This One’s a Kippah: New York’s Idiosyncratic Jewish Renewal

An auction of Judaica and passionate recitation of Yiddish poetry

mishneh torah

The Mishneh Torah

There is a Jewish renewal in our lives, and two idiosyncratic instances occurred right here in this city in recent days.

The first was a Sotheby’s auction of the 386-item Judaica collection painstakingly assembled over the years by Michael and Judy Steinhardt, probably the most imaginative Jewish philanthropists of the age. Now, a sell-off is not exactly a beginning. But since money is some indication of value, the event was a magnificent happening. It actually started before the first lot went on the block. Somebody or somebodies (perhaps the Steinhardts themselves) acquired the most singular item in the catalog jointly for the Israel Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was an astonishing manuscript copy of the Mishneh Torah, the first systematic code of Jewish law, assembled and edited by Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon or the Rambam) and breathtakingly illuminated by a painter from 15th-century Italy, one of the plentitude of Jewish figurative artists in history. This particular instance of the Mishneh Torah came in two volumes, the first of which is possessed by the Vatican, and the second is this one, now to be shared between Jerusalem and New York. The Steinhardt edition deals with property law, law courts, injuries, etc. Yes, Jewish law deals with matters of real life.

The New York Times didn’t quite get what the book was about and also missed that it is the literary and scholarly work of Maimonides, whose name appeared nowhere in the article. Maybe the reporter, Carol Vogel, doubtless Jewish, hadn’t heard of Maimonides except in relation to the hospital in Brooklyn. The Times gets most things about the Jews wrong. So why not this? Here were hundreds of pieces of (mostly) exquisite Judaica going through the life cycle and the holy days, ritual objects from the fourth century C.E. through 17 centuries to a gold Torah crown made in Israel 50 years ago, and other historic items of family and the Jewish people. Maybe you can still get the catalog from Sotheby’s.

There were as many as 25 Sotheby’s staffers on the phones, fielding the bids from people who don’t come to auctions in person. (Most of the really big prices at the Sotheby’s Impressionist auction last week came from such bidders.) Before the hammer came down on the first item in the Steinhardt collection, I looked around only to notice a number of snazzy socialites and other ordinarily dressed males and females, some speaking French, others Spanish, still others Hebrew, at least one couple conversing in German. There were no Asians, who had made the weeks before so rich for Christie’s and Sotheby’s. But the crowd was rich enough. There were also perhaps a hundred men with skullcaps and kapotehs (frock coats) and tzitzis (string fringes), usually worn by Hassidim, of whom there were maybe two dozen, an odd lot, but apparently a seasoned lot. They were bidding aggressively, some on the phone, getting their instructions from on high.

But the real sight was the collection itself, which I’d seen twice on exhibit in the week before the auction. The most popular category was

This Italian Torah crown sold for $857,000.

This Italian Torah crown sold for $857,000.

the Hanukkah lamp, of which there were 56, proving once and for all that this was not an insignificant festival in the life of the Jews. All made by craftsmen, whether candelabras or little lamps, grand or finicky, their diversity tells you about economic class, surrounding culture, his toric circumstance, variety of artistic styles, availability of material—all the stuff about which scholars now write. Not surprisingly, there were 42 tzedakah, or charity, boxes, a testament to the deeply rooted Jewish obligation and loyalty to philanthropy.

Whether jewel-bedecked or made of plain wood, the items in this truly diverse collection testify to the flourishing artistic instincts of the Jews. Tin, brass, glass, textiles, silver, gold, enamel, iron, bronze, items both exquisite and plain from all the lands of the dispersion, all of Europe, deep into Asia, the Arab Middle East and also Africa—the places of exile and the place of the Return.

Jerusalem, which is the capital of the Return, provided perhaps the most exciting moment of the auction. On the block was “an elaborate embroidered sabbath tablecloth, Jerusalem, 1821.” It was estimated to sell for anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000. I don’t know what was meant by “elaborate.” I found it rather plain. But it juiced the crowd, on the phone and off. Scholarship tells us that there are only nine of the type and that this is the first of the genre. Moreover, alone among the nine, it was signed by its maker. Back and forth thee bidding went, between I think three people at the end, then two. Then one (in the room) … at $137,000. The auctioneer said to the winner: “I hope you use this every Friday,” which surely he or she will not.

