Turkey’s Donmeh Jewry And Their Sabbatean Roots




Turkey’s Donmeh Jewry And Their Sabbatean Roots

Sabbateans, Doenmeh and Frankists

Shabbtai Tzvi Would Be Proud

May 24, 1999
The Jerusalem Report

They secretively practice a strange form of Judaism, but are not recognized as Jews. At least one of Turkey’s Doenmeh would like to change this.

Moshe Temkin Istanbul.

Ilgaz Zorlu is something of an expert on the markets of Istanbul and Turkish cuisine. As he strolls down lesser known streets, pointing out this gem of a restaurant and that great leather shop, dozens of people greet him. But although the 30-year-old accountant has lived in this enormous city all his life, and knows most of it practically by heart, he claims he doesn’t feel quite at home here.

There is one place where Zorlu finds peace: a secluded cemetery in the Uskudar district, across the Bosphorus on the Asian side of the city. At first, it looks like an ordinary Muslim cemetery, but Zorlu and his companions begin to point out the small differences. Many of the tombs are covered by a concrete surface, not earth, and have pictures of the deceased on them. These are not Islamic customs, and many of those buried here, he explains, are not Muslims – well, not exactly. Rather, they’re Sabbateans – members of a community descended from Jewish followers of the 17th-century self-proclaimed messiah Shabbtai Tzvi. To avoid execution by the sultan, Tzvi converted to Islam in 1666; the most extreme of his followers did so as well, practicing Islam outwardly and a strange form of Judaism in secret – a Judaism that supposedly included ritual adulterous orgies. Until this century, the sect was concentrated in the city of Saloniki; today most Sabbateans live in Istanbul.

And everyone in Istanbul, so it seems, knows about the Sabbateans, or, as they are known here, the Doenmeh (“converts” or “apostates” in Turkish; the Sabbateans themselves dislike this title, and seldom use it.) They are perhaps Turkey’s best-known secret. No Sabbatean, with the exception of Ilgaz Zorlu himself, will ever publicly admit to being one, and they are rarely talked about. Even the Sabbateans themselves learn their real identities only when they turn 18, when the secret is finally revealed to them by their parents. This tradition of zealously maintaining a double identity in Muslim society has been passed on for generations.

They’re Muslims, as their identity cards attest, but, as Zorlu puts it, “all the Muslims know we’re different.” Their elders speak Turkish in an accent heavily flavored by Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish of Sephardi Jews. Their beliefs and rituals are largely unknown to outsiders. They rarely go to mosques. They marry mainly among themselves and live in the neighborhoods on the European side – Nisantasi, Sisli and Haskoy – where most of the city’s Jews also reside. But they are not Jews either. The Jewish community wants nothing to do with them. “As far as we’re concerned,” says Rabbi Yitzhak Haleva, deputy chief rabbi of Istanbul, “there are only Jews and Muslims. There’s nothing in between.”

So who are the Sabbateans? This is what Zorlu set out to explain in his book, “Yes, I Am a Salonikan,” which has been through six printings since its publication earlier this year and which has made its author persona non grata in the Sabbatean community. After centuries of secrecy and denial, Zorlu is determined to break the silence, to put the issue on the public agenda, and to prove that the Sabbateans are actually crypto-Jews, that their Muslim appearances are nothing more than a sham.

Sabbatean leaders are convinced that Zorlu’s disclosure has put the community in jeopardy, and have washed their hands of him. Some critics argue that he is only after publicity. Zorlu rejects the criticism and stresses that he wants only one thing: official recognition on the part of the Jewish rabbinical establishment, that the Sabbateans are Jews, albeit with a difference.

So far, he’s been turned down. Three years ago, he spent time in Israel, at the religious kibbutz, Yavneh. He met with Sephardi Chief Rabbi Rafael Bakshi-Doron, who hadn’t even heard of the Sabbateans. Zorlu told Bakshi-Doron that if the Sabbateans were recognized as Jews, many would settle in Israel. Bakshi-Doron replied that they would have to undergo full Orthodox conversion. This was unacceptable to Zorlu; he feels they are already Jewish.

About five years ago he had a Jewish girlfriend, whom he wanted to marry. He claims her family forced her to leave him because they discovered he is a Sabbatean.

Yet he hasn’t given up. “We’re only asking for the kind of recognition given to the Karaites in Israel,” he told The Report, referring to the small community that believes only in the Torah and not the Oral Law. “I want us to be recognized for what we are. We are not Muslims. We are Sabbateans. Our families are all of Jewish origin, but we have our own separate identities.”

The Doenmeh roots go back to the immense messianic crisis of the 1660s. Across the Jewish world, Shabbtai Tzvi, an Izmir-born kabbalist, was accepted as the promised redeemer of Israel. It was a turbulent time for Europe’s Jews, who were looking for deliverance in the wake of the devastating massacres in Ukraine and elsewhere. Tzvi declared himself the messiah in 1665, and prepared to lead the Jewish people to the Holy Land. He also told his followers that the Ottoman sultan would become his slave.

In response, the Ottomans arrested Tzvi and gave him the choice of conversion or death. The messiah chose apostasy, and converted to Islam the next year. While the great majority of Jews subsequently renounced him, some – the ma’aminim, or “believers” – secretly kept their faith in him. About 200 families of believers – the original Doenmeh – followed Tzvi into Islam. In secret, they practiced their own form of Judaism, based on the “18 precepts” supposedly left by Tzvi – essentially the Ten Commandments (with a very ambiguous replacement for No. 7), along with a ban on intermarriage with true Muslims.

Within a few years, the Sabbateans congregated in Saloniki, a center of the Sephardi world. Like the Spanish conversos who’d remained secret Jews, they led double lives – but the Doenmeh were voluntary Marranos. They never integrated into Muslim society, and continued to believe that Shabbtai Tzvi would one day return and lead them to redemption.

In 1924, when Saloniki became part of Greece and ethnic Turks left the city in a forced population exchange, almost all the Sabbateans were deported to Istanbul. Many, seeking to stay in their city, sought recognition from the local rabbis as Jews, which would have exempted them from the expulsion of Turks. The rabbis refused – and, inadvertently, rescued them from the Nazi extermination that struck Greece’s Jews a few years later. The Doenmeh themselves estimate that 15,000-20,000 Sabbateans live in Turkey today.

The community is divided into three subgroups, who have little interaction with each other: the Karakas, Kapanci and Yacobis. Each group has its own agon (rabbi) and synagogue. The synagogues are kept secret – usually just rooms in private apartments or basements – and constantly change location; no outsider has ever been allowed to see one, and not even all the Sabbateans know where they are.

Zorlu’s two companions, who will identify themselves only by their first initials – S., his 25-year-old cousin and a student of business administration, and Y., a 23-year-old student of graphic design – trace their genealogy to the early 18th century. Zorlu gives his Hebrew name as Shimon Tzvi and claims he is a descendant of Shabbtai Tzvi’s brother, on his mother’s side.

Zorlu, S. and Y., Kapanci members, go to their synagogue as often as they can. Zorlu has recently been told by community leaders that he is no longer welcome there, and Sabbatean youths are warned not to come into social contact with him.

Many of the younger Sabbateans, he says, don’t settle for just the traditional Sabbatean prayers; they want the “real thing.” S., who spent most of his childhood in Michigan, where his father did business, tried twice to pray in local Jewish synagogues, but was kicked out both times.

“The last time I tried was a few years ago,” he recalls. “I really wanted to see what it was like. I took a yarmulke with me and put it on as soon as I got inside. Most of the people there were very old. After a minute or two somebody came up to me and asked me who I was. I told him my name, and he demanded to see my ID. When he saw that I’m a Muslim, he told me to leave immediately. I felt humiliated and upset. That’s more or less what happened the first time I tried to get into a synagogue, and I was hoping that the attitude would change. I guess I was wrong.”

S. and Y. are secular but want to retain their separate Sabbatean identity. Y. remembers growing up differently from his friends, and not knowing why. “I only discovered who I was when I was 18,” he says. “That’s the Sabbatean tradition, to wait until you’re at marriageable age before telling you, whether your family is devout or secular. But I always felt a little different from the other Muslims around me. For example, there’s a Turkish dish that combines kebab and a kind of yogurt. I was never allowed to eat it, and I never knew why.”

“We’ve always lived near Jews,” adds S., “and my father always knew a lot of Jewish jokes. Even now most of my friends don’t know that I’m a Sabbatean. I don’t know why I haven’t told them. They probably just assume I’m a Muslim, because we’re all secular and atheists.”

Zorlu asserts that the Israeli rabbinate refuses to recognize the Sabbateans as “special Jews” for political reasons. “There are good relations between Turkey and Israel right now,” he says, “and the rabbis in Israel are under pressure not to stir things up. They fear that if the Sabbateans are recognized as Jews, it would cause problems in Turkey and hurt relations with Israel.

“What the rabbis don’t understand,” he continues, “is that we are a case similar to the Ethiopian Jews. It’s unfair to demand that we convert. We’re already Jews. True, we’re not ordinary Jews. We’re Sabbateans.” Like the Ethiopian Jews, he insists, members of his community should need only gi’ur lehumrah (a technical conversion for those whose Judaism is in doubt).

Turkish muslim society tolerates Jews as long as they are out in the open and do not attempt to convert Muslims. Hidden Jews, claiming to be Muslims, are something else entirely. This is one of the reasons Zorlu’s book caused such a commotion. Fundamentalist Islamic groups question the loyalty of these “secret Jews” to the faith, and Zorlu, who publicly exposed the Sabbatean separateness and stressed that they have an undying connection to Judaism, provided the fundamentalists with ammunition.

Jews and other minorities can advance only so far in Turkish society; because they keep their identity secret, Sabbateans, on the other hand, can and do enjoy high positions in almost every field. The Sabbatean cemetery, which is ostensibly Muslim, offers ample evidence: The tomb of a Supreme Court judge lies next to that of an ex-leader of the Communist party, and near them stand the graves of a general and a famous educator. Zorlu freely adds more big names to the list of prominent Sabbateans, including Foreign Minister Ismail Cem, who, claims Zorlu, used to have a Sabbatean surname (Cem has denied being a Sabbatean). Zorlu also claims that former prime minister Tanso Ciler is a Sabbatean, as is the wife of the current prime minister, Bulent Ecevit.

Many of the Sabbateans tend to be left-wing, academics and journalists – members of the cultural elite. They’re also quite affluent. All this puts them at odds with Islamic extremists, traditional opponents of Turkey’s democratic political heritage. One of the leaders of the Young Turks, the late 19th-century reform movement, was a Sabbatean, and the fundamentalists also hold that the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who had some Saloniki roots, was part-Sabbatean. “My great grandfather,” Zorlu says proudly, “was Ataturk’s teacher in grade school.”

Rifat Bali, a Jewish businessman and writer, who is well acquainted with the Sabbateans, used to be Zorlu’s friend and patron. They’ve since stopped speaking; Bali wrote a scathing review of Zorlu’s book in an academic newsletter, accusing him of willingly playing into the hands of the fundamentalists, and Zorlu wrote an equally aggressive reply.

“Ilgaz is like a missionary,” says Bali. “If he really wanted to be a Jew, that wouldn’t be a problem. He could go to Israel and live as a Jew. But that’s not his real purpose. He wants to spread the word of Sabbateanism. He knows that there isn’t a solution to the problem, that the Sabbateans will never convert and that the Jews will never accept them as they are.

“Ilgaz knows that the Sabbateans are in a very sensitive position,” Bali continues. “They’re prominent, they’re part of the elite, and that’s why the fundamentalists target them. Even the word Doenmeh has very negative connotations. Obviously they don’t want the issue of Sabbateanism to be out in the open. So why is Ilgaz doing it? He wants the topic to be in people’s consciousness.”

“Rifat said I’m cooperating with the fundamentalists,” responds Zorlu, “but he himself wrote in an Islamic fundamentalist journal.”

Rabbi Haleva denies any political considerations regarding the Sabbateans. “Ilgaz feels he’s Jewish,” he says, “but there’s no way he can be accepted by the rabbinate without an Orthodox conversion. The problem isn’t their beliefs, whether or not they think Shabbtai Tzvi is the messiah. The relations between Israel and Turkey aren’t the issue either. The problem is that the Sabbateans have assimilated among the Muslims.”

Haleva has repeatedly run into signs of the Sabbateans’ sense of connection to the Jews. “No one will ever say that he is a Sabbatean,” he says, “but I’ve had Muslims approach me for all kinds of reasons. One asked me to look for a Jewish mohel, and when I asked why he needed one, he told me that they’re more knowledgeable than doctors. Another Muslim used to greet me with ‘Shabbat shalom’ on Saturdays. When his mother was dying, he asked me to visit her at the hospital. He said that she wanted to die as a Jew.”

Says Zorlu: “Our community has tried to stay pure, and not marry Muslims, but the Jewish rabbinate has pushed our people toward assimilation. That’s what happens when you get ignored for so many years. But some things haven’t changed. A Sabbatean who marries a Jew or a Muslim is excommunicated. There are many Sabbateans who don’t even know who they are; they’re the assimilated ones. The ones who identify as Sabbateans don’t have that problem at all.”

The younger generation of Sabbateans may be secular, but ancient customs still persist. Every morning, one of the elders of the community, a 92-year-old agon, ventures to the shores of the Bosphorus, shortly before dawn, and recites a short chant in Ladino: “Sabetai, Sabetai, esperamos a ti” (Shabbtai, Shabbtai, we wait for you). He is one of the last to practice this 300-year-old messianic tradition, and it is slowly dying out.

Some scholars say that the Sabbateans of Istanbul continue to practice many other of their own peculiar rituals – of which the most bizarre is probably “the festival of the lamb.” Once a year, on the night between Adar 21 and 22 (usually sometime in March), they say, Sabbatean married couples gather to eat that spring’s newly born lambs for the first time. After the meal, the lights are put out and couples have sex without distinguishing between their partners. Children born as a result of these encounters are considered sacred.

This ritual is probably the biggest problem the Jewish rabbinical establishment has with the community. Because of the sanctioned adultery in the community’s past, any member could well be a mamzer – a product of an adulterous relationship, or the descendant of such a person, and therefore barred from marrying other Jews.

Even the renowned scholar Gershom Scholem, among others, insisted that the Doenmeh continued for centuries to practice promiscuous sex. But the younger Sabbateans just scoff at what they call the “lamb story.” S. says that “the question is not whether the Sabbateans continue to practice that tradition, but whether they ever did. Sabbateans have sex just like everybody else.”

Do they believe that Shabbtai Tzvi is the messiah? S. and Y. say that for them the question isn’t relevant, because they’re atheists. Zorlu, who is not, refuses to commit himself one way or the other. “Sabbateanism is a Jewish mystical tradition,” he says. “Many in the community still believe in him. Just like there are messianic Jews, there are messianic Sabbateans. We may have different rituals, but we are all Jews.”

False Messiahs and Whirling Dervishes: A Scholar’s Fresh Take on an Old Topic; The Sabbatean Prophets
Allan Nadler, Forward, NY
Jul 9, 2004

Allan Nadler is the director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University and senior academic adviser to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He is currently completing a book on the influence of Spinoza in modern Jewish culture.

The following dire, revolutionary proclamation issues forth from a charismatic provocateur in Gaza:

“None will be saved from these tribulations except those dwelling in this place. The [very] name of the place [connoting strength] expresses her nature. And with the advent of her redemption, strength will spread and the people of Gaza will act in this strength.”

The response of the leader of the Gazans’ enemy, both to this message and to those Jews residing in Gaza, is to remind them that Gaza is a place unworthy of triggering apocalyptic violence, since it is “technically outside the borders of the [biblical] Land of Israel.”

At the same time, in a nearby Arab country, classified information, laden with potentially devastating secrets, is conveyed via a shady Middle Eastern businessman named Chelebi.

The latest news from Israel and Iraq? Hardly!

