Buried Alive: Eighteenth Century Terror and a “Superstar” Jewish Doctor

Posted on November 13th, 2014 by

“Oh God of faithfulness, place in the heart of the sick trust in me and my work, and an ear to listen to my advice. Remove from their bedside every quack [and all] heralds and saviors who come forth regularly… [and] dare to rise up and criticize the work of a doctor.” –Physician’s Prayer, written by Marcus Herz, 1789

I am indebted for the substance of this post to John M. Efron’s Medicine and the German Jews: A History (2001) 

Title page, Uber die fruhe Beerdigung der Juden (On the Premature Burial of the Jews), by Marcus Herz, 1787. Courtesy of The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.

Title page, Uber die fruhe Beerdigung der Juden (On the Premature Burial of the Jews), by Marcus Herz, 1787. Courtesy of The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.

Among Dr. Harry Friedenwald’s magnificent collection of books and manuscripts documenting the activities of Jewish physicians through the ages (selections of which  will be displayed in our upcoming exhibition on Jews and medicine in America, scheduled to open in fall 2015) is a sixty-page pamphlet titled Uber die fruhe Beerdigung der Juden, On the Premature Burial of the Jews. Its riveting cover illustration cries out for explanation from the world of the author, Dr. Marcus Herz (1747-1803).

Marcus Herz, c. 1790s at the height of his reputation. Painted by Friedrich Georg Weitsch.

Marcus Herz, c. 1790s at the height of his reputation. Painted by Friedrich Georg Weitsch.

Herz was a sought-after physician, philosopher and friend of Immanuel Kant, and wealthy socialite who, together with his brilliant and beautiful wife Henriette, opened his home to the literati of his time, Jewish and Christian. Son of a poor sofer (Torah scribe), the precocious Herz first studied for the rabbinate, then became a clerk in a commercial concern, and at age 19 began to attend lectures at the University of Koenigsberg. He could not then afford to continue his studies, but made such an impression while there that Kant asked Herz to act as his “advocate” in the defense of his dissertation. Several years later, having acquired a patron among the Jewish reformers of the city to support him, he completed degrees in medicine and philosophy. While his education and social contacts led him to abandon ritual observance (and his persuasively rationalist lectures caused, in the words of a contemporary, “many an orthodox Jew…to doubt the teachings on miracles”), Herz remained proudly Jewish, a pioneer in a model of Jewish communal leadership and philanthropy we would recognize today. A proponent of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment), his sincere concern was to lead his Jewish brethren out of the ghettoes and into European citizenship.

With all the authority of his position in the community and status as a physician, Herz stepped into a raging controversy of the day: the medical uncertainty in determining the death of an individual and the resulting fear of premature burial that scholars have described as “pathological” and “a vast anxiety [which took] hold of the collective consciousness” (Ingrid Stoessel and Philippe Aries, quoted in Efron). Having learned how to resuscitate a drowning victim, scientists of the day began to question formerly agreed upon signs of death: lack of respiration and pulse, skin pallor, rigor mortis. Many insisted one could be sure death had occurred only with the onset of decay. As scientists argued and public feeling ran high, the state began to weigh in with legislation requiring burial be delayed until that point.

Henriette_Herz_by_Anna_Dorothea_Lisiewska_1778

Henriette De Lemos Herz, 1778 around the time of her marriage to Marcus at age 15. Painted by Anna Dorothea Lisiewska. For more information about this interesting and independent woman, see the entry on her in the Jewish Women’s Archive’s online encyclopedia http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/herz-henriette

Among Christians burial several days after death was normal custom, but Jews are enjoined by Torah (Deuteronomy 21:22-3) to bury the dead within twenty-four hours. The first official action affecting Jewish burial customs came in 1772 when the Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin decreed that Jews be required to wait three days before burying their dead. Moses Mendelssohn, the great interpreter of secular and Jewish culture, interceded for the community by suggesting that a physician be required to certify death before burial, a solution uneasily accepted by both sides of the controversy. The issue created lasting rifts within the Jewish community because physicians of the haskalah such as Herz, for reasons articulated in his 1787 pamphlet, tended to side with the state, while traditional authorities maintained that burial society members were quite expert in recognizing death.

Detail, Uber die fruhe Beerdigung der Juden. You may need to enlarge this image to see how the man’s entire upper body seems to be emerging from the mound of dirt on his grave in the background. Courtesy of The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.

Detail, Uber die fruhe Beerdigung der Juden. You may need to enlarge this image to see how the man’s entire upper body seems to be emerging from the mound of dirt on his grave in the background. Courtesy of The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.

