The Most Popular Jewish Picture

February 26, 2013 | By

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Twentieth-century Jewish-American homes tended to have one thing in common: a Jewish National Fund blue tzedakah box. According to a new book by Eliyahu Stern, a distinctive artifact linked 19th-century European-Jewish homes, too: the portrait of Rabbi Elijah of Vilna.

Elijah was known as the Vilna Gaon—the Genius of Vilna—and the popularity of his picture testified to his unparalleled intellectual reputation.

Born in 1720 to a rabbinic family in Slutsk, Elijah is said to have mastered biblical and Talmudic literature by early adolescence. Later, in Vilna, he led a reclusive life of study. When he died in 1797 he had commented on a wider array of classical Jewish texts than anyone in Jewish history.

After his death, Elijah’s students and biographers sold his portrait to a Jewry that was finding its intellectual groove, navigating new educational opportunities in European schools and universities. Elijah was a role model for these aspiring geniuses, but the exact portrait people displayed depended upon their ideology. As Stern recently wrote in Slate: “The Orthodox painted him with phylacteries and a prayer shawl; the secularists left him in Polish garb, but as the Yiddish writer, Moses Gertz recalled, ‘Every home in Lithuania was decorated with the picture of the Gaon.’”

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