Thursday, May 11, 2006

Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society (Book Review)

Although I am fascinated to read about the lives and teachings of the great Chassidic masters, reading academic books on Chassidus often bores me to tears. Perhaps I am just put off by the cold and detached tone in which they are written, or maybe it is reading through the myriad of pages in their introductions where they tell you what they are going to write about before they really start writing.

When I first read about Professor Glenn Dynner's new book, "Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society", I was intrigued after I read a sentence in the book's description, "Dynner also mines the Hasidic texts for valuable historical and biographical data." I was also encouraged before I started reading the book since the index included ten pages referencing "Moses Hayyim Ephraim of Sudzylkow" (i.e. the Degel Machaneh Ephraim).

Since I am primarily interested in Ukrainian Chassidus, much of this book on the spread of Chassidus in Poland was of relatively little interest. However, noteworthy were chapters four "Yihus" and chapter six "Sermons, Stories, and Songs: Marketing Hasidism".

Chapter four was particularly interesting to me since it provided and answer to a question I posted about on the subject of yichus last Friday. In this chapter, Professor Dynner wrote,

"A definition that begins to reveal the nuances of yihus as understood in eastern Europe is offered by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog: "it relates to family background and position, but cannot be called pedigree since it can be acquired currently as well as by inheritance, and does not necessarily require transmission 'by blood'." This is a good starting point in that it reveals how east European yihus could mean something more than lineage and could be attained as well as inherited. Yihus may be more precisely defined as prestige grounded in the scholarly, mystical-magical, political and, to a lesser extent, economic achievements of one's ancestors and living relatives. It transcended mere lineage because it was conferred on a person by a virtue of his own attainments or those of living brother, brothers-in-law, cousins, sons, sons-in-laws, and so on."

I usually do not read appendices, however, I found appendices one and three to be especially noteworthy. In Appendix I -Yihus and Marriage Strategies of Early Zaddikim outside Central Poland, Dynner wrote, "Moses Hayyim Ephraim was matched with Esther daughter of Gershon of Kuty, the Besht's brother-in-law."

Although I was aware that the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Gershon of Kitov were trying to make a match of their children, I was not aware that this match had actually taken place. I was also not aware that the wife of the Degel Machaneh Ephraim was named Esther.

Additionally, Appendix 3 - Works by Hasidic Authors through 1815 is a very good reference since it provides the names of Chassidic seforim and lists all the people who gave haskamos to them.

While I had problems with the academic tone and use of Polish spellings (e.x. Levi Isaac of Berdyczow and Dov Ber of Miedzyrzecz) in this book, Professor Glenn Dynner has produced a thoroughly researched work that provided me with some new leads in my research on the Degel Machaneh Ephraim. I plan to post more about this in the future.


At May 11, 2006 at 6:16:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

In his "Note on Place Names", Professor Dynner provides four reasons for his choice of the Polish spellings of towns in this book. Reason number four states, "Yiddish town names are by and large eschewed in favor of the foregoing spellings and pronunciations. One reason is merely practical: these names are not standardized in their transliterated rendering: nor do they appear on maps, even those preceding the tragic destruction of European Jewry. Another reason is more idealistic: it is hoped that the reader will come to realize that "Mezheritch" and "Miedzyrzecz" were one town, not two. Employing a single place name constitutes another step in the direction of contextualizing European Jewish."

At May 22, 2006 at 12:21:00 PM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

In Parshas Bereishis, the Degel refers to R' Gershon Kitover as "Dodi Zekeini".


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