Hassidic diamonds in Tel Aviv
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’
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.’