4.17. Else Lasker-Schüler, play ‘Arthur Aronymus and His Ancestors’ (1932)

Arthur Aronymus und seine Väter (Aus meines geliebten Vaters Kinderjahren), Schauspiel in fünfzehn Bildern (“Arthur Aronymus and His Ancestors: From the Childhood of My Beloved Father. A Drama in Fifteen Scenes”) is a play by Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945). It is set in a Westphalian village with the ominous name Hexengaesecke, *“Witches’ Gaesecke.” Westphalia was a province in the West of Prussia around 1840. The action is based partly on a historical pogrom in the village of Geseke around that year, and partly on memories of Aron Schüler, the author’s father, as recorded by Else Lasker-Schüler in a short story of the same name and the same year.

In the play, the well-to-do Jewish family Schüler has 23 children. The sixteen-year old Dora suffers from chorea, a nervous disorder marked by spasmodic movements of limbs and facial muscles, and Christian villagers consider her a witch, who should be burned. The eight-year old Arthur Aronymus *The Schüler children have both a Jewish and a Christian name and Aronymus might be a contamination of Aaron (the name of Else Lasker-Schüler’s father) and Hieronymus (Jerome, the Christian church father who translated the Hebrew Bible into Latin) is great friends with the Catholic chaplain Bernard Michalski, who exerts himself for a reconciliation between Christians and Jews, with the support of bishop Matthias of Paderborn, a friend of the late Uriel Schüler, a learned Rabbi.

The main events in Arthur Aronymus are concentrated around two festivals: Scenes 6-10 around Christmas in the chronotope of Michalski’s home, and the final Scenes 14-15 around Pesaḥ in the chronotope of Schüler’s mansion. The play reveals a long series of painful Jewish-Christian confrontations. In Scene 6, chaplain Michalski invites two of his nieces and Arthur Aronymus to his home, with presents awaiting them underneath the Christmas tree. One of the nieces incites Arthur to pick a ball from the Christmas tree, whereupon Michalski lets slip the remark: “But you don’t want to be a pushy little Jewboy, do you?” *Lasker-Schüler, Arthur Aronymus 142. Immediately, the chaplain feels deeply guilty, while Arthur becomes unwell and goes back home. In Scene 7, villagers enter into the garden of the Schüler family, singing a both childish and frightening witches’ song: “Maria, Joseph, it’s ringing tonight / Bimmel la bammel, / Wash yourself in Christ’s blood white, / Bimmel la bammel! . . . Pull your witch’s tail in / And be damned to hellfire pain.” In order to calm down the villagers and to keep Dora from the stake, Michalski proposes the conversion of Arthur Aronymus to her parents, which is vehemently rejected by his father in Scene 11. In Scene 13, chaplain Michalski reads the villagers an open letter from bishop Matthias, who condemns their anti-Semitism. Not only Michalski, but also the Schüler children themselves commit mistakes: in Scene 14, together with Christian children, they play a witch’s burning with Arthur Aronymus as Dora. Scene 15 *In this chapter, the second version, written for the first performance in 1936, is used is set during the Seder evening at the Schülers’ home, with a number of guests, among them chaplain Michalski, bishop Matthias and Altmann, who “blows Gaesecke’s children to sleep every evening with his horn.” *Arthur Aronymus 211. The bishop says a blessing: “I bless the ancient nation Israel!” and Mrs. Schüler makes a plea for reconciliation: “And with a little love, Jew and Christian can break their bread together in harmony, even if the bread is unleavened.” *Ibid. 211. The Seder evening is disturbed by a mass of villagers, who come to call the bishop to account. The bishop succeeds in calming down the villagers and finally, accompanied by the village band, all those present sing Great God, We Praise Thee.

The main subject, the dialogue between Jews and Christians, determines all the details in the play, also with regard to the shofar. There are many references and allusions to the instrument in Scene 1 and Scene 15, and thus the first and final scenes set the tone for the whole play.

