4.39. Abel Herzberg, autobiographical story ‘The History of My Shofar’ (1965)

Abel Herzberg (1893-1989) was a Dutch lawyer and writer, and in this last capacity, winner of the P.C. Hooft Award, the most prestigious literary award of the Dutch-speaking region. *Kuiper, Een wijze ging voorbij: het leven van Abel J. Herzberg 564. For a long time, Herzberg owned a shofar and about this instrument he wrote an autobiographical story, De geschiedenis van mijn sjofar (“The History of My Shofar”), and a passage in his memoirs Brieven aan mijn kleinzoon (“Letters to My Grandson”). This shofar was an heirloom from his grandfather, who had emigrated from Russia to the Netherlands and would blow the instrument on the High Holy Days, a tradition that was not continued by his son and his grandson Abel.

One day—probably before World War I—Herzberg’s father was visited in his Amsterdam office by a group of Russian Jews, emigrants to America. They were to celebrate Rosh Ha-Shanah on board the ship and therefore, they wanted to borrow a Torah scroll and a shofar. The Jewish congregation in Rotterdam had rejected their request, because they did not want to expose the Torah scroll to a sea voyage. One of the emigrants had said: “Gentlemen! All of you are faithful and pious Jews. How could a ship actually perish, if there is a Torah scroll aboard?” This led Abel Herzberg to the following comment: “I, too, hope that this good man has not launched himself in ship insurance, after his arrival in America.” *Herzberg, Brieven aan mijn kleinzoon 317. Quotation translated by KvH. The following facts may reveal the risks of a sea voyage in those days. Another ship leaving from Rotterdam, the Volturno, perished with a Torah scroll aboard. On October 9, 1913, she left with 653 persons on board, among whom were nearly a hundred Russian Jews. Midway on the passage from Rotterdam to New York a blaze broke out. In The Burning of the Volturno 36, Arthur Spurgeon relates how the Russian Jews read their Torah scroll and blew the shofar. On October 11, 522 persons were saved and the Volturno perished on October 17, on Yom Kippur, when in the synagogues the shofar was blown and the book Jonah was read with Jonah’s salvation from death by drowning. Herzberg’s father gave the Russian Jews a Torah scroll and the above-mentioned shofar, packed in a plain, wooden chest “like the coffin in which Jews are buried.” *Brieven aan mijn kleinzoon 317. Not long thereafter, this chest and its contents were returned to Amsterdam, with a message of thanks written on the lid. When Abel Herzberg inherited the shofar, he put the instrument on the mantelpiece in his living room.

It [Hij] *The Dutch personal pronoun hij can denote a person as well as an object was, so to say, retired. From time to time, someone took it and attempted to blow it, only for fun. Usually, it didn’t work, because shofar blowing is not so easy. And when, by accident, a note came out, all the family would be annoyed. Except the one who liked to tease the others with the shofar. To modern ears, above all those who are pampered by the harmony of Western classical music, the sound of the shofar is nearly unbearable. One wonders whence the deep respect and even the fear originate, with which so many generations have listened to the tekiʿah, shevarim and teruʿah. It had certainly nothing to do with aesthetic pleasure. *Herzberg, De geschiedenis van mijn sjofar 261. Reproduced by permission of Querido Publishers. All excerpts translated from the Dutch by KvH.

Herzberg was not the only one of his generation to dislike the sound of the shofar. The musicologist Abraham Zvi Idelsohn, in his standard work Jewish Music in Its Historical Development (1929), called the shofar an instrument “of no musical value, serving only for signaling purposes” and according to him, it was “impossible to produce on it any melody whatsoever.” *Idelsohn, Jewish Music: Its Historical Development 10. As described in the preceding chapter of this study, The American Reform discarded the shofar between the beginning of the 19th century and World War II, and only in 1945 did they change their opinion in the new Union Prayerbook for the High Holy Days, with the restored blessings proceeding the sounding of the shofar. *Cf. Chapter 4.38. For the Orthodox, the shofar was and still is more of a ritual tool than a musical instrument, as can be read in The Complete ArtScroll Machzor Rosh Hashanah (1985): “The unmusical piercing blast of the shofar symbolizes the inarticulate cry from the heart of a Jew who has strayed far from God’s path.” *The Complete ArtScroll Machzor Rosh Hashanah 430. For the secular Herzberg, initially the shofar was no more than a cultural marker in the chronotope of his living room, with the addressee of the Herzberg family, for whom the shofar blasts were not an authoritative discourse, but irritating noise.

Yet in his story, Herzberg applies not only emotional and aesthetic criteria, but a halakhic criterion as well; looking at the damage to his shofar, he fears that the instrument is not kosher, given Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 3:6: “A shofar which was cracked and glued together / is unfit for the commandment.” *The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 168. Herzberg’s description of the “retired” shofar with its short, broad and massive appearance and its raw, hoarse tone quality is a personification, which becomes even more intense when the conditions of the Jews in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands become critical: “I felt for my in fact unusable and useless shofar such a strange, inexplicable affection, that, even on our transportations in German times, I could not separate from it.” *De geschiedenis van mijn sjofar 262. Herzberg took his shofar with him to Barneveld, the Dutch village where “privileged” Jews were interned, and later to Westerbork, the Dutch transit camp for the German camps. And when, before the deportation to Bergen-Belsen, his luggage was restricted even further, Herzberg kept the shofar with him as a companion: “My shofar was so dear to my heart, that I could not decide to leave it behind.” *Ibid. 262. Before World War II, Herzberg’s shofar had been a cultural marker, a memento of his Russian ancestors; under the Germans, however, who made no distinction whatsoever between religious and secular Jews and applied arbitrary ethnic criteria, the shofar became an ethnic marker. Its chronotope was expanded from a living room into a barrack and his addressees expanded from the family circle to an international group of Jews of different denominations and worldviews.

