Fishy Tales, Part II: 20th Century Performance Art and a 17th Century Messiah

Portrait of Sabbatai Zevi

Sabbatai Zevi was a charismatic seventeenth-century Jewish mystic and scholar who attracted a huge following when he revealed himself as the Messiah. Although Zevi had been declaring himself the son of God for seventeen years, ever since he was twenty-one, it was only in 1665, when Nathan of Gaza confirmed Zevi’s status, that, in the words of David J. Halperin, ‘the Messianic movement headed by Sabbatai and his “prophet” Nathan swept the Jewish Diaspora like a brushfire. From London to Poland, from Hamburg to Yemen, Jews believed in perfect faith that Sabbatai Zevi was the promised Redeemer, about to lead them back to the Holy Land and rebuild the Temple’.

In 1666, Sabbatai sailed to Istanbul, where he was immediately arrested. He was treated leniently, however, and tales of his actions, including miraculous deeds and a life combining luxurious living with religious observance and feast days circulated throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world. When a Polish prophet, Nehemiah ha-Kohen got word to the Sultan of his rival’s messianic ambitions, Zevi was taken to Adrianople, where he stunned his followers by converting to Islam.

There are several competing accounts of how and why Zevi converted. While some of his followers were horrified, others insisted that his conversion to Islam was a necessary part of God’s plan, and a small community of Turkish followers, the Dönmeh, continued to pray for his return through until at least the end of the twentieth century. Zevi’s conversion appears to have been partial and politic, and he defied his new faith by continuing to engage in Jewish ritual and practice, including the circumcision of his son and, with his ‘turban-wearing’ followers, the loud recitation of Jewish prayers.

Engraving of Zevi in Turkish dress

It’s no surprise that this striking and colourful figure has the power to capture the modern imagination. A few years ago, the contemporary performance artist Oreet Ashery recognised a connection between Zevi’s self-conscious and dramatic acts and her own commitment to exploring the tensions of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the meaning of faith in the modern world. In 2008, she took on the role of Sabbatei Zevi, inspired by his ‘foreign or strange acts that are really classic performance art pieces’. Zevi’s acts included one that particularly fascinated Ashery: ‘he dressed a fish in baby clothes, put it in a pram and walked around Thessaloniki (in Greece) saying Israel would be saved under the sign of Pisces’. The artist attracted considerable attention by re-enacting Zevi’s piscine performance in a variety of locations, including London and Whitstable.

Ashery’s work is undoubtedly controversial, and comments explicitly on the performance of faith and the desire for salvation. What is fascinating in the context of our project is the way in which centuries-old stories can continue to resonate, and offer different ways of thinking about contemporary political and religious events and experience.


David J. Halperin’s Sabbatai Zevi: Testimonies to a Fallen Messiah offers a vivid and unparalleled view of Zevi’s history, and its reception through the Jewish world. He also has an informative article and translations of two contemporary accounts of Zevi available online. An older biography by Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi: the mystical Messiah, 1626-1675 (Princeton, 1973) remains useful.

You can read press releases about Oreet Ashery’s Sabbatai Zevi project here and here.

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