Israeli society debates the value of Haredi jobs, but Patrick Leigh Fermor saw the ultra-Orthodox hard at work
The intense and often corrosive debates on ultra-Orthodox military service in the state of Israel, debates which have continued for more than six decades, have in recent years been accompanied by a discourse of nearly equal intensity (and sometimes greater corrosiveness) on the subject of Haredim in the workforce. The two ultra-Orthodox parties currently represented in Israel’s parliament—though to their chagrin no longer in its government—have devoted themselves to not only increasing state support to their educational institutions, but also to providing monthly stipends for men who forsake conventional employment in favor of full-time Torah study. One of these parties, Shas, headed by nonagenarian spiritual authority Ovadia Yosef, has come to champion, at government expense, an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle hardly consistent with its Sephardi and Middle Eastern roots. But the parliamentary representatives of United Torah Judaism—operating under instructions from its exclusively Ashkenazi Council of Torah Sages, which includes Hasidic as well as “Lithuanian” rabbis—have also sought to “protect” an ostensibly traditional way of life that is actually a relative novelty.
It wasn’t always thus. In the early days of the state there was still a vigorous religious party called Poalei Agudat Yisrael (PAI)—founded in Poland in 1922—which was as much a workers’ party as an ultra-Orthodox one and which had established its first kibbutz in 1944. The Lodz-born Binyamin Mintz—a Gerrer Hasid who had first worked in construction when he came to Palestine in 1925—represented the party in the first Knesset of 1949 and was subsequently re-elected several times. In the third, fourth, and fifth Knessets, however, his small party ran jointly with Agudat Israel (ancestor of today’s United Torah Judaism) and accepted the authority of its non-Zionist Council of Torah Sages—which meant leaving the government in 1952 over the issue of compulsory national service for women. In 1960 Mintz made the bold decision—against the instructions of that council and of his own revered Gerrer Rebbe—to accept a ministerial post from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Mintz’s death (at the age of 58) less than a year later reflected the anguish he had experienced. It also foreshadowed the death of a movement that might well have created a more variegated Haredi society than the one whose allegedly traditional way of life strains the Israel economy and alienates even other observant Jews who send their sons (and daughters) to the IDF and hand over hefty portions of their paychecks to the state—rather than receiving monthly allowances from it.
The sharp words recently exchanged in the Knesset between members of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and representatives of United Torah Judaism sent me reaching for a number of books in my library that vividly portray—whether in word or image—the ultra-Orthodox working class of Eastern Europe in the decades before the Holocaust. Two of these are exhibit catalogs, and two are autobiographical works by one of the greatest travel writers of the 20th century: Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, who died in 2011.
Some two decades ago a traveling exhibit titled Tracing An-sky:Jewish Collections From the State Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg was jointly organized by that museum and the Jewish Historical Museum of Amsterdam and was shown not only in the Netherlands but also in Cologne, Frankfurt, Jerusalem, and New York. The previous (and first) time that material from those collections—based primarily on the early-20th-century ethnographic expedition to the Pale of Settlement led by Shlomo An-sky (Shlomo Zanvil Rapoport), whose 2010 biography by Gabriella Safran was reviewed in these pages by Adam Kirsch—was exhibited was in the annus horribilis of 1939.
In her essay for the Tracing An-sky catalog, Ludmilla Uritskaya noted that “a collection of unique photographs” belonging to the St. Petersburg museum accompanied the exhibit. Among those included in the catalog are three photographs taken during the early years of World War I depicting Jews engaged in manual labor: a carpenter in Annopol (eastern Poland) with a gray beard and side-curls; a shoemaker of similar appearance in Kruchinets (Volhynia); and—perhaps most striking—two smiths in Polonnoye (western Ukraine). The smiths are clearly younger than the other two, and one of them is clean-shaven—and possibly non-Jewish. If so, his bearded partner would represent something doubly rare a century later—an ultra-Orthodox Jew engaged in manual labor together with a gentile. “Together with the extremely rich ethnographic material,” wrote Uritskaya, “these photos render an inimitable image of an original, unique Jewish culture,” which had developed “in close contact with the multi-national culture of Russia.” This was presumably her delicate way of acknowledging the neighboring cultures of Poland and Ukraine. “Regretfully,” she added (with the same late-Soviet certainty) “this Jewish culture no longer exists.”
If Uritskaya believes what she wrote, she might want to pursue further ethnographic research in Brooklyn, whose vibrant ultra-Orthodox communities await a scientific expedition of the sort conducted by An-sky and his team a century ago—although monographs by George Kranzler, Solomon Poll, and Israel Rubin, focusing mostly on Williamsburg’s Satmar Hasidim, provide a good beginning. The YIVO Institute’s rich collection of prewar photographs served as the basis for a ground-breaking exhibit organized during the 1970s by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and the late Lucjan Dobroszycki and co-sponsored by that institute together with New York’s Jewish Museum—where Tracing An-sky was later shown. In their 1977 catalog Image Before My Eyes: A Photographic History of Jewish Life in Poland, 1864-1939 Dobroszycki and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett (whose signature I was happy to discover in the used copy I bought in Jerusalem) devoted several pages to the theme of “Work,” wherein we encounter such obviously observant figures as Khone Szlaifer, an “85-year-old grinder, umbrella maker, and folk doctor” photographed in Lomza (near Bialystok) in 1927, and a white-bearded shoemaker photographed in Warsaw in the same year. There is also a 1928 photo of Naftole Grinband, a black-bearded clockmaker in Gora Kalwaria—spiritual home to the Ger Hasidim from whose ranks Binyamin Mintz emerged and who now comprise the most powerful segment in United Torah Judaism. Perhaps even more threatening for that party’s pious politicians is the 1928 photograph—in a different section of the catalog—of Cwi [Zvi] Tenenbaum, “a Jewish soldier in the Polish army.” The caption further informs us that as “a rabbinical student, he was given special permission to wear a beard.” His beard, left untrimmed in the Hasidic manner, shows that he took full advantage of that permission.
Of course the full beard was not necessarily associated during the interwar years exclusively with Orthodox Judaism. When the English travel-writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was about 10 years old, he got into what he later described to his friend Xan Fielding as “a particularly bad cropper” at the “horrible preparatory school” he was then attending. It was therefore decided that he would be transferred to “a co-educational and very advanced school for difficult children near Bury St. Edmunds.” The school was run, as Leigh Fermor later recalled, “by a grey haired, wild-eyed man called Major Truthful and when I spotted two beards—then very rare among the mixed and eccentric looking staff … I knew I was going to like it.”
At the end of “three peaceful years” at that progressive institution, young Patrick made his way “with ill-founded confidence” to the King’s School in Canterbury—one of England’s oldest and most distinguished “public schools”—where he had been preceded by the likes of Christopher Marlowe and Somerset Maugham, and where he “prospered erratically at dead and living languages and at history and geography.” Both his knowledge of and aptitude for languages were to stand him in good stead when, after being sacked in senior year for holding hands with the daughter of a local greengrocer, Leigh Fermor set off in late 1933 to walk across Western and Central Europe—from Rotterdam to Istanbul. Although he didn’t made it to Istanbul (on that trip), the young Englishman made ample use of his already acquired “dead and living languages” and picked up a smattering (and sometimes more) of some others—including Hungarian, Hebrew, and Yiddish.
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