The six-pointed star known as the Magen David or Shield of David, which is now emblazoned on the flag of…
The six-pointed Shield of David, now inscribed on the flag of Israel, is universally accepted as the Jewish symbol par excellence; and it is commonly assumed that the Magen David’s special significance reaches back to remote antiquity, and enshrines some deep, traditionally hallowed, religious or historical meaning. Gershom Scholem, one of the great Jewish scholars of our time, here traces the obscure story of the Magen David through its long and curious career, and reveals that the true story of the symbol is quite different from that asserted by most accepted “authorities.”
The six-pointed star known as the Magen David or Shield of David, which is now emblazoned on the flag of the State of Israel, is from every point of view a cause for astonishment. Where did the symbol originate, and what is its true meaning? In the scholarly literature, as well as the popular, truth and fantasy are mingled. Writers on the subject confuse the authentic tradition of the symbol, which they do not understand very well, with their own speculations, some of which are very far-fetched indeed: in sum, each man interprets the Magen David as he pleases.
One commentator says: this is the symbol of Judaism, of the religious and intellectual universe of monotheism. Another says: it is the pure symbol of the Jewish national community. Some say: it is the symbol of the wars of the Kings of the House of David, while still others say: it is the symbol of eternal harmony and peace, the unification of opposites and their subordination to the principle of unity. What is common to all these interpretations is that their daring is matched only by their ineptness.
The Shield of David is indeed a wondrous symbol, stimulating the intellect and arousing the passion for speculation. And whose heart is not stirred to illuminate the dark depths, each man according to the latest encyclopedia at his disposal? Blessed be He Who succors the poor. Who has shown us wonders by His grace, and has not locked the gates of pious homiletics.
What is the true history of this Shield of David in the Jewish tradition?
Does it have its roots in the Jewish tradition at all? Has it always been accepted among wide or narrow circles as the symbol of Judaism, or at least as a specifically Jewish symbol? And if not, when did it begin to serve this function, and through what causes? In trying to answer these questions, a distinction must be made between the appearance of the emblem itself—the two crossed triangles in the shape of a six-pointed star—and the history of the name, “Shield of David,” by which it is now known; for the name and the symbol were not originally linked together.
Actually the six-pointed star is not a Jewish symbol; a fortiori it could not be “the symbol of Judaism.” It has none of the criteria that mark the nature and development of the true symbol. It does not express any “idea,” it does not arouse ancient associations rooted in our experiences, and it is not a shorthand representation of an entire spiritual reality, understood immediately by the observer. It does not remind us of anything in Biblical or in rabbinic Judaism. Indeed, until the middle of the 19th century, it did not occur to any scholar or Cabalist to inquire into the secret of its Jewish meaning, and it is not mentioned in the books of the devout or in all of Hasidic literature. If it was once related to the emotions of the devout Jew, that relation was entirely founded on a sentiment of fear.
The two-triangle star is to be found among many peoples, both as decoration and as a magical sign, although it seems to be younger than its companion, the pentagram or five-pointed star. Its occasional appearance as a decoration gives it no claim to be a “Jewish” symbol; and even as a simple decoration it is only rarely found among our antiquities. It appears among the motifs that served to decorate ancient buildings, including the synagogue of Capernaum (2nd or 3rd century CE), but in the same synagogue the swastika is found side by side with it, and certainly no one will contend that this makes the swastika a Jewish symbol. The six-pointed star has been discovered on an ancient Hebrew (or Phoenician) seal, but together with other signs and figures, none of which can be considered a Jewish religious symbol. It is not to be found at all in medieval synagogues or on medieval ceremonial objects, although it has been found in quite a number of medieval Christian churches—again, not as a Christian symbol but only as a decorative motif. The appearance of the symbol in Christian churches long before its appearance in our synagogues should warn the overzealous interpreters. We can easily understand Jacob Reifman, one of the great scholars of the Enlightenment, who seventy-five years ago cried out against the Shield of David as “‘slips of a stranger’ in Israel’s vineyard,” recalling the verse: “They mingled themselves with the nations and learned their works.”
Even on ancient tombstones the six-pointed star is not to be found before the 17th century, and then only in Prague. An exception is one tombstone in Taranto, in the South of Italy, on which is engraved the six-pointed star near the name of the departed, “Leon son of David”; the figure is placed just before “David,” but we cannot say whether this is more than a mere coincidence. It is assumed that the tombstone in question does not date from later than the 6th century. This symbol does not appear again on any other tombstone of that period, but the five-pointed star, the pentagram (which competes with the six-pointed star in the Practical Cabala too), is found on another contemporary tombstone, from Spain. The suggestion advanced by the late hacham, Moses Gaster, that Rabbi Akiba introduced the six-pointed star as a messianic symbol in Bar Kochba’s war, is entirely baseless.
And as it is with R. Akiba, so is it with the 13th-century author of the Book of Splendor (“Zohar”) and with the 16th century Cabalist, R. Isaac Luria (“the Ari”). There is no reference at all to the Shield of David in their works, let alone as a symbol of Judaism. In all the vast literature commonly known as the Lurianic writings, the figure of the Shield, but not its name, is found only once, in the context of talismans and amulets; even here, there is some doubt whether the entire chapter may not be a later addition, since it is missing from many versions.
Nevertheless the common Jewish textbooks are full of nonsense about the presumed origin of the general use of the Shield of David in the Lurianic Cabala. According to this “theory,” the diffusion of the symbol occurred in the 16th century. One author has written (and many have quoted him): “This international symbol was diffused as a peculiarly Jewish symbol only by R. Isaac Luria, who saw in it the image of the Primal Man and the world of Emanations.” Someone else has added that “the meaning of the Shield of David, as it was expounded in the Book of Splendor [which knows absolutely nothing of it!], had a very strong influence on the powerful imagination of R. Isaac Luria, who saw in this image a wonderful representation of his vision of the world.” Things like these are copied from one book to another, and it is astonishing that no one has thought it advisable to look into the Lurianic writings themselves and try to find the symbol and an explanation for it. He would discover that the idea that Luria gave the stimulus for the diffusion of the Shield of David as the symbol of Judaism is a figment of the imagination.
It may be asked: How did it happen that these scholars confused their own interpretations with those of Luria? The answer is clear, simple, and slightly comical.
These scholars write that Luria, in his Tree of Life, rules that at the Passover Seder we must arrange the plate in such a fashion that its various components should form a six-pointed star: one triangle being composed of the shankbone (zro’a), egg, and bitter herb, and the other of the horseradish, parsley, and harosset. The fact of the matter is that the Lurianic writings say something entirely different about the arrangement of the Seder plate, and there is not the slightest reference to the Shield of David: “And as for the priest, thou shalt put to thy right the zro’a, representing the Emanation of Grace; and opposite it, to the left, the egg, representing Might; and between and under them the bitter herb, representing Glory. And the harosset shall be put beneath the zro’a, representing Everlastingness; and opposite it, under the egg, the parsley, representing Majesty; and the horseradish, which is later eaten between two matzot, under the bitter herb, representing Foundation.” We see, therefore, that these six elements of the Seder are to be arranged on the plate to represent the six Cabalistic Emanations, in the form of two triangles, one under the other, and not crossed over each other; this arrangement does not even suggest the Shield of David.
