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The kabbalistic conjuror who charmed 18th-century London

The Ba'al Shem of London continues to be a source of fascination, as recent books testify

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As we reported last week, Willesden Cemetery in North-West London has reopened as a heritage centre where visitors can learn something about the history of Victorian and 20th century Anglo-Jewry through the lives of some of the notables interred there.

Willesden may be the grandest of Ashkenazi cemeteries but it is far from being the oldest. Alderney Road in the East End, which opened in 1697 almost two centuries before Willesden, contains the remains of the first and third Chief Rabbis, Aaron Hart and David Tevele Schiff (though some do not start counting Chief Rabbis until their successor Solomon Hirschell, who took office in 1802).

In Alderney Road too lies another figure of historic interest, who walked an altogether more unconventional path, the kabbalist Samuel Falk, popularly known as the Ba’al Shem of London. He was immortalised in a portrait (that many later confused with the founder of Chasidism in East Europe, the Ba’al Shem Tov).

More than two centuries after his death in 1782, he remains a source of fascination. Rabbi Pini Dunner, the former rabbi of London’s Saatchi Synagogue, devotes a chapter to the Ba’al Shem of London in his engaging collection of colourful characters, Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs, published in 2018. Earlier this year, the Littman Library of Jewish Civilization brought out an English translation of the book about him by the Israeli scholar Michal Oron, Rabbi, Mystic, Or Impostor?

To the gentrified denizens of Willesden, Falk’s esoteric pursuits would have seemed the outlandish product of a bygone age. Even in his time, the practice of Kabbalah caused unease, arising from its heterodox use by the Failed Messiah Sabbetai Zevi a century before.

But when he arrived in London in the early 1740s, there were still people who believed that demons stalked the earth ready to wreak their mischief. And so they sought protection with charms and amulets written by an exponent of practical Kabbalah, a ba’al shem (“master of divine names”,), who could wield the concealed names of God or angels in sacred texts to ward off malign forces.

Born in the East Europe in the early 18th century, he spent some time in Germany and was once condemned to death in Westphalia for sorcery, before reaching England via the Netherlands. Though his first years in London were poverty-stricken, by the time of his death he was well-off with assets of around £500,000 in today’s terms and able to leave generous bequests to charity.

Though he was denounced by the influential German talmudist and anti-Sabbatian campaigner Rabbi Jacob Emden as a ba’al shed, “master of demons” (not that there was any hard evidence to link Falk with Sabbatianism) well-to-do Jews in London still consulted him. So did non-Jewish aristocrats with a taste for the occult and Casanova, the notorious Italian adventurer and womaniser, when visiting London, wanted to meet him.

His contact with some prominent Freemasons has fuelled speculation over whether he was involved with the movement— the compass he holds in his left hand in his portrait is a masonic symbol. When Catherine the Great penned a satirical play about Freemasonry, The Deceiver, the name of the central character, Cali Falkistron, alluded to Falk. The philosopher Gotthold Ephraim Lessing called one of the characters in his Masonic Dialogues Falk.

Although the Ba’al Shem seemed generally on good terms with the Jewish establishment, he kept his distance. When he donated ten guineas to the Great Synagogue in memory of his wife in 1767, he was invited to become a ba’al bayit, meaning a VIP member. But he declined the offer, remarking, “Heaven forfend that my name should be mentioned in such a matter, for I am a ba’al bayit for all the world.”

He preferred to pray in his own private synagogue in his house, defying a rule of the Great Synagogue against setting up a rival place of worship in the vicinity. When a warden at the Great despatched a spy to find out who was davening at chez Falk, one of those present was subsequently forced publicly to recant in synagogue. Incensed, Falk cursed the warden and saw his death not long afterwards as a consequence.

Most of Oron’s book consists of an extensively annotated edition of two diaries: one by Falk himself, rediscovered in London’s Jewish Museum, and the other by his factotum for a number of years, Zevi Hirsch of Kalisz. The latter’s entries include a number of elaborate descriptions of arcane rites performed by “the Sage” and on one occasion he records seeing a sword floating in mid-air.

If Hirsch is to believed, it raises the possibility that among his other gifts, Rabbi Falk may have been an accomplished magician.

Rabbi Dunner concludes, “As is the case with most dubious characters who purport to be something they are not, Falk was probably not a complete fraud and possessed certain skills and intuitions that he used as a foundation to create an aura of mystique around himself in order to profit financially.”

The historian Todd Endelman, in his introduction to Oron’s book, is more benevolent, rejecting the idea that he was a charlatan in the mould of the roguish Casanova, who took on a false identity to inveigle himself into high society. “He never pretended to be other than who he was: a ba’al shem and learned kabbalist from Poland, steadfast in his observance of Judaism.”

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