Monday, June 27, 2016

Samuel Tolkowsky, June 27, 1886 - December 19, 1965

Library copy of Hesperides.
Hesperides: A History of the Culture and Use of Citrus Fruits by Samuel Tolkowsky is hard to find, though fortunately for me, I have checked out the library copy shown above. This blog post is taken from my other blog,, because I think Tolkowsky is a very interesting secular Jewish figure.

Title page.
I find the obscurity of this book surprising, as it's full of fascinating and useful information. John McPhee cites it in his book Oranges; in fact, I think he used a variety of information from it in his historical section. Tolkowsky begins in ancient times, with the origins of citrus trees on the slopes of the Himalayas and in the boundary areas between India and China, and a grapefruit-like fruit in the Malay archipelago. The earliest written records of citrus are in China in a compendium dated around 500 BCE, including a number of older works that refer to the fruit. (p. 6)

Citrus spread through Asia and North Africa, and eventually to Europe, as Tolkowsky documents in several chapters. I found the descriptions of the introduction of citrus fruits into ancient Israel especially interesting. Tolkowsky traces the customs of the holiday of Succoth -- the Feast of Tabernacles -- to the influence of the Persians during their exile in the sixth century, and the introduction of these customs when they returned thanks to the decree of Cyrus. At this point, as the citron was as yet not known in Babylonia, the fruit that served in the ritual was not an etrog (citron), but a cedar cone, which appears in a number of images from that era.

By the second century of this era, the Jewish writings in the Mishnah definitely interpret the ritual fruit as an etrog; the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus also says this, saying "it was the 'Persian apple' that was used by the Jews during the Feast of Tabernacles." Tolkowsky continues the story: "The very earliest documentary evidence of the citron in Jewish sources is found in the representation of this fruit on coins struck by Simon the Maccabee in the fourth year of the 'Redemption of Zion,' that is, in 136 BC. If citrons were extensively grown in Palestine at the time, it seems probable that the center of the industry was at Jaffa." (p. 53)

Simon the Maccabee issued copper coins (above) bearing the picture of a citron
together with the bundle of myrtle, willow and palm branches prescribed
for use at the Feast of Tabernacles.  
Because Simon the Maccabee was the only Jewish ruler who depicted the etrog on his coins, Tolkowsky believes that Simon was the one who introduced the citron in place of the cedar cone.
Above: a bronze seal with Jewish symbols including an etrog. Below: a decorated glass vase including
an etrog and other fruits. From the Roman era.
Citrons were the earliest citrus fruits introduced into Europe, and Tolkowsky includes several chapters describing how later, oranges and lemons arrived in Roman times. Tolkowsky's illustrations include many Roman mosaics and other art works depicting oranges and lemons.

A detail of a mosaic from Pompeii.
Several chapters describe the ways that citrus fruits appear symbolically and literally in European art and literature from Roman times until the Renaissance and early modern period. The development of culinary uses for the fruits are very interesting also. Hesperides is rich in historical information that's not easy to find.

Some notes on Tolkowsky:

I managed to find a brief memoir of Samuel Tolkowsky and his family in Raphael Patai's memoir Journeyman in Jerusalem: Memories and Letters, 1933-1947. Patai (a well-known author) describes the "at home" Fridays at the home of Samuel Tolkowsky and his wife, beginning in 1933. Patai, a young man newly arrived in Jerusalem, met the family in 1933, when Samuel Tolkowsky was 47 years old. Tolkowsky, Patai says, was born in Belgium to Polish-Jewish parents, served as a member of the Zionist Political Committee under Chaim Weizmann in London during World War I, and settled in Palestine in 1919. During World War II, he headed the Citrus Control and Marketing Board set up by the British government there. Patai eventually married Naomi, the Tolkowsky's daughter. (source)

family tree posted at Geni gives Tolkowsky's dates as June 27, 1886, to December 19, 1965, and lists his parents, wife, and children.

Tolkowsky was the author of a number of other books that are even more obscure than Hesperides. Examples from google book search: The Gateway of Palestine: A History of Jaffa (1925) and The Jewish Colonisation in Palestine, Its History and Its Prospects (1914).

Even Wikipedia seems to have nothing about Hesperides or its author! Several years ago, Hesperides was listed in but no longer seems to be there, as I guess they never had a copy come up for sale. A few years ago one sold at Bonham's for £312 (US$ 443), according to the Bonham's website.

No comments:

Post a Comment