An Israeli Scholar Accepts a Napoleonist Invitation to Paris, Returns After a Day

Arrivals / Departures: An doctoral student who discovered an odd Napoleon-era letter takes a day trip to Paris to see a play; a musician and a jack-of-all-trades goes to Europe to play shows with a friend from grade school.

Daria Shapira.
Tomer Appelbaum

Daria Shapira, 39, lives in Kfar Eldad, near the Hebron Hills; arriving from Paris, France

Hello, can I ask you why you have so little stuff?

Because I flew to Paris for just one day.

One day?

There was a very interesting play that I wanted to see, and my husband is also there now, so I decided to leave my son with a friend and go.

What play is worth a one-day trip?

It wasn’t only the play, exactly. It’s hard to explain.

I’m curious.

I am a doctoral student, and by chance I found an interesting manuscript, a letter from a Jerusalem Karaite that was sent to the Crimean Peninsula. What’s interesting is the date. The letter was written during Napoleon’s campaign and it describes the situation in Jerusalem. I wrote an article about the letter, in English, but I didn’t know where to publish it. I felt that it fell between two realms. On the one hand, it’s a very Jewish subject, but not suitable for the general public. After all, what do people actually know about the Karaites at the end of the 18th century? On the other hand, every story having to do with Napoleon is interesting, and every new document will intrigue many people, who will investigate it, because there aren’t many new documents in this field. In the end I sent it to people at the Fondation Napoleon in Paris. They invited me to talk to them and they also told me that an interesting play about Napoleon was currently running. So I went.

Where did you find the letter?

In St. Petersburg. I am writing a doctoral thesis on the history of the teaching of Jewish studies in Russia, and part of it is based on the Firkovich Collection. [Abraham] Firkovich was a famous 19th-century collector. He sold the largest collection of Jewish manuscripts in the world to the Academy of Sciences in Russia. It’s a huge collection, 89 percent has been put on microfilm, but 11 percent of which can be seen only by going there. I went through all kinds of manuscripts and saw a reference to the [Karaite] letter in a mysterious place, in a certain catalog. It’s a letter from the end of the 18th century, on paper and in Hebrew.

What does the letter say?

You have to understand that this is a vast subject. For example, one can say why the letter is interesting in the context of Napoleon’s proclamation.

Which proclamation?

There’s a story about a proclamation issued during his campaign in Israel, in which he supposedly invites the Jews to come to this country.

Why supposedly?

Because there are many differences of opinion about it. We don’t have the original text of the proclamation, just a copy of the German translation, which was found by an Austrian. The Nazis burned the original. Napoleon himself does not mention the proclamation in his writings. But he wrote a whole book in which he mentions proclamations to the Muslims and to the Druze, but not to the Jews. If such a proclamation exists, why didn’t Napoleon mention it? After all, there were Jews in France and he would have scored points with them.

Sounds suspicious.

The copy of the translation into German is odd ... and it was written during Passover, but the text makes no mention of the holiday. How could the Jew who must have written the proclamation for Napoleon not mention Passover? On the other hand, it’s clear that it was written by a learned orientalist.

What’s your theory?

It was 1799, a period in which there were always expectations that the Messiah will save us from exile. The letter is related to this atmosphere and to expectations of the Jews in that period. In my article, I try to show that the Karaite from Jerusalem had no idea what was going on in Europe or about the proclamation. He’s in Jerusalem and the Turks are threatening the Jews and taking their money, and there is no mention of it.

Did you sell the article to the French?

It’s under review; I’m waiting for an answer.

What will you do until then?

I’m a Ph.D. student at Ben-Gurion University and I’ve been in academia a long time. I wrote my master’s dissertation on Eldad ha-Dani.

Who’s that?

It would take too long to explain. I have to get my son at preschool. Google it.

Nadav Abramovitch.
Tomer Appelbaum

Nadav Abramovitch, 29, lives in Ramat Gan, flying to Paris

What are all those tattoos?

On one arm, it’s my partner in Dali style; on the other it’s a warthog with the body of a turkey.

What are the circles in the shape of an arrow – cigarette burns?

No, I did them to myself with a soldering iron.

Ouch. Why would you punish yourself?

It’s a lot less painful than tattoos, because the first touch of the iron cauterizes the nerves. And I did it for the same aesthetic reason as the tattoos. Friends sometimes organize tattoo meetings, and my eye-hand coordination is terrible, so I sat there and soldered other people along with myself. 

How many tattoos do you have?

I’ve never counted. Lots. Even though I started doing them at a relatively late age, 21.

Where are you going?

On a tour with someone who’s been a good friend since the age of 7. On the first day of the second grade I asked him to be my friend. We were two scandalizing bandits, little vandals, and we looked for trouble. At the age of 9 we persuaded the school guard to give us a cigarette, claiming it was for research purposes.

What do you play together?

He moved abroad with his family, but he and I continue to travel. We’ve been playing together for many years, improvising all kinds of things, and now we’ve been joined by a friend from France who has a show of her own, an American electroclash singer who’s based in Germany.

Where do you perform?

All over France and there’s one show in Switzerland. We play electronic industrial music, noise and like that. That’s the central thing in my life, but it’s not what I make a living from.

What do you make a living from?

From whatever comes to hand. I work in all kinds of things, sound technician for Channel 10, network printing, restoration of historic buildings.

So there’s no connection to music.

It has nothing to do with the musical field in any way. They are buildings that are slated for preservation and need work, but they can’t be renovated in a conventional modern way, only by archaic methods.

How is a historic building restored?

You use materials like the original stones, or sand. You don’t use concrete or materials with a lime base. Sometimes you have to restore mosaics, too, or maybe there’s a broken stone and you have to find the right things to recreate the stone’s texture.

How did you get into that field?

I moved to Haifa, and one day I got a call with a job offer and it sounded great. I worked at the Museum of Science in Haifa; they’re opening a new wing that was closed for a long time. The British built it and the Templers decided to open a technical school there, because Jews were barred from technical studies in Germany at the time. It was a big project, one of the most interesting projects I’ve been on.

What’s not interesting?

For example, sitting in an office at Channel 10 was definitely not interesting. In terms of comfort, there’s an air conditioner, there’s an office, but you don’t do anything, it’s horribly boring. It was also a downer to read stuff and know what’s going on in this country every day. It really wore me down, it was brutal.

How did the news affect you?

It was depressing. I mean, I felt incredible frustration with the country. I’m a lot less frustrated if I’m not connected. Once in a while I happen to read something and continue to feel depressed, but then I can be happy when I board the plane. Even though that’s not enough – in the end, I have a blue ID card and an Israeli passport.

It’s hard to make a living from music everywhere.

My hope is that it will pay for itself. I play almost every day.

How many years?

Since I was 16. There was a very long period when I sat in front of a computer almost every day, and that screwed up my musical productivity, so I decided to stop with computers and switch to all kinds of electronic instruments that you don’t have to be connected to the internet to use; you just press a button and start to play.

What’s so awful about computers?

Too much Facebook and too many porno sites.