Posts Tagged ‘Jewish history’

Torah and Tory

Posted in General on July 5th, 2014 by Eugene Finerman – 8 Comments

(I was asked to conduct the Sabbath service on July 4th.  I aware that the attendance would be theoretical, but how could I refuse?  Me and a pulpit…never underestimate my megalomania.  As for the topic of my sermon, the choice was obvious.)

Torah and Tory

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Independence Day!
Since this is not an Episcopalian Church, I would guess that most of our ancestors missed the actual event and didn’t even hear about it until we got past Ellis Island.
Yet, in 1776 there were Jews in the Thirteen Colonies: approximately twenty-five hundred. At the time, there were 2.5 million people in the colonies. So we were a meager one-in-a-thousand. I doubt that you could find a minyan in New Hampshire or old Virginia, but there were congregations in New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.
What was it like to be a Jew in the Thirteen Colonies? In the words of either Maimonides or Larry David, it could have been worse. Our lives and property were protected by English law. An act of Parliament had guaranteed Jews the same legal status as Methodists. That was not quite an English compliment but–trust me–that was better than being a Roman Catholic. So, our situation was slightly snubbed but definitely not persecuted. The Cordozos of New York and the Gratzs of Philadelphia could lead prosperous, enjoyable lives, even if their kids weren’t welcome in the Ivy League.
Compare that to Jewish life elsewhere in North America. That is easy–there was no Jewish life there. Spain forbid Jews in its colonies; it forbid anyone of Jewish descent! If you had one Jewish great-grandparent, your presence was a capital offense. Ferdinand and Isabella could not have met that standard.
What about France’s colonies? In Canada, definitely NON. No matter how much you would have liked being the ancestor of William Shatner, the French government would not have permitted it. There were Jews in France–40,000 in the mid-18th century; but immigration to Canada was limited to Roman Catholics–and even they had to meet an exacting system of quotas. The aspiring emigrant had to fill a specific job awaiting him in Canada. If you were a baker, and Montreal did not need one…well, you could always lie and claim to be a trapper. It was easier getting into the Sorbonne than into Quebec. Louisiana was slightly more tolerant…or lazy. There were five Jewish families in New Orleans. Of course, their existence was against the law–but who ever enforces the law in New Orleans?
So, you can see the Jews of the British Empire enjoyed an unequalled degree of security and liberty. What more could a Jew expect or dare want? Why would they risk the Crown’s guarantees for the lofty promises of the Declaration of Independence? Because those promises addressed an unexpressed longing and age-old fears. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…” Here was a commitment to freedom, and not just the gift of tolerance.
The New World was no longer just a geographic term; it would be the fulfillment of our hopes. Our liberties were not the favor of a monarch or the concessions of a Parliament. Freedom was not even an English privilege. We all were entitled to those rights by birth, by our humanity. That idea was the American Revolution, and what we honor today.
Shabbat Shalom.

On This Day in 1492….

Posted in General, On This Day on March 31st, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 9 Comments

Part I

Why Disraeli Was Not Prime Minister of Spain

Isabella of Castille was an idiot; it is not an usual condition in royalty.  Her husband Ferdinand of Aragon actually was bright and completely free of scruples; Machiavelli considered him a role model.  However, Ferdinand turned out to be a little too clever.   

He had a get-rich-quick scheme. The wily and avaricious king commissioned a Spanish Inquisition in 1483 with the idea of gouging wealthy suspects who showed any reluctance toward pork. Of course, the bulk of the loot would go to the crown. The Inquisition, however, was not content to be Ferdinand’s pickpocket. It was going to save Spain from tolerance, innovation and whatever else reeked of heresy. To his dismay, Ferdinand could not control the Holy Office’s pyromania. He became its most comfortable prisoner, complying with the rabid dictates of the Grand Inquisitor.  While the rest of Europe had the Renaissance, Spain had the Inquisition.

