Monthly Archives: January 2011

Is this Beit Midrash on a Razors Edge or in a Tower: Danny Landes in Tikkun

As a 25th anniversary special, Tikkun magazine asked several people about tikkun today. One of them Rabbi Danny Landes who was in the very first issue of Tikkun writing on halakhic tikkun. Landes is an advocate of an egalitarian non-denominational beit midrash. Now, 25 years later he views his approach as a corrective for Orthodoxy that “drives the Orthodox sane.” He wants the classic beit midrash to be saved “from systemic parochialism, chosen irrelevancy, and sought-after faux elitism.” Yet, the same beit midrash must avoid liberal thinking that would severe it from the tradition.

But is that true? Is an open beit midrash really just on a narrow ridge? It is severed from the Orthodox world of pesak and politics, and it is severed from the thinking of bestsellers such as Radical Judaism. Can one be non-denominational in Tikkun and quite denominational in Jewish Review of Books? Does this non-denominationalism have a location outside their walls?

Is it an escape from the outside real-world Orthodoxy without changing the outside world? Is it Jewish Week Orthodoxy? If it has no egalitarian minyan then is it non-denominational ? If you claim you are the real and the truth but don’t go outside does it do a tikkun?

Landes describes the process of learning as the exciting dynamic world of Chevruta study but doesn’t that approach fade as one spends years engaged in Talmud study. Landes describes how “the discussions get dizzier as firm ground vanishes, and funnier as study partners turn cartwheels in the air the closer their chavrutah comes to getting it.” But people trying to deal with contemporary issues memorize commentaries instead of doing argumentative cartwheels in thin air. Rather, they do CD-Rom searches of responsa. His vision of the hard-one argument is compelling if compared to “unapproachable and definitionally unassailable shmoos” but aren’t the Pardes videos commenting on world politics just that?

So where is “this tikkun of the Jews, of the world, of our sacred Torah?” If “It’s a far cry from an ex cathedra shtender (lectern)” does it actually engage to perform a tikkun for the imagined demagogue?

No real criticism here. Just some first thoughts and reactions.

Passionate Midrash by Daniel Landes
My tikkun practice is the care and feeding of, and participation in, an ever-changing yet eternal organism — the Pardes Beit Midrash. This noisy study hall for a diverse crowd of intense, wisecracking, basically brilliant Torah students is a threefold tikkun: it’s a traditional form that transforms students, allowing the secular to access the Tradition; the Reform to become literate; the Conservative, passionate; and the Neo-Hasidic to gain textual traction; and it drives the Orthodox sane. Yes, we drive them sane. Second, the Pardes Beit Midrash is transformational in that its participants quickly shed this silly, slimy lizard skin of denominationalism, being too busy learning to fill the time proclaiming. Finally, it transforms the classic Beit Midrash, saving it from systemic parochialism, chosen irrelevancy, and sought-after faux elitism.

At its center are text and method. Text is Torah, especially the hard stuff: commentaries, Mishnah, Talmud, and Codes — untranslated and uncensored. The method is straight-on attack in chavrutah (learning in pairs), utilizing classic and new-fangled approaches. Two to three students sweat the small stuff in the context of others doing the same, until peshat, the illusive “plain” meaning, is nailed. Easier said. Given the multilayered dynamics, a text within a text with infinite regress/progress, a variety of moral issues which are taken seriously, and the chavrutah relations, the discussions get dizzier as firm ground vanishes, and funnier as study partners turn cartwheels in the air the closer their chavrutah comes to getting it. Interesting things happen. One makes the argument presented in the text, offering a logical explanation. Soon white-hot heat is generated as the resistant chavrutah turns from pleasing partner into implacable foe, as he or she breaks the argument — it’s wrong; nonsensical! Then, suddenly, mid-fight you discover that your chavrutah is actually correct; indeed, as you explain: more right than they know! And you prove it triumphantly! Inevitably the startled partner silently rethinks, turns around and rejects his own line of argument and argues ferociously for your first line of reasoning. The Great Switcheroo has been effected. Sides swap, positions permeate each other, and students and teachers switch roles. The discussion moves magically from peshat to meaning. And this volatile meaning — subject to dialectical ascents to the heights and perilous drops into the abyss — is hard-won and enlightening. It’s a far cry from an ex cathedra shtender (lectern) delivered from unapproachable and definitionally unassailable shmoos or from a clever “I had a thought” derived really not at all from any verse or source as ironically delivered in a Shabbat minyan.
No, it’s hard-won, and I see it happen around me, every day. And then, once again, as a witness I believe that it’s not a slogan: this tikkun of the Jews, of the world, of our sacred Torah, is possible and actually present.