Scene 1 is set in the fenced-off garden around the mansion of the Schüler family, on a warm August night. Chaplain Michalski, on his way home, finds night watchman Altmann sleeping; Altmann wakes up with a start and calls himself a “horn-ox.” Michalski compliments Altmann on his watching over the village. The night watchman tells Michalski that grandfather Schüler has come to visit the Schüler family; to honour the learned rabbi, Altmann blows subdued shofar blasts, and without being asked, the Jewish tramp Nathanael Brennessel (“Stinging-nettle”) plays the part of the makrei.

[He gives a hoarse blast.]

NATHANAEL BRENNESSEL [voice from offstage, fluting as though on a syrinx]: Tekia! Shevarim! Terua!
ALTMANN [to CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI]: I didn’t do it wrong—[Both hearkening] Come out of that hollow tree trunk, Nathanael!

[He blows again, very hoarsely.]

CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI: But what do you know about blowing shofar?
ALTMANN [evasively]: I even know how to blow Catholic and—other things.
CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI: And do you also know why shofar is blown in the synagogue?
ALTMANN: Does the reverend chaplain know?
CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI: In order to coax the new year in, Altmann.
ALTMANN: Yo! [He blows again, hoarsely but softly, on his horn; then, scrutinizing
CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI]: And the old year—where is it now?
[CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI shrugs his shoulders questioningly, with an ironic smile.] The Catholics, by your leave, count time from the birth of Christ, but we—I mean the Jews—keep having to carry the old year back through the Great Flood to the beginning of the world.
CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI: You’re an expert in world history!
ALTMANN: And only then do we—I mean the Jews—coax the new year in, when the used-up is gone home [instructively] into the beginning.
CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI: And who taught you to blow shofar, then?
ALTMANN [evasively]: I know how to blow Catholic and—other things.
CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI [smiling to himself]: Can you really be a Jew? Just think—
ALTMANN: Half ways—from my father’s side; but my mother—was a nun. [To himself] That’s what comes from all that chattering in the dark, where you can hardly find your mouth.
CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI: Are you ashamed of your old religion, Altmann?
ALTMANN: Not for myself, Reverend Chaplain, but the Catholics are ashamed—because of me—so I blow Catholic, and when he’s visiting, [points up to the mansion] for him, Jewish.
CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI: But doesn’t this confusion trouble you in your dignity as a human being?
ALTMANN: That you have to give up. A day laborer—[corrects himself] a simple watchman—darn well can’t afford to put on airs like that.
CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI [reflective, kind, sympathetic]: Your secret will remain between us, Altmann. Go on blowing as you will, but don’t blow it anymore for me. *Ibid. 96-8. Altmann’s Westphalian dialect is untranslatable. Excerpts reproduced by permission of Northwestern University Press.

This tentative talk in the middle of the night between a half-Jew and a chaplain, who sympathizes with the Jews, is an unusual dialogue between Judaism and Christianity, hidden under irony and stressing both the similarities and the unbridgeable differences. Altmann, who changes his “we” into “the Jews,” turns out to be the son of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, nota bene a nun. So, a hidden half-Jew watches over the safety of the anti-Semitic villagers.