But in the 19th century, when the six-pointed star began to be widely represented on nearly every religious object, “artistic” seder plates began to be made according to the modern taste, and the arrangement set down by Luria (and mentioned also in any number of Haggadas) was arbitrarily converted to the form of a six-pointed star. On older seder plates, especially those dating from the 18th century, there are entirely different decorative elements (the twelve signs of the Zodiac, the twelve tribes, etc.). The confused historians of the Shield of David associated the Lurianic teachings with the modem seder-plate design that began to be so popular in the 19th century; they concluded without further inquiry that both the arrangement and the form of the sign itself were to be attributed to the Lurianic Cabala.
Some modern scholars have even used the writings of 18th-century Christian alchemists and occultists to “reveal” the Shield of David as a symbol of harmony and peace. But there is absolutely no relation, in this matter, between these sources and the Cabalists, or any other Jewish religious group. The Shield of David has neither a Jewish religious “genealogy” nor a Jewish religious significance, either exoterically or esoterically; and it certainly had no place in the mystical world of the devout men of Israel.
The true history of the six-pointed star and its ascent to the rank of a symbol in Israel is bound up with what is called Practical Cabala, which is nothing more than Jewish magic, whose links with the theoretical doctrines of the Cabalists were always weak. Particularly, it is bound up with the use of amulets and talismans.
In this area a strong reciprocal influence was at work between the Jews and Gentiles, for nothing is more international than magic. Magic signs and designs pass from one people to another, just as “sacred” (i.e., incomprehensible) combinations of “names” wander back and forth, and frequently become corrupted in their wanderings. In general, magic signs like these were called “seals” in our literature, not only because they were frequently engraved on rings—the production of magical rings of this kind was a well defined trade, and we have textbooks in this science—but also because of the common attitude that a man “seals himself” with these signs and protects himself against the assaults of evil spirits.
Two designs, both endowed with magical meaning and power, are frequently interchanged in the literature on talismans: the six-pointed star and the five-pointed star. In practice, the transition from one to the other was very easy, and the investigator of amulets will frequently find that where one uses the five-pointed star, another uses the six-pointed star. In the beginning these designs had no special names or terms, and it is only in the Middle Ages that definite names began to be given to some of those most widely used. There is very little doubt that terms like these first became popular among the Arabs, who showed a tremendous interest in all the occult sciences, arranging and ordering them systematically long before the Practical Cabalists thought of doing so.
It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that for a long time both the five-pointed and the six-pointed stars were called by one name, the “Seal of Solomon,” and that no distinction was made between them. This name is obviously related to the Jewish legend of Solomon’s dominion over the spirits, and of his ring with the Ineffable Name engraved on it. These legends expanded and proliferated in a marked fashion during the Middle Ages, among Jews and Arabs alike, but the name, “Seal of Solomon,” apparently originated with the Arabs. This term they did not apply to any one design exclusively; they applied it to an entire series of seven seals to which they attributed extreme potency in putting to flight the forces of the Demon.
When the amulet of the seven seals was adopted by the Jews, its name was changed and other names were given to it (“the seven signs of Rab Huna,” and the like). “Seal of Solomon” was applied by Jews only to the five-and six-pointed stars. This became the usage among Christians as well, as least from approximately the 13th century. The medieval Cabalist, R. Abraham Abulafia, compares the shape of the segol (a triangularly pointed Hebrew vowel sign) to “the sign of half the Seal of King Solomon,” and the term is frequent in the Hebrew literature on amulets.
The virtue of this seal as a talisman was always to accomplish one thing and one thing alone: to serve as a shield against the evil spirits. Consequently we find it in many of the magical versions of the mezuzah, which were so widespread from the beginning of the Middle Ages till about the 14th century. Mezuzot and amulets served an identical function for the adepts of magic. A German rabbi of the 12th century writes about the mezuzah that “it is a common practice, for the additional safety of the house, to inscribe seals and angelic names at the end of the mezuzah verses; and this is neither forbidden nor commanded, but only for additional safety.” Some of the early rabbis actually ruled that the mezuzah “must be written” in magical style and with the additions. Maimonides denounced the extremists who went so far as to inscribe the names and seals not only in the margins and between the verses of the text comprising the mezuzah, but even between the lines within each group of verses; in his opinion, such men are “in the category of those who have no share in the world to come; for these fools were not content to nullify a commandment, but they took the great commandment of the unity of the Name, and His love and worship, and used it as though it were an amulet for their own profit.” The seals in most of the versions of these magical mezuzot—of which some have come down to us—are nothing more than representations of the Shield of David (sometimes as many as twelve in one mezuzah; the late collector Elkan Adler once showed me such a one).
It was not, therefore, as a symbol of the monotheistic faith that the six-pointed star began its Jewish career, but as a magical talisman for protection against the evil spirits; and this remained its primary meaning among the masses of the people until about a hundred years ago. The magical mezuzah originated, without any doubt, in Babylonia or Palestine in the gaonic period (7th to nth centuries CE, roughly), but we do not have enough evidence today to decide from which of these two countries it comes. In the medieval literary sources that describe the method of preparing the magical mezuzah, we find no mention of the name of the seal, whether “Seal of Solomon” or “Shield of David.” In articles and textbooks we read the erroneous hypothesis to the effect that the Karaite scholar Judah Hadassi, in the middle of the 12th century, was the first to call this sign the Shield of David (in his book. The Cluster of Camphor); actually, this was only an addition by the 19th-century printer.
In the course of the years the magical mezuzah was forgotten, but the two forms of the “Seal of Solomon” are preserved in the magical literature of all three religions. Anyone who looks into the Renaissance books on magical practices, like Solomon’s Key or the literature ascribed to the legendary magician Dr. Faustus, will find them used in many connections. Though the magical mezuzah went out of use after the Middle Ages, the figures served as a talisman in other amulets, some of which attained great popularity—like the famous amulet for putting out fires, on which was written the verse—“And the people cried unto Moses; and Moses prayed unto the Lord, and the fire abated”—around the Shield of David, in the center of which was written the formula AGLA, the initial Hebrew letters of the verse “Thou art mighty forever, O Lord.”
Where does this title, the “Shield of David,” come from, and what does it mean? It is known that among the medieval mystics some legends were current about King David’s shield and its magical powers. The earliest source is the Book of Desire, which is an interpretation of the seventy magical names of Metatron, Prince of the Divine Presence. The book was composed in Germany in the 13th century, in the circle of the German Hasidim, by Eleazar of Worms or one of his disciples. In it we read how King David had a golden shield, upon which was engraved the Great Name of seventy-two names (a combination of holy names by whose virtue, the Midrash tells us, Israel was redeemed from Egypt); and beneath was engraved the “name” of Taphtephajah, one of the names of the Prince of the Presence. “And when a man is at war and his enemies attack him, let him remember it and he will be saved,” for the same book tells us that the numerical value of the Hebrew letters of Taphtephajah is the same as that of the letters of “upon the shield.”
As early as the 13th century, the design of the Seal of Solomon, already found in magical mezuzot, was substituted for the Great Name of seventy-two names. Why this substitution occurred, I do not know, although it is possible that the seventy-two names had been written out in an arrangement like the shape of the Seal of Solomon and that afterwards, as the writing of the names became stylized, lines finally took the place of the names. In the 17th century, in certain instances, we find instructions that the Shield of David is not to be drawn in simple lines, but is to be composed of certain holy names and combinations of names.
