In Search for the Anti-Colonial Jew

[This text is a script produced for Nomen-collective’s series “The Colonial Gaze,” and was the basis of a public discussion on 22/11/2017, in Bilgisaray, Berlin-Kreuzberg. See:

#1 What I want to talk about
When I started writing this text, I intended to throw a bold conclusion into the room. My first few lines read: “I have found an anti-colonial Jew, but he converted to Islam, which is why, strictly speaking, I have not found any anti-colonial Jew. I am relatively sure, too, that my search will remain futile. I will never find one.” This opening is admittedly pessimistic, too pessimistic, yet it does introduce the contours of my question: Does a radical dismissal of the colonial will require one to refrain from speaking as a Jew?

I will tackle this question through analyzing two kinds of crossings of religious boundaries: the move into Judaism and the move out of Judaism. What I am interested in here is, however, not the “spiritual” making or unmaking of a Jew, but rather the political meaning of a Jewish identity that is actively forged and publicly highlighted, versus one that is deliberately effaced. This is an analysis of political significations – not a dissection of the personal motivations behind anyone’s conversion, including my own. Thus, even if the analysis of political significations points at the difficulty of anti-colonial Judaism, this does not imply me jumping off the ship, but quite the contrary: It rather draws me into the direction of “radicalizing” my religious self. But I digress, and will go a few steps back in my search, to a walk across an almost deserted fairground in rain-swept, autumn Vienna.

 #2 Vienna
Becoming Muslim, he mentioned in passing, was not exactly a move that thrilled his peers in a very positive way. This is plainly understandable, I thought, in case his peers were rabbis or pious family. Yet he was referring to left-wing liberals and anti-racist activists, whose dismay about their fellow’s conversion to Islam is somewhat less understandable: From the perspective of a non-Jewish Austrian left-winger, what is problematic about a secular Jew becoming a Muslim? Why does it even matter? Would any fuss have been made had he converted, say, to Catholicism?

According to one line of explanation, the left’s unease with a secular Jew’s conversion to Islam is rooted in its traditionally vexed relation to religion: Much of contemporary left-wing discourse is historically and ideologically bound to the liberational impetus of the 68’ties, which declared nations, borders, religions and other societal conventions to be either obsolete and/or evil and hence to be abandoned – just consider the hymn of the time, John Lennon’s “Imagine”: “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.” For those who inherited the 68’ties’ suspicion of religions, the deliberate making of a religious self is thus naturally difficult to apprehend. It clashes with the left’s traditional commitment to secular subjects. A conversion to Orthodox Judaism or Catholicism is in this respect not much different from a conversion to Islam: The heirs of John Lennon will be at unease whenever a formerly enlightened individual chooses to embrace what they have identified as backward, oppressive, patriarchal and generally unreasonable.

Yet, it seems to me that this is not the whole story. A Jew’s conversion to Islam confronts the left with a challenge that by far supersedes the challenge of making the “wrong choice.” It is much “worse” than a Jew’s conversion to Catholicism, or a Catholic’s conversion to Islam, or a Catholic’s conversion to Judaism, even “unenlightened” Orthodox Judaism. But why is this so? Why is the crossing of this particular religious boundary so difficult? What kind of anxiety does a Jew, who becomes a Muslim, arouse?[1] I will go back in time a few more steps, to a “burkini beach-party,” which took place last summer in Berlin, right in front of the Embassy of France.

#3 Berlin, “Burkini Beach Party”
“You are a Muslim right?” the journalist asked me, absent-minded, while positioning his microphone in front of me. I shook my head, “no, actually not, I am Jewish.” “Oh no, shit!” suddenly agitated, he exclaimed: “I need a Muslim! Can you quickly organize me a Muslim?”

I must have looked as if a dinosaur is standing right in front of me. This was the first and only time in my life that a journalist “needed a Muslim,” that a “Jewish voice” was rejected in favor of a “Muslim voice.” I was so surprised that I forgot to ask him why exactly he “needed a Muslim.” What is certain, however, is that this entirely exceptional scenery points at the mechanism of the norm, the non-exception: Once a public platform is occupied by a Jew and a Muslim, the “Muslim voice” matters insofar as it either affirms or counters the “Jewish voice.” That is, the prism, through which we look at Muslim existence, is the prism of the Jew, circling around the question of whether or not Muslim existence is or isn’t a threat to the Jew, whether the Jew is better served through an exclusion or rather through an education of Muslims.[2]

It is the omnipresence of this perspective, and the sheer unthinkability of its reversal, that explains why any address of anti-Muslim racism, any stance for Palestine, any agitation for the “other” of Western colonialism, has to perpetually stress that it is not anti-Jewish. The classical configuration of anti-colonial activism therefore goes something like this: “We fight all kinds of racism, regardless of the ethnicity of the wrongdoer. Muslims may be anti-Semites, homophobes, misogynic sexists, a heap of shit, but this is no reason to discriminate against them.” In line with this configuration, there does not exist one German left-wing organization, initiative or NGO that would declare its only mission to be the fight against anti-Muslim racism: If one’s cause is anti-Muslim racism, one is virtually duty-bound to position oneself also against anti-Semitism. One will not survive politically without this, because declaring one’s fight to be genuinely and uniquely about Muslims will inevitably be interpreted as implying an anti-Jewish/anti-Semitic/anti-Zionist[3] agenda, or at least indifference toward it. It is for this reason, too, that the strategy that is by far the most successful when speaking about anti-Muslim racism, entails the demonstration of discursive parallels between anti-Muslim racism and anti-Semitism: Once anti-Muslim racism can be associated with anti-Semitism, one can legitimately oppose it, because then (and only then), it seems, is it “really and truly” evil. (As if in case anti-Muslim racism is unlike anti-Semitism, everything’s perfectly fine.)[4]

Within this configuration, a person’s Jewishness matters, whether or not the individual Jew wants it to matter: he effectively crushes any suspicion of anti-Judaism and/or anti-Semitism. He fights anti-Muslim racism, or raises his voice for Palestine – yet be aware! He can be believed when claiming that such activism does not imply his consent with suicide bombings. Or even more valuable: He fights against the discrimination of Muslims – yet be aware! He does so because he knows what it is like to be discriminated against. The Jew here is a figure that legitimizes the fight for colonialism’s other through imposing a “Jewish” perspective on that fight. That is, through the presence of Jews, the fight against anti-Muslim racism can be plausibly conceptualized and legitimized as a fight, that is “actually” directed against anti-Semitism – an identification with Muslims “passes” as long as it is configured as an identification with Jews, too.

