Thursday, April 03, 2008

Three more stories about Jerusalem's Jews in the 19th century

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

We conclude our look at the chapter about Jerusalem Jews in James Finn's "Stirring Times: Or, Records from Jerusalem Consular Chronicles of 1853 to 1856" with three interesting stories.

The first is that the Jews in Jerusalem had their own currency:
The articles are small squares of brass-foil, stamped with the Hebrew words "Bikur Cholim" -' Visiting the Sick.' The practice seems to have originated in adopting a fictitious currency, on temporary occasions, as a means of almsgiving, in anticipation of real money coming to hand. In the Jewish bazaar these pieces are current for all purposes of trade, and are sometimes accepted and passed among other inhabitants of the city as paras, though inferior in value to even that small coin. The Turks disapprove of the practice, and now and then take the trouble to prohibit it. The Jews, however, are proud of their show of independent royalty, and even if willing to discontinue it, would find it difficult to call in these tokens, so long as then- heavy debt remains, for they do actually represent a certain amount of metallic value.
The Sephardim had their own ceremony to bless the incoming sultans:
The other custom is that of getting possession of the great keys of the city gates on the decease of each Sultan of Constantinople, and after a religious service of prayer, and anointing them with a mysterious preparation of oil and spices, allowing them to be returned to the civic authorities on behalf of the new monarch. For the exercise of this traditional custom they make heavy presents to the local governors, who allow of a harmless practice that has prescription to show on its behalf. It is a matter of ' baksheesh ' to them, and there is always a class of superstitious people to be found in Palestine who think that the benediction of the ancient 'children of Israel' is worth having; the Jewish feelings are gratified, for their expectation of the future is refreshed, and the Jerusalem Rabbis are enabled to boast all the world over among their people that they suffer the Sultan of Turkey to keep possession of the Holy City.

The Moslems imagine the ceremonial to be the benediction of the incoming reign, but for my part I should like to know what words are used in this consecration of the keys with the ' anointing oil,' and how many of these words have cabalistic or ' Rashe Tevoth ' interpretations and double meanings, for it would be vain to expect to find the formula in any printed books. I am told that in the Sephardi Synagogue are preserved small phials of the 'anointing oil,' remaining from over these ceremonials of many past Sultans ; but at the time we are now considering (1853), the Jews had not for some years performed the ceremony, having had no opportunity of doing so.

Finally, for those who think that Hebrew as a colloquial language was wholly resurrected by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda later in the 19th century comes this information:
With regard to pure Hebrew, the learned world in Europe is greatly mistaken in designating this a dead language. In Jerusalem it is a living tongue of everyday utility — necessarily so, for in what else could Jewish strangers from the opposite ends of the earth converse together? In our Consular office Hebrew was often heard spoken — on one occasion by a Jew from Cabool, who had to enter into explanations with one from California : of course in Hebrew. That language was a medium of transacting business in the English Consulate.

UPDATE: Finn's wife, Elizabeth Anne, also wrote memoirs of her time in Jerusalem, and discusses the issue of Hebrew in a conversation she quotes with a Jewish resident:
"The Sephardim look upon themselves as belonging to the
royal tribe of Judah, who took refuge in Spain, and
some in Italy, at the dispersion, and who returned here
in large numbers when Ferdinand and Isabella exiled
them from Spain. They utterly despise the Askenazim . —
above all, they despise their corrupt accent in reading.
The Spanish is certainly the most musical and
pure. All the men speak, read, and write Hebrew —
but the women, being uneducated, cannot speak it;
therefore they have, besides, a family language used at
home. Among the Sephardim this is Spanish; among
the Askenazim, very corrupt German ; among the
Mograbees, African-Arabic. The common language is
Hebrew, and it is used for religious purposes, as well
as literature and ordinary intercourse of letter-writing,
conversation, &c., &c., so that in the family language,
all principal words are still Hebrew, though the rest
may be Spanish, German, or Arabic."

"Then Hebrew ought not to be called a dead language ? "

"By no means. It is never called a dead language
here. All receipts, leases of houses, marriage contracts,
&c., &c., are made out in Hebrew ; and it is
spoken all day long in the Jewish quarter."