The proclamation from Gaza was issued not by a leader of Hamas, but rather by the 17th-century Jewish kabbalist Nathan of Gaza, who in 1665 became the major prophet of the infamous false messiah from Izmir, Shabbetai Zevi. The proclamation’s rebuke was not part of Ariel Sharon’s argument for evacuating Jewish settlers from Gaza, but of a ruling by Rabbi Jacob Sasportas, the most outspoken and tireless opponent of the Sabbatean messianic outbreak. And the Chelebi in question was not the now-disgraced White House confidant, Ahmed Chalabi, but rather Raphael Chelebi, an Egyptian Jewish businessman who was the first outsider to whom Nathan of Gaza revealed the “secret” that the messiah had arrived.

Matt Goldish traces these tidbits and many other riveting developments in his new book, “The Sabbatean Prophets,” a fresh scholarly re-evaluation of the events that led to the wildfire-rapid spread across the Jewish world of belief in Shabbetai Zevi as the Jews’ long-awaited king and savior.

It is natural to approach a new, rather thin, volume about Sabbateanism with a certain degree of skepticism. How much more can be revealed about a subject to which the great scholar of Kabbalah, Gershom Scholem, devoted a monumental 950-page study — a work that has itself spawned decades of critical commentary and re-evaluation on the part of Scholem’s colleagues and disciples?

As it turns out, however, Goldish, who is the Melton associate professor of Jewish history at The Ohio State University, succeeds in going well beyond the foundational work of previous scholars. He achieves this not by uncovering hitherto unknown Sabbatean texts, but by significantly widening the lens through which the Sabbatean messianic phenomenon is viewed, taking his readers on a fascinating voyage through the turbulent worlds of 17th-century religious enthusiasm and prophetic millenarian thought — Christian, Muslim and Jewish. Goldish contends that it is in the broader context of religious thought in Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire that the startling outbreak and rapid spread of Sabbateanism can be best appreciated. Moreover, pace Scholem, Goldish argues that it was not the dissemination of an esoteric Sabbatean version of Lurianic Kabbalah that best accounts for the extent of Shabbetai Zevi’s popularity, but the parallel outbreak of widespread ecstatic prophecies on the part of simple Jews, young women in particular.

The intellectual and spiritual turbulence of the early modern period, particularly in Western Europe, gave rise to a dizzying array of novel religious ideas and mystical enthusiasm, most notably a variety of what Goldish broadly defines as new forms of “prophecy.” There were many, widely divergent factors that led to this spiritual outbreak, all ably described by Goldish. The Reformation’s challenge to the Roman Catholic Church’s monopoly on religious truth in the 16th-century eventually led to the rise of a variety of charismatic sects whose leaders relied on direct personal access to the word of God in the 17th century.

Goldish pays particular attention to the probable impact on Jewish thought of the millenarian enthusiasm of Quaker missionaries, rapidly spreading from England to present-day Turkey at precisely the same time that Sabbateanism erupted. But he also notes a host of other small English millenarian religious sects that cropped up in the wake of the end of the Thirty Years War and the English Revolution. They were part of the larger continental atmosphere of millenarian thinking fostered by such groups as the Collegiants, French prophets, Spanish beatas and even the alchemists that pervaded Europe in the mid-17th century.

More surprisingly, Goldish makes the counterintuitive argument that the scientific revolution — far from leading to estrangement from religion — was deeply and inextricably wound up with a particularly messianic form of spirituality. His discussions of the prophetic postures and messianic expectations of noted scientists such as Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon complicate accepted wisdom about the place of the scientific revolution in the trajectory of early modern intellectual history.

They also contribute richly to Goldish’s portrayal of the degree to which 17th-century Christian Europe was rife with expectations of the Second Coming. Additionally, the daring voyages of the great 16th- and 17th-century European explorers led many to imagine that the fabled 10 Lost Tribes of Israel had been discovered, further fueling millenarian excitement and sparking a renewed Christian interest in the secret teachings of kabbalah. This often brought together in a weirdly shared apocalyptism rabbis and churchmen whose only real differences were their respective imaginings of precisely how the imminently expected scenario of salvation would end.

Critics of Goldish’s approach almost certainly will argue that while he may have stumbled upon a coincidence of parallel messianic excitement during the same historical moment in both the Christian and Jewish worlds, he has not proved any direct connection between them. Goldish anticipates this problem by appealing to the theory, best articulated in the work of the French historian Jean-Michel Oughourlian, of “universal mimesis,” or what non-scholars simply would call, “something in the air.”

With the help of his copious translations of documents describing the prophetic experiences of Nathan of Gaza, the lay Sabbatean prophets as well as their Christian contemporaries, Goldish shows just how similar — at times almost identical — these bizarre phenomena were. The dramatic fainting, the convulsions, the losses of pulse, etc. — all inevitably followed by apocalyptic illuminations — were being experienced at precisely the same time by Jews, Christians and Muslims around the globe. Goldish insists that during this period of feverish worldwide travel, it is simply naive, even myopic, to rule out mutual influences:

In such merchant centers as Aleppo and Izmir, filled with Europeans, it is hardly credible that news of the Quakers, various Italian and French ecstatics and other European prophetic groups would not have reached the ears of the Jews. It is even more certain that Sepharadi exiles and escaped conversos, whose culture was Iberian through and through, knew a great deal about similar phenomena among beatas and nuns in Spain and Portugal. In their own environs, they had the models of the Sufis and dervishes. Even if they had not seen such possessions and visions in person, they could hardly have helped knowing about them. For this reason it is probable that the model of Nathan [of Gaza] struck a particular chord.

Aside from vividly describing, and explaining the widespread belief in, Sabbatean messianic prophecies, this book refines both the timeline of Sabbateanism’s spread and the exact nature of its heresy. Scholem located that heresy in the convoluted kabbalistic rationalizations by his believers that followed Shabbetai Zevi’s conversion to Islam in 1666. Goldish counters that the real heresy began earlier, exemplified by the very existence and growing influence of charismatic figures such as Nathan of Gaza and the lay Sabbatean prophets. It was the shifting of power from rabbis (whose authority was based on sound Talmudic scholarship) to charismatics (whose authority emerged from supernatural prophetic abilities) that represented the real heresy against traditional Judaism. In that sense, the “Sabbatean Prophets” were anti-establishment heretics well before Shabbetai Zevi’s total defection from Judaism. That latter catastrophe led to the deeper, antinomian apostasy of the later Jewish Sabbateans, as well as to the Donmeh, the school of Muslim believers in Shabbetai Zevi, which persists, very secretly, in Turkey today.

Even in contemporary America, though limited to rather marginal Jewish circles, the Sabbatean and Donmeh madness continues. It has been argued, and I would agree, that many aspects of the new-age “Jewish Renewal Movement” betray Sabbatean influences. More significantly, today there are Sabbateans active mostly in (where else?) California. The origins of strange religious syncretism — incorporating Christianity and Islam and embracing all the messiahs of the Jewish past, Jesus included — that characterize latter-day Sabbateanism now can be better understood, thanks to the synthetic approach of this new book.

Throughout his work, Goldish reflects the influence of his two great teachers: the giant of early modern European intellectual history, Richard Popkin, and the leading Israeli scholar of kabbalah, Moshe Idel. Not only does Goldish build upon their body of work, but he also brings a unique combination of their talents to the table. Unlike Popkin, Goldish can ably decipher the most arcane Hebrew and Aramaic mystical sources; and unlike the famously imaginative and anti-historicist Idel, Goldish brings the sensibilities of the sober historian to his finely nuanced readings of them. The Rabbinical Sages always have insisted that the wisdom of successive generations of Judaic scholars is in perpetual decline. This exciting new book suggests quite the contrary.

Abraham Rabinovich
May 12, 1989
The Jerusalem Post

IN THE 17th century, Shabtai Zvi electrified the Jewish world from Yemen to Russia with his revelation that the Messianic era had arrived and that he was the Messiah. He convinced not only the unsophisticated masses also but much of the religious establishment – Sephardi and Ashkenazi – in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. Not even his eventual embrace of Islam persuaded all his followers that he was a false messiah.

Next week, the only document written by Shabtai Zvi known to exist will go on display at the Israel Museum, the first time it will have been publicly shown. A letter written to followers in the Balkan city of Arenhut Belograd, it is signed Yehuda Shabtai Mohammed Zvi and is a request for a machzor (Hebrew prayer book) for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

According to Rivka Gonen, curator of Jewish ethnography at the museum, the letter was found in the 1950s between the pages of a prayer book that had belonged to members of the Shabatean sect, known as the Doenmeh, who had lived in Salonika early in this century. This sect consisted of descendents of Jews who had voluntarily adopted Islam in emulation of Shabtai Zvi but who continued to practice a mixture of traditional and heretical Judaism in secret.

Gershom Scholem, the foremost scholar of Jewish mysticism, has written that one of the explanations by Shabateans for their deviations from Jewish norms including in some extreme cases, rejection of taboos against incest – was that “like the grain that dies in the earth, the deeds of man must become in some way ‘rotten’ in order to bring forth the fruit of redemption.”

A number of books from the Salonika Doenmeh community eventually reached the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem where the letter was found. The institute has loaned the letter to the museum as part of a major exhibition to be opened on May 17 on Sephardi Jews in the Ottoman empire.

Shabtai Zvi was born in 1626 in Smyrna (Izmir). His birthday was said to be the Ninth of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the First and Second Temples and, by a Jewish tradition, the day on which the Messiah would be born. His father, apparently an Ashkenazi, was an agent for Dutch and English traders.

As a young scholar he began to display strong signs of what would today be called manic-depressive psychosis, his moods alternating between periods of deep depression and euphoric “illuminations.”

During his illuminations, he indulged in religiously outrageous acts, publicly pronouncing the ineffable name of God, eating forbidden food and finally announcing that he was the Messiah. He was initially regarded with some tolerance in Smyrna as a harmless eccentric. He married and divorced twice without consummating either marriage and began wandering among the Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire. Usually, he ended up being expelled by local rabbinical authorities for some religious outrage.

In 1662 he arrived in Jerusalem where he spent a year and met a Polish girl of doubtful reputation. They married in Cairo and Shabtai Zvi, evidently wanting to settle down, sought to exorcise the madness plaguing him. Hearing of a rabbi in Gaza named Nathan who was said to be able to provide solace for the soul, he travelled to that city in 1665.

Nathan did not dismiss him as a lunatic. Subject to mystic inclinations himself, just two months before Shabtai Zvi’s arrival in Gaza Nathan had a vision that the strange Jew from Smyrna was the Messiah. He now told him this. Shabtai Zvi, who had come to Gaza to be relieved of the terrible burden of his fantasy, suddenly had it thrust back upon him. Any hope for earthly salvation was gone.

Nathan announced to a group of rabbis visiting him on Shavuot that Shabtai Zvi was the Messiah. Unlike the Jews of Smyrna who had dismissed him as the community lunatic, the Jews of Gaza hailed him as the saviour.

Letters containing the astonishing news were dispatched to Jewish communities on three continents. The response was enthusiastic and pilgrims began to make their way across the seas and deserts. Legends about his miraculous powers began to spread although Nathan was careful to declare that the Messiah was not obliged to give proof of his powers by performing miracles.

Even before Shabtai Zvi’s name reached Europe, reports began to circulate there that the 10 lost tribes had crossed the River Sambatyon and were marching towards Eretz Yisrael under the command of a saint, capturing Mecca on the way. Rabbis in Jerusalem and elsewhere initially rejected the messianic claim but this resistance steadily declined. Many of the rabbis were caught up in the Messianic fervour; others feared the wrath of the public if they voiced their opposition.

Shabtai Zvi returned to Turkey, and parcelled out the kingdoms of the world among his closest followers. He made a cardinal mistake, however, when he let it be known that he himself would shortly displace “the great Turk.”

The sultan’s efficient secret service, closely following the great agitation in the Jewish community, seized Shabtai Zvi and threw him in chains into a dungeon. Some well-placed bribes soon brought him better accomodations in a fortress in Gallipoli. Shabtai Zvi denied that he had ever claimed to be the Messiah, but court officials told him he would have to convert to Islam or die. Shabtai Zvi decided to take the turban.

The apostasy was a tremendous blow to his followers. Most eventually accepted that they had been deceived – more by their own needs than by anything else. Many, however, could not even now abandon their Messiah. Nathan himself maintained that the apostasy was a divine ploy aimed at redeeming holy sparks scattered among the gentiles. “By placing the paradox of an apostate Messiah, a tragic but still legitimate redeemer, at the centre of the new developing Shabatean theology,” writes Scholem, “Nathan laid the foundation for the ideology of the believers for the next 100 years.”

Shabtai Zvi lived for 10 years after his conversion. He practiced Islam and his own form of Judaism as well. When he was denounced to the authorities for this double game, as well as for alleged sexual excesses, he was exiled to Albania. It may have been from there that he sent the letter being exhibited at the Israel Museum.

“MY BRETHREN and friends, residents of Arenhut Belograd,” reads the letter.

“May all those worthy of it witness God’s redemption. Quickly send me a machzor for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Thus says the man that rises over all the hosts of heaven in heaven and all the kings of earth on earth. And he will rise generously.

“The Messiah of the Lord of Israel and Judah, Shabtai Zvi.

“Sunday, Rosh Hodesh of the first month, Nissan.

“I am sending the above mentioned messenger to announce to you and he will tell you all of my honour in the Sea Prison and some of what he has seen. Beware of him and heed him and do not disobey him in whatever he tells you in my name for I will not forgive your crime. For who is it that gives but me for besides me there is no God. And if you will listen to him and do what I say I will come to you and fill your treasuries. Thus speaks the Messiah of the God of Israel, Yehuda Shabtai Mohammed Zvi.”

That machzor may have been with him when he died at the age of 50 in 1676 on Yom Kippur.

Photo; Caption: No caption (photo of Shabtai Zvi letter); Credit: Nahum Slapak

Sold on a savior
January 14, 2005
The Jerusalem Post

The Sabbatean Prophets By Matt Goldish Harvard University Press 240pp., $39.95

The rise and fall of the false messiah Shabtai Zvi in 1665-1666 left resounding echoes in Jewish history, which if the late Gershom Scholem is to be believed, can still be faintly heard today. Unlike later movements (for example Hassidism, the Reform movement, even Zionism), Sabbateanism infected Sephardim and Ashkenazim alike. More recent examples from Brooklyn notwithstanding, it is always a puzzle to understand how so many Jews, in so many communities, actually believed that this obscure and exotic personality was the messiah of the Jews and even of the world, to the extent that they gave up the practice of Judaism and followed the bizarre variations of Jewish practice that he prescribed.

Matt Goldish, a professor of Jewish history at Ohio State University, in a slim and extremely well-written book, seeks to answer that question. He does so in a way that is convincing and also a model of historical writing and method. It is an illuminating and provocative study in the background to the history of modern Judaism.

Concentrating on the carriers of Shabtai Zvi’s message, the “prophets,” he shows how the receptivity of Jews (and Christians and Muslims) to the message of Shabtai Zvi was shaped by a whole range of phenomena and movements in the Christian, Muslim and Jewish worlds. He teaches us that Jewish history, to be really understood, has to be taught in the widest possible context.

Shabtai Zvi and his publicists, of whom Nathan of Gaza was the most important, were able to speak to a very confused world. In the previous century and a half, the Jewish community had seen the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the rise of the Lurianic Kabbala as a rival system of authority in Judaism.

From Spain, a very potent mix of mystics and returning Conversos (“Marranos”) upset the spiritual and philosophical equilibrium of many Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa and the Ottoman Empire. Recent scholarship has shown, for example, the perhaps hitherto unappreciated intellectual and religious intensity with which the returning Conversos entered and challenged the major communities of Europe. Their identity as former Catholics and new Jews gave them a serious preoccupation with questions of Messianism and the apocalyptic, sometimes framed in concepts with which more traditional rabbis found it difficult to grapple.

The Kabbalists offered the promise of escape from the mundane world, and opened a window onto a metaphysicality vastly more exciting than the four cubits of the traditional Jewish law. What could be more attractive than an actual messiah who could embody both?

Goldish points out that the major centers of Converso settlement – Amsterdam, Italy, Constantinople, Izmir – were also early centers of Sabbatean ferment. But the Jewish background was also a product of its times, not only a cause. The entire western world had undergone a series of conceptual and religious revolutions.

Martin Luther’s Reformation had taught Christian Europe that every person – not only the priesthood – could read and interpret the Bible for themselves. (Isn’t this the reason why the Conversos of Amsterdam could arrogate to themselves the authority to argue with the rabbis?). It undermined totally the idea of central priestly authority.

