What if Jerusalem had assented to the 1538 Sanhedrin.

It was very well done, no complaints
Thanks! I'm also going to take up a suggestion of yours - I've decided that I'll do another arc after 1840, and that it will consist of four or five stories of Ulysses and Julia Grant's 1878 visit to Egypt, the Holy Land and Syria. They'll stay a few months longer and go more places than OTL, and there will be Geniza content.
JUNE 1840

Gideon Chelemer had grown up on stories of his great-grandfather’s arrival at Acre, nearly penniless after having been robbed in Beirut and lost in an unfamiliar city. Gideon himself was returning to Acre in far more fortunate circumstances; the view as he stood on the deck of the Jalib al-Sa’adat was of the city where he’d grown up, and the purse at his belt jingled with silver. A few pieces of the city mosaic had changed in three years – more ships in the harbor, more factories going up to the north, new works in the shore batteries – but it was still his city. And when you worked for old man Sassoon, and when you were one of the people he’d picked out to send to the university, you didn’t come and go in poverty.

The sailors tied up quickly, and it was still morning when Gideon made his way onto the harbor streets. At this time of day the markets were teeming, and the anonymity of the city fell around him as he passed through them. He’d expected to be out of place in his Dutch clothes, a frock coat and cravat and trousers, but he wasn’t; there were many foreigners this close to the harbor, and even the city men were more Arab or Turkish in their overcoats and hats but otherwise didn’t dress much differently. Had that, too, changed, or had the difference always been less than Gideon had imagined? He wasn’t sure; he was a man now, but he’d still been a boy when he left.

Past the markets and to the north were the narrow streets that led to the kollel katan, although ninety years and more after its founding, it was no longer so small. One of the houses on those streets belonged to Gideon’s family. And by the time he reached the door, his mother had already seen him and was waiting to draw him into an embrace.

“You’re home!” she said, stepping back into the foyer and holding him at arm’s length. “Three years a Utrechtenaar… why are you laughing?”

“That’s what the Dutch call men who favor other men.” Gideon didn’t, although in his time in Utrecht, he’d known several who had.

“Come inside then, and speak Dutch to me.” And it truly was a delight to hear his mother’s Dutch again, the language that he’d learned at her knee and that had caused such merriment to his classmates at Utrecht – not the Dutch of Amsterdam but Guiana Dutch, laced with Kongo and Akan and Javanese. Like many Jews of Acre, she had stories of the old country, but hers were of steaming tropics, jungles, and the wooden synagogue where the black and mixed-race Jews had worshiped until it had been shut down and they’d come here. Her name was Yaba Leah, Yaba because she’d been born on Thursday, and it had been Thursday when she’d arrived in the Holy Land, Thursday when she’d married, and Thursday when she’d given birth to Gideon.

“Tell me about Utrecht and Amsterdam,” she said. It was a question about what might have been, had her parents and their congregation gone to Holland instead. “What do the canals look like? How are the cities in winter? The clothes, the markets… the synagogues?”

“In Utrecht there are two,” said Gideon, answering her last question first. “There is a small one where the men sway and murmur and are led by no one, and where they hate Spinoza. There is a large one where the service is formal and where the rabbi prays for the people while an organ plays, and where they remember Spinoza but forget the Law. And in Amsterdam there are the great Portuguese synagogue, the great Ashkenazi synagogue and the great modern synagogue – that one is on the Prinsengracht and majestic as a cathedral, and they pray in Dutch sometimes.”

He trailed off there, unwilling for his mother’s sake to say the next words: “none of them felt right.” He wasn’t entirely sure why – after all, in their midnight services, the Jews of the kollel katan played instruments and spoke of the wonders of the world and prayed in any language that inspired them. But the organs, the rabbis preaching as pastors might, the architecture of the buildings – all of them seemed like imitations, like they were trying to be something they were not. And he said nothing at all about his visit to Frankfurt, when he’d met a group of maskilim who prayed no differently from Unitarians and who, in the style of their preceptor Friedländer, that such was necessary because emancipation had failed.

He gathered his thoughts to say something else, but was interrupted by the door opening and a familiar silhouette framed below the lintel: Shimon, his brother.

“Gideon! You’re home!” Shimon spoke Hebrew, not Dutch, and came into the room and embraced Gideon much as their mother had. “A scholar now? Well, after you see the old man, come help get Yitzhaki elected to the divan. It’s four days until the voting, and a university laureate speaking for him will count for a great deal.”

“So soon?” In truth, Gideon had forgotten that there was an election this year, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about coming home right in the middle of one. He’d been eight the first time – just old enough to remember how the workers and shopkeepers of the city had demanded a council like the Galilee had; how the mutassalim had refused to appoint one; how the people had elected their one of their own, half of it made up of militia officers, and dared the mutassalim to oppose it. He remembered the shouting, the speeches, the confused fighting in the market square, and finally, the mutassalim agreeing for the emir to arbitrate. The rules had been set, not to everyone’s liking, and though the divan had only the power to advise and consent, it had learned that consent could come at a price.

All this had happened when Gideon was a child; he knew that the kollel katan controlled enough votes to elect two councilmen and sometimes three, but beyond that he’d understood little. Now he was an adult, and it seemed he’d have to understand more.

He’d thought simply to come home and see what the House of Sassoon had in store for him. He would know the answer to that soon, but it seemed he would have many more questions.

The offices of Sassoon and Sons, Bankers and Traders – not entirely accurate, now that Sassoon ben Salih had gone to his fathers and his oldest son David ran the Bombay office – had been a Hospitaller barracks in the days of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and had been many other things since. The ground floor, to which a guard admitted Gideon after yet another exclamation of surprise, was as familiar to him as home; he’d worked among its storerooms and files, its books and ledgers, since the age of thirteen. But he hardly had time to reacquaint himself with it before Ahmed el-Fadlawi, who he’d hitherto known only as one of the lofty men whose rank was nigh unto the Name’s, greeted him and led him upstairs.

The second story was far less familiar. Gideon had rarely been invited to its meeting rooms, and the files here were for the great accounts – cities, provinces, emirates, even the Sultan and the Malik Misr – that a junior clerk would never touch. And he’d been to the third floor only once. Here were the maps and treasures and master plans; here were the offices of the Sassoon family, the Baghdadi Jews who’d been their chief retainers since they’d established themselves in the city, and those like el-Fadlawi who’d joined that inner circle. The old man had summoned him here three years ago to send him off to the university, and now el-Fadlawi ushered him into that office again.

The old man wasn’t truly old, not like his father had been when Gideon had first become a clerk – he was in his middle forties and his beard still came in black. But he had a presence that old men would envy, and unlike other men of Acre, he conceded nothing to the West, wearing a robe and turban and embroidered belt as he would have done were his family still the court treasurers of Baghdad. Joseph Sassoon, a name even a prince or a Rothschild would not take lightly.

“Sit,” said Joseph now, speaking the Arabic that had been his first language and was the one in which he was most comfortable. He poured a glass of wine from a bottle on his desk; Gideon recognized the mark of ben David, the greatest of the Galilee vineyards. “Drink. To a scholar come home.”

