James Kendall Hosmer.

The Jews, ancient, mediæval, and modern online

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rabbi and elders were bound, and heard already, close
at hand, the simmering of the preparing torture.
There appeared two strangers, who gave themselves
into the hands of the magistrates, voluntarily accus-
ing themselves of the crime. Into the caldrons they
were at once thrown, from which, as they died,
ascended two milk-white doves. Innocent, with a
pious lie upon their lips, they sacrificed themselves
to save others. To commemorate their deed, the
lamp with the double flame had been kept forever
burning within the low arch.

I walked one day through the Juden-gasse at Frank-
fort. The modern world is ashamed of the cruelty and
prejudice of the past, and would like to hide from
sight the things that bear witness to it. The low,
strong wall, however, was still standing, within whose
narrow confine the Jews were crowded, never safe
from violence or even death if they were found out-
side at times not permitted. Many of the ancient
houses still remained, the fronts discolored, channelled,
rising in mutilation and decay that were pathetic.
The Hebrews of to-day seem to take pleasure in
contrasting their present condition with their past
misery. They have chosen to erect their stately
synagogue among the old roofs, — upon the founda-
tions even of the wall with which the past tried to
fence them off from all Christian contact. Among
such surroundings, how does the story, so long and
so tragic, come home to us!


The persecution of the Jews in Germany, a chapter
ages long, cuhninated " at the time of the Black
Death, 1 348-1 350. This scourge, which carried off
a quarter of the population of Europe, afflicted the
Jews but lightly, on account of their isolation, and
their simple and wholesome way of life. This com-
parative exemption from the pest was enough to
make them suspected. The Jews poison the wells
and the springs, it was said. The rabbis of Toledo
were believed to have formed a plot to destroy all
Christendom. The composition of the poison, the
color of the packages in which it was transported, the
emissaries who conveyed them, were all declared to
have been discovered. Confirmations of these re-
ports, extracted by torture from certain poor crea-
tures, were forthcoming, and the people flew upon
the Jews until entire communities were destroyed.
The " Flagellants," fanatical sectaries, half naked and
scourging themselves, swarmed through Germany,
preaching extermination to all unbelievers. Basle
expelled its Jews, Fribourg burned them. Spires
drowned them. The entire community at Strass-
bourg, 2,000 souls, was dragged upon an immense
scaffold, which was set on fire. At Worm.s, Frank-
fort, and Mainz, the Israelites anticipated their fate,
setting their homes on fire and throwing themselves
into the flames.

A picture, derived from Jewish authorities,! shall
make vivid for us the condition of the Israelites in
mediaeval Germany.

* Reinach : " Histoire des Israelites."

f Based upon the incomplete novel of Heine, "The Rabbi of
Bacharach," and accounts contained in the history of Graetz.


The little community of Hebrews which already in
the time of the Romans had settled in the town of
Woistes, on the Rhine, was a body isolated, crowded
out of all civil rights, and weak in numbers, notwith-
standing that it had received in times of persecution
many fugitives. The suffering had begun with the
Crusades. Familiar accusations that were made at
an early day, were that the Jews stole the con-
secrated Host to pierce it with knives, and also
that they killed Christian children at their Passover,
for the sake of using their blood in the service at night.
The Jews, hated for their faith, and because they
held the world to such an extent in their debt, were
on that festival entirely in the hands of their ene-
mies, who could easily bring about their destruction
by some false accusation. Not infrequently through
some contrivance a dead child was secretly intro-
duced into a Jewish house, to be afterwards found
and made a pretext for attack. Great miracles were
sometimes reported and believed, as having happened
over such a corpse, and there are cases in which the
Pope canonized such supposed victims. St. Werner
in this way reached his honors, to whom was dedi-
cated the magnificent abbey at Oberwesel, now a
picturesque ruin, whose carved and towering pillars
and long-pointed windows are such a delight to the
tourists who pass on pleasant summer days, and do
not think of their origin.

