“Thoughts on Death,” געדאנקען וועגן טויט, is known from one handwritten copy, the third part of a Yiddish manuscript from Renaissance Italy, now in the Cambridge University Library (Cambridge MS add 547). The author is likely מנחם אלדנדורף Menakhem Oldendorf (alternate spellings: אלדענדארף, אולדנדורף, Menahem Aldendorf, etc.), an interesting man whose biography is summarized below.
I have been working on “Thoughts on Death” off and on for several years and have now decided to put the results of my work on line. Early Yiddish literature is not my main field, and rather than trying to complete this work and steer it through to publication on my own, I am offering it here to anyone who would like to build on what I have done, as long as I am informed and credited appropriately. I would also be happy to collaborate with another scholar in completing this work.
Go to the page Texts to read Menakhem Oldendorf’s “Thoughts on Death”.
As far as I know, “Thoughts on Death” is extant only in the one manuscript, and has never been printed or translated, so this website is its debut in the world at large. The manuscript has not been digitized as far as I know, but I own a high-quality electronic copy purchased from the library, which I am ready to share appropriately with fellow scholars.
The Dance of Death in the picture on this website has nothing directly to do with “Thoughts on Death” but is part of its cultural context. This kind of image was popular in Christian Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and has much in common with Oldendorf’s text. This one, in the public domain and taken from the Wikipedia article “Danse macabre”, is by the German artist Bernt Notke, c. 1435-1509.
Some background and context:
Five hundred years ago, Yiddish, which had developed in medieval Germany, was the major Jewish language in both Eastern and Western Europe, “from Alsace and Italy in the southwest to Holland in the northwest to the Ukraine in the southeast and Belorussia in the northeast” (Katz 2004). During the European Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, there was also a flowering of writing in Yiddish, producing “a breathtakingly diverse literature” (Katz 2004, 61). Most famously this included the Bovo-Bukh. The Yiddish word באבע-מעשיות, bobe-mayses, now often understood as “old wives’ tales,” apparently goes back to this chivalric romance.
This Yiddish literature circulated in handwritten manuscripts until, and even after, the printing of Yiddish books began in the 1530s (Katz 2004; Baumgarten 2005, 43). The authors have been characterized as “moderately well educated” scribes—writers and copyists of manuscripts (Baumgarten 2005, 58-59). The readers and hearers – since this literature would be read aloud in groups and often sung – included learned and unlearned Jews, men and women. In an economic sense, Jewish women were the creators of the Yiddish literature of the time: “Wealthy women began to invest in Yiddish… The book was written (or copied or recopied) on the commission of the benefactress, and it was brought into existence for the pleasure of women” (Katz 2004, 59).
“Thoughts on Death” – a title used by some modern scholars; the original is untitled – is the third and last part of a codex, a handwritten book, which is now in the Cambridge University library, England (Cambridge Add. 547). According to its title page, it was copied for a woman named צורט בת ר”יה – probably Sarah (צורט, which could also be translated “gentle” like modern Yiddish צאַרט, is a diminutive) daughter of Reb Judah Hirsh. She was not especially wealthy, since the codex is not in calligraphy or particularly careful writing, but in regular Ashkenazi handwriting of the time, somewhat resembling today’s standard Israeli handwriting which developed from it, with just a few doodles as decorations (Fram 2007, 141). It clearly is a copy, not written by the author, since the scribe has crossed out mistakes and corrected them, or filled in between the lines words that had been missed, just as we would expect in a copy of someone else’s manuscript.
The first part of the manuscript closely resembles a text which has been published by Edward Fram and Agnes Rohmer-Segal (Fram 2007). The second part, which is not known from any other copies, was printed for the first time in 2011 under the title Many Pious Women (Fox and Lewis). The last part, to my knowledge, has never been printed, and is being offered here on the internet for the first time.
I was surprised, when I began reading “Thoughts on Death”, to find not a dour meditation but an energetic rhyming diatribe. The Yiddish is richly idiomatic, filled with earthy metaphors that are often piled one on top of the other. It is all in rhyming prose, a vigorous, flexible genre found in the traditional Jewish prayer book and in other early Yiddish texts. This helps to account for some of the stylistic roughness that readers may notice: the author sometimes prioritized rhyme over clarity. In addition, the author states a preference for keeping a long story short. These factors help account for the way the text sometimes lurches from one topic to another.
