Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780
I want to take you on a trip — to Paris, to the 8th arrondissement, Rue de Monceau — an elegant avenue lining the Parc Monceau.
Avital and I visited Paris this past year. It’s a perfect place for a rabbinic vacation: There are many kosher restaurants and very few people I know. Eating kosher food anonymously is a unique experience. After seeing the regular sites, the Louvre and the Musee D’orsay and the Latin Quarter, we decided to go to a lesser-known museum, Musee Nissim De Camondo, recommended by a congregant as a must-see.
This magnificent building, just footsteps away from the Arc du Triomphe and the Champs Elysee, is breathtaking in its splendor. Walk through the gates, and you enter a courtyard, facing a grand edifice built by a Count Moise de Camondo, who commissioned the Versailles-inspired design from the great architect Rene Sergent.
Walk into the home, and find yourself facing a grand sweeping staircase, then a magnificent dining room overlooking manicured gardens. It’s a dizzying experience: The furniture, the paintings, the porcelain. Count Moise De Camondo, heir to a vast Jewish banking fortune, amassed one of the greatest collections of French artistry of the 18th century, including a table covered by petrified wood that once belonged to Marie Antoinette and silverware commissioned by the Empress of Russia Catherine the Great. Moise and his cousin Isaac were early supporters of the French Impressionists, including Manet, Cezanne, Monet and Degas (even though he was an ardent anti-Semite). Isaac donated his collection to the Louvre (the museum curators were at first “horrified” by the radical artwork, and locked the paintings away). The Camondo brothers were board members of the Louvre; Moise hosted the museum’s board meetings around his dining room tables on Rue De Monceau.
If that does not sufficiently describe Moise’s social status — in 1891, Moise married Irene Cahen d’Anvers, daughter of Louis Cahen d’Anvers, one of Europe’s wealthiest Jewish bankers and owner of the bank today known as BNP Paribas. The Cahan d’Anvers family had a tradition that they are descendants of King David. Irene was immortalized by Renoir, who was commissioned to draw her in 1880, in a painting titled “Little Irene”.
But as I often receive emails from you, my dear congregants, whenever you travel — you often send me a photo of you visiting a local synagogue, whether in Tokyo, Abu Dhabi or Amsterdam. As we traverse the globe, we always search for the Jewish connection. I, too, started looking for Jewish clues.
But as we walked through this palace, I did not see not one mezuzah, menorah, kiddush cup, Shabbat candles…. Our curiosity was growing by the minute — who were these Camondos, really?
Not satisfied with our audio guides, we turned to our phones to Google the Camondo story. The patriarch of this Jewish family was Abraham Salomon Camondo, born in 1781 in Constantinople.
Abraham Salomon managed to become a leading financier in the Ottoman Empire, earning the name ׳the Rothschild of the East’. He became an advisor and confidant of the Grand Viziers, Sultan Abdulmecid I and Sultan Abdulaziz. He helped finance the Crimean War, and was essential in helping the Ottomans implement the tanzimat reforms that were supposed to modernize, consolidate and strengthen their empire. Abraham Salomon was knighted by Emperor Franz Joseph, and later attended his wedding in Vienna in 1854. After the reunification of Italy, in recognition of his philanthropy to various Venetian causes, King Victor Emmanuel II conferred upon him the title Count on the 28 of April 1867, with the privilege of transmitting it in perpetuity.
But Abraham understood that being the wealthiest of the 800,000 Jews living in the Ottoman Empire was not merely a privilege — it was a responsibility. He served almost continuously as the president of its Consistoire since its founding. He built Jewish day schools, hospitals, and welfare organizations especially for the impoverished Jews living in the Peri Pasha neighborhood in Istanbul.