The more outside hate oppressed them, however,
so much the closer did the bond become, in these
times, among the Jews themselves ; so much the
deeper did their piety take root. The Rabbi Abra-


ham at Woistes was an example of excellence, a man
still young, but famed far and wide for his learning.
His father had also been rabbi of the little synagogue,
and had left to his son as his only bequest, a chest of
rare books, and the command never to leave Woistes,
unless his life were in danger. Rabbi Abraham had
acquired wealth through marriage with his beautiful
cousin Sarah, daughter of a rich jeweller. He prac-
tised conscientiously, however, the smallest usages of
the faith ; he fasted each Monday and Thursday, en-
joyed meat and wine only on Sundays and holidays,
explained by day to his pupils the divine Law, and
studied by night the courses of the stars. The
marriage was childless, but there was abundant life
about him ; for the great hall of his house by the
synagogue stood open to the congregation, who went
in and out without formality, offered hasty prayers,
and took counsel in times of distress. Here the
children played on the Sabbath morning while the
weekly lesson was read in the synagogue ; here the
people collected at weddings and funerals, quarrelled
and became reconciled ; here the freezing found
warmth and the hungry food. A crowd of kinsmen
moved also about the rabbi who celebrated with him,
as head of the family, the great festivals.

Such meetings of the kindred took place especially
at the Passover time, when the Jews celebrate their
escape from Egyptian bondage. As soon as it is
night the mistress of the house lights the lamps,
spreads the table-cloth, and lays upon it three flat
unleavened loaves ; then covering these with a napkin,
she places on the little mound six little plates, in


which is contained symbolical food — namely, an &%^,
lettuce, a radish, a lamb's bone, and a brown mixture
of oranges, cinnamon, and nuts. Then the master of
the house, seating himself at the table with all liis
guests, reads aloud out of the Talmud a mixture of
legends of the forefathers, miraculous stories out of
Egypt, controversial questions, prayers, and festal
songs. The symbolical dishes are tasted at set times
during the reading, pieces of the unleavened bread
are eaten, and cups of red wine are drunk. Pensively
cheerful, seriously sportive is this evening festival,
full also of mystery ; and the traditional intonation
with w^hich the Talmud is read by the father of the
house, and sometimes repeated after him by the
hearers, in a chorus, sounds so strangely intimate, so
hke a mother's lullaby, and at the same time so
stimulating, that even those Jews who have long
since apostatized and sought friends and honors
among strangers, are affected in their deepest hearts,
if by chance the old Passover songs come to their

Rabbi Abraham was once celebrating, in the great
hall of his house, the Passover, with kindred, pupils,
and guests. All was polished to an unusual bril-
liancy ; on the table lay the covering of silk,
variously embroidered, with fringes of gold hanging
to the earth. The plates with the symbolical food
gleamed brightly, as did also the tall wine-filled
beakers, on which were embossed sacred scenes.
The men sat in black mantles, black flat hats, and
white ruffs. The women, in glistening attire of ma-
terial brought from Lombardy, wore on head and


neck ornaments of pearl. The silver Sabbath lamp
poured its festal light over the pleased and devout
faces of old and young. On the purple velvet cushion
of a seat raised above the rest, and leaning as the
usage requires, Rabbi Abraham intoned the Talmud,
and the contrasting voices of the chorus answered or
joined in unison at the prescribed places. The rabbi
wore also his black festival garment ; his noble, some-
what severely forrned features were milder than
usual. His beautiful wife sat upon a raised velvet
seat at his side, wearing, as hostess, no ornament,
while simple white linen alone wrapped her form and
face. Her countenance was touchingly fair, of that
beauty which Jewesses have often possessed ; for
the consciousness of the deep misery, the bitter
contempt, and appalling dangers in which they and
their kindred are forced to live, spreads often over
their features a trace of suffering and loving anxiety
which strangely entrances the heart. She looked into
her husband's eyes, with now and then a glance at
the copy of the Talmud lying before her, a parch-
ment volume bound in gold and velvet, an heirloom
from the time of her grandfather, marked with
ancient wine stains. The gay pictures which it con-
tained, to look at which had been part of her amuse-
ment as a child, at the Passover time, presented
various Biblical stories : Abraham with a hammer,
dashed in pieces the stone idols of his fathers ; Moses
struck dead the Egyptian ; Pharaoh sat magnificent
upon his throne ; again, the plague of frogs left him
no quiet, and finally he was drowned in the Red Sea ;
the children of Israel stood open-mouthed in their


