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

War with Iran Isn’t on the Horizon. So Why All the Arguments against It?

As the U.S. has responded to Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf, various observers in the press have argued that National Security Advisor John Bolton somehow seeks to drag President Trump into a war with Iran against his will. Matthew Continetti points out the absurdities of this argument, and its origins:

Never mind that President Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, and Bolton have not said a single word about a preemptive strike, much less a full-scale war, against Iran. Never mind that the president’s reluctance for overseas intervention is well known. The “anti-war” cries are not about context, and they are certainly not about deterring Iran. Their goal is saving President Obama’s nuclear deal by manipulating Trump into firing Bolton and extending a lifeline to the regime.

It’s a storyline that originated in Iran. Toward the end of April, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif showed up in New York and gave an interview to Reuters where he said, “I don’t think [Trump] wants war,” but “that doesn’t exclude him basically being lured into one” by Bolton. . . . And now this regime talking point is everywhere. “It’s John Bolton’s world. Trump is just living in it,” write two former Obama officials in the Los Angeles Times. “John Bolton is Donald Trump’s war whisperer,” writes Peter Bergen on CNN.com. . . .

Recall Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes’s admission to the New York Times Magazine in 2016 [that] “We created an echo chamber” to attack the Iran deal’s opponents through leaks and tips to the D.C. press. . . . Members of the echo chamber aren’t for attacking Iran, but they are all for slandering its American opponents. The latest target is Bolton. . . .

The Iranians are in a box. U.S. sanctions are crushing the economy, but if they leave the agreement with Europe they will be back to square one. To escape the box you try to punch your way out. That’s why Iran has assumed a threatening posture: provoking an American attack could bolster waning domestic support for the regime and divide the Western alliance.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Javad Zarif, John Bolton, U.S. Foreign policy