Redemption through Judaism: A Shabbat Guest of Frankist Lineage

The Research of Pawel Maciejko’s The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement 1755-1816 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) set out in clear terms in the course of events that created the Frankest movement and sustained it into the nineteenth century. (My blog post on the book here.)

Frankism is a known part of Polish history when a group of Jews converted into Catholicism and entered the lower nobility (szlachta) and gained title and land. They accepted a spirituality that transcends any one religion. Maciejko claims that in the nineteenth century they became a “mutual aid society” lacking much of the original doctrinal elements. From this article, it seems that Jewish conversion to enter the nobility between 1764-1788 also included many non-Frankist Jews and they later intermarried with Frankist families. Conversion into the nobility allowed many wealthy Jews advantages for land ownership, having serfs, and legal securities.

Recently, however, I had a guest for a Shabbat meal who was a descendent of a Frankist family. He has had an Orthodox conversion years ago. This is not a common occurrence, so I asked a few questions. He recounts how his mother spoke often about kabbalah. As a young child, he asked his mother if they were Frankists, telling his mother that he asks because no other Catholic families discuss Kabbalah as their legacy. His mom repeatedly answered No! they were not. When he grew older, one day his mother turned around in the car and said that yes indeed! they were Frankists. My guest, however, notes the family’s gentry name on the aforementioned list of non-Frankist conversions.

My guest remembers that his mother spoke often about kabbalah- but it was actually a midrashic reading of Genesis emphasizing the magical qualities of the Garden of Eden, angels, and the original state of nature. For example, according to midrash fruit trees originally tasted like the fruit they produce. Everything created was originally holy. The most explicit Kabbalistic doctrine was that God had to contract (tzimzum) to make a place for human actions.

In general after the Romantic era, non-Jewish Polish gentry saw themselves in Biblical terms . And in his words: “Almost at every Polish home I know people would talk about the fact that Jewish nation is special and chosen – that comes from romantic vision that Polish nation is the Christ of the nations or like Jewish People because of it’s suffering and unique history.” For examples, think of Henry Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis

However, the telling sign of Jewish lineage in this case was the magical power of the Hebrew Language and greater emphasis on the Old Testament. The mother spoke of the holiness of the Jewish people and the Hebrew language, both extraordinary for a supposed Catholic family. She spoke less in the way of Poles as the chosen Israelites and more about a separate people.

They kept no Jewish ritual, except for some vague acknowledgment of Friday night. She kept a separate pot for warming milk and would not use meat pot but would put butter on meat.

Unlike the typical Polish devotion to the humanity of Christ and the sacred heart, in this family Jesus was portrayed as a religious Jew – practicing and teaching Judaism- and as part of the Rabbis. Jesus taught a doctrine of the need for each of us to rebel against organized religion.

There was a general concern for dreams and spirituality. Adam Mickiewicz, the Polish spiritual author, whom Jews consider to be of Frankist descent, was a family favorite.

The gentry had deep ambivalence and mood swings on the subject of Jews or those of Jewish heritage. My guest said:” In my family they were afraid to be connected with the Jewish People both in religious and in national sense. At this same time there was feeling that something is lost, a sense of disconnection and secrets.” Polish Romanticism with its mixture of facts and fiction, history and sensibility, and the Bible with mysticism had many Jewish elements real and imagined. The Romanticism simultaneously painted Poles in Biblical terms, acknowledged Jewish elements in blood and culture, had a romantic spirituality with “kabbalistic” elements, and also had an exclusion of real Jews. To be of actual Jewish lineage created a surreptitious sense of dislocation.

There was an emphasis on gentry etiquette rules in order to maintain honor and keep separate from the peasants.

During WWII, the Nazis shipped most members of the non-Jewish lower nobility and intellectuals to work camps and most of the older gentry families, along with those of Frankist lineage, were killed in Polish uprising in Warsaw. His grandfather was repeated checked the Nazi to see if he was circumcised, he wasn’t and had paper as gentry.

My guest did not know of any ethnographic studies on late twentieth century Frankists families the way there are studies about the Donmeh. The closest we have is Mateusz Miesus (1938). Polacy–Chrześcijanie pochodzenia żydowskiego, who pointed out as many Catholic Poles of Jewish origins in order to show that Jews are not a separate race.