wonder before Sinai ; pious King David played the
harp ; and finally Jerusalem with the towers and
pinnacles of the Temple was illuminated by the sun.
The second cup was already poured out. The
faces and voices of the guests were becoming always
clearer, and the Rabbi, seizing one of the unleavened
loaves, and holding it up with a cheerful greeting,
read the following words : " Lo, this is the food of
which our fathers in Egypt partook ! every one who
is hungry let him come and eat ; let the af^icted
share our Passover joy ; for the present we celebrate
the festival here, but in the coming years in the land
of Israel ; we celebrate now as bondmen, but here-
after as sons of freedom." Just here the door of the
long hall opened, and two tall, pale figures entered,
wrapt in broad cloaks, one of whom said : " Peace
be with you. We are your companions in the faith,
who now are journeying, and we wish to celebrate
the Passover with }-ou." The Rabbi answered
quickly and kindly : " Peace be with you ; sit here
by me." The strangers seated themselves at the
table, and Abraham continued his reading. Often,
while the by-standers were still occupied with the
responses, he addressed sportively caressing words to
his wife, then again took up his part, how " Rabbi
Eleazar, Rabbi Asaria, Rabbi Akiba, and Rabbi
Tarphen, sat in Bona-brak and talked together the
whole night of the Exodus, until their scholars came
and called out to them that it was day, and in the
synagogue great morning-prayer was already being
read," or some similar passage from the quaint dis-
jointed record.


As the Hebrew woman reverently listened with
eyes fixed on her husband, she saw that his face
suddenly became distorted with horror, the blood
fled from his cheeks and lips, and his eyes stood out
in dreadful astonishment. Instantly, however, he
recovered himself. The agitation passed off like a
momentary spasm, his features resuming their former
quiet cheerfulness. Presently a mad humor, quite
foreign to him, seemed to take possession of him.
The wife was terrified, less on account of the signs
of astonished fear than on account of the insane
merriment. Abraham pushed his cap in wild sport
from one ear to the other, plucked and curled the
locks of his beard like a buffoon, sang the text of
the Talmud like a street minstrel ; and in counting
up the Egyptian plagues, when the index-finger is
dipped several times into the full beaker, and the
drop hanging from it thrown to the ground, the
Rabbi spattered the younger girls with red wine,
and there was loud complaint over destroyed ruf-
fles, and resounding laughter. This convulsive
levity on the part of her husband seemed constantly
stranger to Sarah, and she looked on with nameless
anxiety, as the guests, incited by Abraham, danced
back and forth, tasted the Passover bread, sipped
the wine, and sang aloud.

At length came the time of the evening meal, and
all prepared to w^sh themselves. The wife brought
the great silver laver, adorned with figures of beaten
gold, and held it before each guest, who poured
water over his hands. While she was performing
this service, her husband made a significant sign to


her, and during the preparations slipped unnoticed
from the room. As she followed him immediately,
he seized her hand with a hasty clutch, drew her
quickly forth through the dark lanes of the town,
and passed at length out of the gate to the high-
road along the Rhine. It was one of those quiet
nights of spring which, indeed, is mild and bright,
but fills the soul with a strange thrill. The flowers
exhaled an oppressive odor, the birds filled the air
with a kind of anxious twitter, the moon threw white
streaks of light uncannily over the dark, murmuring
stream. The lofty cliffs of the bank seemed like
heads of giants threateningly nodding ; the watch-
man on the tower of a lonely castle opposite blew
from his bugle a melancholy note, and now sounded
forth the death-bell from the abbey of St. Werner,
quickly pealing. The wife still carried in her right
hand the silver basin, while Abraham kept fast his
clutch upon her left wrist. She felt that his fingers
were icy cold and that his arm trembled, but she
followed in silence, foreboding she knew not what,
while the sights and sounds of the night seemed to
her, in her mood, pervaded with such strange terror.
Reaching at length a rock which overhung the river-
shore, the Rabbi mounted with his wife, looked
warily in all directions, then stared upward at the
stars. The moon illuminated his pale face in a
ghastly way, showing a mingled expression of pain,
fear, and devotion. As he suddenly snatched the
laver from her hand and flung it down into the river
she could no longer bear it, but throwing herself at
his feet, begged him to reveal the mystery. The


