It’s nice to see that something I wrote nearly twenty years ago still has some value! Just received a proof of the Ukrainian translation of A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917-1920, published by Harvard in 1999. The original went out of print a while ago (there are used copies on Amazon for over $5,000, if you can believe it–good thing I got some author copies when they were published, because I’d never afford one now!). Anyway, this new Ukrainian translation was produced by the prestigious Kiev publishing house Dukh i Litera, translated by Anton Kotenko and Oleksandr Nadtoka.
A mysterious figure of the early 18th century whose work, recently discovered by Dr. Yohanan Petrovsky-Stern, sheds light on the world of popular culture from which Hasidism emerged.
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This article originally appeared in the Five Towns Jewish Times on March 3, 2016.
By Dr. Henry Abramson
Working in the abandoned Judaica collection of the Kiev Vernadsky Library during the immediate post-Soviet period, a brilliant young Jewish historian named Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern discovered a rare 300-year-old manuscript. Ignored by Communist scholars for a century, the well-thumbed, 760-page manuscript, bound in leather with a wooden cover and copper breastplate, was not catalogued in any of the collections of the library. Its unusual Ashkenazic script and numerous drawings of complex Kabbalistic symbols fascinated Petrovsky-Shtern, who was on a personal journey to rediscover his ancestral faith. What was this mysterious, one-of-a-kind book?
After nine years of extensive research that took him to archives around the world, Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern published the answer. Sefer HaCheshek was a rare, secret guide to practical Kabbalah, written when Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the founder of the Chassidic movement, was just beginning to deliver his revolutionary teachings. The author’s name itself sheds light on the significance of the text. Hillel styled himself as a Ba’al Shem, literally Master of the Name [of G‑d], a term used to describe itinerant amulet-makers who typically sold their services to simple Jews seeking Kabbalistic remedies for their problems. Shaman-like, these frequently unlearned and often unscrupulous individuals traveled from shtetl to shtetl, performing exorcisms, treating various ailments, and writing amulets for a wide variety of purposes: health, prosperity, marriage, children. Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, by contrast, was known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, the “Good” Master of the Name, because his work was of an entirely different order.
The Sefer HaCheshek contains both extensive instruction in Kabbalistic healing and a surprising degree of autobiographical information. Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern, now a distinguished historian at Northwestern University in Chicago, argues convincingly that the manuscript was written as a type of curriculum vitae, as Hillel wished to end his peripatetic existence and secure a permanent position, preferably in Germany. Sefer HaCheshek was intended as a demonstration of his experience and expertise, having apprenticed to both medical doctors and reputable Kabbalists. Whether or not he received the position—an honor that was bestowed on his contemporary, the Ba’al Shem Tov, in the Ukrainian town of Medzhybizh—is unknown. Nevertheless, Hillel Ba’al Shem’s description of his prior experiences (especially a dramatic exorcism in Ostrah) illustrates the state of popular religious practice in pre-Beshtian Eastern Europe, and provides a vivid backdrop for the emergence of Chassidism.
Why did Chassidism flourish, and the populist, theurgic Kabbalah of Hillel and other ba’aleiShem decline? Dr. Petrovsky-Shtern provides a salient analysis by identifying what was absent in Sefer HaCheshek. Despite its encyclopedic coverage of remedies for every possible physical, psychological, romantic, and economic malady, Hillel Ba’al Shem delivers no message of universal human redemption. Unlike the Ba’al Shem Tov, whose teachings emphasized human potential and the value of community, Hillel relies on magical one-time fixes, not personal spiritual growth. To the crestfallen he offers no counsel; to the bereft, no benefit. The terminology employed in his work is similar—Hillel refers to Kabbalistic disciples as chassidim, for example—but the contrast between the numerous but forgotten Ba’alei Shem and the magnificent Chassidic world founded by the Ba’al Shem Tov could not be more profound.
The discovery of the mutilated body of a young boy in Kiev led to the false arrest of a Jewish laborer named Mendel Beilis. Ignoring the argument of investigating officers, the Russian government under Tsar Nicholas II pressed ahead with the prosecution of Beilis, arguing that the boy was murdered as part of a Passover-related Jewish plot. After two years’ imprisonment, Beilis was freed by a Ukrainian Jewry that could not be persuaded to agree with the Russian prosecutor. Part of the This Week in Jewish History series by Dr. Henry Abramson.
A brief overview of the settlement and activity of the Jewish people in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Part of the Essential Lectures in Jewish History series by Dr. Henry Abramson.
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Devastated and demoralized after the violence of the Khmelnytsky rebellion, the Jews of Europe were astounded to hear that a young Kabbalist named Shabbetai Tsvi had proclaimed himself the long-awaited Messiah.
Solomon Mikhoels (1890-1948) was one of the most prominent actors and directors in early Soviet Russia. His career coincides with the brief flourishing of Yiddish culture under the policy of korenizatsiia, or “indiginization,” when the Communist authorities sought to develop folk culture as a means of developing loyalty to the new regime and its ideology. Performing in Shakespeare and Sholom Aleichem with equal grace, Mikhoels was a hero to Jews throughout the Soviet Union until Stalin brought the liberal policy to an abrupt end.
Shimon Dubnow (1860-1941), a noted historian and activist whose theories of Jewish survival in the diaspora were extremely influential in the shaping Jewish identity in the modern world, from the future of Russian Jewry to the establishment of the modern Federation movement in the United States. Dubnow’s scholarship was inextricably intertwined with the effort to establish equal rights for Jews in the Tsarist Empire during a period of phenomenal change. Martyred at the hands of the Nazis, his last words were “shrayb–un farshrayb” (write..and record), a Yiddish phrase that has motivated generations of Jewish historians.
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Nathan of Hanover is best known for his moving chronicle of the Khmel’nyts’kyi (Chmielnicki) Rebellion. Entitled Yeven Metsulah (“The Abyss of Despair”), it records with remarkable fairness the social, political, economic and religious background of the mid-17th century Ukrainian movement against the Poles, along with the horrible pogroms perpetrated in the context of that violent era. His analysis of the overall demographic impact of the attacks has been challenged by modern scholarship, but Hanover’s powerful treatment of the martyrdom of Ukrainian Jewry made a powerful impact on Jewish memory for centuries.
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