Category Archives: Writers & Thinkers

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

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

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Yitzchak Yaacov Reines

Father of Religious Zionism

Yitzchak Yaacov Reines (1839-1915) was born near what is now Pinsk, Belarus to a long line of rabbis. He studied at the famous Volozhin Yeshiva where he received his rabbinic ordination in 1867. Rabbi Reines became the rabbi of the town of Svintsyan, Lithuania, just north of Vilnius. There, he opened his own yeshiva which, for the first time, included a secular studies curriculum as well. In 1882, a large assembly of rabbis gathered in St. Petersburg to discuss easing the plight of Russian Jewry, then suffering immense persecution and poverty. Reines proposed spreading his successful yeshiva model across Russia, allowing Jews to integrate into mainstream society (and economy) without abandoning their faith and traditions. The assembly rejected his plan, so Reines continued his mission on his own. His Svintsyan Yeshiva created a ten-year program that would give students both rabbinic ordination and a government-approved job. Unfortunately, the yeshiva faced too much opposition and shut down after four years. Meanwhile, Rabbi Reines was an active member of Hovevei Zion. In 1893, together with Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, he proposed that Jews settle in their ancestral Holy Land and organize a mercaz ruhani, “spiritual centre”, that would combine Torah with good-old-fashioned agricultural labour. In 1899, Reines participated in the Third Zionist Congress, following which he kept a regular correspondence with Theodor Herzl. Rabbi Reines worked tirelessly to get more approval and understanding for the Zionist movement among traditional and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. In 1901, he built on his earlier mercaz ruhani model to start a new “religious Zionist” movement, known as Mizrachi. That same year, at the Fifth Zionist Congress, Reines played an instrumental role in preventing Zionism from becoming entirely secular and anti-religious (stopping the radical “Swiss faction” behind it). In 1902, Rabbi Reines published A New Light on Zion, a book that addressed the concerns that Ultra-Orthodox Jews had with Zionism. In it, he debunked many of the myths surrounding Zionism, and also composed a manual for establishing a model Jewish state in Israel that would be both materially and spiritually prosperous. Rabbi Reines assembled a large gathering of rabbis in Vilnius in 1902 to officially launch the religious Zionist movement. It would later gave birth to Israel’s first religious political party, the Mizrachi Party, which established Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, and made sure that the Israeli government would adhere to Sabbath and kashrut observance. Mizrachi also built Israel’s first network of religious schools (which are Zionist and encourage students to serve in the IDF). The youth movement of Mizrachi, called Bnei Akiva, is the largest Jewish youth organization in the world (with 125,000 members in 42 countries) and operates religious Zionist schools around the globe. In 1905, Rabbi Reines resurrected his old vision and opened a new yeshiva in Lida, near Minsk, Belarus, which integrated religious and secular studies. Rabbi Reines also came up with a new Talmud-study system, wrote a commentary on the Midrash, and published a number of other acclaimed books. Today, the religious Zionist movement that he founded remains one of the largest and most influential in Israel. Rabbi Reines’ yahrzeit is this Sunday.

Words of the Week

I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.
John Adams, second president of the United States