Mezuzot

This will be no surprise to anyone ever, but Montreal in winter is COLD. I went outside after a shower the other day, and my hair FROZE. With actual ice in it.

Unrelatedly, here is a picture of a mezuzah I wrote today:

Available here.


Call forwarding across borders!

Hooray! I’ve just sorted out call forwarding. If you’re in the USA, you can call my US number, 718 664 4296, and it will forward straight to me in Canada, at no extra cost to you.

If you’re in Canada, you can call 514-884-0199.


Pics of tefillin

Been taking some photos of tefillin for a piece about how tefillin are made, creatively entitled How Tefillin Are Made. Can’t figure out how to get this image into the text, but I like it, so I’m sharing it here. Tefillin shel rosh, four-headed shin side, gazing monumentally into distance

Or possibly like this.

A few questions (and answers)

Questions from an artist who writes blessings and creates art around them.

Q:“Am I allowed to draw over the letters, including Hashem’s name if you can see them underneath?”

A:How you treat Hashem’s name is a metaphor for how you treat Hashem. How literally Jews take metaphors roughly depends on where they fall on the denominational spectrum. Thus some (most) Jews would say that painting transparent watercolour over a Divine Name is fine if it contributes to making it beautiful, but a few would think it inappropriate. Without knowing you personally I cannot say how you should feel about all that.

Q: “If I make a mistake and the writing is not legible anymore, do I need to bury it?”

A:If a text is damaged but contains legible Divine Names it is proper to bury it because it is improper to dispose of Divine Names in any other way. If you made the Name itself illegible by making the mistake, such as spilling opaque paint onto it, opinions vary since the Name has already been destroyed, but you should probably go to the extra effort of burying it, to teach you to be more careful next time.

Q:“I use canvas, is that ok?”

A:Okay, look, there is an opinion that says you aren’t allowed to write verses from Tanakh on anything except kosher parchment, with anything except kosher ink, in anything less than book-length amounts. There is also an opinion that says someone who writes down blessings is like someone who burns the Torah (כותבי ברכות כשורפי תורהת Shabbat 115b). The vast, vast majority of Jews do not abide by these opinions.* I assume you are among them since you create blessing art on printed material. In that case, obviously it is fine to use canvas; canvas is a respectable art material. I wouldn’t suggest you go all “Piss Christ” because ugh, and I personally think it would be weird to write blessings on parchment made from pigskin, for instance, but basically there are no rules about this beyond “Don’t do it.”

* Even very frum ones. They too use prayerbooks, for instance. I might talk about that at some later time.


DRBR 29: In which Proper Decorum is Maintained

Floating around in one of the drawers, I came across a printed leaflet. Can’t remember exactly the purpose of the leaflet–they’re usually solicitations for money–but it featured many pictures of rabbinical trips to Palestine, some of such magnificence that the text was at once forgotten.

Here is how one should visit the Western Wall. Nonchalence and a properly shiny topper are in order.
Proper headgear should also be worn by all concerned when a brit milah is performed.

This, needless to say, is not a photograph of a rabbinical trip to Palestine. It’s an illumination on a thing listing “Baalei Berit,” members of the covenant; the content is somewhat less interesting than the costume details. Note also extremely long flowy but narrow tallitot with blue stripes, the piping on the trousers, and the high heels.

The thing in the middle that looks like a parasol, however, is just where the paint has flaked off. This may disappoint some of you, but you should not feel in any way dissuaded from having parasols at your own brit milah ceremonies.

Proper headgear for a baby is a sort of swaddling turban. Someone waving a knife at your nethers is no excuse for slacking off on standards.
Handlebar moustaches are encouraged.
When visiting the Pyramids, the morning-coat and top hat may be dispensed with. A suit and hat fit for the desert should be worn, provided a properly rabbinical demeanour is maintained. Also, make sure to have your photograph taken with a native* holding your camel, as this will make you look kingly and powerful.

* Satirical language


DRBR 28: How to behave in Shul

What we have today is a lithograph, Das Innere einer Sinagoge in Rom, or Interior of a Synagogue in Rome; click the image at right to see a larger version. It’s by the Swiss artist Hieronymus Hess, and it’s one of a pair, the Rare Book Room doesn’t have the other half of the pair, but Sothebys had some notes about it. The first half of the pair “portrays a Catholic practice of requiring Jews to listen to conversionist sermons which persisted until well into the 19th century” and they’re all staring into the distance as a preacher harangues them. But in our print they’re on home turf and enjoying themselves.