Gideon drank, and in this place, the wine hit as hard as a spirit. “I’ve heard good reports of you,” he heard Joseph saying. “You’ve learned Latin, you’ve read some law, you’ve studied mathematics and philosophy and the useful arts, no doubt you’ve learned to roister with the sons of Company men. But what have you learned?

For a moment, Gideon sat frozen. He sensed there was a test in this question, but more than that, he didn’t know the answer; how could he distill three years of study into a single item? But then he realized that the question answered itself – he couldn’t condense his learning like that, and instead, he thought on those years and said the first thing he was inspired to say.

“I was taught” – careful, those words; they weren’t the same as I learned – “that the Torah can be understood as a work of history as well as a work of law, and that it can be questioned in the way of any other history. And that its contradictions, its omissions – the spaces between the words – can tell us much about the Name.”

“And who taught you that?”

“There’s a group of the Jewish professors that teach the rabbis of the Modern Synagogues. Carel Asser, when he isn’t sitting as a judge; some of the doctors of history and theology; Littwak, the mathematician. Only…”

“Only?” prompted Joseph.

Gideon was again silent. The Modern professors’ teachings had fascinated him – the kollel katan had long held that scientific inquiry was a path to inspiration, and applying that to the Torah itself, as others before them had only hinted, was as heady as ben David’s wine, but…

“The professors taught me this as a guide to the Name and the Law,” he said, “but there are those who see it as a release from those things.”

Joseph nodded. “Then the ultimate lesson is to learn, but to keep only what is good?”

“Maybe, sir. I don’t know.”

“We can speak of it further. Come to my home at Shavuot; there will be many of us there, and we will study together. But now, let’s talk of other things. Keep only what is good, we were saying – you are good, but should I keep you?”

Gideon’s heart fell to the floor, but he gathered himself. “Do you think you might not, sir?”

“Very good, young man. Have courage; don’t leave the question unasked. And yes, I will keep you in my employment; the question is whether I will keep you here. Ordinarily, when I send a man to university, I put him on the second floor when he comes back – make him a senior clerk to someone like el-Fadlawi for a few years, let him find out if his future is in commerce or in banking. Maybe have him teach a little at the college I founded here, help build it into a university in its own right. You might prosper that way, and then go out to be a deputy factor somewhere. But there is another possibility, in your case.”

Gideon gripped the stem of his wine-glass. “Another possibility?”

“I could send you to Cairo right away as a junior factor – close enough that I can keep an eye on you, but far enough away so you can learn the job. And then, in four or five years more, you can go to Batavia.”

“I didn’t think you had an office there…” Gideon began, but then he understood – a Dutch-speaking factor, and one who had come to know many sons of East India Company men during his time in Utrecht, would be just the person to open that office.

The prospect was a daunting. In Batavia, Gideon would have to build a business from nothing, a thousand miles from the nearest other Sassoon depot – and he remembered his mother’s stories, and knew that the Company men might not look on him the same way in the Indies as they did in Holland. Even with five years in Cairo under his belt by then, the task wouldn’t be easy. But the notion was also an exciting one, and one that might make him very, very rich…

“I’m not asking you to decide now,” said Joseph. “Wait a few days. Reunite with your family. Reunite with the city. And after Shavuot – tell me then.”

Moments later, Gideon was on the street again, walking toward the seawall, his education resuming.

Gideon got to know his city again in the next days, in the most intense way possible. He ate his mother’s cooking in the morning and saw his father off to work at the shipyard, and for the rest of the day, he and his brothers campaigned.

He didn’t have a vote in the election. That was reserved for those who owned city property, paid five lira in taxes a year, or were enrolled in a militia company – he would no doubt fall into the latter two categories if he stayed as a senior clerk rather than going to Cairo, but he didn’t yet. That didn’t mean, though, that he had nothing to do. He could hang banners, join the singing and feasting in the city parks, shout for the kollel’s candidates on the streets, and be ready to fight when their rallies were attacked.

And he did so all over the city – the candidates his family supported lived and drew most of their votes from near the kollel, but you never knew who might vote for them, and there were also alliances to maintain. There were factions among the Jews, Muslims and Christians; there were factions among the tradesmen and merchants and workers; there were factions among the radicals and liberals and reactionaries. The coalitions between these factions changed from election to election and issue to issue, and sometimes day to day.

And there was preaching.

The city elections, Gideon realized, had become almost religious acts. The Muslims at the rallies spoke of shura and ijma and being rightly guided; the Jews spoke of hesed and musar and tzedakah; the Christians spoke of mercy; and everyone spoke of justice. Candidates preached; their supporters preached. Sometimes even women preached.

Yaba Leah preached, and after, so did Gideon.

The candidates of the kollel katan, and their allies among the ulama, had gathered the day before the election at the green that lay just within the city walls. It had become tradition that the candidates themselves would not speak on this day, and that the public, voters and not, would have their say instead. Already forty or more had spoken, and Yaba Leah rose in her turn to talk of the open sewers and disease she’d known in Paramaribo as a child and call for Acre to improve its sanitation as Tzfat had done. And in the applause that followed, Shimon raised Gideon’s hand with his and said, “here is a mother’s son come back to us from the great university at Utrecht, and he will speak of the university that is to come in this city!”

There were more cheers, and Gideon hoped they would go on forever, because how could he speak of this of all topics? The kollel katan and its allies wanted to build Sassoon’s college into a true university, as he wished, but the bill they intended to lay before the divan would make it a public university. Gideon was loyal to his family, he was loyal to the kollel, he was loyal to the House of Sassoon; how could he take sides between them?

But he realized that maybe he didn’t have to.

“The sages say,” he began, “that it requires forty-eight qualities to learn Torah. And at the kollel katan, and in Holland, I’ve learned that in each of those forty-eight ways is a hundred thousand facets, and that there are so many of those we have yet to discover. New learning can sanctify the Name. Increasing the learning of the city sanctifies the Name. We must have this university.

“But we should not forget the last of the forty-eight qualities: to say a thing in the name of him who said it. ‘Thus you have learned: anyone who says a thing in the name of him who said it, brings deliverance to the world.’ We must never forget who first said that there should be a university in this city, and we must never forget who laid the cornerstone of its schools. Let the university bear the name of Sassoon forever – let everyone who speaks of it speak in Sassoon’s name.”

The people cheered again, and Gideon sank back into the anonymity of the crowd. He wouldn’t be anonymous to Sassoon, he knew; everything that happened in the city, the old man knew sooner or later. Had he squared the circle well enough? He would find out at Shavuot, no doubt.

Joseph Sassoon’s home was close by the Baghdadi synagogue and his college and hospital, and for mild evenings like this one, it had a courtyard garden. Gideon was nervous coming in, not just because of the election but because of the exalted company he was entering, but the old man made him welcome. He took a seat at the courtyard’s edge where others were gathering, and if there was any reproach in Joseph’s gaze, he didn’t see it.

