Thursday, 23 October 2014


More from my translation of Victor Karben’s The Life and Customs of the Jews (1511):

After converting to the Christian faith, Karben found that he was treated with suspicion.
But I foresaw all the difficulties Christians were going to make for Jews who undergo baptism … but I have decided under no circumstances to go back on my resolve, and to bear everything with equanimity for the sake of Christ.  But another thing pierced my heart sharply: the knowledge that the Jews themselves often said a recently baptized Jew was very similar to a new white piece of fabric. Shallow people are glad and pleased with a piece of cloth while it is new and white, but after it has been made into a dress and worn on their backs for eight or nine days, it becomes less treasured with every passing day. The same thing happens to a newly baptized Jew.  Christians are keen on him at first. They are eager to talk and invite him for dinner. If they go anywhere, for the sake of comforting him, they ask him to accompany them and walk by their side. But after eight days they keep out of his way. He is neglected, avoided, excluded, and left to himself. Even worse, he is often derided and teased by the same people.
            After these autobiographical remarks, Karben turns to his task proper: a study of Jewish customs. He explains, for example, that they do not eat meat together with milk or cheese and any other milk products… Furthermore the Jews are obliged by the law of the Talmud to keep their knives separate. If they have two, one is for the use of eating meat, the other for use with other foods.  But that precept didn’t seem to go far enough. In addition they must store the knives in separate drawers, to keep one from touching the other. And they must be stored in such a manner that they may be able to tell them apart and know which knives to use for what purpose. To make it easier to tell them apart, the Talmud advises to put a mark on each single knife. Those meant for eating milk products are marked with a small triple notch… If it happens, by some chance or on purpose, that the use of the knives is mixed up and someone uses a knife to cut meat which until then was used to cut milk products or vice versa, it cannot be used for food from there on, and the matter does not go unpunished.
            If this happens to a poor man who cannot afford to discard a wrongly used knife, he must place his knife into a burning fire for three hours until it is white hot, then he must bury it in the ground for up to three days. Afterwards he must take it out and dip it three times into a well or other flowing water…

(Source: Victor Karben, De vita et moribus Iudeorum, Paris 1511)

Sunday, 19 October 2014


Victor Karben (1422-1515), a German Jew, converted to Christianity and was ordained priest in 1486.  In 1504 he wrote a treatise on The Life and Customs of the Jews (De vita et moribus Iudeorum -- an enlarged version was published under the title Opus Aureum). His introduction manifests the fanaticism typical of a convert:

There is no more stubborn and wrong-headed race than the Jews. Nothing in the world can turn them from their traditional faith. If you were to offer someone of the Jewish faith a thousand gulden if he was willing to renounce his faith, you would find it easier to hollow out the hardest rock than convincing him to adopt your views. And it would be a greater miracle! Likewise, if you put a thousand gulden at the foot of a cross and said to one of them, even the poorest man: Look, I will give you these thousand gulden if you fall on your knees when you pick them up from the ground, the man [would rather stay poor] than accept the condition and bow down before the image of the cross. Indeed, even if you threatened a Jew with capital punishment unless he was willing to become a Christian, he would rather be burned at the stake a thousand times than willingly profess the name of Christ once. [And if you suggest to Jews that they might convert in future] they will grow hot and angry beyond belief. All day long they will not be able to show a calm face. Indeed they will remember what you said all their life. Whenever they meet the Christian who proposed such things to them, they will roundly curse him, if not openly, then tacitly….In brief: The Jews are a people more wrong-headed than any other and more inclined to utter curses, indeed a people that tends to be furious and (as I said) vexed and irritated by the very name “Christian”. I speak from experience. For it happened to me too [when I was a Jew and someone] exhorted me to abandon the Jewish error and become a Christian.

But Karben had to admit that Jews who converted were not received with open arms by their Christian brethren. They met with a great deal of prejudice:
Many are of the opinion that it is next to impossible for an ex-Jew to become a good and faithful Christian. And I don’t deny that this is sometimes the case, but conversely it often happens that Jews become very good Christians and remain so to the end of their lives. …A Jew who has recently become a Christian deserves compassion. Getting used to things is always hard, and it is also difficult to forget your past – friends and comrades with whom you spent much time and who were your school fellows, not to speak of the possessions you left behind. …Thus many converted Jews are obliged to beg for their bread…and no one feels sorry for them. On the contrary, people mock them, laugh and point a finger at them, saying: “Look, there goes that baptized Jew!” …Is that not adding insult to injury?