He even got into a major fight with ultra-Orthodox rabbis because of his support of the building of Alliance Jewish day schools that intended to teach Turkish and French in addition to tradition. They feared the assimilation that may follow. (Every great Jewish leader has to get into a fight with rabbis at some point in their career.) Abraham eventually opened his own synagogue. In 1840, during the Damascus blood libel which accused 13 prominent members of the Jewish community for murdering a Christian child for his blood — Abraham Salomon hosted Sir Moses Montefiore and helped persuade Sultan Abdulmecid I in Constantinople, to issue a firman (edict) on 6 November 1840 to declare the libel as slander against Jews and to be prohibited throughout the Ottoman Empire.
Abraham’s only son Raphael died young, leaving and his two sons Abraham Bechor and Nissim. The grandsons joined the family business — which by then had helped finance the Suez Canal — and expanded their grandfather’s banking and real estate activities to Paris in 1868, relocating the bank to Rue Lafayette. The brothers bought adjoining homes 61 and 63 on Rue de Monceau. They built the home to include a family chapel that was adorned with their grandfather’s Judaica they brought from Constantinople, a collection which included Torah crowns, menorahs, yads, and even a Torah scroll with the inscription: “This case and its Torah scroll belong to the famed, esteemed, superb, lordly, influential, Prince of Israel, R. Senor Abraham of the Camondo lineage; may G-d protect him; may the Lord grant him the privilege of fulfilling all the commandments of the Torah, Amen, year 5620 of the Creation.” (1860)
This “Prince of Israel,” Abraham, died in 1873, at the age of 92, shortly after they all moved to Paris. He was buried in the family mausoleum in Constantinople. The grandsons continued with some of their inherited Jewish leadership roles in the community, but focused largely on their business endeavors. For Abraham Bechor and Nissim, it was imperative to blend into Parisian aristocracy. Both brothers died in 1889.
The empire was then passed on to Abraham Bechor’s and Nissim’s sons, Isaac and Moise, respectively. Moise’s 1891 marriage to Irene Cahen d’Anvers was intended to cement their social status in Paris. They were part of a larger, glittering society of aristocratic Jews: the Rothschilds, the Ephrussis, the Pereires. However, Irene left Moise for their Italian stableman, Charles Sampieri; she abandoned their two children, Nissim and Beatrice, as well. She later converted to Catholicism.
In the background of this family drama, outside Rue de Monceau 63, the Dreyfus Affair was tearing Parisian society apart. The Jewish officer accused of treason unleashed French anti-Semitism with vigor. Yet the Camondos, one of the most powerful families in France, remained silent.
After Irene’s departure, Moise threw himself into his personal art collections, withdrawing himself increasingly from his business, and in 1910, began building his opulent home for his children.
At the onset of World War I, Nissim, the pride and joy of the family, decided to enlist in the French army. He was promoted to lieutenant, and became one of the first combat pilots in the French Air Force. On September 5, 1917, Nissim’s plane fell in battle.
The devastated Moise put all his focus now in his art collections. He had lost his son, but he still had a daughter Beatrice, who married another Jewish aristocrat and had two children.
Before his passing in 1935, Moise bequeathed his Monceau palace and its contents to the French Republic — to the country that gave him everything, in his words.
After his death, Beatrice converted to Christianity. When the Nazis entered France in 1940, she did not feel a need to hide, After all, her father was a great Frenchman, and her brother had died heroically fighting for France. But most of all — she did not see herself as a Jew. She remained in her home, hosting lavish parties. She even had a German officer accompany her to her favorite pastime — horseback riding.
In 1942, Beatrice was arrested and sent with her husband and children to Auschwitz.
The name De Camondo no longer exists.
This story is timeless. It needs no further explanation.
The details that grabbed me have to do with the timeline. It took less than 7 years since Moise donated one of the largest collections of French art furniture — until the Vichy government allowed for his only daughter and grandchildren to be sent to their deaths.
The tragedy of the death of Beatrice De Camondo and her children was not merely her murder in Auschwitz. It was that she didn’t even know why she was killed.