Another striking aspect of the language, which gave me trouble early in the work of translation, is that it is peppered with Italian and Venetian words (written in Hebrew letters). Yiddish-speaking Jews had begun to migrate from Germany to Italy in significant numbers in the 1300s, forming small communities in various northern Italian towns and cities. By 1500 the Jews of Italy were known as tre nazione—the three nations—that is, the Italian Jewish community which goes back to Roman times; the Sephardi Jews, whose numbers greatly increased with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492; and the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim (originally meaning “Germans”). These groups of Jews in Italy maintain separate synagogues and religious customs to this day. The Ashkenazim kept Yiddish as their language into the 1600s before merging linguistically into Italian culture (Frakes 2006, 154) – but Yiddish, then as now, was a permeable language which absorbed words from the local vernacular. Even a first-generation immigrant from Germany like Elia Levita Bahur used enough Italian words in his famous Bovo-Bukh (written 1508) that it was printed (in 1541) with a glossary of Italianisms for Yiddish readers elsewhere. The language of “Thoughts on Death” is recognizably that of other Yiddish literature from Renaissance Italy, such as the Bovo-Bukh or Pariz un Vyene, in which “there are rhymes between words of Hebrew, German, and Italian origin, which function as an integrated literary language” (Katz 2004, 85).
The scribes who copied manuscripts frequently added brief notes of their own. Therefore when the name of a “writer” appears in a manuscript it is often not clear whether is the author or a copyist. The manuscript with “Thoughts on Death” has remarks in the names of Samuel Levi (at the end of “Many Pious Women”) and Menakhem Oldendorf (at the very end). Harry Fox has established that the handwriting is different from what we find in other manuscripts ascribed to Oldendorf. I find myself in agreement with Rabbi Dr. Solomon Mayer Schiller-Szinessy (1820-1890), whose notes on this manuscript from 1871 conclude that Menakhem Oldendorf was the author of both “Many Pious Women” and “Thoughts on Death.” This is based on their very similar style, both in language and tone. In any case I like this idea because enough is known about Menakhem Oldendorf to make him an interesting and sympathetic figure. Most of what we know about his life comes to us from his own remarks in a long Hebrew manuscript (1180 pages, even with beginning and end lost!) which he produced in his later years and which has been studied by Ephraim Kupfer (1967).
According to Kupfer, Oldendorf was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1450. He was “related to the greatest rabbinic personalities of Germany and Italy,” with relatives by marriage including Rabbi Simeon Katz of Frankfurt, who was also his Torah teacher, and the famous rabbi and scholar of Padua, Judah Mintz. He married the granddaughter of another famous rabbi, Seligman HaLevi Zion. Menakhem’s father, Naphtali Hirz son of Judah, was among the wealthy, aristocratic leaders of German Jewry, but Menakhem’s own life was hard. In the context of stating his commitment to a religious way of life, he gives the impression that his hard times began when he was 15: “Since the year 5225  until today, as I write this, 8th Kislev 5272 [December 1511] I have not neglected any mitzvah… [even] when I was sick, when I was on the roads, or in prison.”
Oldendorf was well versed in aggadah (lore and legends) as well as Jewish law, and an independent thinker. (For example: at the end of a legal work in the long manuscript, he notes that the manuscript he is copying from attributes it to Maimonides, but actually the language and style do not match this attribution). He had personal contacts and correspondence with great rabbis of his time. He made a living as a religious professional in a variety of ways compatible with his learning, though apparently without ever holding the title or the specific responsibilities and honours of a rabbi. From the perspective of Michael Toch’s economic analysis of medieval Jewish life, he was one of the “considerable numbers of Jews… [who] provided the well off with the conditions necessary to live as Jews in a Jewish community” (Toch and Müller-Luckner 2008, 204). These Jews often “earned their living by various crafts practiced simultaneously or alternately.” Thus Oldendorf made a living as a copyist, shohet (kosher slaughterer), teacher of Torah to children (melamed), and preacher. He thanked God for his speaking abilities. Sermons by itinerant preachers were a popular form of learning and entertainment in Ashkenazi culture for centuries afterwards; one way to read “Thoughts on Death” is as an entertaining sermon.
Perhaps Oldendorf was a wandering singer-performer as well (Rubin 1973, 463; Baumgarten 2005, 370). This is an extrapolation from the fact that Yiddish literature was intended for oral recitation or singing. In 1517, Oldendorf wrote out a compilation of poems and songs by various learned authors, mostly in Hebrew but several (including some of his own work, written “in his youth”) with lyrics in both Hebrew and Yiddish. Several of his headings specify German songs to the tune of which the poems were to be sung (Zinberg 1976, vol. 7, 37-42).
The names of a few of the more affluent Jews from whom Oldendorf earned his living have come down to us. In 1504 he wrote out for a patroness, Madam Hanlein, a manuscript which includes Yiddish translations of prayers for various holy days, some of them with commentary, and some related legends. In Riva di Trento, he apparently lived in the home of the man whose children he tutored, Nathan Riva.
