A Life Apart - Hasidism in America Image Loading...

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    It seemed after the war that the religious, psychological, and material odds were overwhelmingly against a renewal of Hasidism. For many survivors, religious faith crumbled in the face of mass murder; what kind of God could allow this to happen to his "chosen people"? For many, faith not only in God, but in the rebbes, was shattered. The Hasidic leadership had failed to foresee, prevent, or mitigate the destruction of their followers. Virtually all of the rebbes gave their followers "bad advice" before the war. As Samuel Heilman puts it:

    The three things the rebbes told their Hasidim to do led to their being blown away. The rebbes said: "Don't go to America, the treyfe medina (the unclean country), and don't go to the Zionist state, Palestine. Don't change your clothes or learn the surrounding language." So they couldn't disguise themselves or pass as gentiles. And, the rebbes said, "Stay close to me." They did stay close to the rebbes, but many of the rebbes [the Belzer, the Satmar, the Gerer] ran off and left all their people to die.

    Even before the war, in a 1938 address at New York City's Jewish Theological Seminary, Professor Gershom Scholem, one of the foremost scholars of Hasidism, spoke of them in elegaic terms.

    After the war, there was widespread disbelief that rebuilding was possible.

    Hasidism had already been much weakened in the pre-war decades by encroaching secularism. The war and the Holocaust destroyed the vital European centers: Poland was the heart of Hasidism, yet only fifteen percent of all Polish Jews survived, and an even smaller percentage of Hasidim. From 1939 to 1946, Hasidic religious and communal life had all but ceased, persisting only in the margins, often heroically, in the nooks and crannies of the concentration camps and hiding places. The Hasidim who did survive to make it to the United States were poor and few; they had a limited economic ability to sustain the Hasidic lifestyle and establish religious and educational institutions.

    It is important for Americans to be reminded of the utter devastation of the survivors--Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike, of course. Yaffa Eliach, in Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, tells the story of the arrival in New York of Rabbi Israel Spira, the Grand Rabbi of Bluzhov, in 1946. An American G.I. translated for him into Yiddish Emma Lazarus' famous lines inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

    The rabbi listened intently and wiped a tear from his eye. There he was, the lone survivor of his family; his beard was burnt off, his head and body still covered with open wounds from beatings... He placed his hand on the G.I.'s shoulder and said, 'My friend, the words you have just translated to me are indeed beautiful. We, the few survivors coming to these shores, are indeed poor, tired, and yearning for freedom. But we are no longer masses. We are remnants, a trickle of broken individuals who search for moments of peace in this world, who hope to find a few relatives on these shores.

    For the surviving remnants of the formerly vital Hasidic courts of Europe, their very loneliness and devastation only strengthened the desire to rebuild a community. Certainly one passionate response to genocide is to recreate a safe haven of "insiders," to circle the wagons against the dangerous outside world.

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