Posted on July 24th, 2014 by Rachel
18th-century portrait of Maimonides, from the Thesaurus antiquitatum sacrarum by Blaisio Ugolino.
Born: 1136, Cordoba, Spain
Died: December 12, 1204, Fustat, Egypt
Education: University of Al Karaouine
Children: Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon
Siblings: David ben Maimon (and several unnamed female relatives)
-Sherwin B. Nuland, Maimonides. Nextbook, Schocken, New York, 2005.
Maimonides sculpture, Cordoba, Spain
“Why is it, in fact, so many Jews have become doctors”?
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance the legend of the Jewish doctor’s special skill is still current today . . . along-side the legend of the profession’s attractiveness to young Jews as a career. Intertwined with myth, the legendary relationship between the Jew and the Art of Healing continues to evoke response . . .
SPAIN, MOROCCO, EGYPT
As a young child, Moses was an indifferent and uncaring student despite his father’s determined efforts. Unresponsive to Maimon’s encouragement, cajoling and finally his ire and punishment Moses refused to learn until his father called him a person of the lowest order, like his very common place mother. He became angry and ran away. Moses would hide in, as the legend goes, in the Women’s Section of the Synagogue where no one would think to look for him. He would lament to God praying for some relief from the failure that some must have attributed to his having been the offspring of an unlearned butcher’s daughter.
When Moses began studying, his father, the elder Maimon, had a vast library in Cordoba which Moses enjoyed looking at. Being a precocious boy, Moses learned Jewish Law, philosophy, rhetoric, astronomy, science, and mathematics. He poured over his father’s medical books. He was taught by his father and tutors as well after choosing to study.
On fleeing Cordoba, teachers were found among the fleeing Jews to educate Moses as best they could while on the journey.
Moses was able to absorb large quantities of information and remember it without notes. Once read, the contents of entire books seem to have remained in his memory. As for so many intellectually gifted students of the medieval period, the goal was set for him to master all knowledge. Other details of Moses’ early life is not certain and has fallen into myth.
The Almohad Caliphate map
Because of a change of leadership in Spain and Fez, Morocco, in 1148 by the Almohads, a violent fundamentalist fanatical Muslim group of Berbers, the Maimon family moved to Fez hoping for some relief from the persecution and mayhem. Moses began writing during this period which became a regular part of his life until his death. At about age 20, he began writing a form of the Mishnah, called the Gemara, produced as a work the common man could understand. He wrote under restless and dangerous travel.
Writing in Arabic using Hebrew letters, he wrote a book called the Siraj, “Luminous Light.” The book was meant to elucidate concepts that might be abstruse to the common man.
TRAGEDY AND DEPRESSION
Moses’ brother, David Maimon, went into commerce selling gems. David was Moses’ younger brother who, because he was so successful, encouraged Moses to continue studying and subsidized his study. David was also responsible for several aunts and cousins. The gem business became so successful, David began travelling farther and farther away from to sell his wares.
When Moses’ brother died in a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, the family fortune went down with him. David left Moses his widow and a little daughter plus the other relatives to care for. At age 30, Moses went into a severe depression due to the loss of David and the heavy responsibility that fell onto his shoulders. Upon coming out of the depression, he looked around to see what he could do to earn money to overcome his financial problems. He tried to lecture and teach on the subject of depression and wrote a treatise on the subject. Because he couldn’t make enough money to solve his problems from his lecturing and teaching, he had turn to other means.
He didn’t want to teach Torah for money because this was a sacred trust for him. He looked around for something to do. He, therefore, turned to thoughts of practicing medicine. He remembered “studying his father, Maimon’s, medical texts, he was fascinated by disease and the ways in which the body yielded to illness and then attempts to rally against it.”
Moses read the Greek masters Hippocrates and Galen and was familiar with the works of those who came after them: Aretaeus, Paul of Aegina, and Oribasius. He studied herbs from the great herbalist and medical botanist, Dioscorides from the first century C.E. He also knew the biological theories of Aristotle as though he had performed the experiments and observations himself. Being the scholar he was, he studied more recent treatises of the leading physicians who wrote in Arabic including Rabbi Isaac Judaeus and three Muslim physicians and the man who had been his friend, Averroes from Cordoba, Spain. Moses studied the great Persian physicians who were two generations before him. Moses learned medicine from books not bedside practice and from years of discussions with his or his father’s friends.