A night watchman’s task consisted of patrolling and sounding the alarm in case of fire—in Arthur Aronymus, the stake of the supposed witch Dora Schüler. The horn of a night watchman was usually a cow horn with a metal mouthpiece and such a horn, according to Jewish Law, is not kosher: “All shofarot are kosher, except for a cow’s” *Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 3:2. In The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 164 and “If it is overlaid at the spot where the mouth is applied, it is not valid.” *Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 27b. Moreover, ritual shofar blasts should not be blown during the night. Altmann, who fell asleep and cannot find his horn immediately, calls himself a “horn-ox;” Horn-ochse is a common German invective for a fool, but here, it might also allude to Midrash Rabbah Genesis 2:4, where “Greece” says to “Israel”: “Write on the horn of an ox that you have no portion in the God of Israel.” This statement can be meant “as a public proclamation for all to see,” *Neusner, A Theological Commentary to the Midrash, Vol. II: 8 but a cow’s horn may also recall the cult of the golden calf in Exod. 32. “Chaplain” Michalski is a Kaplan in German, which is also a well-known Jewish family name—just as “Michalski.” As a Catholic priest, he helps the half-Jewish Altmann in seeking his horn, and in the conversation he not only shows respect for Judaism, but also an unusual knowledge of the religion. The night watchman is able to blow both “Catholic” and “Jewish” and his “very hoarse” style could indicate that he distorts the tone of the non-kosher cow horn to make it sound like a shofar. Altmann blows a TaShRaT as usual on every day of the month of Elul. *Chapter 3.3. As Scene 1 is set in the month of August, “about 1840,” and because in 1839 and 1841, a large part of Elul fell in August, a link with the Jewish month of Elul would be possible.

In Scene 12, Chaplain Michalski writes a letter to bishop Matthias about the pogrom threat. After he has handed over this letter to the stagecoach, the post horn is blown three times. Immediately thereafter, the Chaplain meets night watchman Altmann, who points at the moon: “How it comes down right over Hexengaesecke like that every four weeks! And I always have a hard time then, blowing all the children to sleep.” *Arthur Aronymus 187. The three post horn calls possibly allude to the system of shofar blasts in the Rosh Ha-Shanah service, based on the number 3, *Chapter 3.3 and both the post horn calls at the haning over of the urgent letter and the imploring blasts on the night watchman’s horn might allude to the call for God’s help in the same service.

The ending of the final Scene 15 is set on the Seder evening, which is a peaceful event, as if the vision of Isa. 25:6-9 is already a reality:

6 The LORD of hosts will make on this mount [the Holy Land] / For all the peoples / A banquet of rich viands, / A banquet of choice wines— . . . 7 And He will destroy on this mount the shroud / That is drawn over the faces of all the peoples / 8 . . . And will put an end to the reproach of His people / Over all the earth— / 9 . . . Let us rejoice and exult in His deliverance!

At the end of the Seder evening, bishop Matthias declares that burning witches is a thing of the past. For the moment, everyone is relieved:

[All laugh, the children’s laughter outringing all. MR. SCHÜLER joins heartily in the laughter. The sons add their voices to the singing: two verses of “Lecho Ulecho.” *Lekha U-Lekha (“To You and to You;” Ashkenazi pronunciation with “o” instead of “a”) is a song from Ashkenazi tradition, which is sometimes sung after the Pesaḥ meal. It is an “alphabetical litany with each strophe consisting of three terms” (cf. Tabory, The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah 62); the first two are a call to God, and the third is a call to the congregation of angels or people to praise God with the refrain “Lekha U-Lekha”: “To You, and To You, . . . belongs kingship.” After the second verse the tumultuous noise of the crowd is heard outside.]

VILLAGERS OF GAESECKE: We want to see our bishop!
THREE MAIDS [hurrying into the room, speaking together]: They want to see their bishop!

[BISHOP MATTHIAS rises forcefully. All rise. BISHOP MATTHIAS and CHAPLAIN MICHALSKI, leading ARTHUR between them, walk to the terrace door, which is opened for them. The parents and older children follow. Only the POOR JEWS and a few of the smaller children remain in the room.]

BISHOP MATTHIAS [on terrace, to the crowd]: My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ! My heart is moved by deep joy. In this hour, in which I stand as mediator between those of you before this house and those inside this house, the word of our holy apostle Peter is fulfilled for me: “God does not look at people according to what they are in human society; rather do all those, in every nation, who fear him and live righteously, find favor in his sight.”

[All sing “Great God, We Praise Thee.” Village band, with trumpets, French horn, drums, flutes, accordeon. As the anthem is sung and the lights in the large room gradually dim, the curtain falls.] *Arthur Aronymus 216-7.