On this day in 1492, a pious Isabella and an intimidated Ferdinand ordered the expulsion of Jews from Spain. 

If Mel Torme and I had ghostwritten the proclamation, it would have been the following:

“Heretics roasting on an open fire.
Embers singeing Marranos.
Dies Irae being sung by the fire
While Luth’rans scream in their death throes.

Everybody knows where the Inquisition hangs its hood
They’re record sales on kindling wood.
So always do what those monks ask of you
Or else you will be barbecued.

If the friars find you lack
The proper faith they will put you on the rack
So on their good side be sure to stay
And go to Mass 12 times a day.

Just keep on offering your yearly tithe.
Its’ fire insurance on your life.
And on Ash Wednesday you can gloat in your pew.
The ash won’t be from you.” 

Part II

Ole Vey!

Out of mischief or masochism, I wondered what the Catholic Encyclopedia had to say about Tomas de Torquemada. Would modern Catholic scholarship admit that Spain’s Grand Pyromaniac was a monster, claim to never have heard of him, or equivocate over the meaning and context of mass-murder? Take a wild guess!

The Catholica Encyclopedia concedes that Torquemada was somewhat controversial and, perhaps from a modern perspective, a tad cruel. However, the Encyclopedia quibbles over the number of his victims: it couldn’t be 20,000, probably not even 6,000, say 2,000 tops. Who would think that Catholic scholars would act like Jewish wholesalers? In fact, that was exactly what Torqumada feared. According to the Encyclopedia. he was trying to protect Spain from being “Judaized”.

Apparently, he burned the most infectious 2,000, 6,000 or 20,000 people and saved Spain from that dreadful fate. But what if he had failed? Just imagine a Judaized Spain.

In 1492, Columbus was commissioned by their Most Sephardic Majesties Fred and Bella to sail west to China, where he was to pick up two orders each of chicken cashew, mongolian beef, and hot & sour soup. Naturally, he was to bring back the receipt.

During the 16th century, the countries we now know as Ladino America are overrun by armies of peddlers. The Aztecs are persuaded to buy Popeil cutlery for their human sacrifices. In Cubala and the Rabbinican Republic, the most promising athletes are enslaved by sports agents.

Of course, Spanish art is equally transformed. El Greco’s Transfigurations now depict a 13 year-old becoming a man. The princesses painted by Velasquez will seem much more annoying. And no one will ever call himself Goya.

Literature will also reflect this Judaizing. Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon will convey the pageantry, drama and danger of an all-you-can-eat brunch. Of course, the masterpiece of Spanish literature is Cervantes’ Sancho Panza, the comic epic of a rotund schlep who hangs around a demented gentile for excitement.

Oh, and the Spanish Civil War was a lawsuit.



Epistle From the Hebrews

Posted in General on April 1st, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

“It’s funny that people are freaking out about how the Jews are portrayed. If you believe or even look at the Bible as a history book, it’s not like Mel Gibson changed the story. The Jews were responsible for Christ’s death.”

So, according to the Gospel of a college-educated 30 year-old, I am guilty of deicide.   My friend probably would give me the benefit of the Statute of Limitations.   As I informed her, the Jews did not kill Jesus but we do make wonderful scapegoats.

Now beginneth my sermon. The Four Gospels should not be viewed as histories but as advertisements, a potent mix of marketing and polemics that sold a new theology. They were written in a period from 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus, and their text and tone reflect the conflicts and challenges of the early Church. Christianity had begun and was floundering as a Jewish movement. The Acts of the Apostles admits as much. The Church hierarchy was in Jerusalem, led by Jesus’ relatives and the Apostles, and adamantly directing its message solely to a Jewish audience. Any interested Gentile was first obliged to become a Jew in order to be a Christian.

The prospect of 100 dietary laws and circumcision certainly deterred conversion. St. Paul was the first to challenge this approach, proposing to market Christianity as Judaism-Lite: morality, salvation and pork. In hindsight, we can see that Paul’s interpretation was the more appealing; yet, in his lifetime, he had limited success. The Church was still in essence “Jews for Jesus.”

