Rabbi, Scholar, Editor, Novelist

Published: April 12, 2020
Click here to see article originally published on Hamodia.com

Mention the name Marcus Lehmann and you’ll get the immediate response, “I grew up with his novels!” Thrilling titles such as The Adopted Princess, The Family Y Aguilar, The Count of Coucy, Out of the Depths, Unpaid Ransom, The Story of Rabi Akiva, among many others, are timeless classics of Jewish literature that predate and outlast most contemporary Jewish fiction. These historical tales, however, are much more than just stories of intrigue and adventure; they are lessons in emunah skillfully crafted through characters and themes that are as relevant and compelling today as when they were written over 150 years ago.

In addition to being a renowned Rabbi and Talmudic scholar in Mainz, Germany, Rabbi Dr. Marcus Meir Lehmann has become synonymous with Jewish literature. He arguably has the distinction of being the first Orthodox Jewish novelist of Jewish-themed writing. In testament to the universal appeal of his books, they have been translated into many different languages and can be found in Jewish libraries around the world from the Chassidic to the Modern Orthodox.

Born in 1831 in Verden, Germany, Harav Lehmann became the perfect antidote to the growing Haskalah movement threatening Orthodox Jewry. While studying at the Yeshivah in Verden, he also graduated from the local gymnasium. And whereas his secular studies continued in tandem with his religious studies, they never took priority over them. Harav Lehmann left Verden to study in a yeshivah in Halberstadt, Germany, and then on to Prague where he received semichah in 1852 from Harav Shlomo Yehudah Leib Cohen Rappaport, the Rav and Rosh Beis Din of Prague. While in Prague, he also attended university and studied philosophy, history, Hebrew, Arabic and theory of law. Reputed to have had a photographic memory, Harav Lehmann earned his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Halle. At the same time, he continued his studies at the Adas Yisroel Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, under the esteemed guidance of Harav Ezriel Hildesheimer. It was also in Berlin that he established a Chevrah Shas, which lasted for more than 60 years.

This background prepared Harav Lehmann to battle the influence of the Reform movement in Germany. In 1856 he was appointed Rav of the Orthodox Congregation in Mainz, becoming a leader and spokesman for German Jewish Orthodoxy. He strengthened Yiddishkeit by starting a religious school in 1859 and founding a weekly publication called Der Israelit, which was the Orthodox counterpart to the local Reform periodical. It was in this publication that Harav Lehmann, who served as its editor, serialized his famous historical novels and short stories.

These stories were written in large part to bolster German Jewry, especially the young, with Jewish-based themes and heroic tales of Jewish protagonists who thrived because of their adherence to authentic Judaism. In addition to his novels, Harav Lehmann is remembered for his popular peirush on the Haggadah and Pirkei Avos. His peirush on the Talmud Yerushalmi Maseches Brachos, written in 1875 and entitled Meir Nasiv, received haskamos from Gedolim, such as the Malbim, the Netziv, Harav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor and the Ksav Sofer.

Harav Lehmann’s great-grandson Osher Lehmann, who is this writer’s father-in-law, lives in Brooklyn today and is an embodiment of his illustrious ancestor’s ideals. A Holocaust survivor from Holland who recorded his experiences in his own book, Faith at the Brink, Mr. Lehmann preserves the memories of his forefather and guards his many artifacts as a vigilant protector.

Mr. Lehmann spoke with Hamodia about the legacy he inherited and the efforts he undertakes to preserve the integrity and tradition of his great-grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Marcus Meir Lehmann.

Can you describe what it was like to grow up with a truly “great” great-grandfather and how it impacted your life?

My great-grandfather, Harav Meir Lehmann, was niftar before my father was born, but he had a major impact on everybody in the family because his influence in Yiddishkeit was very extensive and universal. My father and his siblings were very much aware of their legacy, and they had a great appreciation for it.

This legacy extended not only from my great-grandfather, but from my grandfather, Harav Osher Lehmann, as well. He also had the title of chover and continued the work of his father.

You grew up during the war years. Can you give an example of how your heritage influenced your life at that time?

My father had the Lehmann Haggadah, which was a Haggadah with a peirush written by Harav Meir Lehmann and finished by my grandfather, Harav Osher Lehmann. My father used that Haggadah at the Seder table on Pesach in Amsterdam. He used to tell me and my two siblings many of the stories and explanations in it and we were all ears.

When we were arrested in 1943 by the Gestapo, yimach shemam, my father and I paused by my father’s bookcase in our second-floor living room. I took a small siddur with me and, at my father’s suggestion, the Lehmann Haggadah with its peirush written in Gothic German. I was only 10 years old at the time and it was a large book to carry, especially for a young boy. It was an extra weight for me to transport in my bag, which I slung over my shoulder and took with me to the Westerbrook concentration camp and then to Bergen-Belsen.