In any event, we may say with certainty that from some such legend as this or from statements similar to that which I have quoted, the term, “Shield of David,” was developed. This is clearly proved by the place in which its first appearance is known to us. In the early years of the 14th century there was composed in Spain the Book of the Boundary, by David ben Judah the Pious, a grandson of Nachmanides. In this book, which has been preserved only in manuscript, we twice find the design of the two crossed triangles, both times called the Shield of David, once the “Macrocosmic Shield of David” and once the “Microcosmic Shield of David.” Beneath the pictures of the Shield is written the “name,” Taphtephajah, which proves its intimate connection with the tradition concerning King David’s Shield in the Book of Desire. In some of the manuscripts I have examined, the design has become corrupted and has been replaced by a single triangle or by the five-pointed star; but in a number of old manuscript compendia of the Practical Cabala, we find protective amulets with the picture of the Shield of David, and at its center or by its side the same name, Taphtephajah. One of these is the book entitled The Roots of the Names, by R. Moses Zakutt, a famous encyclopedia of the Practical Cabala, dating from the 17th century.
An altogether different tradition concerning the emblem on King David’s shield exists from the 15th century on. It was first mentioned in The Sacrifice of Isaac, by the noted Spanish preacher, R. Isaac Arama, and it taught that the emblem on King David’s shield was not the image that we know by this name, but Psalm 671 in the shape of the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum. The menorah pictured on the Shield of David—here is a most curious combination of the two motifs. This tradition knows nothing of the Magen David, in our sense. It must be admitted that the menorah would seem to have a better right to serve as the symbol of Judaism than the Shield of David, in its present accepted form.
The writing of Psalm 67 in the shape of the menorah became very widespread after the 15th century. It was the custom to read this psalm during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, and in all the special prayer books for this period it was so written. Hence arose the custom of using this image in synagogues and other places, and the Cabalists gave its talismanic virtue unlimited praise. At the end of a booklet entitled The Golden Menorah, printed in Prague in the 16th century, we read: “This psalm, together with the menorah, is an allusion to great things . . . . And King David used to bear this psalm inscribed, pictured, and engraved on his shield, on a sheet of gold, in the shape of the menorah, when he went forth to battle, and he would meditate on its mystery, and conquer”; and similarly in many other books.
It would seem, however, that the talismanic power of the star representation of the Shield of David was more “tried and true,” so that it has won out over its representation in the form of the menorah even on the modem battlefield of Jewish symbolism.
Until the 17th century, the two terms, Shield of David and Seal of Solomon, are used indiscriminately, but slowly (perhaps under the influence of Christian usage) the second term becomes applicable only to the five-pointed star. It was at the beginning of the 18th century that the term “Shield of David” assumed the fixed meaning it bears today. The Christians began to use this term, and we have a number of booklets from that period, in Latin and German, containing explanations of the Star of David and allegorical sermons on it, in the spirit of the alchemists. Homilies like these were entirely foreign to the spirit of the Jewish preachers of that generation. Nonetheless, even among them there was one who began to interpret it as the symbol of the Kingdom of the House of David. Abraham Hayyim ha-Cohen, of Nikolsburg, wrote in his commentary on Psalms, which was first printed in 1750: “For there was a difference between the shields of the kings of Israel and those of the Kingdom of the House of David, in that the kings of Israel had a shield with three sides [i.e., triangular] to show that the House of David had a valid claim to the quality of kingship.” We have here, then, an interpretation of the symbol, not as a talisman, but as representing kingship—the Emanation of Kingship, which is the Congregation of Israel above and the Kingdom of the House of David below.
Indeed, we find a similar interpretation again in a very striking context, in which the magical career of the Shield of David reached its zenith. Here the symbol casts off its swaddling clothes of magic to rise to the vision of approaching redemption as proclaimed by the “false Messiah” of the 17th century, Sabbatai Zevi. This critical turning point is concealed in the celebrated amulets of R. Jonathan Eybeschuetz. All his amulets include the Shield of David (the only image to be found in them), in which are inscribed formulas like “Seal” alone, or “Seal of MBD,” or “Seal of MBID,” or even “Seal of the God of Israel.” In his defense of these amulets, R. Jonathan took refuge behind the magical meaning of the image, and he denied any symbolic value to this sign from a Jewish point of view. It was not so with those who sought to decipher his amulets. They explained his predilection for this image by its Sabbatian significance: their interpretation was that for R. Jonathan the Shield of David had become a messianic symbol. They compared the inscriptions within the images in many of his amulets, and they discovered in them a Sabbatian reference: MBD stood for Messiah ben David, and so on. They were certainly not arbitrary in interpreting the matter in this fashion, though we must not be astonished that R. Jonathan did not admit their charges. We find ourselves before these alternatives: if R. Jonathan was not secretly a Sabbatian, then his amulets have no symbolic meaning at all, and are nothing but magical mumbo-jumbo; if he was a Sabbatian, then we are compelled to admit that the character of the symbol in his amulets is a great innovation, and that R. Jonathan was the first to see in the Shield of David a highly meaningful symbol (although a very “private” and esoteric symbol) of a mystic vision of redemption. This was not only the Shield of David, but the Shield of the Son of David as well!
We must confess that all this is enormously stimulating to us of this generation: the modern interpretation of the Shield of David as the symbol of redemption, which even determined the name of Franz Rosenzweig’s profound book. The Star of Redemption (Der Stem der Erloesung), actually first emerged from the Sabbatian prattlings of messianic redemption which was mystically alluded to in the combinations of letters in amulets! It is greatly to be doubted whether the fathers of Zionism, when they accepted the Shield of David as the symbol of the movement for the revival of Israel, knew that perhaps in this respect also they were in tune with the secret thought of the greatest among the Sabbatian believers.
Entirely different from the first, magical, root, is the second root from which the general and broader use of the Shield of David grew; that is, its official use in the seals of several Jewish communities. The “official” use of the Shield of David began in Prague and spread out from that city, in the 17th and 18th centuries, through Moravia and Austria. We do not know whether the Jews freely chose this emblem for the sign on their “flags,” or whether it was thrust upon them by the Christian authorities. But even though it may have come about through compulsion and the orders of superiors, constraint became custom, and the sign came to be cherished by the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia.
In surviving notes on the contents of ancient documents concerning the Jewish community of Prague, which were destroyed by fire more than two centuries ago, it is said that the Emperor Charles IV in 1354 gave the Jews the “freedom” (privilege) “to bear a flag” as a special token of his grace to the Jews of the city. This is no mere legend, since we later find the flag mentioned in the chronicles of Prague Jewry as a well known thing. In 1527 the authorities ordered the Jews of Prague to greet Emperor Ferdinand I, on his entry into the city, “with their flag.” On this flag was a large Shield of David (not in the form of a five-pointed star, as some books would have it). If in that early period the Jews of Prague already saw in this symbol King David’s shield, according to the tradition of the German Hasidim that I have cited, we must suppose that they chose it themselves and bore it proudly on their banner. If, on the other hand, the authorities chose it for the Jews, we cannot say whether this was because of its widespread magical use or because of its decorative quality. In the light of the unbroken tradition of this symbol among the Jews of Prague, however, there is cause for the belief that this was a deliberately chosen symbol of Jewish pride and a memento, as it were, of the days of old. The original flag was not preserved, but a new one was made in the days of Emperor Ferdinand, and when it was damaged in the course of the years, still another was made in 1716, which is kept to this very day in the Altneuschul synagogue. Apparently the authorities of the state had no less respect for the flag than the Jews, since in 1716 they fined the elders of the community for not taking proper care of it and allowing it to be damaged!
