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Untold Tales of the Hasidim

Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism

David Assaf

Publication Year: 2012

This fascinating volume reveals some of the dark, dramatic episodes concealed in the folds of the hasidic cloak--shocking events and anomalous figures in the history of Hasidism. Using tools of detection, Assaf extracts historical truth from a variety of sources by examining how the same events are treated in different memory traditions, whether hasidic, maskilic, or modern historical, and tells the stories of individuals from the hasidic elites who found themselves unable to walk the trodden path. By placing these episodes and individuals under his historical lens, Assaf offers a more nuanced historical portrayal of Hasidism in the nineteenth-century context.

Published by: Brandeis University Press


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pp. c-ii

Title Page

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pp. iii-vi


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pp. vii-x

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Preface to the English-language Edition

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pp. xi-xiv

In every respect a historical study, Untold Tales of the Hasidim also seeks to tell a compelling tale. True, this book has all the trappings of critical academic writing, including notes and a detailed bibliography, yet it also possesses features of mystery, drama, and tragedy, whose spellbinding powers I hope can be glimpsed among the lines, words, and letters, placing matters in a new and surprising light....

Translator’s Note

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pp. xv-xvi


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pp. xvii-xviii

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pp. xix-xxiv

Two entwined themes crisscross and bind the chapters of this book: one is the anomalous, strange, and aberrant individuals who did not keep to their predecessors’ straight and narrow path, but chose to carve out their own instead; the other is literary “memory wars,” the battles ostensibly fought over persons, events, phenomena, and processes between various, often opposing, traditions. It is also possible to define this study as an attempt...

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1 | “Lies My Teacher Told Me”: Hasidic History as a Battlefield

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pp. 1-28

In 1995, in a book titled Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James W. Loewen debunked axioms long held dear in American history textbooks.2 For me, this book sparked the question of how graduates of hasidic institutions would react if given the opportunity to subject the history of their movement—as marketed by the mechanisms shaping and preserving their society’s collective memory—to...

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2 | Apostate or Saint?: In the Footsteps of Moshe, the Sonof Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady

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pp. 29-96

Among the mitnagedim, Berl Katzenelson once related to Dov Sadan, there is a saying concerning the hasidic custom of singing “bambam.” The mitnagedim interpret this as an acrostic that stands for “Bernyu Moshenyu-Beide Meshumadim” (Bernyu and Moshe are both converts),1 as referring to Dov Ber (Bernyu) Friedman of Leova,2 Yisrael of Ruzhin’s son who in 1869 abandoned his hasidim and went over to the maskilic camp, and to Moshe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyady’s son who converted to Christianity, the main protagonist of this chapter....

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3 | One Event, Multiple Interpretations: The Fall of the Seer of Lublin

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pp. 97-119

At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, one of the most adulated figures among hasidic leaders and their flock, both in Poland and beyond, was the zaddik Rabbi Yaakov Yitshak Horowitz, better known as the Seer of Lublin (1745?–1815).1 As his...

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4 | “Happy Are the Persecuted”: The Opposition to Bratslav Hasidism

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pp. 120-153

Bratslav Hasidism—its personalities, thought, and ways—is recognized both by hasidim in other sects and scholars of Hasidism as an exceptional phenomenon and a distinct socioreligious branch of the hasidic world. From the sect’s earliest days, the strong colors in which its founder, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, was painted attracted the interest of observers of this figure and his path. Unable to remain neutral, some observers moved toward amity and wonder; others tended toward suspicion and contempt. The controversy...

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5 | “Excitement of the Soul”: The World of Rabbi Akiva Shalom Chajes of Tulchin

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pp. 154-174

The end of Rabbi Akiva Shalom Chajes’s life (1815–68)1 could not have been predicted from its beginnings. An acknowledged, incisive Torah scholar and a fervent mitnaged for a significant portion of his life, Chajes served during its final chapter as a hasidic rabbi in the small Ukrainian town of Dubova;2 an outspoken opponent of zaddikim and hasidim in his youth in the Russian town of Tulchin, Chajes became, in the autumn of his days, an...

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6 | “How Times Have Changed”: The World of Rabbi Menahem Nahum Friedman of Itscan

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pp. 175-205

The following tale is told of the Hebrew linguist Moshe Aharon Wiesen (1878–1953), who as a youth in Galicia served one of the zaddikim of the day. Summoned by the zaddik, he was informed that he must leave the court—heretical books had been found in his possession. Upon querying the zaddik, Wiesen discovered that the book in question was Avraham Shalom...

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7 | “Confession of My Tortured, Afflicted Soul: ”The World of Rabbi Yitshak Nahum Twersky of Shpikov

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pp. 206-236

The confession at the heart of this chapter—and, in the words of its author, “the confession of my life, withered and faded before its time, the confession of my tortured, afflicted soul, the confession of my squandered talents”—is one of the more moving literary documents in the history of Hasidism. Indeed, it is almost unique. In this self- assessment, Yitshak Nahum...


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pp. 237-310

Works Cited

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pp. 311-324


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pp. 325-336

E-ISBN-13: 9781611683059
E-ISBN-10: 161168305X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781584658610

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2012