The Jew who turned into a Muslim thus became not only “useless” as far as his previous function is concerned. He became not only as irrelevant as any other Muslim, because he, in contrast to any other Muslim, has robbed the fight against anti-Muslim racism its “best” legitimizing base-line: His fight now cannot be configured anymore as representing the interests of a Jewish collective, or as being motivated by an identification with Muslims on account of being a persecuted people too. And as if this was not bad enough, his conversion cannot even be emotionalized (and therewith de-politicized): Conversions of men never are “the poor girl has succumbed to the pressures of her Arab boyfriend.” And worse: in this particular case, the conversion to Islam could not even be interpreted as the result of a radical disavowal of previous politics: “my” anti-colonial Jew continued to publicly act and speak in the realm of anti-racism also after becoming Muslim. He thus “forced” his surroundings to come to terms with a fact that as simple as shocking: his fight against anti-Muslim racism was motivated NOT by an identification with Muslims as a Jew, but an identification with Muslims as a Muslim. His peers’ dismay about his conversion to Islam then was not caused by seeing him turning his back against “the cause” – which he didn’t do in any case – but by his renouncement of his function as Jew in that same cause.

And this renouncement seems to hint at something like a nightmare, a scenario that is – even though it was throughout history the norm – extremely rare today: There can be a disparity between the function of the Jew and the Jew. And then, when the doll gets a life of its own, it can cause the entire doll-house to explode: When the fight for the Muslim other looses its Jewish other, then the fight for the “bad other” will have to legitimize itself without the prism of the “good other,” and Muslim existence will have to matter whether or not it affects Jewish existence – and “Jewish existence” here is, as I’d argue in the following two sections, a chiffre for much, much more than “just” the lives of actual Jews. Or maybe, it is not even primarily about the lives of actual Jews.

I will go back a bit further now, to a random conversation some years ago in Berlin.

#4 Berlin, Subway
“You know,” she said, hesitatingly, “there is something I’d like to ask. When I converted, basically everything remained the same. I mean, my parents, Christmas, friends, all that…but you, hmmm…” Hmmm, I answered, and wondered: How can the joining of a people, who have been Christianity’s Antichrist since its inception, be possibly perceived as less than a major rupture? How can a conversion to Judaism be something that hardly plays out in one’s actual life, something hardly even felt?

What this conversation indicates is, that conversions into Judaism and Islam are not necessarily two parallel moves – namely, transitions into so-called religious minorities – but diametrically opposite moves: As far as their political signification is concerned, a conversion into Judaism is a move into the hegemonic, whereas a conversion out of Judaism (and so the more a conversion out of Judaism and into Islam) is a move out of the hegemonic. Which is why conversions into Judaism are, particularly liberal “conversions,” relatively widespread,[5] while conversions out of Judaism are practically non-existent: This is not so because Jews are suddenly more pious, or because non-Jews suddenly just “happen” to be attracted to Judaism, but because people make their political, religious and aesthetic choices in a manner, that improves (or at least safeguards) the greatest possible utilization of the resources and privileges available to them: Today Judaism is a desirable commodity on a cultural marketplace that can, under liberal umbrella-terms such as “diversity,” entail pretty much anything and everyone. It is thus precisely the completely exceptional character of the deliberate and conscious move out of Judaism, too rare even to be grasped statistically, which indicates the extent to which Judaism has become part and parcel of political hegemony: For the first time in history, people today remain Jews, or even desire to become Jews.

This does not contradict the fact that Jewish communities are, in their non-liberal versions, an “other” to Western secularized Christianity (a circumstance that would make political cooperation with Islamic communities seem inevitable). Yet mutual religious otherness notwithstanding, it is an otherness that is endowed with very different political meanings. A case in point may be the interpretation, which the “Antideutschen” have offered for Jewish and Islamic circumcision some five years ago, during Germany’s infamous “circumcision-debate.” According to the “Antideutschen,” Jewish circumcision is wholly compatible with Western values, and entirely different from its Muslim counterpart. Lunatic as this interpretation may sound at first, it seems to be, in fact, a correct analysis of colonial inscriptions: A rite that is practiced by Jews and Muslims alike can be made to bear diametrically opposite political meanings. The bodies of Jews and Muslims may be alike, but the way these bodies are read, is not. The way these bodies are valued is not: One captured Israeli soldier was swapped for 1027 Palestinian prisoners.

I know that some declare the anti-colonial, anti-Zionist Jew to be the “real Jew.” The Boyarin brothers, for example, write that “(t)he solution of Zionism (…) seems to us the subversion of Jewish culture and not its culmination. It represents the substitution of a European, Western cultural-political formation for a traditional Jewish one that has been based on a sharing, at best, of political power with others and that takes on an entirely other meanings when combined with political hegemony.”[6] However, even though anti-Zionism was a relatively common element of pre-war orthodox discourse, this is today not so anymore, and the anti-Zionist Jew really does not (with the exception of the Neturei Karta maybe) represent a Jewish collective of significant numerical size or impact. That Jews’ political alliances have shifted over the past decades all over the world rightwards is thus not a “poor choice,” but an apt reflection of concrete interests: Going along Jewry’s “Israelification,” Jews vote for those parties that propagate an “Israelification” also of their home-countries in Europe or the United States, that is, parties, that interpret the world along the lines of a clash between the West and the East, between so-called Judeo-Christianity and Islam. This then is the first time in history that actual Jews fit into the mold of Christendom’s figure of the Jew, that there is a harmonic correspondence between what Jews think and do, and what Christians think Jews think and do: For the first time in history, a conversion to Judaism can be, indeed, as disruptive as the touch of a feather.[7]

I will jump now to an incident, which some of us here remember, and which does, I think, shed light on the function of “Jewish existence” within a hegemonic Jewish-Christian harmony-game. Let me take a very quick glance on a “neighborhood-brunch,” that was organized by a certain Neukölln-based activist group under the auspices of a certain Rabbinerstudent.


#5 Berlin, neighborhood-brunch
“So you are a Muslim yes?” the lady from the local church inquired, very friendly. “No. Jewish.” “Oh amazing! I am so glad having asked! I would not have recognized you on the street! I would have thought you are…the thing on your head! Dear what a pity! Such a pity Jews are not recognizable on the street!” I wanted to be swallowed by the couch and screened the crowded room for a place of refuge: In the corner stood Armin providing comfort for three crying, old German ladies, while the founding director of the “Achse des Guten” came dangerously close to Ozan. The others handled a representative from the organization that awarded us the “Band für Mut und Verständigung,” or stood outside smoking, with facial expressions that indicated rising levels of stress. How the fuck could all this go so terribly wrong, I thought, so profoundly wrong.

