Thursday, May 21, 2009

Elliott Horowitz -- 'The Howling Place of the Jews'

“The Howling Place of the Jews” in the Nineteenth Century:

From William Wilde to Ahad Ha’am

by Elliott Horowitz

In previous posts at the Seforim blog, Elliott Horowitz of Bar Ilan University, co-editor of Jewish Quarterly Review, and author of Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), has described Modern Amalekites [here], Isaiah Berlin on Meir Berlin (Bar-Ilan) and Saul Lieberman [here], Edmund Wilson, Hebrew, Christmas, and the Talmud [here], and Bugs Bunny [here].


This is his fifth contribution to the Seforim blog. We hope that you enjoy.

Late in the first half of the nineteenth century Jewish prayer and mourning at the Western Wall began to attract the interest of Christian visitors to Jerusalem, many of whom imposed upon it their own theological interpretations. In the Memorandum on the Western Wall (1930) that he prepared on behalf of the League of Nations Dr. Cyrus Adler (1863-1940), the recently elected President of the American Jewish Committee, included a list of modern travel accounts in which Jewish prayer at the Wall was described (pp. 44-67). Due presumably to Adler’s many responsibilities (he was also editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review as well as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary) the list was far from complete.

One of the important accounts he missed was Dr. William Wilde’s Narrative of Journey…along the Shores of the Mediterranean (1840). The young Irish physician singled out Jewish prayer at the Western Wall as one of the scenes that had most moved him during his extensive journey. “Were I asked what was the object of the greatest interest that I had seen, and the scene that made the deepest impression on me, during my sojourn in other lands,” wrote Dr. Wilde (father of the future playwright Oscar), “I would say that it was a Jew mourning over the stones of Jerusalem.”[1] Shortly afterwards the Anglican minister George Fisk of Lichfield (England) who had visited Jerusalem in 1842, provided his own comments on the weekly spectacle, which he described as  “humiliation and supplication.”  The Jews, he reported, “are said to have a persuasion that their prayers will find especial acceptance when breathed through the crevices of that building of which Jehovah said ‘Mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually’ (II Chron. 7:16).” Although among the “aged Jews sitting in the dust” Fisk saw no signs of the “outward manifestation of strong emotion” there were also present “several Jewesses, enveloped from head to foot in ample white veils,” who “stepped forward to various parts of the ancient wall,” and kissed them with great fervency.”[2]

Fisk’s comments about prayer at the Wall, also unnoticed by Adler, were soon echoed by the children’s writer Favell Lee Mortimer (1802-1878), in the second part of her Far Off (1852), devoted to Asia and Australia – neither of which she had visited.  Addressing her “little readers,” Mrs. Mortimer (a daughter of Barclay’s bank cofounder David Bevan and wife of London minister Thomas Mortimer) informed them that “every Friday evening a very touching scene takes place” in Jerusalem, near the Mosque of Omar. “There are some large old stones there,” wrote Mrs. Mortimer, “and the Jews say that they are part of their old temple wall, so they come at the beginning of their Sabbath…and sit in a row opposite the stones.” Upon arriving, the Jews “read their Hebrew Old Testaments, then kneel low in the dust, and repeat their prayers with their mouths close to the old stones; because they think that all prayers whispered between the cracks and crevices of these stones will be heard by God. Some Jewesses come, wrapped from head to foot in long white veils, and they gently moan and softly sigh over Jerusalem in ruins.”[3] Her “little readers” were likely to think of Jerusalem’s Jews as involved in the cultic worship of large “stones” (a word used no fewer than four times in the brief passage), which served as intermediaries between them and God.

Some two decades later James Creagh (1836-1910), a native of Ireland who had studied at Sandhurst, wrote of his own visit to what he called “the Howling-place of the Jews at Jerusalem.” Unlike Dr. Wilde and Rev. Fisk before him, Captain Creagh, in his colorfully titled Scamper to Sebastopol and Jerusalem, described not only the local Jews (and Jewesses) who participated in the weekly event, but also “whole families of Jews, some dark and some fair, some wearing the English and some the Asiatic costume, and coming from every part of the world.” In a remark that would have appealed to some of the Hebrew poets of medieval Spain, Creagh reported that among those who were “crying and wailing in the most bitter accents” were some “lovely Jewish girls, who wept and sobbed with an appearance of real grief that would appear more natural for the loss of a lover than for the misfortune of their nation in the remotest times.” And although he, unlike Fisk, was evidently a Catholic, Creagh (perhaps under the influence of the latter) was also critical of the “vain hope” on the part of those praying “praying fervently through the crevices…that their earnest supplications, by penetrating to the inside and ascending to heaven from that hallowed spot, would be received more favourably at the throne of grace.[4]

Creagh arrived in Jerusalem shortly after the departure of Albert Rhodes, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1840 and who had served as US consul in Jerusalem between 1863-65.[5] In his appropriately titled Jerusalem As It Is (1865) Rhodes presented a penetrating (and perhaps still relevant) comparison of the Holy City’s Sephardim and Ashkenazim, [6]and also described the weekly prayers at “the wailing-place of the Jews…a spot of interest to every traveler,” focusing particularly on what today might be called “women who weep.”  On Fridays afternoons, he wrote, “every available spot along the foot of this wall is occupied by weeping Jews,” adding that “the greater part of these are women, who often sit in little circles around a Talmud-learned Jew, who reads to them – for a consideration… - portions of the Jewish chronicles.” Rhodes also reported that ‘those who arrive early, particularly the women, commence at one end of the wall and kiss and touch every stone within reach, from one end of the wall to the other.” Like Fisk and Creagh, the former US consul also stressed the importance to many of physical contact with the Wall, adding that some of the Jews “almost hide their heads in the fissures, and remain for some time in this position, sobbing in the most affecting manner.”[7]

