The Days of Remembrance. The Days of Awe. As we involve ourselves in the New Year’s contemplations, I feel privileged and somewhat awestruck to have just retuned from a trip to Paris where it seemed I ran into remembrances of our Jewish past at almost every turn.
Some were from this century, like the brass plaques posted on every elementary and middle school in the district in which I was staying, memorializing the children deported from their schools and homes in 1940s to be executed by the Nazis: 1,200 children alone from the 11th arrondissement (neighborhood) of Paris. And the agonized steel figures entwined in a statue from 1948 in the Luxembourg Gardens, in memory of students of the Resistance in France during the war, with an inscription that said: “As you fall, a friend will rise in your place.” Or, as I passed by one of the ubiquitous bookstores near the Paris Pantheon, being stopped in my tracks by a huge tome whose title cried out, “Image et Tradition Juive” (Jewish Images and Traditions), a book of a thousand postcard images from 1897 to 1917 depicting Jewish life in a dozen countries. In myriad snapshots, the book reveals our history during those 20 years, from photos of the Grand Synagogue in Berlin which could hold 1,000 people (and has just recently been restored after its destruction during WWII!) to derisive anti-Semitic scenes from Western Europe, to images of beautiful Greek and Turkish Jewesses dressed and veiled as we see Muslim women today.
Since I had to have the book, I bargained with the elderly but wily bookseller who sized me up as passionate enough to impart a deal upon, and carried the precious tome through many train stations and airports to have in hand with me now.
Some photos were from centuries so far in the past I was dumbstruck at being confronted with dates like “5041” on gravestones carved in Hebrew, excavated recently in the Provence region of France on display at in the Museum of Jewish Art and History. The museum is a jewel of fabulously well-preserved artifacts from all facets of our past, particularly the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The most striking impression it gives overall is how the Torah’s guidance has been interpreted and re-interpreted by the different caches of Jews all over Eastern and Western Europe, through seven centuries of our collective history, as well as tactile, perfectly preserved objects used in times when we thrived in Spain, Italy, Greece, North Africa, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, even Scandinavia.
Some bits from this “recent” historical period: In 15th-century Italy, circumcision was performed by a mohel, but the ceremony included a beautifully carved and upholstered armchair placed high on a wall overlooking the proceedings. The chair was not to be occupied, but presumably to represent the presence of God, or perhaps the high position the child assumed in the family as a newborn boy.
The mohel sat opposite in another such chair, with the baby on his lap while the father davened, the minyan also prayed, and the women sat against the wall opposite the glorious empty chair. Afterward, a great feast was served — a lovely tradition we still enjoy.
Another bit of history is that during a break in the Polish pogroms in the late 19th century, Jew successfully petitioned the king to be able to build synagogue complexes designed as fortresses with the house of worship in the most-protected center in case of attack by the surrounding villagers or roving mobs.
The scale models and grainy photos depict imposing, pragmatic structures with few windows, grand sloping roofs and thick walls, nothing like the great domed city synagogues reaching to the sky, as was the Western European urban tradition of the day.
And perhaps the most impressive and heart-wrenching bit: Jews were the first to begin printing with presses in Renaissance Spain, printing siddurim in Hebrew block letters for the use of the community. But their prominence was short-lived — the Jewish printing press, which was successfully printing by 1487, was shut down in 1492 when, as Columbus was setting foot on American shores, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled all Jews from Spain on pain of death, beginning the second Diaspora and continuing the Inquisition. Printing was not seen again in Spain for eight more years.
During my time in Paris, there was also a highly advertised exhibit at the Museum of the Middle Ages: the ubiquitous street banners depicted a huge golden crown, touting new finds in southern France of 13th-century Jewish artifacts.
Actually, the golden crown was a wonderfully ornate wedding ring with the image of the Temple in Jerusalem as its ornament and the words “mazel tov” in Hebrew embossed on the roof. In the 14th century, a husband commonly gave these rings to his wife during the marriage ceremony, to be displayed but not often worn.
That recent excavations have revealed three such rings and many dozens of coins from many countries of the same era indicates the presence of thriving Jewish merchant communities in the south of France much earlier than had previously been thought. Presumably, the wealth was buried when the community was threatened during the years of (and following) the Black Plague when the Jews were blamed for the presence of the horrible blight.
For the New Year, in memory of our ancestors from the past millennium, here is a recipe for apple fritters from 14th-century France to accompany a savory meat or poultry dish, perhaps for the meal before the fast:
4 pie apples (Granny Smith, Fuji, Braeburn, Gala, etc.)
1 qt. chicken or meat stock, broth or bouillon
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. saffron
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. ground sage or 1/2 tsp. dried, ground oregano
1 cup flour
1 cup vegetable oil or margarine, or a combination for frying the fritters
Slice the apples thin. Bring the stock to a simmer and cook the apples in it for 3 to 5 minutes, just until the skins loosen. (Work in two batches if you can’t cover all the apples with the stock). Remove and drain the apples and pull off the skins.
Mix the flour, salt and all the spices. Put the oil or oil and margarine in a frying pan or skillet to a depth of about 1/2 inch and heat till a cube of bread browns to golden on all sides in one minute. Dredge the apple slices individually in the flour mixture and fry till golden on both sides. Keep warm and serve with meat or poultry.
Serves 6 to 8
(From Cooking in Europe, 1250 to 1650 by Ken Albala, Greenwood Press, 2006. Re-wording mine.)