The Story of Eastern Europe’s Most Famous Convert to Judaism May Not Be a Myth

July 26 2022

In the Great Synagogue of Vilna before World War II, on the second day of the holiday of Shavuot, the congregation would recite a prayer in honor of Count Walentyn Potocki, a nobleman who, according to local legend, had converted to Judaism and was burned at the stake in punishment on that day in 1749. The count’s gravesite—destroyed with the rest of the cemetery by the Soviets—was frequently visited by the pious on the fast of the Ninth of Av. But the lack of corroborating contemporary documents has led scholars to cast doubts on the tale, and the website of Vilnius’s official Jewish community, following Wikipedia, dubs it a “myth.” Yosef Vilner argues that skeptics shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it:

As we read the [Wikipedia] article, we are informed that: . . . “the Polish historian Janusz Tazbir asserted that the story originated at the turn of the 19th century and was published in a Jewish periodical issued in London as The Jewish Expositor and Friend of Israel (vol. 8, 1822).” [But] The Jewish Expositor and Friend of Israel was a monthly periodical published by the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews, by no means a “Jewish periodical.”

The abovementioned volume contains “Extracts from the Journal of Mr. Wolff,” who was a Jewish convert to Christianity. . . . In the spring of 1822, he met with Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, one of the leading rabbis in Jerusalem at the time. A neophyte Christian and a fervent missionary, Joseph Wolff initiated theological discussions with Rabbi Menachem Mendl in a disguised attempt to convert him to Christianity. Rabbi Rabbi Menachem Mendl, on the other hand, intended to bring Joseph Wolff back to the faith of his forefathers.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel, who was one of the outstanding disciples of the Vina Gaon, [i.e., the famed talmudist Elijah Kramer], immigrated to Eretz Israel in 1808 and settled in Jerusalem in 1816. . . . There is little doubt that he heard the story [of Potocki] from rabbis of Vilna who were contemporaries to the trial and the execution in 1749.

As to Tazbir’s claim that executions on religious grounds were rare, Vilner notes that

in the span of a five-year period from 1748 to 1753, another two such executions occurred in Poland. Abram Michelevich, a Jew from Mohilev, and his Christian partner, Paraska Danilowna, were executed in Mohilev in 1748, Abraham for proselytizing and Paraska for apostasy. And on June 2, 1753, Rafal Sentimani was burned alive for having converted from Catholicism to Judaism on the outskirts of Vilna.

Read more at Seforim

More about: Conversion, Jewish folklore, Jewish history, Polish Jewry, Vilna

Israel’s Covert War on Iran’s Nuclear Program Is Impressive. But Is It Successful?

Sept. 26 2023

The Mossad’s heist of a vast Iranian nuclear archive in 2018 provided abundant evidence that Tehran was not adhering to its commitments; it also provided an enormous amount of actionable intelligence. Two years later, Israel responded to international inspectors’ condemnation of the Islamic Republic’s violations by using this intelligence to launch a spectacular campaign of sabotage—a campaign that is the subject of Target Tehran, by Yonah Jeremy Bob and Ilan Evyatar. David Adesnik writes:

The question that remains open at the conclusion of Target Tehran is whether the Mossad’s tactical wizardry adds up to strategic success in the shadow war with Iran. The authors give a very respectful hearing to skeptics—such as the former Mossad director Tamir Pardo—who believe the country should have embraced the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Bob and Evyatar reject that position, arguing that covert action has proven itself the best way to slow down the nuclear program. They acknowledge, however, that the clerical regime remains fully determined to reach the nuclear threshold. “The Mossad’s secret war, in other words, is not over. Indeed, it may never end,” they write.

Which brings us back to Joe Biden. The clerical regime was headed over a financial cliff when Biden took office, thanks to the reimposition of sanctions after Washington withdrew from the nuclear deal. The billions flowing into Iran on Biden’s watch have made it that much easier for the regime to rebuild whatever Mossad destroys in addition to weathering nationwide protests on behalf of women, life, and freedom. Until Washington and Jerusalem get on the same page—and stay there—Tehran’s nuclear ambitions will remain an affordable luxury for a dictatorship at war with its citizens.

Read more at Dispatch

More about: Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, Mossad, U.S. Foreign policy