PHILADELPHIA — There is an old Jewish joke that goes like this: A young Talmudic scholar took a vow that before he undertook any major step in life, he would complete the section of the Talmud which covers that subject. Before he bought a house, he studied the tract dealing with laws of real estate ownership and obligations to one’s neighbors, etc. When the night of his wedding arrived, the crowd was assembled but he had not yet appeared. Frantic, the family found him in a room only about halfway through the 165-page tome about the marriage procedure.
“You must perform the procedure to annul your vow,” his parents said. “You can’t keep a whole roomful of people waiting.”
“You’re right,” he responded. “But first I must study the (185-page) volume covering the laws of vows and their annulment.”
So it goes with writers of opinion. The idea of a vacation is impossible. The observing eye and the inquiring mind come along for the ride. The only way you can tell that a columnist is on the road is when the locus of his articles shifts — or he begins to write about the lack of hygiene in rest rooms at service stations. My own peregrinations have continued inching me northward, taking me to the city of brotherly love, where you can still buy a nice steak for a picture of Ben Franklin.
The highlight of my visit was the Liberty Bell, no longer functional as a cymbal but still quite poignant as a symbol. Yet I felt that my trip would not be complete without adding a somewhat idiosyncratic destination, the Rothenberg Tower on Walnut Avenue between 15th and 16th Streets in downtown Philadelphia. This office building, eighteen stories plus a penthouse, houses the law firm of Allen L. Rothenberg, long the Number One personal-injury firm in Pennsylvania. The practice has offices in New York and New Jersey as well and includes Allen, his wife Barbara, and four of their children (with two more expected to join after completing law school).
What fascinates me about this family, well beyond their being a modern success story, is the incredible historic symbolism of their high-achieving operation being based in that tower. You see, the Rothenbergs have a family tradition that they are direct descendants of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293). He was a great scholar, considered the foremost legal authority among the Jews of Western Europe in his era. He was also a capable liturgical poet, and the dirge he wrote upon witnessing the public burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1242 is still recited in synagogues once a year.
His name is frequently quoted in feminist publications, because he wrote very severe letters against wife-beating and mandated that no woman had to remain in her husband’s home if he was striking her. He also authorized an escalating series of punishments for a husband who would not stop the violence on his own, from social to financial and eventually to corporal.
In 1286, Emperor Rudolph I had him kidnapped and held hostage in the Ensisheim Tower. There is some dispute among historians whether he was taken for ransom or to get the Jews to agree to an official status as “serfs of the state.” In any case, the Jewish community had raised funds sufficient to effect his release. But he sent a message from the tower (he was allowed some visitors) that ransom should not be paid lest this practice become widespread as a means of extorting money from the Jews.
He lived out the rest of his life in the tower, dying in 1293. The powers that be vindictively refused to release his bones for burial and they remained in the tower until 1307. One of his students finally succeeded in getting the remains transferred to his custody; tradition has it that money changed hands to enable that to happen. The anniversary of the date of his belated burial was celebrated by Jews of that region (Rothenburg is in the Alsace area) for many generations.
With a great sense of irony, the Rabbi of Rothenburg reedited his commentary on a chapter of Mishna entitled “Tower.” The manuscript was smuggled out of the tower by one of his visitors and is published at the end of every set of Talmud to this day. He concludes with a wry and eerily prophetic postscript: “I added this commentary on ‘Tower’ while held in Ensisheim Tower, thanks to God Who did not withhold His kindness from me… and will never abandon me… all the days of my life — and even after I die.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica calls it the Ensisheim Fortress but Tower is a better fit, particularly since the captive used that term himself. Now, almost 700 years after his body left the tower, a lonely traveler through history like myself can drift into downtown Philadelphia and see a towering reminder that justice, although delayed, has not been denied.
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