Rabbi Daniel Landes is Rosh HaYeshiva of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He wrote on Halakhic Tikkun in Tikkun magazine’s inaugural issue.

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Miscellaneous

1] The Chabad rabbi who does medical ethics wrote to me and will give me more information next week. There will be some more posts on palliative care.

2] Many people have been sending me various interesting links and information. Thank you and please continue to do it. However, since I receive so much information from diverse sources, please tell me why you think this is interesting or important. Give me an angle to approach it. Pitch me a story and give a good lede. Write an introductory paragraph.

3] If you are entering a conversation with me then give me an email or contact info to make my life easier. If you are already quoting a discussion that occurred at the closed Orthodox Forum, and you have an IP address that exactly points to your current pulpit, then you long ago lost your anonymity.

4] I am still getting a steady flow of readers to the half shabbos posts.

5] To continue the discussion of Rawls and the creation of a fair Judaism that does not deny the humanity of others, I will do some posts on Richard B. Miller, Terror, Religion, and Liberal Thought (Columbia UP 2010). So AS and EJ you can have a chance to read it before I post.

6]I will be reviewing for a newspaper Jewish Mysticism and the Spiritual Life edited by by Lawrence Fine and Eitan Fishbane and or N. Rose, so if anyone has any good insights, then please let me know.

Palliative Care Conversation

I recently met an Orthodox palliative care nurse working on the West Coast who discussed the implications of her work.

She discussed how various stages 4-5 cancers are already about choosing a good death rather than the power of doctors to keep one alive. Does one want to die from a narcotic shot after having lots of tubes inserted or does one want a non-invasive death? (We already discussed some of these issues here.)

She claimed that 20% 25% of all cases would not get into a brain stem death or heart death situation if there was more palliative care. On the other hand, she said that the organs of those who die from aggressive cancers are never used for organ transplants, they always inform those who do transplants of the deaths and they are never chosen. (These are her statistics; I cannot verify them. I am neither doctor nor medical ethicist).

She mentioned that Orthodox Jews are the biggest believers in the medical model that things can always be solved even when it is empirical that a stage 5 cancer cannot be helped. And that the Rabbis are playing doctor rather than chaplain.

I was surprised when she discussed a Chabad seminar in medical ethics that she attended and she said it was great. It was given by a Chabad rabbi who is in the forefront of knowledge of palliative care. The rabbi discussed palliative care cancer patients as terefah and had a real empirical based category of goses. She compared this with the NY orthodox rabbis who have a 1965 image of medicine based on Dr Kildare who can solve everything. (For those too young to remember, Dr Kildare was a TV show in which the doctor always knew best and more medical treatments were always good things.) Now we live in a world where people tell the joke “why do they seal the coffin? To stop the doctors from continuing to administer the profitable chemotherapy.”

The nurse compared the lack of knowledge of the Yeshivish and Centrist rabbis to this Chabad rabbi. She did not remember his name and I could not find it online in any combination of the words Chabad, medical, rabbi, seminar. I do want to know who it is and if Chabad is developing their own medical ethics. I had never heard that Chabad was getting into original medical ethics. If anyone knows, then let me know. She found this Chabad rabbi relevant with real categories of terefah and goses, which acknowledge that we all die.

She compared this with the local rabbis who when consulted on end life care insist on painful procedures that bring no benefit. She told a story of an Orthodox woman who said “her husband was good so he cannot die. He did everything right he cannot die.” When I asked her how does she explain it, at first she would not answer the question and then only answered it with my repeat of the question. She said that the Orthodox (in this case referring to a Engaged Yeshivish or Centrist Orthodoxy) are more irrational than other patients. They have a complete dependence on a certain life, and the woman with the dying husband was dependent on husband. No contingency, no sense of end of life.

