A Medieval Gay Brawl in the Synagogue On Yom Kippur

Sometimes the finds of the Genizah are so incredible that you have difficulty believing that it’s really there, that you are really peering through this window into the lives of medieval Jews around the Mediterranean. This story caught my attention in a footnote of Goitein’s and I thought I would post it for Yom Kippur… It’s not really magic-related, except that I think there’s a certain magic in recovering and reclaiming the past.

The fragment shown here, T-S 8J22.25 in Cambridge, is a letter from a Jewish pilgrim named Hasan ben Mu’ammal, who had gone on pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the High Holidays, Tishrei 4813 = September 1052 CE. He reports that a certain Daniel had wished to see him but he was unable to, because of “the altercation” that had happened in synagogue. Apparently, on Yom Kippur, many pilgrims had gathered from around the Mediterranean, and “a man from Tiberias and a man from [Tyre] became involved in love, and the Tiberian began fondling [?] the Tyrian in the sight of everyone… and the people from Tiberias and those from Tyre began to fight with one another and went out to […] and they brought the chief of the police to the synagogue and […] until the people calmed down.” Hasan goes on to report that Daniel had told him that “such is the behaviour of these people every day,” and concludes the letter with best wishes to the recipients (his brother Abu Nasr and family). A wild ride from start to finish. Goitein drily observes that the letter indicates that homosexuality was regarded as a “vice rather than a deadly crime… [and] it did not form the object of great social concern.” 

Shana tova — welcome to 5777! May all who are fasting have a meaningful, enriching, and affirming day… and hopefully a peaceful one too!


Beautiful synagogues from around the world

  1. Dohány Street Synagogue, Budapest
  2. Grand Choral Synagogue, St. Petersburg
  3. Grand Synagogue of Edirne, Edirne, Turkey
  4. Hurva Synagogue, Jerusalem
  5. Eldridge Street Synagogue, New York
  6. Great Synagogue of Rome, Rome
  7. Ohr Torah Synagogue, Acco, Israel
  8. Great Synagogue of Sydney, Sydney
  9. Rykestrasse Synagogue, Berlin
  10. Szeged Synagogue, Szeged, Hungary

Prague’s Spanish Synagogue is a wonder for the eyes. Built in 1868 in the Moorish Revival style, it isn’t the largest synagogue in Europe, but it’s definitely one of the most ornate.


Ohel Moshe Synagogue &  Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai became a modern-day “Noah’s Ark” accepting around 30,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe. In the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” in Tilanqiao area of Shanghai, about 20,000 Jewish refugees lived harmoniously with local citizens, overcoming numerous difficulties together.

By the time the Second World War ended in 1945, most of the Jewish refugees had survived. Dr. David Kranzler, a noted Holocaust historian, called it the “Miracle of Shanghai” and commented that within the Jewry’s greatest tragedy, i.e. the Holocaust, there shone a few bright lights. Among the brightest of these is the Shanghai haven.

In the “Tilanqiao Historic Area”, the original features of the Jewish settlement are still well preserved. They are the only typical historic traces of Jewish refugee life inside China during the Second World War.

The Ohel Moshe Synagogue is one of the only two synagogues in Shanghai built by Russian Jews where the Jewish refugees gathered for religious rites during the Second World War. In 2004, it was listed among the fourth set of architectural heritage treasures of Shanghai.

Mr. Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister, commented during his visit to Shanghai, “To the people of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.”

In March 2007, the People’s Government of Hongkou District budgeted special funds for a full renovation of the synagogue in accordance with the original architectural drawings found in the city archives. 


Yu Aw Synagogue in Herat, Afghanistan.

The Yu Aw Synagogue is located in the Momanda neighbourhood of the old city of Herat, Afghanistan. The area was once known as Mahalla-yi Musahiya, or the “Neighbourhood of the Jews”. It is the only synagogue in Herat which has been preserved with most of its original characteristics, although it is currently in a state of disrepair. Researchers date the Synagogue to 1393. Click here to read more about the synagogues of Herat.

Selected photographs taken in January 1998 by Annette Ittig as part of a larger project to document and protect the historic Old City of Herat.

Congregation Emunath Israel on West Twenty-third Street in New York, New York; 1944. x

On April 30th, 1944 the Synagogue Council of America called on all Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox synagogues in the United States to hold services when the invasion of Europe by the United States and the United Kingdom began.  On June 4th, 1944, when D-Day began, Jewish synagogues around the United States were open for 24 hours to allow people to pray for the success of the invasion and liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany.

How to talk to strangers in social situations

It’s ok and socially expected to initiate conversations with strangers at certain kinds of gatherings. If a lot of people who don’t know each other are at the same gathering, and there is a social element to the gathering, it’s considered normal to initiate conversations with strangers.

Some examples of this type of environment:

  • Parties
  • Conferences
  • Freshman orientation
  • Kiddush after services at a synagogue

A script that usually works well for initiating conversation with a stranger:

  • You: Hi, I’m [Your name].
  • They will usually reply: I’m [their name].
  • Then the next thing you do is ask them a question that is slightly, but not very, personal based on the context
  • Then they usually answer and ask you the same question
  • This tends to result in you discovering something of mutual interest and having a conversation

Some examples of contextually appropriate questions:

  • If you’re at a party someone is throwing: “How do you know [host’s name]” usually works
  • (Even if they don’t actually know the host, this still usually works because they can answer something like “Actually, I came here with my friend.”)
  • If you’re at a conference: “What brings you here?” usually works. (And will usually get to an area of mutual interest quickly, since being at the same conference with someone implies that you care about some of the same things).
  • This is a better question than “What do you do?” because asking about someone’s job as an initial question is often interpreted as you asking them “Are you high status enough that I should bother talking to you?”. “What brings you here?” is more neutral
  • If you’re at a kiddush at a synagogue: “Are you a member here?” usually works, so long as you’re not asking it in an accusatory tone. 
  • If there’s a bat or bat mitzvah, “Are you relatives of the bar/bat mitzvah?” usually works (even if you’re not and they’re not. The question works no matter what the answer is
  • At freshman orientation or similar: “Where are you from?” usually works well as an initial question.

If you’re not sure whether you’ve met before, you can still introduce yourself. This is a script that works:

  • “I’m not sure if we’ve met before - I’m kind of bad with faces. I’m [Your name]”.
  • Then, if they don’t know you, you can use the usual script.
  • And if they do know you, then they’ll usually explain the context you know them in.
  • And then you can talk about that.

tl;dr It’s ok (and can be fun) to initiate conversations with strangers at parties and conferences and suchlike. Scroll up for some scripts.

Anyone else want to weigh in? What are some initial questions that work in other contexts?