A friend who is interested in such things nudges me to write about a book devoted to the Belzer shtibl in Borough Park. The book arrives, and I’m impressed. It’s a boxed set containing two massive volumes. The second is clearly devoted to brief portraits of a number of individual Belzer Hasidim. The first is much more diverse. Indeed, how am I to describe it? For it is like and unlike the yizker-bikher, almost all written and produced by “secular” Yiddish speakers, that I studied decades ago. In the end, I decide that you and I should have a look at this strange book together. Certainly, we won’t get all the way through: There is always more to read and to say. But let’s spend enough time together to get a sense of what’s there, for it is a remarkable production indeed.
The cover asks much of the attentive viewer. First, of course, the title and, it seems, three more layers of title, that is, all the way down to a sub-sub-sub-subtitle, thus, in my translation:
The Pious and the Upright
The Book of the Pious and the Path of the Just
Of the survivors of the Shoah who conveyed to the coming generations faith, integrity, straightforwardness, and the duties of the heart
Lineages, chronicles, and spiritual heroism of the congregants and founders of the
16th Avenue Belzer Shtibl in Boro Park
Having absorbed all that, or even just part of it, a text guy like me is likely to open up the book at once. But wait. I, like other students of Jewish culture, am finally “learning” to read visual signs as well as letters. The design on the outer box shows a chain and bears a quote from the sefer Tsror Hamaor making clear that this is a chain of generations linking the present to the Patriarchs and to God. But the chain does not exist out of time, for its links are interrupted by a yellow star bearing the word Jude.
The two volumes inside the box are big—9×11 1/2 inches—and printed on glossy paper designed to last. Their covers (identical) are altogether remarkable. With the title text above and below, a single integrated graphic appears to present an image of a familiar Brooklyn Hasidic shtibl, with a dozen or so mostly elderly men sitting and learning separately or in groups, and on the walls behind them, massive reproductions of famous scenes of horror: the railroad tracks to a death camp; a crowd of Jews, some in inmates’ clothing, waiting at a rail line; stormtroopers in front of a burning building.
Touch the cover, look at it askance in the glare of your lamp, and the montage becomes instantly evident. The frames of the two largest Shoah photographs are tangibly raised, seemingly superimposed by printers. The profiles of the elderly scholars are glossy, sharply etched against the dull background of those photos within a photo. Above the large photos we read the legend, “And despite all this, we did not forget.” Touching these letters, it is hard to shake the feeling that they are engraved. The top edge of this cover illustration is marked again by a golden chain of generations. At its bottom, images of brown pews fade into an abstract border, inviting the viewer, perhaps, to imagine himself sitting just a few pews over.
Since the volumes announce their own dedication to those who survived Gehennom, made it to America, and established a home and a new Belzer community in Boro Park, one might expect the next graphic to represent that Atlantic crossing. But no: the double-page frontispiece shows instead a classic New York scene, this time perhaps pencil or charcoal on paper. The East River, with a lively commerce of tugs, side-wheelers, and a sailboat, is at the center, while the Brooklyn Bridge spans both pages. To the left the towers of Manhattan; to the right dozens of faces of Belzer Hasidim in America, some clean-shaven with “modern” hats, most looking like our image of a Hasid today. The span of the bridge bears the legend: “And he took them and crossed them over the stream and transported what he had” (Genesis 32:24), with Rashi’s comment: “He made himself a bridge stretching from here to here.”
The crossing here most likely refers to the move from the old Belzer Shtibl on East Broadway to Boro Park. Though that is not the primary theme of these volumes, some thirty-odd pages are dedicated to the most prominent congregants of the “East Side Shtibl.” The peregrinations of that East Side community can be traced through those pages: once at 110 Attorney Street (as we known from an old receipt card, reprinted at page 76), it later moved downtown, first to 255 East Broadway and then co-resident with other small minyanim at number 237. As if to allay its own anxiety about focusing on migration from one part of New York—a place that is neither sacred Old Country nor sacred Holy Land—to another, more text is squeezed onto the bottom left of this image: “And when you arise from the book, look for a thing that you can perform” (from the Iggeret HaRamban). We are not just indulging in nostalgia, the editors seem to want to say. We are providing models for the future.
Start flipping through. After all, we don’t have all the time in the world. Fortunately, I’ve already marked a number of pages with yellow post-it notes. Early in the first volume, accompanied by a quote from the tractate Megillah (“These are the meeting houses and the study houses in Babylonia”) comes a list of the towns in Eastern Europe that once boasted Belzer shtiblekh of their own: first those in Galicia (“Ushpitsin, Bokhnye, Bobrka, Bisk, Bilkomin, Gorlits, Grayding, Dobromil”). … My wife’s grandfather was a Dobromiler, but it is too late by decades to ask him now what he remembers of the Belzer shtibl in Dobromil. Then those in Congress Poland, in Hungary, in Vienna, Antwerp and the Land of Israel. Riches for the researcher, to be sure, but also for anyone whose passion for the world now as then might be stimulated by imagining this international network of Belzer congregations, and the interlocking, competing and mutually reinforcing fields of politics, trade, ideology and kinship that they represented and fostered.
