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A Fire Burns in Kotsk: A Tale of Hasidism;Esoteric Hasidic Ideas. Hasidic Jews and Alcohol. Jewish Elitism. Jews and the Polish November 1830 Insurrection. Jewish Spies

jan peczkis|Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The setting of this book is at Kotsk (Kock), in Russian-ruled partitioned Poland, around 1825. It is a novel originally written in 1946 by Menashe Unger, who had been a Polish Jew from a Hasidic family, and an assiduous analyst of oral and written Hasidic wisdom, on which he based this novel. (Glenn Dynner, p. xi).

Because this work touches many different topics, I examine a few of them:


Consider the Safed Kabbalist Isaac Luria (d. 1572). (p. 26). The transmigration of souls (GILGUL NESHAMOT) is identified as an important doctrine in Hasidism that has roots in Lurianic kabbalah. A soul has to be reborn several times in order to atone for sins or to fulfill all 613 commandments. The souls of those guilty of grave sins may transmigrate into animals, plants, and stones. (p. 182).


Nowadays, we are told that the Talmud is an object of study, and not something that governs Jewish behavior. This may largely be true of 21st-century Talmud-informed Jews, but was certainly not true of their 19th-century counterparts in Russian-ruled central Poland. This work makes mention of many specific Talmudic tractates with regard to everyday issues of Jewish conduct. (e. g, p. 10, 12, 63, 80, 87, 90, 130, 136, 171-172, 185, 218).

I invite the reader to look up these verses in the online Babylonian Talmud (Soncino version), as I did. For example, in this book (pp. 171-172), Shabbat 127b is quoted as saying that hospitality is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence. Actually, this verse is located in Shabbath 127a, not Shabbath 127b, where it says, “Rab Judah said in Rab's name: Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shechinah…”


Interestingly, there is a folk saying about a rabbi who ruled that a cow that fell into a pit could not be removed on the Sabbath. Upon learning that the cow was his, the rabbi immediately changed his ruling and allowed the cow to be pulled out of the pit. (p. 82). [The Christian reader can think of eighteen centuries earlier, when the Pharisees accused Jesus Christ of doing work on the Sabbath because He was healing people. Jesus noted the irony: The Pharisees had no problem “doing work on the Sabbath” when it came to unhesitatingly pulling out a farm animal that had fallen into a pit. (Matthew 12:11)].


It was common for Jews to think of the consumption of alcohol as a GOYISH vice. Unger depicts a situation, in a tavern, where a group of five Hasidim were drinking and smirking at the rebbes nearby. He writes, “Eventually, one of them, a very elderly Koshenitse [Kozienice] Hasid, couldn’t contain himself and shouted at them: ‘Wise guys! None of your conversation is about Judaism. Have you ever seen creatures like this? They sit there all night, drink like regular Gentiles and make fun of honest Jews and tsaddikim.’” (p. 15).

This work has an unusual frankness about the extent of the Jewish drinking of alcohol. (e g., p. 13-15, 42-44, 100-105, 133-134, 142, 149, 178-179, 186-187, 190). The Hasids’ imbibing of alcohol is commonly framed in terms of religious ecstasy. However, most of the instances mentioned in this book have no clear relationship to religious experiences. On the other hand, the Hasidim commonly thought that everyday life could be sacralized (Glenn Dynner, p. xiv), and so hard drinks could also qualify (or be rationalized) as something religious. In any event, Hasidic drinking sometimes clearly veered into drunkenness (p. 44, 103, 134, 186, 229), and there is an account of a group of Hasidim getting into a fistfight outside a tavern. (p. 126).


Do Jews think that they are better than everyone else? Author Menashe Unger relates the following about Reb Dovid Lelever [R. David Biderman of Lelow (1746-1814)], “And once at the festive Sabbath table he said: ‘One cannot find fault in a Jew. Whenever we see a bad person who’s a Jew, that’s just the Gentile part of him, but in the part that’s a Jew there can’t possibly be any bad.’” (pp. 27-28).


Author Menashe Unger claims that the Polish military leadership at first did not want the involvement of the Jews in the 1830 Insurrection, because the Jews could then demand their rights, which the Poles did not want to grant. (p. 139). However, this work does not specify what these demands entailed, and whether they partook of equal rights or special rights. Unger also suggests that Poles did not want noble Polish blood to mix with Jewish blood on the battlefield. (p. 139). However, this evidently was a mirror-image of the earlier Jewish attitude, which had included a long history of Jews buying themselves out of military service--a fact that is recognized (p. 145). More on this later.

