Tag Archives: German Jews

Jew of the Week: Giacomo Meyerbeer

Biggest Superstar of the 19th Century

Jacob Liebmann Beer (1791-1864) was born near Berlin, then in the Kingdom of Prussia, to a wealthy, observant Jewish family. His father was the president of Berlin’s Jewish community and ran a large synagogue in his home. His mother received the prestigious Order of Louise from the Prussian queen, and because she was an observant Jew, got a small statue instead of the traditional cross. The Beer children received the best secular education, as well as private tutors in Jewish studies. All three sons became famous: Wilhelm Beer as an astronomer, Michael Beer as writer, and Jacob Beer as a composer. When his beloved grandfather Meyer passed away, Jacob added the name to his own, changing it to Meyerbeer. He also vowed never to abandon the faith of his fathers, while many of his friends “converted” to Christianity to be accepted in society and to take on jobs otherwise barred to them. Meyerbeer was taught music from a young age by some of the best instructors of the time. He performed his first public concert at just age nine. Meyerbeer’s early work involved writing religious music for his father’s synagogue, and his first big production was a ballet-opera called The Fisherman and the Milkman, followed by the musical God and Nature, and the opera Jephtha’s Vow. He wrote beautiful pieces for the piano, clarinet, and full orchestras, and vacillated being composing and playing music himself (which he preferred). Having faced many difficulties in his youth, Meyerbeer founded the Musical Union to support up-and-coming composers. In 1813, he was appointed Court Composer for the Grand Duke of Hesse. Several years later, he felt he had lots more to learn and moved to Italy. There he wrote some of his most renowned operas. By 1824, he had become world-famous, and his 1831 grand opera, Robert le diable, made him the equivalent of a modern-day superstar. The following year, he received the Legion of Honour, the highest award in France. In 1841, he was described as the “German Messiah” who would save the Paris Opera from its death, and shortly after also became director of music for the Prussian royal court. Not surprisingly, his success and wealth drew the ire of his colleagues, and Meyerbeer faced terrible criticism and anti-Semitism (especially from Richard Wagner, once his pupil). Meyerbeer remained graceful nonetheless, and never responded to the attacks on him. He continued to compose popular works until his last day, and has been credited with being “the most frequently performed opera composer” of the 19th century. He inspired the works of later greats like Dvořák, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky. He was also a generous philanthropist, a devoted husband and father to five children, and never broke his vow to die an observant Jew. Meyerbeer remains one of the greatest musicians of all time.

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Words of the Week

One who looks for a friend without faults, will have none.
– Hasidic proverb

Jew of the Week: Martin Buber

Father of Spiritual Zionism

Mordechai Martin Buber (1878-1965) was born in Vienna to a religious Jewish family. His parents got divorced when he was just three years old, so Buber was raised in what was then Poland by his grandfather. Despite growing up in a richly Hasidic home, Buber began reading secular literature and returned to Vienna as a young man to study philosophy. Around the same time, he became active in the Zionist movement and soon became the editor of Die Welt, the main newspaper of Zionism. It wasn’t long before Buber became dissatisfied with the secularism and “busyness” of Zionism and returned (partially) to his Hasidic roots. He saw in Hasidic communities the right model for a new Israel, and a better alternative to the entirely-secular kibbutz. Buber ultimately saw Zionism not as a nationalist or political movement, but as a religious movement that should, first and foremost, serve to spiritually enrich the Jewish people—along with the rest of the world. He would later be credited with being the father of “Hebrew humanism” and “spiritual Zionism”. In 1908, he was invited to address a group of Jewish intellectuals known as the “Prague Circle”, and to “remind them about their Judaism”, as the group’s leader had requested. Among the members of the Circle was (former Jew of the Week) Franz Kafka, who was greatly influenced by Buber. During World War I, Buber established the Jewish National Committee to provide relief for Jews, especially those suffering in Eastern Europe. Throughout all these years, Buber wrote penetrating works on a vast range of themes, including philosophy and psychology, mythology, mysticism, and Hasidism. He co-produced a new translation of the Tanakh into German, and published his most famous essay, “I and Thou”. In 1930, Buber became a professor at the University of Frankfurt. He resigned in protest three years later when Hitler came to power. The Nazis forbade Jews from participating in public adult education classes, so Buber founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education. In 1938, he made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem, becoming professor of anthropology and sociology at the Hebrew University. Several years later, he was a founding member of the Ihud party, which prioritized making peace with neighbouring Arabs and worked to establish a bi-national state. Buber was nominated for a Nobel Prize a whopping 17 times (ten times for Literature, and seven times for Peace), though he was never awarded one. He did win the Israel Prize and the Bialik Prize, among many others. Today, the 13th of Sivan, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

The real struggle is not between East and West, or capitalism and communism, but between education and propaganda.
– Martin Buber

Jews of the Week: Levi Strauss and Jacob Davis

Inventors of Your Favourite Pants

Jacob Davis

Jakobs Jufess (1831-1908) was born in Riga, Latvia. He became a tailor before immigrating to the US at age 23. Upon arriving in New York, he changed his name to Jacob Davis and opened up a tailor shop. Over the next 15 years, he moved all across North America trying to make a living, spending time in Maine, California, Nevada, and British Columbia, working as a tobacco salesman, gold miner, and brewer. By 1869, Davis settled in Reno, Nevada and opened another tailor shop. His primary merchandise was originally tents, horse blankets, and wagon covers. To make his stuff stronger and more durable, he started using the toughest cotton denim he could find, which happened to come from a small dry goods store in San Francisco called Levi Strauss & Co.

Levi Strauss, the name behind Levi’s jeans.

Levi Strauss (1829-1902) was born in Buttenheim, Germany. When he was 18 years old, his family immigrated to the US, joining two older brothers that had settled in New York some years earlier. The brothers had set up a dry goods shop, and Levi went on to open a new store location in Louisville, Kentucky. During the California Gold Rush, the family saw opportunity in the West and opened another branch in San Francisco. Strauss headed that branch (together with his sister’s brother, David Stern), importing from his brothers in the East and selling high-quality merchandise at his Levi Strauss & Co. shop. He became very wealthy, and built San Francisco’s first synagogue, Temple Emanu-El. Strauss gave generously to many charities, too, and his Levi Strauss Foundation donated to multiple orphanages and universities (including UC Berkeley). In 1871, Strauss received an offer from Jacob Davis to go into business together. Davis had designed a new type of work pants using blue denim and copper rivets to make the material extra strong. The first set of such “jeans” was custom-tailored for a lumberjack. Before long, everyone wanted a pair, and Davis couldn’t keep up with demand. Strauss helped Davis get the proper patents, and the two partnered up. To make his jeans distinct, Davis soon started to sew the back pockets with the now-ubiquitous orange double-stitch. Meanwhile, Strauss built a large jeans factory in San Francisco and Davis moved there to run the plant. Davis worked at the plant for the rest of his life, outfitting every miner, railroad worker, and cowboy with “Levi’s jeans”, his special pants. The modern jeans that Davis and Strauss brought to the world grew rapidly in popularity, first in the workforce, then among teenagers and “greasers” in the 50s and 60s, and today being the most popular type of pants in the world.

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Words of the Week

Few are guilty; all are responsible.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel