Jonathan Boyarin on Menashe Unger’s Tales of the Kotzker Rebbe

Many years ago long before I visited Poland, I read a wonderful volume From a Ruined Garden: The Memorial Books of Polish Jewry by Jack Kugelmass & Jonathan Boyarin (1983) consisting of translated selections from the Yizkor books of destroyed Polish Jewish communities chosen with an eye to presenting ethnographic details. The book gave one a vivid sense of daily life, holiday observance, and the local village presented in the words of those who came from those towns. In addiiton, the editors were acutely aware of the role of memory and representation in these accounts, providing the novel approach of studying Judaism from a contemporary ethnographic and cultural anthropology perspective. One of the editors Jonathan Boyarin has spent his productive academic career producing a shelf of books at that intersection of ethnography and Yiddishkeit.

Boyarin’s most recent work is a translation of Menashe Unger’s A Fire Burns in Kotsk: A Tale of Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland (Wayne State Press, 2015). I have a long time academic interest in Polish Hasidism and would have naturally gravitated to the book, but we met recently at a conference on Ethnography, Reading and Judaism, where Boyarin was praised as a pioneer of asking the type of questions that the conference sought to address in his 1993 book The Ethnography of Reading.(At the conference, I was the lone non-ethnographer by training).


In earlier works, Boyarin addressed questions of Jewish otherness through comparisons with how European Christians dealt with Native American peoples especially in his work The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe and recently he has been turning his sights locally including a study of the interview process of hiring a rabbi for his own Stanton Street Synagogue in his Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul: A Summer on the Lower East Side, where he reflects on questions of continuity and the change from the older European born congregants to the new Modern Orthodox direction. (I am surprised that those who read everything on the Modern Orthodox cultural wars have not taken notice of this book with its transcriptions of rabbinic interviews by three YU and one YCT candidates.) Boyarin is now working on a volume based on his participant/observer study in a local yeshiva. But I must note, that his approach is not theological, sociological, or based insider Orthodox language. Rather his perspective is as someone looking to capture ethnographic details of identity, memory, hierarchy, and change.

Boyarin’s most recent work A Fire Burns in Kotsk: A Tale of Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland translates the 1949 Yiddish telling of Kotzker stories in novella form by the non-observant socialist Menashe Unger.

To turn to the subject of the book, Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotzk, better known as the Kotzker Rebbe (1787–1859) was a leading Hasidic rabbi and leader. Even though the Kotzker died in 1859, the early twentieth century saw his reputation ascend through many works that painted him as an epigramic master, of sharp wit, and suffering fools poorly. Unto his name were appended stories from diverse sources including R. Israel Salanter stories, sufi tales, and tales from 1001 Nights including the dream of a bridge tale. The major collections of his sayings appeared in 1929 and 1938. Through this process the Kotzker was recast as the individualist, truth-seeker, disestablishmentarian, and in later years proto-existentialist.

Who wrote these stories? At first, modernizing pulpit rabbis in cities like Warsaw or Bucharest needing to relate to those flocking to the city but still nostalgic for their Hasidic upbringing, they incorporated oral traditions and Hasidic lore. Then Western literary figures such as Buber produced Neo-Hasidism, and finally Hasidim themselves took to the genre. In the inter-war period, the focus of the stories shifts from the Rebbe to the common man and to social issues. Now, in the last thirty years these stories are recast as authentic Hasidic modes of being and as if actually written by the Hasidic court. (For more on the topic- see my review of the recent literature here).

Menashe Ungar was non-observant journalist who had grown up as the son of a prominent Hasidic rabbi, receiving rabbinic ordination at the age of 17 – then he turned his back on the religious world to attend university and join the Labor Zionist movement. He worked as a stone mason and journalist, and eventually emigrated to America, where he spent the remainder of his life writing about East European Jews, their histories, folk tales and wisdom. His stories incorporates stories that were told by his family into his historical account as well as those he gleaned as part of the Yiddish ethnography projects as a collector (zamler). Centered around a core narrative of crisis in Hasidic leadership, Unger offers a detailed account of the everyday Hasidic court life—filled with plenty of alcohol, stolen geese, and wives pleading with their husbands to come back home- enough to please an ethnographer. The book was first published in Buenos Aires in 1949. Unger’s volume became one of the leading sources for the legends of the Kotzker and reflects a period when Eastern European Jewish immigrants enjoyed reading about Hasidic culture in Yiddish articles and books, even as they themselves were rapidly assimilating into American culture.

