Exploring Babylon Chapter 18
“The Americas were far. The Americas were different. It was rabbinic exile.” This, writes Rabbi Oran Zweiter, is how European immigrant rabbis to the New World felt, beginning with Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonesca, who left Holland for Brazil in 1642. Aboab (1607-1693), the first ordained rabbi known to make such a move, served the Jewish community in Recife until after Portugal re-captured the Dutch colony in 1654.
There is much of interest for #ExploringBabylon in Zweiter’s article, published in honor of Aboab’s yahrzeit, Adar 27, (March 14 in 2018). In preparation for Passover, however, let’s direct our attention to one phrase that links the New World to Mitzraim.
Please note: this piece, first posted late on March 18, was updated slightly at 9:00 a.m. March 19.
Brazil, kur ha-barzel
Zweiter illustrates Aboab’s “personal feelings of exile” using examples from his Brazil-based writings:
Aboab’s [vidui/confessional] poem is an account of the Portuguese siege. It is also a deeply personal reflection on what it meant for him to be sent as a rabbi to the far end of the world. He used biblical words with similar pronunciation and spelling to allude to Brazil, such as kur ha-barzel, the “melting pot,” which in the Torah refers to Egypt (Deuteronomy 4:20).
Similarly, Aboab referenced the new geography in which the Jews found themselves….
Brazil “represented a state of exile,” the Jewish community were “Dwellers in the shadows of the universe,” and Aboab declared: “For my sin, I have been tossed to a faraway land.”
Aboab’s sense of exile for sin makes the play on words with “Brazil” and “kur ha-barzel” a poignant one. Zweiter’s translation of the latter as “melting pot” adds another interesting layer of meaning.
Uses of “kur“
My concordance lists three uses of “kur ha-barzel” in the Tanakh:
וְאֶתְכֶם֙ לָקַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וַיּוֹצִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֛ם
מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם לִהְי֥וֹת ל֛וֹ לְעַ֥ם נַחֲלָ֖ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
but you the LORD took and brought out of Egypt,
that iron blast furnace,
to be His very own people, as is now the case.
— Deuteronomy 4:20
כִּי-עַמְּךָ וְנַחֲלָתְךָ, הֵם, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתָ מִמִּצְרַיִם,
מִתּוֹךְ כּוּר הַבַּרְזֶל.
For they are Your very own people that You freed from Egypt,
from the midst of the iron furnace.
— 1 Kings 8:51
“Hear the terms of this covenant, and recite them to the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem! And say to them, Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: Cursed be the man who will not obey the terms of this covenant,
אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִי אֶת־אֲבֽוֹתֵיכֶם בְּיוֹם הוֹצִיאִי־אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ־מִצְרַיִם
לֵאמֹר שִׁמְעוּ בְקוֹלִי וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אוֹתָם כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר־אֲצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם לִי לְעָם וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם
which I enjoined upon your fathers when I freed them from the land of Egypt,
the iron crucible,
saying, ‘Obey Me and observe them, just as I command you, that you may be My people and I may be your God’— [11:4]
in order to fulfill the oath which I swore to your fathers, to give them a land flowing with milk and honey, as is now the case.” And I responded, “Amen, LORD.”
— Jeremiah 11:2-5
There are six more uses of the word “kur“: Two in Proverbs (17:3, 27:21), three in Ezekiel (22:18, 20, 22), and one in Isaiah (48:10). The word is “always metaphorically employed to describe great trouble and misery,” according to the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia. Moreover, all uses involve trial in relation to sin, and four of the six specifically reference Jews suffering God’s wrath.
Furnace, Forge, and Crucible
When Zweiter describes Aboab’s Brazil/barzel pun, he translates “kur ha-barzel” as “melting pot.” Perhaps Aboab’s poem includes other clues that point to “melting pot.” The Deuteronomy verse that Zweiter cites, the first use of the expression “kur ha-barzel” for the experience of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, is not usually translated that way, however.
Instead, we find:
- “iron blast furnace” (JPS, quoted above),
- “iron crucible” (Artscroll),
- “Iron Furnace” (Fox), and
- “iron forge” (Alter).
Alter’s translation includes this note:
The argument of the sermon now moves another step back in time, from Sinai to the Exodus. The origins of Israel as a people subject to another people in whose land it dwelled, rescued from the crucible of slavery by God, are adduced as further evidence of God’s unique election of Israel.
The first use of the expression “melting pot” in American English is dated to 1887 by Merriam-Webster. The term came to describe the peculiar struggles in the U.S. around immigration and assimilation. This usage was popularized by Israel Zangwill’s play, The Melting Pot, which was first performed — and reportedly applauded by President Theodore Roosevelt — in 1908.
It seems unlikely that Aboab, in Brazil in the mid-17th Century, could have envisioned the scenes of Ellis Island, in the early 20th, that inspired this speech:
America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming!…A ﬁg for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.
— David Quixano to Verendal, The Melting Pot
But Zweiter’s use of the expression is interesting and provocative in the context of Passover:
- It highlights the tension between “God’s unique election of Israel” in the Exodus story and the notion of “God making the American”;
- It raises more general questions about divine providence and civic duty, exile and learning; and
- It reminds us that the concept of “melting pot” is no more gentle than “iron blast furnace” or some of the other translations for “kur ha-barzel.”
Zweiter concludes his piece:
The writings of Rabbi Isaac Aboab, the first rabbi in the Americas, reveal challenges that would continuously confront rabbis, immigrant and native alike, in the Americas. His writing reflects the uniqueness of the Jewish experience in the New World from its earliest stages. His story demonstrates that the challenges that have faced spiritual leadership in the Americas are not new. They began with the very first rabbi to settle, however shortly, in the New World.
In that sense, Aboab’s experience is precursor to that of Zangwill’s Quizano family, with the mezuzah, “Stars-and-Stripes,” mizrach, and old-world violin competing for space at the front door. And with these words, Zweiter’s piece prods us to think, as Passover approaches, about the peculiarly American aspects of the challenge in the Deuteronomy verse: “but you, the LORD took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace [or melting pot], to be God’s very own people, as is now the case.”
I have no direct access to Aboab’s writings, which I believe are extant in Portuguese and Hebrew and not widely available. Zweiter cites Hakhmei Recife Ve-Amsterdam, with a link to the National Library of Israel; here is a more direct link, for what it’s worth, to the catalog listing for rare books.
Isaiah 48:10 uses the phrase “kur oni” —
הִנֵּה צְרַפְתִּיךָ, וְלֹא בְכָסֶף; בְּחַרְתִּיךָ,
Behold, I have refined thee, but not as silver; I have tried thee
in the furnace of affliction [sometimes: poverty].
— which calls to mind Passover’s “lechem oni,” bread of affliction or poverty. This verse is also related to an odd, and cryptic, midrash (B. Chag 9b) on poverty. More on this soon, I hope.
Closing lines of The Melting Pot:
DAVID: There she lies, the great Melting Pot—listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth [He points east]—the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian,—black and yellow—
VERA: Jew and Gentile—
DAVID: Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross—how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. Ah, Vera, what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!
NOTE: This play, and historical notes, are available via Project Guttenberg (public domain). If you have not read it, or read it recently, check it out!
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