Whats the scoop on Rembrandt and the Jews

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When three paintings stolen 21 years ago from San Francisco's M.H. de Young Memorial Museum turned up last week in New York, some gaping questions were left unanswered.

In addition to the nitty-gritty of the whodunnit and why, there is the still-unresolved question that has been plaguing sleuths, academics and historians for quite some time.

For more than three centuries in fact.

What's up with Rembrandt and the Jews?

The Dutch master who lived from 1606 to 1669 was responsible for many well-known works with Jewish content, including — although its authenticity has been questioned — one of the pieces stolen from the de Young, "Portrait of a Rabbi."

That work, along with two other paintings, showed up mysteriously last week at a New York auction house. After an FBI investigation and restoration, the paintings will be returned to the de Young.

In addition to the purloined painting that has been attributed to him, Rembrandt painted Jewish wedding scenes, synagogues and stories from the Hebrew Bible.

But why? Like any good Jewish debate, there is a plethora of opinions. With no definitive answer.

In his widely cited 1962 book "History of Art," H.W. Janson writes that Rembrandt had a special sympathy for the Jews as "biblical heirs and the patient victims of persecution."

Pure nonsense, opines Sheila Braufman, curator of paintings and sculpture at Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum.

"How is it possible to be 'patient victims' of persecution?" Braufman wondered. "I think it was much more likely that Rembrandt painted his friends and neighbors."

If there is one area with little ambiguity, it is the fact that Rembrandt lived in integrated turf. During a particularly fecund period in his life, Rembrandt resided near the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam.

From about 1632 to 1658, he counted among his neighbors various artists and well-to-do merchants. Among the latter were affluent Sephardic Jews whose families had fled persecution in Spain and Portugal. One such individual was Ephraim Bonus, a physician and poet, who was the subject of both a painting and an etching by Rembrandt.

It was also during that period that the influential Jewish scribe Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel lived across the street. Franz Landsberger, the author of the seminal 1946 volume, "Rembrandt, the Jews, and the Bible," writes that it was through the rabbi that Rembrandt developed a deeper understanding of the Jewish people and faith.

The friendship, according to Landsberger, also provided a forum for the artist to explore biblical subjects.

The rabbi was one of the roughly 200 male portraits Rembrandt painted. Curiously, given that Jews constituted just over 1 percent of Amsterdam's population, scholars have estimated that almost one-fifth of the artist's male subjects were Jewish.

Linda Steinberg, former director of the Jewish Museum San Francisco, also said historical factors contributed to Rembrandt's choice of subjects. Many of the affluent Jews of Amsterdam considered portraiture a symbol of status and culture.

However, Jews themselves did not paint portraits of one another. For one, the Jewish commandment against committing idolatry was historically interpreted as forbidding the creation of images.

Additionally, Steinberg points out that even in relatively liberal 17th-century Holland, anti-Semitism was ingrained.

"Jews couldn't belong to guilds until the Age of Enlightenment," which began in the 18th century, she said. "Prior to that, if Jews wanted a professional portrait done, they commissioned gentiles."

Rembrandt was indeed a gentile. But according to Larry Silver, University of Pennsylvania professor of art history, he was less righteous gentile than rebellious gentile.

"Rembrandt wasn't exactly a pillar of the church community," Silver said. "For one thing, he had a common-law wife, and he was generally thought of as pretty wild and weird within the Dutch Reform community."

However, Silver concurs with many Rembrandt scholars on one point: He believes the artist was a very spiritual man.

"Rembrandt was heavily influenced by the Bible," Silver said. "He was a very visual person, and insisted on authenticity in his work. I guess a good analogy would be Cecil B. DeMille and his biblical films. They both painted broad, sweeping pictures."

Rembrandt's drive for authenticity led him to import camels for his paintings, according to Silver, and he often used Jewish models because of their distinctive costumes and physiognomy.

Silver also contends that Rembrandt's empathy for Jews may have originated from his Calvinist roots. "Rembrandt was definitely interested in building bridges between Christians and Jews," Silver said. "But that may have been due his desire to hasten the arrival of the messiah."

Regardless of the reasons, Rembrandt's Jewish portraits serve as important historical documents.

According to Rembrandt biographer Landsberger, "the Jewish fate, insofar as facial expression has ever mirrored it, has never been represented with such authenticity and such grandeur as in Rembrandt's Jewish portraits."

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