A subsequent chapter, titled “And you will spread toward the sea and to the east,” covers the shtiblekh established in Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Williamsburg, and in Crown Heights. More-patient perusal of the book would doubtless tell us much about a key question of 20th-century American Jewish migration patterns, one that it seems to me our scholars have little attended to: When were these shtiblekh, initially satellites of the “home” shtibl on the Lower East Side, established? When did Belzer Hasidim first move to these neighborhoods? Were the Gentile neighbors altogether new in their language and culture, or were at least some of them Poles or Ukrainians from the old country with whom the newcomers could enter into familiar, if wary, patterns of interaction? How did the first pioneers in a new neighborhood, lacking a shtibl of their own, nevertheless maintain a sufficiently distinct identity such that when there were finally enough of them, they could undertake the massive project of creating a space of their own?
Almost as if the editors had heard about the “spatial turn” in the human sciences (and why should they not?), the book consistently mingles passages organized around events and individuals with sections structured around significant spaces. After a section about the death of the Belzer Rebbe in Israel, “we return,” they write, “to the United States,” to the old beis medresh on 16th Avenue “which served for nearly 50 years as a home of Torah and prayer.” A caption accompanying a later reproduction of the same photo tells us it was called the “Zekhtsener Shtibl.” (Now, Google Maps tells us, it’s a Lubavitcher beis medresh.) Not just the location of the building, but its internal spatial organization, receives detailed attention. We see a hand-drawn map of the women’s section, with numbered places and the names of the women who occupied them, attributed to the president at that time, Reb Yekhezkl (on the next page Khatzkl) Friedman. Then, larger, occupying a full two pages, the hand-drawn map of the men’s section below, marked with the number of the Hebrew year 5731 (1970). The space of the Aron Kodesh is marked at the top, along the wider wall; in the middle, the shulkhn is indicated. Between the shulkhn and the date appear two words that I almost passed over in my impatient puzzlement. It looks like “ezras nashim,” but it can’t be. … I’ve already said the women’s section was represented by a different, and smaller, manuscript map. Look more carefully: isn’t that an “aleph” half-hidden by the crease of the binding? Yes, to be almost sure, these words are “ezras anashim,” the men’s section, in a formulation that makes perfect sense though I have never seen it before in my life. Around the four walls and in the open space by the shulkhn, 117 numbered seats are listed, laid out in a way that suggests the men sat at tables facing each other, and the names of the seatholders are written in a clearly legible Yiddish hand: Blayer, Zilbertsvayg, Voler, Zilberman, Biderman. … Were Zilberman and Biderman close friends, business partners, mekhutonim perhaps, study partners, or were they, to the contrary, mutually resentful that they had to spend so much time sitting next to each other?
Turn the pages some more. We will see a familiar image: it is the photo on the cover, without the edits described above. Indeed, a white-bearded gentleman sits at the bottom front of the image, in the space taken up by abstract brown on the cover. And the walls behind the side benches are marked by familiar retractable room dividers. Here, that is, the margins of the image lead off into other spaces that might be combined with this one to make room for a larger assembly in the present, rather than into searing images that mark the impression of the past.
We’ve left the “old” beis medresh on 16th Avenue now, and we turn to another chapter: the construction of a grandiloquent new synagogue on nearby 15th Avenue. A house had been standing on the property, and hence this triumphant chapter begins with the receipt of a demolition permit on the 24th of Tevet 5762 (Jan. 8, 2002). The next day, “The demolition of the house began”—a curious reversal for us, a people still used to marking destruction with a day of mourning. Photos taken month by month over the next two years show the progress of construction. Significant donors are duly acknowledged.
One might think the editors would have stopped the chronicle at that moment of triumphant arrival, but somehow, it seems, they cannot refrain from looking back, for the next section details the Belzer Rebbe’s wanderings and rescue from the Nazi Gehennom. A full page lists the stations of the journey, starting with his departure from Belz on Oct. 5, 1939, with some dozen stops in Eastern Europe, continuing to arrival in Istanbul, and on to Aleppo, Beirut, Haifa, Jerusalem, and at last, Tel Aviv on April 14, 1944. A double-page map shows this itinerary in graphic form. Remarkably, where one would expect pure hagiography, history has its place as well. Much of North Africa is on that map, and with the Mediterranean Sea otherwise a blank blue space, an inset focused on El Alamein provides the names and locations of the Axis and Allied forces lined up at that fateful place where the Axis advance was stopped. On subsequent pages, the details of the Rebbe’s journeys are accompanied by an array of photographs of the ongoing disaster: the entry of the Nazis into Vienna; the burning of the synagogue in Baden-Baden; a map of the German attacks on the east starting Sept. 1, 1939; the gas chamber in Auschwitz. And again, and again, and again, the tracks leading to the camps.
“The deeds of the fathers are a guide for the sons,” the volumes proclaim. But there is little or no preaching here. Instead, we have a chronicle of not only the deeds of those fathers, but their sufferings, their travels, the shtiblekh they left and the ones they came to and made.
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Jonathan Boyarin is Diann G. and Thomas A. Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University.