In contradiction, we have the testimony of Hungarian historians that on the flag with which the Jews of Ofen greeted King Matthias of Hungary in 1476 there were two five-pointed stars, but not the six-pointed Shield of David. Here certainly was no recognition of the unique quality of the six-pointed Shield of David as a representation of the Congregation of Israel before the world.
Even until the beginning of the 17th century, the two stars were still vying with each other in Prague, though by this time the use of the term, “Shield of David,” had become current among the Jews of Prague. When the emperor, in 1622, granted a coat-of-arms to Jacob Bassevi, alias von Treuenfeld, the first Jew in Prague and all the Empire to be ennobled, his escutcheon bore three five-pointed stars, one beneath the other in a diagonal line, for the apparent purpose of serving as a clue to his Jewishness. On the other hand, on the tombstone of the historian David Cans, who died in 1613, there is a six-pointed Shield of David, just as his last book, published a year before his death, is called by this name. From the old banner, the six-pointed star seems to have been taken over into the seal of the Jewish community. We find it as the main ornament on the title page of the first Hebrew book printed in Prague, on Hannukah in 1512; in another book printed in Prague in 1522, it is found together with the city’s coat of arms, thereby indicating its quasiofficial status. When, in 1627, Emperor Ferdinand II approved again the old seal of the Prague community, outside the six sides of the star was spelled out, M-a-G-e-N D-a-V-i-D, with one consonant in each of the six spaces. From then on the six-pointed Shield of David is used communally in a number of different places in Prague: on the seals of societies and individuals, on tombstones, on synagogue structures and the ironwork of the synagogue bimah, on the tower of the Jewish council’s building.
From Prague this official use of the symbol spread out. In 1655 it is found on the seal of the Viennese community, and in 1690 on the seal of the community of Kremsier, in Moravia. On the wall of the old synagogue of the community of Budweis (Southern Bohemia), which was abandoned by the Jews in 1641, there are representations of Shields of David alternating with roses; apparently this is the oldest synagogue outside of Prague on which this symbol is to be found. In his youth, R. Jonathan Eybeschuetz might have been able to see it on the seal of the community of Eybeschuetz. A number of communities in Moravia used as a seal the Shield of David alone, with the addition of the name of the community. Others had on their seals a lion holding the Shield of David, like the community of Weiskirchen at the beginning of the 18th century. In very isolated instances the figure of the Shield of David was used in southern Germany also, doubtless under the influence of the Prague community.
In other countries, we do not generally find the Shield of David in use before the beginning of the 19th century, either on community seals, or on the curtains of the Ark, or on Torah mantles. In books printed outside of Prague, it was used as a printer’s mark only by the printers of the Foa family, and appears in their books from 1551 to the beginning of the 19th century. Their family coat-of-arms has a palm-tree, among the leaves of which a Shield of David is fixed, grasped by two lions. No other printer used it and it is clear that the emblem had no “Jewish” meaning. Printers who imitated the Foa mark at the beginning of the 18th century omitted the Shield of David and retained only the palm-tree and the two lions.
Apparently the prime motive for the remarkably wide diffusion of the Shield of David in the 19th century was the desire to imitate Christianity: the Jews of the era of Emancipation, seeing the “symbol of Christianity” everywhere, sought a “symbol of Judaism.” If Judaism is the “Mosaic religion,” why should it not properly have a striking and simple sign of recognition, like the other religions? The new emancipated Jews desired to erect above the walls of the synagogue something resembling the symbol of the cross, and this is what led to the ascendancy of the Shield of David in the 19th century, and helped it to become widely used on ceremonial objects as well. It was from the enlightened West that the symbol of Jewishness passed to Poland and Russia.
The use of amulets was still very widespread, especially in the East, and the devout did not trouble themselves with complex thoughts; the mimicry of Christianity inherent in the choice of the symbol was confused with its talismanic and magical properties, to which they had become accustomed—especially the simple folk—from countless amulets. Thenceforth the Shield of David began to be introduced everywhere—on the walls, on the windows and roofs of synagogues, on tombstones and medals—as though it were from Sinai. In their pursuit of a useful symbol and in their impulse toward mimicry, it did not occur to the builders of the new synagogues that intrinsically the symbol did not stand for anything, or for very little, of the world of Judaism, and consequently that it did not have the deep roots, drenched in meaning, of the cross in the religious world of Christianity. As late as 1854, G. Wolf wrote in Vienna that he was very well acquainted with the spirit of the Jews of Moravia, and that the whole of the pious Jew’s belief in the Shield of David was that it would protect him against any malevolent assault by his enemies; he did not say that it had a value as a symbol of that pious Jew’s Judaism, in the sense that the cross had religious meaning for the Christian.
The upshot of the matter is this: in the very days of its greatest popularity the Shield of David was a meaningless symbol of Judaism; and the Judaism of those days, in turn, tended to be meaningless. It required more than preachers’ sermons, however admirable in intent, to breathe life into a symbol. The successful and empty career of the Shield of David during the 19th century is in some measure a token of the Jewish decadence of that century.
Then the Zionists came, seeking to restore the ancient glories—or more correctly, to change the face of their people. When they chose it as a symbol for Zionism at the Basle Congress of 1897, the Shield of David was possessed of two virtues that met the requirements of men in quest of a symbol: on the one hand, its wide diffusion during the previous century—its appearance on every new synagogue, on the stationery of many charitable organizations, etc.—had made it known to everybody; and on the other, it was not explicitly identified with a religious association in the consciousness of their contemporaries. This lack became its virtue. The symbol did not arouse memories of the past: it could be filled with hope for the future.
But even Zionism did not do so much to confer the sacredness of a true symbol on the Shield of David as did that mad dictator who made of it a badge of shame for millions of our people, who compelled them to wear it publicly on their clothing as the badge of exclusion and of eventual extermination. Under this sign they moved along the road of horror and degradation, struggle and heroism. If there be such a thing as a soil that grows meaning for symbols, this is it. Some have said: the sign under which they went to destruction and to the gas chambers deserves to be discarded for a sign that will signify life. But it is also possible to think in the opposite fashion: the sign that in our days was sanctified by suffering and torture has won its right to be the sign that will light up the road of construction and life. “The going down is the prelude to the raising up”; where it was humbled, there will you find it exalted.
1 “God be merciful unto us, and bless us; and cause his face to shine upon us . . . .”
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The Curious History of the Six-Pointed Star:How the “Magen David” Became the Jewish Symbol
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Terror is a choice.
Ari Fuld described himself on Twitter as a marketer and social media consultant “when not defending Israel by exposing the lies and strengthening the truth.” On Sunday, a Palestinian terrorist stabbed Fuld at a shopping mall in Gush Etzion, a settlement south of Jerusalem. The Queens-born father of four died from his wounds, but not before he chased down his assailant and neutralized the threat to other civilians. Fuld thus gave the full measure of devotion to the Jewish people he loved. He was 45.
The episode is a grim reminder of the wisdom and essential justice of the Trump administration’s tough stance on the Palestinians.