The new Jewish-Christian harmony is of a kind, that carefully watches over the preservation of its Jewish part as “other.” Just that this time, this otherness does absolutely not need to be eliminated, but instead, is constantly showcased and accentuated: Far from being irrelevant, Western States use the presence of Jews in their midst in order to legitimize their superiority: The contemporary “good state” (pretty much like “the good man”) is not the one that physically crushes and tortures its others, nor the one that has no power to crush and torture. It is the one, that hints at its capability to do so, but refrains doing so in any explicit, bloodthirsty kind of way. (Even our wars abroad are sterile, point-on-point “operations,” not massacres.) The West’s embrace of a Jewish “good other” is thus integral to its own legitimation, its own exercise of power – and it is an embrace that does not require a Jew’s consent at all, for even a Jew’s rejection of the colonial will not undo his identification with it, will not undo him as a colonial figure of thought: A Jew who fights anti-Muslim racism or uses his voice for the Palestinian cause, will – whether he wants this or not – function as a figure that secures the compatibility of the fight for the “bad others” with the West’s investment in Jews as “good others.” He is inscribed as “good other” and this inscription cannot be rubbed away.

From the point of view of a secular Jew, who radically renounces colonialism then, jumping off the ship seems to make sense: For how much can one stretch one’s identification with the anti-colonial, when one’s own Jewishness is inevitably, all the time, co-opted as a figure that strengthens the colonial? Is there any way to speak and act without serving as a “good other” and providing hegemony with one of its most important legitimatizing asset?

#6 The radicalization of a religious self
I have, in the beginning, hinted at my own answer to the difficulty of anti-colonial Judaism: a “radicalization” of a religious self. The quotation marks framing “radicalization” here are deliberate, because I do absolutely not think of myself as a radical person. I simply seem to have fallen into a reality, in which Judaism is radically co-opted, commodified and appropriated, in which diametrically opposing causes can be legitimized through turning them into “Jewish causes”: “The Jew” is used to turn Palestine-activism into a “kosher” cause, just as “the Jew” legitimizes the spread of anti-Muslim hatred, a restriction of refugees in European states, or an assault on Gaza. “The Jew” then is irredeemably signified, and the only one move, I think, that just cannot be appropriated is a return to the tools, through which Jews have acted in this world for the past 1600 years, that is, the commandments. Observance does not absolve one from accountability regarding all those things, that are being done in the name of Judaism, yet it restores the Jew to the immanence of his or her body, to some kind of physical, material being, that will not dissolve in the larger projects within which Jewish existence is woven.


[1] It is hilarious to assume, I think, that left-wing dismay about a Jew’s conversion to Islam is somehow related to a concern for Jewish continuity, aka, “Jews have to remain Jewish, so that they may produce the next generation of Jews.” If this were the matter, one would expect scandal also about intermarriage. Yet for obvious reasons, no non-Jew has ever considered this to be any of his business (which is good, of course).
[2] I have described the difference between left-wing and right-wing discourses about religious difference as one of “colonial optimism” versus “colonial pessimism,” meaning, the left, in an attempt to incorporate difference, seems to believe in the education of the other and thereby universalizes and neutralizes him, whereas the right (correctly) acknowledges difference as difference, yet aims at its exclusion.
[3] In Germany, more than in other countries, the interchangeability of these terms is a given. The very questioning of their interchangeability is perceived of as a threat, that is, as a vindication of (Muslim) anti-Zionism as being not equal with anti-Semitism.
[4] This does not mean, I hasten to add, that I reject the obvious discursive parallels between contemporary anti-Muslim discourses and “enlightened” anti-Semitic discourses of the Weimar Republic, that is, I certainly see anti-Muslim tropes as a historical continuation of anti-Semitic tropes – even though there are also vast differences between the two, not only in terms of political context, but also, mainly, theologically: Islam never constituted a theological root-problem to Christianity akin to Judaism.
[5] Germany is sometimes referred to as Ger-mania.
[6] Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin, “Diaspora: Generation and the Ground of Jewish Identity,” Critical Inquiry 19:4 (1993), 693-725.
[7] Even biographically, a conversion into Judaism is often framed not as a transition, a switching of sides, but as a mere enactment of “what one has been all the time in any case.” Converts often refer to their conversion as no more than a little paperwork to get done, the acquisition of a little “official” stamp, a minor bureaucratic disturbance. The Jewish grandmother, whom the Nazis mysteriously didn’t find, and whose Jewishness has not left any documentable traces, is one of the most widespread tropes of the self-stories, which German converts to Judaism tell about themselves.

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The Truth That Lies Within

Sometimes, when reading childrearing-advises, the etiquettes of baby-food, all those leaflets about breastfeeding, I feel like taking a slice of white bread (that kind of bread you can squeeze like chewing gum), cover it very thickly, generously, with marshmallow-spread, and eat it and feed it. I feel as if I should start smoking also, drink more coffee, and stop breastfeeding immediately.

fafa0ad004da70af1f8f1c2f4cf3ea92This is because I have to fight nature: A birth is good, when it is natural. Breast-feeding is good, because it is natural. Carrying a baby in a baby-sling is good, because it is natural. Co-sleeping, organic food, organic cotton clothes: good, because natural. Nature hovers over pictures of more or less naked, spotless, porcelain-white bodies of babies, modern variants of medieval portraits of baby Jesus: Pristine, pure bodies undistorted by the artificial, external interventions of culture. How much organic cotton or self-made pumpkin-soup do I need in order to atone for a circumcision, I ask myself. How much nature outweighs all that pollution induced by bottle-milk and food in little glass-tins? (And how much good, exactly, has ever come out of arguments of “nature” for women?)

The creation of a human being as natural and organic as little white Jesus in his crib is ideologically inseparable from the notion of a truth that lies within. According to this notion, whatever is brought upon a child by external forces (such as religious authorities or a law, a societal convention etc.) is essentially inferior to the truth that lies within: in the heart. That which you think, because your free reason has induced you to think so, that which you do, because you feel this the right thing to do, is better, “more true,” then that, which you do because of “submission.” Children, that are being “indoctrinated” into a particular tradition/knowledge-system, for example, are thus not only deemed not free, they are also stripped of the capability to see the truth that lies within their essence, their own “true” being. They can neither truly belief, nor truly think. They cannot even truly love: Without having discovered their individual, untainted, undistorted essence, they are emotionally immature slaves – a trope that currently finds its most widespread expression in representations of Muslim men (> “religion”) as unable to cope with their suppressed desires.

The assumption of an inner truth’s superiority, its very existence even, is not a primordial, universal characteristic of humankind. In as far as the history of thoughts is concerned, it was most prominently Paul, the Apostle, who differentiated between a text’s “outer body” and its “inner meaning,” and set them into a hierarchical relation.