Thursday, 16 October 2014


Do you like crisp, clean prose? Read Sulzer’s novel The Perfect Waiter. Do you like sharp opinion pieces? Read Sulzer’s book about his native city, Basel. Here are a few excerpts:

Eating out. There used to be a teashop in a 14th century house – an institution beloved to tea drinkers and named after its owner, Teehaus Manger. It has been turned into a restaurant. Of the name only manger remains, but something about drinking has been added. The restaurant is now called manger & boire. On the lower level the last of the smokers congregate – in Basel there are actually still a few places for smokers, although one has to be a club member to be admitted. Best vantage point to see Basel? The M├╝nsterplatz, where one may dine at the agreeable restaurant Isaak Iselin. It is named after the man who under the influence of Rousseau became a passionate defender of natural human rights, and in 1771 founded the Society For Encouraging and Furthering Goodness and Service to the Community. The Society still exists today and is known to (almost) everyone in the abbreviated form “GGG”.
Isaak Iselin

Money. Visitors from neighbouring countries may be startled or paralyzed by shock if they have neglected to study the menu and are confronted with the bill -- served up, we hope, by a friendly waiter and after a satisfying meal. It may be hard to understand why a pizza which is neither larger nor tastier than its equivalent on the other side of the border has to be so much more expensive. You will soon come to realize that in Switzerland quite a few things are different from the rest of Europe, but nothing is more advantageous. Well, almost nothing. Apple electronics are cheaper than elsewhere on the continent. And one more attraction for European visitors: Here is their chance to have something else in their wallet than euros and cents. In Switzerland you pay with Franks and Rappen.

Philanthropy. The new threatre in Basel, which opened in 1975, offers some seats with obstructed view, cruelly hard seating, and a stage with an angled back wall, which follows the contours of the street. But here as elsewhere we must remember the adage “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” The theatre has been financed by several ladies who remain anonymous to the present day. We know only: They are more than three and fewer than ten in number!

 (Source: A. C. Sulzer, Basel, 2014)

Monday, 13 October 2014


Alain Sulzer (author of The Perfect Waiter) grew up in Riehen, a sleepy suburb of Basel until 1997, when Ernst Beyerle gave his collection of modern art to the public museum designed by Renzo Piano. The Fondation Beyerle is Riehen’s major drawing card today, but for young Sulzer, its main attraction was the tram taking him to Basel when he spent a weekend with his grandmother.

The place where she lived, in a house with two turrets, held at least as much charm for me as the television set she owned, since we ourselves had none. I slept in the sewing room beside a futuristic knitting machine, which soon turned out to be an impractical oddity. Before falling asleep, I listened to the muted noise of the tram – only one block away – which ran to the centre of the city. It was a place I visited on rare occasions, such as the Autumn Fair or carnival or when I was taken to the zoo. The Zolli, as it was called, attracted the attention of the whole population when Goma was born in 1959 – the first female gorilla born in a zoo and still living there today, an aged lady in the best of health.
Goma at 50

The screeching of the trams – the first audible sign of the city – is as deeply etched on my brain as the taste of madeleines dipped in tea was etched on Proust’s.

At the age of nineteen, Sulzer moved from Riehen into the city. My flat consisted of a kitchen with a skylight (the only window), a bathroom (without window), and a living room with a view of an inner yard. The flat was above a garage. The level of noise it produced in the morning made an alarm clock superfluous.
But this was, finally, urban living.

(Trans. from A.C. Sulzer, Basel)

Thursday, 9 October 2014


Lindley Murray Speller

When Elizabeth’ sister was born, she overheard visitors say “What a pity it is she’s a girl!” She therefore felt a kind of compassion for the little baby without understanding what was wrong with her -- that girls were considered an inferior order of beings.

The garret was the children’s favourite playground. Nuts, cakes of maple sugar, and dried herbs were stored there, as well as a spinning wheel and old clothes. She remembers: We would crack the nuts, nibble the sharp edges of the maple sugar, chew some favorite herb, whirl the old spinning wheel, and dress up in our ancestors’ clothes.

Elizabeth recalls learning to spell words, using Murray’s Spelling- Book, where Old Father Time, with his scythe, and the farmer stoning the boys in his apple trees gave rise in my mind to many serious reflections.