A Rabbinical Saint of the Ledger

The Wonders of America

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published November 10, 2010, issue of November 19, 2010.
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At first blush, there’s probably nothing duller than a ledger book in which columns of credits inhabit one side of the page and columns of debits the other. Only someone completely at home within the world of accountancy is capable of unlocking a ledger’s secrets and of discerning a human story where the rest of us simply see numbers.

Heart of Gold: Rabbi Silver raised funds to ransom Jews from the Nazis.
Heart of Gold: Rabbi Silver raised funds to ransom Jews from the Nazis.

How strange, then, to read recently that great excitement attended the discovery of one such account book, which Kestenbaum & Co. auctioned off in late October. As it turned out, this was not just any old compilation of figures but one that belonged to the late Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the guiding light of the Vaad Hatzalah, an American organization that sought, against great odds, to rescue European Jewish leaders, especially those from yeshiva communities, from the Nazis. Moving in high circles, as well as in distinguished rabbinical ones, Rabbi Silver was not only the “personal friend of every United States president since Theodore Roosevelt” — or so claimed one of his obituaries — he was also widely acclaimed as the “Chief Rabbi of Cincinnati.”

Outwardly, there’s little to distinguish Rabbi Silver’s ledger book, whose 45 pages cover the years 1939 through 1946, from the thousands of others in use all throughout the war years: A succession of numbers and names makes its way across the page, recording dollars raised and dollars spent and underscoring the extent to which monetary transactions fuel the modern world. But a closer look uncovers an altogether different, and far more chilling, reality: The numbers that were toted up reflect the sums of money the rabbi collected and expended in a valiant effort to ransom an estimated 10,000 lives, among them some of Europe’s most renowned rabbis. Within the margins of Rabbi Silver’s ledger book, numbers don’t just reflect dollars and cents; they represent lives lost and lives saved.

Understandably, much is being made of this belated discovery. The auction literature hails it as a “one-of-a-kind window onto one of the darkest periods in world history,” and as “the first definitive evidence of [Rabbi Silver’s] radical approach to saving thousands from the clutches of the Nazi Holocaust.” In both instances, this ledger book is associated, through and through, with the Holocaust.

But there’s even more to it than that. Rabbi Silver’s actions reflect, and shuttle between, a keen awareness of the Jewish past as well as an equally keen awareness of contemporary Jewish life. In the first instance, Rabbi Silver’s heroic efforts to save the lives of his coreligionists were of a piece with the heroic efforts of his medieval Jewish counterparts to save the lives of their fellow Jews. The ransom of Jewish captives was both common practice and a common concern during the medieval period. Sometimes, it was the stuff of legend, like that recounted by Abraham Ibn Daud in his 12th century text, Sefer Hakabbala (Book of Received Tradition).

In it, he told of how Spanish Jews purchased and redeemed several Babylonian Jewish leaders who, traveling on the high seas, had been captured by pirates. After being ransomed, they stayed in Spain, paving the way for its golden age. At other moments, bits and pieces of information culled from the Cairo Genizah demonstrate how communal representatives sought to raise funds in order to ransom a physician and his wife, a boy of about 10 and a “captive woman from Byzantium,” suggesting once again that ransom loomed large within the orbit of medieval Jewry.

Although 20th century Cincinnati was a far cry from Cordoba and Cairo of the 12th, the precariousness of Jewish life has remained a constant. Like his coreligionists before him, Rabbi Silver responded to the dire situation of European Jewry by resorting to the tried and true tradition of ransoming the captive.

Far less gripping but no less potent in explaining the significance of Rabbi Silver’s ledger book was the modernization of the rabbinate. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th century, the role of the rabbi, especially in the United States, expanded exponentially: Much was expected of him by his rapidly acculturating congregants. If, in the Old World, a rabbi’s purview was often limited to teaching and to the supervision of kosher food, in the New World, it encompassed administration, organization-building and community relations. In other words, the rabbi became a professional. Accountability — and with it, the keeping of records — became an indispensable part of his job. And so it was with Rabbi Silver. While some of his colleagues preferred to make use of index cards and others loose-leaf notebooks, the Cincinnati rabbi demonstrated his commitment to the professionalization of the rabbinate by keeping an account book.

Ultimately, Rabbi Silver’s ledger is a particularly compelling document of our time. In linking together medieval Jewish history, the modern-day imperatives of record keeping and the moral urgency of saving lives, it reminds us how the grand sweep of history can often be found in the most unlikely of sources.

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