Rabbi Pini Dunner

Rav Pini Dunner, Rav of Young Israel North Beverly Hills

The auction room in midtown Manhattan suddenly went quiet. It was late afternoon, Thursday, January 31, 2013. With a dramatic flourish the auctioneer began the bidding for Lot #287. The room was filled with an eclectic mix of seasoned collectors, Hasidic Judaica dealers, and inquisitive aficionados of Jewish art. An atmosphere of eager anticipation hung in the air as the bidding commenced. The lot on sale was a well-executed oil painting portrait of a man known as the ‘Baal Shem of London’. It is without any doubt one of the most recognized eighteenth-century, Jewish-themed paintings in the world. Strangely enough, however, no one in the auction room was particularly interested in the Baal Shem of London or knew too much about him. That is because the interest in this painting has nothing to do with its subject. Quite the contrary. The interest in this painting is based solely on the fact that the benign, avuncular-looking individual it depicts has for well over one hundred years been consistently misidentified.

The auction catalogue cut straight to the chase in its description: “for more than a century this eighteenth century portrait of the Kabbalist Rabbi Dr. Chaim Samuel Jacob Falk has been broadly misidentified and popularly thought of as being a depiction of the founder of the Hasidic movement, the Baal Shem Tov himself.” As remarkable as that sounds, it is absolutely true. My own experience proves it. I grew up in a strictly observant community and heard numerous stories about the mythical founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov. I also heard stories about many other great Hasidic luminaries of that era – the Maggid of Mezeritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Bardichev, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, and more. We heard the colorful stories about these extraordinary individuals, and although we may have pictured them in our minds’ eye, we had no idea what any of them looked like. There were no cameras in eighteenth century Russiam and Poland, and none of these rabbis had ever sat to have their portrait painted by a well known rococo or neoclassical artist. Except, apparently, for the Baal Shem Tov.

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The Kestenbaum Judaica Auction catalog from January 2013. This portrait of the ‘Baal Shem of London’ is the most misidentified and misunderstood classical Jewish painting in art history

Throughout my youth we were regularly shown a picture of the Baal Shem Tov. It was ubiquitous and no one ever questioned its authenticity. Looking back this seems very strange. How could we have imagined that this exotic looking man wearing a large black beret, with a compass in his hand, was the revered founder of the Hasidic movement? Why would he be wearing a beret? Surely he should have been wearing a fur streimel? And why was he holding a compass, of all things? If anything he would have been holding a volume of Talmud, or some other sacred book. Or holding nothing at all. Why would he have been painted holding a mathematical instrument?

Of course, although we didn’t know it then, the answer to all these questions was simple: the man in the portrait wasn’t the Baal Shem Tov at all – it was someone else entirely. The portrait was of Chaim Samuel Jacob Falk, a mysterious character who lived in London during the latter part of the eighteenth century. He was considered a Kabbalist, and known during his lifetime the ‘Baal Shem of London’. The title ‘Baal Shem’, or ‘Master of the Name’, was frequently used at that time to describe people who knew how to write Kabbalistic amulets using G-d’s name. The fact that Falk was referred to as Baal Shem was evidently how the original confusion occurred with this portrait. But before we delve into the mix-up surrounding the painting, let us take a look at the life story of the enigmatic ‘Dr.’ Falk.

Chaim Samuel Jacob Falk, also known as Dr. Falk or Dr. Falcon, was a bizarre character. His origins are obscure, and shrouded in mystery. He was probably born in Poland in around 1710, although, like so many other aspects of his life, this ‘fact’ is based on guesswork and speculation. Almost nothing is known about his early years, other than that he spent time in Furth, Germany, where his mother died and was buried. The only thing we know for certain is that he lived in London for the last forty years of his life.

Throughout his time in England, Falk presented himself as a Kabbalist who could perform remarkable magical feats. It seems his claim to have magical abilities had begun long before he moved to London. One contemporary writer claimed to have read an account of Falk publicly performing magic in Germany in the presence of various prominent non-Jews, and his sudden and hasty arrival in London in 1742 was the direct result of his fondness for such performances. After a public demonstration of his ‘powers’ in Westphalia, he was summarily arrested and thrown into jail for sorcery – in those days punishable by death. Falk’s lucky escape to London undoubtedly saved his life.

