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.

Read more at In geveb

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

When It Comes to Peace with Israel, Many Saudis Have Religious Concerns

Sept. 22 2023

While roughly a third of Saudis are willing to cooperate with the Jewish state in matters of technology and commerce, far fewer are willing to allow Israeli teams to compete within the kingdom—let alone support diplomatic normalization. These are just a few results of a recent, detailed, and professional opinion survey—a rarity in Saudi Arabia—that has much bearing on current negotiations involving Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh. David Pollock notes some others:

When asked about possible factors “in considering whether or not Saudi Arabia should establish official relations with Israel,” the Saudi public opts first for an Islamic—rather than a specifically Saudi—agenda: almost half (46 percent) say it would be “important” to obtain “new Israeli guarantees of Muslim rights at al-Aqsa Mosque and al-Haram al-Sharif [i.e., the Temple Mount] in Jerusalem.” Prioritizing this issue is significantly more popular than any other option offered. . . .

This popular focus on religion is in line with responses to other controversial questions in the survey. Exactly the same percentage, for example, feel “strongly” that “our country should cut off all relations with any other country where anybody hurts the Quran.”

By comparison, Palestinian aspirations come in second place in Saudi popular perceptions of a deal with Israel. Thirty-six percent of the Saudi public say it would be “important” to obtain “new steps toward political rights and better economic opportunities for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” Far behind these drivers in popular attitudes, surprisingly, are hypothetical American contributions to a Saudi-Israel deal—even though these have reportedly been under heavy discussion at the official level in recent months.

Therefore, based on this analysis of these new survey findings, all three governments involved in a possible trilateral U.S.-Saudi-Israel deal would be well advised to pay at least as much attention to its religious dimension as to its political, security, and economic ones.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Islam, Israel-Arab relations, Saudi Arabia, Temple Mount