The age of discovery had both challenged the biblical world view and also raised messianic speculation. How could you reconcile the belief that the Bible was the textbook for understanding the known world with the fact that it did not mention America? On the other hand, couldn’t the discovery of unknown and undreamt-of lands and peoples and animals mean that the discovery of the Ten Lost Tribes and therefore the End of Days was imminent? (Menasseh ben Israel certainly thought so.) Christian expectations of the messiah were rife in 16th- and 17th-century Europe.

Finally, scientific discovery, which we might think was a purely rationalist phenomenon, is shown by Goldish to have been thoroughly permeated with millenarian and apocalyptic theory – even great scientists like Sir Isaac Newton thought that one result of their knowledge of the natural world might be to give them the means of more accurately calculating the end of days as prophesied in the Bible. Similar revolutions, likely to be less familiar to most readers, but described clearly by Goldish, were taking place in the Islamic world as well.

Sabbateanism was both a symptom and a cause of the radical destabilization of the Jewish world at the beginning of the modern age. That destabilization, involving the undermining of rabbinic and communal authority, enabled the panoply of movements and philosophies that constitutes Jewish modernity to emerge. That is as true of the most Orthodox as it is of the most heretical. Matt Goldish’s book is an outstanding description of the process.

The writer is the director of education at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.

Photo; Caption: Shabtai Zvi (1626-1676). How did so many fall prey to his messianic claims?

Scratch a Turk, and you never know what you find.
August 27, 2002
Irish Times

When Turkey’s foreign minister, Ismail Cem, resigned last month to form a new centre-left party, Turkey’s overwhelmingly pro-European media acclaimed him as the man capable of defeating the popular moderate religious party in elections in November.

Unsurprisingly, the Islamic press didn’t agree. But its criticisms took a strange form: “If the man they talk about is the same Ismail Cem Ipekci this nation has known since his days at the head of Turkish Radio and Television,” wrote Turgut Emin in the conservative religious newspaper, Vakit, “then who would vote for him apart from his extended family?”. Run-of-the-mill invective? Not quite. For most Turks the references to “Ipekci” and his “extended family” clearly allude to Ismail Cem’s alleged membership of one of Turkey’s most secretive minorities, the Sabbateans, a heterodox Jewish sect.

Cem has long denied such claims, but he is only the latest target of a conspiracy theory that dates to the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. At its heart, two issues: the legitimacy of a secular regime in this mainly Muslim country, and the question of what it means to be a Turk. “The Sabbateans have a monopoly over Turkish society,” claims Mehmet Sevket-Eygi, columnist for the Islamic newspaper, Milli Gazete. “The Turks themselves live like the subject population of British India.”

A vocal critic of what he sees as Turkey’s excessive secularism, Eygi argues that secular measures “are always the will of Sabbateans because a real Turk, even an atheist Turk, would never do so much harm to Turkey.” Rifat Bali, an expert on Turkish Judaism, sums up bluntly: “the controversy boils down to the Islamists’ belief that Ataturk himself was a Sabbatean.” Sabbatean, he adds, has become a catch-all slur for any enthusiastic defender of Turkey’s status quo.

Sabbateanism dates from 1665, when Ottoman rabbi Shabbetai Zvi proclaimed himself messiah. Forced by the sultan to choose between conversion to Islam or death, he converted. After his death a community of his followers flourished in Salonica, once in the Ottoman Empire, now Greek. Muslims in appearance, they secretly practiced a heterodox version of Judaism.

Tolerated under the cosmopolitan Ottoman empire, their difficulties began after 1923. Even before some 15,000 of them had moved to Istanbul as part of the massive population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, an anonymous pamphlet accused them of being “the greatest factor in the spreading of immorality, irreligion and contagious disease among Muslims”. In 1943 wealth taxes purportedly aimed at curbing war profiteering targeted Jews, Christians and Sabbateans. “The taxes came as a particular shock to the Sabbateans”, says Leyla Neyzi, anthropologist and expert on Turkish minorities. “They identified strongly with the new secular Turkey and had largely broken their ties with a separate identity.”

In 1998 the publication of Ilgaz Zorlu’s best-selling book, I Am A Salonican, again stoked the fires of conspiracy. Born a Sabbatean, Zorlu recently converted to Judaism and sees it as his mission to defend Sabbateanism from extinction. “All that remains of my community now is a sense of cultural difference, not enough to prevent its disappearance”, he says. Zorlu believes Sabbateans must put aside what he describes as “their ingrained dislike of religion” and “convert en masse to Judaism.”

According to Marc Baer, Turkish historian at Pittsburgh University, the most troubling thing about Zorlu’s work is that “his claims about his community echo anti-Jewish and anti-Sabbatean myths popular in Turkey.” Zorlu’s conviction that “Turkey’s founders were all of of Sabbatean origin” has spurred religious newspapers to run headlines reading “Ataturk studied in a Jewish school” and “100,000 Sabbateans in Turkey.” It is now “common knowledge” that a media mogul and politicians ranging from the wife of the Prime Minister, Bulent Ecevit, through the recently resigned economy minister, Kemal Dervis, to the ubiquitous Ismail Cem, are of Sabbatean origin. “Zorlu has sold his soul to the fundamentalists”, says Rifat Bali.

Zorlu is unrepentant. “The reason I don’t accept Ismail Cem,” he says, “is that he doesn’t want to be a Jew.” Leyla Neyzi’s greatest concern is that anti-Sabbateanism “exists in diluted form in all walks of Turkish life”. She describes the reactions of a pro-secular army officer she knows to a recent article about Ismail Cem on the popular Internet news site, Haberturk. The article alluded to Cem’s supposed Sabbateanism. “He told me there was much to admire about him, but that he was unsure of his origins,” says Neyzi. She laughs: “Origins? Scratch a Turk, and there’s no knowing what you’ll get.” For her, the real villain of the Sabbatean story is the creation after 1923 of a “Janus-faced Turkish national identity”, both inclusive and exclusionary.

Convinced that the cosmopolitan cultural legacy of the Ottoman empire was a threat to the unity of the new republic, she argues, early Turkish republicans hitched ideas of universalist modernism to a concept of Turkishness based on Sunni Islam and an invented Turkish ethnicity. The Sabbateans’ fate has been to swallow one and be bitten by the other.

Remembering to forget: Sabbateanism, national identity, and subjectivity in Turkey
Leyla Neyzi
January 1, 2002
Comparative Studies in Society & History
Volume 44, Issue 1

The Sabbateans of Turkey are a small community descended from followers of a 17th-century Jewish messiah, Sabbatai Sevi. They have long since converted to Islam (though maintaining Jewish practices privately). Neyzi regards Sabbatean identity as an especially productive site at which to examine the basis of Turkish identity which, she argues, continues to require a Sunni Muslim ancestry and Turkish identity.

Mad Messiahs
Martin Gardner
March 1, 2000
Skeptical Inquirer
Volume 24, Issue 2

The word Christ is Greek for Messiah. When the woman at the well asked Jesus if he was indeed the Messiah, he replied, “I that speak unto thee am he” (John 4:26). Christians have always assumed he was exactly that. Jews of the time obviously could not agree. After all, Jesus failed to restore Jewish power and to bring about a world of peace and justice.

Over the centuries following Christ’s death, scores of Jews in Europe either claimed to be the promised Messiah, or were so regarded by their followers. The history of these false claimants is well summarized in Albert Hyamson’s sevenpage article “Messiahs (Pseudo-),” in James Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Volume 8. Here I shall be concerned mainly with Sabbatai Sebi (his name is also spelled Shabbetai Zevi), the most famous of such claimants. He was responsible for the largest messianic movement in Jewish history.

Sabbatai was born in Smyrna, the former name of the Turkish port of Izmir, the son of a Spanish employee of a British mercantile firm. The exact date of his birth is unknown, but was probably 1626. As a youth he was said to be unusually handsome and intelligent, with a fine singing voice.

There was widespread belief among Jews of time (when they were under harsh persecution) that the Messiah would soon appear and restore them to their homeland. Young Sabbatai immersed himself in the Cabala and its complex numerology. Encouraged by his father, he slowly persuaded himself that he was none other than the anticipated Anointed One. It was not long before his vigorous preaching won him a large following of fervent disciples known as Sabbateans.

In the 1650s the rabbis of Turkey branded Sabbatai a heretic, excommunicated him, and booted him out of Smyrna. In Salonica, where he continued preaching, he met similar resistance and was expelled from that city also. Such expulsions only increased the number and enthusiasm of his followers. Two early marriages ended in divorce before Sarah, a Polish woman of great beauty, announced that God had told her she was to be the Messiah’s bride. Sabbatai sent for her, and they were married in Cairo in 1664.

After several years of wandering about the Orient, preaching and gaining new converts, Sabbatai returned to Smyrna in 1665 where he openly proclaimed himself the Messiah and was welcomed with high enthusiasm. About half of all orthodox Jews around the world were now convinced that Sabbatai was indeed the King of the Jews who would lead them back to their Promised Land. One of his top devotees, Nathan Levi of Gaza, assumed the role of Elijah by proclaiming that Sabbatai was Israel’s true savior and that 1666 marked the beginning of the Messianic Age.

The tale now takes an astonishing, comic turn. In Constantinople, in 1666, Sabbatai was arrested by the Sultan of Turkey, put in chains, and sentenced to prison. The Sultan gave him a choice of either being executed or converting to Islam. Sabbatai and his wife at once converted!

Sabbatai’s tens of thousands of followers were of course crushed. As the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s eleventh edition puts it, the Sabbateans reacted with “a sense of shame joined to feelings of despair.” The false Messiah’s books and letters were burned, His name was so thoroughly erased from Jewish history that it was almost as if he never existed. Scholars today who are acquainted with his strange life believe he was a seriously deranged manic-depressive of great charisma during his manic phases, and given to frequent bizarre behavior.

After Sabbatai’s conversion to Islam, he took the name of Aziz Mehmed Effendi, and founded Donmeh (Turkish for “apostates”), a weird Muslim cult that combined Islamic theology with Jewish beliefs and rituals. After Sarah died in 1674, Sabbatai married a woman named Esther. Eventually he was banished to Dulcigno, now in Yugoslavia, where he died in 1676.

A small number of Sabbateans continued to honor his memory. The last of their leaders was Jankiev Lebowicz, a Polish charlatan who took the name Jacob Frank. Born in 1726, the son of a Polish rabbi, he claimed to be the reincarnation of Sabbatai. Eventually he and his followers, known as Frankists, converted to Russian orthodox catholicism! In 1760 Frank was arrested in Warsaw on a charge of heresy, and spent thirteen years in prison. After his release he called himself the German Baron of Offenbach. According to Hastings’ Encyclopaedia, “He lived in state until his death in 1791 … in various continental capitals, always with an immense retinue and a vast treasure derived from his infatuated adherents.” After his death his daughter Eva headed the Frankist cult as its “holy mistress” until she died in 1816. Not until the early 1900s did the cult finally totally expire.

There have been many false messiahs since, but none who gained the widespread devotion of the man later called The Mad Messiah. For details about his life see the article in Hastings’ Encyclopaedia previously cited, and the thirty pages on him in The Jewish Encyclopedia. See also its seventeen pages on Jacob Frank. A German book on Sabbatai, by Josef Kastein, was translated and published in 1931 by Viking with the title Messiah of Ismir. Israel Zangwill wrote a brilliant fictionalized account of Sabbatai’s life in Dreamers of the Ghetto (1948). On August 10, 1997, and in later reruns, the TV series Mysteries of the Bible featured Sabbatai’s deranged career.

What is the current situation regarding the Second Coming of Jesus and the Jewish messianic hope? Both Judaism and Christianity are now divided into three main groups. In Christendom, fundamentalists continue to expect to be raptured into the skies any day now, before the world as we know it approaches its demise. Conservative Christians, Protestant and Catholic, follow Saint Augustine in moving the time of the Second Coming so far into the future, and so vague in meaning, that they seldom think about it. Liberal Christians long ago took the Second Advent to be no more than a symbol of the world’s gradual progress. Julia Ward Howe, a Unitarian minister, opened her great “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” She did not mean a literal return of Jesus. For her the Civil War, by abolishing the evil of slavery, was a major step in progress toward a saner world. Onward Christian soldiers!

Religious Jews fall into three similar camps. The orthodox follow Maimonides, who wrote, I believe in perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.” Conservative Jews have pushed the date far into the future and are as vague about its significance as conservative Christians are about the return of Jesus. Reform Jews regard the Messiah as no more than a symbol of hope for a world free of war and major injustices. Now that Jews have restored their homeland and regained political power, it seems unlikely that demented claimants like Sabbatai will flourish once more to flimflam the faithful.

Nevertheless, in spite of the endless false messiahs in the past, ultra-orthodox Jews around the world periodically declare that the true Messiah is either here or on his way here to work great wonders. They saw the collapse of Soviet Communism as a great sign that the promised redeemer was already on the scene.

The latest instance of such frenzy broke out in Israel in 1992. An ultra-orthodox group called the Habad suddenly decided that the Messiah was about to declare himself They put up large billboard signs all over Israel saying “Prepare for the Coming of the Messiah.” Similar messages appeared on bumper stickers, and on electric signs atop cars. A full-page ad in the New York Times was titled, “The time for your redemption has arrived.”

The Habad is a branch of the Lubavitch movement, named after the Russian village in Smolensk where it began in the eighteenth century. Lubavitchians in turn are part of Hasidism. Most Habad/Lubavitch/ Hasidism followers live in Israel and in New York City.

And who was the Messiah that the Habadniks claimed was on the verge of revealing his identity? None other than Menachem Mendel Schneerson (1902-1994), then an 89-year-old rabbi living in Brooklyn! Schneerson came from a family that for two centuries had been leaders of the Habad movement. There are some 200,000 such believers worldwide, with 30,000 living in New York City where Schneerson was their world leader.

Rabbi Schneerson never claimed to be the Messiah, but his incessant preaching that the Messianic Age was about to begin, together with feeble disclaimers that he wasn’t the chosen one, persuaded the Israeli Habadniks that the Messiah was none other than Schneerson himself They built a house for him in Kfar Habad, a Tel Aviv suburb where most of them lived. Although Schneerson remained silent about being the Messiah, his followers in Israel became more and more persuaded that he would soon declare himself and move to Israel. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a famous Talmudic scholar, declared that Schneerson was “the most likely person” then living who could turn out to be the long-awaited redeemer.

Other orthodox Jews in Israel were incensed by all this commotion. They denounced the Habad claims as blasphemy, According to Time (March 21, 1992), Eliezer Schach, a 96-year-old Israeli rabbi who had long been Habad’s chief enemy, said Schneerson was insane, an infidel, and a false Messiah. He even accused the Habadniks of eating pork and other non-kosher food.

Rabbi Schneerson was a short man with bright blue eyes and a large snow-white beard that made him look like a jolly Santa Claus. Born in the Ukraine and educated in Berlin and Paris as an engineer, he soon became the world leader of the Habad Lubavitchians. His International Educational Network, headquartered in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights at 770 Eastern Parkway, is an outreach organization with its own TV cable network, and has a central aim of persuading Jews who have strayed from the faith to return to the fold. The outreach is said to take in some $ 100 million a year in contributions.

Rabbi Schneerson was much loved and admired by all New York City Jews even though conservative and reform Jews considered his messianic claims something of a joke. He was a magnetic preacher, and every Saturday thousands of admirers would jam into his Brooklyn synagogue to hear him. Every sermon was printed and faxed to his followers everywhere. A collection of his speeches runs to more than thirty volumes.

In 1993 the Schneerson mania in Israel and in New York City had not abated. A Brooklyn group called The International Campaign to Bring Moshiach [Messiah] took a full-page ad in the New York Times (Sunday, August 29). It featured a photograph of Schneerson surrounded in large print by the following message:

The revered leader of world jewry, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavicher Rebbe Shlita, issued a call that the time of our redemption has arrived, and Moshiach is on -his way.

The Rebbe, furthermore, stressed that he is saying this as a prophecy and asks all mankind to prepare themselves for the great clay of redemption, with a personal commitment to increase in charity and good deeds.