I, too, bid on some items, one of which (a golden Yemenite woman’s headdress) ran away from my top price. But I succeeded in acquiring three. The first was a kippah that was estimated to sell for between $3,000 and $5,000. I am paying $8,750. Imagine almost $9,000 for a skullcap, even one with gold applique, beads and sequins, lined in leather. Made in Poland nearly two centuries ago, it was on the model of what Jewish men wore at prayer in Spain until the Expusion. I also bought a brilliantly colored talles from Yemen (early 20th century) for $2,000, not bad. Add to this an etching of “David the Harpist” by E.M. Lilien for $4,000. Lilien comes directly out of the pre-Raphaelite tradition of Burne-Jones, Rossetti and Beardsley and the Art Nouveau line of Klimt, Gaudí, Muscha, Whistler, Tiffany, even Josef Hoffmann. Lilien’s androgynous sexuality in imagery was more than once extended to Herzl: Herzl as the young boy David.

etching This Ones a Kippah: New Yorks Idiosyncratic Jewish Renewal

“David the Harpist,” by E.M. Lilien, sold for $4,000.

A great collection has been dissolved. It will now go into other collections, big and small. No one takes their art, even the art of the religious life, with them into the grave.

And speaking of the grave brings us to our second instance of religious revival. We had long assumed that Yiddish was already there. Some 75 years ago, Yiddish was the language of 75 percent of the Jewish world. Its literature compares with any other modern literature, and it’s not just Peretz, Sholem Aleichem and Mendele, the three 19th-century masters. My most cherished Yiddish writer is Chaim Grade, who wrote novels (and poetry) of daunting literary imagination, exhausting emotion, taxing logic. His literary estate has now come to YIVO and the Jewish National Library in Israel, a fitting partnership. It will be, I am told, an epiphany. And one thing I already know: in Grade’s lifelong literary struggle with Isaac Bashevis Singer, the little-known figure has already won.

Evgeny Kissin, the miraculous 41-year-old pianist who was born and trained in Russia, had a stint of concertizing in New York. If you can get a ticket to his Carnegie Hall performance (this coming Sunday, with James Levine back at the Met’s baton), you are luckier or richer than I. In any case, I had a Kissin experience that I will never forget. No, he didn’t play Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Beethoven, Chopin or Tchaikovsky, and I have heard him play them before. He was at YIVO, that gem of a Jewish institution, founded in Vilinus (Grade’s hometown; Napoleon called it “the Jerusalem of the North”) in the ’20s to maintain and extend the sobriety and riches of a culture that was always under threat. Hitler almost killed it, and he succeeded in murdering more than half that culture’s lovers and practitioners. But the field is still being plowed, not least by Mr. Kissin himself.

Evgeny Kissin reciting poetry.

Evgeny Kissin reciting poetry.

He recited nine Yiddish poems, from memory and from the heart, a few of them by Soviet Jewish writers—one of them, Itsik Fefer, who betrayed the rest to the secret police. Yet, Fefer had written, “Even in ashes, Yiddish is fire …” All the poems were poems about Yiddish, a kaddish, some of them. Each poem that Mr. Kissin intoned is a position in an argument:

 

Binem Heller:

In the wonderful language of the Jews

The answer is found in the question itself.

 

Melekh Ravitsh:

I belong to the unlearned

I cannot write the fancy Holy Tongue

I speak the ordinary language

Of the ordinary folk …

… I am the poet of the unlearned.

 

And the great Yiddish poet Yankev Glatshteyn, who late in life was an American:

O, let me approach the joy of the Yiddish word.

Give me entire, full days and night

Knot me, weave me

Take all vanities off me

Feed me by crows, give me crumbs

A roof filled with holes and a bad bed.

But give me entire, full days and nights

Do not let forget the Yiddish word

Even for a moment.

 

Evgeny Kissin’s homage:

My grandparents died

Later, we sold the dacha

But a little Yiddish survived

In my memory and soul

and for me: not mother-, but

grandmother tongue

So why does it resound again and again …

Obstinate through time, it bursts forth

And a new story begins.

 

The “not mother-, but grandmother tongue” line is a brilliant and, alas, devastating insight.

The full auditorium was hushed, the audience not knowing whether to clap or to cry. The young American college kids and graduate students, the fancy folk and the people from the boroughs, the Russian émigrés, the old Yiddishists, the people who thought that Mr. Kissin was giving a concert and that the sponsors were providing a good meal. This is YIVO, very much alive and almost fully well. One thing was certain that night: the Jewish past has a future.

 

Marty Peretz is the former editor in chief of The New Republic.