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.
Leigh Fermor’s first encounter with the latter two languages occurred in the Slovakian city of Bratislava, then widely still referred to as Pressburg. “The German strain in the [Yiddish] language always made me think that I was going to catch the ghost of a meaning,” he later wrote in A Time of Gifts (1977)—“but it eluded me every time; for the dialect—or language, rather—though rooted in medieval Franconian German is complicated by queer syntax and a host of changes and diminutives,” adding that its idiosyncrasy also came from “strange gutturals, Slav accretions, and many words and formations remembered from the Hebrew.” Perhaps reflecting his later encounters with Yiddish-speaking Jews on his long journey he also described Yiddish as “a vernacular in which the history of the Jews in northern Europe and the centuries of their ebb and flow between the Rhine and Russia are all embedded.”
During his stay in Bratislava the young Englishman also resumed his “old obsession with alphabets” and later discovered in the back pages of a surviving notebook from that period “Old Testament names laboriously transliterated into Hebrew characters,” as well as “everyday words” copied down in those characters from “shop fronts” and the Jewish newspapers he saw in cafés. He would soon encounter those ancient characters again in Prague’s old Jewish cemetery, which he described as “one of the most remarkable places in the city,” and where he learned to decipher some of the visual images on the tombstones—“a pitcher for [the tribe of] Levi … a stag for Hirsch, a carp for Karpeles, a cock for Hahn, a lion for Löw, and so on.”
Maundy Thursday of 1934 found Leigh Fermor in a Hungarian village north of Budapest “looking for a barn for the night and a cobbler’s shop.” While looking for the latter—in order to have a boot-nail knocked in—a voice from one of the doorways asked, “Was wollen Sie.” The German-speaking voice belonged to a “red haired Jewish baker” of, it turned out, Hasidic background, who made him “a bed of straw and blankets on the stone floor of the dark bakery” and also hammered in his boot-nail. Both the baker’s religious background and his multiple manual skills link him with some of his older contemporaries whose photographs appear in the two exhibition catalogs discussed above. He was, as his guest learned, “from a Carpathian village where quite a number of Jews, including his family, belonged to the Hasidim.” He was also fond, like his English guest, of reading the Bible—“especially the first part”—a comment whose import it took the latter “a further couple of seconds to get.” In my own ethnographic encounters with young Hasidim—sometimes in the saunas of Jerusalem gyms—I have learned of similar reading interests.
Leigh Fermor’s more extensive account of his encounter, later in his journey, with Carpathian Hasidim occurred in the sequel volume Between the Woods and the Water (1986), which he published early in his eighth decade. In the borderlands between Hungary and Rumania, near the Maros river, Leigh Fermor had met “a burly man in a red-checked flannel shirt”—the Jewish foreman of a local timber concession—with whom he again spoke in German. He followed the foreman to his log cabin, and there he found, “most incongruously seated at a table, a bearded man in a black suit and a black beaver hat,” who was “poring over a large and well-thumbed book, his spectacles close to the print.” On either side of the bearded man, studying with him, were “two sons about my age , also dressed in black” and also “marked for religion”—as the Englishman believed he could tell from their side-curls and from the “unshorn down which fogged their waxy cheeks.”
Leigh Fermor was struck by “how different … the man in the check shirt” was from his older brother and nephews. All of them came from “Satu Mare—Szatmár—a town in the Magyar belt to the north-west of Transylvania,” from where the rabbi and his sons were visiting for a fortnight—probably during a yeshiva vacation. “Was sind Sie von Beruf?” the visitor was asked by his host, who at first suspected that his “profession” was that of a pedlar. When the Englishman tried to explain that he was traveling mostly “for fun” (“aus Vergnügen”) his host “shrugged his shoulders and smiled and said something in Yiddish to the others.” Since Leigh Fermor’s public-school education had presumably not included Joyce’s Ulysses, first published in 1922, it is not surprising that he did not recognize the words “goyim naches” which, his Jewish interlocutors explained, “is something that the goyim like but which leaves Jews unmoved.”
The bearded and black-suited Hasid would clearly not have described his brother’s profession in the same manner, nor would later generations of Satmar Hasidim—such as those who now pursue a host of manual occupations in the less hip sections of Williamsburg. But four-score years after that prewar conversation between Leigh Fermor and his Hasidic hosts it appears that many ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Holy Land, formally prevented from working in order to protect their military exemptions as full-time Torah students, have come to regard holding down real jobs to support their growing families as a form of “hiloni naches”—something that secular Jews like to do but that leaves more pious Jews unmoved. Although both German and Hebrew translations of Dobroszycki and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s Image Before My Eyes have appeared (the latter in 2005), Yair Lapid and his party colleague Shai Piron might consider diverting funds from the finance and education ministries they respectively run toward producing a Yiddish translation. As Leigh Fermor would have recognized, doing so on the basis of the German and the Hebrew would be relatively easy.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.