Before long, the study began. As Joseph Karo had done in Tzfat, the men gathered with Sassoon would read all night, from every book of the Tanakh and each of the mishnayot, and after they’d read from each, they would stop to discuss it, and sometimes to argue over it.

“Gideon!” Joseph called sometime after it had turned full night, when they’d read from the Pirkei Avot on the study of Torah. “There are forty-eight qualities of a student,” Joseph said – surely, thought Gideon, it was no coincidence that the old man had called him out on this passage. “Your teachers in Utrecht said that we may question the Torah itself – is that a forty-ninth quality, to stand outside it and make it prove itself?”

Again, Gideon wasn’t sure how to answer. Again, as he’d become used to in the lecture-halls and now in the streets, he simply spoke. “Spinoza, too, said that we may question the Torah if it is contrary to reason, but he also said that none of it is contrary.” He was conscious of the irony of quoting Spinoza to Baghdadi Jews steeped in tradition just days after he’d quoted the sages to a crowd that contained many radicals. “Maybe the idea that we can question the Torah is all we need – maybe that helps us look at new things with an open mind and let them reveal the Name to us.”

“An open mind?” Sassoon repeated. “Maybe it will reveal something soon.”

And the revelation came as the sun rose and the men walked to the mikvah to end their Shavuot studies, and Joseph spoke to Gideon again. “The House of Sassoon was built around a family,” he said. “I wouldn’t hire anyone who wasn’t loyal to his family. But I must also demand loyalty to me, and to my house. And sometimes, try as one might, one cannot have both. So what am I to do?”

Gideon waited to hear what Sassoon would say next, what his fate might be, but there was only silence, and he realized that he’d been asked a genuine question.

“There would be no conflict in my loyalties,” he said, “in Cairo.”

“Very good. You have decided, and I think you have decided rightly, so how can I decide anything different? You will go to Cairo – in a month, maybe? Cairo in Tammuz is the paradise of which the poets sing.”

Cairo in Tammuz. Gideon would endure it. And he would learn.

In Cairo, in Batavia, in Utrecht, in Acre, in Jerusalem – there would be new things to unveil the glory of the Name.
Notes to The Student:

1. Due to the events of the Napoleonic Sanhedrin and the post-Napoleonic reaction in Germany, the Netherlands have taken a more leading role in the early Reform movement (or as it is called here, “Modern”) than OTL. Several things have contributed to this: the prominence of Amsterdam’s Adath Jeshurun congregation in both Jewish and public life, a large number of German maskilim settling in Amsterdam and the university cities in the wake of the “Hep Hep” riots, and the relative freedom of the Dutch universities in conducting historical and religious inquiry. There is as yet no Modern seminary, but as mentioned in the story, several of the Jewish professors at Utrecht, Leiden and Groningen make up an informal training network for Modern rabbis.

2. The Black Jews of Paramaribo, as mentioned earlier in the thread, descended from slaves on the Jodensavanne who were converted to Judaism during the 17th and 18th centuries, and who had their own Darhe Jesarim congregation/brotherhood from the late 1750s. This congregation came under attack from the established (read “white”) Jews of Paramaribo in the 1790s and, by the 1810s IOTL, they had been reabsorbed as second-class members of the main synagogue. ITTL they took another option. As mentioned, there was some debate among them between going to Amsterdam and going to the Holy Land, but the latter won out because there was funding available for passage and because they didn’t entirely trust that they’d be treated differently in Amsterdam than they had been in Paramaribo. As of 1840 about half of them live in Acre and the other half in the Galilee.

3. So now we know where Sassoon ben Salih ended up – he chose Acre as the place where he would be least regulated (Nablus would also have been a possibility, but the House of Rothschild had a head start there). As IOTL, the Sassoons are both a trading and banking family; Joseph Sassoon in Acre and David in Bombay are joint heads of the enterprise, but in practice Acre as banking center is first among equals. The House of Sassoon is becoming the “native” banking family as opposed to the Rothschilds and Warburgs of Europe and the India-based Kedouries; they’re international enough to avoid the court Jew trap, but like traditional court Jews (and very much in character for their patriarch), they have adopted the role of local patron.

4. The riot that resulted in Acre having an elected city council took place in 1828 and grew out of protest against corruption in the local government. The emir allowed it for much the same reason as the nagidah – the council would take the mutassalim down a peg while coming primarily from a middle class and upper working class that was loyal to the emirate. Acre isn’t representative, though, or at least not yet. The emir isn’t nearly as keen on popular government on a national or provincial scale – the Va’ad ha-Aretz remains the only council above the city level, and is still chosen by a mix of consensus and appointment – and the cities with elected councils in 1840 are mainly the new ones like Haifa and Ashdod where traditional authority structures are weak. Tzfat and Tiberias may be special cases – we’ll see something of them later in the 1840 cycle.

5. The 48 qualities of the Torah student referred to in Gideon’s speech come from Pirkei Avot 6:6. His Spinoza reference is paraphrased from the preface to the Theologico-Political Treatise. Obviously, many of Spinoza’s views on the Torah as expressed later in the treatise aren’t nearly as sanguine, but the kollel katan sees him as a guide, not a prophet.
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This is a great history thanks to it I have learn not only about the Jews but also about the Ottoman empire and other things that I never have been interested before you truly are a great writer @Jonathan Edelstein hoping to see more of this and others of your stories
I loved this update! I hope that biblical criticism might enter into more orthodox communities, as Gideon said - not to contradict, but to question.
And of course I love your commitment to finding the most far-flung Jewish nations you can find and ensuring their continuation. For love of the Diaspora.
I LOVE this TL
This is a great history thanks to it I have learn not only about the Jews but also about the Ottoman empire and other things that I never have been interested before
Thanks to both of you!
I loved this update! I hope that biblical criticism might enter into more orthodox communities, as Gideon said - not to contradict, but to question.
I mentioned earlier in the thread that one effect of a parallel Haskalah happening in the Galilee and Acre is that Jews can explore modernity in a way that doesn't dilute Judaism. The modernity of the Yishuv is more conservative and preserves many more traditions, but that's exactly what opens the door to reinterpreting those traditions. There will always be a spectrum - "two Jews, three opinions" is eternal - but the idea of modern orthodoxy (or more accurately, individual orthodox Jews or individual orthodox congregations selectively incorporating modern elements) will emerge earlier and differently. Watch some of the exiled mitnagid communities for that too.
And of course I love your commitment to finding the most far-flung Jewish nations you can find and ensuring their continuation.
After a fashion, anyway. The Paramaribo Jews will marry into the other communities of the Yishuv - as shown in the story, some of them already have - and become part of the melting pot. But on the way, they'll add to the Yishuv culture. Among other things, the structure of the Darhe Jesarim congregation drew heavily from west and west-central African brotherhoods (the most common origins for slaves in Suriname were Kongo and Akan, with others coming mostly from coastal West Africa), and the West African tradition of masquerades means that they'll take Purim to another level.