Finally, she noted the increasing convergence with Catholics positions, for example that food and hydration is necessary. And both need more actual knowledge of the end process of each specific disease or end life situation. (See my prior post here on the convergence).

Philo-palin, Hillel Halkin and the phrase Blood Libel

In last weeks’ Forward, Hillel Halkin attributes the phrase “blood libel” to the influence of the Encyclopedia Judiaca (1971). Originally I thought that his column supported one of my prior posts, which showed that the spelling of the word Kabbalah was based on the influence of the EJ.

In order make a decent blog post, I checked Google Ngram and discovered that the change of terminology was 1966-1970. Halkin was wrong again and was more concerned with his political agenda to show the influence of Jabotinsky and Israel than any love of words. With even more wonderful Google technology, I turned to Google Books and found that the books that changed from blood accusation to blood libel were all American volumes. This list included the new volume of Salo Baron, the translation of Dubnov, Dan Ben–Amotz, In Praise of the Baal Shen Tov, Joseph Blau of Columbia’s Varieties of Modern Judaism, the translation of Zinberg, as well as Midstream and Tradition. It is time for a more philological approach to the study of Jewish words.

Here is Halkin’s genealogy:

Although the blood libel itself — that is, the accusation that Jews murdered Christians and used their blood for ritual purposes, especially for the baking of Passover matzos — is an old one going back at least to the Middle Ages, “blood libel” as an English expression is quite recent. The 1905 Jewish Encyclopedia covered the subject under “Blood Accusation”; and in Volume IV of his monumental “Social and Religious History of the Jews,” published in 1957, renowned historian Salo Baron wrote, too, of “the fateful popular invention which was permanently to envenom the relations between Jews and Christians in many lands: the so-called ‘blood accusation.’” In the pages that followed, Baron did not once use the term “blood libel.” The Catholic scholar Edward Flannery, for his part, in his 1965 history of anti-Semitism, “The Anguish of the Jews,” referred to “the ritual murder libel,” also calling it “the ritual murder charge” and “the ritual murder calumny.” “Blood libel” is nowhere to be found in Flannery’s book, either.

The 1971 Encyclopedia Judaica, on the other hand, has a lengthy entry under “Blood Libel,” written by the Hebrew University professor of Jewish history Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson. It would appear, in fact, to have been this article that introduced the term in English, into which it was translated from the Hebrew expression alilat dam, dam meaning “blood” and alila “libel” or “slander.” Traceable to the 17th-century Egyptian-Jewish chronicler Yosef ben Yitzhak Sambari, who first used it in his history of medieval Jewry, “Sefer Divrei Yosef,” alilat dam has been for hundreds of years the standard Hebrew way of saying “blood accusation” or “ritual murder charge.” Presumably, the editors of the Encyclopedia Judaica preferred it in English because a libel is by definition false whereas an accusation or charge may be true, and presumably, too, this was the reason that “blood libel” quickly caught on among historians writing in English and soon displaced its rivals completely.

And here is the Ngram showing that by 1971 the majority of the shift had occurred already.

Daniel Landes responds to Arthur Green’s response.

Arthur Green responded to Daniel Landes’ review of his book in the Jewish Review of Books- see here. Now, Landes responds to the response. Unfortunately, Landes still ponders if Green rhetoric is unsophisticated. But to Landes’ credit, he apologizes associating sexual scandal with Renewal Judaism and using that to tarnish Green by association. And Landes calls himself committed to pluralism, I guess not to alienate his Pardes consistency, but it is not the pluralism of which Green speaks. For my own take on Green, I unfortunately spread it out over five posts so few piece them together. Here are three of them- here, here, and here.

Daniel Landes Responds:

According to Arthur Green, “the story of evolution, including the ongoing evolution of humanity, is bigger than all the distinctions between religions and their myths.” But he struggles to find meaning within this cold process. In Radical Judaism, he writes:

If we could learn to view our biohistory this way, the incredible grandeur of the evolutionary journey would immediately unfold before us. We Jews revere the memory of one Nahshon ben Aminadav, the first person to step into the Sea of Reeds . . . What courage! But what about the courage of the first creature ever to emerge from sea onto dry land? Do we appreciate the magnificence of that moment?