477e0d23cfa1def0c9a5b8ab1ad4180cTo Paul, the law given to Moses at Mount Sinai was Scripture’s “outer meaning,” associated with flesh and slavery, and represented by Hagar and Ishmael – whereas the new covenant of Jesus Christ came to uncover Scripture’s “inner meaning,” the truth, to be associated with spirit and freedom, and represented by Sarah and Isaac. Through differentiating between “slavery” based on the fear of law/the performance of ritual, and “freedom” based on an inner yearning for morality, Paul could interpret God’s promise to Abraham – the continuity of Israel that is – as resting not with the Jews and their “carnal” law, but with universal, non-bodily spirit, set free by faith in Christ and available to all of humankind. This is obviously not to suggest a direct dependency or a straight line leading from Paul’s exegetical moves to advertisements of toddler’s food, yet it is to point out that advertisements of toddler’s food entail notions of “the good” and “the truth,” that are culturally specific.

The discovery of one’s “inner truth” is usually not described as a process that involves a loss, let alone a loss to be mourned: it is just about shucking off false fears, freeing belief from law, love from submission, abandoning that, which stops us from realizing our potential.

According to its own account, therefore, secular education cultivates nothing but the very natural order of things: it enables us to discover our selves, what we “really are,” deep down inside our hearts. It never exerts force, is never violent, or unreasoned, and if it interferes, it is well-meant advice, it reacts, it saves: its interests are always good. We have overcome formal religion – the primary cause of bloodshed – and are now taking upon ourselves to help those, who have not yet overcome religion, to be educated into critical thinking and freedom: How can all human beings strip off their fears, their false beliefs, and dwell in universal spiritual bliss? This is not violence, it simply prevents fanaticism from taking over and secures children’s capability of independent reasoning and critical thinking. It is all in everybody’s very best interest – even if some might sense a dull discomfort sneaking into their hearts, a whiff of dread, when their selves, their collectives, their memories, their bodies are being destroyed in the course of their cultural elevation.


Der Maler von dem Loch, George Grosz (1839-1959)

The human being whose truth rests inside “happens” to be the ideal participant of capitalist economies: An individual, freed from the conventions of the collective, someone who has an “essence,” and will sense bliss when this “essence” is realized. The pricier a product is, the more it is, accordingly, individualized: marketed as something not related to mass production, but as a product that “is you,” and is “being made especially for you”: hand-picked, watered by moon-light, designed individually from scratch paper, each needle’s stich pierced with love into hand-colored linen, elevating you through giving you the opportunity to show-case your own, individual being – which of course finds itself in constant need of something that is “even more you” than the stuff you already call your own. A minor coincidence it is, that those who cannot enact their individuality through individualized consumption, but are struggling to keep their bodies alive through gaining access to food, water and medical care, are also those who will find their lives more likely to end as collateral damage.

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About Ideological Purity and Solidarity

israelite-4-7-2016-ophir-pictureA couple of weeks ago, Ophir Toubul visited together with a few other activists of Tor ha-Zahav the mother of Elor Azaria, a soldier who is currently trialed for gunning down a Palestinian man without any self-defensive reason whatsoever. The visit was a public media-event, designed to showcase Tor ha-Zahav’s non-elitist embeddedness in the midst of Mizrahi Israeli mainstream. Toubul et al have not always been there: As many of the most prominent and fervent figures of the Mizrahi empowerment movement, they have spent their formative years working on effacing whatever was “Mizrahi” about them, so as to resemble as close as possible the country’s cultural-political Ashkenazi elite: They made themselves into secular, academically educated, and more or less left-wing men. Those, who heaved anti-Mizrahi racism on the table, were Mizrahim, who participated in urban, left wing, secular, read: Ashkenazi culture.

In line with this sociological positioning, the fight against anti-Mizrahi racism could be smoothly tied to the fight against the occupation: “Intersectionality” was the word of the day in any case, and the fight of one oppressed group could thus reasonably be configured as inseparable from the fight of another oppressed group. Theoretically compelling as this is, however, some irritating hard facts remained: For the one thing, it seemed that Palestinians did not really join the fight, as they had (and have) nothing to gain from allying with another marginalized group. They opted for the “Ashkenazi-Palestinian axis.” More troubling even, it seemed that even Mizrahi Israelis themselves did not flock in Mizrahi empowerment initiatives in any notable numbers: Not much of a surprise, the flair of anti-Zionist, secular Mizrahi men married to Ashkenazi women from Tel Aviv, did not quite appeal to them.


Toubul’s visit of Elor Azaria’s mother is the radical end of a development that originates in the realization of above-mentioned hard facts. Earlier in history, Toubul had dissolved his Mizrahi cultural hipster platform Café Gibraltar, initiated the more politically explicit Tor ha-Zahav, and supported Aryeh Deri, leader of the religious Mizrahi party Sha”S, in the last elections. It does not take much sophistication to detect a radical disruption from the more academically inspired, more “classical” left wing, and “ideologically clean” discourse, that characterized the earlier days of Mizrahi discourse: Toubul et al claimed a legitimacy to address Mizrahi concerns and needs in and of themselves, without previously educating Mizrahim into solidarity with Palestinians. Probably with a grain of despair, but with a greater grain of pragmatism, the foundational agenda of Toubul’s Tor ha-Zahav is, that substantial change of Israeli society in favor of Mizrahim will happen through the work of Mizrahim, and only Mizrahim.


This is not to support the Tor ha-Zahav-visit of Elor Azaria’s mother. There is absolutely nothing that would somehow mitigate, let alone justify, Azaria’s murder of another human being. This was a hate crime, which is – needless to say – part of a larger context, yet that larger context does not turn the crime into “Elor Azaria is the son of all of us.” He is not.

This is to point out that more often then not, there do exist huge sociological and ideological gaps between the advocators of the diverse “empowerment” movements and those, who actually are to be empowered, between those public figures who opt for a participation of minorities and those who actually are embedded in those minorities. In the wake of the thwarted military coup in Turkey and Erdoğan’s “stabilizing” measurements, for example, many German left wing activists furiously terminated any future collaboration with any German Turk, who did not publicly condemn the president’s actions, as Lady Bitch Ray wrote in a public letter to Kübra Gümüşay, “if you stand in solidarity with ethnic and religious minorities, why do I see you solely in networks and cooperations with IGMG- and DITIB-affiliated headscarf-women, who issue zero critique against the Islamic patriarchy (…) and how does this fit the pro-AKP and pro- Erdoğan postings and insinuating Turkey-paroles of Betül Ulusoy on facebook?” Or in a more straightforward, “slightly” Sarazzinesk fashion, the head of Neukölln’s social democrats disclaimed that “it is part of her (Betül Ulusoys) image, that she advances freedom of thought and women’s rights – but this post (a facebook-post in which Ulusoy defended Erdoğan’s post-coup politics as an opportunity to get rid of some “dirt”) shows what kind of ideology is hidden behind her pose: that her attack against the law of neutrality is not motivated by a concern for women’s rights, but serves the aims of political Islam.”