Hess is famous for social caricature and satire. This piece is certainly that. Open question whether you also want to label it antisemitica, Hess not being Jewish (but he hung out with Nazarenes, so he probably had Ideas about Who Is Doing Religion Right, and it isn’t the Jews, so he’s probably disapproving at the least). Christians quite often get on our case for being insufficiently decorous in shul.

So, we have a synagogue interior, that of the Tempio Italiano in Rome. I thought it very odd indeed that the frieze around the top of the shul has the text of “An eye for an eye;” Vivian Mann says many of the interior details are accurate, but she doesn’t mention this specifically, and it seems more likely to be an anti-semitic comment. We don’t usually put bloodthirsty, vengeful verses on our holy spaces.
It appears to be Torah-reading time; there’s what looks like a scroll on the bima, one of those very tall scrolls, and another scroll up at the front by the aron with a crown on.

Bear in mind that particular details of such a picture as this are a heavy mix of artist’s impression and fantasy. There’s no guarantee that the Italian Jews read with three persons on the bima. That said, I’m guessing the guy with the top hat gazing off into the distance is the person honoured with the aliyah, because he isn’t paying attention to the reading. The guy whose tallit covers his eyes is the one doing the reading, because it’s practically a rule that the reader has to be so muffled as to be inaudible. And the one with the tricorn hat is the gabbai, who’s actually the one paying attention.

I think this chap is taking snuff.
I do not know why this chap is climbing on the column, tallit flying, but possibly he wants to leap down and deliver retribution on that guy with the flowing white headgear. It doesn’t seem that his problem is being unable to see the activity on the bima.
These guys I am all too familiar with. They’re saying “Can’t they shut up with the damn leyning? We’re trying to learn Torah here!”
It’s unclear whether this child is responding to the din in the synagogue, or whether he’s an allegorical Jew, equally uninterested in his own religion as the one the kind Christians are trying to give him. Obviously all the Jews here are pretty uninterested in their own religion, but they don’t actually have their fingers in their actual ears. The other two kids in the foreground are a) sleeping b) climbing over the pew back to get away.
Here we have a very pious chap; you can tell he’s pious because he has mighty moustachios, whereas most of the people in the shul have no beards. And right behind him, juxtaposed, is a big fat guy (Jews are greedy) making a hand-signal which I read as “money” but I might be wrong. Perhaps the book he’s holding is an account book; perhaps it’s the Bible and it’s showing how Jews just twist the Holy Law to get money out of it.
The Tablets of the Law above the ark are divided the Christian way, four and six, not the Jewish way of five and five, the way they actually were in that shul (Evelyn Cohen, Vivian Mann, Gardens and Ghettos, p. 255). This points to the picture being a Christian allegory, and our guy here would be an allusion to the moneychangers in the Temple.

Which I could go on about at some length, but this post is long enough already. Suffice it to say that with the amount of administration the Temple was doing, there’s nothing wrong with having moneychangers there, and it’s only a big deal if you correlate piety with poverty. Which some Jews do and some Christians do, and some Jews don’t and some Christians certainly don’t (see various church schisms throughout the history of the church). But it’s used to show that Jews are venial and given to profaning the holy with their everlasting grubbing for money, which is not nice.

I shall leave you with the impressions of another Christian, Samuel Pepys the diarist, upon visiting the synagogue, not witting that it was Simchat Torah:

But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.

Next time, we shall see some examples of Proper Decorum, also featuring a camel.


From Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s has gigantic Judaica auctions every so often, and they often put the items on public display right before the auction. If you time your visit right, it’s almost as good as a museum (except that unlike a museum, it’s only open for three days, and then it’s over). Last time I was there, I saw these tops for Torah rollers.

(You get how these work, yes? They go on top of things like broom handles, to which are attached the Torah.)

DEAR LITTLE CARVED LIONS WITH BOGGLY EYES! In little lion houses!

DRBR 27: Captions Sought

Right, yo. Click the image to see bigger. I’ve got nothing at all on this one; as I recall, it hasn’t been catalogued yet. No artist, no location, no date, nothing.

So. What are they saying? Bring on the yeshiva jokes.