Let’s set aside the question of whether this is a sophisticated way to think about evolutionary history (it isn’t), and note how quick Green is to personify nature. Perhaps it is because his God (like Mordecai Kaplan’s) has been divested of all personality.

Green asks rhetorically whether I would accept the God of Maimonides’ Guide or of the Zohar. They are, of course, two radically different conceptions, but both assert a divine transcendence that Green flatly denies and grapple with the problem of divine-human interaction. I understand Green’s fascination with Rav Kook, a true panentheist, but underlying Rav Kook’s theology is the shimmering energy of the All-existing within God. As the ground of being, God validates and uplifts nature. Kook’s God is neither dead nor asleep: He is free to plunge into life and history.

In short, Green is right to point out that the tradition of Jewish thinking about God has a history, but, as he acknowledges, he has given up playing by the “old theological rules” of this tradition. Why, then, all the righteous indignation when a reviewer points out that this is precisely what he is doing? His disdain is also hard to understand. The relational God of Israel is, after all, the one affirmed by his teacher Abraham J. Heschel as well as by Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, author of the Sefat Emet and another key figure for Green. As for the fish, all I can say is that, given Green’s neo-Hasidism, I hope that at least it was a herring or nice sable.

Green writes that the “high point of his annoyance” with me is in my contention that he presents a theology that has no doctrine of ahavat Yisrael, and then goes on to assert that he loves Jews and supports the State of Israel. I never asked for a loyalty oath or doubted Green’s love of his fellow Jew. But neither of these adds up to a doctrine. In his book it would appear that he would replace simple Jews—if they have the wrong politics or a backward spirituality—with a member of Green’s “extended faith community” (“my Israel”) who is not Jewish but who shares his journey. My point was that ahavat Yisrael is about empirical (one might almost say carnal) Jews, an actual living community. But ahavat Yisrael also cuts both ways. Tradition leads me to maintain—as difficult as it might be to fathom from these exchanges—that Green and I are inextricably bound to (and stuck with) each other.

When I invited Green to lecture here at Pardes, the discussion in our beit midrash was frank and vigorous, but there was nothing that smacked of censure. Similarly, in my review, I argued that he was deeply, theologically wrong, but Green’s letter notwithstanding I did not call him a heretic (a word I don’t use). Pluralism does not preclude criticism.

Finally, I owe Green an apology. He is, of course, right that the Renewal movement is not the only one that has been beset by sexual scandal, and I did not mean to suggest otherwise. I hope that the Orthodox world has at least begun to learn that denial serves no one well, and that the “high walls of halakha” are sometimes breached by those who ought to maintain them. I suggest that the Renewal movement might learn, nonetheless, of the indispensability of law in curbing human temptation.

Ramhal as expressing 18th century Enlightenment values

Yoni Garb has a article attempting to contextualize Ramhal in 18th century Italian Enlightenment and Garb wants to use the writings of his students such as Valle whose works were recently published. “R. Joseph Spinner, a senior kabbalist working at a Jerusalem yeshiva, has published twenty-five meticulous editions of Valle’s works.”
Garb focuses on the tikkunim with Valle commentary. He presents Ramhal’s prophetic vision that we need new tikkunim for our new era that focus on the shekhinah and the three lower worlds.

Garb culls out the use of the words effort, human work, politico as reflecting 18th century values. Valle comes across as strongly anti-Christian but fascinated with Christianity. [As a side point by the site owner, there is a Kabbalah Centre lecturer who presents Valle as teaching that Jesus brought Kabbalah for the gentiles!!!]

The article itself says it does not have the time to show the similarity to labor and power in 18th century thought, so I am left with a sense of “show me” with evidence and do not just tell to trust you. He uses some of the same data in another article to create an affinity to Vico. In addition, labor and work as performed by the magical powers of smoking a cigarette does not have enlightenment overtones of productivity. How the attendance at medical school by angelic mandate combines with magical practice is the Enlightenment concept of work needs to be culturally described as to where it fits into the eighteenth century, especially since Garb rejects considering Valle as counter-Enlightenment.