Over the years the Rebbe has inspired us, with his leadership, scholarship and prophesies time and time again. Now the Rebbe is telling us, as a prophecy, that Moshiach is on his way.

Let us heed the Rebbe’s call and let us all prepare for our own benefit, for that greatest of days, the ultimate purpose of G-d’s creation.

I assume that the hyphen in “God” was intended to reflect the absence of vowels in Hebrew writing.

The Habad belief that Schneerson was the Messiah vanished after the rabbi died, following a stroke in 1994. He was 92. Thousands of wailing mourners from all over the world attended his funeral at the Lubevitch international headquarters in Brooklyn.

Martin Gardner’s two-volume Annotated Alice has recently been reprinted in a one-volume edition.

February 24, 1997
The Jerusalem Post

Sir, – I have learned that an article was written by Aubrey Ross about me and Sabbateans in Turkey in your issue of December 1.

I wish to state that the Sabbateans in Turkey are under no pressure, face no discrimination from the state and enjoy the same rights as the other citizens. Only some fundamentalists consider Sabbateans as Jews and accuse them of collaborating with Israel.

However, the sect is part of Jewish culture and therefore has to be studied in that context. ~~ ILGAZ ZORLU, Istanbul.
Readers’ Letters

Reading from Right ro Left
Jeff Green
May 26, 1995
The Jerusalem Post

Jacob Frank (1726-1791) was one of the spiciest (and most unsavory) characters in early modern Jewish history. Claiming to be the messiah, he became the leader of a fairly large group of secret Sabbateans – Jews who continued to believe that Shabbetai Zvi (1626-1676) was the messiah, even after his conversion to Islam in 1666.

Frank’s followers, mainly centered in Poland, believed that there were two paths to redemption: absolute righteousness and absolute sinfulness. Since, given human nature, the former was rather unlikely, and the latter was a lot more thrilling, that is the path they took. Frank himself had a considerable sexual appetite and a fertile imagination, so mystical orgies became central in his cult.

Yoram Bar, a kibbutznik, has written a solid and convincing historical novel about Jacob Frank entitled Ner Batzohorayim (“Candle at Noon”), published by Keter. His book is based on careful research and can be read as a history of the rise of the Frankist movement. The narrator and main character, Nahman of Krzywicze, actually existed. In Bar’s book he speaks as a brilliant young rabbi from Podolia, a poor and oppressed region of Poland. Nahman was secretly a Sabbatean, pretending to observe the commandments strictly yet violating them in symbolic ways in order to bring redemption. On a trip to Salonika to visit the Doenmeh, a sect of Sabbateans who pretended to convert to Islam in order to continue their antinomian Jewish practices, Nahman encounters Frank and believes he has found the messiah. It is Nahman who persuades Frank to come to Podolia and who organizes the nucleus of his followers.

The Frankists tried to conceal their most outrageous practices and beliefs both from other Jews and from the Catholic and secular authorities. Rather they presented themselves as anti-Talmudic, messianic Jews, rebelling against the oppressive structure of prohibitions imposed by the rabbis. After long negotiations and several public trials and disputations, Frank and his followers converted to Catholicism, hoping to receive land of their own in return for their conversion. The Church, however, merely wanted to use the Frankists against rabbinic Judaism. Bar follows this process closely, bringing out the drama of the events and also stressing Nahman’s inner spiritual struggles as he followed his leader along a path that violated every Jewish instinct in his heart. For despite his Sabbateanism, Nahman continued to view himself as a religious Jew.

Bar is very insightful in presenting Nahman’s motives for choosing to follow Frank – portrayed as a charismatic madman and avid opportunist – and for remaining faithful to him despite Frank’s hideous abuses of power and wildly capricious behavior.

Frank’s career would provide great material for a far more sensational novel than Bar’s restrained and historically accurate book. Naturally one takes a prurient interest in stories about spouse-swapping, orgies disguised as religious ceremonies (or vice versa), and amazing destinies: Nahman begins life as a poor rabbi and ends up as a wealthy Catholic businessman who speaks Polish with an odd accent and secretly observes Jewish dietary laws. But one always wonders how important these phenomena were. In fact, Frank’s followers were relatively few and his obscure movement petered out entirely by the mid-19th century, as did Sabbateanism.

YEHUDA LIEBES, a leading scholar in the history of Jewish mysticism, argues convincingly that these movements were not marginal, eccentric, and, ultimately, irrelevant to mainstream Judaism. In a new collection of his articles, Sod Ha’emuna Hashabtait (“On Sabbateanism and its Kabbalah”), published by the Bialik Institute, he places them in the context of his broader field of study: Jewish mythology.

The first of these articles, which were revised for the purpose of this collection, is a general introduction to Sabbatean messianism. Liebes carefully separates the closely interwoven strands of Jewish messianic belief in order to bring out what was unique about the Sabbateans, essentially those who continued to believe secretly in Shabbetai Zvi even after he converted and died. The following chapters are organized chronologically and analyze the thought and writing of the disciples and exponents of Shabbetai Zvi from his contemporaries through the beginnings of the hassidic movement.

The sheer mass of sources upon which this book is based is daunting: there are 265 pages of text and 180 pages of densely printed notes. Often in scholarly works based on obscure texts, one feels that much material has been included mainly because the author has taken so much trouble to recover it. If, for example, a scholar has invested a month in deciphering a mystical manuscript in faulty Aramaic, he’s going to tell you about it whether or not it advances his argument. Liebes, however, does not drown the reader in his sources. His writing is clear, and his fondness for the information he supplies does not distract him from the points he wants to make.

In Jewish sources Biblical Edom came to be viewed as the symbol of impurity, an allegory for the Roman Empire and later for the Christian states of Europe. Now, however, Israeli tourists can visit Edom, which is where Petra is now situated.

Ariel, a periodical dedicated to knowledge of Eretz Yisrael, has devoted issue 107-108 to “Jordan and its Sites: Geography and History, the Antiquities of Jordan.” Although it is also handsomely produced on glossy paper with fine photographs, this publication is not to be confused with the other Ariel, the Israeli quarterly of the arts published in English and several other languages.

The Hebrew Ariel has been appearing for 16 years, and its volumes have been dedicated to such topics as “Jaffa and its Sites,” “The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem,” “Museums in Israel,” and “Early Photographs of Eretz Yisrael.”

The current volume on Jordan is a model of what such books should be. There is nothing fancy about the layout, but it’s very readable and interspersed with well-chosen, clearly reproduced and informative photographs, maps and drawings. The volume is organized so that readers can immediately find the information they need. However, once they have located this material, they are quite likely to be attracted to the adjacent articles. You may, for example, have been curious about Jordan during the Crusader period, but you might not have been aware of the importance of the Circassian element in the Jordanian population and the history of its settlement there in the 19th century.

The volume is divided into five parts: an introductory historical and geographical section; articles on the history of Jordan from the prehistoric period to the present; a survey of the main routes through Jordan from biblical times through the railroad era; descriptions of the rich and varied antiquities of the country; and 19th-and 20th-century travelers’ reports, including some photographs taken during the trip to Trans-Jordan made by the students and teachers of the Herzliya Gymnasia in 1927.

Little in this volume indicates that it was written in a country that was officially in a state of war with Jordan until very recently. On the other hand, many of the articles, quite properly, deal with subjects of particular interest to Hebrew readers, such as accounts of Jewish settlement in Trans-Jordan during the Second Temple period and of Jewish settlement in Trans-Jordan during the Mandate.

Photo; Caption: Yoram Bar, ‘Candle at Noon,’ Keter.

Lynn Sharon
August 2, 1991
The Jerusalem Post

THE MAN WHO WOULD BE MESSIAH by W. Gunther Plaut with a Foreword by Elie Wiesel. Oakville, Ontario, Mosaic Press. 260 pp. $19.95.

THE AMERICAN JEW – A CONTRADICTION IN TERMS by Michael Greenstein. Jerusalem, Gefen. 112 pp. No price stated.

THE CONVERSION CRISIS: Essays from the Pages of Tradition edited by Emanuel Feldman and Joel B. Wolowesky. New York, Ktav/The Rabbinical Council of America. 104 pp. No price stated.

“HE DWELLED in many personal worlds, all of them shadowy. By birth he claimed to be a Russian, by upbringing a Jew; a convert first to Islam and then to Christianity; God’s messenger turned agnostic; an exile who aspired to divinity and remained a mortal …” In his well-researched biographical novel, The Man Who Would be Messiah, W. Gunther Plaut sums up the life of Jacob Frank, an 18th century would-be messiah who stepped into the shoes of the 17th-century false messiah, Shabbetai Zevi. Frank too promised an oppressed people redemption, and developed a perverted concept of “holiness through sin.” Adultery, incest, communal erotic seances, all were practised by his adherents to prove their loyalty to him and to his teachings. A novel affords Plaut the opportunity for creative invention, and he manages to breathe life into Frank and Frank’s iconoclastic company of disciples who corrupted thousands of gullible Jews with their degenerate beliefs.

Who was Jacob Frank? Born Jacob ben Leib in 1726 in Podolia, he reached adulthood in Bucharest and Constantinople, and later settled in Salonica where he was influenced by the Sabbateans. In his foreword Elie Wiesel notes that ” … the author offers, as a covert lecture, an interpretation of another personage who on a different level allied himself with the Evil One to destroy our people.”

Despite the gripping material, and Plaut’s ability to penetrate the dark recesses of Frank’s warped intellect, his style is repetitious to the point of tedium, and his use of contemporary idiom is jolting.

A genius in the field of mysticism
April 19, 1982
The Globe and Mail

Dr. Plaut is Senior Scholar at Holy Blossom Temple.

AT HEBREW University where he taught, they spoke of him in hushed voices of awe and reverence. There were some who went so far as to say he belonged with the 10 greatest minds of this generation, for the vast amount of his knowledge, his encyclopedic memory, his powers of analysis had the touch of genius. This was Gershom Scholem, who died some weeks ago in Jerusalem at 84.

For most readers of this column the name will perhaps mean nothing, or very little. The books he wrote and the scholarly magazines to which he contributed – some 500 writings in all – had little popular appeal. What made him famous were his path-breaking studies of medieval mysticism. He discovered unknown manuscripts and, more important, uncovered the soul of a people which tried to reach the core of life’s mysteries. In the process he touched upon the deepest layers of human striving.

His major studies centered on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but he was studying the psyche of contemporary man as well. That is perhaps why he, a rationalist trained in mathematics, became a world renowned scholar of mysticism.

It was a treat to hear this tall man – whose limbs did not seem quite to belong to his gangling frame – who spoke with a heavy German accent and was not always easy to understand. For he had the ability to make the abstruse utterly clear and thereby exposed the very fibres of human existence.

Mr. Scholem was born in Germany just before the turn of the century. After the First World War he settled in what was then Palestine and began his long teaching career at Hebrew University. He was once asked why of all the subjects that might have elicited his interest he chose mysticism. It was, he once said, an unplowed field despised by rational scholars of the past century who believed its language, references and purposes to be a mixture of superstition and nonsense – in other words, unworthy of scholarly examination. “After all, a young man looks for opportunities that others have not grasped. Here was mine and I was captivated by it after a short time.”

When I once posed the same question I received a slightly different answer. “My studies (he said) have revolved around Sabbateans (the followers of Shabbetai Zevi, a seventeenth century messianic figure), the Doenmeh (a Greek offshoot of the former), and the Frankists (followers of Jacob Frank, an eighteenth century messianic figure). But in fact, I have dealt with man’s response to his primitive impulses on the one hand and his highest searchings on the other.”

He spoke of the fundamentalist religious revivals in today’s Judaism, Christianity and Islam. “At the bottom, all these movements reflect the deep yearning of man for the assurance of redemption. The mystical response is but one aspect of this yearning. This is what makes the study of the subject eternally fascinating, for it is always relevant.”

Mr. Scholem paid particular attention to the aberration which led mystics and pseudo-mystics to explore the deepest abyss of human behavior. There were those who believed redemption could come only after humanity had experienced the depths of sin; that the divine spark was, so to speak, imprisoned in the slag of evil and that only as the latter could be brought to overflowing would the sparks be liberated and the world redeemed. Was Hitler too not such a bogus messiah who believed the purification of the human race could come only through bloodshed, war and extermination?

Mr. Scholem once wrote: “Many talents are required of the person who wants to enter into this world and into this research. I doubt if all of them are to be found in me. But I do testify to two qualities which have accompanied my work in the past and will be there, I hope, in the future: courage and humility. Courage to dare, to pioneer, to ask, and humility before the facts and conclusions whether or not they suit my feelings.”

The title of his chef d’oeuvre was Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, but his subject matter went beyond it: the human condition, the desperate search for the soul, for the rays of redemption that might relieve the day’s bitterness and infuse it with some measure of hope.

Middle East
Ron Kampeas
March 21, 1990
The Jerusalem Post

ONE COOL Istanbul night this month, a dark man wearing a tie emerged from a popular Bosphorus cafe, stretched out his arm and aimed a long-barrelled pistol at a teen-age boy scampering down the street.

The gun popped. The teenager clasped his hands and yelped. A group of tourists, having witnessed the BB-Gun “assassination,” looked at their Istanbuli host, not a little shocked.

“The boy was causing a ruckus inside the cafe,” he shrugged. “We Turks have a strange sense of humour.”

Days before, the same group had watched as the host delineated a bloodstain on a wall, the remnant of a terrorist attack four years ago. “The blood was here,” he said, “and the brains were up there.” He pointed at the ceiling.

“It must have been awful,” one tourist remarked.

“Yes,” he smiled, “scattered brains are a sight.”

The host’s comments were typical of a gallows humour now predominating in Turkey. Humour relieves tension, and a multi-faceted tension has developed following a recent wave of terrorist violence.

The first facet is described by some Turks as the “10-year cycle,” a reference to military coups that followed civil unrest in 1950, 1960, 1971, and 1980.

“Democracy rolls along for a little while, and then the leftists or the Moslem fundamentalists get out of hand, and bang, you get a crackdown,” one lawyer said. “And now, it’s 1990.”

Another facet of the tension has to do with Turkey’s religious-secular conflict. The most recent violence has been attributed to Moslem fundamentalists. Their targets have gone straight to the heart of what the Turkish Republic is about: secularism and Westernism, introduced and codified by Mustapha Kemal Ataturk’s 1923 revolution.

Ataturk’s changes were a reaction against the Ottoman sultans, whose 600-year rule was seen as having plumbed the depths of corruption and decadence, as well as against the Arab world, which was regarded as having “abandoned” Turkey during its ill-fated participation in World War I.

The changes swept from the sublime to the absurd. Turkish was freed from the Arabic alphabet and fitted into a more accommodating Roman alphabet, which facilitated a renaissance of Turkish language and literature. The traditional fez was banned, and men were required to don “Western” hats – stetsons, bowlers, fedoras – in public.

This avuncular Western-secularism is no longer so dogmatic – you can wear anything on your head – but the terrorists’ targets are emphatically identified with the Western strain established by Ataturk.

Journalist Cetin Emec, shot down on March 7, had blasted terrorism in his final column. He identified neighbouring regimes, including Syria, Iraq and Iran, as tacitly backing Istanbul-based assassinations, as well as allowing Kurdish rebels bases for attacks on Turkish border villages.

In the past, when unrest led to military intervention, some politicians found themselves under virtual house-arrest, partly as punishment for not keeping the country under control in the first place.

Possibly mindful of this precedent, the government is seeking to control the image of chaos in Turkey’s colourful press. Deputies belonging to President Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party are constantly pointing out that the current spate of terrorism does not equal the thousands of assassinations which precipitated the 1980 coup.

SECULAR CRITICS claim that Ozal and his party harbour pro-Islamic sentiments once considered unthinkable. One of Ozal’s ministers regularly slanders the country’s tiny Jewish minority, a move seen by some as deference to observant Moslems. Critics also revile Ozal’s pro-PLO stance as kowtowing to Arab interests.

This month, the secular press took up the cause of a young lieutenant who wrote to Ozal complaining that he “could not get used to” manifestations of corruption and a perceived pro-Islamic tilt since the president took office in 1987. The officer was promptly institutionalized in a mental ward, which may have been a warning to the military to remember their place.