Again: I have not the slightest intend to defend either Erdoğan’s measurements, or to express sympathy with Elor Azaria’s mother. Yet, if the aim is to bridge the gap between the public proponents of empowerment and those, who are to be empowered, then the very last thing to expect is ideological purity as defined by left-wing academics. A quick glance at Jewish orthodox communities in Germany may suffice: Said communities do have, without doubt, a vital interest in forming political unions with Muslim communities, given that both are religious minorities and hence (in different ways) subject to anti-religious cultural racism. Yet, you won’t be able to organize with any Jewish orthodox community your next Naqba-exhibition, just as you won’t – with all likelihood and I am sorry if I am wrong – install an Armenia-exhibition in your neighborhood’s mosque.

If you enter the ring with the idea of collaborating solely with enlightened, politically woke academic left-wingers, you may very well have incredibly interesting, radical and smart discussions in your private kitchen, but the only benefiters of this will be you, your friends, and your tea-pot. This is, of course, legitimate: I’d be the very last person on earth, who’d sympathize with “the people’s” political views. I absolutely do not think that “the people’s” politics is by virtue of its being the view of the masses in any sense superior to the politics of Berkeley-style academic discourses, that ethical politics is a matter of the guts, instead of books. Yet the legitimacy and necessity of walled, elitist discourses notwithstanding, it seems about time to face the political consequences of walled, elitist discourses: the failure of Berkeley in terms of concrete, political impact. Thus, instead of dividing the world into “good and bad,” it seems about time to acknowledge that each and everyone has different interests, that go along different loyalties and solidarities, that cannot always be harmonized: No one, besides secular academic individuals, whose interests are being represented and protected in any case, have the privilege to opt for a clean “only good.”


It may well be, that much of this post is inspired by my own positioning as a religious, orthodox Jew, whose ultimate solidarity is with the Jewish orthodox collective – even if my politics, at times, diverge from the accepted norm in said collective. This is, accordingly, not about being anybody’s poster girl, but about delineating an individual, non-negotiable realm, that exists despite those tensions: I will, for the life of me, not collaborate with people – Jews and non-Jews alike – who mock religious practice and authority, or who target orthodox Jews and Muslims as a bunch of retarded primitives. This is a deal-breaker. Nor will I discuss any single one orthodox “controversial” issue with anybody but the community that is going to bear the consequences of those discussions. This is then less about what’s “right” or “wrong” as judged from a super-human bird-eye perspective, but about the legitimacy of specific loyalties and solidarities, that co-exist in ambiguous tension with others.

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“As if He had Destroyed a Complete World”

After the flood when Noah offers animal sacrifices, God withdraws from earth. Upon smelling the incense of the animals’ flesh, He first acknowledges that human beings’ hearts have an evil inclination from youth onwards (Gen 8:21), promises that He will no longer destroy all life on earth, allows the consumption of animal flesh (ibid. 9:3), and announces within one and the same phrase the prohibition of bloodshed and the murderer’s capital punishment, to be administered and executed by humans themselves: “Whoever sheds a man’s blood, by a man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Gen 9:6).

The human being’s role as judge is new: Even though Cain, after having killed his brother Abel, fears that someone might kill him on account of his act, God at this point in time still rejects the human’s role as judge and prevents the slaying of Cain. Only after the flood, in this world of Noah, murder is no longer punished by God, but by human beings. The setting up of courts is, accordingly, one of the seven laws that are according to the rabbinic tradition incumbent upon every human being, the “Noahide laws.” From the flood onwards, God, as if disappointed and demoralized by His creatures’ sinfulness, delegates the responsibility to install justice, including capital punishment for murder, to all of humankind.

Intuitively, the two “ends” of Genesis 9:6 – the prohibition of bloodshed and the capital punishment of a murderer at the hands of man – may give rise, at least in a contemporary reader, to a sense of tension, or a paradox: How can God state the absolute inviolability of human life, and at the same time allow human beings to execute capital punishment?[2] The background of this perceived tension is the common formulation of the demand to respect another human being’s life in terms of universal, or natural rights: Each and every human being has a right to physical integrity, the protection of life and well-being, as the notion of life’s immutability is ordinarily articulated in the “modern West.”

The difference between formulating respect for life in terms of universal rights versus as a prohibition of taking an innocent life, may at first seem a difference of form, rather than one of content. Both formulations seem to come down to the same thing: the prohibition of bloodshed. Charles Taylor (Sources of the Self, p. 11) explains that “[t]he difference lies not in what is forbidden but in the place of the subject. Law is what I must obey. It may confer on me certain benefits, here the immunity that my life, too, is to be respected; but fundamentally I am under the law. By contrast, a subjective right is something which the possessor can and ought to act on to put it into effect. To accord you an immunity, formerly given you by natural law, in the form of natural right is to give you a role in establishing and enforcing this immunity. Your concurrence is now necessary, and your degrees of freedom are correspondingly greater. At the extreme end of these, you can even waive a right, thus defeating the immunity.”


Marc Chagall, Cain and Abel (Lithograph 1960)

In biblical law then,  a murderer does not violate an individual’s “natural right” to physical integrity. A murderer commits a transgression that violates God, His “image” in mankind, His law and His entire creation. In line with this, the first commandment – the announcement God makes concerning Himself, “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of Egypt out of the House of Bondage” – and the sixth commandment – “Do not murder” – were read as parallels: “How were the Ten Commandments given? Five on one tablet and five on another. It is written: I am the Lord your God (Ex 20:1; Deut 5:6) [on one tablet] and parallel to it [on the second tablet] it is written, Do not murder (Ex 20:12, Deut 5:16). Scripture teaches that regarding anyone who spills blood, it is as if he diminishes the image” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Ba-hodesh, parasha 8). The first commandment is a mirror of the sixth commandment.

When a murderer is punished with humanly imposed death, he is thus not simply sanctioned for violating a divine command, such as any other transgressor: A murderer’s act is of no less than cosmic magnitude and dimension; it leaves a real mark on the world and affects the world as a whole, not just an individual’s “right” to physical protection and wellbeing. Accordingly, a murderer’s guilt is, as mSanhedrin 4:5 expresses, “as if he had destroyed a complete world.”