In Bergen-Belsen, at the nearing of September 18, 1944, the date of Rosh Ha-Shanah, Herzberg heard religious Jews complaining that they wanted to make minyan but did not have a shofar. In his story, personification reaches a new high point:

Then I took the ugly, damaged shofar I had inherited from my grandfather out of my backpack and I told him that he had to enter service. No pension anymore! You have been a reservist too long. You must go to the front once more. He went, and his hoarse, creaky voice spoke, like once in Russia and later in the Ḥasidic klaus in Amsterdam and, thereafter, on the emigrant ship to America. And he told the outcasts about the Creation of the world, about the Akedah, about the waiting for the Messiah; he connected ages to ages, sorrow to sorrow, and hope to hope, everything threaded together on a string, which was perhaps not aesthetic but nonetheless unbreakable. A string of sound. It was the last time. *Ibid. 262.

As far as the “creaky voice” is concerned, it is not known whether the religious Jews noticed the crack in the ram’s horn, and if so, whether this led to halakhic debates. A year earlier, there had been debates in Bergen-Belsen about a shofar that was smuggled into the camp. In order to reach all the prisoners, the shofar blower had to blow loudly, which heightened the risks considerably. The rabbis and other experts had a vehement debate, ending in an emergency solution: the blasts would be blown very softly and “God would surely accept the muffled sounds of the shofar and the prayers of His sons and daughters just as he had accepted the prayers of Isaac atop the altar of Mount Moriah.” *Eliach, “A Shofar in a Coffee Cauldron.” Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust 43. In his study on Jewish religiosity in Nazi concentration camps, the historian Thomas Rahe points out the fact that the Rosh Ha-Shanah liturgy refers to Gen. 22 on Abraham’s sacrifice (cf. The Koren Rosh Hashana Maḥzor 736), a text “which inevitably leads to reflection on the suffering of the innocent Jewish victim, on their own situation in the concentration camp and its possible religious interpretation. This was represented on the level of symbolic acting as well, when the shofar is blown on Rosh Ha-Shanah, as prescribed by tradition.” (Rahe, ‘Höre Israel’: Jüdische Religiosität in nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern 162-3. Quotation translated from the German by KvH.) However, a connection of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice to Jewish suffering in the concentration camps is problematic, as it is based on the presupposition that the Shoah was a religiously meaningful event. In the Skarżysko-Kamienna concentration camp, a Jewish prisoner made a shofar from a ram’s horn provided by a brave Catholic Pole, and there too, a halakhic decision was made, because the first horn smuggled into the camp by the Pole was the non-kosher horn of a cow. *Chapter 4.51.

At the nearing of the Allied forces, the prisoners were deported again; this time, however, Herzberg was so exhausted that he could not even carry the kohlrabi he had to eat on the way, and therefore he had to leave the shofar behind.

As I heard after the liberation, the barracks in which we lived were burned down by the Canadians. And I must believe that my shofar, too, has ended up in smoke, and has died as a martyr. His history is finished.

I have told it here, because it is the history of the Dor Ha-Midbar, the generation of the desert. My shofar was born in exile, wandered as an exile and died as an exile. But his birth, his wanderings and his death have been nothing but service, and if a thing can have a soul, then he had a soul. May this soul remain what it always had been, bundled in the bundle of life. *De geschiedenis van mijn sjofar 263.

“The generation of the desert” refers to the generation of Israelites who lived in the wilderness before entering Ereẓ Israel, whereas the exile refers particularly to Babylonian exile and to the period after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Nowhere else in the Bible or the prayer books and in very few of the discussed works of art is the shofar personified. It is done discreetly in Yehuda Haim Perahia’s poem A Little Light, where “The sounds of the shofar seemed to spread funereal wails[,]” *Chapter 4.24 and much more explicitly in Alvin Curran’s comment on Shofar der Zeit, in which the shofar is considered a stubborn and almost neurotic character, that “shows no native interest in partnering with cold digital chips.” *Chapter 4.50. Abel Herzberg compares the destruction of his personified ram’s horn in the fire—made to prevent the spread of infectious diseases—to a holokauston or burnt offering, and he refers to the Yizkor, the prayer in memory of the martyrs in the Siddur:

May God remember the soul of (name), and the souls of all my relatives, on my father’s or mother’s side, who were killed, murdered, slaughtered, burned, drowned or strangled for the sanctification of God’s name, and to this I pledge (without formal vow) to give charity in their memory. May their souls be bound in the bond of everlasting life together with the souls of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and all the other righteous men and women in the Garden of Eden, and let us say, Amen. *The Koren Siddur 798.

The bond or bundle of life in this prayer is mentioned in 1 Sam. 25:29: “And if anyone sets out to pursue you and seek your life, the life of my lord will be bound up in the bundle of life in the care of the LORD; but He will fling away the lives of your enemies as from the hollow of a sling.” These verses, in the abbreviated form of TNẒVH, are inscribed on many Jewish tombstones. In Herzberg’s story, the Past of shofar tradition is altered by the Present, in three different ways. After its promotion from a cultural marker to an ethnic marker, the shofar was promoted another time, from an ethnic marker to a religious marker. And after the fire, the chronotope of the barrack turned into the virtual chronotope at the conclusion of Herzberg’s story, the chronotope of the entire Jewish world.

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