The far-flung parts of the Jewish diaspora, though, have been an interest of mine for a long, long time. If I decide to take this into the 20th century, characters will show up from everywhere.

Anyway, the title of the next story will be The Kingdom of Ishah Kadmon, and if that raises more questions than it answers, that's exactly my intent. Coming up in a few days.
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JULY 1840

Dov Ber of Truvitz looked at the pine tree in front of him and considered the cut he’d made. It was almost ready to fall, and one more blow should do the job, there. He raised his ax, swung it halfway to measure the stroke, and then struck. Slowly, the tree began to topple, and then all at once it fell heavily to the ground.

He turned to call to Velvel and Modche, but they’d already seen and were running over with ropes and a sling. He helped them tie up, watched for a moment as they began dragging the log to the crude sawmill by the stream, and realized how exhausted he was. He looked at where the sun was, counted up the trees he’d cut since morning, and decided he could take twenty minutes to rest.

The forest edge wasn’t far away, and half a verst beyond, across the meadow, the deep blue waters of Lake Baikal stretched to the horizon. Dov Ber walked toward the shore, savoring the cooling breeze that came off the water. To the east was what would become the town, the new Ludomir; most of the barns and storehouses and outbuildings were already built, as was the beit knesset where the Maid held court, but the palisade was still being laid and the people still needed homes. North, by the shore, cows and sheep grazed under the older children’s supervision, men were out on the boats with nets, and women gathered fruit.

It was a scene, thought Dov Ber, of almost ludicrous abundance. The lake teemed with fish, the meadows were rife with gooseberries and sea-buckthorn, the pine forest that began on the slopes above the shore seemed endless, and the black soil would be fertile ground to plant barley and buckwheat next year. But it had taken almost three years to get here, and Dov Ber knew well what awaited them. All the food they gathered now would still not be enough come the Siberian winter.

The Maid said that this land would provide. Lake Baikal was narrow and deep; it was one of the wombs of the four worlds; it would nourish both the body and the spirit. But she, too, knew that the land wouldn’t provide without work, and that if what remained of the Ludomirer Regiment didn’t work through the summer, nothing would remain of them next spring.

Dov Ber turned back toward the forest edge at that thought, ready to resume his own work, but then he saw the boat.

It was made of Siberian birchbark, one person paddling, and it cut swiftly through the deep waters where the fishermen worked and the shallows where seals played. It came unerringly from the north, from the direction of the Angara river mouth on the far horizon, and it drove up on the beach meters from where Dov Ber was standing.

The person who climbed out of it was twenty-five or thirty, tall and black-haired, and he had likely been handsome before his face was scarred. He was Jewish; that much could be told from the fringes on his clothing, though he had no sidelock. The tattered uniform coat that he wore over his shirt said that he’d once been a cantonist; the scar and the two missing fingers on his right hand made clear why he wasn’t one anymore. And he said, “I am Adam Fishman, and I have come to see the Maid.”

“It’s known that she is here, then?” asked Dov Ber. In truth, he would have been surprised if it weren’t known by now. The Lubomirers had passed through Irkutsk in April, on the last leg of the journey to the place of exile the Tsar had assigned them, and Irkutsk was a place that looked outward; the fine houses of exiled Decembrist noblemen had stood there among traders, retired soldiers, and even a few Jews who’d served as conscripts. Their passage, and the Maid’s, would have been marked.

“It is. But I knew as soon as I saw her come through the city – I knew she was the woman I’d seen before. In the battle.”

Adam didn’t have to say what battle he meant. The Maid of Ludomir had fought in only one. Dov Ber had been in that battle too. And he knew exactly why another man who’d been in the same place would come seeking her, even nine years later.

“Now there arose a new Tsar over Russia,” said the Maid that night, “who knew not Shneur Zalman.”

Dov Ber, Adam at his side, gazed across the fire to the eyes of the speaker – Hannah Rokhl, who was called the Maid of Ludomir and would now, he supposed, be the Maid of Baikal. It was after the evening prayers; she’d put her tefillin away and come out to the green in front of the synagogue to finish the night with singing and storytelling. But her eyes still carried the deep contemplation she’d achieved during the prayer service, and Dov Ber knew she would remain in that state until the gathering ended.

He knew that contemplation well. It was why he’d become one of the Maid’s first followers, back when she was just a young girl known for her piety. She was a miracle-worker and she had a presence like no other man or woman Dov Ber knew, but she also sought Binah – understanding – in the ways that Shneur Zalman had written of in the Tanya. She was more than a miracle-worker; she was wise in the faith and knew the secrets of the Name.

She told a more prosaic story now, one that all the Ludomirers knew but that their guest hadn’t heard. Once Tsar Alexander, of blessed memory, had appreciated the worth of the Hasidim who’d fought for Russia against Napoleon and his godless Sanhedrin. He’d given officer’s rank to their rebbeim, reduced their taxes, given them privileges in the villages where they held court, even honored them by name in the proclamation he’d given after the Corsican’s defeat. But then Alexander died and Nicholas, may his name be cursed, succeeded to the throne.

To him, the Hasidic regiments were Zhids, no different from any of the others who defied Christ from their synagogues. He cut their tax remission in half, ordered that their sons were liable to conscription as cantonists (though they would be allowed, after their schooling, to serve in their own regiments), and curtailed their privileges outside their home villages. In 1829 he’d banned the creation of new regiments, and surely that had been a reaction to the Maid raising a battalion of her own; the holy woman leading troops into battle was as foreign to the Russian tradition as to the Jewish. And then…

“Warsaw,” Adam breathed.

“Warsaw,” said the Maid. Little though he loved the Hasidic regiments, Nicholas had needed them to suppress the Polish rebellion. At first they’d made little complaint about being called up; they loved the Poles as little as the Poles did Jews, and they went willingly to fight. But when they took part in storming the Polish cities, they found they were facing Jews too – the City Guard that the National Government had enlisted, fighting in fur hats and black coats and full beards as the Hasidim did. And at the taking of Warsaw, on the second day of the battle…

Dov Ber didn’t need to hear this part of the story – he’d been there. The Maid had been outside the walls, on a white horse – how could she stay home when her followers were facing the enemy? – and a shot rang out from the City Guardsmen on the bastion wall…

“The bullet didn’t scratch you,” Adam said. In fact, it had almost killed her; she’d fallen unconscious after the battle, and the doctors at first despaired of her life. But in that moment she’d stayed on her horse and waved her hand in the air. And the Hasidim had charged.

Thousands died that day – Hasidim, Russians, Poles, Polish Jews. At the day’s end, the Tsar had the victory. After that had been the time for regret.

This wasn’t the first time the Hasidic regiments had fought other Jews – they’d fought against the mitnagdim, the Hasidim who’d opposed the Tsar, the liberals who’d joined Napoleon. But that had been in defense of the faith. At Warsaw, they’d fought Poles who’d risen against oppression, in the service of an emperor who despised them even more than he did Poland. Such was not just – the Maid had seen that in her hitbodedut, her solitary meditations; she’d seen that the body of Adam Kadmon was marred, that the right leg, the sefirah of Netzach or victory, had become leprous.

