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In Memoriam: Moshe Leib Weiser

The rare-book collector and dealer, whose impact on the Jewish book world was immeasurable, died of COVID-19 at age 77

by
Pini Dunner
August 19, 2020
Courtesy of Rabbi Pini Dunner Collection, Beverly Hills, California
The late Moshe Leib Weiser dances with a Torah scroll at a North London celebration in 2019. On the right is his friend the Stanislawer Rebbe, Rabbi Uri Ashkenazi, who also died of COVID-19 five months ago.Courtesy of Rabbi Pini Dunner Collection, Beverly Hills, California
Courtesy of Rabbi Pini Dunner Collection, Beverly Hills, California
The late Moshe Leib Weiser dances with a Torah scroll at a North London celebration in 2019. On the right is his friend the Stanislawer Rebbe, Rabbi Uri Ashkenazi, who also died of COVID-19 five months ago.Courtesy of Rabbi Pini Dunner Collection, Beverly Hills, California

A few weeks ago while quarantining in Israel with my son who is enlisting to serve in the Israel Defense Forces, I was researching Hasidic “rebbes” in prewar and postwar London, and came across a reference to a mysterious character known as the “Shvartze Rebbe.” I tried every way I could to find some online reference, but simply could not find any information about who he was, nor how he had acquired this strange moniker.

There was only one place to turn. I emailed my friend Moshe Leib Weiser, one of the Jewish book world’s great unsung heroes, renowned among aficionados for his encyclopedic knowledge of rabbinic history and Jewish bibliography. Within minutes he had emailed me back. The “Shvartze Rebbe” was R. Moshe Yoel Eichenstein, he wrote, a direct descendent of the Zidichover Rebbe, the illustrious Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac of Zidichov, one of the great Hasidic leaders of Poland during the 19th century.

R. Moshe Yoel Eichenstein arrived in England without his family before World War II, to escape the worsening situation in Poland, and to find a livelihood. Sadly, his wife and children never made it out and perished in the Holocaust, and despite remarrying, R. Moshe Yoel died childless in 1957. He was buried at the Adass Yisroel cemetery in Enfield, not far from another far better known Hasidic fixture of postwar London, the Shotzer Rebbe, R. Sholom Moskovitz, who died a year later.

But the piece of the puzzle that Moshe Leib was able to add that was most interesting of all was how R. Moshe Yoel came to be known as the Shvartze Rebbe. “It was a nickname people called him behind his back because he had a black beard when he was already an elderly man,” Weiser wrote. That was it. Mystery solved.

I telephoned Moshe Leib to follow up on the email, and he regaled me with stories of the Shvartze Rebbe, the Shotzer Rebbe, and countless other forgotten Hasidic rebbes and personalities who had somehow survived the Holocaust and made London their home. But he was very adamant that R. Moshe Yoel was never really a “rebbe” with followers, even in Poland; rather he was a simply the descendant of a distinguished Hasidic dynasty.

“If you write about him, don’t misrepresent him as a rebbe,” Moshe Leib told me last month, “because that would be faking history. He was a good man, a talmid chochom, and a fine baal kore, but he wasn’t a rebbe.”

It was absolutely typical for him to say that. As far as he was concerned accuracy was key. The facts are the facts, and fabricating nonsense to enhance a story had no place in a serious historical narrative.

Tragically, it was the last time we spoke. A couple of weeks ago Moshe Leib Weiser contracted COVID-19, and he died on Monday morning in London at the age of 77. His passing won’t make the kind of public impact that the deaths of so many others have made during this pandemic, but as professor Sid Z. Leiman wrote to me several hours after Moshe Leib passed away: “with his passing‎, an era has reached its end; Moshe Leib Weiser may have been the last of the great antiquarian Jewish book-dealers in London.” Indeed, for many years after WWII, London was a major center of Jewish bibliophiles, experts and dealers: Rabbi Solomon David Sassoon, Avraham Schischa, Jack Lunzer, professor Chimen Abramsky, Brudi Stern, Rabbi Harry Rabinowicz, and there were many others. Moshe Leib’s uncle, Bunim Hirschler, was one of the Jewish world’s best known book dealers, and it was from him that the young Moshe Leib first learnt his trade, feasting on treasures in his uncle’s home and storage facilities.