Murder needs to be addressed by the human community beyond the mere punishment of the murderer: When a murdered body is found and the murderer cannot be identified, a broken-necked heifer atones for the spilling of blood  (Deut 21:4-9); and an unwitting murderer has to flee to the “city of refuge” until the death of the officiating High Priest (Num 35:25 and 35:32). Even though in the first case, the murderer cannot be brought to justice and in the second case is deemed undeserving, the land, that was forced to absorb the spilt blood, requires atonement and the exile of the murderer. Murder is, as Devora Steinmetz describes, “[u]nique among crimes in that the act has an essential reality distinct from the legal responsibility of the perpetrator and the possibility of bringing the murderer to justice.”

As an act that effects a human’s relation with the world as a whole, with the land, with God and with other human beings, murder requires of necessity a “repair” at the hands of the world: “Whoever sheds a human’s blood, by a human shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made humans” (Gen 9:6) is a chiastic structure, repeating each word of the first clause in reverse order in the second. The second clause virtually mirrors the first, and thereby emphasizes, first, the exact correspondence of offense (murder of man) and punishment (death at the hands of man), and second, the recovery of the creation’s cosmic, metaphysical balance, as if a circle is being closed: When the murderer of man is punished with death by man, what has become out of balance is reinstated, the world’s injury is “fixed,” the land is being atoned for, and cosmic order is reinstalled.

[2] Cf. Greenberg, “Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law,” in Menahem Haran (ed.), Yehezkel Kaufmann Jubilee Volume. Studies in Bible and Jewish Religion dedicated to Yehezkel Kaufmann on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday, Jerusalem: Herbrew University 1960, 5-28 (pp. 15-16): “This view of the uniqueness and supremacy of human life has yet another consequence. It places life beyond the reach of other values. The idea that life may be measured in terms of money or other property, and a fortiori the idea that persons may be evaluated as equivalences of other persons, is excluded. Compensation of any kind is ruled out. The guilt of the murderer is infinite because the murdered life is invaluable. […] The effect of this view is, to be sure, paradoxical: because human life is invaluable, to take it entails the death penalty.”
[3] “For this reason alone was man created, to teach you, that whosoever destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes guilt to him as if he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul, Scripture ascribes merit to him as if he had preserved a complete world” (mSanhedrin 4:5, according to ms Kaufmann A 50, Budapest Akademia, and ms Parma, Biblioteca Palatina, 3173 (דה רוסי 13). According to the Vilna-edition and the ms Jerusalem Yad Harav Herzog of the Bavli, the text reads, “whosoever destroys a single soul of Israel, Scripture imputes guilt to him as if he had destroyed a complete world; and whosoever preserves a single soul of Israel.” Yet, the gemara on this mishnah in bSanhedrin 38a implies that the amoraim are commenting on a version of the mishnah, which does not contain the addition “of Israel.”
[4] Cf. also Sifre Numbers 161, tKeritot 4:3, bKetubbot 37b, mSota 9:7 and Maimonides, Hilkhot Rotzeah 10:8.
[5] Steinmetz, “Crimes and Punishments, Part II: Noachide Law, Brother-Sister Intercourse, and the Case of Murder,” Journal of Jewish Studies 55,2 (2004) 278-305.

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About “Male” Religion and “Female” Freedom

At the peak of Germany’s latest “circumcision-debate,”[1] talkshow host Anne Will invited an orthodox rabbi, so as to let him defend the position of his folks. Inexperienced with contemporary religious tribunals, the rabbi brought forth what was, to him, the single one relevant argument: “If circumcision is going to be forbidden, we will continue in any case…because it is written in the Torah: On the eights day, his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev 12:3). Needless to say that with this explanation, the rabbi gave the audience the gratification of being easily identifiable as a religious fanatic: he was – as is obvious from what he just said – a fundamentalist one cannot reasonably talk to.

Of course, not all Jews quoted the word of God in order to illuminate circumcision’s raison d’être. Some willfully followed the choreography, which dominates religious tribunals from the Middle Ages onwards, and has the accused trapped in (of course futile) attempts to prove Judaism’s compatibility with Christian and/or secular notions of the truth. Whether such rhetorical compliance is a strategic choice or a matter of conviction – one thing is certain: Any speech about God in a secular space has to grapple with the ways, in which secularism has not only installed a division between earthly and divine power, but also rearticulated “religion” in a manner that is compatible with modern sensibilities and modes of governance.[2]

Germany’s “circumcision-debate” did not come alone. The debate needs to be read as an integral part of the religious debates that preceded and followed it – most of which were directed against Muslims, Germany’s principal bearers of “religion.” This is not to deny the circumcision-debate’s unique qualities and dynamics, which developed when Germans figured that circumcision is not only a Muslim, but also a Jewish practice – yet, I hold that the circumcision-debate’s ideological context are all those debates, that had previously scrutinized, stigmatized and criminalized the religious practice of Muslims: The debate about the “meaning” of a hijab, about prayer in public schools and universities, about religious education in mosques or Islamic kindergartens, about Muslim girls’ participation in swimming lessons, about handshaking, to mention just a few.

A central element in all these debates is an anxiety about the subject’s free will and the way the latter is deployed vis-à-vis her body. During the circumcision-debate, for example, one of the most notorious and powerful arguments against the rite focused on the obvious lack of “free will” on the part of the child: How can the German State permit Muslim and Jewish parents to inscribe the bodies of their innocent minor offspring with an irreversible religious mark? How can parents force a religion upon a child that does not have the slightest understanding of what said religion is all about? More generally, this argument is time and again brought forth also against the religious education of children: Children should either grow “naturally,” without any “premature indoctrination,” or learn about every religious tradition, so that they may henceforth choose from among what they “liked best.” In order for a religious practice to be accepted at least by left-wing liberals in favor of “religious diversity,” it is thus crucial for this practice to pass as an expression of an individual’s free choice. Accordingly, both hijab-wearing women and their secular supporters defend the hijab in public spaces as an individual choice, and not as a religious obligation.

The practice of circumcision, however, does not fit this strategy. It completely undermines the standard arguments of left-wing liberals in favor of religious diversity and self-determination, because circumcision simply cannot aptly be described as “just another choice.” It is obviously not the child’s “choice,” but neither is it the parent’s “choice”: From a Jewish religious perspective at least, circumcision is not a choice among any number of equally worthy options. There is no marketplace of different practices, from which a “consumer” may pick whatever suits her best, because the body is here not a thing, which an individual owns and with which she can do whatever she is inclined to do. It is not a commodity to possess, analogous to a thing being purchased. It is, rather, something that defines the self long before the latter is able to capture itself in language (hence, the obligatory and pre-discursive character of circumcision). The rite’s opponents thus detected, quite accurately, that circumcision is, indeed, about subjugation, in which an individual’s “free choice” does not take center stage.

