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Signs of the Covenant, 1940s-1950s

What constitutes being a “member of a tribe”? Most individuals identify as being part some larger group; the group forms part of a person’s sense of self and frequently provides a feeling of belonging and pride.

In Lech Lecha, this past week’s Torah portion, God commands Abraham to circumcise all the males of his household, and to circumcise males of all future generations when they are eight days old, as a brit, an everlasting covenant.

In Va’yera, this week’s Torah portion, Isaac, Abraham and Sarah’s long-awaited son, is born. Abraham circumcised Isaac, the first person born as a Jew, when Isaac was eight days old, as God had commanded. Thus, the first brit of eight-day old baby Isaac is recorded in the Bible for posterity.

Over the generations, though it is not a required by halacha (Jewish law), Jews have sometimes created records of circumcisions. The best known of these types of records are Mohel books, ledgers of circumcisions recorded by a mohel, a ritual circumciser. These manuscripts generally originate in a specific geographic area which the mohel covered as a circuit rider circumciser. The Mohel books in the Yeshiva University Library are primarily from Central and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century.

Circumcision certificate by artist Mendel Bennoon. Yeshiva University Archives, Arnold Heisler Rabbinical Papers.

In what may have been a twentieth century American innovation, the mohel or rabbi would provide a certificate attesting to the circumcision. The certificate here is a handsome, colorful example – it includes verses from Genesis where Abraham was instructed on circumcision, an American flag befitting an American born Jewish boy who would identify as both an American and a Jew, as symbolized by the images of the Ten Commandments, a menorah, and a Zionist / Israeli flag. There are a number of blanks which can be filled in, including one for the mother’s name. The certificate bears the Hebrew date  __ת"ש
[57_ ]  which is 1939/1940, followed by blank spaces to fill in the date as appropriate.

Although these certificates were suitable for framing, since they were printed on cardstock or paper they were inherently delicate, ephemeral items unless special care was taken to preserve them; searches of library and museum catalogs indicate that few examples survive. The number of copies printed may have been limited as well.

This eye-catching circumcision certificate was illustrated by artist Mendel Bennoon of Chicago, who also created a Rosh Hashanah greeting card during the First World War. Bennoon was born in Grodno, Belarus, in 1879 and died in Chicago in 1952. Little is known about him; internet searches indicate that he registered copyrights on a number of works, including a circumcision certificate in 1923, though it is currently not known whether or not it was identical to this one. He also took out a copyright on a ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) and a Yiddish map of the United States. Tracking down additional works by Bennoon may be worthwhile for a future blog post on this form of Jewish folk art and the career of a Jewish graphic artist.

Another certificate designed by Mendel Bennoon is for the birth and naming of a girl, perhaps as a gesture of parity or equality. It is not as colorful or elaborate as the circumcision document; it displays the same flags as the circumcision certificate plus four off kilter stars of David, but it omits the lions of Judah, the eagle, the cherubs, and the abbreviations for mazel tov in the four corners. The certificate is blue and white;  blue is not a color typically associated with baby girls though blue may have been used since it was viewed as a traditional Jewish color. In addition to the name of the artist, the certificate bears a copyright: “ROSENBLUM’S BOOK STORE, CHICAGO, ILL.,” a Chicago institution currently located in Skokie, Illinois. Its website states that Rosenblum’s was founded in 1941 on Chicago’s West Side; the date on the certificate is 57__, followed by a blank, indicating that the “daughter” certificate may have been a business idea of Rosenblum’s, since it coincides with the general time frame of Rosenblum’s opening.

Certificate for Birth and Naming of a Daughter. Artist: Mendel Bennoon. Rosenblum's Book Store. Yeshiva University Archives, Arnold Heisler Rabbinical Papers.

The bar-mitzvah, a rite of passage marking the entry of a thirteen-year-old boy to Jewish adulthood and responsibility, was sometimes also marked by a certificate, a sign of recognition of full-fledged membership in the world of Jewish ritual. This striking certificate, by an unknown artist, was issued by the Orthodox Union, most likely in the 1950s when William Herlands, signatory on the certificate, was president of the Orthodox Union. The certificate depicts a pair of tefillin, a tallit, and a prayerbook with the blessings for donning these items. It also quotes a relevant verse from Psalms, Tehillim 119:9, in Hebrew and in English translation: “How can a young man keep his path pure? By keeping to God’s word.” The certificate displays an Orthodox Union logo which differs from the organization’s well-known kashruth symbol; this emblem specifically relates to the synagogue aspect of the Orthodox Union, which included the term “congregations” in its name at the time.

Bar Mitzvah certificate issued by the Orthodox Union. Yeshiva University Archives, Arnold Heisler Rabbinical Papers.

The original three certificates are in the papers of Rabbi Arnold (Yeshaya) Heisler, z”l, (YUHS 40, YC 44, BRGS 46, RIETS 46) who served as a rabbi in a number of congregations in different parts of the United States. The certificates were part of the arsenal of a congregational rabbi: attractive, tangible, attestations to fidelity to faith; physical symbols of belonging to a religion and people which young Jews and their parents could take pride in.

The Arnold Heisler Rabbinical Papers were donated to the Yeshiva University Archives by his daughter, Sura Jeselsohn.

Shulamith Z. Berger, Curator of Special Collections and Hebraica-Judaica