Peddlers with Caftans, Sidelocks – and Umbrellas: Images of Jews around 1900

In Germany, you cannot rely on the weather being consistently sunny, even in the summertime. In the fall at the latest – dare we think of it already? – we will need to shake open our umbrellas again. Axel Stähler (comparative literature, University of Kent), has shown that the umbrella was once considered a Jewish attribute. He recently offered to share with Blogerim his research on the umbrella’s discursive significance in Wilhelminian Germany.

Dr. Stähler, how did you spot the “Jewish umbrella”?

A dark-skinned man sits with an umbrella

Mbwapwa Jumbo from “Briefe aus Neu-Neuland”, Schlemiel 1.1 (November 1903), p. 2

I was first struck by an umbrella in the hands of the “Big Chief of Uganda,” Mbwapwa Jumbo, a fictitious reporter in the Jewish satirical magazine Schlemiel, who acted as a correspondent from a new Jewish colony in Africa. In fact, in 1903, the British government had proposed to Theodor Herzl to commit land to Jewish settlers in the British Protectorate of East Africa. This proposal, which came to be known as the Uganda Plan, was vehemently disputed in the Zionist movement, and rejected in 1905. No concerted colonial Jewish settlement of Uganda ever took place, although individual Jewish immigrants had built homes there earlier.

In nine letters published over the course of the magazine’s brief lifespan, from 1903 to 1907, the chatty and naïvely amicable Mbwapwa tells of the first Jewish colonists – Orthodox Mizrachi – and of what became of them: in funny prose spotted with Anglicisms, and increasingly also Yiddishisms, he describes how he and his countrymen converted to Judaism. He relates the murder of a reformist rabbi who had been smuggled into the country, and the reformers’ ensuing punitive military expedition. He reports on the colony’s political and cultural trials and tribulations, and, finally, on the emergence of the Zionist movement—since Uganda was not, after all, the Promised Land.

Each of the nine letters is accompanied by a supposedly authentic photograph of the Big Chief, showing him in three-quarter profile: wearing a caftan and a yarmulke, he sits there, looking for all the world like an Orthodox Jew with sidelocks – and an umbrella.

So here, in the hands of this new-fangled ‘Black’ Jew, I first encountered the umbrella.

An umbrella changes hands

“Dearly Bought,” in: Punch, 21 March 1874, p. 121

What is the significance of the umbrella in Jewish cultural history? And which of its associations did cartoonists and anti-Semites draw on?

The umbrella triggers various associations, ranging from dictatorial rule to symbols of democratic progress. The umbrella is associated with dominance because of the way it was used symbolically in Africa and Asia. The Ashanti King Coffee Calcallee’s umbrella, for instance, was appropriated as a spoil of war by the British in 1874. It was therefore a symbol of the subjugation of indigenous peoples. But as a modern, technical device used by urban dwellers in imperial cities of the nineteenth century, it was also a symbol of progress. All this made the umbrella relevant to Mbwapwa, simultaneously constructing and critiquing colonial discourse.

A further, far less illustrious interpretation of the umbrella can be extrapolated from other attributes of the black African’s new Jewish identity, namely his caftan, yarmulke, and sidelocks. Countless anti-Semitic postcards from the Wilhelminian period in Germany cast Jewish peddlers in the physiognomy of a stereotypical “Eastern Jew,” with a caftan, a battered top hat, and a tattered umbrella to boot. Its implications are even more complex.

Man thwarting off dog with a tattered umbrella

Anti-Semitic postcard in: Helmut Gold (ed.), Abgestempelt: Judenfeindliche Postkarten, exhibition catalog, Jüdisches Museum Frankfurt and Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation, Heidelberg: Umschau/Braus, 1999, p. 216.

Historically, the umbrella was a useful accessory for peddlers exposed to all types of weather. From a psychoanalytical perspective, the iconography of the ragged and bent umbrella can be a covert reference to Jewish circumcision—a “mutilation” which was known to provoke castration anxiety among non-Jews. Finally, the umbrella and its tent-like structure can be a symbolic reference to the mobile dwellings of nomads, and therefore a symbol of the “Wandering Jew” in restless and unsteady exile.

What, then, does the umbrella stand for in Mbwapwa’s hands?

The umbrella situates the ‘black’ African Jew in a highly problematic colonial discourse. In this discourse, the umbrella’s ambivalence makes the person carrying it likewise appear ambivalent, as a victim of colonial aggression, and as a colonial aggressor. But it is important not to lose sight of the broader context in which Schlemiel and the letters from Uganda appeared. The nine letters were published during Germany’s bloody colonial wars against the Herero, Nama, and Maji Maji. Their critique of the fictitious Jewish colonization of East Africa may therefore be read as an admonition in relation to the Zionist project to settle in Palestine. In combination with his other Jewish attributes, Mbwapwa’s umbrella simultaneously suggests his transformation into a ‘black’ (i.e. Orthodox) Eastern Jew. His character may be read, in this respect, as a positive alternative to the so-called “man of air”(“Luftmensch”), which was the pejorative term for Jewish migrants in discourses of Zionism and anti-Semitism around 1900. In any case, the image is striking, given the intact condition and elegant form of his umbrella…

Thank you, Dr. Stähler.

For more on Mbwapwa Jumbo, see Axel Stähler, “Constructions of Jewish Identity and the Spectre of Colonialism: Of White Skin and Black Masks in Early Zionist Discourse,” in: German Life and Letters 66.3 (2013): 254–276; and, for more on the umbrella in particular, “Zionism, Colonialism, and the German Empire: Herzl’s Gloves and Mbwapwa’s Umbrella,” in Ulrike Brunotte, Anna-Dorothea Ludewig and Axel Stähler (eds.) Orientalism, Gender, and the Jews. Literary and Artistic Transformations of European National Discourses, Berlin und Boston: de Gruyter; forthcoming 2014.

 Interview by Naomi Lubrich, Media

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