I personally learned more about the Holocaust in a gilded Parisian home than I did walking through Auschwitz.
The Camondo story is a story of slow assimilation. Assimilation does not happen in one day, or over one decision. Unlike the legends of Jews who threw their tefilin into the water as their boat approached the Statue of Liberty — assimilation usually happens over time, when we slowly shed layers of our identity. In 1840, Abraham is fighting for the Jews of Damascus; in the 1890s, Moise and Isaac are silent during the Dreyfus affair.
Where did the judaica collection of Abraham go? The majority of it was dispersed in 1910, when Moise was rebuilding the home, and suddenly there was no need for a family chapel. Yet when the Metropolitan Museum in New York requested a small portion of his collection to display on loan, Moise wrote, “It would be painful for me to separate so long from an object that is dear to me.” Yet the objects that were dear to his grandfather — he who earned the fortune that allowed him to collect the things he fancied — were meaningless.
Moise even gave away the silver Torah breastplate with the ten commandments that his father gave him for his bar mitzvah.
That, too, did not have a place in his palace. When Judaism does not have meaning — it becomes a burden instead of an inheritance.
When I come home in time to put my children to sleep, I tuck them in and recite the Shema prayer, and then sing the words of ‘Hamalach hagoel oti’, the blessing Jacob gave his grandchildren, growing up in Egypt, the Paris of their times. May the Angel who guarded me, guard you from all evil, and may you carry my name and the names of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac.
The greatest blessing is that grandchildren be worthy of carrying the names of their ancestors.
All of you sitting here are descendants of the greatest people who ever walked the face of this earth: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, King David, Queen Esther, Jeremiah, Ruth and Isaiah. Those who faithfully converted are sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah. You are all royalty, heirs of great intellectual and moral treasures. Are we worthy of carrying their names? Are we making sure we are not losing our hereditary titles? Are we finding places in our homes for our prayerbooks and Bibles — or we are holding on to a table that belonged to Marie Antoinette?
In his will, Moise Camondo required that his estate remain untouched — that the rooms be displayed exactly as they were in 1935, not a single object moved from one room to another. If someone were to walk through our homes, a century later, what would they see on our displays? What do we choose to put on a pedestal in our daily lives?
There is a concept called yeridat hadorot — the decline of generations — that is, as time passes, we grow distant from our source. There is nothing more difficult as a rabbi than seeing grandchildren of great Jews ignorant of their true heritage.
Once, I walked out of a shiva home crying. I had a feelingthat this was the last Jewish event taking place in that family. The shiva was arranged in respect for the deceased parent — but when speaking to the children, I was looking at blank faces. It meant nothing to them. I prayed to God to be proven wrong.
On the other hand, the most beautiful thing is to see parents who did not have the opportunity to learn Torah, have their children come back from yeshiva teaching them about our holidays, our Torah.
If we would be able to intervene in this tragic story of the Camondos, if perhaps we would want to change the course of this family — if not their fate — when and how would we do it?
Which brings me back to this Renoir painting. Here, little Irene is 8 years old. So far she has not received any Jewish education.
Perhaps her father Louis could tell her about her ancestor King David and his Psalms, perhaps he could teach her the meaning of prayer? Perhaps her mother could take little Irene to light Shabbat candles with her, asking her to think of what does she wish for her life, what does she want to accomplish before she welcomes the Sabbath queen?
Perhaps Moise could take little Nissim and Beatrice and study with them the book of Esther, and the importance to act when other Jews are in trouble.
Maybe, just maybe, little Irene could receive a Jewish education.
How many more little pure Irenes do we all know who will grow up not knowing the great heritage they have been bequeathed? How many more little Irenes will not know the meaning of Shema Yisrael?
Little Irene is 8 years old. She is waiting for us to help shape her future.
Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt is the assistant rabbi at Park East Synagogue in New York City. He hosts the Kikar Global conversation series for Kikar Hashabbat, and is a guest host for the Headlines podcast.