The Makings of History / Renaissance Rabbi

Alongside books on Jewish law, the Hebron-based Chida also wrote a little-known travelogue on art and life in Europe three centuries ago.

Chaim Joseph David Azulai deserves a biography. Born in Jerusalem in 1727, he ranks among Judaism's greatest religious authorities. Moving to Hebron, he was known as the Chida - the Hebrew acronym for his name. His father was a descendant of Jews who were expelled from Spain; his mother was Ashkenazi.

Chaim Joseph David Azulai

Azulai did not limit his energies to ruling on issues of Jewish law. He was also involved in efforts to raise donations overseas to support Jewish life in the Land of Israel, traveling to Europe several times.

Not all his admirers know that alongside dozens of books he authored on Jewish law, Azulai also wrote a text called "Ma'agal Tov," a kind of travelogue that depicts the ways of life of the several Jewish communities he visited.

Oded Cohen, a doctoral student in Tel Aviv University's history department who devoted his master's thesis to "Ma'agal Tov," described the book as a kind of autobiography. In it, he shows that Azulai curiously investigated art, landscapes, architecture, history and politics. Many of his acquaintances were Muslims and Christians. This social network led him to King Louis XVI.

An article by Cohen about Azulai appears in the new edition of the Ben-Zvi Institute's bimonthly Hebrew historical journal, "Et-Mol."

As sometimes happens, the article's title, "The Jerusalem Rabbi and the French King Meet at Versailles," promises a bit too much. That meeting took place on January 6, 1778. Azulai was staying at the time in Paris, where he befriended a person he described as a "wise goy from academia," named Fabri, who was a courtier at Versailles; he took Azulai with him on one of his visits. Before they saw the king, they toured the palace.

"We came to a handsome, adorned room lined with several pillars that were coated with gold on both sides," Azulai wrote. Finally they reached the hall where Louis XVI was seated - he was surrounded in the gallery by ministers and all sorts of counselor-aristocrats.

"He was dressed in simple red," wrote Azulai, adding "my blessings to the king."

Azulai did not mention Marie Antoinette; she was probably not present that morning. Azulai indicated that the king noticed him, and sent one of his men from the court to clarify with Fabri "where I came from as an ambassador." Azulai's acquaintance replied that he was not an ambassador, but rather a guest from Egypt, who came out of curiosity. "Then we walked out, and all those who were standing showed respect, and some of the ladies who passed by bowed, as is their custom."

This, then, was not really a "meeting." Cohen writes: "This way, accidentally, views of two utterly different worlds crossed. During the brief moments of the unexpected encounter, the king and the rabbi found themselves in one room; they were astonished by, and, perhaps more than that, curious about, one another. Even if the Chida's words imply that the king was more interested in him than he was in the king, that suggestion derives from the book's autobiographical character, which focuses mostly on the Chida himself. No doubt, the rabbi who came from the Ottoman provinces in the Middle East, and who detailed so meticulously the king's palace, was impressed by the monarch no less than the king took interest in him."

Azulai did not remain in Hebron. He eventually settled in Livorno, Italy, and died in 1806 , 13 years after Louis XVI was beheaded, during the French Revolution. In 1960, Azulai's remains were brought from Italy and re-interred in Jerusalem.

A street for an anti-Semite

Reuven Zilberstein was a Jerusalem businessman who imported Remington typewriters. In the mid-1930s, Zilberstein initiated the establishment of a new neighborhood, called Merhavia, bordering Jerusalem's Rehavia quarter.

The neighborhood has just a few streets, most of them bearing patriotic names such as Palmach (after the elite commando unit during the 1948 war ), or Hagdud Ha'ivri (for the Jewish Legion during World War I ). One is named after the Polish composer Frederic Chopin.

Here is a mysterious riddle: Wasn't Chopin a known anti-Semite? And why Chopin over more accomplished composers like Bach, Beethoven or Mozart, none of whom have streets named for them in Jerusalem?

I asked Reuven Gafni, the author of a newly released, fine book on the Merhavia neighborhood ("Between the Pillbox and the President's Residence," in Hebrew, Ben-Zvi Institute ). Gafni replied that this is a good question, but that he has no definite answer. He assumes that somebody on Jerusalem's street-naming committee was a Chopin devotee, and nobody else on the panel objected to the name.