The people of Israel must do teshuvah, repentance – so she had taught, and not only she. There were murmurs of discontent, prayers for deliverance, and those prayers had reached the ears of the Tsar.

More decrees came, and more burdens. The decree that conscripted Hasidic sons would not be assigned to their own regiments. The imprisonment of Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the Chabad rebbe, at Petropavlovsk fortress for defying that order. Decrees imposing onerous patrol and garrison duties. Decrees ordering that the ecclesiastical courts investigate the “rabbanists” and “talmudists” for blasphemy, with particular attention to the Tanya and to alleged miracle-workers. And then, finally, the ukaz banishing sixteen of the twenty-four Hasidic regiments from the Pale forever and giving them new posts scattered along four thousand versts of the Siberian frontier.

That had been in 1837, on the ninth day of Av, and the exodus had soon followed.

“They say that you brought everyone here alive,” said Adam. “That you didn’t lose a man.” That, too, wasn’t true. Many had died of privation and disease during the crossing of the Urals, during the first winter on the Siberian plains. But many who should have died, didn’t; the Maid’s prayers and the Maid’s touch had rallied them. Maybe that had been miracle enough.

And there had been another miracle – the miracle of learning. The Ludomirers who survived the first winter learned to live in Siberia. They crossed swamps and meadows, trackless forests, rivers and oxbow lakes. They traveled by water when they could and by land when they had to; they learned to live off the country; they built two-layered tents of fur and hide for their winter camps as the nomads did. They’d spent the second winter on the banks of the Ob and the third on the Yenisey, and they’d come, ragged but alive, to their place of exile.

Silence followed the end of the story. Even the animals had fallen silent; the crackling of the fire was the only sound. The Maid’s eyes, as Dov Ber had foreseen, were still pools of mystic contemplation. Beside him, so were Adam’s.

Day followed night and night followed day. The palisade was finished. The men fished and the women wove and gathered. Dov Ber cut wood – what wasn’t needed to build houses would be needed for firewood when the frost came. The Maid taught and prayed.

There were other visitors. A colonel came from Irkutsk to make sure that the Ludomirer Regiment was settling the territory it had been ordered to garrison. A saffron-robed monk came from the datsan south of the hills to take the measure of their new neighbors. Buryats from the countryside came to trade, or simply because they’d heard there was a holy woman in their midst. The Maid spoke to all of them. But Adam Fishman was the only one who stayed.

“Yes, buckwheat will grow here,” he said, turning the black soil over for the Maid to see. He’d lived in Irkutsk for two years since being invalided out of the army – cantonists could live anywhere in Russia, and like many, he’d stayed where his last garrison had been – and had come to know the surrounding territory. “Winter vegetables too – onions and cabbage. The Decembrists planted them. But it’s much too late this year.”

Adam spoke of mining too. He’d worked as a miner for a year – there was gold in the mountains of Irkutsk oblast, and even with his missing fingers, he could wield a pickax. “There’s lead, too, and coal. Most of it’s up north, but it never hurts to look. There are all kinds of things in these old streambeds.”

Dov Ber, listening, heard again, womb of the four worlds.

But when the evenings fell, the stories Adam told most often were of his time as a conscript. Like many cantonists, he’d come from a poor family in a village of mitnagdim, and the village council had sent him off to the army so that their twelve-year-old sons wouldn’t have to go. He spoke of the bleak cantonist schools, the days without food and nights without sleep, the pressure to be baptized; he remembered fetching and carrying for the soldiers during the Polish rebellion, the loneliness of the Irkutsk garrison, the skirmish where he was wounded. “But I learned,” he said. “I kept the faith, and I learned.”

“You were not alone,” said the Maid. “Adam Kadmon was with Adam Fishman – he was the image of your soul. The sefirah of Gevurah – discipline and strength – made your arm steadfast. Tiferet kept the beauty of the faith in your chest, close to your heart where only you could feel it. And Yesod made a foundation for you… She trailed off, embarrassed to speak the part of Adam Kadmon’s body that Yesod represented.

“Adam Kadmon is both man and woman,” she said finally. “He is Ishah Kadmon too. So Yesod was mother and father, member and womb, to support you until you could be reborn.”

“And now?” Adam asked. “Now that I am free?”

The Maid stood, but didn’t answer. “Look at the miracle the Name has made,” she said instead. “The miracle of freedom. Now that you are free, it is time to find the Name, as He found you.”

Late on the eighteenth of Tammuz – not the seventeenth this year, because it fell on the Sabbath – Dov Ber felt a presence as he sat outside his new-built house, and saw that the Maid was beside him. Neither he nor any other of the Ludomirers had seen her since morning; she’d attended the morning prayers at the synagogue, recited the Avinu Malkeinu and the selichot, and then she’d disappeared. She did that sometimes during fast days, especially since the exile – disappeared to spend the day in hitbodedut, and come back as often as not with a message.

Her message this time was a personal one. “When the weeks of mourning end,” she said – the three weeks until the ninth of Av, when the fall of Jerusalem was mourned and no festivities were permitted – “I think I will marry Adam Fishman.”

The first thing Dov Ber wondered was why she would tell this to him – because he was one of her oldest remaining followers? Because he had been the first to greet Adam on the lakeshore? The second thing he wondered at was her sudden change of mind. In Ludomir, the rabbis had all wanted her to marry and stop her preaching – if it hadn’t been for the Tsar’s decree of exile, maybe they would have succeeded – and she had been the one who resisted. Why would she get married here and now, to a man she’d known for just days?

And he third thing that made him wonder was the words “I think,” and the uncertainty that remained in her voice. He hadn’t heard such uncertainty from her since the days after Warsaw.

“Why? Why now?” he began, but she was already speaking; she’d come to him already knowing the question.

“Adam Kadmon must be both man and woman,” she said. “There must be a member as well as a womb. Da’at – the unity – must be the broad shoulders as well as the nurturing breast. Our soul’s essence cannot be incomplete… not at a time like this, not in a place like this.”

Not in a place like this, Dov Ber repeated silently, and he understood. The Ludomirers were no longer in the Pale, where there were other Jews all around to reinforce the faith against the Tsar’s oppression; here, they were isolated, as Adam had been in the cantonist school. They would need every ounce of their tradition to thrive here, and holy virgins were not a Jewish tradition, but matriarchs were.

They would need more than a miracle-worker in this place, more than a teacher; this would have to be their kingdom. The Maid of Baikal, who had stood before the walls of Warsaw, might not be enough to carry them here; the Lady of Baikal, who would be their sheltering wall, was another story.

“You will find the Name together, then? You and he?”

