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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Read more at In geveb

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

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy