JHOM - Bookshelf - Italian Genizah
The Jewish Orientalist
by Tom Reiss
"In the cultural hothouse of
Weimar Germany, few flowers bloomed quite as extravagantly as Essad
Bey. His enormously popular books and articles opened a window on the
Islamic world, the exotic tribes of the Caucasus and the political upheavals
convulsing Russia. Ali and Nino, written under the pen name
Kurban Said, enchanted readers with its depiction of Azerbaijan on the
eve of the Russian revolution and its romantic story of a Muslim prince's
love for a Christian girl.
For cultivated Germans, Essad Bey was the man of the East, the cosmopolitan
Muslim who, in his writings, brought back treasure from the fabled lands
of the caliphate. In fact, Essad Bey, the Orientalist of Tom Reiss's
title, was a fictional creation. Although fond of posing for photographs
in Caucasian tribal gear, or wearing a fez or turban, Germany's most
beloved Muslim was actually a Jew named Lev Nussimbaum. Thereby hangs
a wondrous tale, beautifully told, that took the author five years and
patient detective work in 10 countries to reconstruct." (William
Grimes, NY Times Book Review, Feb. 23, 2005)
The following is selection from Tom Reiss' new book about the mysterious
Lev Nussimbaum, The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange
and Dangerous Life. The passage discusses a type once familiar
in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Jewish Orientalist who seemed to
lose himself in the reverie of Eastern identity.
In one sense, Lev Nussimbaum was an extreme example of a type
once familiar in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but now forgotten:
the Jewish Orientalist. The phenomenon was first notable in Victorian England,
when young men from highly assimilated and influential families like William
Gifford Palgrave and Benjamin Disraeli set off to find their "Oriental
roots" in the desert.
In Palgrave's case, the quest for Oriental authenticity led him to a wildlife
of role-playing; in the 1850s, posing as a Muslim doctor while secretly working
for the Jesuits (oddly enough, he insisted on having the Jesuits call him
"Father Cohen," resurrecting the name his family had jettisoned
in the 18th century), he traveled to Arabia to carry out a plot funded by
Napoleon III to stir an Arab Bedouin revolt — fifty years before T.E.
Lawrence arrived in the Middle East. Palgrave, aka Father Cohen, also tried
to convert the Wahhabis to Christianity. His memoir was the best-selling English
book about Arabia until Lawrence's memoir superseded it.
The Jewish Orientalist saw the East as a place not to discover the exotic
Other but to find his own roots, and for him the Arabs were nothing less than
blood brothers — Jews on horseback, as Disraeli put it. But Disraeli
himself defies the stereotypes of currents thought, for while whispering to
Queen Victoria that she must become empress of India, he did not have in mind
a straightforward domination of the East by the West. Rather, he idolized
the East, and therefore dreamed of an empire that merged the best of both
worlds — a British pan-Oriental empire. It must be British, so that it
could be organized by the practical good sense of the English, but it must
be "Oriental," guided by the wisdom and profundity of the East —
interpreted for the West by its resident Orientals, the Jews.
The anti-Semitic slur, of course, was that the Jews were an alien, Oriental
race in Europe — but Jewish Orientalists turned the slur on its head,
embracing their ancient desert nobility. Jews drew themselves closer to their
lost "brothers" in the East and attempted to explain Semitic culture,
including Islam, in the West. Jewish Orientalists, in the narrowest sense
of the term, were specialists in the field of Eastern religions, languages,
and anthropology, yet even using this definition, the crucial Jewish presence
in Oriental studies is surprisingly overlooked.
Beyond the scholars, there were Jews who literally seemed to lose themselves
in the reverie of "Eastern identity," as Lev Nussimbaum did. When
they disguised themselves as Bedouins or dervishes to make long field journeys,
the Jewish Orientalists seemed to feel a psychic transformation that was different
from the experience of the gentile in Arab mufti. They would have a fascinating
relationship to Zionism, most of them opting in favor of a Jewish state in
Palestine but often as part of a "pan-Semitic" pro-Muslim worldview.
After the Second World War, the idea of Jewish Orientalism fell through the
cracks of history, as the conflict between Jews and Muslims, reaching tragic
proportions in the Middle East, buried their deeply reconnected past. The
reasons Muslims and Jews do not get along today seem obvious and inevitable.
The reasons they once got along so well lie in the distance, on the other
side of a historical chasm.