Sunday, December 17, 2023

Prime Minister Zaphenath Paneakh How A Jewish Boy Made Good ( Antiquity of the Jews-Part II)


Prime Minister Zaphenath Paneakh

How A Jewish Boy Made Good ( Antiquity of the Jews-Part II)

Link to discussion:



If you have ever driven down the 405 near the airport, you see on the side of the road Hillside Cemetery, a large Jewish cemetery, and right in the center is a large monument to the great entertainer, Al Jolson.


Some years ago, there was a musical show made about Al Jolson called “Al Jolson at the Winter Garden” and in the Los Angeles performance. the star playing Al Jolson was the popular Israeli and Broadway entertainer Mike Burstyn.

 Now to make it a little bit more personal, Mike Burstyn actually served as a Cantor here one year, just when I left HTBE.( PS The producers of the play are our mutual friends, Dan and Zahava Israeli.) I managed to persuade him to help us out and he led services. So, I helped him fulfill part of the role that the original Jolson had when he did The Jazz Singer and ran into the synagogue to save the High Holiday services. That aside, I recall one scene in which Al Jolson is in his last moments, and he is envisioned as climbing up magical staircase, up to the heaven, and saying something like “a Jewish boy made good on Broadway. “

Now this brings me closer to my theme, which is  that phrase of the Jewish boy making it or making good. It certainly was brought home just a few weeks ago when Henry Kissinger passed away. Here is an example of the Jewish boy who made it big but who also had a very disturbing relationship to his own Jewish background. I could say about Jolson that he was always proud of being Jewish and certainly of my friend Mike Burstyn  as well, but Kissinger is a different story.

 I am not going to go into it in great depth, but much has been written about his very problematic relationship to his own being Jewish. He was even quoted as having said, “If it were not for the accident of my birth, I would be antisemitic.” It may have been something tongue in cheek, but it indicates some of the internal weakness of being a member of a minority in a hostile world.

This motif of the nice Jewish boy who makes it big is quite common, certainly in the last century or so, especially in America where Jews were able to succeed in many ways unimaginable before in history.

Except, perhaps, in Germany.

I will just show you some headlines as an example.

Isaac Mizrahi memoir - Nice Jewish boy makes it big (headline in Jerusalem Post)


Nice Soviet Jewish Boys Making It Big in Silicon Valley (headline in Haaretz)


Now it turns out that the phrase “Nice Jewish boy” itself is a very problematic phrase, as it has indicated in the past a sort of very soft , easy going, walk-all-over me type of personality, lacking the essentials of masculinity. In contrast, in European literature, the Jewish woman was always seen as much more alluring—but the Nice Jewish Boys instead went for the European blonds -go figure.  But I will not go into that. It is too complicated. Let us stick to this idea of Jewish success.

One of the prime examples of the use of making it big was by the noted literary critic and editor Norman Podhoretz who had been the editor of Commentary magazine, a major influence in American literary, political and intellectual trends. His book was entitled Making It, and the theme was that of a poor Jewish boy immigrant boy who made it to the pinnacles of American culture.

The pattern has been repeated throughout history- I mentioned a few weeks ago, that the Roman governor of Egypt, and the general who led the battle against Jerusalem, was Jewish, the nephew of the great philosopher, Philo. Muslim Spain had its Jewish viziers, Chasdai ibn Shaprut, advisor to the Caliph of Cordoba, or Shmuel ibn Nagrila, Hanagid, the Prince Vizier and commander of the armies of Granada. Christian Spain had its Don Yitzhak Abravanel who financed the wars against the last Muslim strongholds ( before he was thrown out with all other Jews in 1492) . And so on down till modern times, a Disraeli Conservative, a Trotsky leftist, a Zelensky ,Ukrainian hero.In Mexico, the leading candidate for President, is a Jewish woman, and in Argentina, a non-Jew who wants to be a Jew and visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s grave, is President!? Go figure!

This is a motif than actually appears through much of the Bible.