England in the eighteenth century was known for its tolerance of eccentrics, whether locally bred or foreign born. Falk found that the Jewish community had readily adopted this broad-minded attitude, and both the Sephardim and Ashkenazim in London warmly welcomed him. Although he was fairly reclusive, his interest in Kabbalah, and apparent practical skills using Kabbalah, quickly became known. Legends and myths describing his incredible powers were whispered around the community, and these incredible stories continued to circulate long after his death. The stories were fantastic, to say the least. The candles in his home stayed alight for weeks at a time. When he ran out of coal for his fireplace, he would utter a Kabbalistic prayer and his cellar would mysteriously fill up with new coal. It was told that on one occasion, after a fire threatened to destroy the Ashkenazi community’s ‘Great Synagogue’ on Duke’s Place, Falk prevented any damage by writing four Hebrew letters on the doorposts, which halted the fire at the entrance of the synagogue. And these are just a fraction of the fables that swirled around Falk. So, who was he?

Through scattered pieces of recorded information we are able to piece together a more accurate picture of Falk than anything gleaned from these fantastic fairytales. Falk seems to have arrived in London completely penniless. For a few years he struggled, and his faithful assistant records that his personal life was fraught with difficulties as he and his wife constantly argued about finances. Eventually things began to change for the better. People were surprised at his sudden change of fortune. How was it possible that someone who had been so insolvent that he was forced to pawn all his belongings had suddenly achieved such incredible material success? Rumors began to spread that he possessed mystical powers that he used to attain wealth. The truth was more mundane. Falk was an exceptionally charismatic individual and particularly attractive to the type of people who are drawn to enigmatic personalities. Two of those people were the affluent Jewish banker Aaron Goldsmid, and his son George. At some point they became enraptured with Falk, and consulted with him on all personal matters, as well as on matters of business. He, in turn, took their advice on investments, which resulted in him becoming extremely prosperous. He began living in fine accommodation, surrounded by servants and an array of wealthy acquaintances. He launched a pawnbroking business, and bought a large home in an upscale residential enclave called Wellclose Square, in the East End of London, where he built his own private synagogue. He rode everywhere in an extravagant coach drawn by four horses and became an avid collector of books and art. Remarkably, although he was not considered a scholar, this in no way detracted from his reputation as a Kabbalist, nor did the fact that he performed extremely peculiar rituals prevent senior community leaders – including Chief Rabbi David Tevele Schiff – from considering him their friend.

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Wellclose Square in London, the upscale residential enclave where Falk settled when he became wealthy and successful. His spacious house included a private synagogue

On one occasion he withdrew into his home for six weeks, and allowed it to be known that he was not eating or sleeping for the entire period. After six weeks had passed he sent for a group of ten men to join him – but only after they had immersed themselves in a mikvah. The men arrived at midnight and were asked to clothe themselves in white robes, and also to remove their shoes. With that they were invited into a large room lit only by flickering candlelight. One of the ten men later wrote in a letter to his son that upon entering the room, “the saintly man was seated on his throne arrayed like an angel of heaven, diademed with a golden miter, a golden chain round his neck reaching to his waist, from which hung a great star, and holy names were engraved on the star. His face was covered with a star-shaped veil, and his headgear was marvelously fashioned out of parchment, with holy names written on it. A star of pure gold was fastened on each corner of his turban, and names were engraved on them. Who could possibly describe the beauty of the painting on the tapestries that were hung on the walls, with sacred figures, as on the heavenly throne in Ezekiel’s vision…..” The letter describes the strange ‘throne room’ as having been divided into an inner section and an outer section delineated by silver chains. Falk instructed five men to sit within the chains, and the other five to sit outside of them, following which he took out an engraved shofar and an engraved trumpet, and presumably blew on them. The letter writer and his nine companions were overwhelmed by this melodramatic scene, and became Falk’s avid devotees.