Start with the Taylor Force Act. The act, named for another U.S. citizen felled by Palestinian terror, stanched the flow of American taxpayer fund to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian programs. Though it is small consolation to Fuld’s family, Americans can breathe a sigh of relief that they are no longer underwriting the PA slush fund used to pay stipends to the family members of dead, imprisoned, or injured terrorists, like the one who murdered Ari Fuld.
No principle of justice or sound statesmanship requires Washington to spend $200 million—the amount of PA aid funding slashed by the Trump administration last month—on an agency that financially induces the Palestinian people to commit acts of terror. The PA’s terrorism-incentive budget—“pay-to-slay,” as Douglas Feith called it—ranges from $50 million to $350 million annually. Footing even a fraction of that bill is tantamount to the American government subsidizing terrorism against its citizens.
If we don’t pay the Palestinians, the main line of reasoning runs, frustration will lead them to commit still more and bloodier acts of terror. But U.S. assistance to the PA dates to the PA’s founding in the Oslo Accords, and Palestinian terrorists have shed American and Israeli blood through all the years since then. What does it say about Palestinian leaders that they would unleash more terror unless we cross their palms with silver?
President Trump likewise deserves praise for booting Palestinian diplomats from U.S. soil. This past weekend, the State Department revoked a visa for Husam Zomlot, the highest-ranking Palestinian official in Washington. The State Department cited the Palestinians’ years-long refusal to sit down for peace talks with Israel. The better reason for expelling them is that the label “envoy” sits uneasily next to the names of Palestinian officials, given the links between the Palestine Liberation Organization, President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, and various armed terrorist groups.
Fatah, for example, praised the Fuld murder. As the Jerusalem Post reported, the “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the military wing of Fatah . . . welcomed the attack, stressing the necessity of resistance ‘against settlements, Judaization of the land, and occupation crimes.’” It is up to Palestinian leaders to decide whether they want to be terrorists or statesmen. Pretending that they can be both at once was the height of Western folly, as Ari Fuld no doubt recognized.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The end of the water's edge.
It was the blatant subversion of the president’s sole authority to conduct American foreign policy, and the political class received it with fury. It was called “mutinous,” and the conspirators were deemed “traitors” to the Republic. Those who thought “sedition” went too far were still incensed over the breach of protocol and the reckless way in which the president’s mandate was undermined. Yes, times have certainly changed since 2015, when a series of Republican senators signed a letter warning Iran’s theocratic government that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka, the Iran nuclear deal) was built on a foundation of sand.
The outrage that was heaped upon Senate Republicans for freelancing on foreign policy in the final years of Barack Obama’s administration has not been visited upon former Secretary of State John Kerry, though he arguably deserves it. In the publicity tour for his recently published memoir, Kerry confessed to conducting meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif “three or four times” as a private citizen. When asked by Fox News Channel’s Dana Perino if Kerry had advised his Iranian interlocutor to “wait out” the Trump administration to get a better set of terms from the president’s successor, Kerry did not deny the charge. “I think everybody in the world is sitting around talking about waiting out President Trump,” he said.
Think about that. This is a former secretary of state who all but confirmed that he is actively conducting what the Boston Globe described in May as “shadow diplomacy” designed to preserve not just the Iran deal but all the associated economic relief and security guarantees it provided Tehran. The abrogation of that deal has put new pressure on the Iranians to liberalize domestically, withdraw their support for terrorism, and abandon their provocative weapons development programs—pressures that the deal’s proponents once supported.
“We’ve got Iran on the ropes now,” said former Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman, “and a meeting between John Kerry and the Iranian foreign minister really sends a message to them that somebody in America who’s important may be trying to revive them and let them wait and be stronger against what the administration is trying to do.” This is absolutely correct because the threat Iran poses to American national security and geopolitical stability is not limited to its nuclear program. The Iranian threat will not be neutralized until it abandons its support for terror and the repression of its people, and that will not end until the Iranian regime is no more.
While Kerry’s decision to hold a variety of meetings with a representative of a nation hostile to U.S. interests is surely careless and unhelpful, it is not uncommon. During his 1984 campaign for the presidency, Jesse Jackson visited the Soviet Union and Cuba to raise his own public profile and lend credence to Democratic claims that Ronald Reagan’s confrontational foreign policy was unproductive. House Speaker Jim Wright’s trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Sandinista government was a direct repudiation of the Reagan administration’s support for the country’s anti-Communist rebels. In 2007, as Bashar al-Assad’s government was providing material support for the insurgency in Iraq, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sojourned to Damascus to shower the genocidal dictator in good publicity. “The road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi insisted. “Unfortunately,” replied George W. Bush’s national security council spokesman, “that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq.”
Honest observers must reluctantly conclude that the adage is wrong. American politics does not, in fact, stop at the water’s edge. It never has, and maybe it shouldn’t. Though it may be commonplace, American political actors who contradict the president in the conduct of their own foreign policy should be judged on the policies they are advocating. In the case of Iran, those who seek to convince the mullahs and their representatives that repressive theocracy and a terroristic foreign policy are dead-ends are advancing the interests not just of the United States but all mankind. Those who provide this hopelessly backward autocracy with the hope that America’s resolve is fleeting are, as John Kerry might say, on “the wrong side of history.”
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Michael Wolff is its Marquis de Sade. Released on January 5, 2018, Wolff’s Fire and Fury became a template for authors eager to satiate the growing demand for unverified stories of Trump at his worst. Wolff filled his pages with tales of the president’s ignorant rants, his raging emotions, his television addiction, his fast-food diet, his unfamiliarity with and contempt for Beltway conventions and manners. Wolff made shocking insinuations about Trump’s mental state, not to mention his relationship with UN ambassador Nikki Haley. Wolff’s Trump is nothing more than a knave, dunce, and commedia dell’arte villain. The hero of his saga is, bizarrely, Steve Bannon, who in Wolff’s telling recognized Trump’s inadequacies, manipulated him to advance a nationalist-populist agenda, and tried to block his worst impulses.
Wolff’s sources are anonymous. That did not slow down the press from calling his accusations “mind-blowing” (Mashable.com), “wild” (Variety), and “bizarre” (Entertainment Weekly). Unlike most pornographers, he had a lesson in mind. He wanted to demonstrate Trump’s unfitness for office. “The story that I’ve told seems to present this presidency in such a way that it says that he can’t do this job, the emperor has no clothes,” Wolff told the BBC. “And suddenly everywhere people are going, ‘Oh, my God, it’s true—he has no clothes.’ That’s the background to the perception and the understanding that will finally end this, that will end this presidency.”
Nothing excites the Resistance more than the prospect of Trump leaving office before the end of his term. Hence the most stirring examples of Resistance Porn take the president’s all-too-real weaknesses and eccentricities and imbue them with apocalyptic significance. In what would become the standard response to accusations of Trumpian perfidy, reviewers of Fire and Fury were less interested in the truth of Wolff’s assertions than in the fact that his argument confirmed their preexisting biases.
Saying he agreed with President Trump that the book is “fiction,” the Guardian’s critic didn’t “doubt its overall veracity.” It was, he said, “what Mailer and Capote once called a nonfiction novel.” Writing in the Atlantic, Adam Kirsch asked: “No wonder, then, Wolff has written a self-conscious, untrustworthy, postmodern White House book. How else, he might argue, can you write about a group as self-conscious, untrustworthy, and postmodern as this crew?” Complaining in the New Yorker, Masha Gessen said Wolff broke no new ground: “Everybody” knew that the “president of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounded himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound.” Remind me never to get on Gessen’s bad side.
