Moritz Oppenheim's Sabbath Eve
"This series of pictures should strike a deep emotional response in the heart of every Jew. No matter how far we have traveled from the observances that were practiced by our fathers, we have a feeling of reverence for the ceremonies themselves, and a respect for those who feel that these Jewish ceremonials constitute a necessary part of religion."
So begins a small volume published in 1930 by the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods called "The Oppenheim Pictures..Depicting Jewish Ceremonial Life." This gem was found in our library by two wonderful graduate students from the Pratt Institute who are getting their degrees in Library Science and spending the summer helping us to re-organize the synagogue library. Like a lot of corners and even open areas of the Temple, the Library had fallen into a fairly severe state of neglect. Its original architecture and design had been built over with cheap plywood and ugly florescent lighting; its collection languished during an era in which new Jewish studies exploded; and, like libraries in general, reading became privatized and computer-based, leaving the room in the shul with books to be, well, a room in the shul with books. These two remarkable young women simply won't tolerate that--and so they're having a go at looking at each book on each shelf in an effort to determine their value and relevance. It's been pretty fun sitting next door to them these last several weeks and having them appear with various volumes like the aforementioned Oppenheim Pictures.
Moritz Oppeheim was a German Jew, born at the dawn of the 19th century and as a contemporary of Goethe and Heine, achieved elevated status as a painter depicting both Biblical and contemporary Jews. His most loyal patrons were the Rothschilds, whose support helped spread Oppenheim's Romantic depictions of Jews throughout Western Europe. In his classic work, "Jewish Icons," Richard I. Cohen writes about the painter, "As observed by Oppenheim, Jewish tradition blended well with occupational exigencies, while relations with the surrounding society lacked stress and discomfort."
Speaking of stress and discomfort, no sooner had this volume warmed my hand then I was confronted by a congregant asking to explain myself about why I was requesting the shul to pay a parking ticket that the city had given me for having parked in front of the synagogue I serve. Most DOT officers and congregants welcome the presence of my vehicle in front of the shul where God's name is charmingly misspelled; but lately, some new officer with an excess of zeal has been issuing tickets with the buzzing frequency of malarial mosquitos in the Hula Valley during the First Aliyah. I'm not aware of any written record of Alternate Side Parking for Horse and Buggy in Hamburg circa 1832, so I wasn't sure how Oppenheim would have depicted this grisly scene of attempting to explain why the rabbi should be able to park in front of the synagogue unmolested by taxing meter maids. "If this were the suburbs, I guess I'd have a spot with my name on it" was the best I could come up with and let's face it--reaching for the suburbs in this case was really an act of desperation. I was kind of shocked that I was even having the conversation. With reluctance, the stay of execution was granted and I returned to my study to retrieve the ringing phone.
There are two types of reverence for the Jewish ceremonials in our community: those who engage the rabbi in the Jewish Ceremonial of Torah (the source of this reverence is Torah, and not the rabbi) and those who engage in the Jewish Ceremonial of seeing the rabbi jump through hoops (the source of this reverence is ego and power, and not the rabbi, either.) Guess which type of reverence for Jewish Ceremonial I prefer?
On the other end of the ringing phone was another congregant, well into his eighties, whose family line reaches back straight across Brooklyn, over oceans and to Jerusalem, where he traces his roots to a time at the dawn of the 19th century when Moritz Oppenheim was but a glimmer in the eye of his Rothschild. A couple weeks ago I shared a sushi lunch with this congregant, a retired professor, and talked about history and the Hebrew language, the state of affairs in Israel, and the many faces of our congregation in his own affiliations with Jewish life in Brooklyn over the past sixty years. He knew I'd be heading off to Israel next week and wanted to share how nice it was to have lunch together and could we do it again in August when I returned.
"With pleasure," I offered. "I've got a couple interesting books I think you'd like to see." He said, "I'd very much like that, rabbi."
When I go see him in August, I'll take my bike, leaving my car in front of shul. Hopefully its sign in the window that says "Clergy" will instill in the meter maid and the parsimonious parishoner a "respect for those who feel that these Jewish ceremonials constitute a necessary part of religion."
A ride across the park on a warm August afternoon. A book from 1930 in my backpack that no one had ever checked out of our Library until two library science students--23 and 24 years old respectively--dusted it off and shared it with the rabbi, who has already found another reader to appreciate the pictures of Moritz Oppenheim. That sounds like a good day.
May God bless the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, 1930.