Many Turks publicly deny the loosening of secular strictures alleged by the now-straitjacketed lieutenant; but privately, many concede that there’s a growing Islamic presence in the country.

Secular students at Istanbul universities complain of increasing Islamic activism, incited, they say, by Iranian agents.

“We have a mosque in our faculty, and we get students praying five times a day,” one engineering student said. “Two years ago, the Dean wouldn’t even have allowed a mosque anywhere on campus.”

Another facet of the tension is the East-West divide. Istanbul’s celebrated Hagia Sophia embodies the historic culture-clash implicit in the Byzantine Christian church-cum-Ottoman mosque-cum-national monument, and the faith-clash of the graven image of Constantine set against sultanic mosaics.

An even more potent symbol of Turkey’s East-West cultural turmoil is the overblown mythology of its tiny Sabatean sect.

The Sabateans are the remnants of Turkey’s 17th-century messianic Jewish movement led by Shabbetai Zvi, who was eventually forced to convert to Islam. The few hundred remaining Sabateans practise a Marrano-like Judeo-Islam, but Turks have given them Masonic dimensions: political leaders from Ataturk onwards have been named as secret Sabateans. Members are said to practise orgiastic sex-rites, a slander reflecting the exotic mystery European and Asian Turks hold for each other.

Geographically, the East-West divide is set by the Bosphorus, the river separating European and Asian Istanbul. In Uskudar, the centre of Asian Istanbul, one academic pointed out the predominance of women in traditional Islamic headdress. “This is the real Turkey,” he told his Western guests.

One taxi driver ferrying a group of Western tourists used his minimal English to explain what would interest them: “This side, Besiktas, European, for you. Over there Uskudar, Asia, not for you.”

Another cabbie was even less verbose, but more eloquent. Hearing the English spoken by his passengers, he slipped the Arabic-music tape out of his cassette deck and replaced it with a recent American rap hit. “Gimme, gimme, gimme,” the rap-cassette demanded, continuing with a series of expletives as the taxi sped along the Bosphorus.

Some Turks are uneasy over their government’s increasing departure from the republic’s tradition of uncompromising secularism, Ron Kampeas found during a recent trip to Turkey

Photo; Caption: Turkish Premier Turgut Ozal: straying from Ataturk’s path?; Credit: Reuter
The messianic ethnography of Jerome Rothenberg’s Poland/1931

Norman Finkelstein
October 1, 1998
Contemporary Literature
Vol. 39, No. 3

The word ‘ethnopoetics’ suggested itself, almost too easily, on the basis of such earlier terms as ethnohistory, ethnomusicology, ethnolinguistics, ethnopharmacology, and so . on” (xi). So writes Jerome Rothenberg in the “Pre-Face” to his definitive anthology of ethnopoetics, Symposium of the Whole. There is a certain offhanded charm to this remark, perhaps even something of the archetypal trickster or ironist in the self-deprecating “almost too easily.” Poet, performance artist, translator, editor, and anthologist, Rothenberg, as one of the figures most closely associated with the ethnopoetics movement, has labored mightily for over forty years in the field which he named. Not merely a development in the arts, and certainly not confined to the academy, ethnopoetics, as Rothenberg understands it, is a complex set of processes, activities, and engagements:

On the one hand, this discourse explored an ongoing “intersection between poetry and anthropology,” in Nathaniel Tarn’s words, and on the other hand, between contemporary poets as the “marginal” defenders of an endangered human diversity and poets of other times and places who represented that diversity itself and many of the values being uncovered and recovered in the new poetic enterprises. The discourse opened as well to include what Richard Schechner called the “poetics of performance” across the spectrum of the arts, and it also tied in with movements of self-definition and cultural liberation among third-world ethnic groups in the United States and elsewhere.

(Symposium xv)

Rothenberg’s goal, which he shares with his colleagues in the arts and social sciences, has always been “a redefinition of poetry in terms of cultural specifics, with an emphasis on those alternative traditions to which the West gave names like ‘pagan,’ ‘gentile,’ ‘tribal,’ `oral,’ and ‘ethnic”‘ (Symposium xi). This is, to say the least, an intriguing set of concerns for the New York son of Polish- Jewish immigrants originally from an Orthodox milieu. Yet as we shall see, the connection between Judaism and ethnopoetics is certainly no accident.

The “Pre-Face” to Exiled in the Word, the anthology of “poems & other visions of the Jews from tribal times to the present” which Rothenberg edited with Harris Lenowitz, begins with the poet’s account of a dream that he came to regard as “central to my life, an event & mystery that has dogged me from the start” (3). In the dream, Rothenberg and all his friends find themselves in “THE HO– USE OF JEWS,” facing a room that is “more like a great black hole in space.” Rothenberg, as a Jew, must lead his companions into that room but can do so only by naming it. As he says, “I strained my eyes & body to get near the room, where I could feel, as though a voice was whispering to me, creation going on inside it. And I said that it was called CREATION” (3).

In the analysis that follows this recitation, Rothenberg connects “CREATION-poesis writ large” (3) with his identity as a Jew, which is to say that Rothenberg discovers that in his case, being a Jew and being a poet are bound together inextricably. Urged by Robert Duncan to explore his previously suppressed ancestral “world of Jewish mystics, thieves, & madmen” (4), Rothenberg, who had already edited a series of anthologies that brought together mythic, religious, and magical texts from numerous cultures under a poetic rubric, came to recognize that his own ethnopoetics must consist “of some supreme yiddish surrealist vaudeville” (4). The result was Exiled in the Word (in its original version called A Big Jewish Book) and Rothenberg’s own collection, Poland/1931, one of the most important works of the ethnopoetics movement and one of the most extraordinary achievements in the canon of Jewish American poetry.

But before turning to this volume, let us stay for a moment in the antechamber of Rothenberg’s dream house and consider a few more of its features. First, Rothenberg himself points out the Kafkaesque sense of reluctance that imbues the dream, noting its resemblance to both “Before the Law,” with its ferocious guardian of a door “made just for you,” and to the diary entry in which Kafka asks, “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself” (3-4). I would relate this reluctance to a remark Rothenberg makes later in the “Pre-Face”: “For many Jewish poets & artists, working within a Jewish context came to mean the surrender of claims to the sinister & dangerous sides of existence or to participation in the fullest range of historical human experience” (7). In other words, the modern Jew, due to the historical strictures of (and upon) Jewish tradition, especially the perceived need to endure what John Murray Cuddihy calls “the ordeal of civility,” at first dissociates Jewishness from “CREATION.” As Cuddihy wryly observes, “‘Niceness’ is as good a name as any for the informally yet pervasively institutionalized civility expected-indeed, required-of members (and of aspirant members) of that societal community called the civic culture” (13). Civility or “niceness” is “a dimension of the threat posed by modernization to a traditionary subculture…. the danger that the prospect of being ‘gentled’ posed to an ‘underdeveloped’ subculture indigenous to the West” (Cuddihy 14). For Rothenberg, only a profound, archetypal, visionary experience can realign a Jewish sense of the self with the primal processes of poesis readily seen in other cultures, so that one can enter into the creativity of Jewish tradition and recall “that the actual history of the Jews was as rich in powers & contradictions as that of the surrounding nations” (“Pre- Face,” Exiled 7). Kafka, writing out of one of the most conflicted and dangerous moments of Jewish history, transforms his ambivalence into an oblique, hermetic art of the highest order. Rothenberg, writing in a very different milieu, one perhaps a little too comfortable for the Jewish artist longing for the “sinister & dangerous sides of existence,” needs a more direct and thorough confrontation with the repressed dimensions of Jewish tradition.

This leads us to the second aspect of the dream: that creativity involves a confrontation with repressed material. In this respect, the dream, or Rothenberg’s rehearsal of the dream, is patently, selfconsciously “psychoanalytic” in nature. The dark, the unconscious, the abyss, the unknown, the mysterious, the forbidden- and the Jewish. In Rothenberg’s analysis (invoking Duncan), the Jews take their place “among the ‘old excluded orders”‘ (4) and share with other peoples the mythic and ritualistic proclivities through which humanity represents to itself the sense of its material and spiritual being: “No minor channel, it is the poetic mainstream that he {the poet} finds here: magic, myth, & dream; earth, nature, orgy, love; the female presence the Jewish poets named Shekinah” (5). And lest this room in the House of Jews become too portentous, let us recall Rothenberg’s use of the term “vaudeville”: the all-encompassing poetic mainstream, perpetually transgressing and contradicting itself there in the female dark, is fundamentally comic in its performance of the orders of being. Thus the specifically Jewish material that Rothenberg uncovers and puts to poetic use is playful in all senses of the word, embodying processes of cultural and textual transformation and exchange that resist stabilization, orthodoxy, and canonization: “the framing, raising, of an endless, truly Jewish ‘book of questions”‘ (7).

This openness of Jewish verbal and cultural experience to what Rothenberg calls “the human” is the third crucial feature of his dream. The poet says of his friends in the House of Jews, “Whether they were Jews or not was unimportant: I was & because I was I had to lead them through it” (3). Here Rothenberg addresses the issue of exclusivism and universalism that has been at the center of Jewish experience since the beginning of Jewish history. Rothenberg’s notion of ethnopoetics is certainly one of the more recent representations of the universalizing strain in Judaism, though paradoxically its universalism opposes “the reduction of particulars to what has become the monoculture” (6). The particulars of every culture must remain intact: only then can we perceive the parallels and similarities among them, while at the same time acknowledging the volatile but always creative conflicts between the orthodox and the heterodox that obtain among cultures and within each of them. In Rothenberg’s understanding, poetry “is an inherently impure activity of individuals creating reality from all conditions & influences at hand” (9). Ethnopoetics is the discursive practice that both enables us to study this activity and to participate in it.

The poems in Poland/1931 must be read in these “impure” terms. As intersections of poetry and anthropology, they appropriate the materials of Eastern European Jewish culture and, through sophisticated verbal techniques, transform them into contemporary linguistic artifacts. Yet these materials are not treated in an antiquarian fashion; rather, they are composed with a sense of immediacy and urgency which creates a sense of presence. That which is distant in terms of time, space, and culture is brought near. It becomes available for performance, not as an actor performs but, as Rothenberg explai ns, through “a lack of separation between the maker & his work, & of a virtual innocence of any means of performance beyond the ones immediately to hand” (Pre-Faces 132). This lack of separation extends to the relation of the contemporary poet with “poets of other times and places” whose recovered values the contemporary poet represents and defends-hence the political dimension of the ethnopoetic project.

But in Poland/1931, unlike Rothenberg’s treatments of Native American or Asian ethnographic material, the contemporary poetanthropologist belongs to the same culture as the one he would understand. A special poignance and irony obtain here, as in the case of Jewish ethnography generally. As Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin note, “a disproportionate number of North American ethnographers, both in the ‘founding’ generations at the turn of this century and more recently, have come from Jewish backgrounds”-yet “Jews as an ethnographic specialty have long been marginalized…. Much work in Jewish ethnography is therefore done by scholars who have established themselves through research on non-Jews and later turned to Jewish ethnography” (xii). Like the Jewish anthropologists for whom Jewish life finally becomes the object of their professional studies, Poland/1931 is a sort of auto-ethnography, in which the poet performs a reclaimed vision of his own previously occluded culture and history.

Looking at the book as a whole, we can observe an ironic doubleness of intent and of effect, upon which depends much of its power. As a poetic rendering of ethnographic or historiographic material, it presents itself, to use the titles of two of its sections, as “A Book of Testimony,” “A Book of Histories.” In other words, it is a writing after the fact, a phantasmagoric representation of the cultural past of Rothenberg’s people. But it is also a poetry of immediate enactment, influenced, on the one hand, by writing practices such as those of Gertrude Stein, Charles Olson, and the objectivists and, on the other hand, by Jewish kabbalistic and magical traditions. It is therefore a book of inscribed “events,” a book in which inscription constitutes event. In this respect, it is not only a work that represents the past, but one which exists in a timeless present, an eternal “Poland/1931” of “amulets,” “dreams,” “visions,” and “circumstances.” The situation of the writing bears a marked resemblance to Paul de Man’s description in “Literary History and Literary Modernity”: “the writer’s language is to some degree the product of his own action; he is both the historian and the agent of his own language. The ambivalence of writing is such that it can be considered both an act and an interpretative process that follows after an act with which it cannot coincide” (152).

The temporal binarism that I am positing in Rothenberg’s book, in which the consciousness of past and of present uneasily coexist, is not one to be reconciled or synthesized (nor, for that matter, to be fully deconstructed), for the impact of the poetry depends upon its remaining in this continuous state of ambivalence or tension, as if it were nostalgic for itself even as it comes into being. In this respect, Rothenberg’s sensibility in Poland/1931, for all its raucous sensuality, is akin to that of Walter Benjamin in his melancholy “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Both Rothenberg and Benjamin are engaged in messianic projects in which the writer, as Benjamin says, “grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time” (263).

The poetry that forms such a constellation is an inherently unstable, volatile, indeterminant linguistic entity, and the ground of its utterance is constantly shifting. Because the poet is the historian and the agent of his own language (or the native living or “performing” a culture and the ethnographer observing, recording, and interpreting it), the reader is led to ask who or what is speaking, from where this speech comes, and in what time frame it is being articulated. In Poland/1931, these questions are inextricably linked to content, to what the poem is “about.”

“{T}here is still someone to write the jewish poem” (12) declares the poet of Poland/1931, and that is the point. In Rothenberg’s book, the Jewish poem endures; it grows strong and flourishes in even the most adverse conditions, nourished and sustained by the streams of “an alternative tradition or series of traditions hidden sometimes at the heart of the established order” (“Pre-Face,” Exiled 5). Given the inherent “impurity” of poesis (and consider the importance of distinguishing between the pure and the impure in normative Judaism), it seems impossible to define the Jewish poem or fix the identity of the poet who writes one. In the “Pre-Face” to Exiled in the Word, Rothenberg cites the well-known dictum of Marina Tsvetayeva, “all poets are Jews” (7). And yet, like the lady in Rothenberg’s poem, the reader is still called upon to become “The Connoisseur of Jews”:

the first jew to come to you is mad
the train pulls into lodz
he calls you
by your polish name
then he tells the other passengers a story
there are jews & there are alphabets
he tells them
but there are also jewish alphabets
just as there are jewish locomotives
& jewish hair
& just as there are some with jewish fingers
such men are jews
just as other men are not jews
not mad
don’t call you by your polish name
or ride the train to lodz

(Poland/1931 12) The play of identity, the representation of self and other in the utterance of the poem, is well worth considering. One of Rothenberg’s most important rhetorical strategies in Poland/1931 consists of a flamboyant revalorization of the physical, psychic, and cultural qualities stereotypically regarded as “Jewish” (by both non-Jews and Jews) in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rothenberg’s “mystics, thieves, & madmen,” like those of I. B. Singer (the fourth poem in Poland/1931 is a homage to Singer called “Satan in Goray”), become positive models of a “genuine” Jewishness, in contrast to the bourgeois civility of assimilated Jews who seek acceptance in gentile society. The stage for this revalorization is “Poland/ 1931,” which is, as I have observed, a timeless present, a mythic phantasmagoria of Eastern European Jewish culture both in its place of origin and in America, to which the primal Jewish couple, Leo Levy and Esther K., will emigrate in the latter part of the book. Yet this “timeless” domain bears a date, 1931, the year of Rothenberg’s birth, which symbolically reminds us of the incipient destruction of that culture, implacably historical in its reality, however fraught with mythic violence. And by “us” I mean Rothenberg’s American audience of civil poetry readers and comfortably assimilated Jews, who can use a good dose of Jewish madness.

Then again, it could be that all Jews are mad, however they may resemble “other men {who} are not jews/not mad.” The predisposition of Jews to various forms of mental illness was an accepted fact in the milieu about which Rothenberg writes, in both the popular mind and that of the scientific establishment. Just as the Jew’s body was seen as particularly susceptible to various diseases and deformations, so too, as Sander Gilman notes, “Jewish mental illness was the result of the sexual practices of the Jew, such as inbreeding, which created the predisposition for disease, and the pressures of modern life in the city, which were the direct cause” (Freud 93). Gilman’s exhaustive analysis of beliefs regarding Jewish mental illness not only reveals the links between sexuality and modern urban life but focuses specifically on “the world of the train.” As Gilman explains, this world “was one of the public spaces, defined by class and economic power, in which the Jew could purchase status. It was part of the image of the world of `modern life’ that helped deform the psyche of the Jew. A ticket assured one of traveling among one’s economic equals-but not as racial `equals.’ The association of trains and the trauma of confronting one’s Jewish identity is a powerful topos at the turn of the century” (Freud 125).