He was aware of the high fees physicians could be paid and he became a doctor. He brought to medicine the advantages of long years of study, virtually photographic memory, wide knowledge of philosophy and science and the rational approach to evidence they had taught him; the wisdom and compassion for God’s creatures that were so much a part of his Jewish heritage and his personal faith.
His years of being a healer elevated him to professional prominence and he was invited to treat patients at court.
- Maimonides for Kids, Islamic Medicine
Maimonides wrote a book about how to stay healthy and not get sick in the first place. He realized that people in cities got sick from drinking water contaminated by sewage. Dysentery and cholera germs seeped into the water supply. His advice was to try to live in a city surrounded by forests and outside water. He encouraged people to keep clean, eat good food, get plenty of fresh air and exercise. According to Maimonides, depressed people were more likely to get sick. His antidote was to tell his patients to listen to music, look at paintings, and take pleasant walks. If you got sick, eat chicken soup. For snake bites use tourniquets, burning out the poison, and rest. He like Aristotle and other physicians of the day, didn’t completely understand the properties of herbal medicines. He also didn’t know that some physical problems caused depression.
He,like Aristotle, believed scientific experiment and logical thought were the way to learn what caused disease.
- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
A typical day for Maimonides was to go to the Sultan of Cairo’s palace to care for anyone in the household who became sick. Then upon returning home in the afternoon, his anti-chamber was filled with patients of all social class and strata of the surrounding area. His first activity upon reaching home was to wash his hands and eat a light meal, the only meal he ate in a 24 hour period.
Maimonides became a physician only after his brother David died in a capsized ship. Caring for the family fell upon him alone. After casting around for ideas on a way to make a living, he remembered his father’s medical books and how much he enjoyed reading them as a child. He began to read everything he could on available Islamic medicine, Aristotle and Galen of Pergamon and he studied herbal medicines by the great men of the day. Because he retained whole pages and books, he was able to recall what he needed to treat a patient. Because there weren’t very many cures in the 12th century, he concentrated on preventive medicine which he was very successful at spreading his name and skills far and wide.
Why did Jews go into medicine in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance? Medicine was available to them and their Talmudic and Torah education gave them special skills for learning medicine and then practicing it. Medicine was lucrative as a way to support their families and their Talmudic studies. There is still a mystique about the Jewish doctor among the populations of many countries. The hey-day for Jewish physicians seems to be passing but others will take their place.
A blog post by Exhibitions Intern Barbara Israelson. To read more posts from interns, click HERE. To read more about Maimonides, check out his wikipedia article HERE.
Posted on April 30th, 2014 by Rachel
We are less than a month away from the eighth annual Herbert H and Irma B Risch Program on Immigration. This year’s program, to be held at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation at 2 p.m. on May 18, features Rabbi Marvin Tokayer. Rabbi Tokayer will be speaking on the topic of the Shanghai refugees, the remarkable Jewish community that not only survived WWII but also flourished in the years that followed (former Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal among them). The selection of this year’s program was influenced by JMM’s current exhibition, Project Mah Jongg, and its focus on cultural connections between Jewish Americans and Chinese traditions.
Mark Your Calendar!
The connections between Jews and China are far older than most people think. The merchant trade of the Silk Road brought the first Jews to this part of the world by the time of the 8th century Tang Dynasty. When Marco Polo arrives in Beijing in the late 1200s he finds an active community of Jewish traders. Kaifeng contained perhaps the largest and most enduring Chinese Jewish population, preserving kashreit and shabbat well into the 1700s.
Jews of K’ai-Fun-Foo (Kaifeng Subprefecture), China. Image via wikipedia.
In the modern era China has been a place of refuge for Jews on more than one occasion. When the Inquisition reached Goa, India in 1560, the demand was made that Portuguese marranos and “New Christians” return to Portugal and the punishments meted out to the unfaithful. A group of Portuguese marranos went further east to Macao instead. “Captain” Bartolomeu Vaz Landeiro was among the most notable of these refugees. Taking on a role that combined piracy and diplomacy, Landeiro became an agent for the local Chinese authorities in their dealings with the European powers. Without any sense of irony, his Chinese neighbors would call Landeiro, “The King of the Portuguese.”
Marranos: Secret Seder in Spain during the times of inquisition, painting by Moshe Maimon. Image via wikipedia.