In these capacities Menakhem Oldendorf lived the life of a wanderer. We find him in Regensburg, Germany, in 1472, at age 22, leaving his name as graffiti on the gravestone of the great Rabbi Judah HeHasid. Thereafter he lived in northern Italy, mostly in places ruled by Venice. We catch glimpses of his whereabouts at different times: in 1474, he was in Venice itself (though Jews were officially not allowed to settle there throughout the fifteenth century!); from 1487 to 1491 in Brescia; in 1492 in the region of Romagna; in 1497 in Padua; in 1504 and 1506 in Mestre (the nearest location to Venice where Jews were officially allowed to live); from 1507 to 1509 in Riva Di Trento (today’s Riva del Garda); in 1510 in Verona; in 1511 in Mantua; in 1515 again in Venice, where Jews were permitted to live as of 1513 (and not confined to the Ghetto until 1516); and in 1517 back in Padua. (All these places except Romagna and Mantua were part of the Venetian domains.) We do not know when Menakhem Oldendorf died, but evidently he was not yet at death’s door when he wrote his “Thoughts on Death” sometime before it was copied in the summer of 1504.
Kupfer discerns, in the notes for sermons included in Oldendorf’s Hebrew manuscript, an intense concern for social justice and humane behaviour among Jews, and a tendency to side with the poor and against the rich. Oldendorf was also aware of and reflective about broader political events, particularly during the tumultuous early 1500s. Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan was captured by the French in 1500 and died in captivity in 1508; Oldendorf saw this as divine punishment for a burning of Jewish holy books which Sforza had ordered in 1488, in which some books of Oldendorf’s were included. In 1514 Oldendorf records correspondence with his son, who had ended up in Salonika, who told him about the recent Turkish conquests in the Middle East which were greeted with joy by Jews there.
One final glimpse of Oldendorf from his manuscript notes gives me a more vivid physical picture of him. He expresses thanks to God about an incident late one night in Riva di Trento, in winter 1508, when he was about fifty-eight years old: he was attacked by drunken city watchmen—four of them—and “they wanted to throw me down to the ground; they tried hard, but they were not able to.” Apparently our itinerant Jewish religious professional was a tough guy as well!
“Thoughts on Death,” though fairly brief, is a rich text which lends itself to all kinds of exploration. I have already presented reflections on its animal imagery in a conference paper for the American Academy of Religion. I hope that some of you who are looking at this website will add to and improve on the work presented here. I am grateful to Menakhem Oldendorf for writing this piece, Tsort daughter of Judah Hirsh for commissioning a copy, and Samuel Levi (or an anonymous third scribe) for making the copy. I hope that their work, now presented on line, will inspire much further research and much enjoyment from readers.
The source references above are presently incomplete but these are the sources mentioned.
Baumgarten, Jean. 2005. Introduction to Old Yiddish Literature, trans. Jerold C. Frakes. Oxford University Press.
Fox, Harry, and Justin Jaron Lewis. 2011. Many Pious Women Edition and Translation. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Frakes, Jerold C. 2006. “Yiddish in Italia: Yiddish Manuscripts and Printed Books from the 15th to the 17th Century (review).” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 24.3: 154–156.
Fram, Edward. 2007. My Dear Daughter: Rabbi Benjamin Slonik and the Education of Jewish Women in Sixteenth-Century Poland, with a transcription of Benjamin Slonik’s Seder mizvot ha-nashim (The Order of Women’s Commandments) translated by Edward Fram and Agnes Romer Segal. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press.
Katz, Dovid. 2004. Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish. New York: Basic Books.
Kupfer, Ephraim. 1967. “Menakhem Oldendorfs oytobiografishe fartseykhenungen un notitsn in a hebreishn ksav-yad” [Menahem Oldendorf’s autobiographical notes in a Hebrew manuscript]. Di Goldene Keyt 58, 212-223.
Rubin, Ruth. Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.
Schiller-Szinessy, S.M. [Solomon Mayer]. Notices of Hebrew MSS, V: “Notices of books brought from Turkey, Greece, and the North of Italy, and now forming part of the collection of Hebrew manuscripts in the University Library at Cambridge, by Rabbi Shelomoh Ben Me’yr, otherwise called Dr. S.M. Schiller-Szinessy, Teacher of Rabbinic and Talmudic Literature in the University of Cambridge”. Cambridge, 1871 (in manuscript: Cambridge Or. 1120).
Toch, Michael and Elisabeth Müller-Luckner, eds. 2008. Wirschaftsgeschichte der mittelalterlichen Juden. Munich: R. Oldenbourg.
Zinberg, Israel, trans. Bernard Martin. 1976. A History of Jewish Literature (12 volumes). Ktav.