Thus in Rothenberg’s poem, the Jewish constellation of sex, madness, locomotives, and poetry is hardly accidental. The “mad” Jew on the train speaks boldly to the lady and the other passengers of “jewish alphabets,” “jewish locomotives.” There are, of course, “jewish alphabets” (invoking the belief in what Gilman calls “the secret language of the Jews”), but this Jew also speaks Polish and confronts gentile passengers in their own tongue. The sexualized “jewish locomotive” is also a real locomotive, carrying the Jew, with his distinctively “jewish hair” and “jewish fingers,” wherever he wants to go. And wherever he goes, this Jew is determined to be admired. The poem insists upon Jewish endurance:

if there are men who ride the train to lodz

there are still jews

just as there are still oranges

& jars

there is still someone to write the jewish poem

others to write their mothers’ names in light (12)

This then is Rothenberg’s “jewish poem,” as objective in its identity as a jar or an orange, an utterance that “madly” refuses assimilation, that asserts its minority status while freely circulating in the general society. The poet will teach us to appreciate such poems, which in their very being preserve and renew their origins and which (given the traditional Jewish notion of matrilineal descent) “write their mothers’ names-in light.” We will become connoisseurs of Jews, however disturbing or alien or mad they may appear, for in Poland/1931, Jewish madness is equated with Jewish difference, which in turn is equated with Jewish survival itself.

This brings us around to some of the most fundamental question s concerning identity, tradition, and language in Rothenberg’s work. I have been arguing that this work represents the strand of Jewish universalism which has its origins (like its antithesis, Jewish exclusivism) as early as the Hebrew Bible. Rothenberg’s fascination with the diversity of linguistic expression in Jewish tradition, which is seen most clearly in Exiled in the Word, corresponds to his fascination with the diversity of linguistic expression in all cultural traditions: thus when the Native American “iggle” in “Cokboy” gives the Baal Shem (the founder of Hasidism) the “hey heya heya” song, it gets translated into the Yiddish “yuh-buh-buh-buh-buh- buh-bum” (Poland/1931 146). In discussing his anthologies, Rothenberg writes that he conceives of “the book as a poem, a large composition operating by assemblage or collage.” What follows next is crucial:

In A Big Jewish Book I’ve carried it (or it’s carried me) the furthest: a bigger space & less “my own” than Poland/1931, say, in which I was likewise using procedures like assemblage….

The space is big enough to do it all, but in the end it isn’t the idea of (socalled) “Jewishness” that most concerns me-rather a specific set of language plays, feats of word magic & language- centeredness (in its most profound sense) that come to a visible point within the illusion of the ethnically specific (the Indian in Shaking the Pumpkin, the Jewish here, etc.). (Pre-Faces 143)

Rothenberg’s use of the term “illusion” in regard to the specificity of the language-events in A Big Jewish Book is especially provocative. Why does the author consider the cultural specificity of his various anthologies, which reflects such thorough knowledge of those cultures combined with such imaginative reach, to be illusory? Why claim, in regard to his Jewish anthology, that “in the end it isn’t the idea of (so-called) ‘Jewishness’ that most concerns me”? What is this “(so-called) ‘Jewishness”‘ for which Rothenberg has less concern? And finally, why is this “(so-called) ‘Jewishness”‘ too much “my own” in Poland/1931?

All of these questions relate to the historical representation of Jewishness in Rothenberg’s poetry. In Poland/1931, Rothenberg obviously is interested in presenting a particular vision of Jewish history and identity, the dark underside of Jewishness as it is understood by the assimilated (or at least acculturated) Jewish community of postwar America. The ethnopoetics of the book produces history as myth, intended, as Eric Selinger notes, to “deliver the postmodern Jewish American Poet from the burden of belatedness-or, more simply, from the guilt of not belonging to generations of belief or of immigrant struggle. All Jewish Culture is contemporaneous, it says; a Sephirah is an eternal state of mind” (11). In the kabbalah, a sephirah is an emanation of the Godhead; thus Rothenberg’s goal is the contemporaneousness or synchronicity of Jewish (and all other) culture, as expressed most clearly in the language play that features prominently in Poland/1931 and makes up so much of his Jewish anthology. Poland/1931 follows a loose sort of chronology, from the old country of fathers and mothers, rabbis and students, through the tragicomic narratives of Esther K. and Leo Levy as they make their way to America, to the absurd Jewish conquest (sexual and otherwise) of the American West in “Cokboy.” In Selinger’s terms, it moves from the older generations of belief (however heterodox), through the struggle of immigration, and then on to a vision of Jewish life renewed through its engagement with the primal myths of America. But mythic history of this sort reflects “an eternal state of mind.” In this respect, the narrative of Jewish history in Poland/1931 which Rothenberg has made “his own” through phantasmagoria is as “timeless” as the language play of amulets, ancestral scenes, and ritualistic events that punctuate the book. Indeed, even the section called “A Book of Histories” is actually a set of assembled texts from other Jewish writers, as a variety of fictional expressions of Jewish life becomes a single moment.

In an interview he conducted with Rothenberg, William Spanos voiced the following reservations about ethnopoetics, history, and myths: I’m still a little uneasy about your account of the “greater enterprise,” as you call it, especially about what I see as a tendency to minimize man’s historicity. On both the cultural level and the level of literary history, what you say seems to meI may be exaggerating-to emphasize universals, organic, to be sure, but universals nonetheless-inclusive/timeless paradigms or models (myths)-at the expense of historical differentiation. Historicity loses its priority to form, tends to get absorbed, in other words, into a timeless structural whole in which change is, in fact, extension from a fixed and stable center.

(Pre-Faces 19)

There is much to be said for this critique, to which Rothenberg never responds. And perhaps there is little he could say when faced with the binarism of historicity versus myth, differentiation versus universality: it seems that the ethnopoetic project, including Rothenberg’s Jewish writing, stresses cultural diversity in order to point to the underlying structural unity of the mythic imagination, the “CREATION” invoked in the “Pre-Face” to Exiled in the Word. But given the exuberance and beauty of Rothenberg’s achievement, as well as its fidelity to a liberal vision of Jewish culture and tradition, it becomes the critic’s task to historicize the mythic imagination, keeping in mind that the writing shuttles between diachronic and synchronic discourses, self-consciously and productively pulled between the poles of history and myth.

The first poem in Poland/1931, “The Wedding,” begins as follows:

my mind is stuffed with tablecloths

& with rings but my mind

is dreaming of poland stuffed with poland

brought in the imagination

to a black wedding

a naked bridegroom hovering above

his naked bride mad poland

how terrible thy jews at weddings

thy synagogues with camphor smells & almonds

thy thermos bottles thy electric fogs

thy braided armpits

thy underwear alive with roots o poland

The placement of the speaker and the nature of the utterance are relatively straightforward at the beginning of the book: the poet dreams or imagines the dark, orgiastic underside of his ancestral Polish Jewish milieu; that is, he actively projects a phantasmagoric vision of a Jewish wedding, willing himself into this scene. Here we see the relation of Rothenberg’s ethnopoetics to the Romantic dream vision, which, like all such texts, tends to be derived from art rather than life. “The Wedding” owes a great deal to such scenes in Singer’s fiction, such as the infernal wedding ceremony in “The Gentleman from Cracow.” The hovering figures in the poem seem to have floated out of a Chagall canvas. Even the image of the “braided armpits” (this is, after all, a vaudeville performance) is derived from that old ethnic joke, “How do you tell the bride at a Jewish {or Polish, or Italian} wedding?” As Rothenberg exclaims, “poland / we have lain awake in thy soft arms forever” (3), as this imaginary land itself becomes the poet’s mystical bride.

Yet however much “thy grooms shall work ferociously upon their looming brides” (4), there remains a gap between the poet and the world he would bring into being, a space that the invocatory utterance is meant to fill. The text is less an enactment of this magical wedding than its memorialization. Like the grooms who “begin to crow” (4) at the end of the poem, the poet’s cry signifies union with his bride, the Poland of his dreams. But it is only an imaginary union, and the poet is more the historian, recounting the details of the wedding, than what de Man would call “the agent of his own language,” the groom himself.

These linguistic circumstances change dramatically as soon as we move to the next three poems in the volume, “The King of Jews,” “The Key of Solomon,” and “Satan in Goray,” all of which deploy rhetorical strategies that produce a heightened sense of immediacy. The text begins its shift from a more diachronic to a more synchronic discourse, and one important measure of this movement is the status of the utterance in relation to a determinable speaker. In “The Wedding” it is the poet’s mind that is “stuffed with tablecloths,” and when he shifts from first-person singular to first-person plural, then we, his readers, join him in what becomes a communal vision: “let us sail through thy fierce weddings poland” (3). Later, in the section called “A Book of Testimony,” each poem bears the title of an individual in the community (“The Beadle’s Testimony,” “The Slaughterer’s Testimony,” et cetera): he do the shtetl in different voices. But who, we may ask, is speaking here?


Is a stranger. Is Sharp. Cries For fish. Is wanting A wristwatch.

A Poultice. One Bathes. One intrudes On the Nightwatch. One steals.

Catch him. He slips From your nets. Anoint Him. The father of weights. Brother of Edom. (4)

As we move from the first to the second poem in the volume, the sense of subjectivity recedes dramatically. Likewise, the diachronic sense of a historical divide gives way to a synchronic sense of simultaneity, as a mysterious voice utters enigmatic statements and commands about the equally mysterious “king of the Jews.” We are drawn into what Benjamin calls Jetztzeit, the messianic “time of the now” (“Theses” 261), aware of previously hidden currents among ordinary objects and events that may yield unprecedented changes in the structure of experience. The poem, in effect, constitutes a set of verbal gestures that may be read as theurgic rituals aimed at the messianic order and as incursions against Benjamin’s “homogeneous, empty time.” The poem’s direct syntax and its weird but simple lexicon, cast in the tight, highly enjambed quatrain s, produce an uncanny sense of disruption.

This readerly sense of defamiliarization, which is often associated with avant-garde poetic techniques, is analogous to the historical sense of rupture associated with the figure of the “king of the Jews.” The transgressive nature of this figure connects him to the messianic beliefs of the Sabbateans and Frankists. Sabbatai Zevi (1626-76) was an unstable, charismatic Jew from Smyrna whose messianic claims, supported by rabbis and kabbalists, galvanized world Jewry. His career, which culminated in a shocking conversion to Islam, has had a permanent influence on the subsequent course of Jewish history. Jacob Frank (1726-91), a Polish Sabbatean, brought the secretive doubleness of the movement to its final stage through the creation of a weird messianic sect that outwardly embraced Christianity, as Sabbatai had outwardly embraced Islam. These seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Jewish heresies were centered on the notion of what Gershom Scholem calls, in the title of his famous essay, “Redemption through Sin,” the violation of conventional Jewish law (sometimes to the point of apostasy) in the name of messianic transformation. Rothenberg labels them “libertarian movements” and, loosely following Scholem’s historical analysis, connects them to Jewish receptivity to the forces of secularization and modernity, leading in turn to “the critical role of Jews & ex-Jews in revolutionary politics (Marx, Trotsky, etc.) & avant-garde poetics (Tzara, Kafka, Stein, etc.)” (“Pre-Face,” Exiled 8-9). For Rothenberg, there are definite historical linkages between the transgressions of messianism and the transgressions of the avant- garde. I am aware, of course, that these are immense generalizations; I am also cognizant of the recent critique of Scholem’s historiography as represented in the work of Moshe Idel (see, for instance, Idel 264-67). Rothenberg’s concern, however, is with poesis, not history per se, and in all of his work-his poetry, his translations, his anthologies, his expository prose-his goal is “a complex redefinition of cultural and intellectual values: a new reading of the poetic past and present”: in short, a “dream of a total art” (“Pre-Face,” Symposium xii). Given this perspective, which is itself utopian, perhaps even messianic, it is appropriate that Jewish mystical beliefs and theurgical practices (spells, amulets, gematria, et cetera) may be reinscribed as avantgarde textual “events.” Indeed, in Poland/1931, the more the work “presses for the end” (that is, actively attempts to bring about the messianic order), the more extravagant become the avant-garde techniques that Rothenberg deploys.

Thus “The Key of Solomon,” following “The King of the Jews,” sounds eerily like a kabbalistic ritual rewritten as a dadaist cafe performance. The poem begins with an italicized string of seemingly random nouns: “tallow tongues of oxen cock messias sorrel pox a glass / a root a dish an open dish a cockatrice a ring a key” (5). Following a colon after “key” and looking more like conventional poetic text is a set of instructions and explanations:

From the skin of a hare

the blood of a black hen

or a newly killed sheep

& occasionally the meat of animals & birds

the food is steamed with pleasant odors.

Stand at the eastern corner.

Bless this carpet.

Burn a dove’s feather.

Point to westward.

Afflict the knees

& tyrannize over cats.

This is the ring of travel.

This is the yellow cloth

that causes love between two people. (5-6)

The apparent randomness of this text is countered by its deadpan portentousness. From where does it come, and what is its intent? The word “messias,” almost hidden in the list of nouns, indicates the messianic inclination of the utterance. Have we, the readers, become the students at some kabbalistic scene of instruction? Are we historians who have come upon some lost hermetic fragment? Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, was naturally regarded as a master of magic. His ring was inscribed with the “Seal of Solomon” or Shield of David, the hexagram or six-pointed star that is now a universal symbol for Judaism; it was “a sign of his dominion over the demons” (Scholem, Kabbalah 363). Are these his instructions, and, if so, what mystery does this “key” unlock? There are no answers to questions such as these, and perhaps the questions are their own answers. The presence of the poem/key implies a greater absence-of wisdom, of tradition, of unity, which may or may not be retrievable. The poem appears to be a fragment and yet is possessed of an almost magical self-sufficiency. It has a sense of (perhaps fraudulent) antiquity, but also of urgency that disrupts the normal course of time.

It is followed by “Satan in Goray,” a collagelike arrangement of brief texts that play upon themes from Singer’s novel, set in a seventeenth-century Polish village possessed by Sabbatean fanaticism. Despite these historical coordinates, however, this poem is an even more extreme example of synchronicity and verbal immediacy, adopting the repetitions and transformations of Gertrude Stein’s compositional technique to the transgressive content of Sabbateanism (see Pacernick 36). One section, parenthetically signed “G. Stein,” plays on the terms “Pass over” and “Pass water”-the sacred and the profane just two syllables apart. Another invokes the renegade messiah: “Sabbath. / Sabbatai Zevi. / Sodom Sodom. / Sodom Sodom.” Through the name of Sabbatai, we move from one of the most blessed Jewish notions to one of the most accursed biblical locales. Yet another section, consisting entirely of the words “Holy Muhammed,” reminds us of Sabbatai’s apostasy. We are also presented with the single phrase “Something is Presence”-and whether that “Something” is holy or demonic is beside the point. Beyond even those messianic sectarians who sought “redemption through sin,” Rothenberg insists that in Jewish tradition-as in all others-the holy and the transgressive carry the same cultural charge insofar as they are both expressions of human creativity. Poesis, linguistic making, is an impure act, and Rothenberg’s own poetry not only inhabits but celebrates the fallen world. This is the world of the kelipot, the husks or shells, sparks of the sefirot or divine emanations which broke and fell because they could not contain the pure light of the godhead for which they were intended. The kabbalist seeks to “raise the sparks” through acts of holiness and thus restore the cosmic order. Rothenberg, however he may appropriate kabbalah for his “symposium of the whole,” is in this respect diametrically opposed to the kabbalistic project.

