Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: Young Artist's Rosh Hashanah: Rome, 1821

Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800-1882), the first German Jewish artist of note, was born in the Judengasse at Hanau, a small town near Frankfort on the Main, where he attended a Talmud Torah. Later, after the granting of full civil rights to Jews in the Grand Duchy of Frankfort in 1811, he studied at the Gymnasium and then in the Art Institute of Frankfort. In 1817 he entered the Munich Academy of Arts, and in 1820 went to Paris to be the pupil of Jean-Baptiste Regnault. The following year he left for Rome, and he stayed in Italy for four years. There, under the influence of the fashionable school of “Nazarenes,” he painted scenes of the Old and the New Testament.

Oppenheim became famous for his charming series on middle-class German Jewry, Bilder aus dem altjuedischen Familienlehen. While meticulously painted, these are superior to other genre paintings of the period because Oppenheim never permitted detail to detract from the solidity of form. Originally oil in full colors, the series was repeated by him in gray gouache (grisailles) to facilitate photographic reproduction. The album of reproductions went into many editions. But Oppenheim was, above all, an excellent portraitist, as may be seen in the paintings he did of Boerne, Heine, Gabriel Riesser, and various members of the Rothschild family.

At eighty Oppenheim wrote his memoirs. The slender volume with the simple title Erinnerungen was published only in 1924. The chapter below which I have translated deals with the young artist’s impressions of Rome.

Alfred Werner

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We traveled day and night without interruption, changing horses frequently, and only after eight days came to a halt and went to bed, for the first time, at Florence; several days later we glimpsed St. Peter’s in Rome. My beloved parents imagined I was still in Florence, and I wanted to surprise them with a letter from Rome.

I had often been told that a painter must have been to Rome; but it was not any deep, genuine love of art that drove me there. Anyway, I knew only one person in this great city: a schoolmate and fellow artist, Christian Haag, no genius, but a friend and comrade very dear to me, and I was looking forward to finding him there. My thoughts were occupied en route with picturing his surprise over my arrival; . . . Lo, when we were already quite close to Rome, a carriage passed us by in which sat someone who called to us to stop, someone who had recognized our courier. This courier, also a friend of the traveler passing us, was not a little astonished to find that it was not he but I who was embraced. It was Haag himself. “Where to, my dear Haag?” “To Germany!” “Why?” “Because I haven’t the money to remain in Rome.” I offered to share my money with him, but could not persuade him to turn back. . . .

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And so I entered Rome in a rather disgruntled mood. I now felt myself to be quite alone in this world so alien to me. It was only natural, as the time for the Jewish High Holidays drew near, that I should yearn rather for the Ghetto, for all those religious ceremonies so familiar to me from my parents’ home, than the Vatican. . . .

One Friday night I visited the Ghetto for the first time; people had just come out of the synagogue, and were lingering on the square in front of it, chatting in groups. A distinguished and learned Jew from Paris had given me an introduction to one of the richest and most cultivated Jews in Rome, Signor Uzielli. I inquired of one of the Jews standing there where this gentleman lived; instead of giving me the information, he asked: “What do you want with Signor Uzielli?” and when I replied that this could hardly concern him, he shrugged his shoulders and walked on. I turned to another person with the question, “Where does Signor Uzielli live?” and again received, as I had from the first, the counter-question about my business with this gentleman; and so everyone I approached with the request for information about Signor Uzielli’s whereabouts asked me what I wanted with him, until I finally shouted, in anger: “Where am I, in Sodom?”

This word must have sounded Hebrew to them, for I was abruptly asked: “Are you by any chance a Jew?” And when I replied, “Certainly I’m a Jew!” I suddenly had, not one, but a whole crowd of guides leading me to the home of Signor Uzielli. On the way I was enlightened as to the reason for their earlier behavior: Signor Uzielli, as is well known, conducts no business on Friday evening; a Christian asking for him might have evil designs against him; for instance, he might later claim that he had, during the visit, baptized one of the children, and afterwards the child would be sure to be taken away; something similar had happened to a family only recently, so that the parents had chosen to kill the child by means of alcoholic spirits rather than surrender him to the priest. I realized the possible truth of these tales, and any doubts I had vanished when I entered this rich Roman Jew’s residence, which from the outside appeared very poor and neglected; for no sooner had I opened the door than the woman (the man was not at home) chased all the small children into an adjoining room; but she was soon reassured by my companions, who said to her: “è un jehudi.” This first encounter with my Roman coreligionists was not very encouraging, and led me to expect that I would have but few intimate friends, and little joy, in the Ghetto. . . .

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The Café Greco, on the Via Condotti, was, and still is, the rendezvous of artists of every nationality who are sojourning in Rome. Half a century later I found old colleagues there still taking their glass of caffè latte as they had every morning for fifty years. Opposite this coffee house was the then equally popular Restaurant Lepré. where the rich as well as the less privileged ate their noon meal. The dinner, including a small bottle (foglietta) of wine, cost from 15 to 18 bajocchi (soldi) and was as a rule excellent; and I made the acquaintance there of many artists. . . .