lips of Abraham moved, but at first no sound came
forth. At length he stammered : " Do you see the
angel of death there hovering over Woistes ? We,
however, have escaped his sword, praised be the
Lord ! " With voice still trembling with horror he
then related, his spirit growing calmer gradually as it
found utterance, how, while in pleasant frame he
sat chanting from the Talmud, he had happened to
look under the table, and had beheld there at his feet
the bloody corpse of a child. " Then I saw," he went
on, " that the two tall strangers were not of the
congregation of Israel, but of the assembly of the
godless, who had taken council to accuse us of
child-murder, and afterwards excite the people to
plunder and slay us. . I dared not let it be seen that
I had discovered the work of darkness. I should
have hastened our destruction by doing so, and only
cunning and promptness have saved us. Be not
anxious, Sarah. Our friends and kindred will be
saved. The ruthless men coveted my death alone.
Since I have escaped them, they will satisfy them
selves with our silver and gold. Let us depart to
another land, leaving misfortune behind us ; and in
order that misfortune may not pursue us, I have
thrown away in atonement the last of our posses-
sions, the basin of silver. The God of our fathers
will not abandon us. Come down, thou art tired.
Wilhelm, the dumb boy, waits with his boat there at
the shore ; he will carry us down the Rhine."

Speechless and as if with broken limbs, the beauti-
ful Sarah had sunk away into the arms of Abraham,
who bore her slowly down toward the shore. There


stood Wilhelm, who, the support of his old mother,
the Rabbi's neighbor, followed the calling of a fisher-
man, and had here fastened his boat. He seemed to
have already guessed the intention of the Rabbi, and
to be waiting for him. About his closed lips played an
expression of gentle pity, his great blue eyes, full of
feeling, rested upon the fainting woman, whom he
carried tenderly to the little boat. The look of the
dumb boy aroused her from her stupefaction. She
felt suddenly that all which her husband had told her
was no mere dream, and streams of bitter tears
poured down her cheeks, which were now as white
as her robe. There she sat in the middle of the boat,
a weeping form of marble, — by her side her husband
and Wilhelm, who plied the oars vigorously.

Whether it is the monotonous stroke of the oars,
or the rocking of the craft, or the fragrance of those
mountainous shores, .upon which grow the clusters
that inspire man with joy, it always happens that the
most afiflicted man is strangely calmed, when on a
spring night, in a light skiff, he sails upon the beauti-
ful Rhine. Old good-hearted father Rhine cannot
bear, indeed, to have his children weep. He rocks
them in his faithful arms, stilling their sobbing, re-
lates to them his finest tales, promises them his
richest treasures, perhaps the hoard of the Nibelun-
gen, sunk so long ago. Sarah's tears flowed at last
less passionately. The whispering waves charmed
away her sorrows, the night lost its gloom, and the
mountains about her home wished her, as it were, a
tender farewell. As she mused, at length it seemed
to her as if she, a child, were once more seated upon


the little stool before her father's velvet chair, who
stroked her long hair, laughed at her pleasantly, and
rocked back and forth in his ample Sabbath dressing-
gown of blue silk. It must have been the Sabbath,
for the flower-embroidered covering was laid on the
table. All the utensils in the room shone brightly
polished, the white-bearded servant of the congrega-
tion sat at her father's side and talked Hebrew.
Abraham too came in, as in his boyhood, bearing a
great book, and wished to expound a passage of Holy
Writ in order that his uncle might be convinced that
he had learned much the past week. The little fel-
low laid the book on the arm of the broad chair, and
gave the story of Jacob and Rachel, how Jacob had
lifted up his voice and wept aloud, when he first be-
held his cousin Rachel, how he had spoken to her
intimately at the well, how he had been obliged to
serve for Rachel seven years, how quickly they had
passed, and how he had married Rachel and had
loved her forever. Sarah remembered that her
father suddenly cried out in merry tones : " Wilt
thou not marry just so?" Whereupon the little
Abraham answered earnestly : " That will I, and she
shall wait seven years."

