Category Archives: Writers & Thinkers

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

Jew of the Week: Grace Aguilar

Defender of Judaism

Grace Aguilar (1816-1847) was born in London to descendants of Sephardic Jewish refugees who fled the Portuguese Inquisition. Her parents were active leaders of London’s Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. Grace was a sickly child, and seldom left her home for the first eight years of her life. During this time, she learned dance, piano and harp, and was tutored in Jewish studies and classical literature. She started writing at this time, too. As a teenager, her father taught her Hebrew and more advanced Jewish studies while she took care of him during a long bout with tuberculosis. She then took care of her ill mother, before being plagued with a serious case of measles starting at age 19. With her brothers away at boarding school, she bore the burden of caring for her parents and taking care of the family home. To raise more money, Aguilar strove to become a professional writer. Her first book, a collection of riddle-poems called The Magic Wreath of Hidden Flowers, was a huge success and launched her writing career. She then published a translation and explanation of an earlier Spanish work called Israel Defended, written to prevent Jews from converting to Christianity. Aguilar became good friends with future British prime minister (and former Jew of the WeekBenjamin Disraeli who helped her spread her writings. She soon convinced Isaac Leeser, editor of the popular Jewish magazine, The Occident, to publish her new book, The Spirit of Judaism, in 1842. The book was very popular both in America and England. Aguilar continued to write poetry, fiction, and treatises on Judaism. While she had become a bestseller, she still did not earn enough to care for her family, and had to work as a director of a Hebrew school. In 1845, Aguilar published Women of Israel, describing the lives of great Jewish women in history, and serving as an inspiration for countless Jewish women at the time. Some consider this to be her masterpiece. She followed that up with The Jewish Faith: Its Spiritual Consolation, Moral Guidance, and Immortal Hope, explaining the value and beauty of Judaism. Two years later, Aguilar was struck with spinal paralysis. She had already planned to set out on a trip to Europe, and refused to cancel it. She died in Frankfurt, and was buried in its Jewish cemetery. Her tombstone fittingly has verses from Eshet Chayil (“Woman of Valour”, from King Solomon’ Proverbs, chapter 31). Many more of Aguilar’s incredible works were published after her death, including collections of Jewish stories, novels for women, proto-Zionist writings, and works on Sephardic Jewish and English Jewish history. Her novel Home Influence, which had its first print just as Aguilar was dying, went on to sell out thirty editions. Her works were used as textbooks in some of the first American Hebrew schools. Although she was only 31 years old when she died, Aguilar is credited with being one of the most important Jewish educators and writers of her time, and playing a tremendous role in preventing Jews from assimilating and converting. Today, there is a public library named after her in New York City. Aguilar Point in British Columbia is named after her brother, who was an officer in the British Royal Navy. At her death, she was called “the moral governess of the Hebrew family”.

Words of the Week

There are rabbis who are so great that they can revive the dead. But reviving the dead is God’s business. A rabbi needs to be able to revive the living.
– Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzkthe Kotzker Rebbe

Jew of the Week: Amos Oz

Israel’s Greatest Writer

Amos Oz (Credit: Michiel Hendryckx)

Amos Klausner (1939-2018) was born in Jerusalem, the only child of Lithuanian- and Polish-Jewish parents. Although his family was entirely secular, Amos was sent to a religious school because the only other option was a socialist school that his parents vehemently opposed. At 14, he decided to go off on his own, changed his last name to “Oz”, and joined a kibbutz. He wasn’t fit for kibbutz work, and was made fun of constantly. Oz found solace in writing, and was eventually given permission by the kibbutz to have one day off a week to do so. After three years of military service, the kibbutz sent him to study literature and philosophy at the Hebrew University. He graduated in 1963, returning to the kibbutz to work as a teacher, and continuing to write once a week. Two years later, he published his first book, a collection of short stories. It was his third publication, the novel My Michael, that became a bestseller and thrust him into fame. (Even after this, his kibbutz only allowed three days a week to write!) Oz would follow that up with 13 more popular novels, four more collections of prized short stories, and another twelve of essays on various topics, along with two children’s books. The most famous of these is his 2002 memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, which was adapted into a film by Natalie Portman. All in all, he produced some 40 books and 450 essays, with his work translated into nearly 50 languages – more than any other Israeli writer. Oz served in both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. In 1987, he came a professor of Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University, a post he held until 2014. While often seen as the face of the Israeli left, Oz defended Israel in its military campaigns, explaining their necessity and never failing to point out the evils of the terrorist enemy. He was one of the first to speak of a two-state solution (penning an essay immediately after the Six-Day War) and was opposed to Israeli settlements, but supported the West Bank barrier wall. He admitted that Israelis have always been willing to work for peace while Arabs not so much, and said that it takes “two hands to clap”. He remained a staunch Zionist his entire life and vocally opposed non-Zionists. In these ways, he mitigated the Israeli left, trying to keep them from falling into extremes, and from getting into the habit of blaming Israel for everything. Oz worked tirelessly for peace, and some of his actions in doing so were severely criticized (like the recent letter he sent to imprisoned Palestinian activist/terrorist Marwan Barghouti). Among his long list of awards is the Israel Prize, the French Legion of Honour, the Spanish Order of Civil Merit, and the South Korean Park Kyong-ni Prize for Literature. Sadly, Oz passed away last week. The man who has been called Israel’s greatest writer was laid to rest in the kibbutz that was his home for over three decades.

Words of the Week

The story of modern Israel, as many have noted, is a miracle unlike any… It is a robust and inclusive democracy, and is at the leading edge of science and technology… What hypocrites demand of Israelis and the scrutiny Israel is subjected to by them, they would not dare make of any other nation.
– Salim Mansur