I carried that Haggadah with me throughout the war years. I didn’t keep it out in the open. In Bergen-Belsen, I hid it under my pillow, which was really not a pillow but a bag full of dusty, rough wood shavings. Later on, we were separated from my parents and put into a children’s group. An older girl safeguarded the Haggadah for me during that time under her pillow. I’ve used that Haggadah ever since.

Harav Meir Lehmann was a talmid chacham who was also secularly educated. In what way was his mesorah of Torah im derech eretz transmitted to the Yekkish community he led?

That mesorah was transmitted in many ways. In Mainz, where he settled after marrying, he opened up two separate yeshivos — one for boys and one for girls — where they were taught both limudei kodesh and limudei chol.

Harav Lehmann was also the Mara d’Asra of the local congregation in Mainz called Adas Yisrael. In order for a community congregation — which would include its own shul, kashrus certification and beis din — to operate at that time in Germany, it needed to have permission and a special license from the authorities. Many German Jewish congregations had assimilated and become Reform, remaining the official congregations of their towns.

Harav Lehmann wanted to secede from the official Reform congregation in Mainz and establish an “austrits Gemeinde” that was a separate congregation from the existing official one. For this he needed authorization. Having studied and being fluent in Latin, French, German and even Arabic, Harav Lehmann went to the authorities and impressed them with his wide scope of knowledge. As a result, he was granted special permission to open a new communal congregation.

Harav Lehmann also wrote articles for the weekly newsletter, which was put out by the Reform Jews. After a while he discovered that they weren’t printing his articles. So, in 1860, while still quite young, he started his own weekly called Der Israelit, a weekly news publication that featured many guest writers. In addition to Harav Lehmann’s many articles, it also included his famous historical novels in serialized form.

These novels seemed to have a dual purpose of entertaining and countering the influence of the Reform. How did Harav Lehmann accomplish these missions?

The themes of these novels centered on how to be mekadesh Shem Shamayim b’rabbim. The Reform wanted to push assimilation and show how nice it was to be part of the umos ha’olam; Harav Lehmann showed how we have so much morality and value by following the ways of the Torah and Yiddishkeit.

The novels were based on facts from Midrashim, Chazal, and different historical documents. Harav Lehmann traveled to different historical libraries in Europe to obtain information. Because of his fluency in many different languages, he was able to properly do research for his novels.

Altogether Harav Lehmann wrote 25 different titles. Some were lengthier, some were shorter. The stories included all phases of Jewish history from the last two thousand years, starting with the Tanna Rabi Akiva and the Roman period to the Inquisition, the Crusades, and onward throughout the many periods of Jewish history. Every week he published another chapter. When people would meet him in the street, they would ask him what was going to happen next. He would answer, “I didn’t read it yet!”

Harav Lehmann started writing his novels in the 1860s, which were translated into many different languages. After he was niftar in 1890, his son, my grandfather, Harav Osher Lehmann, took over and wrote some stories too. They are less well-known than his father’s stories.

Did his writing talent ever conflict with his broader hashkafic pursuits?

There’s a very famous story about Harav Lehmann that described his attitude towards his writing talent. Before he was married, he went to university and studied different types of literature. While there, he wrote a play for the theater. A very well-known literary critic heard of the play and wanted to discuss it with him. The critic urged Harav Lehmann to quit all his other studies and devote himself to the theater.

The evening that Harav Lehmann was supposed to meet with the critic to present his play, he made a cheshbon hanefesh. He was guided by the passuk in Tehillim 51:12, “Lev tahor bara li Elokim, v’ruach nachon chadesh b’kirbi.” He made a decision then and there and ended up throwing the play into the fire. He did not want to have any yetzer hara to go back to it.

Although Harav Lehmann wrote many scholarly works, he is chiefly known now for his novels. These were written at a different time period for a different audience, yet are as relevant and appealing today as they were then. Why do you think they most defined and immortalized him?

He was a menschenkenner. He knew human nature and stressed the human aspects and interaction between people, how they treated each other, and how they conducted themselves toward one another. And that hasn’t changed. He didn’t dwell on technological aspects, which aren’t relevant to the stories.

Harav Lehmann’s main intent was to stem the tide of the Reform movement in Germany, a goal he shared with Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch. Can you talk about the connection between the two?

Although they lived in different cities, with my family in Mainz and Harav Hirsch’s family in Frankfurt am Main, they were contemporaries and worked together toward a similar aim. They both also worked to strengthen Eretz Yisrael and were supporters of the yishuv there. If you go to the lobby of the Shaare Zedek Hospital in Yerushalayim you’ll see a plaque there with both names. In 1888, Harav Lehmann gave a hesped at Harav Hirsch’s levayah.

Do you remember reading the novels growing up?

Yes. Growing up in Amsterdam, we attended a Jewish school. But my parents weren’t quite satisfied with the level of Jewish education it provided, so they hired a tutor to learn with us after school. His name was Rabbi Prins and we learned together in his house. At the end of each session, my father would loan Rabbi Prins some of the Lehmann books and he would read a chapter to us in German.

