This announcement from the Israelitisches Familienblatt [Israelite Family Paper] no. 38, September 20, 1928, supplement “Aus alter und neuer Zeit” [“Times Old and New”] no. 27, is more than just an advertisement calling for participation in a contest by stressing the valuable prizes to be won. For it also gives the reasons for selecting these particular prizes. The author and designer of this contest, one of a series held by the paper, is identified only as the “publisher and editor.” It is safe to assume that the detailed texts for these contests were written by Leo I. Lessmann, the paper’s publisher. They reflect his interest in reviving Jewish tradition and spreading knowledge about Jewish religious practice.
Leo I. Lessmann was born in 1891 in Altona. After his return from the First World War, he took over the Israelitisches Familienblatt, which his father, Max Lessmann, had founded. He was an Orthodox Jew and a member of the Neue Dammtor Synagogue’s Neue Dammtor-Synagoge administration. Between 1926 and 1932, the Israelitisches Familienblatt, a Jewish newspaper published in Hamburg and distributed nationwide, offered challenging contests that were very popular. Solving them required knowledge on Jewish culture and religion, and the prizes consisted mostly in valuable ritual objects for domestic religious practice as well as in paintings and books related to Jewish religion and culture. The many prizes offered were both very desirable and precious.
In the text presented here, Lessmann clearly expresses his intention and goals in creating the contests and in his selection of prizes. He voices concerns about the decline of Jewish tradition since the granting of civic emancipation and subsequent attempts among many Jews to become an integrated part of middle class society. He wishes for new life or a revival of domestic Jewish ceremony and assigns great importance to Jewish ceremonial art for the preservation of Jewish consciousness and Jewish identity. He was worried by the fact that due to the dissolution of rural communities in Germany, Poland, and the USSR on the one hand and secularized families and disinterested heirs of domestic ritual objects on the other, many valuable and folklore objects had already been lost, were sold on the general art market or had been acquired by Christians. The fear that many more objects might be lost gave rise to the idea of using a contest in order to create awareness for the issue and to inspire Jews to secure objects in their daily environment, to collect them or donate them to existing Jewish collections. While it seems unlikely that the winners would become collectors themselves – a hope that is expressed in this source – the newspaper’s main goal was to make its readers aware of the importance of preserving ritual objects in families and synagogues and to include them in the process of preservation.
The article illustrates and describes only a part of the prizes available in the contest published two weeks previously. The contests were always held around the time of Rosh Hashanah. Participants could win a 20-day tourist visit to Palestine as first prize; a valuable painting by an unnamed Jewish artist as second prize; and a set of silver Jewish ritual objects (Hanukkah menorah Eight- or nine-branched candelabrum lit during the Hanukkah holiday, kiddush cup A usually richly ornamented cup over which wine is blessed on the Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, besomim container A usually artfully decorated container in which aromatic spices are kept. The spices are smelled at the end of the Shabbat in order to carry the scent of the holiday into everyday life, etrog bowl A usually richly ornamented bowl holding etrog, a citrus fruit, which is part of the traditional Sukkot decoration) as third prize. The fourth prize was a gramophone with 12 Hebrew and Yiddish records; the fifth through seventh prize was a valuable kiddush cup A usually richly ornamented cup over which wine is blessed on the Shabbat and other Jewish holidays and a besamim container A usually artfully decorated container in which aromatic spices are kept. The spices are smelled at the end of the Shabbat in order to carry the scent of the holiday into everyday life; the eighth through 14th prize was a silver besamim container A usually artfully decorated container in which aromatic spices are kept. The spices are smelled at the end of the Shabbat in order to carry the scent of the holiday into everyday life; the 15th through 44th prize was an artfully illustrated Passover Haggadah Book telling the story of the exodus from Egypt and prescribing the order of the ceremony on the eve of the Passover holiday. The 45th through 75th prize was a pocket watch with a Hebrew clock face and a depiction of Moses with the Tablets of the Law on the back for men; for women, it was a copy of the cookbook “Kochbuch für die jüdische Küche” [“Cookbook for the Jewish Kitchen”] published by the Jewish Women’s league Jüdischer Frauenbund. The selection of prizes is – as the source states – “adapted to suit the serious character of both the novel and the challenge and – the Jewish character of our paper.”
The challenge, which had been conceived “with the collaboration of a whole number of well-known Jewish and non-Jewish writers,” consisted in identifying the 12 authors of the novel “Wanderung und Heimkehr” [“Wandering and Homecoming”]. The novel appeared in the paper in serialized form, one chapter at a time. According to the paper, “twelve authors have written it jointly – a chapter each – twelve authors from diverse milieus: men and women, Germans and foreigners, even Jews and non-Jews – and yet they are all authors whose unique style, preferred settings, types and problems are already familiar to our readers from their frequent contributions to our paper.” Israelitisches Familienblatt No. 36, September 6, 1928, 14. Like all the paper’s contests, this one was quite sophisticated and required knowledge of Jewish religion and tradition. In other cases, knowledge of the Hebrew language and the Ashkenazi spelling of ritual objects and holidays were necessary in order to solve the puzzle.
Of the 75 prizes 17 were silver ceremonial objects. In subsequent years their share in the prizes was increased significantly. This raises the question where these objects came from. The accompanying photographs refer to Lessmann’s own collection of Judaica. He built the most expansive and diverse collection existing in early 20th century Germany after several others had been dissolved. He began building his collection in 1925; by 1930 it held about 500 objects, and by 1935 there were about 1,000: menorahs, kiddush cups A usually richly ornamented cup over which wine is blessed on the Shabbat and other Jewish holidays, spice containers A usually artfully decorated container in which aromatic spices are kept. The spices are smelled at the end of the Shabbat in order to carry the scent of the holiday into everyday life, Passover objects, circumcision instruments, rimmon lit. “pomegranate,” ornamental Torah finials, and lots more. He kept his collection in a museum room in his private apartment on Hamburg’s Badestraße. The photographs shown here were most likely taken in this room. Lessmann’s collection contained works from Eastern Europe, Italy, the Orient, and Germany, thus representing a diversity in the design of objects all serving the same religious purpose yet strongly influenced by their respective environment with regard to their form and imagery. For this reason, he acquired both highly valuable and artfully designed objects as well as objects representing popular culture, both traditional and modern ones. His newspaper regularly contained adverts looking for Judaica, which he was ready to acquire “at a high price.” However, his name never appeared in connection with the collection or these adverts. Instead it is referred to as “The Israelitisches Familienblatt Collection of Ritual Objects” both in articles and descriptions of individual objects. Description and photographs: Israelitisches Familienblatt, no. 29, July 17, 1930, supplement “Aus alter und neuer Zeit“ no. 17, p. 133.
The title, “The Israelitisches Familienblatt Supports Jewish Religious Art,” contains a programmatic statement that was meant to encourage readers to put the contests in context by studying other articles featured in this newspaper. The Israelitisches Familienblatt was the most widely distributed and most widely read Jewish newspaper in Germany. It was moderately liberal, non-partisan, apolitical, and popular due to its extensive entertainment section. It contained detailed information about life in Jewish communities worldwide, and it portrayed Jewish personalities. Promoting learning and education was among its main goals. It did not get involved in the conflict between Zionism and assimilation unfolding at the time. The paper was published in Hamburg from 1898 until 1935 and subsequently in Berlin until it was banned in 1938. Lessman used the richly illustrated supplement titled “Aus alter und neuer Zeit” in order to spread knowledge about a diverse Jewish culture, the meaning of ceremonial objects, Hebrew prints, arts, literature, celebrations, and customs. He sought to preserve the rich Jewish cultural heritage and counteract disinterest in Judaism by educating the Jewish community about their religion and heritage He commissioned numerous articles by experts in which they introduced objects from the “Israelitisches Familienblatt Collection” and other private and museum collections. Today these articles illustrated with numerous photos constitute an important source since most ritual objects have been lost or destroyed. The prizes described in this article, reaching from a trip to Palestine to ritual objects, are evidence of an attempt to address a broad audience without identifying with a particular political or intellectual movement, potentially including secular Zionists as well as Orthodox Jews.
In 1935 Leo I. Lessmann sold his publishing house and printing business at conditions dictated by the National Socialists and prepared for his move to Berlin and eventually his emigration. In the spring of 1939 he and his family managed to emigrate from Amsterdam to Palestine. His collection was packed up and remained in Amsterdam, where it was confiscated by the Gestapo in 1943. It is considered lost. In Tel Aviv, Lessman earned a living by working for the German-language newspaper Blumenthals Neueste Nachrichten [“Blumenthal’s Latest News”]. He died in Tel Aviv in 1970.
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Helga Krohn, Dr. phil., publications on the history of the Jews in Hamburg and Frankfurt am Main. Until 2004 research assistant at the Jewish Museum Frankfurt am Main.
Helga Krohn, A Contest as an Attempt to Revive Jewish Tradition (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, March 22, 2017. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-177.en.v1> [September 21, 2020].