Jews, the First Crusade, and the Culture of Ashkenaz

After a discussion of Jewish communal structure in the medieval era, we will look at the devastation of the First Crusade and the Rhineland Massacres of 1096, follow up with some thoughts on the long-term impact on Ashkenazi Culture. Premiering today at 1 pm.

65. Premodern Jewish Communal Structure
66. The First Crusade and the Jews
67. Ashkenaz after the Crusades

Interview with Dr. Michael Chighel of The Ashkenazium

Yikes! This interview started out with a lot more personal material than I intended, but I had a lot of fun speaking with my colleague and friend Dr. Michael Chighel, Dean of Ashkenazium Jewish History MA in Budapest. Enjoy in good health!

Amsterdam: Refuge of Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto

Brief review of the troubled journey of Rabbi Moshe Hayim Luzzatto, a brilliant young scholar of the 18th century who was persecuted by opponents and hounded across Europe before finding his way to the more tolerant intellectual climate of Amsterdam.

Truth will Spring from the Earth: Gutenberg, the Internet, and the New Uncertainty Principle

“Truth will Sprout from the Earth: Gutenberg, the Internet, and the New Uncertainty Principle.” Presentation at the XIII International Torah and Science Conference, Miami.

Introductory remarks by Dr. Nathan Katz.

Runaway Yeshiva Bochur’s Work May Aid COVID Research

Runaway Yeshiva Bochur’s Work May Aid COVID Research

The Jewish Star (March 24, 2021)

Shortly after emigrating to Israel in 1901, this Telz-educated orphaned son of a rosh yeshiva earned an unlikely nickname: “the crazy fly-catcher.” Israel Aharoni’s odyssey into the world of middle eastern zoology, long recognized in the scientific world with over 30 species named after him, is earning new attention for its potential contribution to COVID-19 research. 

He was born in Vidzy, Belarus, as Yisroel Aharonovich in 1882. Like the Talmud sage Abaye, he tragically lost his father before he was born and his mother shortly thereafter. At the tender age of two he was sent to live with his grandmother Malka, who raised him in the family tradition of Talmudic studies at the Yeshiva of Telz, which left a deep imprint on young Yisroel, especially in terms of its languages and descriptions of the natural ancient habitat of the Jews in Israel and Babylonia.

Yet Yisroel yearned for a more scientific approach, and at 13 he smuggled himself out of the Russian Empire to study with Rabbi Dr. Armand Kaminka in Prague, and then briefly at Charles University, focusing on Arabic philology and zoology. An encouraging letter from Theodor Herzl motivated him to move to Israel, where he Hebraized his name to Aharoni, taught languages, and continued his passionate study of the fauna of the Holy Land.

Over the next two decades his amateur search for animals, birds and insects mentioned in the Torah and Talmud became his full-time occupation. He wandered throughout the Middle East, often unescorted through hostile areas (he was once nearly hanged by Turks who suspected him of being, of all things, an Italian spy). Among his publications is “Torat ha-Hai: The Torah of Life,” an appropriately named and frequently reprinted zoology textbook for young students. 

His most unlikely contribution to science came in 1930, when he journeyed to Aleppo, Syria, in search of the elusive rodent Mesocricetus auratus known to locals by its Arabic name “Mr. Saddlebags,” a reference to its habit of stuffing its cheeks with food. The burrowing rodent was first identified in 1797 and named in 1839 but rarely seen since then.

Aharoni and a Syrian guide named Georius Khalil Tah’an went door-to-door asking farmers if they had seen Mr. Saddlebags (encouraging some incredulous responses) before identifying a likely farm. With the permission of the local sheik (but not the farmer), Aharoni and Tah’an dug up the freshly planted field to a depth of eight feet before they discovered their prize: a nest with a mother and her ten pups. Aharoni would eventually give the species the Hebrew name ogen. In English, we know the animal as the common hamster. 

Now widely domesticated as a pet, the Syrian or Golden hamster is as antisocial as it is fecund: the females go into heat every four days, and once pregnant, have an incredibly brief gestation period of 16 days, with litters of some ten pups. The survival of the young, however, depends largely on the mood of the mother — when stressed, she is likely to consume them, which is precisely what happened to one of the young before the horrified Aharoni could separate the mother from her litter. 

Tah’an euthanized the mother, a hasty decision which complicated matters because Aharoni had to raise the pups himself, feeding them with an eyedropper in his Jerusalem laboratory. Highly territorial, the surviving hamsters bristled at their captivity and five of them engineered a mass escape by chewing through the wooden box that Aharoni had placed them in, fleeing the laboratory through a hole in the floor. Then one of the remaining males ate his sister before Aharoni could arrange for more appropriate hamster accommodations.

Ultimately, Aharoni was able to breed the survivors, whose descendants now live in hundreds of thousands of children’s bedrooms as pets. More significantly, he donated descendants of the “Eve” hamster to tens of international scientific labs for research, as their immune responses have proven to be remarkably similar to that of humans, prompting research in a wide variety of illnesses for almost a century. 

Researchers in 2019, working with new gene editing technology, discovered that the potential for Syrian Hamster research is even greater than scientists had previously realized, prompting a follow-up study recently published by Oxford University Press and the Infectious Diseases Society of America that specifically proclaims the utility of this animal for COVID-19 research. 

Thus the 1930 discovery by a young Israeli scientist, once a former runaway yeshiva bochur, is proving to be instrumental in the fight against this great pandemic.

Click here to read the article at The Jewish Star.

The Jews of Egypt after the Exodus, and the Third Plague

A brief overview of the history of Jewish life in Egypt. After looking briefly at the Exodus itself, we look at some major population centers in Elephantine, Alexandria, and Cairo, to the present day. To avoid any possible confusion: this lecture does not argue for continuity between the Jewish population described in the account of the Exodus and the communities that appear in the historical record in the centuries before the Common Era. Lecture delivered to Montefiore College, London, on March 15, 2021.

Brief d’var Torah on the third plague: lice. Part of a team-taught series from the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst. To see the full playlist of congregant-generated content on the Ten Plagues, click here.

The Geonim of Baghdad and the Origins of the Jews of North Africa (today at noon New York time)

A brief look at the social and economic background of the post-Talmudic era in Baghdad, with an important digression into the 8th-10th century revolution in information technology that helped propel the authority and influence of the Geonim. The following video will look at the early history of North Africa, an area influenced by their scholarship but with a fascinating origin story as well. Join us for a live chat at 12 noon (New York time).