When people in Damascus at the end of the 19th century talked about the "Jewish Quarter," they meant the prostitutes' quarter. The women were called "poets," "players" (as in people who played instruments) or "chanteuses" - and they were all real Jews, between 150 and 200 in number. Non-Jewish prostitutes came to the quarter, too, because they were expelled from other neighborhoods. Prostitution begat crime: "The Jewish Quarter was infested with pimps, drunks, thieves, murders and ordinary thugs," historian Yaron Harel, from Bar-Ilan University, writes in a new book. In the parlance of the time, they were referred to as "brawlers and lovers of scandal."
The sexual permissiveness among the Jews of Damascus was not confined only to the margins of society: Harel places it within the general atmosphere of what seemed to be the new secularity, which is at the center of the community politics he reconstructs - 170 years of plots and intrigues, chicanery, a lust for dominance, power struggles, corruption, perjury, mutual slander and political hooliganism.
One of the major scandals took place in the city of Aleppo, the biblical Aram Soba, in northern Syria. In August 1862, the British consul-general in the city reported to his queen that one of the most important rabbis was trying, incredibly, to found a Reform congregation. This was the hakham (great Torah scholar) Raphael Kassin.
It began with the members of the community disparaging the mitzvot (commandments, precepts), Harel writes. They held public and family events with the participation of a mixed audience, with orchestras playing lustful songs and women from the community dancing in front of the men. The women dressed less modestly than in the past, and there were cases of young men decorating their hair and growing it long in order to court girls. Some people violated the Sabbath.
This behavior characterized mainly the middle and upper classes. They diminished the centrality of God, placed mankind in the center and stopped listening to the rabbis. Among these circles hakham Raphael discerned potential supporters for the long struggle he waged for the community's leadership. He had just returned from Europe, where he had encountered and been enthralled by Reform Jewry.
Hakham Raphael was a fascinating personality. He coveted the perks of power that came with his status as hakham bashi - chief rabbi - of Baghdad: "When he emerged from his house, he was preceded by the members of his mounted guard, like a prince of the land," according to one of the documents Harel quotes. Eventually, the hakham was removed from office, started to write scandalous polemical tracts, traveled about and returned to his native city, Aleppo. After concluding that he had no chance to remove the leaders of the community, he established a congregation of his own, in the spirit of Reform Jewry. In the process, he sought to devalue the Talmud and the teachings of the ancient sages, to the point of rejecting their authority.
His supporters gave him a contract that promised him everything he loved: absolute blind obedience, a hefty salary, servants and lodgings befitting his status. But the schism in the community led to quarrels and unrest, which degenerated into brawls in the city's marketplaces. At this point the Ottoman governor intervened and ordered Kassin to desist from his activity. He remained isolated and was reputed to be mad; his story was hushed up in the history of the community.
In the introduction to his book ("Bein tachachim lamapacha," "Between Intrigues and Revolution," in Hebrew), Harel shares with his readers his hesitations before he dared to expose "the rabbis' human nature." Fortunately, the joy of the historian won out. The result is one of the more pleasurable books of this summer.
A corner in history
In September 1968, David Ben-Gurion drew up a list of forecasts for the future. He was replying to a request from Shlomo Zalman Shragai, a leading figure in the religious Zionist movement and the Jewish Agency. The target year was 1987. Here are Ben-Gurion's predictions: Russia will be a democracy and the United States, a welfare state; water desalination will help make Africa and Asia bloom; a new source of energy will equalize the standard of living across the globe; the birth control pill will stop the population explosion in India and China; and all the countries of the world, apart from the Soviet Union, will be united in a global alliance with a police force to maintain world peace. Armies will no longer exist. The United Nations will build a monument to the prophets of Israel in Jerusalem and establish an international court in the city. Air-conditioning systems will promise a convenient climate everywhere between the North and South Poles; human beings will live on the moon and on Mars; people will live to be 100; scientific research will improve the human brain; and every person on the planet will be entitled to higher education.
Most of these predictions did not come true by 1987, or by 2007. A pity, because one invention that Ben-Gurion also imagined could have been very useful: an injection to change skin color from black to white and from white to black, thereby eradicating racial discrimination in the United States and other countries.
Twenty years after the target year, Ben-Gurion's letter lies in the Central Zionist Archives, and is part of the collection of Shragai's personal papers. This is one of the hundreds of private collections that set the CZA apart. Some of them are collections of private individuals, which were found by chance - among them some that had already been thrown into the garbage and were rescued at the last minute. The reason is that many people are unaware that their papers might be of interest to others.
But history is not only what one politician writes to another, but also what Rudolfina Menzel did, for example. Her personal archive documents dog training, for security and other purposes.
The CZA recently issued a public call: Don't throw away anything before asking us! The archive does not offer payment for letters and diaries of private people, but it does offer those people a little corner in history.
Raul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who, in World War II, was posted to his country's embassy in Hungary. He is credited with saving tens of thousands of Jews from being murdered by the Nazis. Toward the end of the war, Wallenberg was arrested by the Russians - apparently on suspicion that he had spied for the United States - and he disappeared. The demand for his release played a starring role for many years during the Cold War, until finally the Russians admitted that Wallenberg was dead.
Not everyone believes this. Living in Ra'anana is a man named Max Grunberg, who is the son of Holocaust survivors from Holland, a private individual with a conscience. He speaks on behalf of a public committee, but actually he is the committee. To this day he continues to fire off letters to governments and embassies, members of parliaments, journalists and anyone who is willing to listen, in the hope that someone somewhere knows the details of the real story and can shed light on Wallenberg's fate. It's a matter of honor.
If he is alive, Wallenberg celebrated his 95th birthday this week.
Correction: Two names were misspelled in this column last week. The correct spellings are: Eri Jabotinsky and Raanana Meridor.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now