DRBR 26: In which the Mikveh is Someone Else’s Problem

Today we have:

An Open Letter to the Jewish Married Women Who Are Employed in The Millinery Center, and Also in The Garment and Fur Centers.

The flyer isn’t dated. I assume it’s sometime in the 30s when lots of Jews were working in these areas, being ministered to by our Nathan Wolf, amongst others.

[The original is in ALL CAPS. I'm going to type it in lowercase to spare your eyes.]

Due to the fact that there are many Jewish married women who are employed in the above centers, and many of these Jewish women observe the laws of Jewish family purity such as “Niddah–Mikvah–Tvillah!”…

[I never did that mitzvah with an exclamation mark, perhaps that's why it never vibed for me?]

…also whereas many of these women, after a day’s hard labor at the office or factory, probably had to travel several miles to a modern kosher public mikvah to perform the ritual ceremony of immersion, because there was no such mikvah in the vicinity where they reside, therefore, it would be desirable and convenient to many of these women, if a modern kosher mikvah would be built in a good location on the West Side between West 14th Street and West 42nd Street, New York City.

Due to the fact that there is a very large basement in the synagogue of West 34th Street between 8th Avenue and 9th Avenue, as a matter of suggestion, this particular basement of the synagogue, would be a good location to build a modern kosher mikvah there.

(This propaganda campaign about the construction of such a mikvah–has been made possible by a young American Grand Rabbi of the Lower East Side of New York City. It can also be much better if such a modern kosher mikvah can be constructed in a separate building by itself, thus assuring more privacy to the women who come to such a mikvah, than it can be done in this synagogue, because this particular synagogue usually has many worshippers during the evening services, but as the expense of building a separate building would probably be very large, therefore if the mikvah shall have to be built in the above located synagogue, it would be advisable also to build a special entrance to the basement, thus at least assuring some privacy.

You have to admire the chutzpah of this, don’t you? Someone from the LES (i.e. nowhere near 34th St) is merrily suggesting that the 34th St shul undertake a major building project because it has a nice big basement. Don’t know about then, but now that basement is a function space, and I should imagine the basement was used for meetings and suchlike then as well. It’s a bit like dispatch 7, in which another flyer was very happy to boss us about; mikveh-building campaigns are all very well, but do people have to be so bossy?

I also wonder, just a bit, whether many of these women really were travelling several miles after work to a mikveh. I had the impression that immigrant Jews were more interested in theatre and labour unions and other preoccupations of the emancipated than in mikvaot, but I readily admit that my knowledge of New York’s Jews in this period is patchy at best.

On the subject, have any of you ever heard that some women believed that touching a Torah scroll was a substitute for going to the mikveh? One Rabbi Steinberg mentioned it to me casually the other week, but didn’t have more to say than that, and I’d like to hear more about that. It makes sense, in a way, if you think that Torah scrolls are ultimately pure and holy and that that is transmitted by touch. Anyone got anything more about that?

Anyway, the 34th St shul is still there and functioning, and I happen to know the rabbi (hi, Jason!), so I called him just to see if he’d ever heard anything about this mikveh project, but he said as far as he knew there’d never been a mikveh there. Which doesn’t surprise me! I thought maybe I might go and try digging through the shul archives and seeing if the idea was ever raised at board meetings, but decided I have other things to do with my time. However, if any readers are ever interning there and don’t know what to do with themselves, they should go have a dig and see. (Talking of bossing people about. Be glad I’m not telling you to go build a mikveh.)


DRBR 25: In which Fatherly Advice is given and Ladies are Invited

Possibly the best rabbinical business card ever; the rabbi “Gives Fatherly Advice to All,” and on the back, makes sure that you know “Ladies Invited.”

Text of front:

Tel. CHickering 4-2316 [that's when you still had to call the exchange, and there were actual live people manning a switchboard]
בית מדרש הדגול
TIMES SQUARE SYNAGOGUE
556-7th Avenue, N.Y.C.
Cor. 40th St
ALWAYS OPEN

Dr. N. Wolf, Chief Rabbi
GIVES FATHERLY ADVICE TO ALL

The back of the card is in Yiddish, reproduced below. In sum, it says if you have kaddish, yahrzeit or yizkor, you should come to a real Yiddischer schule, with a real grosser rov. A beit midrash that’s always open where you can learn and daven. The rabbi, Dr N. Wolf shlit”a, has his credentials listed, with the promise of lovely sermons. He also has an open door for family troubles, divorces, marriages and so on. It also mentions that the destitute can come to the shul and get a meal and a suit of clothes.