The Circle of Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto in Its Eighteenth-Century Context Eighteenth-Century Studies, vol. 44, no. 2 (2011) Pp. 189–202.

One of the goals of this essay is to deepen further our appreciation of the role of the circle, especially the part played by Luzzatto’s close associate, R. Moshe David Valle (1696–1777).Valle was the subject of some preliminary studies by Scholem’s student Isaiah Tishby, whose writings on Luzzatto and his circle recently have been issued in a revised English edition. However, Tishby’s work on Valle was limited by his exclusive focus on the issue of messianism (On Tishby’s approach see the prior posts.)

The other— admittedly more speculative, yet methodologically essential—is to consider the influence of general eighteenth-century culture, especially that of the Italian Enlightenment or Illuminismo, a term which parallels the Illuminatio mentioned explicitly and approvingly in Valle’s Italian book.10 I shall follow the latter course here by demonstrating the importance of two of the keywords of the century and of modernity in general—“labor” and “power”—in the writings of both Luzzatto and Valle.

In the space of one month in 1729, Luzzatto composed a work in Zoharic Aramaic that he described variously as “Seventy Rectifications” [Shiv‘im Tiqqunim] or “New Rectifications” [Tiqqunim Hadashim], comprising seventy alternative interpretations of the last verse of Deuteronomy (and thus of the Pentateuch). According to Luzzatto’s perception, this work was inspired, or even dictated, by the powers revealed to him following his famous formative mystical experience in 1727, including the spirits of Abraham, Moses, and Elijah.

The seventy tiqqunim are a central theme for the messianic project of Luzzatto’s circle. The fourteenth-century classic, Tiqqunei Ha-Zohar, whose style Luzzatto consciously imitated, offers seventy commentaries on the first verse of the Torah, while both Luzzatto and Valle, in a parallel work, commented on the last verse of the Torah: “And for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.” In the theurgical hermeneutics of the circle, the very act of commentary on a sacred text supports the rectification of the supernal worlds and the concomitant advancement of the messianic process. Thus, while the multiple medieval commentaries on the biblical verses emended the higher reaches of the divine world of emanation [’atzilut], those composed in the circle were intended to complete the process of rectification by building the lowest of the divine Sefirot or emanations, the attribute of kingdom (also known as the feminine Shekhina).

A second goal was to further draw down the influx of this attribute into the three lower, nondivine worlds of the Kabbalistic cosmos. This second goal reflects the general translation of the Kabbalistic myth into this-worldly terms, which are primarily political, as indicated by the focus on the attribute of kingdom. As Luzzatto put it in a letter to his erstwhile teacher, R. Isaiah Bassan, explaining the rationale of the composition of his second set of tiqqunim: “a great place was left to me [by the famous sixteenth-century master R. Yitzhaq Luria], the matter of the connection of the worlds and the way of the leadership [hanhaga], and its revelation from the [divine world of] emanation to the material worlds.”

As he radically states elsewhere, the merit of the forefathers no longer holds in the Exile, and thus they are “sleeping.” The new rectification shall be performed instead by the two Messiahs and by Moses,

Labor, then, is the path to redemption, and as we read in another of Valle’s biblical commentaries, the nature of redemption is a transformation of labor. His interpretation of the Exodus, as brought about through the power of Moses, is that the Jews became a nation through the transition from the “difficult and bitter” human labor to the “good and sweet” divine labor. This opposition of the human and the divine realms should be compared to a highly important passage in Valle’s commentary on Psalms, in which he contrasts the false counsels of human politics (using the Italian word politica) to the divine origin of the counsel of the Torah, as taken by David, the model king (and, like Moses, a personal model for Moshe David Valle). The preoccupation with the building of the Shekhina through the power and labor of the two Messiahs and Moses is indeed the identifying theme of Valle’s writing in the period of his work with Luzzatto’s circle, which ended with the latter’s 1735 departure from Italy in the wake of the controversy.