For those looking for some Frankist tisch Torah,the entire work of over 400 pages translated is available here- Yakov Frank, (1978) Sayings of Yakov Frank. Harris Lenowitz (trans.).
For articles on conversion as a means to enter the gentry and not as the libertine interpretation of Gershom Scholem, see Abraham Duker, “Polish Frankism’s Duration: From Cabbalistic Judaism to Roman Catholicism and from Jewishness to Polishness,” Jewish Social Studies 25 (1963): 288–301; Abraham Duker, “Frankism as a Movement of Polish-Jewish Synthesis,” in Tolerance and Movements of Religious Dissent in Eastern Europe, ed. Béla Király (Boulder, Colo., 1975).

(siteowner- some of the non-historical details have been changed to preserve this person’s privacy.)

Updates:
I received an email about another similar case.
In addition, Pawel Maciejko commented “I know quite a few people from well known Frankist families in Poland. All of them were told by their parents about the FACT that they come from Frankist families. But I have never met anyone in whose family some specifically Frankist tenets or traditions were preserved. In other words, none of them knows anything of Frankism (or of Judaism, for that matter), unless they independently learned about it from academic publications. As for your guest, it is interesting what he says about his mother keeping a separate pot for milk. The late Avraham Duker has some great stuff about descendants of Jewish (not necessarily Frankist) converts in Poland preserving some vestiges of kashrut for dozens or even hundreds of years. Finally, as for the Polish nobility, what you are saying is generally true, but is not linked to Romanticism. Already in the late 16th century you have families of szlachta who trace their genealogies back to King David. You had ennoblements of Jewish converts long before the Frankists and you had Polish noble families acknowledging their link to the Jews.”

8 responses to “Redemption through Judaism: A Shabbat Guest of Frankist Lineage

  1. Once heard that Louis Brandeis had a Frankist yichus.

    Is that true?

    • The Brandeis bio that came out 2 years ago spends some time discussing Brandeis’s Frankist yikhes. The Prague Frankists were a horse of a different color, as they remained culturally Jewish, even wealthy and influential members of hte community. Brandeis was a scion of the Wehle family, well-known Frankists.
      Maciejko has some good (and free) entries on the subject at the YIVO Encyclopedia site.

  2. Now, if only we could find out that Milosz had Jewish ancestors…..

  3. Miłosz didn’t. But there were and are enough great poets and artists of Jewish ancestry in Poland. Incidentally, the most interesting Frankist lineage is that of Chopin

  4. Alan, I know quite a few people from well known Frankist families in Poland. All of them were told by their parents about the FACT that they come from Frankist families. But I have never met anyone in whose family some specifically Frankist tenets or traditions were preserved. In other words, none of them knows anything of Frankism (or of Judaism, for that matter), unless they independently learned about it from academic publications. As for your guest, it is interesting what he says about his mother keeping a separate pot for milk. The late Avraham Duker has some great stuff about descendants of Jewish (not necessarily Frankist) converts in Poland preserving some vestiges of kashrut for dozens or even hundreds of years. Finally, as for the Polish nobility, what you are saying is generally true, but is not linked to Romanticism. Already in the late 16th century you have families of szlachta who trace their genealogies back to King David. You had ennoblements of Jewish converts long before the Frankists and you had Polish noble families acknowledging their link to the Jews.

  5. By framing Frank in terms of subsequent descendants of Polish Frankists there is the inevitable impression that the natural historical development of Frankism is some form of romantic nationalism. I think that were Frank alive today he would be more than an adventurer or antinomian. He would have moved down the road to total pessimistic nihilism, similar to recent Continental philosophy. The uncertainty about the planet, the horrors of the last century, plus the tenor of the times requires something more radical than pushing against the traditional Jewish community or hustling in the style of Maduff and similar crooks. Frank seems like a guy who was always willing to go one step further than was thought possible.

  6. I can understand the “newly” Polish who understand their association with Franks as a path to a majority faith, but certainly the messianic qualities attributed to Franks must have had place of honor in the Frankist collective memory, with or without any acknowledgement to the doctrines of the “holiness of evil” emphasized by Gershom Scholem.

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