Our Israelitish Brethren

"Our Israelitish brethren are now subjected to a trial peculiar to themselves. From being persecuted everywhere, they are beginning to be honored and sought."
More

Edmond About's report of the condition of the Jews in Rome is fresh in the recollection of many.  He glances backward at the time, not remote, when every evening at the hour Christians go to the theatre the gates of the Jews' quarter were locked for the night; when on days of holy festival Jews were made to run races for the amusement of Christians; when every year a city official gave them a representative kick, an honor for which they had to pay four thousand francs; when they were compelled to present publicly to every new Pope a Bible; when they were obliged to pay the salary of a Christian priest employed to preach a sermon to them every Saturday, and they could only avoid attending this service by paying a fine; when their Ghetto bred such deadly pestilence, that some of them almost lost the semblance of humanity, and "they might have been mistaken for beasts, if one had not known them to be intelligent beings, apt for business, resigned to their lot, simple in their requirements, kind-hearted, devoted to their families, and irreproachable in their conduct."  Such was their condition in Rome.  M. About tells us what it is. The present Pope, he reminds us, has indeed taken away the gates of the Ghetto, so that Jews can go about the city after dark; he has dispensed them from the annual kick and its annual price, and he has closed the church to which they were required to go on Saturdays to be converted.

But the author adds; "I secretly questioned two well-known inhabitants of the Ghetto. When they understood why I concerned myself with their affairs, the poor men exclaimed; 'For Heaven's sake, do not publish that we are wretched; that the Pope actively regrets his concessions of 1847; that doors invisible, but impassable, close the Ghetto, and that our condition is worse than ever.  All that you might say in our behalf would be visited upon us, and instead of benefiting you would injure us."'  The inquirer visited the Ghetto, in the low ground near the Tiber, and found it "the most horrible and neglected quarter of the town," in which not the humblest of the thousand prelates about Rome would set his foot, any more than as Indian Brahmin would cross the threshold of a Pariah's hovel. "I learned,” says this author, “that the most humble employment in the most humble office would as soon be given to a beast as to a Jew; that for a child of Israel to ask in Rome to be employed as a commissary, would he more absurd than for the giraffe of the Jardin des Plantes to ask for an under-prefectship in Paris.”  No Jew can own a foot of land in the papal dominions, nor cultivate one, unless in the name of a Christian; and if a Jew, using this artifice, ventures to cultivate a garden or a farm, his harvest is safe from pillage only so long as the legal device remains a secret. Let but the Christians around learn that the harvest is the property of an Israelite, and “a rage for plunder” seizes them, which leaves the hapless proprietor with desolated fields.

This is the testimony of a witness who is prejudiced, as all modernized minds are prejudiced, against government by priests. Let me summon another witness, a Christian who writes to L’Ami d’Israel an account of his visit to the Roman Ghetto; “It is situated on the borders of the Tiber, in a place subject to inundations; the population is confined in narrow, dirty streets; and although the Jews are much too numerous for this small quarter, they are not allowed to take up their abode beyond the limits of the Ghetto. The closing of the gates is discontinued, but the prohibition as to residence remains the same. I was struck with the activity and industry of the Jews; for while one sees a great many idlers and crowds of beggars in Rome itself, in the Ghetto every one is at work, and there is not a beggar visible.”  The struggle for life, this writer remarks, is so severe, that out of a population of more than four thousand, two thousand five hundred are extremely poor, and in part dependent upon the charity of their neighbors.

As Israelites are now looked upon and treated in Rome, so were they once regarded and treated in every capital of Europe; and their partial emancipation is a thing too recent to have more than begun to obliterate the effects of fifteen centuries of outrage and contempt. For the faults which we see in them, and which clearly result from the contracted Ghetto and the exclusion from the broadening employments, we should blame ourselves, not them; and when a Jew plays upon us a scurvy trick, let us go out straightway and kick a Christian for it.

