Has­sidic di­a­monds in Tel Aviv

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - JUDAISM - The writer, a rabbi in Tzur Hadas­sah, is on the Pardes fac­ulty and a post-doc­toral fel­low at Ben-Gu­rion Univer­sity of the Negev.

Shlomo Ya­halomi (1911-1994) was born in Strzy­zow – for­merly in Gali­cia, and to­day in Poland. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, he fled to the Soviet Union. In 1947, he reached Pales­tine, He­brai­cized his name from Dia­mant to Ya­halomi – from di­a­mond in Yid­dish to di­a­mond in He­brew – and set­tled in Tel Aviv.

Two years later, Ya­halomi pub­lished a small book on Trac­tate Avot ti­tled Peninei Avot, “Pearls from An­ces­tors.” The slen­der vol­ume, in par­tic­u­lar in the front of the book, pro­vides fas­ci­nat­ing in­sights into the feel­ings and at­mos­phere in Tel Aviv only a few years after the tragedy of the Holo­caust, as the State of Is­rael came into ex­is­tence.

The work’s first pages pro­vide an emo­tional roller-coaster ride. The ti­tle page de­notes the stan­dard im­print in­for­ma­tion, though next to the year Ya­halomi added, “The Sec­ond Year of the State of Is­rael.” The ex­cite­ment at be­ing present at this historic junc­ture is pal­pa­ble. Yet, sim­ply open­ing the book brings tears to the eyes of the reader, as the first page in­cludes a list of Ya­halomi’s rel­a­tives who per­ished in the Holo­caust, in­clud­ing his wife, his daugh­ter and many other fam­ily mem­bers.

For­mer Ashke­nazi chief rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Her­zog (1888-1959) penned a short let­ter of en­cour­age­ment that is printed in the book. This is fol­lowed by a let­ter from Rabbi Mordechai Shalom Yosef Fried­man (18891979) – the has­sidic master of Sadigura-Prze­mysl who moved to Tel Aviv in 1939. Rabbi Fried­man is widely re­ferred to by the ti­tle of his col­lected teach­ings, Knes­set Mordechai. His grand­son is the cur­rent leader of the Sadigura Has­sidim.

These en­cour­ag­ing letters are fol­lowed by Ya­halomi’s heart­felt in­tro­duc­tion, in which he laments the de­struc­tion of Euro­pean Jewry. Ac­cord­ing to Ya­halomi, it was the has­sidic To­rah of his youth that gave him strength to en­dure the tribu­la­tions of the dark Holo­caust years. At the mo­ments of great­est de­spair, Ya­halomi “es­caped to the well­spring and ever flow­ing river of Has­sidism.”

Alas, in Ya­halomi’s eyes, the end of Has­sidism was nigh: “To our sor­row, even amongst the few re­li­gious cir­cles, this en­tire To­rah with its myr­iad of pearls is be­ing for­got­ten.” Ya­halomi ac­knowl­edged that there were a num­ber of rea­sons for this de­vel­op­ment, but he chose to high­light one: “Be­cause for the new gen­er­a­tion, the style in which has­sidic books are writ­ten is for­eign.” Thus Ya­halomi dreamed and as­pired to of­fer the lofty ideas of Has­sidism in an ac­ces­si­ble style. Peninei Avot was his first con­tri­bu­tion.

Given his de­clared aim, Peninei Avot sur­prises the reader by in­clud­ing a mix of teach­ings from has­sidic and non-has­sidic per­son­al­i­ties. Dis­tinc­tions between the has­sidic faith­ful and their ve­he­ment op­po­si­tion seem to have dis­si­pated. Per­haps, the quest for links to the past and words of in­spi­ra­tion over­ride par­ti­san loy­al­ties. Ya­halomi also in­cluded pas­sages that are un­cred­ited, ap­par­ently his own ideas and read­ings of the clas­sic sources.

YA­HALOMI CON­TIN­UED his quest in the fol­low­ing years. In 1957, he pub­lished a sim­i­lar work on the Pen­ta­teuch, ti­tled Peninei To­rah, “Pearls of To­rah.” This work was reprinted in 1964 and again in 1973. In the in­tro­duc­tion, Ya­halomi re­lated that he be­gan writ­ing the book dur­ing the Holo­caust years, when he was in Siberia. With­out the lux­u­ries of time and paper, Ya­halomi wrote in a form of code that only he could un­der­stand, em­ploy­ing letters as mnemon­ics for ideas. After the war, he con­tin­ued us­ing this method in the Soviet Union and then in Ger­many. It was only after he reached the Land of Is­rael that he de­ci­phered his notes.

Ya­halomi reprinted Peninei Avot in 1971 – in between the reprint­ings of Peninei To­rah – and in 1976, pub­lished a third vol­ume in the se­ries. This vol­ume fo­cused on Jewish fes­ti­vals and fol­lowed the style of the pre­vi­ous works. Ya­halomi also pub­lished ar­ti­cles on the weekly To­rah por­tion in Haboker, a pop­u­lar Zion­ist He­brew news­pa­per that ceased pub­li­ca­tion in 1965, and then in Hat­zofeh. He be­came one of the driv­ing forces, ed­i­tors and main con­trib­u­tors for the 1969 tome in mem­ory of the Strzy­zow com­mu­nity.

Her­zog Col­lege pres­i­dent Rabbi Ye­huda Bran­des, who grew up in Tel Aviv, re­calls that Ya­halomi would give a Tal­mud class on Shab­bat morn­ing and a class in Has­sidism on Shab­bat af­ter­noon.

Peninei Avot was ready for print by Jan­uary 1948, but was de­layed from be­ing pub­lished due to lack of funds. By the time the book was printed in 1949, Ya­halomi could write, “With the help of the God of Is­rael, the great and holy thing that we have waited for and an­tic­i­pated with eyes that pine for al­most 2,000 years has arisen and come into be­ing: The State of Is­rael has been es­tab­lished, and the army for the de­fense of Is­rael has been es­tab­lished!”

And then, in a per­sonal note, Ya­halomi added: “And I too, the youngest in the le­gions of Is­rael, a brand plucked from the fire and from wa­ter – I mer­ited to join the army for the de­fense of Is­rael.”

In a mov­ing as­sess­ment of his jour­ney, Ya­halomi wrote: “In­stead of be­ing in ig­no­min­ious danger of death in prison and in camps for no rea­son – I mer­ited to sit in for­ti­fied po­si­tions and to be in danger for the sake of our peo­ple and our land; In­stead of suf­fer­ing from cold and heat in Siberia and Kaza­khstan – I mer­ited that I should be cold and hot for the sake of our peo­ple and our land.” ■

By the time the book was printed in 1949, Ya­halomi could write, ‘With the help of the God of Is­rael, the great and holy thing that we have waited for and an­tic­i­pated with eyes that pine for al­most 2,000 years has arisen’

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

ASHKE­NAZI CHIEF RABBI Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Her­zog (right) and the Ris­hon Lezion (Rabbi Yitzhak Nis­sim) visit Ashkelon in 1955. Her­zog penned a short let­ter of en­cour­age­ment for ‘Peninei Avot.’

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