For the past ten years I’ve been travelling the world in Moses Montefiore’s footsteps. This was a man who spent much of his (long) life on the road: besides the usual round of European tourist destinations (Paris, Florence, Rome, Frankfurt and Berlin), he visited Jerusalem seven times in total and passed through innumerable Jewish communities as he embarked on politically motivated missions to places like St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Marrakesh and Bucharest.
But what does it mean to travel in the footsteps of a man who’s been dead for over 120 years, and why bother? After all, it’s impossible to recreate the nineteenth century travel experience in our world of cars, planes and high-speed trains. (I once met a Reform Rabbi who followed the Montefiores’ route during their first trip abroad; apparently it was very scenic, involving only minor roads.) More to the point, most of the places Montefiore visited have changed beyond all recognition. It’s not just that Bucharest is full of shabby, Ceausescu high-rise flats, or that a whole quarter of Marrakesh is devoted to glitzy hotels. The real problem is more fundamental. The shifting currents of world history mean that places that were once heartlands of the diaspora are now barely Jewish places at all.
And yet, it was worth the trouble. I found no echo of Montefiore’s visit when I travelled through Poland and Lithuania, but the scale of Jewish absence helped me to understand the ways in which twentieth century developments had erased his achievements. Sitting through Shabbat services in Rome’s empty Great Synagogue and the even emptier Choral Temple in Bucharest, I could not fail to notice the ways in which synagogue architecture paid tribute to the aesthetic values of the non-Jewish world. Nothing could have prepared me for the florid extravagance of the former or the delicate, Byzantine beauty of the latter – surely the most beautiful synagogue in which I have ever been privileged to sit. Only retracing the boundaries of Rome’s ancient Ghetto could have shown me how pitifully small it was. Only by visiting the tiny Moroccan sea-port of Essaouira could I appreciate the rocky isolation of this wealthy entrepot that was once home to so many of Moroccan Jewry’s financial and commercial elite.
If anything, then, I regret the places I left unvisited. Damascus and Alexandria are only names to me. But if I close my eyes I can see the golden sands of the beach that is the old Jewish cemetery of Essaouira; I can see the crumbling stone fantasies of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw; and I can see streets of the old Jewish quarter in Vilna, empty now but in Montefiore’s day teeming with vibrant, impoverished, contentious Jewish life.
Dr. Abigail Green’s new book, Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero, is now available.
What makes a good biography? I thought about this question a lot when I was writing my book about Moses Montefiore, and I’ve been thinking about it again recently. As a historian, my preference has always been for biographies that illuminate the broader context – books like Elisheva Carlebach’s The Pursuit of Heresy, which brought the world of the itinerant Jerusalem rabbi Moses Hagiz so vividly to life, or Perfecting the World – a wonderful book about Montefiore’s life-long friend, the Quaker philanthropist and physician Thomas Hodgkin.
A couple of weeks ago I contributed to In Our Time, one of the most popular and long-lived discussion programs on British radio. The subject was Moses Mendelssohn, a fascinating character about whom I know rather less than I should. Preparing for this broadcast, I came across Shmuel Feiner’s brilliantly readable little biography of the German-Jewish philosopher, which just came out in the Yale Jewish Lives series. I loved the way it opened with youths throwing stones at Mendelssohn and his family as they walked down Unter den Linden, Berlin’s smartest promenade; and ended, by alluding both to this episode and to German Jewry’s terrible future. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that this pearl of a book was
written by the author of The Jewish Enlightenment, a superb piece of scholarship but famously heavy-going.
Biographers tend to get bogged down in detail, and my own book is no exception. Something about the brief, interpretative format of the Yale series seems to have liberated Feiner. He tells us everything we need to know about Mendelssohn’s thought and brings the man to life, all in about 70,000 words. Each of which is precious. It’s a far cry from Altmann’s classic, 900 page intellectual biography and infinitely more enlightening.
Feiner’s elegantly concise approach contrasts starkly with the other biography I’m reading at the moment: Jonathan Steinberg’s psychologically driven Bismarck, which I’m reviewing for the European History Quarterly. It’s a bulky volume, and like me he had difficulty cutting a life down to size. Steinberg’s earlier books, such as All or Nothing: the Axis and the Holocaust seemed to me to ask the right questions (why did the Italians and the Germans behave differently during the Holocaust?) without coming up with really satisfactory answers. This time, however, he seems to have struck gold. The style is genuinely sparkling, and focusing on an individual rather than broader societal structures seems to play to Steinberg’s strengths. Two things that resonated for me were Steinberg’s emphasis on the emotional dimension of Bismarck’s approach to politics and the way in which the story of Bismarck’s life was intertwined with the evolving and deeply ingrained hostility Junkers like Bismarck felt towards Jews as alien symbols of change and modernity.