Then Rome determined the future of both Judaism and Christianity. The Emperors showed a consistent sadism in choosing brutal, greedy governors to control Judea. (On a comparative scale, Herod the Great was one of the more charming rulers.) In A.D. 66, after 12 years of Nero’s appointees, Judea rose in rebellion and put up a ferocious resistance. It took the Empire four years to crush the rebellion but the outcome should have been obvious. Imagine one Richard Dreyfuss fighting twenty Sylvester Stallones. My ancestors evidently were expecting a miracle…and our lease with the Landlord practically guaranteed it. I suppose the miracle was that anyone survived. However, one third of the population did not, and Jerusalem was destroyed. While the Romans were slaughtering the Judeans, they did not distinguish the various theological divisions among their victims. The “Jews for Jesus” were just as dead as the rest.

Without the constraints of the Jerusalem hierarchy, the surviving Christians were now free to drop the Jewish aspects of their religion and make the Church more appealing to Gentiles. The Gospels of Mark and Matthew still adhered to the original Jewish orientation, preaching that Jesus was indeed the promised fulfillment of Judaism. Of course, they weren’t having much success with a Jewish audience; wouldn’t a real Messiah have provided better protection against Romans? The rebuffed Matthew retorted that the Jews had suffered divine retribution for rejecting Jesus and would continue to suffer until they converted. “His blood be on us and on our children.” The frustration of rejection and Matthew’s dyspeptic nature are also evident in his denunciations of the Pharisees, lumping them with the High Priests as Jesus’ killers. In reality, the Pharisees were the long-standing opponents of the Temple Hierarchy, denouncing its politics and venality. The Pharisees had no power in Jerusalem and no culpability in Jesus’ death. However, in the aftermath of the War, their rabbinical, communal approach to worship became the prevalent practice of Judaism. They were succeeding where “Jews for Jesus” was failing, and Matthew hated them for that.

The Gospels of Luke and John were written for a Gentile audience. (It was effortless for Luke; he was the only one of the Gospel writers with a foreskin.) To do so, the authors had to address and surmount the Jewish origins of their religion. In the Hellenized world of the 1st century, Jews were unpopular. We were regarded as obnoxious, crude troublemakers, and we had yet to develop our disarming sense of humor. The Greeks-those cultural snobs–had despised us for centuries, and no one ever accused us of killing Apollo. The Christian Evangelists had to ingratiate themselves with the pagan public, and they had to divorce themselves from Judaism to do so. In a brilliant marketing campaign, the Church reinvented and repositioned itself. It was no longer “Jews for Jesus” or even St. Paul’s Judaism-Lite but a completely different, competitive and hostile religion.

Christianity had to be made more Gentile, and the Church had to avoid any semblance to challenging Rome. Since Nero, Christians were mindful of the lions’ feeding times at the local arena. Jesus had been crucified by the Romans, but the Church seemed willing to forgive a powerful enemy. All the Gospels bestow Pontius Pilate with a tact and sensitivity that his mother wouldn’t have believed. If the crucifixion required a villain, the Jews would be a safer choice. The Church could demonstrate its independence from the other monotheism and assimilate itself in the popular prejudice. The later Gospels reflected this pragmatism. While Mark and Matthew say a crowd called for the death of Jesus, Luke incriminates “the people” and John spells it out: “the Jews.” The Gospels present Pontius Pilate as yet another victim of the Jews, a philosophical but weak soul bullied into ordering the crucifixion. The notion seems more appropriate for satire than scripture. Even by Roman standards, Pilate was a brutal thug. Historians of the period recount his casual use of massacres to ensure quiet. Furthermore, as the Governor of Judea, Pilate had complete power over the Temple Hierarchy, including the right to hire and fire the High Priest. When Pilate was recalled in A.D. 37, his acting successor Lucius Vitellius replaced two High Priests in a three-month period. In A.D. 70, in the aftermath of the Rebellion, the Romans finally abolished the High Priesthood for having failed to reconcile the Jews to servitude. Yet, the Gospels blame the Priesthood instead of the Romans, condemning the dummy rather than the ventriloquist.