Valle ascribes the need for effort in study to the spiritual warfare against the “husk,” or evil power, of the biblical nation of Amalek, which was empowered by the “coming of the Christian [netzer]” (punning ‘amal [effort] and Amalek).

Valle clearly ascribes the need for extensive labor to his own period, or “later generations,” which for him are the “footsteps of the Messiah” alluded to in the Talmud. In one striking passage, he relates this development to the increase in tobacco smoking. Valle regarded smoking, at least for himself as arch-“sifter,”as a tool for empowerment in the labor of contemplation and warfare with the powers of evil, as well as for sifting sparks of holiness in a more literal sense.

One should note that this view of the commandments and their dependence on Adam’s sin has a slightly antinomian or Pauline flavor, which could possibly be ascribed to a perhaps unconscious Christian influence.

Although I cannot elaborate on this theme within the present study, the issues of labor and power are as closely related in the general thought of the period as they are in the discourse of Luzzatto’s circle. Here one may appeal to two central authorities on modern intellectual history: Peter Gay regards “power” as one of two words which sum up Enlightenment thought; while Michel Foucault, albeit discussing a later century, writes that the “binding of man to labor” should be rightly regarded as political, rather than merely economic—“a linkage brought about by power.” In the case of eighteenth-century Italy, one should note the centrality and interplay of these themes in the writings of Giambattista Vico, Luzzatto’s contemporary and the best-known early modern Italian political thinker.
(The similarities between Luzzatto and Vico are discussed in Jonathan Garb, “The Political Model in Modern Kabbalah: A Study of Ramhal and His Intellectual Surroundings,” Avi Be‘Ezri, ed. B. Brown, M. Lorberbaum, Y. Stern and A. Rosenak (Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center and Israel Democracy Institute, forthcoming) [Hebrew])

Based on an angelic revelation, he sanctioned his favored student R. Yekutiel Gordon’s pursuit of a medical degree at the University of Padua. Valle’s own medical degree earned him the appellation “the physician” in the correspondence of the circle, and medical and anatomical issues indeed feature prominently in the first volume of his compilations. As two leading writers on the Enlightenment, Foucault and Gay, claimed in very different ways, medicine can be seen as a model for Enlightenment philosophy.

Obviously, openness to the non-Jewish world, even at a time of relatively benevolent treatment, does not imply a positive attitude toward that world. One of Valle’s early works is an anti-Christian polemic in the vernacular; its explicit references to the Christian faith, as well as some of his stronger critiques, are rendered in Hebrew in order to bypass censorship. Alongside this critique, however, Valle’s writings display remarkable interest in the details of Christian practice. Italy, one may say, occupies a unique place in the cultural history of modern Kabbalah.

The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer reprinted

People tend to imagine Eastern European Hasidism as existing as some circle of modern new age spiirtualists sitting around discussing Kabbalah. A few years ago, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern wrote an excellent article arguing for a greater sense of history, folklore, and ordinary people in the study of Hasidism; he sharply argued that the star-struck study of Hasidism does not spend enough time in the study of earthly Hasidism.

Turning to Polish Hasidism, in the era of Kotzk, Izbica, and Gur, those who are not historians can gain a sense of the era by reading the newly-reissued The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer. Poland modernized with trains and factories between 1840-1860, and then was subject to Russian taxation after 1860. The Jews were almost all immigrants from other regions, litvaks, galitzianers, daitchers and entering the new era of productivity. Over time Jews settled in the suburbs of larger cities, Kotzk, Tomoshav, Alexsander, Gur. Singer presents older Hasidim as cruel factory owners who went to Hasidic courts, the younger Hasidic generation as raised in the seemliness of modern urban life-gambling, brothels, and fighting. And then the 20th century generation leaving Hasidism. Singer was no longer religious but was stuck in that felt that neither secularism or Hasidism had solutions. If one can see beyond Singer’s pro-labor bias and know that he is no longer Hasidic, then one gets a window into the later part of the era not available elsewhere. He preserves many details of ordinary life even if his plot development is biased.

The book has a new introduction by ex-orthodox secularist Rebecca Goldstein, who notes the gender gap, the avarice, the regional differences and the fatalism.- available here and here.