In this respect then, practices such as circumcision fundamentally contradict contemporary identity-politics, which do not recognize the body as a guarantor of stable (gendered) identity and a site of self-evident (masculine) power: In contemporary Europe, difference is no longer explicitly, in a socially acceptable way, articulated through reference to the body, that is, through gender and/or race. This does of course not mean, that gender has ceased to work, that it is an obsolete category. Rather, I’d suggest that difference, that was previously articulated in terms of gender and race, is today negotiated primarily in terms of “male” religion vis-à-vis “female” freedom: The face of Islam – again: Islam as the primary bearer of “religion” – is decisively decoded as male and black, that is, the “old” way of being male. It is autocratic, violent, physical, and dangerously virile, it even “conquers.” It is, if I may, everything the “new,” Western male was once, but is no longer. In contrast to the “old” manliness of religion/Islam, the “new” manliness – that is, the new way of exercising cultural superiority – entails a disavowal of the male body as a site of symbolic and actual power: the face of the New Right in Europe does not feature archaic machismo, but female leadership figures, and female self-determination against religious (male) authority as one its most prominent pet issues.

My question then is: Are all those debates about the embodied practices of “religion” a reflection of a sense of insecurity regarding the cultural superiority of this “new” manliness? Or why do Europe’s “new men” feel such an urgent need to constantly hurt the bodily integrity of others, to unveil female hair, faces and bodies, to obligate children to shake hands, to circumvent the public bowing down in prayer, to define the proper look of the male sexual organ – to emasculate whatever reminds them of what was once, but is lost? Why do so many people attack the body in an age, which has stripped the body of any innate, intrinsic meaning? Is this because the enchanted body is (still) too desirable?


9e67349cb1bec817b7bf99a4d976026d[1] For an analysis of previous German circumcision debates see Robin Judd, Contested Rituals: Circumcision, Kosher Butchering, and Jewish Political Life in Germany, 1843-1933, Cornell University Press 2007.

[2] A person, who embodies a religious practice, that runs counter these notions, thus faces something like an ever-ongoing Fanonic moment: Even before uttering a first word, she has to take into account that her audience yields secularism a non-negotiable necessity and religion a threat – with the threat growing proportionally to her religion’s distance from modern notions of what a religion is, and how it should behave like.

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Who Is Mandolina?

On a late afternoon, a chilly spring-day, I rushed down Gihon Street of Jerusalem’s Abu-Tur neighborhood. I had to get to the main street’s bus station, to catch number 74 downtown. A few months earlier we had married, and moved from Nahla’ot to Abu-Tur, into an apartment of a house, that people referred to as “the last house of Gihon Street.” It was not that this street ended with our house – our house gained its appellation simply because it was the last house of Gihon Street’s Jewish part. Right next to it, the remains of a wall from the 67’-war marked the “border,” the border between “Jewish Jerusalem,” and the other, unknown, “Arab Jerusalem”: that part, which is – from the perspective of the city’s Jewish inhabitants – some kind of a white spot or a black hole, where the names of neighborhoods and streets become indistinguishable gibberish, where I would not get along, be lost, a total stranger.

Yet, a stranger I was also in “Jewish Jerusalem”: Women who looked like me were sitting in the bus next to me, reading Psalms, or calling their families on their mobile phones to organize the Shabbat’s set up – yet I had no family in Israel, and instead of Psalms, I had just discovered Talal Asad’s “Formations of the Secular.” Jerusalem’s German expats didn’t offer any refuge, too: as a convert, who deliberately chose to belong to the not-yet-enlightened Psalm-readers, I was referred to as a more or less pitiful person, whose academic brain melts away like a snow-man in the sun. I was, in short, an assemblage of unrelated parts, with myself (and my apartment, coincidentally) being located at an unidentifiable in-between place, where no other people were dwelling, where there was no recognizable community, no solidarity, no natural buffer-zone.


On that chilly afternoon, on my way to the bus-stop, I met Mandolina. Mandolina – who did not have her name back then – was a cat, maybe one month old, not bigger than a fist. She was dwindled up in a bush next to the street, crying, because her belly was ripped open. There were branches, thorns, dust and dirt, and a bundle of blood, bowels entangled around legs, with a faint breathing body. Frantically, I searched for the phone-number of the city’s veterinary emergency. Someone picked up: Yes, they would come, but it may take a while.

I waited next to the bush. The hours passed by. The sun slowly vanished, the sky turned red, and the air became cold and serene. I am not sure, cat, what we are doing here, I told her. She kept on breathing; I kept on waiting.

It was dark already when the veterinary service arrived. With a pair of tongs, similar to those that are used to pick up rubbish from the street, they grabbed her, placed her in a metal cage, took my phone number, and drove away. She will not make it, they told me.

Mandolina, however, made it. Three days later, I got a phone call from the veterinary service: The cat had survived surgery, but it couldn’t remain any longer at the veterinary station. Outside, the chilly weather and the rain would turn the wound inflammatory, so if I could take the cat into my home? Yes, I said, sure, the cat can stay with me!

Again, she was locked up in a metal cage. When the veterinary service worker opened it, she ran out in total panic, crushed a few times against the walls, and eventually hid behind the fridge. Ok, he said, goodbye then.

For two weeks, she left her hideaway only during the nights, in order to eat some of the food, which I had placed next to the fridge. In the night, I heard her wandering around, yet as soon as she heard the rustling of my blanket, she ran back to the fridge, her refuge. We advanced in small steps: First, she stared at me when I was sitting at my computer, a few meters away from the fridge. Weeks later, she stared at me also when I was walking around in the apartment, hiding only when I came too close to her fridge. It took a few months, until she dared to touch my hand with her little nose. In the meantime, we had built her a little shack in the garden right next to our apartment’s window, from where she could jump in- and out. She never became fully domesticated.

When we left Jerusalem for Berlin, Mandolina stayed behind. I placed a full plate of food next to her shack – she immediately came to fetch it – and I closed the windows of our apartment, the garden’s backdoor, the apartment’s door, and left the “last house” of Gihon Street. I passed the place where I had found her, walked down the street to the bus stop, to the central bus station, to the airport. Our neighbors agreed to give her food, yet we lost contact with them. I have no idea what happened to Mandolina: for a few weeks, she probably waited for food to be placed next to her shack. I hope that she made it, and am tentatively optimistic: Even though she had always remained small, she had a strong survival instinct, and luck, too.


When setting up my blog, one of the stages of registration entailed the naming of the site’s domain. I didn’t know that, unlike the blog’s title, I could of course not change the domain-name later on. And that’s how a blog called “Mandolina” came into being: It was simply the first name that came to my mind. She remained in my heart, if you wish to phrase it like that.