At this moment, the villagers march towards the house of the Schüler family. Just as at the beginning of the play, the end is a curious dialogue between Judaism and Christianity. The bishop quotes the appropriate vv. 10:34-35 from the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament, without the context in which Jesus is “Lord of all” and the distinctions between kosher and non-kosher, circumcised and non-circumcised are removed forever. Accompanied by the trumpets, horns and other instruments of the village band, all sing the Christian song Great God, We Praise Thee and this hymn is reminiscent of Psalm 150, a common heritage of both Jews and Christians, in which God is praised with the shofar, lute, flute and cymbals. In addition, the bishop’s hymn before the opened doors to the terrace with the concluding music of the winds is reminiscent of the cantor’s hymn before the open Ark in the synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur, followed by the tekiʿah gedolah of the shofar. *The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 1200. And just as Neʿilah ends with the closing of the Ark and the parokhet, Arthur Aronymus ends with the falling of the curtain.

In A Tool of Remembrance, the discussed works of art with confrontations between Judaism and Christianity can be arranged according to their degree of openness to the other religion.

In Robert Normandeau’s electronic composition Chorus: To the Victims of September 11th, 2001 (2002), *Chapter 4.62 Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are represented by closed musical blocks, made up of shofar sounds, church bell sounds and muezzin calls respectively; the musical elements from these blocks do not mix together, which means that peaceful coexistence between the three religions will be a long and painful process.

Luciano Berio’s composition Shofar to a German poem by the Jewish poet Paul Celan did not fit into the Requiem of Reconciliation (1995), *Chapter 4.54 written by 14 composers to commemorate World War II, and therefore the patron decided that it should precede the Roman Catholic Mass.

In Miklós Rózsa’s film music Ben-Hur (1959) *Chapter 4.35 and Elgar’s oratorio The Apostles (1903), *Chapter 4.5 the Christian Messiah is announced by the Jewish shofar, which is seen in a positive light.

Geoffrey Hartman’s poem Elegy at the Bodensee (1984) *Chapter 4.46 pictures a postwar, open-minded German audience, listening to traditional Jewish music and shofar blasts. The Jewish persona is troubled by war memories aroused by the Jewish music, and at the same time by visions of Christian martyrs of the Reformation, aroused by the concert location in the former Dominican monastery in Constance, the city where Jan Hus was executed.

The only work with an untroubled, almost naive attitude with regard to Jewish-Christian relations is Ben Shahn’s painting Third Allegory (1955), *Chapter 4.33 which pictures a lion with the Ten Commandments before a Jerusalem with both synagogues and churches. According to his wife, Shahn “rejected all personal identification with sect or creed. He deeply appreciated the observances, the ritual and lore of his inherited Judaism but was also profoundly moved by the sonorous Masses of Catholicism and, again, by the tough spirit of early Protestantism.” *Bryson Shahn, Ben Shahn 257.

The most painstaking and profound research into the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is found in Else Lasker-Schüler’s Arthur Aronymus. According to the literary historian Sigrid Bauschinger, Lasker-Schüler

called herself “the poet of the Jews” who bestows “honor on our people.” She was nevertheless better acquainted with Christianity than most Christian writers are with Judaism. She was in fact very knowledgeable about the New Testament, and it is striking how often she quotes from or alludes to it. Speaking to the Catholic theologian Karl Sonnenschein, she said: “I live and revere early Christianity . . . And I love and revere the apostles, the disciples and the first followers, who were persecuted and who did not themselves persecute others.” *Bauschinger, “Else Lasker-Schüler on the Lost Bridge between Jews and Christians” 240.

Arthur Aronymus is about careful approaches between Jews and Christians in a dark period of anti-Semitism. The Past of 1840 with the narrowly averted pogrom in a German village is altered by the Present of the eve of the Nazi regime in Germany. The first version of the play could still be published in Germany in 1932. After Else Lasker-Schüler had been beaten in the street by uniformed Nazis, she fled to Switzerland in April, 1933. The first performance of Arthur Aronymus took place in Zürich in 1936, with the participation of the author.


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