In 1844, it was the opium trade that brought Elias David Sassoon, son of the treasurer of Baghdad, to China. Initially setting up shop in Hong Kong, Sassoon becomes the first Jewish member of the international colony in Shanghai in 1850. The big break for the Sassoons is the American Civil War. Suddenly, Chinese cotton becomes an important international commodity and Elias David Sassoon its most prominent dealer.
David Sassoon (seated) and his sons Elias David, Albert (Abdallah) & Sassoon David. Image via wikipedia.
In the early 1900s, Jews fleeing pogroms in Western Russia, managed to make it across the Trans-Siberian Railway to settle in Harbin, China.
And perhaps the most interesting Jewish emigre to China is Morris Cohen (known more commonly as “Two Gun Cohen”). Cohen was a British born pickpocket, pugilist and con artist (as a boy, in a scene right out of American Hustle Cohen is employed by glazier, breaking windows to bring in business). After leaving reform school in England, Cohen headed to Saskatchewan, Canada where he was hired on as a farmhand and taught to shoot with a gun in both hands. He made an unlikely friendship with a Chinese restaurant owner in Saskatoon whom he saved from an armed robbery. This brought him into the inner circle of Cantonese Canadians who were supporting Sun Yatsen independence movement against the child emperor PuYi (think Last Emperor of China). He eventually became a body guard for Sun Yatsen and his family and later a “Brigadier General” under Chiang Kai Shek.
If these stories pique your interest, I have two resources to suggest:
1) There is a terrific on line magazine called Asian Jewish Life at www.asianjewishlife.org. You will find much more detail on “Two-Gun Cohen” in one of their archival issues – this one to be exact!
2) In addition to his lecture in May, Rabbi Tokayer runs a series of highly-rated kosher tours of Jewish history in Asia. His next China-Japan tour is in July. You can find more information at www.jewisheyes.com.
A blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click here.
Posted on December 4th, 2013 by Rachel
People sometimes ask me, “What is the use of Jewish history?” And “why do you study and write about that so much?” Author and historian, Lucy Davidowitz, wrote a book on this subject.
2007.054.027 Book cover, The Hoffburger Journey in America: 1882-2005, compiled primarily by Lois Hoffberger Blum Feinblatt.
Others take their concern and doubt to an annoying level, saying, “History is not important.” Perhaps not, for them, compared with the latest Hollywood gossip, the score of Sunday’s football game or newest technological toy. Their view is short sighted, to say the least.
For me, researching and writing about Jewish history is akin to raising a memorial to departed relatives, ancestors and – yes – to strangers. Some may be famous community or congregational leaders while others served their families quietly with love and dedication.
Only two of my relatives served the community in public ways – one was a Hershfield who served as secretary of a synagogue in New Jersey. The shul is now defunct, and I have no documentation about this except for Oral History tapes of my mother.
Another Hershfield in the same family in Jersey City served on the public School Board. But this branch of the family are notorious for not answering letters, and we have been out of touch with them since the 1960s, so no documentation has been found to verify the anecdote.
(As for yichus, that is, genealogical status, I sometimes imagine that I am descended from a 2nd Century Sage or a Levitical priest. But this may be ego on my part!)
Every time we quest for our family’s history, read an article in a Jewish History periodical or visit the JMM, we are raising a memorial to the whole Jewish people. It is like placing rocks on the top of tombstones when we visit cemeteries. The purpose is to make the marker-stone larger, thereby, increasing the honor of those who have passed away. Saying Kaddish for one’s father is another example. Sharing our genealogies with living relatives is a third example of zichron – remembering our ancestors. And from where we came.
1973.008.001 Collage of Galitzianer gravestones (1903) from Gruft family collection. Artist unknown.]
The value of learning, teaching and celebrating our many-faceted history becomes more apparent when we consider how often in history that the Jewish people have faced extreme adversity. Even if our immigrant-ancestors lived a life of obscurity, toiling in the moderate Garment Industry of Jonestown or peddling as an arabisher, there is eternal value to our interest, care and memory of them. We need the Eternal One’s eyes to perceive the value of Jewish history.
1997.149.003 Button sewing machine (1930s), made by Singer, from D. Schwartz and Sons Garment Machinery Co., of Baltimore Street and later, Gay Street.
A blog post by Collections Volunteer Robert Siegel. To read more posts by and about JMM volunteers, click here.