Moshe Leib Weiser was a devout Belzer Hasid, who lived deep in the North London Stamford Hill community. He belonged to a community of Belzer Hasidim who never accepted the current Belzer Rebbe, R. Yissachar Dov Rokeach, as a true replacement for R. Ahron of Belz, the scion of Belz who escaped the Holocaust, arriving in Tel Aviv in early 1944. The new rebbe was R. Ahron’s nephew, his brother’s son, but Belz purists felt that he had abandoned some of the sect’s treasured traditions in his quest to modernize Belz for a new generation. This group ultimately adopted R. Yehoshua Rokeach of Machnovka as their rebbe, although it was my distinct impression that Moshe Leib never went for him either. As far as he was concerned, R. Ahron was a saintly man who could never be replaced by anyone. Not that he ever said a bad word about the Machnovke Rebbe, or the Belzer Rebbe, or indeed about anyone—his positive outlook and upbeat disposition did not include disparagement. He was a self-declared Belzer Hasid; the details were irrelevant to anyone but him.

I got to know Moshe Leib Weiser almost 20 years ago. Someone had sold me a rare book, and as is so often the case with collectibles, one piece sets one on a course for the next, and in my quest to get to that next piece I heard that there was a Hasidic book dealer in Stamford Hill who had a wide range of obscure books and ephemera for sale, and if he didn’t have something in stock, he would certainly know where to get hold of whatever it was, no matter how rare or unusual.

He was very helpful on the phone but insisted that I visit his place to see a few things that he had that he wanted to show me. It was the first of countless visits, and hours of time spent with someone who was not merely an expert, but a lover of books with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. His enthusiasm for old seforim was infectious, but it didn’t stop there. He was a voracious reader with an incredible memory. And not only did he remember what was in the books he had read, he remembered where he had read them, when he had read them, and if he still had the book in question—exactly where it was in the never-ending shelves and dusty boxes that filled up his overstuffed industrial unit.

In 2009, Moshe Leib decided to wind down his book business and roped me in to help put together some lists of remaining stock to offer the great libraries of academia, many of which had longstanding relationships with him that had lasted for decades. (As an example, in expressing his condolences on the passing of Moshe Leib, the famed Jewish bibliographer Dr. Charles Berlin of Harvard University’s Judaica Division shared with me and my research compadre Menachem Butler: “For many years, Moshe Leib Weiser of London was of enormous assistance to us in the Harvard Library’s Judaica Division in building our extensive collection of British religious materials. We are truly grateful for his efforts all those years. He will be sorely missed.”)

Together Moshe Leib and I compiled a number of lists of books and pamphlets taken randomly from the endless shelves and boxes; they were staggering in their range and rarity. In my accompanying letter sent with the first list to a number of the most noted Judaica and Hebraica librarians and collectors, I informed them of Moshe Leib’s plans to wind things down, and explained who he was:

For many years [Mr. Weiser] has been acknowledged by librarians and collectors of antiquarian Hebrew books as one of the foremost contemporary experts on the history of Hebrew printing, and the most obscure—but often important—bibliographical details relating to anything and everything ever published in Hebrew from the earliest times right up until the modern era. Mr. Weiser helped initiate the bibliographic project of the Jewish National & University Library at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. For many years he was their researcher at the British Museum library, later known as the British Library, in London, where his familiarity with the large and extremely important collection there was extremely useful to the project. Similarly, Mr. Weiser did research for the bibliographic project at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and at various other public and private libraries. His expertise has often been publicly recognized by those who have benefited from it. For example, in the 1994 edition of the Second Supplementary Catalogue of Hebrew Printed Books in the British Library, the editor, Diana Rowland Smith, wrote in the introduction (Vol. I, p.XI): “M Weiser…has given freely of his extensive bibliographical knowledge in the fields of liturgies and halakhic and Hasidic works. Sincere thanks are due to him.”

The response was overwhelming. We couldn’t get the lists out fast enough. These were the “leftovers” of his years in the business, but the experts and collectors lapped it up. His style of doing business had been simple. He would buy a collection of books, and would have in mind how much he needed to make from the collection to make the purchase worthwhile. Once that money had come in, he was satisfied, and anything left would remain on his shelves until some random collector would show up at his door and ask him for a book that happened to be in stock.

Moshe Leib wasn’t an aggressive salesman, nor was he particularly interested in taking advantage of a collector’s willingness to overpay for something they wanted. His prices were fair, never greedy, and you always came away from him with more than just a book or books. If he could, he would find academic articles or references relevant to your new acquisition and copy them so you could read them later. Or he would show you something about the item that had never previously been noted by bibliographers and academics, but which he had somehow discovered. You always walked away from a session with Moshe Leib feeling good, the opposite of the feeling one had when parting company from so many other dealers, for whom any meeting with a collector was a shameless shakedown.

