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Cities of Jewish Success, Crushed

By Rebecca Kobrin
Indiana University Press, 380 pages, $24.95
By Nils Roemer
Brandeis University Press, 328 pages, $35

A vast, heartbreaking and, to English readers, inaccessible Yiddish and Hebrew library — of some 1,000 volumes, studded with unique memoirs and rare photographs — known as yizker-bikher, or memorial books, is devoted to eternalizing the legacies of the myriad cities and towns of Jewish Eastern Europe destroyed by the Holocaust. These books were collaboratively produced, mostly in the late 1950s through the early ’70s, by the survivors of those Jewish communities. But with the exception of a half-dozen or so, they are not the product of critical historical scholarship, and only three have been fully translated into English.

Thankfully, new scholarly English books that focus on particular European Jewish communities have recently been appearing at a steady pace. Still, not entirely unlike the memorial books, the varied approaches taken by today’s historians have produced uneven results, as exemplified by two new studies — of the cities of Bialystok, Poland, and Worms, Germany.

“The Jews of Bialystok and Its Diaspora” by Rebecca Kobrin is the more problematic of the two, as it fails to provide anything approaching an adequate history of one of the most remarkable Jewish communities to emerge in the modern era in Eastern Europe. A cursory — largely demographic and economic — overview, documenting the rapid expansion and productivity of Bialystok Jewry, provides little more than bare-bones statistical information.

To be sure, these raw statistics are most impressive, testifying to a Jewish population that burgeoned to almost 50,000 by 1900 from 4,000 in 1808, at which point Bialystok was more than three-quarters Jewish. The astonishing economic successes of these newly arrived Jews are evidenced by their rapid domination of Bialystok’s main industry: textile manufacturing. By 1898, more than 80% of the city’s weaving mills were owned by Jewish industrialists. As for the inner, religious and intellectual life of this Jewish boomtown, however, Kobrin imparts no information, beyond simplistically dividing Jews into two political camps: Zionists and socialists.

Kobrin situates her study within the emerging discipline of Diaspora studies, and after this short introduction about Jews in Bialystok proper, she focuses almost entirely on the ways in which those who had left Bialystok labored to preserve the memory and legacy of their beloved hometown, even to establish a “Bialystok empire” in the New World. In doing so, Kobrin repeatedly contrasts their “real” homeland — Bialystok, where, despite their majority and prosperity, or perhaps on account of them, Jews were victims of particularly brutal violence during the wave of 1905 pogroms that spread across Russia — with their “imagined” religious one. This deep identification with the Land of Israel is something that Kobrin discounts too readily and too completely. One of the reasons for this, as I note below, is her disregard for the enduring religious elements of modern Eastern European Jewish societies.

For, aside from their religious heritage, what precisely the secular Bialystok “legacy” was, and how, if at all, it differed from that of Minsk, Pinsk and hundreds of other Jewish settlements, is never fleshed out. Even the most basic ethnic characterization of Bialystokers as “Litvaks” is missing. Kobrin’s treatment of the Bialystok diaspora is limited almost entirely to the philanthropic, communal and amateur journalistic work of its Jewish secularist exiles. That Bialystok was home to the central and largest yeshiva of the vast network of the “Novardoker” branch of Musar Yeshivot in interwar Poland — an august institution famously captured by its celebrated alumnus, Chaim Grade, and one that produced some of the 20th century’s most influential rabbinical authorities, including the long-serving head of the London Beit Din, Dayan Michoel Fisher, and Israel’s most influential Mitnagdic rabbinical authority, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (revered as The Steipler Gaon) -— is nowhere mentioned.

Instead, Kobrin delves in detail into the internal communal politics of the secularized émigrés from Bialystok — most extensively on New York City’s Lower East Side, with shorter sections devoted to Bialystokers in the Argentinean pampas and Israel’s tiny town, Kiryat Bialystok. Readers of her book will get only the most superficial sense, based largely on Kobrin’s uncritical citation of the slogans and self-delusions, of her central figure: the remarkably energetic philanthropist, founder of the Bialystok society in New York and prolific editor of the Yiddish quarterly Der Bialystoker Shtimme, David Sohn, who earned the moniker “Mr. Bialystok” on the Lower East Side.

Kobrin relates Sohn’s impressive achievements, particularly his prolific journalism, as well as his fundraising efforts in erecting the Bialystok building on East Broadway, rivaled only by the Forverts building down the street. But even here, the narrative is naively descriptive, with precious little critical analysis. Kobrin unquestioningly echoes Sohn’s decades-long encomia about the unique legacy of Bialystok and dubs it “Bialystokness,” but gives no notion of what the term might entail. Aside from empty nostalgia and some regional quirks — in the case of Bialystok, the onion-covered bagel without the hole, known as the bialy — did these distinctions have any significance? Certainly none emerge from Kobrin’s account. Indeed the grandiose Bialystok building erected by Sohn faced a crisis almost immediately after its dedication: What to do with all those rooms? Within two years, it became, and remains to this day, a kosher old-age home.

