Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: Jewish Tangier and Avignon: 19th Century

Jozef Israels, the famous Dutch Jewish artist (born in Groningen, 1824; died at The Hague, 1911), was known to his friends for his personal qualities of humility and compassion. These traits, evident in his paintings, are also present in his writings, which he began when he was already an old man, and which include an essay on Rembrandt and one on Goethe as a draftsman. His full-length travel book, Spanje, published in 1899, describes a lengthy trip he took (when he was in his seventies) through Spain, Northern Morocco, and Southern France, in the company of his son Isaac, himself a painter of merit, and Frans Erens, a young man of letters. Israels studied for the rabbinate in his youth, which accounts for his knowledge of Hebrew.

Israels visited cathedrals, mosques, palaces, and slums; he even attended a bull fight. By now there were not many Jews in Spain, but at every turn the traveler found vestiges of their Golden Age on the Iberian peninsula. In the cathedral of Valencia he made his son help a little acolyte lift a heavy brass-bound book and move an enormous copper holy-water basin, and recalling this episode, he commented: “In this way a son of the Chosen People helped to set the Catholic Church in order; and as I watched these two lads, I thought how absurd it was that people should be so hostile towards each other over the service of a Being of whom we mortals know so little.”

An English translation of the book by Alexander de Texeira de Mattos, with illustrations by the author, was published in London in 1900. The excerpts below are taken from two chapters of this translation: “An African Landscape” and “Departure from Spain.” The first, on Morocco, is headed by a fine impressionist pencil sketch of a Hebrew scribe whom Israels met in Tangier, and it was this sketch that served as a memo for the celebrated oil now in the Museum of Modern Art at the Hague. The second excerpt takes us to the old section of Avignon, in Southern France.

Alfred Werner

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Scribe of Tangier

. . . My Curiosity was ever aroused to know what the dwellings here, those great, square stone blocks, looked like inside. I was always told that it was dangerous, that there was nothing to see, and that, if there were, knowing the strange manners of the inhabitants, I could not get to see anything. One morning I was walking by myself, armed with my stick, to keep my balance on the slippery and uneven streets, when I saw a porch or gate-way, within which a woman was engaged in drawing water from a well. I waited a moment, and when she was gone I entered and saw a high, dark space, in which stood a great stone well, just as we see it represented in pictures of Rachel and Leah. High above the well was a wheel, from which hung ropes and an iron hook; all looked old and weather-beaten, but it seems that such things are able to enjoy a particularly long life in these regions. I looked around me, and perceived, in a dark corner, a stone staircase, obviously leading to the apartments of the inhabitants of this sombre dwelling. Instinctively my curiosity drove me up these stairs. It was exceedingly dark, but when I had climbed a little above the well, the steps were faintly lighted from a small opening, apparently in the roof. I heard something come shuffling downstairs, but could not see what it was, owing to the spiral form of the staircase; as I mounted, however, I met a female figure descending—a tall slender woman, carrying a large pitcher.

When she caught sight of me, she turned her face to the wall, quickly pulled the veil hanging from her head over her eyes, and hurried down the stairs and out of the gate. It was just as though a vision had suddenly passed by me in that dark environment. I climbed still higher, until I reached the top of the stair, where I saw a curtain which moved to and fro; through its center opening involuntarily I was able to see and to be seen. I stood there and dared not go further, not knowing what might befall me if I entered; but as I stood hesitating I heard, with great emotion, a voice cry, “Ma mewakschego?” in Hebrew, which I understand: it was a deep man’s voice asking:

What do you seek here?

Thereupon I entered, and said in my turn:

Salom adonai salom allichem. Onoughi Jehudi me eerets Hollande. [Shalom adoni skalom aleichem. Anochi Yehudi me'eretz Hollande: Greetings, sir, peace be with you. I am a Jew from Holland.]

“Eerets Hollande,” said the man. “Where is that? what does that mean?”