Polish General Antoni Ostrowski, described as a progressive and an opponent of religious prejudices, reached out to the Jews. He tried to obtain a hefty loan for the Insurrection, with specified large Polish properties as collateral. (pp. 142-143, 148-149, 158). [The perceptive reader realizes that a relationship based on financial dependency rarely leads to a real and lasting friendship. In fact, some Jews gloated at the prospect that the Poles will prove unable to repay the loan, and the ownership of the extensive Polish properties will then pass effortlessly to the Jews. (p. 149)].

General Ostrowski also attempted to get Reb Itshe Meirl and the Kotsker Rebbe to get the local Jews to support the Polish insurrection. (p. 143). The ensuing discussions in the council at Moshe Khalfan’s house are revealing. Author Menashe Unger comments, “The main question was: can the Jews risk open conflict with the Russian government? The Jews of Poland were afraid that even if the Polish rebellion were successful, the Russian government would subsequently take its revenge on the Jews living in Russia.” (p. 144). It is obvious that the Jews were thinking in terms of self-interest, and not in any sense as “Poles” in terms of Polish interests. After all, the Poles faced exactly the same dilemma! A successful uprising would restore part of the former Polish state, but leave the remaining Poles in Russia at the tsar’s mercy. If the insurrection failed, the Russian authorities would wreak ghastly reprisals on Poles in the Kresy AND in so-called Congress Poland. (That is exactly what happened.)

At the council, some Jews objected to offering Jewish support because, according to them, the military acts of Berek Jozelewicz, in the 1794 Kosciuszko Insurrection, had done no good for the Jews, and Poles even desecrate his grave. (p. 145). [However, the reader should know that Jozelewicz’s regiment of Jewish volunteer cavalry is probably a legend—actually part of the urban militia defending Warsaw from the Russians, and not an independent regiment. (p. 56). In addition, Jozelewicz was less a Polish patriot and more an opportunist. See my review of Jews and the Military: A History. Finally, and in any case, Jozelewicz must be kept in perspective. Only a small fraction of Poland’s Jews ever supported Polish independentist efforts, even outwardly, and Jews frequently sided with Poland’s enemies. See my review of History of the Jews in Russia and Poland: From the Earliest Times Until the Present Day].

The discussion at the council itself showed the Jews’ ambivalent loyalties. Some Jews spoke favorably of Nikolai Novosiltsev, the imperial commissioner in the Russian-ruled Kingdom of Poland. (p. 145). He was receptive to “gifts” (big bribes), allowing the Jews (for a time) to buy their way out of military service. Some of the Jews pointed out that Novosiltsev is only responding to big bribes, and that he is only using the Jews to spite the Poles. Other Jews agreed, but said that it did not matter, because whatever improved the Jews’ situation [as they saw it; and even at Polish expense] was something good. (p. 145). [Note that the “Polish Jews had it bad” exculpation is not supported by the text. Some Jews owned considerable personal wealth, which is specified. (pp. 140-141, 159). The fact that leading Poles had to go to the Jews, for a massive loan to support their Insurrection, vividly testifies to the fact that the Jews were the privileged economic overclass in Poland. Of course, most Jews were not wealthy, but then again neither were most Poles.]

Fast forward to May 1831. The Poles expelled the Jews from their armies, and imposed a payment on them to be released from military service. (p. 160). [The astute reader must ask: Did the common practice of Jews buying their way out of military service—and that often in underhanded ways—create a long-term poisoned legacy that made gentiles instinctively suspicious of the loyalties of Jewish soldiers, even to modern times (as in the Alfred Dreyfus case)?]


A recurrent theme, of the chapter on the November 1830 Insurrection, is that both Poles and Russians are mistreating Jews, and hanging many of them as spies. The information in this chapter sheds some indirect light on this.

The Poles recruited Jews as spies. (p. 142). No doubt, the Russians did also. Berl Khayem, one of the Jews who spied for the Poles, proclaimed that he was doing this not for the money, but because of his loyalty to Poland and his hatred of the Russians. (p. 155). (Does this imply that most Jews who engaged in espionage did so for mercenary reasons?)

The text indicates that Jews were sometimes accused of spying because the gentiles, not understanding Jewish ways, mistook Jewish religious mannerisms and gestures as secret communication with the enemy (p. 146, 152), and because they thought of Hebrew text, which they could not read, as secret code. (p. 153). However, one must ask if those Jews who were spies did in fact use cryptic religious gestures and writings to their advantage.

Reb Itshe Meirl was arrested by the Poles as a spy for the Russians—for a perfectly rational reason. He was travelling at an unusually early time in the morning. (pp. 150—on).

Finally, Jews were not the only ones accused of espionage for the Russians. Various Polish peasants were also. (p. 153).
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