This name fits, however, because much of my writing here is a continuation of something, that started many years earlier in “Gihon Street’s last house,” during the time Mandolina was living in our garden (which was not officially “our garden” at all). The feeling of insecurity and melancholy of this time have vanished, yet still, the blog’s vantage point is that moment when turning from a self-evident, naturally belonging agent into an object, or a “problem,” of contemporary notions of “the good,” the reasonable, the right, the important. Of course, this means that this blog is not about pleasing the majority of readers: it is about re-thinking that, which pleases the majority of readers. It is, at the end of the day, about finding words for a vantage point, that is situated at the margin of a place, where street-names sound familiar, and glides into another place, that is the dominion of another law, quite literally. A place, where me and Mandolina gradually lost our panic, reassembled our selves, and tried to make sense of this fragile, particular beginning of a new life.


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The Hebrew Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library in Oxford: An entirely Non-Academic Account

At some point in the course of my studies, I decided that I am not a manuscript-person. Maybe this was simply due to laziness, or haughtiness, or both: After working for a couple of months on the transcription of a Hebrew manuscript from Renaissance Italy (precisely: Yohanan Alemanno’s magnum opus, Hay ha-Olamim), I tossed all my work into the archive, and never opened the microfiche-pdf again.

On my way to the manuscript-collection of the Bodeleian library in Oxford I therefore did not expect anything overtly spectacular. Together with a group of some 15 academics, I had attended a (very cool) summer-school in a nearby castle-hotel, and after being transferred to downtown-Oxford for Shabbat, we were offered a guided tour through the Hebrew collection of the library. The chief-librarian, César Merchán, welcomed us at the entrance: An old building, high ceilings, a lots of marble, a security counter, lockers for bags and jackets, acclimatized air, silence. Like many times before, I sensed that old, academic buildings imbue their guests with an aura of authority, secrecy, importance, as if one enters a temple, in which matters of higher orders are being stored, made accessible only to the selected few – one immediately becomes a little too underdressed, a little too profane, a little too working-class.

Passing another few doors with locks secured by secret codes, we entered a room, into which César had previously moved some manuscripts. On a wheeled cupboard, one next to the other, they were waiting. César heaved a huge Mahzor upon a plastic-foam-construction on a table in the middle of the room, and let his hands wander through the pages. 13th century, Ashkenaz.

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For a quarter of a second, I thought that something’s utterly wrong here, that César is not really the Bodleian’s Hebrew chief-librarian, but a charlatan who had tricked his way illegally into the temple: How come, I asked him, that you touch the pages without gloves? Shouldn’t there be some kind of protective barrier between your hands and the 13th century? How can you touch something so fragile? “Oh no,” he said, turning to me, “there are two schools among librarians of manuscripts. One advocates the use of gloves, but the other holds that you have to feel the pages.” The use of any additional tool would not protect them, but reduce the sensibility of the hands, as nothing is more sensitive, more perceptive, than real skin. The preferred method of the Boldelain library is, therefore, literally “skin on skin”: the skin of human hands gliding over the skin of an animal, the parchment. A sensory meeting of the hands of the living, the active, the powerful, with letters, motionless on parchment, fragile, a thousand years old. Or maybe the other way around – for what would we be without those letters?

Ohhh, I murmured, and was reminded of the Brit of Joel: In an attempt to understand the medical dimension of the intervention, I had asked our Mohel if he would use any devises, or tools, besides the regular ones. But he assured me, that he would need solely his hands. Any “medical” addition would interrupt the procedure unnecessarily, and bear the risk of complication. Skin on skin, again.

The Mahzor measured some 50 x 30cm, with a width of approximately 15cm. Its script and layout were even, almost as if printed, without mistakes. One could see how the pages had been prepared: cut, smoothed, nearly invisible lines being embossed at each page, an incredible amount of work before the scribe had set his first letter on the parchment. Someone in our group rejoiced upon identifying at first glance a particular part of the Sukkot-liturgy: Did the scribe of this Mahzor ever imagine, that 1000 years apart from his own life, the eyes of a professor for Talmudic law would meet his letters, and mean precisely the same thing they meant to him? How many eyes, how many places, how many hands had this Mahzor seen? How many Jews have carried its weight, how did it survive? It must be heavy, I thought, its transportation not especially convenient, and difficult. Each page was illustrated with ornaments, fable-animals, human-beings without faces, colors and layers of gold. Meticulously, millimeter-by-millimeter, the illustrator had beautified each page, as if the immeasurable value of the words needed to be accompanied by material, aesthetic worth.

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Each page had a “micrography” at its bottom, which César explained us to be a particularly Jewish type of illumination. Mircographies are tiny, tiny Hebrew letters combined to form an ornament, that is, it is not the illumination of a letter, but the very use of the letter itself as a “limb” of the illustration. It is unknown what motivated this kind of artwork: possibly, it circumvents a prohibition of images, yet possibly, too, the use of a letter as a physical component of a larger image, or ornament, is also a visualization of the Jewish interpretative tradition: Viewed from above, it is an image, a coherent whole, an entire world, yet the closer you draw, the more you become aware of a multitude of components, details, interwoven one into the other, a “massekhet,” a web, made up of tiny little bodies of letters, each one in and of itself an indispensable, corporeal component of the universe.

César turned the pages, something he had done probably at least a dozen times before our visit. Despite British correctness and professionalism, his face seemed to be filled with admiration, affection, love for what he was doing.

On our way out of the library, we passed a few high-ceiled reading-halls named after people. Serious scholars dressed in neutral colors were sitting in rows above their books and manuscripts. No food, no drinks. If I had decided to become a manuscript-person, would I sit here, too? Would I be smart and patient enough to prepare a critical edition, or would I schedule as many coffee-dates as possible and sneak into facebook for digression? Would I be fond of my manuscripts like César? Glancing over the ethereal-looking scholars, I saw myself sitting on the ground with Joel, handling toys, strollers, bottles, bananas, ice-cream, invitations to the kindergarten’s summer-party, team-days, and the laundry, tired. I envied their tranquility, the quietness and cleanliness of their temple, their effortless appropriateness. The Mahzor was an expat here: It was written by the light of the sun and candles, it wandered through the hands of those, who prepared the parchment, the ink, the script, who illustrated it, who carried it from place to place on their backs, or in wagons, who recited its words on the Festival of Sukkot. A few of its pages had been damaged by the teeth of a mouse. It must have seen the fullness of life.

(César had advised us to look at the manuscripts in their digitalized form, accessible on the library’s website. A collection of micrography-highlights, for example, is here).

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