What Fire and Fury lacked in journalistic ethics, it made up in receipts. By the third week of its release, Wolff’s book had sold more than 1.7 million copies. His talent for spinning second- and third-hand accounts of the president’s oddity and depravity into bestselling prose was unmistakable. Imitators were sure to follow, especially after Wolff alienated himself from the mainstream media by defending his innuendos about Haley.
It was during the first week of September that Resistance Porn became a competitive industry. On the afternoon of September 4, the first tidbits from Bob Woodward’s Fear appeared in the Washington Post, along with a recording of an 11-minute phone call between Trump and the white knight of Watergate. The opposition began panting soon after. Woodward, who like Wolff relies on anonymous sources, “paints a harrowing portrait” of the Trump White House, reported the Post.
No one looks good in Woodward’s telling other than former economics adviser Gary Cohn and—again bizarrely—the former White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after his two ex-wives accused him of domestic violence. The depiction of chaos, backstabbing, and mutual contempt between the president and high-level advisers who don’t much care for either his agenda or his personality was not so different from Wolff’s. What gave it added heft was Woodward’s status, his inviolable reputation.
“Nothing in Bob Woodward’s sober and grainy new book…is especially surprising,” wrote Dwight Garner at the New York Times. That was the point. The audience for Wolff and Woodward does not want to be surprised. Fear is not a book that will change minds. Nor is it intended to be. “Bob Woodward’s peek behind the Trump curtain is 100 percent as terrifying as we feared,” read a CNN headline. “President Trump is unfit for office. Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear’ confirms it,” read an op-ed headline in the Post. “There’s Always a New Low for the Trump White House,” said the Atlantic. “Amazingly,” wrote Susan Glasser in the New Yorker, “it is no longer big news when the occupant of the Oval Office is shown to be callous, ignorant, nasty, and untruthful.” How could it be, when the press has emphasized nothing but these aspects of Trump for the last three years?
The popular fixation with Trump the man, and with the turbulence, mania, frenzy, confusion, silliness, and unpredictability that have surrounded him for decades, serves two functions. It inoculates the press from having to engage in serious research into the causes of Trump’s success in business, entertainment, and politics, and into the crises of borders, opioids, stagnation, and conformity of opinion that occasioned his rise. Resistance Porn also endows Trump’s critics, both external and internal, with world-historical importance. No longer are they merely journalists, wonks, pundits, and activists sniping at a most unlikely president. They are politically correct versions of Charles Martel, the last line of defense preventing Trump the barbarian from enacting the policies on which he campaigned and was elected.
How closely their sensational claims and inflated self-conceptions track with reality is largely beside the point. When the New York Times published the op-ed “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” by an anonymous “senior official” on September 5, few readers bothered to care that the piece contained no original material. The author turned policy disagreements over trade and national security into a psychiatric diagnosis. In what can only be described as a journalistic innovation, the author dispensed with middlemen such as Wolff and Woodward, providing the Times the longest background quote in American history. That the author’s identity remains a secret only adds to its prurient appeal.
“The bigger concern,” the author wrote, “is not what Mr. Trump has done to the presidency but what we as a nation have allowed him to do to us.” Speak for yourself, bud. What President Trump has done to the Resistance is driven it batty. He’s made an untold number of people willing to entertain conspiracy theories, and to believe rumor is fact, hyperbole is truth, self-interested portrayals are incontrovertible evidence, credulity is virtue, and betrayal is fidelity—so long as all of this is done to stop that man in the White House.
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Review of 'Stanley Kubrick' By Nathan Abrams
Except for Stanley Donen, every director I have worked with has been prone to the idea, first propounded in the 1950s by François Truffaut and his tendentious chums in Cahiers du Cinéma, that directors alone are authors, screenwriters merely contingent. In singular cases—Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Woody Allen, Kubrick himself—the claim can be valid, though all of them had recourse, regular or occasional, to helping hands to spice their confections.
Kubrick’s variety of topics, themes, and periods testifies both to his curiosity and to his determination to “make it new.” Because his grades were not high enough (except in physics), this son of a Bronx doctor could not get into colleges crammed with returning GIs. The nearest he came to higher education was when he slipped into accessible lectures at Columbia. He told me, when discussing the possibility of a movie about Julius Caesar, that the great classicist Moses Hadas made a particularly strong impression.
While others were studying for degrees, solitary Stanley was out shooting photographs (sometimes with a hidden camera) for Look magazine. As a movie director, he often insisted on take after take. This gave him choices of the kind available on the still photographer’s contact sheets. Only Peter Sellers and Jack Nicholson had the nerve, and irreplaceable talent, to tell him, ahead of shooting, that they could not do a particular scene more than two or three times. The energy to electrify “Mein Führer, I can walk” and “Here’s Johnny!” could not recur indefinitely. For everyone else, “Can you do it again?” was the exhausting demand, and it could come close to being sadistic.
The same method could be applied to writers. Kubrick might recognize what he wanted when it was served up to him, but he could never articulate, ahead of time, even roughly what it was. Picking and choosing was very much his style. Cogitation and opportunism went together: The story goes that he attached Strauss’s Blue Danube to the opening sequence of 2001 because it happened to be playing in the sound studio when he came to dub the music. Genius puts chance to work.
Until academics intruded lofty criteria into cinema/film, the better to dignify their speciality, Alfred Hitchcock’s attitude covered most cases: When Ingrid Bergman asked for her motivation in walking to the window, Hitch replied, fatly, “Your salary.” On another occasion, told that some scene was not plausible, Hitch said, “It’s only a movie.” He did not take himself seriously until the Cahiers du Cinéma crowd elected to make him iconic. At dinner, I once asked Marcello Mastroianni why he was so willing to play losers or clowns. Marcello said, “Beh, cinema non e gran’ cosa” (cinema is no big deal). Orson Welles called movie-making the ultimate model-train set.
That was then; now we have “film studies.” After they moved in, academics were determined that their subject be a very big deal indeed. Comedy became no laughing matter. In his monotonous new book, the film scholar Nathan Abrams would have it that Stanley Kubrick was, in essence, a “New York Jewish intellectual.” Abrams affects to unlock what Stanley was “really” dealing with, in all his movies, never mind their apparent diversity. It is declared to be, yes, Yiddishkeit, and in particular, the Holocaust. This ground has been tilled before by Geoffrey Cocks, when he argued that the room numbers in the empty Overlook Hotel in The Shining encrypted references to the Final Solution. Abrams would have it that even Barry Lyndon is really all about the outsider seeking, and failing, to make his awkward way in (Gentile) Society. On this reading, Ryan O’Neal is seen as Hannah Arendt’s pariah in 18th-century drag. The movie’s other characters are all engaged in the enjoyment of “goyim-naches,” an expression—like menschlichkayit—he repeats ad nauseam, lest we fail to get the stretched point.
Theory is all when it comes to the apotheosis of our Jew-ridden Übermensch. So what if, in order to make a topic his own, Kubrick found it useful to translate its logic into terms familiar to him from his New York youth? In Abrams’s scheme, other mundane biographical facts count for little. No mention is made of Stanley’s displeasure when his 14-year-old daughter took a fancy to O’Neal. The latter was punished, some sources say, by having Barry’s voiceover converted from first person so that Michael Hordern would displace the star as narrator. By lending dispassionate irony to the narrative, it proved a pettish fluke of genius.
