BLTC Press Titles

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The Characters of Theophrastus


The Art of Worldly Wisdom

Baltasar Gracian

Darby O'Gill and the Little People

Hermenie Templeton Kavanagh

The Count of Monte Cristo

Alexandre Dumas

Jews in many lands

by Elkan Nathan Adler


for it was a fashionable though strictly orthodox congregation—were in mufti, but the fez was universal. Misseri himself was sometimes in European and sometimes in Oriental costume, like his house half Parisian and half African, perhaps because of his dual character as a Bey of Egypt and an Italian Chevalier. The Chazan—the best in Egypt, I was told—seemed to delight his audience, but the taste for his music requires to be cultivated. His nasal twang and sing-song chant, all in the minor key, were for all the world identical with those of the Moullahs in the mosques, whose calls, mingled with the barking of jackals, and screaming of hawks, and braying of donkeys, form the night cries of Cairo. We Jews always borrow from our environment, and anyone transported into a synagogue could, from the style of the decorations and character of the music, at once tell whether he was in a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Mohammedan country. The liturgy is that of the Italian Sephardim with some modifications, which constitute the "Minhag Mizraim," such as the Duchan every Sabbath, introduced by Maimonides. As our co-religionists there are not very learned in rabbinical lore, they are the more addicted to certain superstitions, and show a decided leaning toward the mysteries of the Kabbala. In the Kol Nidre service this was especially noticeable.

Misseri's is not the only private synagogue in Cairo. In Egypt and, indeed, throughout the Orient, it is the fashion for the leading Jews of the country to have synagogues of their own, which their friends and households attend, and which are sometimes as large as a public synagogue in Europe, while their embroideries and plate are as rich. The custom is a good oldfashioned one, and used to be as prevalent in the West as it is in the East. People who have read Professor Kaufmann's charming biography of his wife's kinsman, R. Samson Wertheimer, who was Hofjude in Vienna some two hundred years ago, will recollect the description of his Shool, which was much such a one as that of Misseri. That of the Cattauis is larger and finer, and boasts of a gallery for ladies. It adjoins the magnificent residence of M. Moise Cattaui, which was once the palace of one of Khedive Ismail's favorite Pashas, and was lent by its present owner to Lord Dufferin, who lived there during the three months or so that he spent in Egypt as England's Special Commissioner. For this attention Queen Victoria sent M. Cattaui her portrait, which he treasures with no little pride. The garden is almost a park, and it was a strange sight to English eyes to see some of our less devout, or more weary, co-religionists lying on the grass amid the cotton and plantain or date palms. On the west wall of the synagogue itself is a Hebrew tablet to the memory of a young son of M. Cattaui, who was murdered by Arabi's following on the awful night of the bombardment of Alexandria. Robbery was the motive, and his assailants chopped off a finger to get at his diamond ring. His untimely death cast a gloom not only over his immediate family, but over the whole Cairene community, for the Cattauis are great benefactors of their brethren and surpassed by none in public spirit and intelligent liberality.


Maimonides is, if I may say so, the patron saint of Cairo. Indeed, throughout the community he is known as enpn HE'D U3"i. "Our Rabbi Moses the Holy." In the Oriental quarter the chief synagogue is called after his name, and among its treasures is the iro, or Bible, alleged to have been written by his own hand. In the courtyard of the synagogue is the spot where tradition says he lay buried until his body was removed to the Holy Land. This cellar-like vault is believed to be endowed with mystic virtues, so that it can heal the sick. And the efficacy of faith is so great that, to this day, patients who are brought there often recover. The Rambam's residence in Fostat, or Old Cairo, is, of course, historical; he was for years physician to the Kaliph, and it is a fact that the most valuable and authentic manuscripts of his works, including the famous "Yad ha-Chazakah" of the Bodleian with his signature, of which Dr. Neubauer gives a facsimile in his magnificent catalogue, were originally purchased in Cairo.2 Another folio manuscript of the same work, five or six hundred years old, beautifully illuminated, was once the property of Abarbanel, who, believing it to be in the Rambam's own handwriting, paid three thousand ducats for it. This was recently shown me in Frankfort by Dr. Horovitz, who is collating it,

'Four or five autograph letters of his have been found in the Fostat Genizah. One is a genuine twelfth century f\"W, i. e., "question and answer." The "case" is written first and, just as is counsel's practice still, the "opinion" follows on and is continued on the back.

and he pointed out to me some important lectiones variae. It belongs to a dealer in antiquities in Frankfort, who wants a thousand pounds for it. This, too, I believe, the great Spanish minister procured from Egypt, or at any rate from North Africa. Many legendary tales cluster round the Rambam's name, and form part of Cairene folk-lore. Thus the old story told by Dr. Gaster in his charming Beitrage zur vergleichenden Sagen und Marchenkunde has its original habitat in Cairo. We are told that Maimonides and his pupil, or, some say, teacher, had for years been seeking for the elixir vitae. At last they succeed, and cast lots who is to be first experimented upon. The lot falls upon the colleague of Maimonides, who forthwith cuts him up, sprinkles the pieces with the wonderful elixir, and puts them in an air-tight bottle, or receiver, which is not to be opened for nine months. After that time the daring student was to emerge resuscitated and immortal. But the experimentee was the King's physician, and when weeks pass and he does not turn up, the King gets uneasy and finds out that he was last seen in company of Maimonides. Summoned to the royal presence, the Jewish philosopher is forced to confess what he has done, and the King, in a fit of indignant piety, breaks the bottle so as to prevent an immortal man from posing as a god. In another account it is not the King but Maimonides himself who, from conscientious scruples, destroys the bottle, and with it his accomplice's chance of immortality. Dr. Gaster refers to similar tales told of Virgil and of Paracelsus, and also to one in which Aristotle plays the corpus vile to the Rambam's Faust.


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