Question & Answer With Chabakuk Elisha - A New Generation Of Chassidim
During Musaf on the first day of Sukkos, an elderly chassid originally from Kharkov, Ukraine davened at the amud. I sat in awe at the beauty and tenderness of his voice. As I sat there listening to him, I wondered how the Chassidic world will change once all the elder generation of Chassidim who were born in Poland, Russia, and Hungary pass away.
I approached this elderly chassid on the second day of Sukkos and asked him how he envisioned the character of the Chassidic world changing when we reached a time when the majority of Chassidim are born in the United States and Israel, and when they will not have an attachment to the generation born in Europe.
This chassid answered, "It will only get stronger."
I wish I could agree with the optimism of this chassid, but I tend to take a more pessimistic view.
What do you think? How do you think the Chassidic world will change once we loose our connection to the generation that was born in Eastern Europe ?
Chabakuk Elisha answers:
I'll keep up the age old Jewish tradition of answering a question with a question: What is our heritage? What is the specific significance of Eastern European culture? Jewish heritage has passed through many lands, cultures and eras. Is the Eastern European Jewish flavor more significant that Babylonian Amoraim, Holy Land Tanaim, Egyptian Ivrim, or Canani Avos? What of those? They were probably just as missed – should we not lament them the same way? Maybe we do.
I think that the Kharkover Jew represents all those countries and places – because it all trickled down to him. So who are these lost Jews and cultures? They are us. We are all those things. Modified, updated perhaps, but we – religious Jews of today – we carry on those tradition and bring them to our children. Are they the same? No. Do we lose something? Sure we do; that's the bumpy, curvy, road of history. It's never the same as the generation before – never – but we pick up some good things along the way as well. Nostalgia is a word precisely because this resonates so much – perhaps to Jews even more than to others. We feel attachment to places and people we never knew or visited – we only read or heard of them – but they are part of us, and will always be.
We will miss that Eastern European flavor, I know we will, because we look at those individuals as the bearers of those past traditions to our generation in a new country – probably not that different from the many similar transplantations experienced by Jewry in our history. But we look at those people as a piece of ourselves, and an important one at that – of course we don't want to lose that link! But with all that said, it's the ideals that we believe in, not the trimmings, and the ideals will live on – and I agree and hope that it will only get stronger. And the trimmings? We have them as a part of our makeup, and were creating new ones. We pass it all along with that ever growing package to the next generation, just as the last one passed it on to us.
A Simple Jew responds:
I agree with what you wrote, Chabakuk Elisha. But given the fact that Chassidus began in Podolia and Volhynia (Ukraine) and spread throughout Eastern Europe, it has a distinctive character that ties it to that particular region. How specifically do you think American and Israeli-born Chassidim will change this "Eastern European flavor" in the future?
Chabakuk Elisha answers:
Our environment has a great impact on out thinking. Avrohom Avinu points this out on his way to Egypt when the passuk tells us that Avrohom recognizes that Sara is a beautiful woman. Meforshim tell us that Avrohom was unaware of this before, but when he came to Mitzraim – the land of immorality – he suddenly recognizes her beauty. Why? Because our surroundings affect us – as the saying goes "vi es goy't zich, yid't tzich." Basically the secular culture and values get adopted and added to our identity – often even subconsciously.
Accent, pronunciation, clothing, attitudes, emphasis, it all provides color and feeling – and it all is changing. Take a kid from a chassidishe home in Williamsburg, Crown Heights & Yerushalayim, and you will see many differences in all these areas. Of course, accents differ in all different parts of the world, as do attitudes etc. There seem to be recently adopted American ideals of tolerance (live and let live), freedom and independence; that's fairly new. Liberal charity is a VERY new phenomenon – in Europe, people who had it tended to keep their money. I don't know really, it seems that we can see gradual opening of closed communities, lessening of once tight rules, more open/broad mindedness, perhaps less emotion, an unprecedented (perhaps misplaced) feeling of comfort in our environment… These things were probably not commonly found in European Chassidic communities.
The fact is that specific place & character is so transient… Chassidus as a derech is higher than a space or time – it is no less tied to a place, flavor or culture than it is tied to a year or a place in history; just like it's not 1812 forever, time has moved on, so too has the place and flavor "moved on." Also, Chassidus had long since moved into Russia, Poland, Galicia, Rumania, Hungary, Israel, etc, and they each have had their own flavor and character for some time now. Judaism as a whole has done and continues to do the same. Were all a work in progress, so if you find something meaningful – enjoy it while it lasts!