While conning Abrams’s volume, I discovered, not greatly to my chagrin, that I am the sole villain of the piece. Abrams calls me “self-serving” and “unreliable” in my accounts of my working and personal relationship with Stanley. He insinuates that I had less to do with Eyes Wide Shut than I pretend and that Stanley regretted my involvement. It is hard for him to deny (but convenient to omit) that, after trying for some 30 years to get a succession of writers to “crack” how to do Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle, Kubrick greeted my first draft with “I’m absolutely thrilled.” A source whose anonymity I respect told me that he had never seen Stanley so happy since the day he received his first royalty check (for $5 million) for 2001. No matter.
Were Abrams (the author also of a book as hostile to Commentary as this one is to me) able to put aside his waxed wrath, he might have quoted what I reported in my memoir Eyes Wide Open to support his Jewish-intellectual thesis. One day, Stanley asked me what a couple of hospital doctors, walking away with their backs to the camera, would be talking about. We were never going to hear or care what it was, but Stanley—at that early stage of development—said he wanted to know everything. I said, “Women, golf, the stock market, you know…”
“Couple of Gentiles, right?”
“That’s what you said you wanted them to be.”
“Those people, how do we ever know what they’re talking about when they’re alone together?”
“Come on, Stanley, haven’t you overheard them in trains and planes and places?”
Kubrick said, “Sure, but…they always know you’re there.”
If he was even halfway serious, Abrams’s banal thesis that, despite decades of living in England, Stanley never escaped the Old Country, might have been given some ballast.
Now, as for Stanley Kubrick’s being an “intellectual.” If this implies membership in some literary or quasi-philosophical elite, there’s a Jewish joke to dispense with it. It’s the one about the man who makes a fortune, buys himself a fancy yacht, and invites his mother to come and see it. He greets her on the gangway in full nautical rig. She says, “What’s with the gold braid already?”
“Mama, you have to realize, I’m a captain now.”
She says, “By you, you’re a captain, by me, you’re a captain, but by a captain, are you a captain?”
As New York intellectuals all used to know, Karl Popper’s definition of bad science, and bad faith, involves positing a theory and then selecting only whatever data help to furnish its validity. The honest scholar makes it a matter of principle to seek out elements that might render his thesis questionable.
Abrams seeks to enroll Lolita in his obsessive Jewish-intellectual scheme by referring to Peter Arno, a New Yorker cartoonist whom Kubrick photographed in 1949. The caption attached to Kubrick’s photograph in Look asserted that Arno liked to date “fresh, unspoiled girls,” and Abrams says this “hint[s] at Humbert Humbert in Lolita.” Ah, but Lolita was published, in Paris, in 1955, six years later. And how likely is it, in any case, that Kubrick wrote the caption?
The film of Lolita is unusual for its garrulity. Abrams’s insistence on the sinister Semitic aspect of both Clare Quilty and Humbert Humbert supposedly drawing Kubrick like moth to flame is a ridiculous camouflage of the commercial opportunism that led Stanley to seek to film the most notorious novel of the day, while fudging its scandalous eroticism.
That said, in my view, The Killing, Paths of Glory, Barry Lyndon, and Clockwork Orange were and are sans pareil. The great French poet Paul Valéry wrote of “the profundity of the surface” of a work of art. Add D.H. Lawrence’s “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” and you have two authoritative reasons for looking at or reading original works of art yourself and not relying on academic exegetes—especially when they write in the solemn, sometimes ungrammatical style of Professor Abrams, who takes time out to tell those of us at the back of his class that padre “is derived from the Latin pater.”
Abrams writes that I “claim” that I was told to exclude all overt reference to Jews in my Eyes Wide Shut screenplay, with the fatuous implication that I am lying. I am again accused of “claiming” to have given the name Ziegler to the character played by Sidney Pollack, because I once had a (quite famous) Hollywood agent called Evarts Ziegler. So I did. The principal reason for Abrams to doubt my veracity is that my having chosen the name renders irrelevant his subsequent fanciful digression on the deep, deep meanings of the name Ziegler in Jewish lore; hence he wishes to assign the naming to Kubrick. Pop goes another wished-for proof of Stanley’s deep and scholarly obsession with Yiddishkeit.
Abrams would be a more formidable enemy if he could turn a single witty phrase or even abstain from what Karl Kraus called mauscheln, the giveaway jargon of Jewish journalists straining to pass for sophisticates at home in Gentile circles. If you choose, you can apply, on line, for screenwriting lessons from Nathan Abrams, who does not have a single cinematic credit to his name. It would be cheaper, and wiser, to look again, and then again, at Kubrick’s masterpieces.
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Is American opera in terminal condition?
At the Met, distinguished singers and conductors, mostly born and trained in Europe, appeared in theatrically conservative big-budget productions of the popular operas of the 19th century, with a sprinkling of pre-romantic and modern works thrown in to leaven the loaf. City Opera, by contrast, presented younger artists—many, like Beverly Sills, born in this country—in a wider-ranging, more adventurously staged repertoire that often included new operas, some of them written by American composers, to which the public was admitted at what were then called “popular prices.”
Between them, the companies represented a feast for culture-consuming New Yorkers, though complaints were already being heard that their new theaters were too big. Moreover, neither the Met nor City Opera was having any luck at commissioning memorable new operas and thereby expanding and refreshing the operatic repertoire, to which only a handful of significant new works—none of them, then or since, premiered by either company—had been added since World War I.
A half-century later, the feast has turned to famine. In 2011, New York City Opera left Lincoln Center, declaring bankruptcy. It closed its doors forever two years later. The Met has weathered a nearly uninterrupted string of crises that climaxed earlier this year with the firing of James Levine, the company’s once-celebrated music director emeritus. He was accused in 2017 of molesting teenage musicians and was dismissed from all of his conducting posts in New York and elsewhere. Today the Met is in dire financial straits that threaten its long-term survival.
And while newer opera companies in such other American cities as Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, Santa Fe, and Seattle now offer alternative models of leadership, none has established itself as a potential successor either to the Met or the now-defunct NYCO.1
Is American opera as a whole in a terminal condition? Or are the collapse of the New York City Opera and the Met’s ongoing struggle to survive purely local matters of no relevance elsewhere? Heidi Waleson addresses these questions in Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York City Opera and the Future of Opera in America.2 Waleson draws on her experience as the opera critic of the Wall Street Journal to speculate on the prospects for an art form that has never quite managed to set down firm roots in American culture.
In this richly informative chronicle of NYCO’s decline and fall, Waleson persuasively argues that what happened to City Opera (and, by extension, the Met) could happen to other opera companies as well. The days in which an ambitious community sought successfully to elevate itself into the first rank of world cities by building and manning an opera house are long past, and Mad Scenes and Exit Arias helps us understand why.As Waleson reminds us, it was Fiorello LaGuardia, the New York mayor who played a central role in the creation of the NYCO, who dubbed the company “the people’s opera” when it was founded in 1943. According to LaGuardia, NYCO existed to perform popular operas at popular prices for a mass audience. In later years, it moved away from that goal, but the slogan stuck. Indeed, no opera company has ever formulated a clearer statement of its institutional mission.
