A Great Jewish Historian Tells the Story of an Unusual Hasidic Rabbi

March 4 2019

Meir Balaban (1877-1942) was part of the founding generation of Polish Jewish historians. During the 1920s, he contributed regularly to both Polish- and Yiddish-language Jewish newspapers. In the column excerpted here, first published on February 6, 1931 and recently translated by Avinaom Stillman, Balaban describes Rabbi Berishl Ba’al T’shuvah (Ber the Penitent), a well-known figure of the Krakow Jewish quarter who devoted his life to study and charitable works, and was treated as a ḥasidic rebbe by many locals. Ber was born in Hunsdorf, Austria-Hungary (now Huncove, Slovakia) in an area populated by the Gorals (“mountaineers” or “highlanders”), an ethnic group speaking a dialect of Polish who inhabited the mountainous region at the juncture of Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic:

In Hunsdorf live only Gorals, and the Jews who live there have also become, with time, slightly like Gorals. Once, many years ago, a Jew named Ber Hartzblut settled there and [founded] a Jewish settlement that grew and became entangled in a Goral village. The Jews kept themselves busy by working in the fields, cutting trees in the forest, and taking beams to the sawmill. They used to dress just like the Gorals, had their own “elders,” and lived well together with their Gentile neighbors. . . . To one of these elders of the Jewish Gorals, Akiva Hartsblut, (a grandson of Ber Hartsblut), was born a twelfth son, Berishl. . . .

Akiva didn’t want his son to fall away entirely from his Jewish roots. He chose to send him to . . . the Hungarian village of Tertse [modern-day Tarcal]. There, the wild, uncontrollable mountain peasant was sent to study Judaism with a teacher. . . . The village-boy Berishl had a very good head. He quickly made a name for himself with his aptitude for learning. One of the Neolog [the Hungarian equivalent of Reform] Jews noticed him and began to claim that he should become a Neolog and start studying [at one of the denomination’s seminaries]. The boy, who at that time was already drawn to knowledge, allowed himself to be convinced by that Jew. On one fine sunny day he ran away from Tertse to Budapest, where he began to study at the expense of the Neolog community there.

After two years he graduated and became a student of philosophy in Budapest University. But then, by chance, he was walking [down one of the Jewish quarter’s main streets and] heard a very beautiful voice emerging from a house. The student went into that house. There he encountered a rebbe, sitting with Ḥasidim, the likes of whom he had never yet seen. The hearty voice he heard was actually the voice of the rebbe Hertzka Ratzferter, a student of the rebbe of Tsanz, Ḥayyim Halberstam.

Ratzferter had set as his goal to turn the coarse Hungarian Jews toward the good. He used to travel all around Hungary, and everywhere he preached ethics [musar] to the Jews. [Berishl] heard just such an ethical sermon from Hertzka, and the rebuke had an effect. He decided never to leave the rebbe.

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More about: baalei teshuvah, Hasidism, History & Ideas, Polish Jewry

Despite What the UN Says, the Violence at the Gaza Border Is Military, Not Civilian, in Nature

March 22 2019

On Monday, a UN Human Rights Council commission of inquiry issued its final report on last spring’s disturbances at the Gaza border. Geoffrey Corn and Peter Margulies explain why the report is fatally flawed:

The commission framed the events [in Gaza] as a series of demonstrations that were “civilian in nature.” Israel and its Supreme Court, [which has investigated some of the killings that occurred], framed the same events quite differently: as a new evolution in Israel’s ongoing armed conflict with the terrorist organization Hamas. Consistency and common sense suggest that the Israeli High Court of Justice’s framing is a more rational explanation of what occurred at the Israel-Gaza border in spring 2018.

Kites, [for instance], played a telltale role [in the violence]. When most people think of kites, they think of a child’s plaything or a hobbyist’s harmless passion. In the Gaza confrontation, kites [became] a new and effective, albeit low-tech, tactic for attacking Israel. As the report conceded, senior Gaza leaders, including from Hamas, “encouraged” the unleashing of waves of incendiary kites that during and since the spring 2018 confrontations have burned thousands of acres of arable land within Israel. The resulting destruction included fires that damaged the Kerem Shalom border crossing, which conveys goods and gasoline from Israel to Gaza. . . .

Moreover, the incendiary-kite offensive was an effective diversion from the efforts encouraged and coordinated by Hamas last spring to pierce the border with Israel and attack both IDF personnel and the civilian residents of the beleaguered Israeli towns a short distance from the border fence. . . .

The commission also failed to acknowledge that Hamas sought to use civilians as an operational cover to move members of its armed wing into position along the fence. For IDF commanders, this increased the importance of preventing a breach [in the fence]. Large crowds directly along the fence would simplify breakthrough attempts by intermingled Hamas and other belligerent operatives. The crowds themselves also could attempt to pour through any breach. Unfortunately, the commission seems to have completely omitted any credible assessment of the potential casualties on all sides that would have resulted from IDF action to seal a breach once it was achieved. . . .

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More about: Gaza Strip, Hamas, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Laws of war, UNHRC, United Nations