The most obvious example is that of Mordechai who becomes the Regent under the Shah of Iran, Ahashverosh. There is some historicity to it when we look at archaeological sources in that region and find names of Jews in very prominent positions at the end of the Babylonian empire and into the Persian Empire. The name  Marduka appears as a viziers to the Shah, and there are documents of a major Jewish family dealing in banking( 25 centuries before the Rothschilds!) in that period.


It is evoked again in the story of Daniel, once again the Jewish boy who makes it big as the prophet who denounces Nebuchadnezzar and foretells the fall of the Babylonian empire. We assume it was written much later, in the time of the Maccabees, but again it fits the paradigm.


It seems that in these accounts we are being given a message to the Jews who will be or are at that moment in exile, that they will survive and thrive despite being exiles, despite being cut off from their homeland until the end of days when they will be regathered in to the land of Israel.

But what  better example of this theme of the poor Jewish boy who makes it big in the outside world than the figure in our  reading of today Miketz ,the figure of Joseph.

He is first, the quintessential “ Nice Jewish Boy”, the favorite of his father who is coddled with a special robe, a “Naar”, a youngster, which the Rabbis indicate means “ a dandy”, who curled his hair. He plays the big shot among the twelve brothers. Then, he rises from slave to manager of the boss's household, only to be trapped because of his seductive good looks by the boss’s wife.

Latin inscription to etching: Beautiful happy Joseph


 Finally, he rises from the dungeon again as the Prime Minister of Egypt, the second only to Pharaoh. He now goes by the Egyptian name “Zaphenath Paneakh” and has an Egyptian wife, Asenath (the name of the Egyptian goddess Anat), daughter of the  priest of On, City of the Sun,  Potiphe-Ra, (Ra, reflecting the Sun-god of Egypt) , and two children with definitely Egyptian names. These are interpreted for the Hebrew reader as Menashe- God made me forget my troubles and my father’s house- and Ephraim, God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” This is the quintessential case of the Jewish boy making it big, and, he in the process, hides or forgets or disguises the fact that he is Jewish, especially when he sees his brothers after so many years. The quintessential assimilationist.

This now leads me into my intended theme, on the idea of the Antiquity of the Jews. A few weeks before, I discussed the idea that there were Israelites who were in Israel before there was an Israel. Now, I ask, what do we know, of Israelites, or Hebrews, who were in Egypt?

It was assumed, in the 18th and 19 th century, the age of enlightenment and reason, that all the accounts of the ancients were simply fiction, intended as entertainment. So, for example, the Trojan Wars was nothing more than a tale spun by Homer. Until, in the end of the 19th century, an archaeologist uncovered the real city of Troy and realized that much of Homer reflected actual events.

So too, with the desire to break the influence of Christianity, academicians determined that all the Biblical accounts were purely the inventions of some Jewish priests sitting in Babylonian exile. Undermine the Hebrews and you undermine the Church. Until, excavations throughout the Middle East showed how many terms, phrases, names, and events paralleled much of the Biblical narrative.

So, it goes with Joseph.

How could one possibly take at face value such a story of a slave, from an alien peoples, rising to power in Egypt.

 Until archaeologist found parallels that would indicate that Joseph, the Joseph as we know him through our texts, was reflected in ancient Egyptian texts.

I will share just a few examples from other researchers:

On the Israelites being in Egypt:

That’s not a Chasidic shtreimel on his head.  Proto-Israelites sported a “ mushroom” hairdo, what is now called a “Jewfro”.

Contemporary Egyptian  ( from We Were Slaves to the Hyksos in Egypt, Dr. Joseph Weinstein,


Starting in the late Middle Kingdom, and continuing on into the Second Intermediate Period, the population of the Egyptian Nile Delta was predominantly West Semitic. We know this from extensive excavations in the area, including the 15th dynasty Hyksos capital of Avaris, … Avaris figures prominently in the biblical account, where it is called by its later name of Rameses. …. Many of these sites have also now been excavated or at least surveyed. Some of these can also be correlated with places mentioned in the biblical account.

This large, intrusive West Semitic population was culturally, religiously, and ethnically distinct from the native Egyptian population of southern Egypt. It is easily recognizable by its distinctive burial practices, weaponry, religious architecture and imagery, personal names, pottery, and other artifacts. Some of these personal names are similar to those appearing in the biblical account, such as Yaqub-HER (= Jacob).