Strangely enough none of these activities – which reflected occult rituals rather than anything related to Judaism – elicited any criticism from the leaders of the London community, nor did they lead to any public warnings that he was a fraud. In Europe, however, things were different, and it wasn’t long before Falk’s weird behavior began to ring alarm bells. During the eighteenth century controversies were constantly erupting in the Jewish communities of Germany and Poland as the rabbinate tried to root out crypto-Sabbateans, a subculture of individuals who secretly continued to believe in the Messianic mission of Shabbetai Tzvi. Although Shabbetai Tzvi had died in 1676, there were a cult of people who maintained that he was still the Messiah, and this group secretly perpetuated this and other subversive ideas, employing twisted interpretations of Lurianic Kabbalah. This phenomenon resulted in a deep antipathy towards the unsupervised study of Jewish mystical texts, and if anyone was discovered studying Kabbalah, or was purported to be using practical Kabbalah, they became objects of suspicion, often resulting in their vilification and even banishment. One famous victim of this attitude was Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, known as ‘Ramcha”l’, who was subjected to a relentless campaign of condemnation and then threatened with excommunication after it became known that he had claimed to be studying Kabbalah with an otherworldly ‘maggid’ who regularly appeared to him while he was in a trance-like state.

Another famous target of the fierce anti-Sabbatean crusade was the revered rabbi of Hamburg, Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschuetz, whose amulets for pregnant women were examined by the equally revered Rabbi Yaakov Emden, who controversially alleged that the amulets contained references to Shabbetai Tzvi. In his latter years Rabbi Emden made it his life’s mission to unmask crypto-Sabbateans, and he went to incredible lengths to seek them out so that he could ensure none of these alleged heretics would be able to influence any normative and unsuspecting Jewish community.

It was in this context that the Baal Shem of London came to the attention of Rabbi Yakov Emden. Almost as soon as he heard about him the crusading rabbi swung into action – and he did not pull his punches. In a letter written to a colleague, Rabbi Emden wrote, “although I do not know him personally, I have heard that he pretends to be an expert in practical Kabbalah, and that he claims to have the ability to discover hidden treasures. He is married to an immoral woman with whom he moved to London. There he found supporters – especially among the lower classes – who tried to use him to enrich themselves. Some rich non-Jews also believed in him, thinking that he could discover treasure for them. Using trickery he succeeded in entrapping one wealthy non-Jewish captain, who spent his entire fortune on him and has now been reduced to poverty, and he is only able to survive as a result of Falk’s charity. Incredibly this captain continues to praise him among wealthy Christians, so that they give him a lot of money. In this way the Baal Shem is enabled to live as a man of wealth, and he uses his money to bribe his close followers so that they continue to spread his fame.”

Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s asserted that Falk was a Sabbatean, an assumption he based on Falk’s close friendship with a man by the name of Moshe David of Podhajce, a known Sabbatean who had been expelled from a number of communities. But the guilt by association assumption is problematic. Falk kept a private diary, as did his trusted assistant Tzvi Hirsch. Neither of them ever mentioned Shabbetai Tzvi, nor recorded Kabbalistic ideas associated with Sabbateanism. Although Falk was friendly with Moshe David, it is far more likely that Moshe David befriended him when he discovered that he and Falk shared a fondness for weird and dramatic occult-style rituals. Perhaps they even colluded together to create pseudo-Kabbalistic rituals that would impress gullible people who then paid them money for advice.

One aspect of Falk’s character is undeniable – he was extremely charitable, and this benevolence is probably what enabled him to carry on with his activities without censure for so long. There was a constant stream of poor people at his door, and none of them ever left empty handed. Shortly after Pesach in 1782, Falk wrote his last will and testament. His wife had already died, and there were no children. Aron Goldsmid and his son were appointed executors, along with Goldsmid’s son-in-law, Lyon de Symons. Everything was bequeathed to charity via an endowment fund that would throw off annual payments. Three days after writing his will Falk died, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Mile End, East London – where his grave can be seen to this day.

