Rabbinic Wanderlust and Cultural Transfer

An immigrant from Poland to Tunisia in the 19th century tried to bridge cultural worlds while satisfying his wanderlust.

For the past ten years, it has been my delightful lot to help the elect of the human race, to be a deliverer and courier of all kinds of books, old and new, from Sefarad to Ashkenaz and from Ashkenaz to Sefarad. No distance was too great for me. The dry heat of Africa did not stop me, and the ice of Ashkenaz did not deter me….

I witnessed the wisdom of Ashkenaz rejoicing in the courtyards of Sefarad, and the sagacity of Sefarad raising her voice in the streets of Ashkenaz – and it was from me. I brought it about. Though I ate bread in misery, this legacy is more beautiful to me than the legacy of traders in gold and jewels….

Sweeter to my palate were dry bread dipped in stagnant water in the bowels of a ship and bread, dates, and water from a skin on a dune in the Arabian desert than every delicacy of kings and princes.

Sefer HaZikaron, Publisher’s Apologia, Livorno, 1845

Eliezer Ashkenazi was born in Poland in the early 19th century, but Tunis had become his hometown by the mid-1840s. According to his own account, financial circumstances forced him to abandon his yeshiva studies at the age of 17. It seems that his heart remained in the study hall, though, as he became a collector, dealer, copyist, and publisher of Jewish manuscripts.

Through NLI catalog, we can trace the manuscripts that passed through his hands: some he bought, some he copied (or co-copied), and some he commissioned others to copy (and then printed). One he left at the home of a friend in Modena, Italy, and never retrieved. The manuscripts were medieval and modern, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Some of them he saw or acquired in Tunis and elsewhere in North Africa, and others he came upon during his travels.

Like a one-man Mekize Nirdamim society, he published three books and facilitated the publication of several more, all of which consisted of unpublished treatises, letters, liturgical compositions, and commentaries. Of the three he published, all within the span of a decade, the first was Sefer Ha-Zikaron, whose preface, by Ashkenazi, is excerpted above. This book is a supercommentary on Rashi’s Torah commentary by R. Avraham Bakrat, a rabbi who was expelled from Spain and ended up in Tunis in the early 16th century. Ashkenazi discovered the manuscript there and brought it to Livorno to print. He actually printed two editions in that year: one for Italy and one for North Africa; the latter lists sponsors from several Algerian cities: Mostaganem, Tlemcen, Constantine, and Algiers. The former contains several pages of prenumeranten as well as approbations from leading Italian rabbis like the famed Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto) and Yashar (Isaac Samuel Reggio). The list is apparently by order of city traveled, so we can chart his route across northern Italy (with a detour to Rome), from Trieste to Cuneo and on to Marseilles in France. He sold books in c. 40 different cities in all.

His next literary undertaking was four years later. He published Divrei Hakhamim, a compilation of 11 mostly medieval treatises with a clearly rationalist bent. This work was published in Metz. It, too, has several pages of noms des hommes genereux– the names (in French) of those generous people who pre-purchased the book. This list, too, is in order of visits, and here Ashkenazi takes us to almost 100 different places, mainly villages, in Alsace and Lorraine, along France’s border with Germany and the most heavily Jewish regions in 19th century France.

The third book, Ta’am Zekenim (whose title JE creepily translates as “The Taste of Old Men”) was published in Frankfurt in 1855. It is likewise a compilation of several older treatises, with an introduction by R. Eliakim Carmoly, a kindred spirit of Ashkenazi’s who had recently retired from being Belgium’s chief rabbi. There is barely a page of subscribers to this book, from a handful of larger cities. I do not know what accounts for this change in strategy, but it seems likely that he did not visit all of the cities where subscribers lived. I’ve combined the lists for Ta’am Zekenim and Divrei Hakhamim in one map.

The striking thing is that there is no overlap between the places in the Sefer Ha-Zikaron lists and the subsequent lists. It’s almost as though Ashkenazi wanted to tour a different part of the Jewish world when he published his second book. Having done Italy and Africa, he opted to tour France instead. He wrote the preface to Ta’am Zekenim in Marseille – the terminus of his prior tour – in 1854. From there, presumably, he sailed back to Tunis.

After 1855, he seems to have settled down a bit. In 1858, he wrote to Senior Sachs (we see you, Shneur) about the community in Tunis. This letter became the first in a series of dispatches to Ha-Levanon on the history and travails of this community; these articles, listed in the bibliography of the JE entry on Tunis, form the basis for Robert Hattal’s La Chronique d’Eliezer Ashkenazi : sur les juifs de Tunis. In 1868, he copied in Tunis a manuscript of correspondences between R. Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia (“Ramah”) and Provencal rabbis on behalf of Jehiel Brill, editor of Ha-Levanon, in Paris, who printed it.

It is not likely that Eliezer Ashkenazi would be inducted into the 19th century Hall of Fame of Jewish scholars, bibliophiles, and codicologists. It was a crowded century. He collaborated with some better-known scholars, like the aforementioned Shadal, Yashar, R. Carmoly, Brill, and Sachs, as well as Salomon Munk. Unlike some other, he really pounded the pavement. He had passion and knowledge, and from his introductions to his publications it is clear that he had a flair for playing up his familiarity with both Ashkenaz and Sefarad in order to make his books more enticing. He professes an interest in cross-pollination between Jewish cultures and works to bring it about.

It also seems that he did not travel for the job, but that he picked the job for the travel. He seems to have had a good deal of wanderlust. In addition to the places already mentioned, he also writes of visits to Morocco and Gibraltar, thus completing his circuit of the Western Mediterranean. It is hard to know the effects of his attempts to serve as a cultural bridge and a courier of knowledge and enlightenment, but he considered the endeavor worthwhile, and we tend to agree with him.

On a personal note (and a natural affinity for Ashkenazim named Eliezer), one of the hardest parts of the COVID-19 era has been the inability to travel. I have found myself feeding my wanderlust vicariously, through the travels of people like Eliezer Ashkenazi, until things open back up and we can hit the road again.