A couple of months ago I posted about Jewish Urban Legends (JULs) and linked to a new Jewish Legends site I had discovered. My post included a few of my favorite JULs which hadn't yet appeared on that site - though one has since been added. It seems like at least a few of you out there enjoy this topic too, given that the post received my record number of comments thus far.
Like most urban legends, the ones I recounted in my earlier post were all provably false. So today I'll give equal time to some stranger-than-fiction JULs that nevertheless turned out to be true:
The Lost Kiddush Cup
Details: The actual kiddush cup used by the Chofetz Chayim, the famous author of the Mishnah Berurah, was declared to be too small a shiur [measurement] for kiddush by one of his great-grandchildren who had inherited it.
Verification: This rather depressing episode has been cited in a number of scholarly articles; see sources* below.
Hypocrisy in Motion
Details: A Rabbi was traveling on a bus, dressed in his customary garb, wearing a broad black hat and a black frock coat. A man approached the Rabbi and said, "I think it's shameful that your appearance is so different! There is no need for Jews in America to be so conspicuous, with long beards and black hats."
"I'm sorry, mister," the Rabbi replied. "I'm not Jewish. I'm Amish, and this is how we dress."
The man became apologetic. "Oh, I'm terribly sorry, sir," he said. "I did not mean to offend you. I think you should be proud of preserving your traditions!"
Verification: This story has such an absolute feel of an urban legend that for many years I thought it was surely made up. And of course, Amish/Chassidish mix-ups for humor value have been around for a while. But Rabbi Abraham Twerski confirms, in his book "Generation to Generation", that this actually did happen to him, as I discussed here. I suppose it's possible that the conversation, as an UL, predated Rabbi Twerski's personal version, and that his use of the "Amish" retort and the followup from his co-traveler was a case of life imitating art. But in any case, it's now confirmed as genuine.
Bais Yaakov Barb
Story: Barbara Streisand was once a "Bais Yaakov Girl"
Verification: This one was a recent addition to the Jewish Legends site, but it's too good to pass up here! The reason the "Bais Yaakov Barb" JUL is thought to be false is that it's known Streisand attended a public high school, where she and fellow future pop star Neil Diamond got their collaborative start singing in the school choir. It's not clear if they dated there, and if they did, if he ever brought her flowers. But I digress...
In any case, Barbara did attend Bais Yaakov of Brooklyn for elementary school, where, one can conjecture, her disenchantment with the frum world may have begun with her discovery that IB Singer's Yentl the Yeshiva Boy was not on the permitted reading list. And with that, there went the way she were.
Story: An entire seder [order] of Talmud was once forged, a monumental fraud that actually fooled many of the contemporary gedolei hador.
Details: A comprehensive treatment of this amazing but true episode, whose 100th anniversary is this year, can be found here. Briefly, the story is as follows. The Talmud Yerushalmi [Jerusalem Talmud] that we have today has no coverage of the entire Seder Kodashim, one of the six orders of the Talmud. However, it is known that this Yerushalmi originally existed, and in fact was still extant as recently as the time of the Rambam, who refers to it. Since the Yerushalmi has historically been studied much less than the Bavli [Babylonian Talmud], this large portion of it was somehow lost over the years.
In 1907, a man going by the name of Rabbi S J Friedlander came forward with an ancient-looking manuscript of the Yerushalmi Kodashim which he claimed to have discovered. The work looked so authentic that he was able to obtain the haskama of many of the gedolei hador, including, famously, the Chofetz Chayim (see what comes from using too small a kiddush cup!) The deception was first discovered about a year later by other gedolim, including the Rogachover Gaon and the Gerer Rebbe. After controversy and confusion raged for several years, Friedlander finally admitted to the scam in 1911.
Apparently, Friedlander's method for compiling this mammoth counterfeit began with his painstakingly locating every reference to Yerushalmi Kodashim-related sugyas found anywhere else in the entire Talmud. He then took other sugyas from the Bavli Kodashim and changed names or details, and finally composed his own made-up gemara sugyas as filler. He pieced it all together so skillfully that the end product appeared as a cohesive whole.
Can you just imagine the twisted brilliance it would take to pull off something like that? What incredible scholarship, effort, and perseverence, all harnessed in pursuit of a colossal hoax! I like to think of Friedlander as the Dr. Doom of the Torah world.