Miracle-worker, charlatan, psychic, Sabbatean, physician, alchemist, heretic, philanthropist – every single one of these adjectives has been used to describe the Baal Shem of London. As is the case with most dubious characters who purport to be something they are not, Falk was most likely not a complete fraud, and he probably did possess certain skills and intuitions that he used as a foundation to create an aura of mystique around himself so that he could profit. It was the era just before scientific sophistication, and anyone with knowledge of basic chemistry could dazzle an uninformed audience, if that is what they chose to do. Put Kabbalistic symbolism and dramatic rituals into the mix, and the credulous were easily convinced that Falk possessed supernatural powers. We have no reliable record of his successes and failures, or to what extent his clientele were disappointed by his unfulfilled promises. He was never sued in court, nor charged with any crime. His devotees seem to have been pleased with him, and notwithstanding Rabbi Yaakov Emden’s accusations, he was remembered fondly in the London community long after he died.

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Falk’s last resting place at the Aldernay Road Cemetery in Mile End, East London. His philanthropic activities during his lifetime, and the generous bequests in his will certainly contributed towards the respectful treatment he was given by community leaders

And had it not been for the portrait painting with which we began, Falk, like so many other minor historical characters, might have eventually been forgotten except, perhaps, for a mention here and there in historical footnotes. A fateful lecture was to change all that. At the turn of the twentieth century, British Chief Rabbi Dr. Herman Adler delivered a lecture at the Jewish Historical Society of Great Britain titled ‘The Baal Shem of London’. The lecture was an attempt to look beyond the myths surrounding Falk, and offer an accurate biographical sketch that took all the known details of his life into account. The public lecture included a viewing of the portrait, which had been in the Goldsmid family’s private art collection since Falk’s death. In 1908, the lecture was published together with a picture of the painting. This is what Rabbi Adler had to say about it:

“The annexed portrait is from an original painting in the possession of Mr. W. H. Goldsmid by [John Singleton] Copley, and is fully worthy of the artist. The likeness bears out the description of the Baal Shem given by a contemporary, who writes that ‘when he walks abroad he is garbed in a flowing robe, which strikingly harmonizes with his long white beard and venerable features’.”

Rabbi Adler’s assertion that Copley was the artist was guesswork, as the portrait is unsigned. Copley was unlikely to have been the artist, and there is speculation that the artist was Philip James de Loutherbourg, a close friend of the Italian adventurer and occultist Giuseppe Balsamo – also known as Count Alessandro di Cagliostro – who spent time with Falk in London after his dramatic expulsion from France. It is possible that Cagliostro introduced Loutherbourg to Falk, as all three of them shared a fascination with alchemy and the supernatural. We will never know.

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A vintage photo from Rabbi Dunner’s private collection shows Chief Rabbi Dr. Hermann Adler in his study in London with the portrait of Falk on the wall behind him. It was Rabbi Adler’s publication of this picture in 1908 that led to Falk being confused with Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement

What we do know is that the publication of the picture resulted in a mix-up. Within a matter of months the picture was appearing elsewhere in Jewish publications identified as a likeness of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov. The confusion was based on a simple misunderstanding. In the eighteenth century any rabbi who was skilled at amulet writing could be referred to as a Baal Shem, but by 1908 there was only one Baal Shem in popular consciousness – the founder of the Hasidic movement. Even though the rabbi depicted in the portrait did not appear to be a saintly Ukrainian rabbinic leader, the title Baal Shem was enough for people to make the mistake and use it to illustrate articles and books about the Baal Shem Tov.

And that is how an obscure portrait of a smiling, weirdly attired charlatan mystic became one of the best-known images of any eighteenth century Jew. The auction house estimated the painting at $30,000-50,000. In a fevered bidding war it eventually sold to a private buyer for $75,000. Once again ‘Dr.’ Falk had been the center of attention. Could it be that the fact we are still talking about Chaim Samuel Jacob Falk 233 years after his death has something to do with his mysterious powers? An intriguing thought. I don’t think so, but who knows?