Before the metaphor there was a man, Mendel Beilis.
The elderly Jewish woman in the nursing facility will turn 102 in a matter of days, her nearly lost mind swirling between dreams, illusion, memory and the moment. Sometimes there is a sparrow-like flicker because of a word, perhaps, that seems to send her far from the Bronx winter. If she hears “Sarah Palin” or “blood libel,” from a radio, perhaps at the nurses’ station, does she know, do the nurses know what she knows?
She is Rachel Beilis, and she was just 2 years old in 1911 — exactly a century ago — when soldiers came in the night to arrest her father, Mendel Beilis, a Ukrainian Jew accused of murdering 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky, to use his blood in the making of matzah.
Beilis, 37, was a brick factory foreman. The boy, already a raggedy drifter in Kiev underworld, disappeared on his way to school on a late winter morning in March. His mutilated body was discovered in a cave, drained of blood.
Blood libels were so normative that in 1909 The New York Times reviewed a serious book, “The Jew and Human Sacrifice.”
The Beilis blood libel trial was one of the first great media spectacles, covered in Kiev by more than 200 newspapers from around the world, with many having to stand in the rear of the court, along with a film crew.
Actually, “blood libel” was not what people called it back in the day. A search of the Times archives turned up only 15 references to the phrase between 1860-1980. Bernard Malamud, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel 1967 “The Fixer” is a re-working of Mendel Beilis’ autobiography, described the case, in a letter in 1963, as “a blood ritual incident.” Maurice Samuel in 1966 wrote a book about Beilis called “The Blood Accusation.”
But there have been more than 100 references to “blood libel” since, most famously in 1982 when Israeli Prime Minister called the blaming of Israel for the Sabra and Shatilla massacre (when Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies killed hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut) “a blood libel against the Jewish state.”
“Blood Libel” was also the title of Ariel Sharon’s book about the libel suit he filed against Time magazine for saying Sharon, then defense minister, encouraged that massacre. (A jury found Time’s accusations false and defamatory.)
The metaphor entered the public domain, unmoored from its original history. “Blood libel” was used in the 1980s, in the Times Book Review; in the 1990s, on the Times op-ed page; and in this decade to describe political attacks on Al Gore, George W. Bush, and the “swiftboating” of John Kerry.”
It was used on Chris Matthew’s “Hardball” show, without anyone objecting, before Matthews objected to Sarah Palin’s use of “blood libel” to defend charges that she helped incite the Arizona shootings. Before Andrew Sullivan, blogger for The Atlantic, criticized Palin, he wrote that Carl Paladino’s critique of gays was the “gay equivalent of [the] blood libel against Jews.”
Of course, what happened to Beilis was not metaphor but misery. Before he had a cell he had a home. Mary Boyle O’Reilly, a correspondent in Kiev, visited the Beilis home for a wire service in 1913. It was “a poor house, hardly more than a plastered hut … its narrow yard tidy and clean. Within doors, the three bleak rooms are as neat as hands can keep them. Of furniture, there can hardly be less — a huge brick stove, a table with five chairs … a couple of well-made beds.”
And then the reporter noticed “the absent father’s cap on a little shelf…”
The reporter admired the Beilis children, “such apparently are Russian-Hebrew manners in a poor man’s lonely home.”
Over lunch in her Bronx senior center, back in the 1990s, Rachel Beilis — the last of the five children — told me how as a child she simply wanted her father back. She could remember touching his cheeks, her finger slowly tracing the shape of his mustache.
When the trial started, the Times reported, “The news continues to arrive from all parts of the empire describing the pogrom agitation. ... At a local hospital a Christian refused to allow a Jewish doctor to test his blood, fearing a ritual murder.”
And yet, there was such international support for Beilis that one can better understand how German Jews — under Hitler, just 20 years later — had every reason to expect the world to speak up for them, too. After all, Beilis was supported by the pope, British politicians such as Joseph Chamberlain (father of future prime minister Neville Chamberlain) and writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Workers in Warsaw and St. Petersburg rallied for Beilis, as did Russian writers and students. There were public protests in Berlin, London, Denver, New York, Chicago, Winnipeg and in a Pittsburgh blizzard where people wouldn’t leave in a darkened theater when electric power was lost.
On the Lower East Side, the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler presented a stage version of the trial, updating the play with every daily revelation. The third act took place in Beilis’ cell, where a rabbi tells Beilis that he had the support of Jews around the world. A Times critic said “the play, although crude, is very dramatic.”
After Beilis was acquitted, Lord Rothschild set him up with a homestead in Palestine, but one Beilis son committed suicide. Beilis struggled financially and wanted to leave.
Rachel said Sholom Aleichem wrote to her father: “My dear Mendel Beilis. You’re going to get offers from all over the world, ‘Come here. Go there.’ Take time to think things over.”
The family moved to New York, where, Rachel told me, supporters “put us up in the Trotsky Hotel. My father entered the dining room, people would stand and applaud.” Every Jewish hotel wanted the family to come and “do nothing,” said Rachel. “Just sit. And the guests would say, ‘You know who’s here? Mendel Beilis!’”
Jewish landlords let Mendel Beilis live rent-free. The Hunts Point apartment “was full of visitors,” said Rachel. “When I saw the crowds I’d run out; I didn’t want to hear about [the blood libel] every minute.”
He died in 1934, and was buried in Queens, in Mount Carmel, a few graves away from Jacob Adler, Sholom Aleichem and Leo Frank, the Jew lynched in Georgia in 1915 for supposedly killing a Christian girl.
The story has entered a third generation. Rachel’s nephew, Jay Beilis, Mendel’s grandson, remembers that when his family went to the Catskills, in the 1960s, “when word got around that this was the family of Mendel Beilis,” e-mailed Jay, people would come over “with great joy and appreciation.” They’d say that their parents left Europe for America because of Mendel Beilis, saving them from the Holocaust.
He visits his Aunt Rachel who would speak of that long-ago time, “especially after she started to become a little confused,” writes Jay. “She would say, ‘They came in the middle of the night. … He never did anything.”
Who wouldn’t be confused?
In 1934, in the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, columnist Yankel Schmid remembered Beilis as bitter about the persecution and what he experienced as exploitation, sandwiched around the love.
If Mendel Beilis “can read and hear all the … editorials” about him and his blood libel, Schmid wrote, “if he still had anything to do with Zeitseff’s brick factory, he would take those bricks and throw them at the head of all those schreibers [journalists]. And I would endorse his act. But Mendel Beilis is no longer here to square accounts with the crocodile tears that have been shed and which do not permit him to rest in his grave.”
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