1) What is the relationship of Unger, a secularist with socialist leanings, to his religious past?

Most accounts we have today of nineteenth-century Hasidic life are either hagiographic, Maskilic, or academic. Hagiographic accounts are generally produced by or for the community of descendants and posthumous followers of earlier leaders and movements. Maskilic accounts were polemics, often containing information that is of retrospective value, but primarily designed in their own time to show how much Hasidic life was “stuck in the past,” and sometimes how much Hasidic masters were manipulating their followers. Recent academic historiography of Hasidism has, to a large extent, begun to focus on the social forms and everyday lives of earlier Hasidim, rather than on religious ideologies, and it is producing extremely valuable work.

Unger’s extensive body of writing about Hasidism doesn’t really fit well within the above typology. He was the youngest son of the Rebbe of Zhabno, a striking figure who comes across, at least in some accounts, as both extremely punctilious (he refused to eat the meat slaughtered by a shochet who had yawned on Shabbes) and extremely concerned with the welfare of Jews (he was known for his work to find ways to release agunot in the aftermath of World War I). With his family, Menashe spent the years of World War I as a refugee in Vienna. In those years as well, he was the close friend and eventually brother-in-lawof the future Bluzhever Rebbe (who like Unger came to America). So, while Unger was raised within that traditionalist world, perhaps precisely because he had older brothers who could carry on the tradition of leadership, he was freer than they to break away from it. He obviously became a freethinker, but it seems equally clear that if he ever “rebelled” against Hasidism, that rebellion did not crystallize, as it did for so many others, into a lifelong ideology of anti-religiosity or anti-Hasidism. If anything, Unger seems to have stressed those aspects of Hasidism that might, for a progressive generation, have seemed something like harbingers or first stirrings of socialism.

At the same time, Unger shares with today’s historiographers of “flesh and blood Hasidim” the recognition that however remarkable their doctrines and forms of organization may have been, they were flawed and very mortal beings, like the rest of us. Thus, for example, the book contains extensive and detailed discussions of the consumption of alcohol. This feature especially caught the interest of my friend Glenn Dynner, who wrote the introduction right after publishing a book about Jewish tavern keeping in Eastern Europe.

Similarly, Unger imaginatively but convincingly details the participation of Jewish rank-and-file and especially of Jewish community leaders in the Polish uprising of 1830 in a way that fully represents the Jewish specificity of their deliberations about whether or not to do so.

2) Unger was in his time called an ethnographer, thoughts?

I would be cautious about calling him an ethnographer—and that’s not because the title is a particularly exalted one, but rather because it suggests canons of both method and representation to which Unger did not necessarily adhere. Something like “ethnographic novelist” would be more appropriate. But then another level of specification is needed, at least for this particular book, which somehow manages to read as though it were an eyewitness account. So figure me if I suggest the exceedingly awkward portmanteau “ethnographic-memoristic novelist.”

One gets the impression that at many points he’s assembling pieces of narrative that he received orally in childhood. Here I’m extrapolating from my reading of another remarkable book about the Kotsker Rebbe—Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose Kotsk: In Gerangl Far Emesdikeyt was posthumously published in 1973.There Heschel explains that, growing up in a milieu of Gerer Hasidim in Warsaw, he was told many stories about the Kotsker who had lived a century before. One has the impression that, with Unger as with Heschel, such childhood stories formed not only the narrative font, but the bedrock sensibilities around which the entire book is constructed.

In Heschel’s magnificent book, it’s often hard to tell where the Kotsker’s thought ends and Heschel’s own begins. But in any case, Heschel’s main goal is to give the reader a powerful sense of the Kotsker’s moral vision. That comes through in Unger’s book as well, but again, Unger seems more to imagine the Hasidim he writes about as people with whom we can identify, people who, so to speak, we might ourselves be if we had lived in their time and place. The Kotsker himself, whose life presents a dramatic story at both the individual and communal levels, has been a favorite theme of many Yiddish writers, perhaps most famously until now Joseph Opatoshu in his In Polish Woods.