A decade after the appearance of Rhodes’s book his fellow Pennsylvanian Richard Newton (1812-87), who had studied at New York’s (Episcopal) General Theological Seminary after graduation from the University of Pennsylvania, published his Illustrated Rambles in Bible Lands (1875), in which he too offered his critical comments on the Jews’ weekly wailing at the Western Wall. Like his (by then) late colleague in Christ the Rev. Fisk, Dr. Newton, criticized the Jews for thinking that prayers offered at the Wall “would be more acceptable to God…than if offered in any other place,” but he was more blatant in his attempt to utilize this “mistake” as a means of saving fellow Christians from similar error:


Some people think that part of a church where the minister stands or kneels…is more holy than the pews where the people sit. But this is a mistake. God is no more present in one place than he is in another.  Prayers offered in the city of Jerusalem will not be heard any sooner by God than prayers offered in the city of London, or New York, or Boston, or Philadelphia.[8]


Dr. Newman, who was then serving as rector of the Epiphany Church in Philadelphia, carried away with him, and imparted to his readers, two lessons that he learned from his visit. One was “the sin of the Jews which brought upon them all the evil that they are suffering now,’ and “which has caused them to be despised and persecuted in every nation.” The second lesson, of course, was the nature of the “great sin of the Jewish people” – namely, that “they neglected Jesus.”[9]


Another late nineteenth-century visitor to the Western Wall who was concerned with the question of what had caused the Jews “to be despised and persecuted in every nation” was Asher Zvi (Hirsh) Ginsberg (1856-1927), by then known as Ahad Ha’am. The leading ideologist of Cultural Zionism, who had been born to a Hasidic family in the Russian Ukraine, was quite critical of much that he saw during his first tour, in 1891, among the Jewish colonies in land of Israel. As Ginsberg later wrote in his controversial essay Emet me-Erez Yisrael “filled with melancholy thoughts,” he “arrived on the eve of Passover in Jerusalem, there to pour forth my sorrow and rage before the…remnants of our former glory.” Although he clearly knew what to expect at the Wall, the visit nevertheless affected him greatly, provoking painful questions that remain largely unanswered: 


There I found many of our Jerusalem brethren standing and praying in loud voices. Their haggard faces, their strange gestures, and their odd clothes – all this merged with the ghastly picture of the Wall itself. Looking at them and at the Wall, one thought filled my mind. These stones testify to the desolation of our land; these men testify to the desolation of our people. Which of these desolations is worse? For which should we lament more bitterly? [10]


[1] William R. Wilde, Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Tenerife and along the Shores of the Mediterranean (Dublin, 1840), quoted in Linda Osband, ed., Famous Travellers to the Holy Land (London,1989), 155. Osband’s book includes an introduction by the distinguished British travel writer Jan Morris, who has also written under the name James Morris. On the remarks by modern travelers about the Jews of Jerusalem see also Elliott Horowitz, “As Others See Jews,” in Nicholas de Lange & Miri Freud-Kandel, eds., Modern Judaism: An Oxford Guide (Oxford, 2005), 415-425, esp. 415-419.


[2] George Fisk, A Pastor’s Memorial, Of Egypt, The Red SeaJerusalem, and Other Principal Localities of the Holy Land, Visited in 1842 (third edition, London, 1845), 290-91. In a later edition (1865) the pious pastor wrote less cautiously that “the Jews have a persuasion…” (ibid., 199). For an annotated Hebrew translation of Fisk’s comments on Jerusalem and its Jews see Michael Ish-Shalom, Christian Travels in the Holy Land (second ed., Jerusalem, 1979), 539-43.


[3] . L. Mortimer, Far Off , or Asia and Australia Described (London, 1852), 21.

[4] James Creagh, A Scamper from Sebastopol to Jerusalem in 1867 (London, 1873), 405-06. On the participation of women in prayer at the Western Wall see Stuart Charmé, “The Political Transformation of Gender Traditions at the Western Wall in Jerusalem,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 21:1 (Spring 2005): 5-34, who, relying on Adler’s outdated list, misses the testimonies of  both Fisk and Creagh.


[5] Ruth Kark, American Consuls in the Holy Land, 1832-1914 (Jerusalem and Detroit, 1994), 314


[6] “There is no entente-cordiale,” wrote Rhodes, “between the Sephardim and Aschkenazim. The former are cleaner, more indolent, and ignorant than the latter. The Aschkenazim pride themselves on their Talmud learning, are dirty, and fond of dispute. From long residence in the East, the Sephardim have acquired something of the ease and dignity of its inhabitants…The Aschkenazim are often seen poring over the Talmud, and are consequently full of its traditionary (sic) lore, but know little of the Bible…The Sephardim,  as a race are healthy-looking, and many of them are handsome…Of the two the Aschkenazim are more corrupt.” idem, Jerusalem As It Is (London, 1865), 363-64. Ish-Shalom, Christian Travels, contains no passages from Rhodes’s book.


[7] Rhodes, Jerusalem, 373-74. On Rhodes in Jerusalem see Lester I. Vogel, To See a Promised Land; Americans in the Holy Land in the Nineteenth Century (Pennsylvania, 1993), 166, 172.


[8] Richard Newton, In Bible Lands (London, 1880), 60-61. I have quoted from the first British edition, published with a slightly different title.

[9] Ibid., 62.

[10] The translation I have provided is a composite of those by Steven J. Zipperstein, Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha’am and the Origins of Zionism (Berkeley, 1993), 62, and Reuven Hammer, ed., The Jerusalem Anthology: A Literary Guide (Philadelphia, 1995), 206.


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