Yet the term “Presence” implies that there are powers which determine belief and shape experience, and that language is the medium of their expression among us. Indeed, given kabbalistic belief, language itself is such a power. As Scholem observes, “The secret world of the godhead is a world of language, a world of divine names that unfold in accordance with a law of their own. The elements of the divine language appear as the letters of the Holy Scriptures. Letters and names are not only conventional means of communication. They are far more. Each one of them represents a concentration of energy and expresses a wealth of meaning which cannot be translated, or not fully at least, into human language” (On the Kabbalah 36). So “Something is Presence” and can be known through human language, but only (pace objectivism) obliquely and never fully or immediately. In his extraordinary meditation on divine and human language, Benjamin suggests that with the Fall, “{t}he word must communicate something (other than itself). That is really the Fall of language-mind. The word as something externally communicating, as it were a parody by the expressly mediate word of the expressly immediate, the creative word of God, and the decay of the blissful, Adamite language-mind that stand between them” (“On Language” 327).

Parody, of course, is very much a part of Rothenberg’s stock- intrade, and I would argue that there is just this sort of “deep parody,” as it were, going on in the language play of Poland/1931. The messianic aspect of Rothenberg’s project is directly related to “the decay of the blissful, Adamite language-mind,” for language, like all else that is human, will be redeemed upon the arrival of the messiah. But to what extent do Rothenberg’s texts seriously enact the “parody by the expressly mediate of the expressly immediate,” and to what extent are they simply learned but still profane jokes? Selinger, meditating on the shadowy photograph of Rothenberg having tefillin (phylacteries) laid on him by a solemn female figure (Poland/1931 28), detects a genuine sense of “deliverance.” As he explains it, “It’s clearly a staged, performative gesture: not a performing of the mitzvah, done l’shem yichud, in the name of the Holy One & his Shekhinah, but a poet’s decidedly heterodox and aesthetic invocation of that act. Yet there is nothing stagy or kitschy or forced about it” (11). These outwardly devout yet fundamentally agnostic gestures, these performances of spiritual, not merely formal, indeterminacy, constitute the postmodern Judaism of Rothenberg’s work. The more we consider the balance between the serious and the comic in these poems, the more uncanny they become:


He sits in a house whose walls are decorated with fresh vegetables, praying & singing psalms, & reading from The Book of Law.

Then he begins to move the letters that he sees, until they make new words & sounds.

Quickly he jumps from word to word, letting the words form thoughts in any order.

Finally he drops the words out of his mind: word by word until he thinks of nothing.

Freed from thought, the consonants dance around him in quick motion. Forming a mirror in which he sees his face. (73)

On one level, the unnamed subject of this “event” is Abraham Abulafia, the thirteenth-century kabbalist and would-be messiah whose mystical writing practices Rothenberg links to such modern experimentalists as Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara, and Jackson Mac Low. The “house whose walls are decorated with fresh vegetables” is presumably a succah, to which Abulafia has retired to worship, study, and engage in what he called Hokhmath ha-Tseruf, the combinations and permutations of Hebrew letters which lead to knowledge of the Divine Name and ecstatic union with God. As Scholem explains: “all things exist only by virtue of their degree of participation in the great Name of God, which manifests itself throughout the whole Creation. There is a language which expresses the pure thought of God and the letters of this spiritual language are the elements both of the most fundamental spiritual reality and of the profoundest understanding and knowledge. Abulafia’s mysticism is a course in this divine language” (Major Trends 133). Abulafia’s “Path of the Name” includes a textual practice called dillug, or “jumping,” which “unites. . . elements of free and guided association and is said to assure quite extraordinary results as far as the ‘widening of the consciousness’ of the initiate is concerned” (Major Trends 136). For Abulafia and his followers, these word events (to use Rothenberg’s term) are ultimately intended to produce a state of prophetic ecstasy, a union of man and Torah. Scholem quotes a kabbalist of Abulafia’s school: “one day I sat and wrote down a Kabbalistic secret; suddenly I saw the shape of my self standing before me and myself disengaged from me and I was forced to stop writing!” (Major Trends 142). Thus “{f}reed from thought, the consonants dance around him in quick motion. Forming a mirror in which he sees his face.”

But to what extent does this scholarly gloss “explain” Rothenberg’s text? Read in the broader context of the “yiddish surrealist vaudeville” that is Poland/1931, the poem produces an effect of comic defamiliarization: a house decorated with vegetables, a writer jumping from word to word, dancing consonants. The title of the poem, the lack of historical referents, and the use of present tense all heighten the synchronicity for which Rothenberg strives when he reworks traditional material. The figure of the medieval mystic merges with that of the modern avant-gardist; in both instances, language play leads to an emptying of conventional meaning that is the only way one may truly see oneself. But whereas the mystic seeks the union of that self with divinity, the avant-garde poetethnographer-performance artist finds meaning in the immediacy of the event itself, however much it resonates with similar events in the past. Noting Abulafia’s messianic pretensions, including his attempted visit to the pope in 1280, Rothenberg names him “{a} model, therefore, of the poet/rebel in language & in life, common to Jewish & other marginalities within the monolithic nation-state” (Pre-Faces 161). The constellation of messianism, poetry, and rebellion, however volatile, is a long-standing one. Scholem calls messianism an “anarchic breeze” that blows through halakhic Judaism’s “well-ordered house” and observes that “in every historical hour in which the Messianic idea entered the mind as a power with direct influence, the tension which exists between these two forms of religious authority immediately became noticeable” (“Messianic Idea” 21-22). For Scholem, Judaism pays a heavy price for the spiritual renewal that each outbreak of messianic fervor brings with it: messianic authority, never as clearly defined as halakhic or rabbinic authority, depends more upon the charismatic power of the “poet/ rebel” whose inspired, visionary outbursts may produce unexpected and even disastrous results.

In Poland/1931, Rothenberg’s messianic pretender is Leo Levy, “{a} lion by birth a liar later, hah!” (91). His arrival from China, where the Jewish community is said “to go perhaps back to the lost tribe of Asher, one of the famous ten lost tribes of Israel” (87), is announced to Esther K., mistress of “the Governor,” by whom she has had “{a} white-haired child which smelleth of old laundry” (86). Although “for the Jewess who has tasted of the Gentiles’ honey there is no reunion in her father’s tent” (86), she is still the Shekhinah gone into exile with the Jewish people; her fate and that of Leo Levy are bound together to form Israel’s messianic destiny (see Pacernick 43-44). Yet as is indicated by the absurd erotic comedy of “Galician Nights” and “Esther K. Comes to America,” the two sections of Poland/1931 in which these characters appear, there is more than a touch of melodrama and chicanery in this mystical union. In the fake newspaper ad that announces this “Novel in Progress,” “Mrs. L. L. nee E. K.” is presented as “Mme. Shekinah,” “Jewish Soul Healer & Adviser” (82). Leo Levy “went to sleep in Jewishtown woke up early the next morning feeling how forlorn it was to be lost & foundering from three directions” (90); he is angry at himself, at his reduced circumstances filled with “dirt & corruption” (91), and most of all at Esther K., against whom he chants a long, repetitive “Angry Song” similar to the Native American “Horse-Songs” that Rothenberg has translated. In some respects, Leo Levy’s fate is to become an anti- Semitic stereotype, suffering “Contagion. / This come from being a jew” (91). Sander Gilman, citing Heine’s poem on the Jewish hospital in Hamburg, observes that the poet “used set tropes for his Jewishness taken from the vocabulary of anti-Semitic discourse, and shaped them to his own ends” (Difference 150). Rothenberg, as we have seen in “The Connoisseur of Jews,” does much the same. “Why had he brought his powers to this place” asks Leo Levy in Jewishtown, looking at the “{b}rown of piss in pot” (91). The answer lies in the dynamics of his messianic mission. Followers of Sabbatai Zevi explained his conversion by arguing that he could only perform the act of redemption by spiritually descending into the fallen world. By assuming his enemies’ degraded image of himself, Levy, like Sabbatai before him, can, in effect, “descend. . . into the realm of the kelipot {husks or shells}” in order “to rescue the divine sparks still imprisoned there” (“Redemption” 94). When last seen, Levy and Esther K. sit together in “The Wilderness,” a Manhattan cafeteria filled with “stale odors: Leo Levy / going every morning to the chicken market / pursues his dream of power / Esther K. wonders: how was I ever trapped / inside this body?” (108). The primal Jewish couple continues to wander in the wilderness; the union of the messiah and the people Israel remains indefinitely deferred: “thus history repeated itself with marked rapidity / leading her to first meet / & then lose / Leo Levy . . . the poor under your window & the poor / around your table / will always be there” (109). For Scholem, “It}he magnitude of the Messianic idea corresponds to the endless powerlessness in Jewish history during all the centuries of exile, when it was unprepared to come forward onto the plane of world history…. It diminishes the singular worth of the individual, and he can never fulfill himself, because the incompleteness of his endeavors eliminates precisely what constitutes its highest value. Thus in Judaism the Messianic idea has compelled a life lived in deferment, in which nothing can be done definitively, nothing can be irrevocably accomplished” (“Messianic Idea” 35). Following Scholem, I have argued elsewhere for the importance of Messianic deferment to the existential status of modern Jewish literature (Finkelstein 7-8, 117-22): Poland/1931 is an excellent example of a messianic work caught in the endless regress of exilic history, which becomes a perpetual “crisis”:

the good life of the timid

beckons: it is a value

to be learned: a source of fortune

only too distant without refinement

both will grow sick & die

much later: separate beds

wait for them

chimeras dressed as chorus girls

to direct & love: his name

changed to Ben Messiah

hers to his: an aged couple

smelling of wet sheets (109-10)

Messianic hopes diminish individual experience while strengthening the endurance of the people; “the Wilderness / has shrunk them” says Rothenberg of this “aged couple,” though as he declares at the end of “Portrait of a Jew Old Country Style,” “I count the failures of these jews / as proof of their election” (119).

“The Wilderness,” of course, is not only the Manhattan cafeteria of Esther K. and Leo Levy but the American West of “Cokboy” as well; thus it defines both the bittersweet end of the Eastern European Jewish experience and the phantasmagoric “coming-forth” of the American Jewish experience, “a little Moses” born of the Baal Shem and a Native American Shekhinah, “daughter of a chief.” But the poem that concludes Poland/1931, for all its phallic extravagance and mad parturient imagery, actually shuts down the volume’s messianic project. The Jew and the Indian may be mystically united in an ethnopoetic vision, but the “American disaster” proves overwhelming. Rothenberg’s protagonist wanders “past mining camps Polacks were panning gold in / & other pure products of America” (151)-the ironic reference to the violence of William Carlos Williams’s “To Elsie” indicating that for the Jews, the Diasporic experience in the New World may not be so different from that of the Old. Cokboy (or is it the poet?) is “kept from / true entry to the west true paradise / like Moses in the Rockies who stares at California spooky in the jewish light” (151). Looking out from that vantage point, he falls silent. Will America bring forth a new Jewish vision? Rothenberg’s frequent references in his essays and interviews to the “monoculture” that modern America produces indicate that it may not; and it is worth considering that his most recent Jewish project, following Poland/1931 and Exiled in the Word, is Khurbn, part elegy, part nightmare, concerned with the near extermination of European Jewry and not the largely assimilated world of American Jewry, however it may be flourishing. “Let ghosts & dibbiks overwhelm the living / Let the invisible overwhelm the visible until nothing more is seen or heard” (Khurbn 35): because the living humanity of Eastern European Jewish life has been wiped out, all that remains for the poem is negation, leading back to the Nothingness that is the God of the Khurbn. In Poland/1931, the messianic impulse opens the door to a traditional past that also leads to the future; this may account for Rothenberg’s statement that in writing the book, “at a great distance from the place, I decided deliberately that that was not to be a poem about the `holocaust”‘ (Khurbn 3). Instead it becomes “a neglected dream of beards” (Poland/1931 18), a visionary promise that remains to be fulfilled.

Xavier University


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. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969. 253-64.

Boyarin, Jonathan, and Daniel Boyarin. “Introduction / So What’s New?” Jews and Other Differences: The New Jewish Cultural Studies. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. vii-xxii.

Cuddihy, John Murray. The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi- Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity. New York: Basic, 1974.

De Man, Paul. “Literary History and Literary Modernity.” Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. 2nd ed. Theory and History of Literature 7. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.142-65.

Finkelstein, Norman. The Ritual of New Creation: Jewish Tradition and Contemporary Literature. Albany: State U of New York P, 1992.

Gilman, Sander L. Difference and Pathology: Stereotypes of Sexuality, Race, and Madness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985. . Freud, Race, and Gender. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993.

Idel, Moshe. Kabbalah: New Perspectives. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1988.

Pacernick, Gary. Memory and Fire: Ten American Jewish Poets. New York: Lang, 1989.

Rothenberg, Jerome. Khurbn s Other Poems. New York: New Directions, 1989. Poland/1931. New York: New Directions, 1974. . “Pre-Face.” Exiled in the Word: Poems and Other Visions of the Jews from

Tribal Times to the Present. Ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon, 1989. 3-14.

.”Pre-Face.” Symposium of the Whole: A Range of Discourse toward an Ethnopoetics. Ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Diane Rothenberg. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983. xi-xvii.

Pre-Faces & Other Writings. New York: New Directions, 1981. Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. New York: New American Library, 1978. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken, 1954. .The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality. New York: Schocken, 1971.

. On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. Trans. Ralph Manheim. New York: Schocken, 1965.

. “Redemption through Sin.” Trans. Hillel Halkin. The Messianic Idea in Judaism 78-141.

. “Toward an Understanding of the Messianic Idea in Judaism.” Trans. Michael A. Meyer. The Messianic Idea in Judaism 1-36.

Selinger, Eric Murphy. “Prom Bop Kabbalah to Jews with Horns.” Unpublished paper presented at “Poetry of the 1950s” conf. University of Maine, Orono, ME. June 1996.

Singer, Isaac Bashevis. “The Gentleman from Cracow.” Trans. Martha Glicklich and Elaine Gottlieb. The Collected Stories. New York: Farrar, 1982. 15-28. . Satan in Goray. Trans. Jacob Sloan. New York: Farrar, 1

Jew vs. Jew: A historical perspective
Abraham Rabinovich
October 31, 1997
The Jerusalem Post

As frigid as the Lithuanian winter of 1772 was, it was not as cold as the reception two hassidic rabbis received when they knocked on the door of the Gaon of Vilna. The Gaon, the most venerated rabbinic authority of his time, opened the door and promptly slammed it shut in their faces. When they appeared at his door a second time, the sage slammed it shut again.

That encounter heralded the bitter conflict between hassidism and mitnagdim that would tear apart Eastern European Jewry for decades.

The Jewish people over the millennia has periodically faced the prospect of a permanent split within its ranks. Lasting divisions on a massive scale were somehow avoided, apart from the separation in early biblical times of Israel and Judah into two nations, one of which would disappear. The relative firmness of Jewish unity reflected by this history does not necessarily provide a comforting precedent for the current controversy between the Orthodox on one hand and the Conservative and Reform movements on the other.

In its scale and in the depth of the halachic fault line, the present conflict may be the most dangerous threat to Jewish unity in two millennia. The past conflicts, however, do indicate that seemingly intractable disputes can sometimes turn into something less threatening over time.

During the Second Temple period, the Jews were divided by deep-seated differences into three main groupings – Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. The latter in particular had an ideology and practices that set it far apart. It even had its own calendar, which meant that holidays, including Yom Kippur, were not marked together with the rest of the nation.

While some Jews during that period accepted the conversion of Gentiles into the Jewish fold, notes Prof. Daniel Schwartz of the Hebrew University, others did not. Just as priests were priests by virtue of birth, there were some who felt that if you weren’t born a Jew you couldn’t be a Jew. Even King Herod, whose grandfather had converted to Judaism, and Herod’s grandson, Agrippas I, would be dismissed by some as non-Jews or half-Jews.

It was the destruction of the temple that kept these differences from leading to a permanent split, suggests Schwartz. Both the Sadducees and Essenes were priestly parties and without a temple to serve or the prospect of one, they faded from history. Rabbinic Judaism, unattached to a temple or the notion of personal status deriving from birth, gave the Jews the flexibility to survive during 1,900 years of exile and to easily accept the conversion of Gentiles into its ranks.

The parallel between that period and today is not exact, says Schwartz. “Back then you had one group believing that the other groups were doing it wrong, but they never denied that the other groups were Jewish. It is different if you have large numbers of people whose Jewishness is not recognized by others.”