קדיש? יאהרצייט? יזכור?
קומט איו אן אמת׳ר ידישער שוהל
מיט אן אמת׳ן גרויסען רב
א בית מדרש תמיד עפאן
מ׳לערנט מ׳דאבינט דארט כסדר

הרב הגאון דר. נ. וואלף שליט״א
(דער יונגער געלערטער און מחבר
פון שו׳ת און אוצר החנים ומועדים)
איז אימער אין פלייס און ברענגט
אן עולם מיט זיינע זיסע דרשות.

בעראט זיך מיט איהם וועגען אללעס,
שלום קאורט אין פעמילי טראבעלס
בית דין אפפיס גט׳ן, קדושין ריידעס.

אפפיס פון התאחדות הרבנים.
בית ועד למשכילים ולומדים
דא איז ניט קיין שוהל וואו מען
שפייט אויס און מען געהט אוועק
נור דיא האוז פון אברהם אבינו
פון תורה עבודה וגמילות חסדים
ווא ארימע לייט עססען און טרינקען
און בעקומען איוך א מלבוש

There isn’t a synagogue there now. The building there presently was completed in 1923, so it’s about the right period, but it’s presently offices (it’s here on google maps, and go to street view).

Museum of Family History lists it as an ex-synagogue of Manhattan, with Dr Wolf being rabbi in 1948.

So what was he up to before that?

In 1934, the New York Times describes Rabbi Wolf on voting day: Rabbi Wolf is the lone voter in his precinct, and he votes about 11am, posing for pictures, but the election officials have to sit around until polls close at 6, whereupon they have to count the vote. Here his shul is the Times Square Temple at 240 West 38th St. By 1938, the Palm Beach Post has a similar story “…Rabbi Nathan Wolf of the Times Square Synagogue, the only person in his industrialized district eligible to vote, cast his ballot in a barbershop. Four election officials, two policemen and about 100 spectators watched the proceeding…” but he’s now in the 42nd Precinct, not the 40th, from which we deduce that they were in the 7th Ave building by then.

He was apparently a bit creative when it came to raising a minyan: In a 1936 issue of the Jewish Floridian: “Midtown New York is being treated to the sight of a sandwich man advertising Yiskor and Kaddish services at the Temple and Centre of Times Square…The rabbi of the Temple is Dr. Nathan Wolf…” Context: this is the Garment District in the 1930s, an area crammed full of Jewish immigrants working in garment manufacture. There were quite a lot of shuls in the area servicing the workers; I imagine that R’ Wolf’s “Always Open” temple was quite attractive to shift workers and so on who were trying to cram a bit of communal Judaism into their lives. Best guess is that his shul, like many others of the area, declined as the area ceased to be full of Jewish immigrants.

In 1939, he put out an encyclopedia of festivals and holidays, which is available at hebrewbooks, and if someone wants to read the introduction and tell me why he felt the need to write it, go ahead. He seems not to have got further than volume 1, Rosh haShana, and possibly volume 2, but that might be an English-language version of volume 1. Couldn’t see.

He was way into shidduchim, being the Secretary of the Shatchonim Association (shidduchim, that is–someone who arranges dates). Shadchan gets five percent of the dowry, how about that? There’s a fabulous article in the Milwaukee Journal of 1936, Tinted Toes Help Girls Get Higher Quality Husbands:

The Marriage Brokers’ association its business booming–reported Friday that tinted toe and fingernails are getting girls more and better husbands…”Every year there is more business,” announced Rabbi Nathan Wolf, secretary…”For example, the girls say ‘Do men like painted nails?’ I say ‘Listen, they want to marry a lady, a pretty one. So make yourself beautiful. Ruby, rose–they look nice. Color your nails if you want to. Even your toenails. It will be a surprise for him.’…The association believes a girl should be beautiful, young in comparison to the man’s age, well educated and have a dowry of some kind…

Plus ca change, that is to say. You should read the whole thing. By 1946 he was president of the association.

Apparently German refugee ladies were popular in the marriage brokering market, because they weren’t picky (I lost the link; you can find it on google). I do wonder what he did during the war, and after, and when he died, and suchlike, but I need to go slay orcs with my boyfriend on the computer now.

Anyway, it really is the best business card.