The conquest of Dinele, who becomes Diana as her husband becomes Max, partly explains the rivalry of the brothers. Dinele had hoped that the arranged marriage forced upon her by her wealthy Hasidic parents would yield her the romantic figure of Jacob Bunem as a husband rather than his obnoxious brother. Like many Polish girls, even from Hasidic households, Dinele had been sent to study at a secular Gymnasium, where she had been a great favorite of her Gentile friends, and she finds the ways of the Hasidic men, even her own father and brothers, boorish, degrading, and alarming. (I remember my own father telling me how this rift in the sensibilities of Jewish girls and boys, brought about by their very different educations, was creating societal difficulties in the Poland he had grown up in, the worldly girls turning up their noses at the relatively uncouth yeshiva boys their fathers chose for them. Ironically, it was precisely because, as girls, their education mattered so little that the comparatively affluent among them were shunted off to Gymnasia, the smattering of kultur meant to make them more marriageable.)

Both Lodz, the manufacturing and commercial center of Poland, and Simha Meir, its would-be king, present a face of capitalism so disfigured by cunning, greed, and ruthlessness that the reader has no trouble imagining the author as a young man running off to Russia to witness the glories of Bolshevism for himself. Even Simha Meir’s father-in-law, Haim Alter, a warm if weak man, an ardent Hasid who hires only Jewish workers in his factory, is, as an owner, an unrepentent exploiter. He claps his soft hands to the Hasidic tunes that his weavers sing as they work, but he pays them so little that the candles he makes them pay for out of pocket as they work their intolerably long hours represent a major drain on their resources. If anything, Haim Alter emerges as even more despicable than Simha Meir, owing to the smarmy pieties with which he coats his avarice. These are capitalists as an ardent communist might render them—portraits rendered in vitriol.

In one brief passage, a little masterpiece of the twisty tergiversations of self-deception, Nissan comes close to rethinking his politics. A demonstration planned for May Day has gone disastrously wrong. The workers, drunk and dangerous, quickly transition from humiliating a hated factory overseer to targeting specifically Jewish factory owners, and from there to beating up random Jews, who are fellow workers, their comrades by class. What was meant to be a demonstration of proletarian solidarity turns into a full-fledged pogrom—heads bashed, women violated, with the Polish authorities cynically waiting it out until the rage is spent. Stunned by grief and guilt at having aroused passions whose outcome he had not foreseen, Nissan briefly considers whether his presuppositions might be faulty:

Like his pious father, whose faith in the Messiah nullified all contemporary suffering, Nissan reaffirmed his faith in the validity of his ideals and pushed aside all negative thought.
If fatalism hangs heavily over all the action of The Brothers Ashkenazi, it hangs particularly heavily over the Jews

I. J. Singer does not exclude Jews from his cynical reading of human nature. In one section of The Brothers Ashkenazi, he mercilessly portrays the Jews of Lodz succumbing to their own instincts for xenophobia, quickly assembling prejudices toward the Muscovite Jews who pour into their city after Czar Alexander III exiles them from their homes. These Moscow refugees are more sophisticated than the Polish Jews, and are dubbed “Litvaks,” meaning those who come from Lithuania, even though they are not from Lithuania. Apparently, in Lodz, “Litvak” is something of an insult. The two groups quickly get to work dredging up enough differences to support their mutual disapproval.

Traditional Lodz Jews were outraged. The elder Litvaks wore short gabardines, derbies, and fedoras. The younger were clean-shaven. They didn’t sway at prayer. They were more like gypsies than Jews. It was rumored that they could cast spells. When a Litvak moved into a house, all those who could afford to moved out. The Lodz men wouldn’t include a Litvak in a quorum. The Lodz women wouldn’t lend a pot to a Litvak neighbor lest she render it impure.

The book was first reviewed in the NYT and The Nation in 1936. Adam Kirsch, who is unfamiliar with the material, still offered at the Tablet these insights such as “Singer’s method in The Brothers Ashkenazi is to drop his protagonists into this bubbling cauldron and document the changes that result.”