“All of us,” she said, and now the uncertainty in her voice was gone. “We will all learn of Him.”
Notes to The Kingdom of Ishah Kadmon:

1. The Maid of Ludomir, both IOTL and ITTL, is unique in being a woman who gained fame as a Hasidic teacher and miracle-worker without being the wife or widow of a male rebbe. IOTL, she was pressured into marrying in the 1830s and later moved to Ottoman Palestine where she lived in relative obscurity. ITTL, things are shaken up enough within the Hasidic movement after 1830 that she is less of a priority, and then Nicholas I’s decree of exile allows her to start over in a place where the other rebbeim can’t reach her. She thus becomes one of the few famous members of the OTL Yishuv not to become part of it ITTL, but she is able to reinvent herself as the Lady of Baikal. (Having her adopt the title Lady of the Lake was a temptation, but one that I successfully resisted.)

Little is known of her teachings, which IOTL appear not to have been written down in her lifetime. I don’t think I’m stretching things, though, by portraying her ITTL as taking a middle path between charismatic Hasidism and the meditative intellectualism of Chabad; on the one hand, charisma and fervor are how she got her following, but on the other, Chabad’s emphasis on Binah (understanding), which is a female principle in cabalism, has an obvious appeal to her. Wearing tefillin is a nod to the legend of Rashi’s daughters (which may have been apocryphal, but which was universally believed in the 19th century) and was not forbidden to women, even in medieval times, as long as they obeyed the commandments that went with wearing them. The part that is a stretch is her TTL conception of Adam Kadmon, but as discussed in note 4 below, I’d argue that there are sufficient antecedents.

2. The Jewish City Guard was an OTL military formation during the Polish rebellion of 1830-31 which allowed orthodox Jews to fight for the rebellion without having to shave their beards or break ritual laws.

3. The intent of sending the Hasidic courts to southern Siberia is the same as Green Ukraine or for that matter Birobidzhan – to take a troublesome subject population and disperse it to the frontier where it can be useful without being dangerous. This goes ainst Nicholas I’s general tendency to restrict Jews to the Pale, but his Hasidic policy ITTL is different for two reasons: they’re armed, and thus more dangerous when concentrated in one place; and they did service to the motherland during the Napoleonic invasion and the Polish rebellion, which even Nicholas I sees as to their credit. IOTL, he gave privileges to Jews who served as cantonist soldiers, including the right to live anywhere in the empire; ITTL, he sees the Tsarist Hasidim as worthy of similar consideration. So rather than being disarmed or crushed outright, most of them are being sent to re-establish their principalities along the Chinese frontier, with some being allowed to stay in the Pale to ride herd on the mitnagdim and anti-Tsarist Hasidim.

4. The idea of Adam Kadmon (the primordial man of Jewish mysticism; the essence of the human soul as the Ayn Sof is the essence of the divine) being androgynous goes back to the first-century philosopher Philo of Alexandria, and the idea of the Shekhinah (the divine presence) being female originated with the medieval cabalists. The Maid of Ludomir ITTL takes these concepts somewhat farther by androgynizing the sefirah of Yesod (which is associated with the sexual organs of Adam Kadmon and IOTL is exclusively male) and by identifying the unity of the Da’at, which is located more or less at the chest on the sefirot-Adam Kadmon diagram, with the nurturing role of the breasts. But, like the nagidah, the Maid is always on the lookout for stories and traditions that legitimize her rule.

5. A small community of Jews, primarily political exiles and discharged cantonists, did exist in Irkutsk beginning in the early 19th century, although IOTL it didn’t grow to significant size until the 1870s. It will still remain a small community ITTL, but one thing that will be different for the Jews of Irkutsk and other isolated Siberian cities is that the internally-exiled Hasidic courts will act as anchor points.

6. Although only mentioned in passing in the story, Buryatia in the 19th century was, as it still is, one of the two main centers of Buddhism in Russia (the other is Kalmykia). Exactly what will come from the encounter between Buddhism and Hasidism… is something we may see later.
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6. Although only mentioned in passing in the story, Buryatia in the 19th century was, as it still is, one of the two main centers of Buddhism in Russia (the other is Kalmykia). Exactly what will come from the encounter between Buddhism and Hasidism… is something we may see later.
Well, that's going to be intersting
Well, that's going to be intersting
More on the Buddhist side than the Hasidic, given that Buddhism is a less exclusive and more acquisitive religion than Judaism. OTOH, I've always had the feeling that Hasidism - especially Chabad Hasidism as outlined in the Tanya - is the most "Buddhist-compatible" of Jewish traditions, and it might not be impossible for some Buddhist concepts (of time, for instance, or meditative techniques) to make the crossing the other way. Buddhism made it into medieval Christianity, after all.

Speaking of which, I really need to get the Breslovers into this - I almost certainly won't have space for them in 1840, but some of them may be showing up in the Yishuv later.
moreso than my misreading Buddhism as Bundism
Now you've got me thinking about Bundist-type movements ITTL. There's almost certain to be a movement that broadly advocates for Jewish peoplehood and communal autonomy in the diaspora - that was one of the original aims of emancipation, and it's a possible outgrowth of at least two of the TTL emancipation models. OTOH, it's likely to develop differently without Herzlian Zionism as a foil, and I could see several possible relationships developing between such a movement and the Yishuv. That would be a twentieth-century thing, so I have time.
This is such a weird thing to read but makes sense from this character's pov and this TL.
The Krymchaks said the same thing, for many of the same reasons. Alexander I's awkward gratitude toward the Hasidic regiments ITTL sometimes spilled over into benevolence toward other "non-standard" Jewish communities, such as the grant of farmland to the Krymchaks. Some of these communities thus remember his reign as a golden age, especially when compared to the vicious antisemitism that followed under Nicholas I.

The mitnagdim, OTOH, do not bless Alexander's memory (except maybe the few thousands who had the means to buy agricultural land around Kherson), nor do the Hasidic courts that opposed the Tsar.

Anyway, IOTL, the Maid of Ludomir lived a long time, dying around 1888 in her early eighties. She will die younger ITTL - she's leading a more hazardous life as a frontier podporuchik than as an obscure figure living on charity in Jerusalem. But ITTL she will be called "rebbe" all her life, and she'll be the founder of a female Hasidic dynasty. Among other things.
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“They found another Yehuda Halevi poem,” said Meni the clerk as he laid the document on Avram Cohen’s desk.

“Tell me when they find a poem by someone I’ve never heard of,” Avram answered. But still, he picked up the yellowed, brittle paper with care and put it on the shelf for documents that would be copied before being cataloged and stored. The Sanhedrin would be interested in a new Halevi poem; the college at Acre would be interested, maybe even al-Azhar would be interested. Avram’s eyes glanced down the lines of spidery Hebrew and saw that the poem was an ode to the hospitality Halevi had found in Egypt – yes, al-Azhar would want to see that. Muhammad Ali would want to see that. So he put it on the left-hand shelf in a place protected from the sun, to be copied for all his many masters.

The deed done, he turned back to the other documents he’d laid out for the day’s work. None of them was as dramatic as a Halevi poem – they were letters, contracts, accounts, rulings and more, many of them fragmentary, all of them needing to be read and noted for what they were before being archived. Most of them were in Hebrew, but some were in Arabic, Aramaic, Ladino or even Yiddish. Avram could read all those languages. That was why he had this job even at twenty-three, and despite having been expelled from the Or Tamid.