The cover of Herz’s pamphlet is macabre. An engraving by Wilhelm Chodwiecki shows a mourner contemplating Moses Mendelssohn’s headstone while behind him in the moonlight, hands reach out, begging for liberation from a newly covered grave. Herz, at least partially motivated by a near-death illness of his own, gives passionate voice to the scene depicted on the cover: “My brothers, you simply can never have imagined the true horror of what it must be like for someone to awake in the grave!…He opens his eyes, around him everything is dark and desolate….He groans, cries, pleads with all the powers that he has struggled so hard to regain: to no avail, he languishes unheard.”

Herz proposed that Jews wait two to three days before burying their dead, with the alleged deceased resting in a mortuary and visited by a physician trained to recognize the signs of returning life or of decay. In the interim, the body was not to be considered a corpse or prepared for burial. In this he was opposed, as one might expect, by traditional Jewish authorities. But Herz was also challenged by conservative members of his own movement, who saw things differently. These opponents, also medically trained, argued—with some justification—that premature burial was not only a Jewish problem, that to single out Jewish practice for legislation was an act of discrimination by the state, and that, in fact, early burial was more hygienic than delayed burial, a claim backed by a Berlin College of Medicine study of victims of smallpox and other contagious diseases.

Is this story an example of official discrimination against the Jews, or of the struggle between Jewish traditionalists and reformers? In either case, it is a powerful demonstration of the ways in which medical arguments were mustered by those on both sides of the debate, suggesting the complexity of the relationships between medicine and the Jews.

 

A blog post by Curator Karen Falk. To read more posts from Karen click HERE.

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Oral Histories: Gaining Insights and Learning Personal Stories

Posted on July 28th, 2014 by

During my Exhibitions Research Internship at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, I have had the opportunity to conduct research on the Sinai Hospital Nurses Training Program for the upcoming Jews, Health, and Healing exhibition.  This research has included reading several oral history interviews from nurses who trained at Sinai Hospital (the program ended in 1975).  These interviews have not only given me new insights into the hospital and its program, but also have allowed me to learn some of each woman’s personality.

A group of Sinai nurses in gathered in their residence eating pizza, no date. Courtesy of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore.

A group of Sinai nurses in gathered in their residence eating pizza, no date. Courtesy of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore.

Oral histories collect and record personal memories and commentaries, and are one of the most important sources of information available to historians.  An oral history allows one to learn about the lives of people that are not ordinarily covered in history textbooks.  The information gathered in an oral history can be used for research, excerpted in publication, filmed for documentary, or displayed in museum exhibition.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland is home to hundreds of oral histories.  Those histories that have not yet been digitized or transcribed are kept in audiocassette form and organized in filing cabinets.

The Jewish Museum of Maryland is home to hundreds of oral histories. Those histories that have not yet been digitized or transcribed are kept in audiocassette form and organized in filing cabinets.

Information we have gathered through the nurses’ oral histories will better allow us to place exhibition objects into context and craft a narrative for their display.  As Curator Karen Falk wrote in her “JMM Insights, July 2014: Where Culture Meets Science” blog post, Bobbie Horwitz’s interview gave context for the elaborate silver tea gifted to JMM by the Sinai Nursing Alumnae Association.  Horwitz explained, “They wanted to make ladies of us.”  One of the ways they did so was through a civilized “tea” held every Friday.

Sinai nurses drinking from their silver tea set, no date. Courtesy of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore.

Sinai nurses drinking from their silver tea set, no date. Courtesy of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore.

Another interesting story I came across was from former Sinai nurse Senator Rosalie S. Abrams.  Abrams recounted how she learned Yiddish while working in the men’s ward.  “I was a head nurse for the men’s ward,” she said. “That’s where I learned my Yiddish—on the men’s ward.  We used to sing them Jewish songs.”  Such stories illustrate the intersection of Jewish culture and medicine in the space of the hospital.

Three Sinai nursing students and their instructor stand around a patient in his hospital bed, June 1960. Accession # 2010.020.316. Courtesy of Nurses Alumnae Association of Sinai Hospital.

Three Sinai nursing students and their instructor stand around a patient in his hospital bed, June 1960. Accession # 2010.020.316. Courtesy of Nurses Alumnae Association of Sinai Hospital.

After reading so many interesting stories I was excited to receive training, with my fellow interns, from Curator Karen Falk on how to conduct an oral history.  We went over how to use the museum’s recording equipment and preparing the proper documentation for the interview.  It is crucial to be prepared for the interview.  One of the most important things to consider is what you want to learn.  You should know your topic and what information you hope to gain.  Prepare a list of questions that get at the heart of what you want to know and familiarize yourself with them.  Your rapport will be easily interrupted if you keep pausing to look down at your questions.  Keep in mind that you should also be flexible with your questions.  Your interviewee may bring up interesting points you never considered, but would like to explore.