As the figures passed vaguely through the fancy
of the fugitive, they became strangely confused.
The Rhine seemed at length to murmur the monoto-
nous melodies of the Talmud, and the pictures she
had known in her childhood appeared to rise large
as life, and distorted. Old Abraham dashed in
pieces the forms of the idols, which grew quickly
together again ; Mt. Sinai lightened and flamed ;


King Pharaoh swam in the Red Sea, holding fast in
his teeth his crown of gold with its points ; frogs
with human countenances swam behind, the waves
foamed and roared, and a dark, gigantic hand was
thrust threateningly forth. Coming to herself for a
moment, Sarah looked up to the mountains of the
shore, upon whose summits the lights of the castles
flickered and at whose foot the moonlit mist was
spread. Suddenly slic seemed to see there her
friends and kindred, hurrying along the Rhine full
of terror, with corpse-like faces and white, waving
shrouds. A blackness passed before her eyes, a
stream of ice was poured into her soul, and vaguely
into her half swoon came the voice of the Rabbi,
saying his evening prayer slowly and anxiously, as
by the bedside of people sick unto death. But
suddenly the gloomy curtain was drawn away.
Above the Hebrew woman appeared the holy city
of Jerusalem with its towers and gates. The Temple
shone in golden splendor ; in its court she beheld
her father, in his Sabbath attire, and with joyful
countenance. From the windows her friends and
kindred treated her joyfully ; in the Holy of Holies
knelt pious King David, with purple mantle and
sparkling crown, sending forth afar the music of
psalm and harp. Peacefully smiling at length, as if
comforted by the vision, she slept.

When she opened her eyes again upon the world,
she was almost blinded by the bright beams of the
morning sun. The lofty towers of a great city rose
close at hand, and Wilhelm, standing upright with
his boat-hook, guided the boat through a thick press


of gay-pennoned craft. " This is Niegesehenburg,"
said Abraham. " There you see the great bridge,
with its thirteen arches, and in the midst the little
cabin, where, they say, dwells a certain baptized
Jew. He acts for the Israelite congregation, and
pays to whomsoever shall bring him a dead rat six
farthings; for the Jews must deliver yearly to the
city council five thousand rat-tails." Presently they
landed, and the Rabbi conducted his wife through
the great crowd on the bank, where now, because it
was Easter, a crowd of wooden booths had been

What a various throng ! For the most part they
were trades-people, bargaining with one another
aloud, or talking to themselves while they reckoned
on their fingers ; often heavy-laden porters ran be-
hind them in a dog-trot to carry their purchases to
their warehouses. Other faces gave evidence that
only curiosity had attracted them. The stout city
councillor could be recognized by his red cloak and
golden neck-chain ; the iron-spiked helmet, the yel-
low leather doublet, and the clinking spurs announced
the man-at-arms. Under the black-velvet cap, which
came together in a point on the forehead, a rosy
girl's face was concealed, and the young fellows who
followed her appeared like fops, with their plumed
caps, their peaked shoes, and their silken parti-col-
ored dress. In this the right side was green, and
the left side red ; or on one side streaked rainbow-like,
the other checkered, so that the foolish fellows
looked as if they were split in the middle. Drawn
on by the crowd, the Rabbi, with his wife, reached


the great market-place of the town, surrounded by
high-gabled houses, chief among them the great
Rath-haus. In this building the emperors of Ger-
many had been sometimes entertained, and knightly
spores were often held before it. King Maximilian,
who loved such things passionately, was then present
in the city, and the day before, in his honor, a great
tournament had taken place before the Rath-haus.
About the lists which the carpenters were now
taking away many idlers were standing, telling one
another how yesterday the Duke of Brunswick and
the Margrave of Brandenburg had charged against
each other amid the sound of trumpets and drums;
and how Sir Walter had thrust the Knight of the
Bear so violently out of the saddle that the splinters
of his lance flew into the air, the tall, fair King
Max standing meanwhile among his courtiers on the
balcony, and rubbing his hands with joy. The cov-
ering of golden material still lay upon the balcony
and in the arched windows of the Rath-haus; the
rest of the houses of the market-place were still in
festal dress.

What a crowd of every station and age were
assembled here ! People laughed, rejoiced, played
practical jokes. Sometimes the trumpet of the
mountebank pealed sharply, who, in a red cloak,
with his clown and ape, stood on a lofty scaffold,
proclaimed aloud his own skill, and praised his mi-
raculous tinctures and salves. Two fencing-masters,
swinging their rapiers, with ribbons fluttering, met
here as if by chance, and thrust at one another in
apparent anger ; after a long battle, each declared


the Other invincible, and collected a few pennies.
With drum and fife, the newly-constituted guilds of

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Online LibraryJames Kendall HosmerThe Jews, ancient, mediæval, and modern → online text (page 11 of 23)