The Life of the Synagogue

From the William A. Rosenthall Judaica Collection
Marlene & Nathan Addlestone Library,College of Charleston

Die Jahrzeit-Andacht

Prayers for the departed

Die Jahrzeit
Photographic reproduction by J. Schäfer after grisaille by Moritz Daniel OppenheimBilder aus dem altjüdischen Familienleben, Frankfurt am Main: Verlog von Heinrich Keller, 1881

In this reproduction of painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1800–1882), a minyan (quorum) of Jewish soldiers gathers in a war-damaged building where they recite the kaddish prayer. This image is one of several that portrays religious observance by Jewish soldiers during wartime, clearly depicting an idealized co-existence of religion and patriotism; soldiers are shown upholding their Jewish identity and mourning lost family members, even while serving their country. We see that the lone Jewish mourner can count on the religious support of his coreligionists, much as he depends on them in battle. It is also possible that the minyan is saying kaddish for recently fallen comrades, though this would not be expected according to Jewish law.

Here is an optimistic imagining of an integration of Jewish sacred life with a secular role without compromising one’s religion. The image proved quite popular, and was seen as a companion piece to Oppenheim’s early work, The Return of the Jewish Volunteer, which also stressed the compatibility of religion and patriotism. Ismar Schorsch has written that in Oppenheim’s rendering, “Piety and patriotism are co-equal… Reverence for one’s ancestors is a declaration of the right to be different, of a conception of citizenship that did not curb freedom of religion, of a vision of a society based on cultural pluralism.”

In the painting, two young Christian women look through the window; it is not clear if they are curious about the soldiers or the Jewish ceremony. This inclusion of Christians viewing a Jewish ritual recalls the 18th-century work of Bernard Picart (1673–1733), suggesting a certain level of civil interaction between Christians and Jews. The Christian observers serve as surrogates for the viewers of the artwork, legitimizing their curiosity and voyeurism, but Oppenheim is also making clear that Jews—soldiers or not—have nothing to hide.