The first one – Avram picked it up with a forceps, because it looked ready to crumble in his hand – was a cargo manifest for a ship that had sailed from Aden to Suez five hundred years ago, bearing lapis lazuli, indigo and spices originally purchased in India. The second, from about the same time, was a letter from a Romaniote mother to her son in Cairo – this one written in Greek, although it used the Hebrew alphabet – informing of his father’s ill health. The third was a legal opinion from two hundred years later, declaring that a woman’s husband couldn’t forbid her from going to the baths to visit with other women and that he had to allow her money for the admission fee.

Avram lingered over that one for a moment, making a few notes on the scrap of paper he kept to one side. Such a ruling could figure into the salacious novel he was writing – the one about an affair between a Karaite woman and the Rambam’s grandson. For the rest, he made his entries in the catalog ledger, consigned them to their proper places in the archive rooms, and realized it was time for the midday meal.

Some archivists brought lunch to their desks, but Avram never did; he needed the air, needed an hour of freedom. He walked out of the archive building – not the Ben Ezra synagogue itself, but a new house that had been built on the grounds to store its records – and through narrow streets, past Coptic churches and public scribes’ stalls and water-sellers crying their wares. He passed ancient stone walls and keystone windows with patterned wooden shutters; he moved through the sound of donkeys braying and women bargaining and men gossiping in the coffeehouses; and in an alley around the corner from an oil-seller’s window, was the tavern.

Only in this part of Cairo, in a neighborhood of Copts and Jews, could there be a tavern, and even here, the landlord kept the windows shuttered so the qadis wouldn’t have to take notice. Inside, though, the Jews and Christians were joined by Muslims who honored the prohibition of alcohol in the breach, singing Abu Nuwas’s praise of wine and drinking imported Galilee vintage with as much gusto as anyone else.

Avram, his own cup next to a plate of koshary and stuffed squash, listened to the singing and worked on a scene from his novel. He’d publish it in Acre if he ever finished it – they published anything there – and when the Sanhedrin banned it, it would sell twice as many copies. He drank a second cup and his mind drifted again from the novel to another poem of Halevi’s, this one written when he was young:

I'm too young to put down the cup
I've only begun to pick up. To and for
What end should I stop
When my years are not yet two and four?

Eight more months, Avram had, before his own years were two and four. He imagined the passage of time, both his own years and the centuries since the first records in the Ben Ezra geniza had been laid down. He imagined poets, sailing ships, women with property going to law against their husbands. He drank a third cup and imagined more. And that was where Meni found him.

“I should have known you’d be here,” Meni said. “But sober up. A letter came from the Or Tamid. You’re to go there at once, with all the marriage contracts between Karaites and Rabbanites.”

“The original contracts?” Avram wasn’t sober, not quite yet, but he was startled enough to give a good imitation. “Not copies? Do they understand how fragile they are?”

“The letter says the contracts, not copies. If they’re working on a ruling – and that’s what I’d guess – they may want to say they’ve examined the documents themselves. Especially since your translation of them might be…”

Avram held up a hand. “Never mind,” he said. “I hear and obey.” There was little love lost between him and the Or Tamid since its dean had discovered a cache of his least reverent poetry, but a summons from that school was not to be ignored. A generation ago, when al-Azhar had been called in to arbitrate because no one could agree on who owned the geniza, it had decreed that the Jewish and Karaite communities of Cairo, the Haham Bashi of Egypt, the Egyptian government and its own Grand Imam would sit on the governing board, but that the documents belonged to the Sanhedrin as patrimony of the Jewish people. The money that paid Avram’s wages was mostly the Sanhedrin’s money, which meant that of all his masters, the Sanhedrin, of which the Or Tamid was an appendage, was the one that had first claim on his allegiance.

And so he hurried back to the archive, sewed two sheets of heavy paper together with thread to make a protective folder, and found the marriage contracts in the drawer where he’d put them. Then he went to the Sassoon offices; they had fast ships and they knew well how valuable the Sanhedrin's goodwill was, so Gideon, their new junior factor, found passage for him without delay.

Speed, of course, was relative; even the fastest steamer took two days to go from Cairo to Acre. But from there, luck was with Avram; the mail coach was just about to leave, and his letter from the Sanhedrin got him a seat. It had once taken a day on horseback or two on foot to go from Acre to Tzfat, but the mail coach got there in four hours, and from the window, Avram could see workers laying the track that would cut it to less than three.

It had been four years since Avram had last seen Tzfat. That had been the year before the earthquake. But the building codes that the Sanhedrin had decreed after the quake of 1759 seemed to have done their work; the outline of the city had changed, but only a little, and much of what Avram remembered was still there. As the coach began to climb toward the city, he could see the houses spiraling up the mountainside, the steeples and minarets, the dome of the great synagogue and the four towers of the Or Tamid, the vertical gardens that occupied the lower slopes and the spaces between buildings. Tzfat had taken long to grow into its role as a capital city, but it had the majesty of one at last, and the bustle of its markets and coffeehouses and its hundred lesser synagogues came unbidden to Avram’s memory.

Soon the mail coach was rumbling up the winding streets, pulling up finally at the post office that was a short distance below the Or Tamid. The alley between was full of rabbis and students, all deep in conversation; Avram, joined them, unnoticed, and passed through the gate.

As luck would have it, the registrar of the day was Noam Benveniste, the same professor who’d presided over the committee that expelled Avram. He recognized Avram at once; the look he gave him wasn’t one of approval but also wasn’t unfriendly or surprised; Avram had been summoned, after all, so his presence was expected.

“Still a Hollander, I hear,” said Noam – it meant a modernist, a skeptic, one who didn’t care to follow the Law.

“Even more of one,” Avram answered, and the other man nodded; he could see for himself that Avram had neither fringes nor sidelocks.

“Yet you serve the Name well, whether you mean to or not. Your work piecing together the Yannai fragments…”

Now it was Avram’s turn to nod, without false modesty. Yannai was a paytan – a writer of hymns – who’d lived in the Holy Land around the reign of Justinian, a place and time from which all works had been thought to be lost. His piyyutim were among the oldest records in the geniza, and they had been torn and scattered; it had been the work of a year to recognize that they had all been transcribed in the same hand and to piece together their fragments. And that had led to the discovery of Solomon al-Sanjari and other paytanim who’d written in the Byzantine and early Islamic periods, who’d written with great passion and defined the liturgy of their day.

