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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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:
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”.
Egyptian ( from We Were Slaves to the
Hyksos in Egypt,
Dr. Joseph Weinstein, TheTorah.com)
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.
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 YaꜤqub-HER (= Jacob).
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
“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
…, 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. “
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.
The Story of
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.
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.
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
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
carvings on the walls depict Baya with funerary gods, imagery generally
reserved for Pharaohs.
On the name Beya- Baya (b ꜣ y, 𓃝 𓇌
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.”