The question remains: Why did Pilate kill Jesus? Despite their enthusiasm for violence, the Romans were not in the habit of executing philosophers. Otherwise, Athens would have been depopulated. Furthermore, the Romans had a variety of tortures and executions to punish an itinerant preacher for practicing medicine without a license. The agony and spectacle of crucifixion was reserved for one crime alone: insurrection. Jesus was condemned as a Zealot. Pilate certainly had reasons to suspect it. Jesus and many of his followers were from Galilee, a chronic site of rebellion against Rome. Worse, the Galileans tended to incite the rest of the populace. The Romans had recently crushed an uprising in Jerusalem by “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.(Luke 13; 1)” Now Pilate had to deal with another Galilean mob, one with a charismatic leader promising a coming kingdom that apparently would supersede Rome. It may have only been a metaphysical threat but Pilate wouldn’t chance the distinction.


Pilate also might have heard a very interesting allegory. Mark recounts it; none of the later Gospels dared. In Mark 5, Jesus meets a possessed man. Addressing the demons Jesus asks, “What is your name?” The demons respond, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Jesus then exorcises the demons, casting them into a conveniently close herd of swine. The afflicted animals then are driven into the sea. Of course, Legion was more than just an arbitrary choice of names; it was the principal unit of the Roman army. And what was a herd of swine doing in a nice Jewish neighborhood? It either was the property of an unwelcome Roman garrison or-more likely-it was a metaphor for that garrison. So, to summarize the story, Jesus confronts a legion of demons-a herd of swine-and drives them into the sea. Pilate would have gotten the message, and Jesus evidently got Pilate’s response.


Rome definitely killed Jesus, but that brutal power made it too dangerous to challenge. Mark and Matthew blamed their Jewish rivals. Luke and John incriminated an entire nation. Yet, the Evangelists would never have imagined that their literary license would incite centuries of persecution and massacres. Nor would they have been acquiescent or indifferent to Anti-Semitism. Mark, Matthew and John would have died in the Crusades, the pogroms and the Holocaust. So would Jesus. The Gospels did blame Jews for the death of Jesus, but they really didn’t mean it. “They knew not what they do.”

Would the Irish Have Liked Latkes?

Posted in General, On This Day on November 2nd, 2006 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

For a politician, Arthur Balfour was surprisingly sincere. Whether he had amusing memories of Benjamin Disraeli or had enjoyed a luxurious weekend at the Rothschilds, he really thought that the Jewish people were entitled to a homeland. On this day in 1917, as the Foreign Secretary of Britain, Balfour issued a declaration expressing the government’s official sympathy with the idea of a Jewish haven in Palestine.

Of course, Britain could afford to be so generous. The land was still under Turkish control. Furthermore, drained by the carnage of the ongoing Great War, Britain would have promised anything to anyone for any support. It would have offered Damascus to the Quakers if that would have added an extra brigade on the Western Front.

And the British Home Office might have a recommended a more practical site for a Jewish homeland: Ireland. The Jews could have served as a buffer between the Catholics and the Protestants. Connacht could have been the land of the Cohens. There was the risk that the Jews would be attacked by both sides, but the Irish were still more charming than Cossacks.

Indeed, who is to say that the Jews wouldn’t have quickly ingratiated themselves? They are nearly as loquacious as the Irish and without imperiling the liquor supply. Even more remarkable, they are the only people who read James Joyce–or at least try to.

Brendan Behan said, “Most people have nationalities. The Jews and the Irish have psychoses.” If only Behan had said it to Arthur Balfour….