Category Archives: Writers & Thinkers

Jews in the Wonderful World of Literature, Thought, and Scholarship

Jew of the Week: Eilat Mazar

Israel’s Indiana Jones

Eilat Mazar (1956-2021) was born in Israel to a family of archaeologists, and grew up playing and learning on excavation sites. Her grandfather, Benjamin Mazar, was the State of Israel’s first official archaeologist, and was the president of the Hebrew University. Eilat studied archaeology at the same university, and began her field work in 1981. She made a big splash right away by discovering the Royal Quarter of the ancient City of David in Jerusalem, including what is thought to be the royal palace of King David himself. She went on to uncover some of the biggest finds of the last century, including parts of the walls built by King Solomon, the seal of King Hezekiah, and the seal of the Prophet Isaiah. Mazar was driven by her belief that the Tanakh records actual historical events (whereas many of her secular colleagues often viewed the Tanakh as mythology). She would say that “I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other.” Over the decades, her work played a major role in helping to prove the authenticity of the Bible. Mazar discovered countless treasures from the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and was a vocal activist trying to stop Palestinian and Jordanian authorities from destroying Jewish artifacts on the Temple Mount. (The worst case of this was in November 2000, when some 6000 tons of precious earth from the Temple Mount was illegally excavated by the Waqf and dumped in a landfill.) In 2013, Mazar discovered a large cache of treasure from the 7th century that contained a gold coin depicting a menorah, shofar, and Torah. She taught at the Hebrew University and published three books on archaeology, along with dozens of journal articles. She also paved the way for more female archaeologists to enter the field. Despite suffering from an illness, Mazar continued working and digging. Sadly, she passed away earlier this week. Israel Prize winner David Be’eri said that she “will forever be remembered as a pioneer standing shoulder to shoulder with the greatest scholars of Jerusalem throughout the ages.”

Archaeological Proof for the Torah and Exodus

Words of the Week

I fully understand that any minority would prefer to be a majority, it is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would also prefer Palestine to be the Arab State No. 4, No. 5, No. 6 – that I quite understand; but when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky

Some of Eilat Mazar’s biggest finds (clockwise from top left): gold medallion with menorah, shofar, and Torah scroll from the 7th century CE; seal of King Hezekiah, 7th century BCE; King Solomon’s walls, 10th century BCE; seal of the Prophet Isaiah, 7th century BCE.

Jew of the Week: Elia Levita

The First Yiddish Novel and Hebrew Dictionary

Cover Page of a 1541 Edition of ‘Bovo-Bukh’

Eliyahu “Bachur” haLevi (1469-1549) was born near Nuremberg, the youngest of nine children. When the Jews were expelled from the region, his family settled in Venice. Throughout these years, Eliyahu spent most of his time in the study of Torah, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and Hebrew grammar. In 1504, he settled in Padua and took on a job as a teacher of Jewish studies. He wrote a textbook of Hebrew grammar for his students, and the book quickly spread far and wide. It became especially popular among Christian scholars, many of whom were then trying to learn Hebrew in order to understand the Bible in its original language. Meanwhile, inspired by other Renaissance authors, Eliyahu wrote a romance novel in Yiddish, the Bovo-Bukh, history’s first Yiddish novel. Hugely popular, it has been continuously published until this day, going through some 40 editions over the past five centuries. It was also translated to other languages, including German and Russian. The book’s title is the origin of the well-known Yiddish phrase, bube mayse, an “old wives’ tale”. Eliyahu wrote two satires in Italian as well. By the time he resettled in Rome in 1514, he was quite famous, and became close with Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo. The two made a deal in which Eliyahu and his family could live in the Cardinal’s palace, in exchange for Eliyahu teaching him Hebrew and Jewish mysticism. (At that time, Jewish mysticism was very popular in Europe, and had many famous non-Jewish students, too, including Michelangelo and Pico della Mirandola.) Eliyahu lived with the Cardinal for the next 13 years. During this time, he composed several more textbooks on the Hebrew language, including one of the first Hebrew dictionaries. He also translated various Jewish texts, mainly Kabbalistic ones, into Latin. Rome was sacked in 1527, so Eliyahu had to relocate again. King Francis I offered him to become a professor of Hebrew at the University of Paris, but Eliyahu declined because at that time Jews were banned from living in Paris and he refused to live in a city where his brethren were not welcome. Eliyahu would return to Venice and passed away there. Today is his yahrzeit. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is one of his descendants.

Words of the Week

To have a second language is to have a second soul.
– Charlemagne

Jew of the Week: Hannah Arendt

Greatest Political Philosopher of the 20th Century

Hannah Arendt in 1924

Johanna Cohn Arendt (1906-1975) was born in Germany to a wealthy family of secular Russian-German Jews. The family was anti-Zionist and assimilationist, desperately seeking acceptance into broader German society. Arendt was well-educated, and was already tackling heavy philosophical works as a teenager. At 15, after getting expelled from her school for organizing a boycott of an anti-Semitic teacher, she decided to go straight to the University of Berlin. Arendt then studied language, literature, and theology at the University of Marburg, where one of her teachers was the famed philosopher Heidegger (the two would go on to have a secret romantic relationship for many years). Arendt later became a towering figure in philosophy herself, writing on politics and sociology, Judaism and feminism (which she opposed, once writing, perhaps presciently: “what will we lose if we win?” Ironically, today Arendt is something of a feminist icon!) When Hitler came to power in 1933, Arendt operated an underground railroad for refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. Realizing the flaws of her old assimilationist ways, she wrote that “Jewish assimilation must declare its bankruptcy.” Arendt immersed herself in Jewish study, while also vocally denouncing the Nazis, leading to her arrest by the Gestapo. After eight days in prison, the Gestapo let her go because they could not decipher her encoded diary. Arendt fled to Geneva, where she worked for the Jewish Agency to secure visas for Jewish refugees. From there, she settled in Paris and soon became the personal assistant of Germaine de Rothschild, taking care of distributing her generous charitable funds. In 1935, Arendt joined Youth Aliyah, eventually becoming its secretary-general. In 1938, she was put in charge of rescuing Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia. When the Nazis occupied France, Arendt and her family managed to escape yet again, eventually finding their way to New York. In 1944, she was hired as executive director of the Commission on European Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, cataloging and preserving Jewish assets in Europe, and reviving post-war Jewish life there. From 1951 onwards, she devoted herself to teaching and writing. Her most acclaimed books followed, including The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition. Arendt taught at a number of American universities, including Yale and Stanford, and was the first female professor at Princeton. In 1961, she spent six weeks in Jerusalem covering the Eichmann trial for the The New Yorker. (During this time, she coined the phrase “banality of evil”, and her conclusions were immensely controversial.) All in all, Arendt wrote hundreds of penetrating essays, articles, and poems, and has been described as the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century, as well as one its most enigmatic women. The Library of Congress estimates that at least 50 books have been written about her, along with over 1000 scholarly papers. There is a “Hannah Arendt Day” in Germany, as well as an international peer-reviewed journal called Arendt Studies, along with countless things named after her, including the prestigious Hannah Arendt Prize.

Words of the Week

“If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew.”
– Hannah Arendt