In conversing upon this subject with the enlightened and accomplished Israelites now to be found in all our cities, I am amazed at the absence of everything like rancor and fury from their hearts when they dwell upon the wrongs of their race. A decent Christian boils with anger as he reads of the indignities they have suffered; but they, the victims of our insensate aversion, speak of these indignities with such calmness and good temper, that I have been ready to exclaim: The Jews are the only Christians!  And certainly, if the peculiar virtue of Christianity is the patient endurance of outrage, then we must admit that they have excelled all known people in practising the religion which Christians have preached.  But of course the patient endurance of outrage is not the great Christian virtue, nor is it a virtue at all, unless the outrage is irredressable. But that has been precisely their case. Usually a small number in the midst of a hostile population, they have been obliged to endure or perish; they have had such a training in some portions of the Sermon on the Mount as no other race has ever had.

If a Christian would know these people aright, that is, if he would know their best, he must observe their home life; for the great secret of Jewish persistence is the strength of that mingled affection and pride which binds families together. The family, the Sabbath,—in those two words are hidden the secret of Jewish history since their dispersion. Let us accompany a good orthodox Jewish family through their calm and cheerful Sabbath, and see how they keep it and enjoy it.  I select an orthodox family, instead of a "Reformed," merely because the orthodox Jew is an historical person; as he keeps his Sabbath, his fathers have kept it for many centuries.

The Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening half an hour before sunset, and ends on Saturday evening half an hour after sunset, or when a star is visible in the sky. On Friday, the day of preparation, the women and girls of the family are busy in providing for the morrow the best food of the week; for whatever is eaten or drank during the joyous sacred hours must be the very best the family can afford.  Poor Jews will pinch all the week in order that their wives and children may have something delicious to eat on the Sabbath.  But that savory food must be cooked or prepared for cooking before the Sabbath begins; for our Israelitish brethren observe with just strictness the law which gives rest on the Day of Rest to their servants. They shame us in this particular. They will not use even their horses on their Sabbath.  On a Sunday, about twelve, M., you may see in front of Dr. Adams's fashionable Presbyterian church in Madison Square, New York, or around Dr. Tyng's fashionable Episcopal church, in St. George's Square of the same city, from twenty to forty well-appointed equipages waiting for the last hymn to be finished; but you will never see a vehicle before the superb Temple Immanuel, a Jewish synagogue in the Fifth Avenue, although there are many families within who could ride home, if they would, in their own carriages.  I do not say that the Christians are wrong or the Jews right in this.  It is no one's business but their own. But if we borrow the Hebrew's word "Sabbath," and adopt, verbally, their Sabbatical law, our practice perhaps ought to conform in some degree to our profession.  It probably does not severely tax those coachmen and footmen to show off their gay turnouts and brilliant liveries on a fine Sunday morning in the Fifth Avenue. But for the heavy-laden drudges of the boarding-house kitchen, and the maid-of-all work in average families, I could wish we were all Jews from Saturday night till Monday morning.  It is a dastardly shame to compel or permit women, who have faithfully toiled for us from Monday's tub to Saturday's scrub, to work hard all through the best hours of Sunday merely that we may gorge ourselves with dainty food. The Jews avoid this barbarous meanness. Their servants rest on their Sabbath.

As early as possible on Friday afternoon the father comes home. As sunset draws near the family put on their best clothes, and father and sons go to the synagogue for the short Sabbath-eve service. His wife and daughters usually remain at home, where pleasing duties still detain them, though their arduous work is done.

The Jewish religion is a monotone; it is a religion of one idea, and that idea is God.  Do you wish the most enlightening of all commentaries on the Bible? do you wish to know the original meaning of hackneyed Christian phrases? would you taste the savor and inhale the fragrance of celebrated texts? do you desire to see living descendants of the characters sketched in the New Testament? Then frequent orthodox synagogues, and observe the ways of those who attend them. The Jew "walks with God"; the Jew, "in everything, gives thanks"; the Jew "makes melody in his heart to the Lord"; the Jew "prays without ceasing."