3) How much is fiction and how much true in these stories?

Although for some-especially historians and genealogists, perhaps-that’s the $64,000 question, it’s not one I’m making any attempt to sort out here, especially in my role as translator. Even asking it gets us into some very deep-water questions about the making of history—as if somehow the best historiography was “all true” and not at all “fiction.” It’s not hard to see the problems with that formulation, even if you’re not a radical constructionist.

But the question remains an intriguing one; however you want to nuance it. Nowhere does the original Yiddish book publication indicate that this is a “novel,” and perhaps Unger wanted the question of its genre to be left ambiguous. (Unlike contemporary writers, he probably didn’t have to face a publisher’s PR departments with their requirements for knowing exactly how to pigeonhole, and thus market, a particular book).

I think his goal was to rely as much as he could on things that were known and knowable; for instance, the wedding in Ostilye was a famous moment in Hasidic dynastic history. Even more pertinent to the book’s verisimilitude is the inclusion of “external” (non-Hasidic and non-Jewish history), especially the chapters about the Polish rebellion of 1830 that I mentioned above. At a slightly more fine-grained scale, many of the incidents portrayed (say, the encounters with particular Hasidic leaders in Ostilye) may have been based on Unger’s research about the Hasidic alignments at the time, or about accounts he either found in collections of Hasidic vignettes or heard in his own childhood. Bottom line: he wanted it both to be entertaining and compelling, and to be as “true” as he could make it.

4) Do you attach any significance to the book being published in 1949 Argentina after the Holocaust?

It appeared as part of Dos Poylishe Yidntum (Polish Jewry), a major series undertaken by the Argentina Yiddishists which, as far as I know, went on for decades. Like most Yiddish writers, while Unger was paid for serializing his work in the Yiddish press, he generally had to find pre-subscribers and other supporters to publish his work in book form. I remember visiting the Yiddish writer Benek Kac in Paris in the early 1980s, and seeing on his coffee table a list of names under the heading, “To send books and ask for money.”

Jonathan boyarin

5) What is ethnography and why is it important to understand Judaism?

Ethnography originally meant the description (“graphy” or writing down) of a particular people (“ethnos”) and their culture. That was back in the day when it was plausible to think of people as mostly interacting with their own ethnic group, and hence of “cultures” as distinct, intact wholes.

The term is used much more broadly today for the qualitative description of almost any social setting where a set of people (defined and delimited at least for certain purposes and for a certain period of time) interact in ways that are to be discerned by the ethnographer. In regard particularly to the study of Judaism, Jews and Jewishness, this means that rather than starting with a notion what defines those things, an ethnographer spends time with a subset of the people called Jews and studies what they actually do, say, eat, fight about, and so forth.

Ethnography thus helps us get away from sterile arguments about what Judaism really is, or who really is a Jew.

In periods of rapid geographical, social and cultural change, it’s an especially fine-grained tool for studying continuities and discontinuities-especially those between one Jewish generation and their ancestors, and between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. For example, when I wrote about the changing congregation of the Stanton Street Shul, I explained that the young people who join become members of the “Chevra Bnai Yaakov Anshei Brzezan.” That name of course means “people of Brzezan,” but none of these young people are from Brzezan or even had ancestors from that place. Still, there’s a significant sense in which they become what I call “fictive Brzezaner” when they join the congregation. Or at least it seemed that way to me when I was writing in 2008. Even then some of the younger members thought I was just being a romantic anthropologist, and if I were writing today, I don’t know if I’d try to make that argument. So again, one of the useful things ethnography does (when it’s done right) is to make it clear that what we’re being given is a snapshot, and not a distilled cultural essence.

6) What is your conception and method in anthropology?

