The Jews of Africa #BlackHistoryMonth

Preliminary remarks on the study of the Jews in Africa, followed by The Jews of Ethiopia (origins to 1862). Premiering today at 12 noon ET.

Note: for some reason this particular topic attracts an unusual amount of inappropriate commentary. Scholarly, collegial discussion is welcomed here; but I intend to remove hateful remarks, and commentators who flagrantly disrespect others will be blocked from the channel. If this becomes too onerous a task I will simply turn off comments on the video. Please respect the learning community who gather here to discuss Jewish history.

Recommended reading:

Tudor Parfitt, Black Jews in Africa and the Americas (Harvard, 2013)

Steven Kaplan, The Beta Israel (Falasha) in Ethiopia: From Earliest Tiems to the Twentieth Century (New York University, 1992).

Jews in Visigothic Spain

Scheduled for Sunday at 1:00 PM ET
Scheduled for Monday at 1:00 PM ET

Jewish History Lab Report February 12, 2021

Jewish History Lab Lectures Scheduled for Next Week (Advance access for YouTube channel members at the Student Level)

49. Early Jewish Settlement in Spain (Scheduled for Sunday @ 1:00 PM ET)

50. Jews in Visigothic Spain (Scheduled for Monday @1:00 PM ET)

Researchers: The Amazing Journey of Yisrael Aharoni (hopefully releasing today, maybe early next week)

Colleagues: Live Classes:

Conversation with High School Students in Toronto Monday, February 15th, 8:30 PM ET

Becoming the People of the Byte: The Internet, the Talmud, and the Future of the Jewish People Tuesday, February 16th, 7:30 PM PT (10:30 ET)

Jews and the Birth of Islam Wednesday, February 17, 7:30 PM ET

Wednesday is open to channel members at the Colleague level: please contact me at henry@henryabramson.com if you need the link. Monday and Tuesday will require permission from the organizers, but write me early and I’ll see if we can put it together.

Have a wonderful Shabbos, weekend, and Rosh Hodesh Adar! HMA

Jews in Late Roman Period, The Convert who Illustrated the Maxwell House Haggadah, and the Tragic Jewish Backstory to yelling “fire” in a theater

Jewish History Lab Report for February 5, 2021.

Videos dropping next week (advance viewing for Students now available):

Researchers video:

Text version at JTA here.

Colleagues Live Class on Wednesday: Jews in Visigothic Iberia

Other Publications:

The German Convert who Illustrated the Maxwell House Haggadah

Have an excellent Shabbos! Looking forward to learning more Jewish history with you next week.

HMA

Please take this brief, anonymous survey

Good morning fellow students of Jewish History! Do you watch the Jewish History Lab series? If so, please contribute your thoughts in this brief, anonymous survey. We’ll be starting the second semester later this month, and I value your opinion! https://bit.ly/jhljanuary2021

Wishing you all a healthy 2021

Hello fellow students of Jewish history!

I hope this message finds you and your loved ones healthy and secure.

Just a brief note to let you know the website will have some reduced functionality over the next week or so. I like to take the turn-over of the Gregorian calendar to renovate and reorganize my digital life. Some pages may not be visible for a while, but I think you’ll like the end result once it’s all organized.

In the meantime, the Jewish History Lab lectures are continuing as scheduled. The Bar Kochba Rebellion is scheduled to release on Sunday at 1 pm New York time.

Wishing you all an excellent 2021,

HMA

The SECRET History of Chanukah

The following eight brief videos are scheduled for release over the holiday (two on Friday morning, none on Saturday), looking at the Maccabean revolt and some aspects of the development of the Chanukah festival over the centuries. Enjoy in good health, but warning up front: some of them appear to have been written by the Grinch who stole Chanukah!

What is a “Moser”? The ugly, complicated history of Judaism’s most dangerous accusation

Thanks to Laura Adkins and Philissa Cramer for really strong edits in today’s article in JTA.

(JTA) The intermediate days of Sukkot in the holy city of Brooklyn are normally a time of singing, prayer and communal fellowship. This year the celebrations were marred by violence. 

Egged on by a rabble-rousing individual who literally wore a political bumper sticker on his chest, a crowd of angry haredi Orthodox Jews protested coronavirus restrictions, burning masks and denouncing government authorities. Police, wary of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests but unaccustomed to angry mobs of Hasidim in their Yom Tov finery, were unprepared for the melee. 