It turns out that the Egyptians themselves had accounts of such troublesome foreign invaders, and one early Egyptian source used it to paint the Egyptians as the heroes of the Exodus, because they threw these obnoxious foreigners out and sent them packing to the Land of Israel.


Egyptian version  (Josephus quoting Apion quoting Manetho. Manetho was an Egyptian priest who wrote a history of the Egyptians in the 3rd century.)

 “These people, whom we have before named kings, and called shepherds also, and their descendants . . . kept possession of Egypt five hundred and eleven years.”“. . . the kings of Thebes and the other parts of Egypt made an insurrection against the shepherds, and that there a terrible and long war was made between them.”. . . under a king, whose name was Alisphragmuthosis, the shepherds were subdued by him, and were indeed driven out of other parts of Egypt, but were shut up in a place that contained ten thousand acres; this place was named Avaris.”

…, they came to a composition with them, that they should leave Egypt, and go, without any harm to be done to them, whithersoever they would;and that, after this composition was made, they went away with their whole families and effects, not fewer in number than two hundred and forty thousand, and took their journey from Egypt, through the wilderness, for Syria;… they built a city in that country which is now called Judea, and that large enough to contain this great number of men, and called it Jerusalem. “


So, how does a Jewish boy make good in ancient Egypt? Here is one parallel:


 Joseph and the Famine: The Story’s Origins in Egyptian History, Prof.

Israel Knohl,

The Story of Chancellor Baya

Baya  was an important scribe and palace official of northern origin(i.e., Canaan, Transjordan, or Syria) during the reign of Merneptah’s son Seti II (1203–1197). WhenSeti II died without a clear heir, Baya backed the claim of a boy named Siptah, who became the next Pharaoh.

…During the first few years of his brief reign (1197–1191 B.C.E.), Twosret (or Tausert), the wife (andsister) of Seti II, functioned as his guardian (the same way Hatshepsut did for Thutmose III). At Twosret’s side, serving as chancellor, and to some extent as regent,was Baya.

… Baya’s title was both Treasurer and Vizier or Chancellor (scholars seem to use these translations interchangeably), and in his letter to Ugarit, he signs as Egypt’s Major General.

Baya’s tomb was carved right next to that of Twosret (KV14),Moreover, the immense size of this tomb, with multiple rooms and decorations, is unprecedented for a non-royal.

Finally,the carvings on the walls depict Baya with funerary gods, imagery generally reserved for Pharaohs.


On the name Beya- Baya (b y,  𓃝 𓇌 )

In short, Baya/Beyah has a Yahwistic theophoric name, though it is strange that it contains only the divine element. …It is thus likely that Baya was a proto-Israelite, part of the Jacob-El clan from Nomad-land Yahwa, who migrated to Egypt during the famine.


What can we conclude from this question. Was Joseph Baya? We really can't determine. History is essentially, like so much in science, observing a black box. We can't see what's inside; we can only shake it and guess from the sound it makes what is inside. So too of ancient history; we can't really go back in time, we can't even fully comprehend the intents of the texts that we have, whether our own Hebrew Bible or the texts of the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Canaanites and other peoples of that time. We can however surmise that the intent was to take memories of ancient Israel and turn them from just a series of events chronicles into an actual history. History ultimately, unlike a newspaper,  does not mean a list of events. History means the reading of and the interpretation of events from the past that are intended to guide us to the future.

That is why our commentaries emphasize,”Ein Mukdam u Muchar bamikra”, there is no earlier or later in the text of the Torah, there is no timeline. There is, instead, guidance and interpretation for the future.

So to the story of Joseph and the brothers. What may have been various incidents of ancient tribes entering into Egypt and of members of the tribe reaching high positions in Egyptian society is now understood as being the necessary steppingstone for the next major event, the enslavement of the children of Israel, and then the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai, and the return to the land of Israel by the liberated slaves and their descendants.

As the great founding scholar of Conservative Judaism taught,” What is past, is prologue.”


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