I endeavoured as best I could, for I am not at all strong in Hebrew, to enlighten the man. . . . But I must tell you what I saw and what manner of man it was. I had entered a dark room, lighted by a narrow, oblong, horizontal little window, by which I mean a cutout aperture, which was closed at night or in bad weather with a shutter. The light cut sharply through this square and outlined itself upon the stone floor. Pushed close to this aperture stood a long work-table supported by trestles, and over it lay a great roll of parchment, which covered nearly the whole width of the table, and hung down below. Behind the table sat the Jewish scribe, leaning forwards with his arms upon the parchment, and turned his majestic head where I stood. The head seemed much too large for the body, which was obscured by the shadow behind and beneath the low table. It was a splendid head, with a fine, transparent pallor like alabaster, and wrinkles large and small ran around the small eyes and the great hooked nose. A little black cap covered the white skull, and a long yellowish-white beard lay spread in great flakes over the parchment document. He sat in a sort of arm-chair without a back, and a pair of crutches lay slanting from the chair down to the ground. How gladly I would have produced my sketch-book, and drawn that noble head with the beard, which formed one whiteness with the parchment and the light from the window, contained amid the gloom of this sombre apartment; but I lacked the courage in face of the scribe’s fixed glance. He proudly displayed to me the beauty of his manuscript, the excellence of the capital letters, and the evenness of the whole, all written without ruled lines. He took up his great goose-quill in a grand manner, dipped it into the black bottle that stood beside him, and showed me how he wrote. After I had assured him of my admiration, he asked me to hand him his crutches, and limped with me to the open, flat roof, which was on the same level as his room. Here lay mats, upon which he lowered himself and requested me to be seated. Together we enjoyed the panorama of Tangier, which lay spread out below us, with the hills and the sea in the distance. As I sat with this strange land before my eyes, next to this long-bearded old man, reclining upon the mats of this flat roof in Morocco, I had a feeling as though I were living in a world of which I had dreamt. When I rose to depart, the old man laid his hands upon my head, and with a “Jeworechecho adonai wejismerecho” [the Lord bless and protect you] we took our leave of one another.

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Place Jerusalem, Avignon

The town contains a district which may be called the business part: here the markets are held and the exchange. But here again you have a large Monastery of Saint Eutropius, and a little further a Convent of the Blessed Sacrament, a Pius Square, a Chapel of the White Penitents, a monastery dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. And amid all this we came to a little square called the Place Jérusalem.

I saw a small low building, decorated with a Hebrew inscription: that was the synagogue. Here too, I thought, they have found a refuge, my heavily-tried kinsmen; among all these institutions of the Gentiles live members of the Chosen People. The place appeared to contain many Jews; I know their gestures and movements and their unmistakable features. But one of them, too, seemed to recognize in me a brother; at least he came up to me and asked if I was not one of them, and where I came from. He saw that we were strangers. Perhaps he thought we needed the assistance of the community, for our clothes looked none too new. He compassionately offered to take me to the president of his congregation. I answered that he was not mistaken, but that for the present I was not in need of aid. I looked at him earnestly, and it was clear to me that he was a Russian Jew; his coarse, brown beard hung over a well-worn sort of gaberdine, and his bent head, with its deep wrinkles, was covered with a fur cap.

“How do you come here?” I asked. “You are not a Frenchman.”

“The Lord, His Name be praised,” he replied, “has driven me far from my home. I was a well-to-do manufacturer at—” (he mentioned the name of a place in Russia which I have forgotten), “but I lost my all in a fire. I found myself thrown on the streets with my wife and five children, and nothing besides the clothes on our backs; and though my neighbours helped me in every way, the Government will not permit a Jew to be poor. I was driven from place to place, I wandered and begged of our brothers, and as I am a tanner by trade, I at last found work here. There are many factories here, and the French are . . . kind to people in distress.”

I asked if he felt at home here and was able to live according to his liking.

“Ah, that I should be so great a sinner!” he answered plaintively. “No, we do not live here as true believers. There is no dwelling here for us awaiting the Messiah, no life for those who should live according to the Law. Where can I have unleavened bread baked for the Passover? Where can I keep the Feast of Tabernacles? The worst of it is that my children do not keep up their religion. They are not taught a word of Hebrew, and I fear, I fear, that they will cease to value their origin.”

I comforted the old man to the best of my power, and his fervent prayer for my safe return home sounded sadly in my ears. . . .

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