During the war, when my father saw things were getting bleak, he wanted to safeguard the books he had. There was a musical instrument store diagonally across the street from us, and my father brought over a lot of books and other possessions to the owner to watch for us because he foresaw that we would be away. After the war, with my parents having been killed, my two sisters and I returned to his store and asked the owner for the books. He said he had thrown them all into the river because he had been afraid. The only thing he was able to return to us was my sisters’ accordion and banjo and my cousin’s mandolin.

How accessible were the novels after the war?

After the war there were no Lehmann books available commercially. When I was living in New York after the war and attending college in the city, I didn’t have any of these historical novels. But the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd street in Manhattan contained the Schiff Collection. Jacob Schiff was a wealthy New York Jewish banker, originally from Frankfurt am Main. He had donated his library to the public library and it had a special section that housed his books. After school, I would spend 3-4 hours reading the Lehmann books in German from this collection. I would get a ticket, read the book, and keep a paper clip at my place for the next time I would return. I spent a lot of time reading like that.

Afterward, I sent letters to different European mochrei sefarim, for example in London and Switzerland, asking them if they had any copies. One day I remember getting a small package from London that contained a book in German called Dur’s Keinig Eidem (The King’s Son-in-Law), which was a beautiful story all about the Shach, who wrote a peirush on the Shulchan Aruch. Later, it was translated into English and retitled Faith and Courage. I was also able to get a two-volume set of the novel Rabbi Yoselman, also in German, from the Rav of the shul I davened at in Boro Park.

Of the 25 titles Harav Lehmann wrote, how many are in print today?

Today, some are out of print. Around 65 – 70 years ago, after the war, many books were translated and reprinted. Some of them were printed in Hebrew in Israel. Today, there are maybe 8 – 10 titles available, but there could be many more.

Some of Harav Lehmann’s books were re-edited and the content watered down. How do you feel about this?

It is overzealousness and an exaggeration. If it was good enough for Harav Lehmann, then I consider it good enough for now. I was very upset when some of the books were translated into English and many parts were cut out. In one book, two whole chapters were deleted for no apparent reason.

I made an agreement with a certain publishing company to sponsor the retranslation of the novel Rabi Akiva with my sister on condition that they would not cut anything out. They did this and sent me the galleys of the translation. I compared it with the original German and thankfully nothing was cut out.

You have a complete set of Der Israelit. Can you describe it?

Der Israelit was the first of its kind. It was a weekly newsletter mailed out from Germany to all over the world — America, Moscow and all of Europe. It contained news items pertaining to Yiddishkeit that involved people worldwide. At the end of the year, all the newsletters were bound together in hardcover and it became an annual volume. When it grew larger, it was bound in semi-annual volumes.

I have the volumes from 1860-1905. All the children of my grandfather Osher Lehmann had full sets. We had a set in Amsterdam but it didn’t survive the war. The set I have now is from my aunt in London who offered to ship her set to me when she moved.

What did a typical newsletter contain?

It contained divrei Torah, a few of which I’ve even used for my own speeches for simchos. It also had obituaries. As an example, there’s an article in a volume from the late 1880s that is a hesped for Hirsch Oppenheimer, who was born in 1805 and died at the end of the 1880s. He was a famous person, a mohel and my mother’s grandfather.

It also contained advertisements, such as classified ads for positions as a shochet or chazzan, ads for kosher food for Pesach, for restaurants or pensionaries. There were also appeals for the yishuv in Eretz Yisrael and pages that showed how much people had donated.

Where is Harav Lehmann buried?

Harav Lehmann is buried in the “new Beis Olam” in Mainz, which was opened in the 1880s. There are two huge matzeivos there for him and his wife, Tirza Lehmann, which we’ve visited several times. It’s interesting to note that their matzeivos, along with those of my grandparents, Harav Osher Lehmann and his wife, are written entirely in Hebrew, with no German at all, as compared to other matzeivos there, with some having a mixture of Hebrew and German and others written only in German.

What message would you like to impart regarding growing up in the shadows of such important lineage and the heritage of the Marcus Lehmann novels?

I would say the important message is that you’re not a descendant of a famous person unless you live up to the standards, ideals and philosophies of that individual. People who say they are descendants of important ancestors, but act in a manner that is inconsistent with them, really leave a blemish on the legacy of that ancestor. That is the most important thing.

I meet a lot of people who — when they hear my name and relation to the author — tell me that when they were young, they read all his stories. Many were positively influenced by them. The works of Harav Lehmann and his son Chover Osher Lehmann are timeless and their messages are very nogeiah today. More should be done to properly translate and perpetuate them.

Harav Lehmann’s great-grandson Mr. Osher Lehmann with his grandfather’s Haggadah.

Haggadah that Osher Lehmann took to the concentration camp and uses now.