Scenes of the demonstrations were widely circulated on social media, including sporadic episodes of shameful violence. In one notorious bit of cellphone footage, a Yiddish-inflected curse was repeatedly thrown at Jacob Kornbluh, a Hasidic reporter for Jewish Insider. With his back to a wall and surrounded by Hasidim, the threatening crowd chanted “moser, moser, moser!” as jarring, festive holiday music blared incongruously in the background. Barely protected by a handful of police officers, Kornbluh fled the scene, chased away by a surging mass of kaftans and stiff-brimmed black hats.

Incredible.

What, exactly, is a moser? The term “snitch” was also thrown at the hapless writer, but the translation doesn’t come close. 

Moser (also pronounced “moiser”) literally means “one who hands over,” in the sense of one who informs or turns over a Jew to the secular authorities. The term is laden with portent in Jewish law: roughly parallel to a rodef (“pursuer”), a moser is worthy of the death penalty. 

Maimonides wrote in the 12th century that “an informer may be slain anywhere, even at the present time when Jewish courts do not try capital cases. It is permissible to slay him before he has informed…. it is a religious duty to slay him; whoever hastens to kill him attains merit.” There should be no misunderstanding here: Maimonides was writing in a particular social context, prevalent for much of the past two millennia, when Jews constituted a tiny Diasporic minority subject to the whim of often hostile, capricious and brutal governments. 

Halachic authorities like Rabbi Herschel Schachter, head of school at Yeshiva University’s REITS seminary, have been quick to declare that this law does not apply in modern, democratic societies: Reporting criminal behavior to police, or even tax evasion to the IRS, does not make one a hated “moser.” Maimonides’ ruling is more comprehensible in the context of Nazi Germany, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or perhaps Stalin’s Russia. The distinction between “informant” and “slanderer” is unimportant — the simple act of delivering a fellow Jew into the hands of an anti-Semitic autocratic regime is a crime in and of itself.

Jewish history is unfortunately well-populated with contemptible individuals who seek self-promotion by slandering the Jewish community in more public forums. From Nicholas Donin in the 13th century, who initiated literally centuries of anti-Semitic fodder when he denounced the Talmud before Pope Gregory IX, to Jacob Brafman, whose salacious 1869 “Book of the Kahal” outlined anti-Jewish themes that would be exploited by the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and even Hitler himself, there have always been Jews whose personal careers were built on putative, tendentious “exposes” of Jewish society. 

No wonder the term “moser” is perhaps the most hated epithet one can apply to a Jew — part traitor, part informant, wholly despicable.

But it is hard to understand the ugly events of Brooklyn last week in terms that would even approach the threshold of rendering anyone a moser. The actions of the state — in this case, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Gov Andrew Cuomo — were clearly motivated by a desire to protect the Hasidic community, and the broader population, from a deadly virus that took the lives of tens of thousands of New Yorkers this spring. Their imposition of the New Cluster Action Initiative threatened economic, social and religious hardships for certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens (including, incidentally, my own), but only the most extreme opponents of the measure would argue it was more than heavy-handed governance. 

Even those who argue that the government measures are draconian and unnecessary would find it hard to justify the unlawful, physical attack on fellow Jews.

If anything, the historical precedent was closer to that of early 19th century Russia, when Tsarist authorities imposed a major reform of the Jewish educational system. Liberal Enlightenmentoriented Jews like Max Lilienthal were convinced at the Tsar’s sincerity and supported the effort to bring the Jews into the modern era. Appointed a special advisor in the Count Uvarov’s Ministry of Education, Lilienthal nevertheless faced withering opposition from traditionalist Jews who saw the plan as a thinly veiled attempt to convert Russia’s Jews to Christianity (they were not entirely wrong). Within five years, Lilienthal resigned his position and moved to Germany and then Cincinnati, where he served as a rabbi of a Reform congregation.

By the turn of the 21st century, the slur of “moser” served primarily as a rallying cry and justification for those who intend extrajudicial violence and seek to silence legitimate opposition. When Yigal Amir, for example, gunned down Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, he called Rabin a moser for his peace efforts with the Palestinians. It’s used as a tool of intimidation against victims of sexual abuse who may be tempted to report their abusers to the authorities. 

Branding a Jew as a moser is, historically speaking, a dangerous charge with horrific, real-world implications. A crowd recklessly chanting “moser, moser, moser” is terrifying, especially in our era of cell phones, social media and WhatsApp. 

Yitzchok Kornbluh, father of the journalist under attack, painfully noted the life-threatening implications of the observed that the irresponsible application of the term moser is literally life-threatening: “All you need is one crazed person to take that “Mitzva” on board,” he wrote, ending with the Hebrew phrase “chas ve’sholom,” Heaven forbid.

Chas ve’sholom indeed.