The Karaite schism, which began in the eighth century CE, likewise involved deep-seated differences but no irredeemable rift. Founded by Anan, a disappointed candidate for the leadership of the Jewish community in Babylonia, the sect shunned the Talmud and any laws derived from it, basing its religious beliefs entirely on interpretation of the Bible. The Karaites, too, followed their own calendar and embraced an asceticism regarded as perverse by mainline, or Rabbanite, Jews. They did not permit fires to be lit for the Sabbath, for instance, and spent Friday nights in darkness and cold. Initially, the two camps viewed each other as heretic, refused to pray with each other, or to enter into marriage with partners from the other side. The conflict was sometimes violent and may even have included killings.

The Karaites proselytized vigorously among the Jews and soon had strong communities throughout the East and in Europe. Karaites were among the wealthiest and most influential Jews in Egypt. Of the three synagogues in medieval Cairo, one was Karaite. In Jerusalem, as many as half the Jews may have been Karaites.

Gradually, attitudes changed. The Cairo Geniza has produced more than half a dozen marriage contracts between Karaites and Rabbanites in which the two sides pledge to honor the religious practices of the other. (A Karaite wife, for instance, would not be obliged to light Sabbath candles for a Rabbanite husband.) Prof. Haggai Ben- Shammai of Hebrew University notes that this liberal approach changed by the 16th century when both Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbinical authorities (except in Egypt) maintained that since Karaite divorces were not conducted according to Rabbanite Halacha, there was a chance that the children of women who remarried, and the descendents of those children, would be mamzerim – i.e., religiously illicit offspring and therefore non-marriageable.

The Karaites, for their part, would in time moderate some of their practices and permit themselves light on the Sabbath, even lighting Sabbath candles but without pronouncing a blessing. Parts of Russia were once Karaite bastions. Almost all the Karaites who have come from there in the recent mass immigration have joined the mainstream Jewish community in Israel rather than the small Karaite community that still exists here, notes Ben-Shammai.

The fierceness of the dispute between Hassidim and their opponents that began in the 18th century can be measured by the leading role played by the Vilna Gaon, an ascetic scholar who normally avoided political issues. It was, in fact, the Gaon himself who initiated the unrelenting campaign against the Hassidim, says Prof. Immanuel Etkes of Hebrew University.

The Hassidic movement had started only a few years before in the Ukraine under the charismatic leadership of the Baal Shem Tov. The Vilna Gaon heard about it from rabbinical scholars living in White Russia to which the movement had spread. According to Etkes, the Gaon was told that the Hassidim despised scholars and gave gravely distorted interpretations to the mystic writings of the Kabbala. In addition, their practices seemed weird to the point of madness. Their ecstatic prayer involved shouting and jumping and, in some cases, Hassidim preceded prayers with handstands in order to purge their ego by acts of apparent foolishness. One of the Baal Shem Tov’s most startling innovations was his total rejection of ascetism, including fasting. A Hassidic document says “the pleasures of this world were not created only for the wicked.”

Etkes believes that beyond these reports, the Vilna Gaon linked the Hassidim with the trauma left behind by Shabtai Zvi the previous century. That self-proclaimed Messiah, who had persuaded much of the Jewish people to believe in him, converted to Islam when the Ottoman authorities threatened him with execution. Many of his followers, however, continued to believe in him. Underground Sabbatean groups were still active a century later when another charismatic eccentric, Jacob Frank, recruited them to his own movement. Proclaiming the period to be one of Messianic redemption, Frank ruled that in such a time, forbidden acts were not only permitted but were a commandment, a “mitzva.” These acts included sexual orgies and the eating of non-kosher food. When the authorities cracked down on the Frankists, they sought protection of church officials by agreeing to testify that Jews were using the blood of Christian children in the making of matzot.

“No doubt the Gaon suspected that the Hassidim were a sect like the Frankists,” says Etkes. “He believed that Hassidic leaders could perform miracles but that these did not derive from holiness but rather from satanic powers.” The two Hassidic rabbis from White Russia who called on the Gaon in 1772 were attempting to forestall his declaration against them, which they had learned was in the making. A few months later, the leaders of the Vilna community, including the Gaon, formally proclaimed Hassidism to be heresy.

The conflict between Hassidim and their opponents lasted for three decades. It included economic boycotts, threats of excommunication and bans on Hassidic prayers by many Jewish communities. Under the Vilna Gaon’s successor, Hayim of Volozin, the conflict became less emotional and more intellectual. “He acknowledged that the Hassidim are not heretics and that they have positive motivation even though they were headed in a dangerous direction,” says Etkes. Tensions between the two camps subsided even more over time as they both faced the growing challenge of secularization among the Jews. Today, the distinction between them is still evident in Israel’s political arena where the “Lithuanian” yeshiva world is represented by the Degel Hatorah Party, while Hassidim are concentrated within Agudat Yisrael. But conflict and accusations of heresy are a distant memory.

Is there then a reassuring motif here for the Jewish people in its present Orthodox-Reform predicament? “I’m afraid not,” says Etkes. “What made it possible for Hassidim and their opponents to reach a kind of coexistence was the fact that both acknowledged the authority of Halacha. Once there is a movement which doesn’t acknowledge the Halacha’s authority or interprets Halacha differently, this is a split that cannot be bridged in the same way.”

It might, however, be bridged in another way, a national way, Etkes believes. “If we take religion as the criterion for defining Judaism, it would be very difficult to reach any agreement. But if we agree that the Jewish nation is made up of Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative, religious and secular, and that what is common to all is involvement in the fate of the Jewish people and commitment to the welfare of the state of Israel, then what they have in common goes beyond religion.”

If there is something to be learned from the history of past schisms, it is perhaps that the Jewish world is now caught up in a process likely to be of long duration and unpredictable outcome.

As the battle rages over ‘who is a Jew,’ Abraham Rabinovich explores past rifts that threatened the Jewish people, and tries to asses the danger today.

Jacob Frank and the ultimate fate of the false messiah THE MAN WHO WOULD BE MESSIAH
February 25, 1989
The Globe and Mail
Mosaic Press, 335 pages, $19.95


For Jews, the twentieth century has been the best of times and the worst of times: at one extreme are the the creation of Israel and an unprecedented prosperity in North America; at the other, the pogroms of Eastern Europe and the Holocaust. Before this century, however, when the winter of despair decidedly outweighed the spring of hope in ghetto and shtetl, when the rays of a questionable englightenment had not yet penetrated that essentially medieval world, Jews occasionally looked for some kind of salvation in response to poverty and anti-Semitic prejudice. In the seventeenth century, mystical heresy developed around the figure of Shabbetai Zvi, a false messiah, and in the eighteeenth century Jacob Frank, a self-proclaimed savior, tried to resurrect this messianic fervor.

These fluctuations in Jewish history that have led to apocalpytic speculation about the coming of the messiah have given rise to scholarly works such as Gershom Scholem’s The Messianic Idea In Judaism, the poetic persona in Irving Layton’s memoir Waiting For The Messiah, the postmodern fiction of Cynthia Ozick’s The Messiah Of Stockholm and now Gunther Plaut’s historical novel The Man Who Would Be Messiah. A scholar and a prolific writer, Rabbi Plaut combines research and imaginative invention to recreate the life and times of Jacob Frank, and through his lucid prose he traces the fate of this false messiah from his imprisonment and exile until his death in 1791.

Like Matt Cohen’s The Spanish Doctor, Plaut’s biographical novel investigates some of the political machinations within the church as Frank shifts from Judaism to Christianity to Islam. Although the narrative focuses on Frank’s opportunism, incestuous lusts and bad faith in general, Plaut also includes dozens of characters, several of whom are his own invention. In creating such a vast panorama, Plaut runs the risk of sacrificing depth of development of his central character, but he does manage at all times to keep his protagonist clearly in view with the help of Frank’s fictional diary. To follow the turbaned Frank through Europe is to be reminded of the epic scope of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War Of The End Of The World, with its Counsellor in dark purple tunic.

Toward the end of his life, Frank, dying of syphilis, begins to write a book entitled The Order Of Disorder. Referring to Machiavelli’s work, he comments: “An admirable treatise for its time. But the author did not go far enough.” Precisely these words may be applied to Plaut’s own endeavor in this book. The reader wants more of a challenge, that extra dimension found in the fiction of S. Y. Agnon, Isaac Bashevis Singer or Cynthia Ozick. Agnon’s Kafkaesque mysteries, Singer’s demonic fantasies and Ozick’s baroque metaphoric flourishes demonstrate the heights and depths for which the modern Jewish writer strives in his struggle with traditional material.

With their self-conscious ironies, subtle resonances and multiple meanings, these writers have created fiction that reverberates along the corridors of history. In combining history and fiction, Plaut has missed an opportunity of creating what Linda Hutcheon refers to as “historiographic metafiction” – a dominant mode in contemporary or postmodern writing. Again, Plaut’s narrator comments about Frank’s method of composition: “But a book would have to be different. There he would have to start from a different perspective. He had no experience; a diary was not a treatise. He would have to read and learn. He needed time, lots of it.” Ozick, in The Messiah Of Stockholm, provides that different perspective. Instead of a linear one-to-one representation of reality, one longs for a more oblique approach that challenges and questions historical and fictional materials, raising them to a mythological level.

At one point Frank picks up a copy of Sayings Of The Master and notes that it was badly printed. The same could be said of Mosaic Press’s disservice to its author, for Plaut’s text contains roughly 100 typographical errors. Perhaps the most interesting appears on the back cover, which changes “destroy” to “destory” – it is precisely this need to de-story history through fiction that makes the contemporary novel so compelling. And the best novelists have availed themselves of postmodern techniques for rendering these complexities. If Jacob Frank was a contradictory leader without structure or order who leaves behind a trail of riddles in a century rife with revolution, then Plaut is right to undertake a radical re-evaluation of him. But the author has stopped too soon; his imagination should have carried him further in fictional innovation.

One page of explanation and a foreword by Elie Wiesel precede the narrative. Plaut chooses Heidegger’s definition of a leader to apply to Jacob Frank; this choice of Heidegger, a former Nazi, underlines the covert parallels in the novel between Frank’s plan to eliminate the Jews and Hitler’s final solution. Wiesel praises this “image-rich” novel and its author’s scholarship and panache. At the end of the book, Plaut supplies a helpful glossary, including such entries as Bar mitzvah, bastards, Goethe, and Machiavelli – an odd assortment that raises the question of Plaut’s audience.

Philip Roth has defended his own faith in writing and literary transcendence: “If there are Jews who have begun to find the stories the novelists tell more provocative and pertinent than the sermons of some of the rabbis, perhaps it is because there are regions of feeling and consciousness in them which cannot be reached by the oratory of self- congratulation and self-pity.” Like Chaim Potok, Plaut, the rabbi who would be writer, has done much to bridge this gap that Roth posits between imagination and formal religion, for at no point do we find a hint of self-congratulation or self-pity in him. On the other hand, The Man Who Would Be Messiah shows little of the self-consciousness, self-irony, skepticism and dialectical tension that characterize the best modern Jewish fiction.

Another postmodern novel about Jacob Frank’s life might begin with two epigraphs. The first belongs to Kafka’s parables and paradoxes: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary: he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last.” The second comes from Walter Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History: “We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.” And the rest of the fiction about Shabbetai Zvi or Jacob Frank might explore the implications of these remarks. But that, as they say, is another story.

Plaut’s earlier fiction – Hanging Threads and a novel, The Letter – showed promise and talent. If The Man Who Would Be Messiah is a let-down, then one hopes for a return to true form in Plaut’s next book. Unlike Agnon, Bellow and Singer (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature), Elie Wiesel was awarded the Peace Prize; similarly, Gunther Plaut should be recognized not for his writing alone, but for his many other contributions to society – a true humanitarian exposing false messiahs. Michael Greenstein’s next book, Third Solitudes: Tradition And Discontinuity In Jewish-Canadian Literature, will be published in April.

Living quietly in Turkey (Part 2): Once a bustling Jewish center, Izmir faces an uncertain future
Tom Tugend
Jewish Telegraphic Agency, NY
July 24, 1995

The dire shortage of women of marriageable age is one reason the Jewish population of Izmir keeps shrinking. Young men often leave to seek wives in Istanbul or in other countries.

The community’s current population of 2,300 contrasts sharply with its heyday in the 17th century, when some 55,000 Jews lived in the city after the reigning sultan resettled Jews from Constantinople and the Balkans.

In those days, the Jews represented one-quarter o the total population in this port city on the Aegean Sea, once known as Smyrna. They formed numerous subcommunities, according to their ancestral towns of origin, with each erecting its own synagogue. Then, Izmir boasted no less than 55 synagogues.

During the same period, Izmir because a major center of kabalistic study. One native son, Shabbetai Zevi, spread his claim to be the Messiah from here throughout the Ottoman Empire. The ruins of his home can still be found near the entrance of the bazaar.

Around World War I, the Jewish community had some 40,000 members. However, small waves of emigration to the Americas in the 1920s and Palestine in the 1930s, followed by a massive exodus of predominantly poor Jews to Israel between 1948 and 1955, have drastically reduced the Jewish population.

The small remnant, however, is proving that it takes only a small critical mass of Jews to trigger a chain reaction of Jewish institutions and social life.

Some 110 students, representing 80 percent of the Jewish children between the ages 5 and 11, attend the Jewish elementary school, said to be the best in town.

At the school, which goes up to fifth grade, the youngsters have daily classes in Hebrew and English, and “a little bit of religion and tradition” besides, according to one teacher.

Eight synagogues in the city still exist, though only three are in regular use.

The Beit Israel Synagogue, which local patriots claim is the most beautiful in Turkey, was built in the Italian style in 1915. A large candelabrum is topped by both a Magen David and the Turkish crescent and star, a common sight in Jewish institutions used to express the community’s gratitude for centuries of peaceful existence in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey.

All the community’s Bar Mitzvahs are celebrated at Beit Israel, though a short-lived experiment to introduce Bat Mitzvahs did not pan out.

Daily afternoon Minchah services are held at the airy Senora Synagogue, whose walls feature framed prayers, in the tradition of Ottoman mosques.

The synagogue is named in honor of Dona Gracia Nassi, a remarkable Marrano woman of the 16th century who tried to persuade the reigning sultan to turn Cyprus into a homeland for the Jews. She eventually became a kabalist and settled in Tiberias.

The colorful Shalom Synagogue is currently undergoing repairs. The newest synagogue is Shir HaShamayim, the only one in the new section of Izmir, to which most Jews have moved over the years.

All the synagogues are Sephardi and, at least nominally, Orthodox, though few Izmir Jews are punctilious in their observance. The attitude is shared by the Islamic population — Izmir bears the appellation of “the city without faith” — and Islamic fundamentalism has relatively few adherents here.

Nevertheless, in keeping with the extreme caution and low profile typical of Turkish Jews, there are no outside markings to identify any of the synagogue. A visitor has to know the exact street addresses to find them.

Currently, Silvia Franko, the only woman among the 11 members of the Jewish Community Council here, has embarked on a project to restore the Street of the Synagogues in the old Havra Sokah quarter to its 17th century glory.

Although the small but relatively affluent Izmir community supports a range of charitable institutions, Franko believes that outside help will be needed for the restoration project.

There have been Jews in the Izmir region possibly from the time of the Persian Empire in the 5th century B.C.E. Proof of their presence, size and wealth is found in the excavation of the giant synagogue at Sardis, an hour’s drive east of Izmir.

Built in the 2nd century C.E., when the region was part of the Roman Empire, this behemoth of a shul covered the length of a football field.

With such a historic past, is there a future for the Jews of Izmir? Given a balance of 100 deaths and only 50 births during the past two years, the demographics are not very promising.

Much will depend on the long-range economic situation, now quite depressed, especially among the younger people. Intermarriage runs at a low 5 percent, compared to 20 percent in the 10 times larger Istanbul community, but is likely to rise.

In addition, Israel, where almost every Izmir Jew has relatives, keeps beckoning.

The community’s president, Moris Bencuya, sighed when he considered future prospects.

“It is difficult to maintain our institutions with only 2,000 Jews,” he said. “After many hundreds of years, the time may come when the Jewish community of Izmir is no more.”