Moshe Leib Weiser’s public footprint may be limited to footnotes and obscure references in bibliographies, but his impact on the Jewish book world was immeasurable. Hundreds of libraries and collectors relied on his unbiased, unselfish expertise before making purchases, and they would then ask him to catalog their collections without any concern for dishonesty and self-interest, so often a problem in the murky world of book dealers and experts. In 1998, when the theft of rare Hebrew books from the Library of the London Beth Din was discovered, the Rosh Beth Din, Dayan Chanoch Ehrentreu, asked Moshe Leib Weiser to catalog the library once the stolen books were recovered, and ultimately to prepare the valuable books for auction. Moshe Leib’s reputation and integrity were as rare as some of the books he cataloged, an exceptional quality in an arena known for its bounders and charlatans.

There would be several auctions over the next few years unloading the centuries-old treasures from the Library of the London Beth Din, which have since expanded many private Judaica collections around the world. In the preface to the first auction, held at Christie’s in New York on June 23, 1999—“Important Hebrew Manuscripts and Printed Books from The Library of the London Beth Din, Sold by Order of the Trustees of the United Synagogue”—almost certainly penned by Moshe Leib Weiser, his name is notable by its absence. Although all the details had been put together by him, he took no credit, nor did he expect it. Instead others took credit for the research done by someone who enjoyed what he did, but had no interest in fame or fortune.

The library of Solomon Hirschell (1761-1842), acquired from his estate in 1845, forms the nucleus of the London Beth Din collection of important early Hebraica. Hirschell was the first Chief Rabbi of England and an esteemed rabbinic authority. He was the son of the famous Berlin rabbi Zevi Hirsh Levin (1721-1800) and a nephew of another celebrated luminary of German Jewry, Jacob Emden (1697-1776). At least fourteen of the 140 manuscripts offered in this sale can be traced back to Zevi Hirsh’s library, including autograph manuscripts of his own writings. Many other books have important provenances, including some 30 manuscripts that once belonged to the German court banker, entrepreneur and leader of the Berlin Jewish Community, Daniel Itzig (1723- 1799).
The library contains more than twenty medieval manuscripts. These include textually important copies, mostly executed on vellum, of classical compendia of Jewish law such as Isaac Alfasi’s Hilkhot ha-Rif (Legal Decisions), Isaac of Corbeil’s Sefer Mitsvot Katan (Small Book Of Precepts) and Mordecai ben Hillel’s Sefer Mordekhai. The library further boasts a collection of 77 manuscripts of mystical, or kabbalistic, content. Noteworthy among these are copies of treatises by the disciples of Isaac Luria (1534-1572) whose writings are of the utmost importance to Jewish mysticism. There are seven manuscripts of Biblical commentaries and well over twenty devoted to philosophy, sciences and medicine.
Some of the texts are only known through the manuscripts offered here, including a considerable number that are autograph. Furthermore, signatures of important rabbis abound in the collection. Sefer Sinai, a compendium of Jewish law by Abraham, the brother of renowned Meir ben Barukh of Rothenberg, was copied in 1391 in Southern Germany. It is extant in this impressive vellum manuscript only. Rabbi Shabbetai Sofer’s early-seventeenth-century vocalized daily prayerbook contains a large number of original approbations signed by most of the leading rabbis of the early-seventeenth-century Poland.

Most of the items on offer originated in the fabulous collection of Rabbi Solomon Hirschell, England’s first formally recognized chief rabbi. As a great-grandson of Haham Zvi Ashkenazi, he was the scion of one of Europe’s most distinguished rabbinical dynasties, and had inherited a host of important books from his celebrated ancestors. Many of them contained learned marginal notations and ownership inscriptions, predominantly by various members of his family. All of them were carefully identified by Moshe Leib and noted in the catalog descriptions.

Even as antiquarian book collecting has become less fashionable over recent years, with the increase in online resources that have made physical books seemingly obsolete, Moshe Leib Weiser remained a beacon of knowledge and inspiration to bibliophiles and Jewish scholars, the cherished relic of a forgotten world where the classic tomes of Judaism and Jewish life once reigned supreme, and still remain a rich source of knowledge to those in the know. His loss will be felt acutely, and on a personal note, I will miss him very deeply. Our conversations, although intermittent, were always a pleasure, and the thought that this great scholar will no longer be there on tap for me to consult, or available just for a good schmooze, leaves me pained and saddened.

Pini Dunner is the Senior Rabbi at Beverly Hills Synagogue, and the author of Mavericks, Mystics & False Messiahs: Episodes from the Margins of Jewish History.

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