a burnt offering to an anti-Semitic ideology.


Rifkin’s pain feels as authentic as his ability to pronounce the letter “chet”.    It probably is.   He was born to parents who had immigrated to New York from that vanished world.


The Yiddish writers Stalin murdered were not dissidents or anti-Communist  activists.    Some were men who had dreamed the Marxist dream and worked to build the Revolution.   Jewish Marxism in its infinite ideological varieties attracted more Jews than any other political movement because it made two irresistible promises.  To a people suffering from bone-grinding poverty, Marxism promised a good life.   And to a people suffering from violent and oppressive anti-Semitism, Marxism offered universal brotherhood.   Very few had the prescience to see Marxist promises as the fool’s paradise they would prove to be.


But in a season when the last of the unreconstructed Stalinist Jewish intellectuals, Eric Hobsbawm, has just died safely in his bed in England, it is not inappropriate to ask at what point Russian Jewish intellectuals ought to have woken up from the Marxist dream and seen the Communist regime for what it was.   When the Party turned on Lenin?   During the Great Purge of 1936?   At the signing of the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler in 1939?     Englander is devastatingly incisive best when he asks his characters to account for their loyalty to Stalin.


Then he ratchets up the pressure by putting an important proposition into the mouth of a Stalinist functionary: in order for a lie to have power, you have to believe in it.


When it became necessary for Russian Communists in good standing to believe in an evil international Jewish conspiracy, it also became necessary for Jewish Communists confront the truth about anti-Semitism.    They face us, waiting for death sentences to be meted out not because they have betrayed the Party, but simply because they are Jews.   We watch them confront the fact that they have betrayed themselves by believing in a great lie about an international Marxist brotherhood that rose above differences of race and ethnicity.   Only to discover that their comrades were capable of murderous Jew-hatred.


This is compelling theater.   And it was especially evocative on this night, with Hamas firing rockets at civilian targets in Israel.   The irrational Jew-hatred of Soviet Russia, the irrational Jew hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hamas-controlled Gaza, the murder of Jews simply for being Jewish.


The staging and set were starkly perfect, until the final scene, when it achieved stunningly splendid realism.


When it ended, we held our breath.    How could we applaud barbarity?    Then the lights came up and the pre-opening crowd roared our approval.

At the Public Theater in New York


Criticizing the Critics

Puzzled this morning by Charles Isherwood’s review.    The audience I saw it with was absolutely rapt.   None of the rustling, shifting, noisiness that began half-way through David Manet’s Anarchist on Saturday night.

Maybe Isherwood also saw both plays and put this sentence in the worng review,  ” a sense of dreary stasis slowly envelops the play as the academic arguments drag on. You feel as if you’re slowly sinking into a kind of literary quicksand,…”    Now that is how the audience at the Mamet play felt.

The audience at Englander’s “Twenty-Seventh Man” was rapt.   Sometimes amused or shocked.   But absolutely riveted.   Does it matter that critics sit in the front rows, and don’t experience the focused tension of the audience.

Or is it just that Isherwood is  bored with dramatic tension that revolves around the plight of a people.


A Critic with Insight

The most interesting review that I’ve seen is by writing in Vol.1Brooklyn.


Jacob’s Sons in the Bishop’s Palace

Posted by dianamuir on November 14, 2012
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The current Baron Rothschild is one of the British philanthropists backing a new museum of Christianity in Britain, built around Jacob and His Twelve Sons, a dazzling series of thirteen Baroque paintings, each over eight feet tall.  His interest in the project was undoubtedly sparked by the remarkable connection between these paintings and the history of Jews in Britain.

Francisco de Zurbarán’s paintings were already a century old in September 1745, when a Jacobite army supporting the Catholic pretender to the British throne soundly trounced British regulars at Prestonpans, near Edinburgh.  Londoners panicked and there was a run on the Bank of England. Among the most prominent financiers in the kingdom was a Jew named Sampson Gideon, who regularly floated enormous loans on behalf of His Majesty’s government.  Gideon reportedly stabilized the government’s credit by quickly raising the staggering sum of £1,700,000.  That translates to an estimated £24 billion ($38 billion) today.

Gideon was the son of a Jewish immigrant who had become a successful merchant in the West Indies trade despite the legal disadvantages he faced.  As an immigrant, he could not buy real estate, trade with the colonies, or own a share in a British trading ship, and he had to pay the higher customs fees charged to foreigners.  He could have been naturalized only if he had been willing to become a Christian.

Because he was born in Britain, Sampson Gideon possessed most—though not all—of the rights of an Englishman.  Jews, Catholics, and non-Anglican Protestants could not attend university, work as an attorney, be appointed to any public office, hold an officer’s commission, or sit in Parliament.  Gideon wanted these rights, along with the social acceptance that would have come naturally to an Anglican of his standing.