Oddly then, these are both books about the German-Jewish symbiosis. Despite their different qualities, they share the same fundamental virtue. Both Feiner and Steinberg are drawing on a lifetime of knowledge – and you can tell that in writing these biographies they had the time of their lives.
Dressed in ornate plains schmattes (including war bonnet), and astride a paint pony, Brooks and his warriors come upon a prairie schooner carrying an African-American family. “Chief” Brooks looks at the little group as they huddle together in terror, and then turns to his closest companion who is raising his tomahawk to strike:
No, no, zayt nisht meshuge! Loz im geyn! Abi gezint! Take off! Hosti gezen in dayne lebn? (Don’t be crazy! Let him go. As long as you’re healthy! Take off! Have you ever seen such a thing?).
The “chief” lets the family go in peace, quickly stating the reason for his mercy:
“They darker than us!”
It’s either funny or offensive depending upon who’s watching; but for many, it’s the only reference to Jews and Indians they’ve ever seen.
Pity – because there was a bone fide Jewish Indian chief. His is a tale of guts and brains, as are most stories about Jews among the Indians.
Almost from the beginning of Westward expansion, Jews have made a home on the range. They were fur trappers, gold miners, cowboys, peddlers and scouts. There were sheriffs, marshals, mayors of small towns and at least one gunfighter. A shana medele from San Francisco married Wyatt Earp; a storekeeper from Bavaria and a tailor from Latvia invented blue jeans.
Czechoslovakian émigré Sigmund Schlesinger was one such pioneer. After losing his job in Philadelphia, Schlesinger went to eastern Kansas where he found work on the railroad, only to be laid off again when hostile Sioux took charge of the tracks. Needing work, he volunteered to be an Indian Scout for the Army, despite never having ridden a horse or shot a gun. A quick study, he became a hero of the Battle of Breecher’s Island, Colorado, said by some to be the most ferocious in the history of the Indian Wars.
Years after the battle, his commanding officer wrote to Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston, Texas:
He had never been in action prior to our fight with the Indians and throughout the whole engagement which was one of the hardest, if not the very hardest, ever fought on the Western plains, he behaved with great courage, cool persistence and a dogged determination that won my unstinted admiration as well as that of his comrades, many of whom had seen service throughout the War of Rebellion on one side or the other.
I can accord him no higher praise than that he was the equal of many in courage, steady and persistent devotion to duty, and unswerving and tenacious pluck of any man in my command.
But not all Jews encountered the Indians in battle. Some were among their closest friends – and became trusted advocates for their rights and freedoms.
Meyer came to the United States in 1866. In Europe, he had been a yeshiver bocher and a talented musician. Shortly after his arrival, he joined his older brothers Max, Adolph and Moritz in Omaha where they had a prospering cigar and jewelry business. Separate from his brothers, Julius began trading with Indian tribes like the Ponca, Omaha, and Sioux. So well known did he become for his honesty that the Indians dubbed him “Box-Ka-Re-Sha-Hash-Ta-Ka: “the curly-headed chief who speaks with one tongue.”
According to Julius, in 1869, a hostile tribe attacked him. They tried to kill him – and it was only the intercession of Standing Bear, chief of the Ponca, that saved his life. Julius became Standing Bear’s interpreter and was soon translating for such famous chiefs as Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Swift Bear.
For many years, Meyer served as Omaha’s government Indian agent, often fighting for Native rights. Julius was also known as a man who knew how to make a dollar for his friends (and himself). One such scheme involved taking Standing Bear and a group of the Ponca on a yearlong jaunt to the 1889 Paris Exposition where they caused a sensation.
Julius kept up his association with Standing Bear and the Nebraska tribes until May 10, 1909 – the day he was discovered dead in Omaha’s Hanscom Park. He was clutching a revolver and had two bullet holes in him: one in his temple and another in his chest. He was legally declared a suicide, although to this day, there are people who believe that this great Jewish friend of the Indian was murdered.
Still, if Julius Meyer was an honorary Indian, Solomon Bibo became the real thing: real enough, in fact, to become a chief.
