Tag Archives: German Jews

Jew of the Week: Moses Mendelssohn

Father of Jewish Enlightenment 

Moshe ben Mendel (1729-1786) was born in the Germanic municipality of Dessau to an impoverished, religious Jewish family. His father was a sofer (a Torah scribe), and trained young Moshe in the scribal arts, as well. Moshe also learned Torah and Talmud with Rabbi David Frankel. When Frankel took up a rabbinic post in Berlin, Moshe moved with him to the capital. To keep him safer and open more opportunities, his father had asked him to make his name more German-sounding, resulting in the name Moses Mendelssohn (“son of Mendel”). Mendelssohn continued in his rabbinic studies with the intention of becoming a rabbi, but also took up the study of mathematics, Latin, and philosophy. He soon began learning French and English as well, with an influential Jewish physician and tutor. That tutor introduced Mendelssohn to renowned German philosopher and writer Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. The two became good friends, and Mendelssohn inspired Lessing’s popular play Nathan the Wise. Mendelssohn’s genius soon spread throughout the secular world, and he even won the top Berlin Academy prize for mathematical proofs of metaphysics (second place went to Immanuel Kant!) In 1763, the King of Prussia granted Mendelssohn the special status of schutzjude, “Protected Jew”. At a time when secularism and atheism were sweeping Europe, Mendelssohn remained a believer and resolved to convince the masses On the Immortality of Souls, published in 1767. The treatise became so popular that people began calling him the “German Plato” and the “German Socrates”. In 1775, an order of expulsion was being drawn up against Swiss and German Jews, so Mendelssohn intervened to get the expulsion rescinded. Mendelssohn was constantly mired in theological debates with his German acquaintances, and often pressured to convert to Christianity. He resisted and defended his faith. Nonetheless, the stress was so great on him that he eventually fell deeply ill and was bedridden. At this point he resolved “to dedicate the remains of my strength for the benefit of my children or a goodly portion of my nation”. To make it more accessible to a wider audience, he started a new German translation and commentary of the Torah. The resulting Biur was hugely popular, and received approbations from many rabbis. Meanwhile, he worked to get various restrictions on Jews repealed, and played an instrumental role in getting Jews in Europe basic human and civil rights. In his Jerusalem, he argued passionately for freedom of religion, and for the Christian authorities to leave the Jews alone. Mendelssohn corresponded with one of the leading sages of the day, Rabbi Yakov Emden, and wrote how he “thirsted” for the rabbi’s teachings. Intriguingly, while Rabbi Emden had criticized the Zohar (the famous “textbook” of Jewish mysticism), Mendelssohn actually defended its authenticity. He also defended the authenticity of nikkud, the traditional Hebrew vowel system. Although he was widely admired and respected in his own day, Mendelssohn’s work opened up the door to more Jews learning secular subjects and entering mainstream society, which led to wider assimilation. Four of his own six children ended up converting to Christianity, and just one grandson remained Jewish. (Another grandson was renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn.) Mendelssohn was later credited with being the “father of Haskalah”, the so-called “Jewish Enlightenment”. Because of this, in the decades after his death he became something of a villain in the Orthodox world, and any positive mention of his name was expunged. Today, he is still viewed negatively in religious Jewish circles, although he had truly done a great deal on behalf of the Jewish people.

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Words of the Week

If you believe you can damage, believe you can repair.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

Jew of the Week: Gluckel of Hameln

The Woman Who Transformed Yiddish Literature and History

Gluckel (or Glikl) bat Yehuda Leib (c. 1646-1724) was born in Hamburg to a wealthy, influential, and deeply religious Ashkenazi family. Although all Jews were expelled from Hamburg in 1649, her father was given permission to return because he was so highly respected by the German authorities. Gluckel was given a strong education, and got married at age 14 to Chaim of Hameln. The young family soon started a successful diamond and pearl business. When her beloved husband passed away, Gluckel took over the business. She became famous as one of the few women in Europe that ran her own sprawling enterprise, and that travelled alone to trade fairs and through European markets. She still took care of all 13 of her children! Gluckel eventually remarried, reluctantly, to a banker named Cerf Levy. Two years later, Levy lost his fortune, and wasted Gluckel’s too. After 12 years of marriage, Levy died and left Gluckel a widow for the second time. She slowly recovered from her losses, and lived out the rest of her life in relative solitude. Most significant for historians, Gluckel kept a detailed diary for many years, providing us with an inside look into both European and Ashkenazi Jewish life of the 17th and 18th centuries. The seven journals she wrote touch on important themes and describe key historical events, and are considered among the greatest Yiddish literary works of all time. One of Gluckel’s great-granddaughters was (former Jew of the Week) Bertha Pappenheim, who produced a German translation of Gluckel’s diaries (and is also the woman in the portrait at right, where she dressed up as Gluckel). The translation was hugely popular, and an English version was produced in 1932, as well as a fictional adaptation in 1941, and a newer translation in 2019. Another one of Gluckel’s grandchildren was renowned rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. In 2016, a street in Hamburg where she lived as a child was named after her (Glückel von Hameln Straße). Her yahrzeit is on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.

Shana Tova u’Metuka! Happy 5783!

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Words of the Week

These are days of judgment as to whether we deserve anything. We only have a chance of encountering God when we allow Him into everything and educate ourselves to recognize Him in all we receive. Everything is a miracle, pure gifts we did nothing to merit: to live, to breathe, to eat and drink, to think, to laugh, to enjoy our friends and families… Rosh Hashanah is a day that protests the claim that we deserve anything. We stand naked before God and try to make ourselves at least slightly deserving of all these gifts by admitting that everything is a miracle.
– Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo

Jew of the Week: Simon Kremser

Inventor of Buses 

A modern-day Kremser carriage in Germany

Simon Kremser (1775-1851) was born in the German city of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland). He followed in the footsteps of his father, a wealthy merchant. During the Napoleonic Wars, Kremser helped to provide funds for the Silesian Army against Napoleon, and managed the Prussian royal family’s war chest. He was awarded the Iron Cross, and was eventually granted citizenship, becoming one of the first Jews to be a German citizen. In 1825, Kremser had an idea for a public carriage line that would quickly and cheaply transport people across Berlin. He got permission from King Friedrich William III, and designed a large horse-drawn carriage that could seat up to 20 people. Such carriages are still known as “kremsers” in Germany today. By 1835, Kremser ran three different “bus” lines in Berlin. The idea of public buses soon spread across Europe. As the king’s official hauler, Kremser was also the one commissioned to return the famous Brandenburg Gate Quadriga to Berlin in 1814 after it had been snatched by Napoleon. Little else is known of Kremser, and no picture of him has survived. It is believed that he lived out his last years in Russia, where he served the royal family and was given the honorary military rank of major.

Words of the Week

The only wealth that I truly own is that which I have given away to good causes. Everything else – all my holdings – are simply under my control for the moment, but they can be lost in the next moment due to a bad decision, war, an accident or other cause which I cannot control. However, the good institutions that my money has built are forever; they can never be taken or lost.
Sir Moses Montefiore