Tag Archives: German Jews

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: Baron Maurice de Hirsch

Moses of the 19th Century

Moritz Tzvi von Hirsch auf Gereuth (1831-1896) was born in Munich to a wealthy German-Jewish family. His grandfather was a banker for the Bavarian king, and became the first Jew to be permitted to own land in Bavaria. His father also served as the court banker, and became a German baron. Hirsch studied in Brussels, then took a banking job himself at age 17. Years later, he branched off on his own, eventually making his fortune from sugar, copper, and railroads. One of his boldest projects was building a Vienna-to-Istanbul rail line. Hirsch settled in Paris where he lived for the remainder of his life, going by the French version of his name, Maurice de Hirsch. In 1860, the Alliance Israélite Universelle (Kol Israel Haverim) organization was founded in Paris to secure human rights and education for Jews around the world. Hirsch became their biggest supporter, essentially bankrolling their operation to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds a year. The organization was most famous for building Jewish schools, including the first schools in pre-State Israel. The Alliance schools were also the first to teach a Hebrew curriculum, playing a key role in the language’s revival. Hirsch also donated countless sums to schools and hospitals across Germany, France, and England. He paid for the renowned Pasteur Institute’s entire biochemistry building. In the last two decades of his life, Hirsch was devoted to easing the plight of Russian Jews. He founded the Jewish Colonization Association in 1891 with a starting budget of £2 million pounds. The money was used to resettle Eastern European Jews in the Americas (particularly in Canada and Argentina), as well as in Ottoman Palestine. Altogether, Hirsch donated £18 million to the organization, the equivalent of about $4 billion today! Needless to say, it played a massive role in getting the Zionist movement off the ground and re-establishing a Jewish state in Israel (though de Hirsch himself didn’t believe it would ever actually happen!) as well as saving countless lives from pogroms and oppression. Maurice de Hirsch is ranked among the most generous philanthropists of all time. His wife, Clara de Hirsch, is also on this list, in her own right. She came from a wealthy banking family, too, and donated another 200 million francs of her own funds. When the couple tragically lost their only son in 1887, Maurice de Hirsch declared: “My son I have lost, but not my heir; humanity is my heir.” For his efforts to launch a mass-exodus and liberation of Jews, he has been called the “Moses of the 19th Century”.

Words of the Week

I suppose I shall spend all my money in this movement. But, after all, what is the use of money unless you do some good with it?
– Baron Maurice de Hirsch

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