Yet at the approach of the Jewish High Holidays, New Year’s Day and the Day of Atonement, a host of pious and reverent memories of my beloved parental home reawakened in me, and I felt rather sad at heart to have no Jewish table. At that time there was in the whole Ghetto not a single Jewish restaurant. So I earnestly begged of Signor Uzielli to find me an Israelite family, thoroughly respectable even if not rich, whom I would pay well in return for a kosher table during the holidays. I then took to going frequently to the Ghetto, usually on Saturdays, to inquire of Signor Uzielli whether he had done anything about my request. Each time he informed me that he had gone to great pains, but had so far not succeeded in finding what I wanted. The last Saturday before the holiday, I told that gentleman once more how very unhappy I would be to have to spend the coming New Year’s eve alone in a Christian tavern; he soothed me by promising that he would make every effort once again. . . .

New Year’s eve came, and I went to the synagogue. Signor Uzielli was kind enough to invite me—not for a meal, but to stand beside him in the shul; and he told me then that despite all his efforts, he could find no one who would give me kosher food for my money. I was very grieved, overcome this evening by an especially strong yearning for home. And I took no trouble to conceal from Signor Uzielli the vehemence of my grief, if only to test how far his inhospitality could go. It was of no avail; he let me depart, assuring me . . . of his sincere sympathy.

That evening I did not go to a tavern; a cup of chocolate made my whole supper, and I thought of my beloved parents in the familiar relaxed atmosphere at home, and of the rudeness of my coreligionists here in this strange country. . . .

The morning of New Year’s Day I was again in the synagogue by the side of Signor Uzielli; after the service I wanted to leave, but he detained me, and asked me to go home with him and—imagine my surprise!—take breakfast and lunch with him and be his guest until someone was found who would board me. In the face of this unexpected kindness I made bold to ask why he had not invited me the evening before, which I had spent alone and sad; he then confessed that he had intended to, but his wife had refused to consent because her pièce de résistance had turned out a failure in the kitchen that afternoon.

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After a time a Jewish family by the name of Rocas was found—they appeared formerly to have been wealthy—willing to serve me a meager midday meal at a high price (a half scudo). In addition to the fact that my lodgings were a good way from the Ghetto, the non-Jewish food in congenial company and a friendly atmosphere tasted much better to me; and besides, it came to less than a fourth of the cost. Nevertheless, I went twice a week, usually on Friday nights and Saturdays, to the Rocases’—especially since I noticed how much they depended on the small income.

At the Rocases’ on Friday evenings I used to meet a no longer young man by the name of Sabbatino; he sang, whether out of piety or simply for his own pleasure, smiros (Sabbath songs). He was single, and he supported himself like so many other Jews in Rome, who wander through the streets carrying a burlap sack on their backs and crying: “Roba vecchia!”—dealers in old clothes. One evening this Sabbatino failed to show up. When I asked for him I was amazed to learn that he had been arrested for some crime, and locked up in the Catacumene; this is the place where Jews and heathens are indoctrinated with Christian dogma until such time as they are judged to be ripe for baptism. It was Christmas, and poor Sabbatino was indoctrinated and kept immured until Easter, at which time the custom is for the convert to be baptized in the Constant Chapel. I witnessed the ceremony. Sabbatino, who a short time before was singing smiros, appeared in cowl and tonsured head and received baptism. His crime had been that he had had forbidden intercourse with his Christian laundress and, according to her testimony, had promised to marry her. He never came to the Ghetto again; nor did I learn what finally became of him.

Incidentally, I was completely at my ease with the Rocases. These good people demonstrated their friendship for me, and so did other Jewish acquaintances of mine, particularly Uzielli’s brother-in-law, Signor de Castro-Martignani, who was very sympathetic to me in my loneliness. I especially needed such sympathy at the time: the Rabbi of Rome had received word of the death of my never-to-be-forgotten, beloved mother, and my friends who brought me the terrible news broke it to me as gently as possible. I told my Christian landlady that I was going to the country to recover; actually I went to the Ghetto, where I lodged with the Rocases. But my presence in Rome was betrayed to my landlady—as luck would have it, her gentleman friend (cavaliere servante) saw me at a Jewish funeral. It was an important funeral, and I had gone out of curiosity and interest in the various ceremonies connected with it. The procession took place at night by torchlight. There is a widespread superstition among the people of Rome that if a Christian dashes under a coffin containing a Jewish corpse the procession must turn back; thus there is great fear of some mischief, and many precautions are taken.

I was much too far away from the Ghetto to perform my religious duty properly and say kaddish daily. But I did say kaddish for the first seven days after I heard the news of my dear mother’s passing; I slept over in the Rocas home, where everyone was warmly sympathetic. Their house, a rundown shack, was described to me by Signora Rocas as having been magnificent at the time of her marriage, “one that would knock your eyes out” (che colpa d’occhio), she said.

I loved my dear, pious mother with an infinite love, in the true sense of the word; even now, after more than a half century, there are moments when, thinking about her, I can scarcely hold back my tears. She was dead now, and Rome and the world seemed empty. I wanted to preserve her beloved features, to picture her as the fervent, loving mother (in the painting “Departure of the Young Tobias”). But I shed so many tears as I worked that I failed in my execution of the sketch. . . .

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