His father had already changed the family name from the Sephardi Abudiente to the more British-sounding Gideon.  Sampson Gideon married a Christian woman; their children were baptized.  He resigned his membership in the Jewish community, and purchased a landed estate with a country house for his son to inherit.  He arranged to have the son, a fifteen-year-old Anglican schoolboy, made Sir Sampson, sent the boy to Eton, and negotiated his marriage to the daughter of Sir John Eardley Wilmot, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas.  He secured his daughter’s marriage to Viscount Gage with a dowry that is the equivalent of £77 million ($122 million) today.

When Parliament passed the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753, they undoubtedly had Sampson Gideon’s remarkable success in mind: England wanted more men of his worth.  The “Jew Bill” permitted Jews to petition Parliament for a private Act of Naturalization, waiving the requirement that they receive “the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.”  Some supported the Bill as a reasonable extension of the Toleration Act of 1689, and some argued that naturalization would encourage Jews to convert to Christianity, but most quite frankly argued that encouraging rich Jewish merchants to settle in Britain would be good for the economy.  The Bill passed without a great deal of debate.

Getting a private Act through Parliament was such an expensive undertaking that a mere handful of the 8,000 Jews then living in England could possibly have taken advantage of the Jew Bill.  The Jew Bill was the 18th-century equivalent of modern laws in the United States, Canada, and other countries that offer citizenship to substantial investors.  But in the end the Jew Bill was of no use even to the wealthy.  It sparked an enormous outpouring of anti-Semitic sentiment and was quickly repealed.

Richard Trevor, Bishop of Durham and, therefore, a member of the House of Lords, was among the Jew Bill’s strong supporters.  The fight for Jewish civil rights would continue for another century, ending in 1858, when Lionel de Rothschild took his seat in Parliament with a modified oath that that ended “so help me, Jehovah.”  But in 1756 the Bishop of Durham found a way to make a very public statement of his support for Jewish naturalization.

A series of paintings by the Spanish Baroque artist Francisco de Zurbarán came onto the market from the estate of James Mendez.  Mendez, a successful financier, was the son of Fernando Mendez, a Sephardi Jew who came to England as the personal physician of Catherine of Braganza, the future Queen of England following her marriage to Charles II.  Mendez’s wealthy grandchildren were rapidly assimilating into the Anglican gentry and may have decided to sell Jacob and His Twelve Sons precisely because the paintings were too Jewish.

Art historians speculate that the Zurbarán paintings were commissioned for a Catholic foundation in Spanish America, and captured in the Atlantic by British privateers who sold them in England.

The Bishop was able to purchase only eleven sons.  Benjamin was sold separately, but the Bishop had a copy made.  To showcase the paintings, Bishop Trevor had the Long Dining Room at his official residence, Auckland Castle, enlarged and remodeled, in a princely gesture of public support for English Jews.

Auckland Castle itself has just been purchased by financier Jonathan Ruffer, an art collector, philanthropist, and committed Christian who plans to turn the historic Bishop’s Palace into a museum that will tell the story Christianity in Britain.  Since the Christian story cannot be told without the story of Christianity’s Jewish origins, Zurbarán’s magnificent paintings of Jacob and his twelve sons will be at the heart of the collection.

But the story of Britain’s Christians is as ambiguous as the story of Britain’s Jews.  After centuries of identifying as a Christian and Protestant nation, Britain has become a land filled with cherished, historic church buildings that attract almost no worshippers.  Men like James Mendez and Sampson Gideon, with their Anglican grandchildren, may have been as typical of the Jewish community of their era as the proudly Jewish Rothschilds.  (Sampson Gideon’s Christian son changed his name to Eardley, served as an elected member of Parliament for over three decades, and was created Baron Eardley.)

As for Gideon himself, he left £1,000 to London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue in his will.  He had paid his dues to the community every year under the name “Almoni Peloni” (a variant of “ploni almoni,” the biblical equivalent of “John Doe”).  And he was buried as a Jew.

Published Nov. 14, 2012

Biggest house in the village – when immigrants make good

Posted by dianamuir on November 08, 2012
Immigrants, Uncategorized / Comments Off on Biggest house in the village – when immigrants make good

The dream of many, perhaps most, immigrants to the United States and other wealthy countries has long been to get rich, return home and build the biggest house in the village.

Tahar ben Jalloun’s novel “A Palace in the Old Village” is a poignant reflection on the pain of immigration shown in the story of an immigrant who returned home to the old village and built a palace, only to discover that his children and grandchildren would not join him in it; they preferred to stay in France.

Here are some of the  houses built by immigrants who made it, and showed it off by building the biggest house in the old village.

Embedded image permalink

Emily Wither photo

This  house was under construction in July 2012 in Betar/Batir, a farming  village  on the ancient road from Jerusalem to the coast.  It is being built by a Palestinian Arab who earned the funds ot build it as an immigrant to the Unites States.  It is part of a dramatic building boom  in Israel and the Palestinian-controlled territories, a kind of competition among emigres who have built comfortable lives in the West,  “And every one of them wants to build a house that’s better than the next,” back in the old village.