Those rare instances when the rich religious legacy of Bialystok Jewry gets mentioned are, moreover, marred by faulty translations of the commonest of Hebrew expressions. The Bialystoker aid society, Somekh Noflim — a term borrowed from the opening paragraphs of the daily Amidah service, where God is praised as “He who supports the fallen” — is mistransliterated as “Somach Noflim” and mistranslated as “lit. to lift the fallen.” Similarly the Linas ha-Tsedek charitable society, whose name is taken from a rabbinic euphemism for Jerusalem meaning “the habitation of righteousness,” is mistranslated as “to lodge the righteous.”

In her all-too-brief (three sentences, to be precise) treatment of the founding of New York’s two Bialystoker Synagogues, on Willet and Norfolk Streets, Kobrin records the statement of purpose by one of the Norfolk Street synagogue’s officers that these synagogues provided a place “to pray and congregate in the Bialystok way.” Kobrin explains that “they ran their daily service according to the religious customs that developed in Bialystok.” Unfortunately, no such customs ever developed: There is no particular Bialystoker version of the liturgy, no Bialystoker siddur and no prayers unique to Bialystok.

The same certainly cannot be said of the oldest Ashkenazic communities of the Rhineland, which originated in the late 10th century and whose rich histories, both proud and tragic, did in fact generate a host of unique regional religious and liturgical customs, particular fast days and minor festivals. Of these, none can match the storied Jewish community of Worms. Its history — of a vibrant center of Jewish learning, and martyrdom, in the Middle Ages, that declined over the centuries into near obscurity by the early modern period — is, in many respects, the very inverse of that of Bialystok.

Worms’s long and exceedingly complex historical legacy is deftly recovered and expertly analyzed by Niels Roemer in his erudite new book, “German City, Jewish Memory: The Story of Worms.” The oldest of the three great medieval communities (Speier, Worms and Mainz are fondly referred to by the acronym “SHU’M” — literally meaning “garlic”) is the repository of the richest history, literature and geographical artifacts. After wonderfully summarizing the medieval days of devotion to Torah, pietism and unprecedented acts of martyrdom during the First Crusade of 1096, Roemer turns his attention to the long and shifting history of how the community of Worms became a central, if largely symbolic, element in German-Jewish collective memory.

Roemer’s book is the most original work I have yet to read on German-Jewish intellectual history. It is especially enlightening in exploring how the memory of Worms and its physical remnants waned and then were revived. Holy relics, such as the ancient cemetery, the synagogue, the legendary chair of Rashi (who studied in Worms) and the tombs of her many scholars, such as Eleazar ben Judah — a founder of the medieval pietistic movement known as Hasidut Ashkenaz — regained currency first with the advent of printing, which produced popular accounts of Worms’s heroic martyrs, then with the advent of Reform Judaism and finally by the modern era of tourism, during which Worms became a major pilgrimage site for both Christians and Jews.

A wonderfully sensitive thinker and gracious writer, Roemer has produced an utterly original study in the uses, and misuses, less of history than of memory; for beyond his thorough assessment of earlier historians’ treatments of Jewish Worms, he examines a wide array of less conventional sources. Indeed, among the book’s many merits is that it ignores no useful source for its subject. It would have been easy to use only “high” historical and literary sources, given the embarrassment of riches in Worms: Crusade chronicles and dirges for the martyrs of 1096 have become an integral part of the Jewish liturgy; the Av ha-Rachamim memorial prayer recited each Sabbath by Ashkenazi Jews to this day; dirges for the martyrs of the Shum communities, recited on Tisha B’Av, and, on the other hand, products of their visits to Worms of modern secular Yiddish and Hebrew writers, such as Sholem Asch and Shaul Tchernichovsky. To these sources, Roemer also adds more mundane and popular sources, from private unpublished memoirs and letters to a rich variety of tourist brochures and municipal documents.

In the Weimar period, which witnessed the height of German Jews’ optimism regarding their full integration into the “new Germany,” Worms became a symbol for many of an invented shared historical destiny, “the quintessence of Jews’ overall belonging in Germany,” as Roemer felicitously puts it. The power of this early 20th-century optimism is perhaps best represented by the Haggadah published by Siegfried Guggenheim, marked by his esteemed family’s Worms’s coat of arms. Though living in nearby Offenbach on the Rhine, Guggenheim replaced the traditional Seder declaration, “Next Year in Jerusalem” with, “Next Year in Worms-on-the-Rhine, our Heimat.” Roemer notes that when Guggenheim reprinted his Haggadah in New York after the Second World War, Jerusalem was restored to its proper place.

If there is a single lesson both of these books impart, however unwittingly, it is the crushing realization, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, that — no matter how rich and impressive their varied histories — these European Jewish communities existed only at the mercy and tolerance of Christian rulers, from Germany to Russia. Despite the Jews’ constituting a majority of the population, and withstanding Christian hatred, the notion that either Bialystok or, for example, Kiev, was ever truly a “Jewish Metropolis,” to cite the title of Natan Meir’s recent, superb history of Kiev Jewry, was finally dispelled by the orgy of modern, racist Jew hatred. In that sense, Roemer’s title, beginning with the term “German City,” is, like his book more generally, most perceptive. As only the Zionists seemed to understand on the eve of the final destruction, there could be, in the end, only one truly Jewish land, and only one Jerusalem.

Allan Nadler, a frequent contributor to the Forward, is professor of religion and director of the Jewish studies program at Drew University.


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