In 1936, two novels dominated the New York Times bestseller list. The first was Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, a panoramic, melodramatic historical novel that would shortly become a classic movie and that has never been out of print. The other was The Brothers Ashkenazi, by Israel Joshua Singer, which has never been made into a movie and has gone in and out of print periodically over the years.

The novel’s vantage point on this crisis is the city of Lodz, sometimes called the Manchester of Poland. In the late 19th century, Lodz was transformed from a small village to an international capital of the textile industry—an industry dominated by Jewish manufacturers, merchants, and laborers. Singer captures this reckless, explosive growth in a cinematic sequence in the novel’s first pages: “Seemingly overnight the houses already standing sprouted additional stories, annexes, wings, extensions, ells, attics, and garrets to accommodate the flow of newcomers … like a torrent overflowing its banks, the Jews smashed down all barriers set up to exclude them.” Singer’s method in The Brothers Ashkenazi is to drop his protagonists into this bubbling cauldron and document the changes that result.

The patriarch of the Ashkenazi dynasty, Abraham Hersh, gets rich as the chief salesman for the Gentile-owned manufacturing firm of Huntze. Just as he is an employee of capitalists rather than a capitalist himself, he seems to be in the new Lodz without being of it: He remains a traditional Hasid, spending as much time as possible at the court of his rebbe. He uses his wealth to do mitzvot like buying Passover supplies for the poor and ransoming Jewish prisoners.

Finally, here is the real historical account as read by few readers of Kotzk and Izbitz from Urbanization, Capitalism, and Cosmopolitanism: Four Novels and a Film on Jews in the Polish City of Lódz Delphine Bechtel. Prooftexts. Bloomington: 2006. Vol. 26, Iss. 1/2;

Lódz is a crossroad. The city was under the rule of the Russian Empire. At first, the cotton industry had been introduced there to serve the interests of the Russian market; production, however, was in the hands of Germans, Jews, and a number of Poles. The Jewish merchants mostly came from Russia. Remember the scene in the theater: when people hear that such and such has become bankrupt in Odessa, the breakdown is immediate in Lódz. The cotton itself was coming from Turkmenistan. But slowly, American cotton flooded the market, transiting through Hamburg. The situation of such a city has something fascinating. It is Metropolis, a cosmopolitan Metropolis.”

Urban multiethnicity in Central and Eastern Europe has been a highly distincative feature of this region, although the phenomenon has only been rediscovered by academic researchers in the last two decades. Nonetheless, cities such as Prague, L’viv (Lemberg, Lwów), Chernivitsi (Czernowitz), Bratislava (Pressburg, Pozsony), or Gdaðsk (Danzig) have formed living examples of shared history and crossa cultural fertilization for centuries, though this feature has often gone unnoticed. Nazi ethnic cleansing and genocide, followed by years of officially monoethnic, Communist controlled states behind the Iron Curtain, had seemingly driven their multifarious past existences into oblivion.

Lódz, located 120 km southwest of Warsaw and accurately dubbed “Polish Manchester,” was promoted by tsarist decree in 1820 from an obscure village with 767 inhabitants to a “factory city,” the center of the capitalist textile industry of the Polish Kingdom, soon to serve the vast Russian market. Most towns in east Central Europe developed in the Middle Ages through the combined skills of German craft workers and Jewish merchants, who often formed the core urban population while facing a predominantly Slavic peasantry. But in Lódz, this development was forced upon the city belatedly, in a programmatic and swift way that turned the city into an unquestionable symbol for hasty urbanization, rabid capitalism, and cosmopolitanism. German settlers, including skilled weavers and masters of cotton mills from Saxony or Bohemia, were encouraged to settle there, followed by Polish villagers as well as Jewish artisans and petty merchants. Each of these groups was lured into the “promised land” to provide mass, cheap labor. The town attracted newcomers like a magnet, and grew like a mushroom, on sand, swamp, and peat bog.

This hasty foundation resulted in a gigantic population boom: the total number of inhabitants rose to 314,000 in 1897, and again to 506,100 in 1913. At the same time, the Jewish population rose from 259 in 1820 (representing 33.8 percent of the total) to 92,400 in 1897 (29.4 percent) and 171,900 in 1913 (34 percent).