The Chinese, of course, do things like this on a grand scale.



This house, known as the Ruishi Lou  was built in 1923  by a villager named Huang Bixiu whom made good in Hong Kong.  It is 28 meters tall and yet it is less astonishing than the fact that it is embedded in a landscape of similar houses  that sprawls across Guangdong Province in south China.

Hundreds of these tower houses were  built to show off the wealth of sons of the village who had immigrated not only to Hong Kong, but to North and South America and made good.   Some are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, some are inhabited by distant relatives of the builders, some have crumbled into ruins.  It is not clear that any became the permanent homes of the children and grandchildren of the emigrants who built them.  The descendants of those men and women appear to be living in the far away countries where the money was made.


Jaripo is a village in the Mexican state of  Michoacan.   The youth of Jaripo began heading north to work in the fields of California, by the 1960’s the river had become a flood, and by the 1980’s they were bring home enough money on their annual visits to renovate and paint the modest adobe houses they had grown up in.  The story of the town and its emigrants is told in Sam Quinones book Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream.    But also in this  Youtube love song to the village, showing the beautifully renovated church, plaza and houses paid for by children who grew up and moved away.

The building boom is over now, fewer emigrants return for Christmas, and only a handful returned to live out their retirement years in the houses they renovated, proving that it is easier to dream of going home, than it is to leave your American children and grandchildren and go back to the old country.



Two granddaughters of Jaripo, home for the holidays.


The Philippines sends  huge numbers of workers around the globe  as  guest workers or immigrants.    Mabini Batangas is known locally as “Little Italy” because  “Large stone houses — often with brand-new vehicles in their driveways — cover the district, even though the narrow streets can barely accommodate more than one car at a time.”  They are paid for with money earned working in Italy.

Houses in Mabini Batangas, Philippines.

Dreams of immigrants…

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The Quranic Accusation that Jews and Christians Falsified Scripture

Posted by dianamuir on October 12, 2012
Islamic supercessionism, Uncategorized / Comments Off on The Quranic Accusation that Jews and Christians Falsified Scripture

In his 2010 article, On the Qur’anic Accusation of Scriptural Falsification (tahrîf) and Christian Anti-Jewish Polemic, Gabriel Said Reynolds explains the Quranic accusation of Falsification (tahrîf).

Reynolds sees ” four different layers of meaning”   associated with the Arabic
word tahrlf.

First,  “scriptural falsification” to encompass all implications of tahrîf

Second,  “textual alteration” to “describe the common accusation of medieval (and modern)
Islamic literature that the Jews and Christians really erased (or destroyed) some or all of the
true scripture and rewrote it (tahrlf al-nass).”

Third,  “misinterpretation”, the “accusation that the Jews and Christians do not properly understand their own scripture (tahrlf al-ma^ânl).”

Fourth,  “they shift words out of their contexts” to “translate as literally as possible the Qur’anic phrase (related to tahrlf) yuharrifuna l-kalima ‘an mawädi’ihi ”

If you are new to this topic, take a moment to consider the serious nature of this indictment.    The charge is that God had to give his truth to humans three times, first to the Jews who deliberately falsified it, then to the Christians who falsified it, then to Muhammad who preserved it faithfully.    Jews and Christians are accused of having deliberately erased, destroyed and replaced scripture with falsehood.

That’s quite an accusation.    Christians and Jews falsified the world of God.   Deliberately.

And they continue to deny it.  Even when the Quran, the accurate word of God is set before them.

This  Muslim accusation obviously echoes the Christian accusation that Jews misinterpret the Bible.   Paul writes (Corinthians II  3:14) , “But their minds were closed. Until this very day, the same veil remains over the reading of the Old Testament: it is not lifted,for only in Christ is it done away with.”    Jews failed to discover the references to Jesus that Christians perceived in the text of the Hebrew Bible.  The Quran is harshly critical of Jews, accusing them of everything from slandering Mary to boasting that they killed Jesus.

“The Qur’an insists that God has cursed the Israelites (Q 5:13), a people who have not only falsified scripture
but who have also broken their covenant (Q 4:155) and killed the prophets (Q 3:181; 4:155); they are a people whose hearts are uncircumcised (Q 2:88; 4:155), who have slandered Mary (Q 4:156), and who boast of having killed Jesus (Q 4:157). God has made their hearts hard (Q 5:13) and sealed their hearts with their unbelief (Q 4:155), and the unbelievers among them were cursed by the tongue of David and Jesus (Q 5:78).”

Reynolds argues that the Quran’s attack on the Jews is a result of Islam’s roots in Syriac Christianity, a Church with a particularly strong devotion to reading the Old Testament as a Christological document, and therefore, with a particular animus against Jewish failure to understand the Hebrew Bible as an intricately coded reflection of the life of Jesus.


On the Qur’anic Accusation of Scriptural Falsification (tahrîf) and Christian Anti-Jewish Polemic, Gabriel Said Reynolds, Journal of the American Oriental Society, 130 (2010)