My method in anthropology is to get in there and talk to the people. I do always try to “get in there” in an unobtrusive way. Part of the reason I became an ethnographer of “my own people” was that I couldn’t easily imaging just showing up to some group of people with whom I had no historical or other connection and saying, “Okay, tell me all about your kinship rules.” Of course the other reason—and the main reason why I made the statistically unwise career choice to become a cultural anthropologist—was simply a burning desire to gain some sense of the Yiddish-speaking world my ancestors had come out of. Besides, this was a time when the colonial assumptions of earlier anthropologists—that it was always “us” studying “them”—were being criticized in favor of “letting the natives talk back” and likewise, in seeing that we, too, “have culture.” A Berkeley anthropologist named Gerald Berreman actually wrote a famous article in the early ‘70s called “Bringing It All Back Home.” It reads as fairly tame now, but it was quite a new perspective then.

Especially as a graduate student, it was terribly important to me that this work have some political relevance. In that context, Walter Benjamin turned out to be an absolutely key influence. His “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” and especially his insistence that the memory of the dead has revolutionary power, and that we must fight, among other things, to protect those dead from domination, helped me think about possible links between my nostalgic desire to understand East European Jewish life and my political concerns in my own time. More broadly (and perhaps less tendentiously), his work on the analysis of bits of past culture gave me some clues about how to approach a culture in ruins, one which to a large extent could only be reconstructed through the assemblage of fragmented memories. Thus, through his writings, he taught me that the lives of the ancestors still mattered—something that, otherwise, might have seemed nothing but a chauvinistic or nostalgic indulgence of ethnic identity.

7 ) What is the connection of Native American Indians and Jews?

My interest, when I wrote The Unconverted Self, wasn’t really to explore what Indians and Jews might have in common, other than the different and similar ways both of those groups have served as foils for the elaboration of the European Christian—and particularly Catholic—collective self. In fact I juxtaposed rather than comparing Jews to Indians: I identified the former as a collective Other both earlier than the Christian collective identity and inside Christendom, and the latter as an Other “discovered” after Christendom had been more or less settled, and outside the bounds of that realm. So ultimately that book is about the temporal and spatial boundaries of a dominant collective, and especially the anxiety those boundaries mark and create.

8 ) You do your work very close up and very self-referential either in your Stanton Street Shul book, is this style unique?

This style—is certainly not unique to me. It’s one of the varieties of what is called auto-ethnography, a term that’s used to mean both study of one’s own group, and study of the group through self-examination. I suppose I’m doing both forms of auto-ethnography at once. I use it because it works for me. I’ve never been comfortable doing formal interviews or surveys.

More positively, I decided a long time ago that I was going to integrate my research with my own personal development as closely as possible. One advantage of this, I think, is that my writing sticks fairly close to what I actually see and hear. I never start from current theory and then try to draw on bits of my experience to confirm, refute or modify that theory—although to be sure, broad comparative concerns (such as the ethnography of reading, or the politics of memory) have something to do with the situations I place myself in, and what I notice or record about them. One disadvantage of this method, at least for some readers, is that they find passages in my reading solipsistic or a bit self-absorbed. I can stand that, although I do dread coming off as arrogant!

9) How does your study affect or shape your religious life?

I’ve never thought about this way before, but it may be that in my more recent ethnographies of the Jewish Lower East Side I’m really working on some big issue related to the very possibility of making myself as a Jew there.

For the book about the Stanton Street Shul, it was something like the question of authenticity versus continuity: could I recognize the young adults who formed the new congregation as somehow “my people” (something that had been very easy for me when most of the congregation were East European immigrants)? What to make of the fact that my wife and I were staying and growing older, while the young adults who stayed for a few years and moved on, only to have others replace them, somehow seemed to stay forever young?

In my current work learning at—and learning about—the yeshiva on the Lower East Side, I’m doing, I guess, at least three things. One is trying to gain some of the facility in the study of texts that is, after all, the traditional criterion for a fully-franchised male in Rabbinic Judaism. Another is gathering material for what I now expect to eventually become a publishable, book-length ethnography—although I didn’t know that when I started studying there. The third, and for me most important, is the learning itself. One of the things I like about the yeshiva, as opposed to the academy, is that there’s no obligation to produce. There, study is not only its own reward; it is its own goal.

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