Bibo was born in Westphalia in what is now Germany, in 1853. Like Meyer, he immigrated in 1869 and joined his brothers in business. The Bibos were among Santa Fe, New Mexico’s most successful traders, known for square dealing with their Indian neighbors. Bibo and his brothers became speakers of several Indian dialects and Solomon was often called upon by the Acoma Pueblo to negotiate treaties between their tribe and the U.S. government.
In 1885, Bibo married Juana Valle, the granddaughter of an Acoma chief. Later that year, the Acoma elected Bibo their new “governor,” the equivalent of tribal chief – a position he held four times. He helped create the tribe’s first modern education system, hired its first schoolteacher and supervised the first Acoma school building.
Solomon and Juana were married for nearly fifty years and had six children. Years before, she had converted to Judaism. At 13, their son, Leroy became a traditional Bar Mitzvah but also participated in the Acoma rituals of manhood. The couple was separated only by his death on May 4, 1934; they are buried side-by-side in a Jewish Cemetery in Colma, California.
When you do anything creative – from writing stories to hooking rugs – people are likely to ask you where you get your ideas.
A lot of times I haven’t had a good answer; but in the case of my new novel, Magic Words, the lightning bolt of creativity hit me in the midst of pursuing one of the most American of all activities.
I was watching TV.
The program was a PBS documentary “The Jewish Americans;” and a nice little show it was, too. All of the Yiddishe luminaries were included: Abraham Cahan and Irving Berlin; Emma Lazarus and Jerry Seinfeld; Jacob Adler and Hank Greenberg and I guess, a coupla doctors and scientists.
Then there was the young man in buckskins. He only appeared for about 10 seconds in the show: short, with curly hair and a droopy moustache, he stood proudly behind four Indian chiefs in a posed studio photograph taken sometime in the 1880’s.
I was amazed: a boychik from Europe who somehow gained the confidence of a group of people rightly suspicious of the white man? An Israelite adventurer who once conversed with the free-living masters of the mountains and plains?
As the photograph faded from the screen, I knew I had found the subject of my next novel. All I needed now was a little research.
Not that Julius was easy to track down. He was, to say the least, obscure. There wasn’t very much about him on the Internet (he still has no Wikipedia page); so I had to search for him in more traditional ways. I wrote to Jewish historical societies; I haunted libraries and perused photo collections.
And the more I discovered about Julius, the more fascinating he became.
Born in Bromberg in what is now Poland; immigrated to America after the Civil War to join his brothers who were merchant princes in Nebraska; captured by the Ponca and eventually made their interpreter; named Box-ka-re-sha-hash-ta-ka (“Curly-headed white chief with one tongue”), by the greatest chieftain who ever lived; Indian agent and trader; speaker of seven Siouxan dialects.
But two facts really sold me on Julius. First, there were the circumstances of his death. He was found dead around noon in Hanscom Park in Omaha in the Spring of 1909 – with one bullet in his breast and another in his head -and declared a suicide. The possibilities around that almost wrote themselves.
Then, in an article in the September 10, 1926 issue of The American Hebrew, I read that Julius brought a magician named “Herman the Great” to a Ponca camp to perform for the great Standing Bear and his people – and about how that night as Alexander slept, a young brave attempted to kill him for his hat, believing it to be the source of his mystic power.
For me, this was like that one good gift at Chanukkah. A magician? I’m there!
And it got even better. Further research revealed that “Herman” was in fact, Alexander Herrmann, the most famous magician in the world before Houdini and the creator of many of the famous stage illusions still amazing audiences today; the inventor of the “Cake From A Hat” and the “Floating Boy”; the wizard who sold out the Egyptian Theatre in London for 1000 straight nights.
I knew I had found my second leading man; and when I discovered that Alexander’s mother’s maiden name was Meyer, I used my author’s prerogative to declare them cousins. Besides…how else would a humble man of the plains like Julius know a prestidigitator of such distinction?
A year and a half later, I had a book. All because of 10 seconds of TV that provided a tantalizing glimpse of a man who was a member of the tribe…in more ways than one.
Adelaide Herrmann, magician and wife of Alexander Herrmann | Alexander Herrmann, the great magician and Julius’ cousin | Compars Herrmann, Alexander’s older brother and the first Great Herrmann.
Julius Meyer with Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Swift Bear and Spotted Tail | General Nelson Miles, Indian Fighter | Standing Bear, chief of the Ponca
For more on these fascinating folks, see Gerald Kolpan’s post yesterday.