A pious Jew of the old school utters in the course of every twenty-four hours as many as a hundred benedictions, ascriptions, and prayers.  On waking is the morning he says: "I thank thee ever-living, ever-enduring King, that thou hast restored me unto life, through thy great mercy and truth."  Whenever he enjoys, whenever he suffers, whenever he gains, whenever be loses, he has a form of Hebrew words ready in his memory in which to call upon his God.  If he eats a fine peach he says: "Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast caused us to be preserved, and permitted us to enjoy this season.”  But if he were about to eat strawberries, the ascription would slightly vary; as it would also for bread, cakes, melons, vegetables, wine, water, oil.  If he enjoys the fragrance of flowers; he will say: "Blessed art thou, O Lord God, King of the Universe, who createst aromatic herbs" and he has also a form for sweet-scented woods, fruit, gums, spice.  On passing a synagogue in ruins, or one flourishing and handsome; on meeting Hebrew sages, and on meeting Gentile sages; when he hears thunder, music, rain, or wind, or sees a rainbow, a fine tree, a mountain, a river, the ocean, a handsome creature; on hearing good news or bad news; at the birth or at the death of a child, upon leaving and returning home - he utters his short thanksgiving in Hebrew.  It is so, Mr. Hepworth Dixon assures us, with the Oriental religions generally; which at the present hour, as three thousand years ago have a strong family likeness. “An Oriental is a man of prayer," says Mr. Dixon. “If he rises from his couch, a prayer is on his lips; If he sits down in rest, a blessing is in his heart. When he buys and when he sells, when he eats and when he drinks, he remembers that the Holy One is nigh. If poor in purse, he may be rich in grace; his cabin a sanctuary, his craft a service, his daily life an act of prayer.” These words describe the pious Jews of our modern capitals. They "walk with God." “God is in all their thought.”

The father and his boys enter the synagogue, sometimes pausing in the vestibule, if they have touched uncleanness on the way, to wash their hands, conveniences for which are placed there.  As they enter, they are required to bow to the ark containing the scrolls of the Law, and to say: “In the greatness of thy benevolence will I enter thy house: in reverence of thee will I bow down toward the temple of thy holiness." The "ark" is a closet at the eastern end of the synagogue, usually made of costly woods, closed with sliding doors, and approached by stairs. Within are scrolls of parchment, each of which contains one book of the Pentateuch, written with perfect correctness in Hebrew, by men whose profession it is to write them. One error, no matter how insignificant, condemns a scroll; for the examiners subject it to tests from which no error can escape. The letters of every line, division, and book are counted.  In the exact middle of the synagogue is a somewhat spacious platform, raised four or five feet from the floor, and provided with a broad desk and a sofa.  Most of the pews face this platform, but there are a few "chief seats of the synagogue," for the trustees and other officers. On the ground floor are men and boys only, all with their hats on; the women and girls being in the gallery.  Israelites say that this exclusion of women from the floor of the synagogue - that is, from the synagogue proper - is an homage to their delicacy. Their law requires that, at various periods, women should not enter the sanctuary at all; and the subterfuge of the gallery was invented to avoid the necessity of asking disagreeable questions.  In some countries women, for the same reason, assemble in an adjoining apartment, with a door opening into the synagogue, through which the voices of the reader and preacher can be heard.

The Friday-evening service, which lasts an hour and a quarter, consists of the chanting of prayers and psalms in the Hebrew tongue.  Sometimes the Rabbi, seated on his sofa, with his hat on, clad in a black silk gown and a white silk tunic over it, intones a portion solo, the people responding with an occasional amen. Then the whole congregation will repeat a psalm; sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, bowing now and then and occasionally bowing very low.  At intervals a highly trained choir of men and boys, from a gallery where they cannot be seen, burst into a song or breathe out a most melodious soft chant. No organ smothers the voices; for the orthodox Jew feels that the harp of his people still hangs upon the willow, and must not be heard again till the Temple is rebuilt.  But this choir (Nineteenth Street, New York) needs no organ; it is itself one beautifully attuned instrument. As the service approaches a conclusion there is more responding and more simultaneous recitation, which sometimes swells into a loud chorus. In less polite congregations than this it is said some of the members become almost vociferous.

When the service is ended, while the men are shaking hands and cheerfully conversing, all the boys crowd upon the platform and gather round the Rabbi, who places his hand upon each little cap, and pronounces a word or two of benediction. To those who have had the profound misfortune of being reared in one of those creeds which repel the young soul, and make it loathe what its elders revere, this sweet spectacle reveals much of the Jewish mystery. They have known how to associate religion with the pleasing recollections of childhood.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In