“I hear those have caused a stir,” Avram said, and Noam didn’t deny it. Far though Avram now lived from the Or Tamid, he knew how the rediscovery of the Palestinian paytanim had reignited the debate over whether there should be a distinct minhag for the Land of Israel, a new nusach that incorporated the ancient hymns that had been written there. Curiously enough, the greatest resistance to the idea had come from the traditionalists in Jerusalem and some of its most enthusiastic supporters were numbered among the liberals; regardless, the arguments and exchanges of briefs would likely go on for decades…

“What you have brought us, hopefully, will cause less of a stir,” said Noam at last, “though it is no less important. Come with me and meet the men who will rule on a matter of marriage.”
“Meet,” it turned out, wasn’t quite the right word; four of the five hahamim on the committee that had summoned Avram had known him as a student. The fifth, Zvi Ginzberg, had come from Vilna the previous year with a following of mitnagdim in the hope that this might be the year Moshiach came. It was the eleventh of Elul, so there were twenty days left, but the fact that Ginzberg had become part of the Or Tamid faculty made clear that he’d already renounced the dream.

It took until suppertime to gather everyone in a workroom full of open books and scribbled notes. Ginzberg, who knew only so much of Avram as he’d been told, was the most disapproving; he scarcely looked up from the text he was perusing, and said “so the Hollander is here.”

Right then, Avram decided that Ginzberg – with another name, of course – would be a character in his novel. He said nothing, though, and laid the precious folder of marriage contracts on the table. “You asked for these, and I brought them.”

“Very good,” said Yisrael Abuhatzeira, who sat at the head of the table and the one among them, other than Noam Benveniste, who was recognized as being a posek – a scholar with legal authority. His voice, unlike the others, was friendly; he’d been fond of Avram, though he’d agreed that he was a poor candidate for the rabbinate, and he approved of Avram landing on his feet as one of the geniza’s archivists. “You should know, I would think, why we summoned you. There is a Jew from Ethiopia who came to the Galilee last year – Ageze Molla, a student for the priesthood in his own land, but he settled in a fishing village. He intends to marry, and we’ve been asked for our opinion on the forms.”

“The forms,” Avram repeated. “Then your ruling will not be on whether the marriage can take place, but how?”

Very good. You are a wise one, Hollander that you are. Yes, there can be no doubt that the marriage is lawful. Few Jews have ever come here from Ethiopia, but our library contains a responsum from the Radbaz – David ibn Zimra, who was asked to rule on an Ethiopian woman sold in Egypt as a slave. This was three hundred years ago, but the customs the Radbaz attributes to this woman are very much like what Molla has related to us, and what we have read in his books. There is also a letter from Elijah of Ferrara a hundred years before that, claiming to have met an Ethiopian traveler in Jerusalem, and he describes their beliefs very similarly. And both agree – Ageze says this too – that the Jews of Ethiopia are descended from the tribe of Dan. The Radbaz ruled as much; we see no reason not to accept his ruling as authoritative, and we will say so in ours.”

“But?” asked Avram, intrigued in spite of himself – or possibly not in spite of himself at all.

“But the Ethiopians’ beliefs are much like those of the Karaites. And while Karaites are Jews – that, too, is beyond question – there have been very few marriages between them and rabbinic Jews within the Sanhedrin’s jurisdiction, and in all of those, the Karaite spouse has adopted rabbinic customs. But Ageze will not do that, and we understand that there are contracts in the geniza in which the Rabbanite and Karaite spouses accommodated each other. We have asked for those contracts so we can review their wording, determine what conditions are lawful – and perhaps, speak to you about what you’ve learned of that place and time.”

And now there was no more mystery – yes, the contracts in Avram’s envelope had dealt with that very situation. He drew the first one out carefully and spread it on the table, pointing to where the bride and groom had each made declarations, how the groom agreed that he would not force the bride to light Sabbath candles or forbid her from celebrating Karaite holidays, how the bride agreed that she would celebrate Rabbanite holidays with the groom and his family.

“They aren’t all the same,” he said. “The agreements are different for each couple. But they are all similar to this, and the form is for each party to execute a declaration, made binding by witnesses…”

He trailed off as Benveniste looked closely at the contract and Ginzburg pulled out another one, comparing the two, noting down the legal language that sealed the bargain. They were disagreeable old men, some of them, but Avram was suddenly sure that their ruling would honor the wishes of Ageze and its intended, and would set a precedent for the other Jews of Ethiopia who would surely come – and maybe for the Karaites of Jerusalem, if the next one to marry a Rabbanite chose to do so differently than in the past.

Maybe such a contract belonged in his novel. At the end, of course – the Rambam’s grandson would not be deprived of his affair – but how better to wind things up than for he and his Karaite paramour to marry? And they would go on a journey. It hardly mattered where, but as the rabbis argued, Avram looked out the workroom window and to the lights of Tzfat below.
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Notes to The Antiquarian:

1. The Cairo Geniza has come up several times in this thread; for those unfamiliar with it, it’s a collection of more than 400,000 medieval and early modern documents stored in the basement of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat. A geniza is a storeroom for documents that cannot be destroyed or discarded because they contain the name of God, although non-religious documents are sometimes put there too; this one was particularly large, and particularly important, because it was continuously in use from the late ninth century.

IOTL, the Cairo Geniza has been known to exist since the mid-18th century but only began to be studied in the late 19th. ITTL, the study and systematization of the archive, as well as some of the smaller genizot (there’s also a Karaite one, for instance) are taking place much earlier. All the documents mentioned in the story – previously-unknown poems of Judah Halevi and the other medieval Iberian poets, liturgical documents from early medieval Palestine (including the hymns of Yannai, which had been lost for more than a millennium), letters of the Rambam, Rabbanite-Karaite marriage contracts, business records and rabbinical rulings concerning women – have been found in the geniza IOTL. I was tempted to include a really revolutionary document that hasn’t been discovered IOTL – the study of the geniza is far from complete – but I didn’t; I may yet do so in the future but that seems somehow like a transgression of the spirit of this timeline.

This article is a good summary, although it omits the most recent discoveries. This gives more detail on the records relating to women, including the Karaite-Rabbanite intermarriages.

2. Yes, Yehuda Halevi did write drinking songs. The translation is Hillel Halkin’s.

3. The 15th-century letter of Elijah of Ferrara and the Radbaz’s 16th-century responsum are, as far as I’m able to ascertain, the only actual non-Ethiopian references to Ethiopian Jews before the late 18th century. Unlike Eldad ha-Dani, who as I’ve mentioned was almost certainly a fraud, and unlike Benjamin of Tudela, who was likely passing on secondhand rumor, these documents describe Ethiopian Jewish belief accurately – for instance, describing them as similar to the Karaites, noting that they don’t observe Chanukah or light candles on the Sabbath, and observing that they had their own liturgical language. These sources would not have been well-known in the 19th century (although the Radbaz’s writings had been published in Livorno in 1652), but they suggest that premodern Ethiopian Jews weren’t entirely isolated from other Jews – it’s clear that such contacts were vanishingly rare, but they did happen on rare occasions due to pilgrimage or the exigencies of war and slavery. There might be other references still hidden in the geniza.
well this surely was a fascinating update, wanting to learn more about the theological debates caused by the documents in the Geniza and also happy of seeing things though lost to the sands of time being rediscovered we may see the dead sea scrolls being found in the late XIX early XX century hat surely would be interesting not only for Jews but also for Christians
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