Even after it moved to Lincoln Center in 1966, NYCO had an equally coherent and similarly appealing purpose: It was where you went to see the opera stars of tomorrow, foremost among them Sills and Plácido Domingo, in inexpensively but imaginatively staged productions of the classics. The company went out of its way to present modern operas, too, but it never did so at the expense of its central repertoire—and tickets to its performances cost half of what the Met charged. Well into the 21st century, City Opera stuck more or less closely to its redefined mission. Under Paul Kellogg, the general and artistic director from 1996 to 2007, it did so with consistent artistic success. But revenues declined throughout the latter part of Kellogg’s tenure, in part because younger New Yorkers were unwilling to become subscribers.
In those days, the Metropolitan Opera, NYCO’s next-door neighbor, was still one of the world’s most conservative opera houses. That changed when Peter Gelb became its general manager in 2006. Gelb was resolved to modernize the Met’s productions and, to a lesser extent, its repertoire, and he simultaneously sought to heighten its national profile by digitally simulcasting live performances into movie theaters throughout America.
Kellogg was frustrated by the chronic acoustic inadequacies of the New York State Theater and sought in vain to move City Opera to a three-theater complex that was to be built (but never was) on the World Trade Center site. He retired soon after Gelb came to the Met. Kellogg was succeeded by Gérard Mortier, a European impresario who was accustomed to working in state-subsidized theaters. Mortier made a pair of fateful decisions. First, he canceled City Opera’s entire 2008–2009 season while the interior of the State Theater underwent much-needed renovations. Then he announced a follow-up season of 20th-century operas that lacked audience appeal.
That follow-up season never happened, because Mortier resigned in 2008 and fled New York. He was replaced by George Steel, who had previously served for just three months as general manager of the Dallas Opera. Under Steel, NYCO slashed its schedule to ribbons in a futile attempt to get back on its financial feet after Mortier’s financially ruinous year-long hiatus. Then he mounted a series of productions of nonstandard repertory that received mixed reviews and flopped at the box office.
The combined effect of Gelb’s innovations and the inept leadership of Mortier and Steel all but obliterated City Opera’s reason for existing. Under Gelb, the Met’s repertory ranged from such warhorses as Rigoletto and Tosca to 20th-century masterpieces like Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, and tickets could be bought for as little as $20. With the Met performing a more interesting repertoire under a wider range of directors, and in part at “people’s prices,” City Opera no longer did anything that the Met wasn’t already doing on a far larger and better-financed scale. What, then, was its mission now? The truth was that it had none, and when the company went under in 2013, few mourned its passing.
As it happened, Gelb’s own innovations were a mere artistic Band-aid, for he was unwilling or unable to trim the Met’s bloated budget to any meaningful extent. He made no serious attempt to cut the company’s labor costs until a budget crisis in 2014 forced him to confront its unions, which he did with limited success. In addition, his new productions of the standard-repertory operas on which the Met relied to draw and hold older subscribers were felt by many to be trashily trendy.
The Met had particular difficulty managing the reduced circumstances of the 21st century when it came to opera. Its 3,800-seat theater has an 80-foot-deep stage with a proscenium opening that measures 54 feet on each side. (Bayreuth, by contrast, seats 1,925, La Scala 2,030, and the Vienna State Opera 2,200.) As a result, it is all but impossible to mount low-to-medium-budget shows in the Metropolitan Opera House, even as the company finds it is no longer able to fill its increasingly empty house. Two decades ago, the Met earned 90 percent of its potential box-office revenue. That figure plummeted to 66 percent by 2015, forcing Gelb to raise ticket prices to an average of $158.50 per head. On Broadway, the average price of a ticket that season was $103.86.
Above all, Gelb was swimming against the cultural tide. Asked about the effects on audience development of the Met simulcasts, he admitted that three-quarters of the people who attended them were “over 65, and 30 percent of them are over 75.” As he explained: “Grand opera is in itself a kind of a dinosaur of an art form…. The question is not whether I think I’m doing a good job or not in trying to keep the [Metropolitan Opera] alive. It’s whether I’m doing a good job or not in the face of a cultural and social rejection of opera as an art form. And what I’m doing is fighting an uphill battle to try and maintain an audience in a very difficult time.”
Was that statement buck-passing defeatism, or a fair appraisal of the state of American opera? Other opera executives distanced themselves from Gelb’s remarks, and it was true—and still is—that smaller American companies have done a somewhat better job of attracting younger audiences than the top-heavy Met. But according to the National Endowment for the Arts, the percentage of U.S. adults who attend at least one operatic performance each year declined from 3.2 percent in 2002 to 2.1 percent in 2012. This problem, of course, is not limited to opera. As I wrote in these pages in 2010, the disappearance of secondary-school arts education and the rise of digital media may well be leading to “not merely a decline in public interest in the fine arts but the death of the live audience as a cultural phenomenon.”3D oes American opera have a future in an era of what Heidi Waleson succinctly describes as “flat ticket income and rising expenses”? In the last chapter of Mad Scenes and Exit Arias, she chronicles the activities of a group of innovative smaller troupes that are “rethinking what an opera company is, what it does, and who it serves.” Yet in the same breath, she acknowledges the possibility that “filling a giant theater for multiple productions of grand operas [is] no longer an achievable goal.”
If that is so, then it may be worth asking a different question: Did American opera ever have a past? It is true that opera in America has had a great and glorious history, but virtually the whole of that history consisted of American productions of 18th- and 19th-century European operas. By contrast, no opera by an American classical composer has ever entered the international major-house repertoire. Indeed, while new American operas are still commissioned and premiered at an impressive rate, few things are so rare as a second production of any of these works.
While a handful continue to be performed—John Adams’s Nixon in China (1987), André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1995), Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998), and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (2000)—their success is a tribute to the familiarity of their subject matter and source material, not their musico-theatrical quality. As for the rest, the hard but inescapable truth is that with the exception of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (1935), virtually all large-scale American operas have been purpose-written novelties that were shelved and forgotten immediately after their premieres.
The success of Porgy and Bess, which received its premiere not in an opera house but on Broadway, reminds us that American musical comedy, unlike American opera, is deeply rooted in our national culture, in much the same way that grand opera is no less deeply rooted in the national cultures of Germany and Italy, where it is still genuinely popular (if less so today than a half-century ago). By comparison with Porgy, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, or My Fair Lady, American opera as a homegrown form simply does not exist: It is merely an obscure offshoot of its European counterpart. Aaron Copland, America’s greatest composer, was not really joking when he wittily described opera as “la forme fatale,” and his own failed attempts to compose an audience-friendly opera that would be as successful as his folk-flavored ballet scores say much about the difficulties facing any composer who seeks to follow in his footsteps.
It is not that grand opera is incapable of appealing to American theatergoers. Even now, there are many Americans who love it passionately, just as there are regional companies such as Chicago’s Lyric Opera and San Francisco Opera that have avoided making the mistakes that closed City Opera’s doors. Yet the crises from which the Metropolitan Opera has so far failed to extricate itself suggest that in the absence of the generous state subsidies that keep European opera houses in business, large-house grand opera in America may simply be too expensive to thrive—or, ultimately, to survive. At its best, no art form is more thrilling or seductive. But none is at greater risk of following the dinosaurs down the cold road to extinction.
1 The “New York City Opera” founded in 2016 that now mounts operas in various New York theaters on an ad hoc basis is a brand-new enterprise that has no connection with its predecessor.
2 Metropolitan Books, 304 pages