Prior to conducting your oral history make sure all your recording equipment works.  Familiarize yourself with it and practice.  You do not want to waste your interviewee’s time trying to set up equipment that you do not know how to use or that does not work.

image 5.recording equip

Some of JMM’s oral history recording equipment, including a digital recorder and microphone.

Upcoming research for the Jews, Health, and Healing exhibition will include conducting more oral history interviews with Jewish medical professionals.  I hope that some of the great accounts from the Sinai nurses’ oral histories will be incorporated into the exhibit.

Sarah MooreA blog post by Exhibitions Research Intern Sarah Moore. To read more posts by interns click HERE.

During my Exhibitions Research Internship at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, I have had the opportunity to conduct research on the Sinai Hospital Nurses Training Program for the upcoming Jews, Health, and Healing exhibition.  This research has included reading several oral history interviews from nurses who trained at Sinai Hospital (the program ended in 1975).  These interviews have not only given me new insights into the hospital and its program, but also have allowed me to learn some of each woman’s personality. 

Image 1: A group of Sinai nurses in gathered in their residence eating pizza, no date. Courtesy of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore.

Oral histories collect and record personal memories and commentaries, and are one of the most important sources of information available to historians.  An oral history allows one to learn about the lives of people that are not ordinarily covered in history textbooks.  The information gathered in an oral history can be used for research, excerpted in publication, filmed for documentary, or displayed in museum exhibition. 

Image 2:  The Jewish Museum of Maryland is home to hundreds of oral histories.  Those histories that have not yet been digitized or transcribed are kept in audiocassette form and organized in filing cabinets.

Information we have gathered through the nurses’ oral histories will better allow us to place exhibition objects into context and craft a narrative for their display.  As Curator Karen Falk wrote in her “JMM Insights, July 2014: Where Culture Meets Science” blog post, Bobbie Horwitz’s interview gave context for the elaborate silver tea gifted to JMM by the Sinai Nursing Alumnae Association.  Horwitz explained, “They wanted to make ladies of us.”  One of the ways they did so was through a civilized “tea” held every Friday.

Image 3:  Sinai nurses drinking from their silver tea set, no date. Courtesy of Sinai Hospital of Baltimore.

Another interesting story I came across was from former Sinai nurse Senator Rosalie S. Abrams.  Abrams recounted how she learned Yiddish while working in the men’s ward.  “I was a head nurse for the men’s ward,” she said. “That’s where I learned my Yiddish—on the men’s ward.  We used to sing them Jewish songs.”  Such stories illustrate the intersection of Jewish culture and medicine in the space of the hospital.

Image 4:  Three Sinai nursing students and their instructor stand around a patient in his hospital bed, June 1960. Accession # 2010.020.316. Courtesy of Nurses Alumnae Association of Sinai Hospital.

After reading so many interesting stories I was excited to receive training, with my fellow interns, from Curator Karen Falk on how to conduct an oral history.  We went over how to use the museum’s recording equipment and preparing the proper documentation for the interview.  It is crucial to be prepared for the interview.  One of the most important things to consider is what you want to learn.  You should know your topic and what information you hope to gain.  Prepare a list of questions that get at the heart of what you want to know and familiarize yourself with them.  Your rapport will be easily interrupted if you keep pausing to look down at your questions.  Keep in mind that you should also be flexible with your questions.  Your interviewee may bring up interesting points you never considered, but would like to explore.

Prior to conducting your oral history make sure all your recording equipment works.  Familiarize yourself with it and practice.  You do not want to waste your interviewee’s time trying to set up equipment that you do not know how to use or that does not work.

Image 5: Some of JMM’s oral history recording equipment, including a digital recorder and microphone.

Upcoming research for the Jews, Health, and Healing exhibition will include conducting more oral history interviews with Jewish medical professionals.  I hope that some of the great accounts from the Sinai nurses’ oral histories will be incorporated into the exhibit.

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




MAIMONIDES

Posted on July 24th, 2014 by

18th-century portrait of Maimonides, from the Thesaurus antiquitatum sacrarum by Blaisio Ugolino.

18th-century portrait of Maimonides, from the Thesaurus antiquitatum sacrarum by Blaisio Ugolino.

Born:  1136, Cordoba, Spain

Died:  December 12, 1204, Fustat, Egypt

Parents: Maimon

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

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

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

Barbara IsraelA 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 in jewish museum of maryland




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