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  • Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society
  • Gershon Bacon
Men of Silk: The Hasidic Conquest of Polish Jewish Society, by Glenn Dynner. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. 384 pp. $65.00.

In a bibliographical review essay published a little over a decade ago, David Assaf lamented the imbalance in historical literature about Hasidism. Scholarly attention has been focused primarily on Hasidism's beginnings, with relatively short shrift given to the nineteenth century: "Polish Hasidism, which was the main arena of Hasidism in the nineteenth century, still lacks systematic basic research that will set out the full historical, biographical, and chronological picture, alongside a survey and analysis of the ideological and religious developments in its divisions, courts and many variations" (cited by Dynner, p. 26). We can attribute this imbalance, at least in part, to the desire of the pioneers of research on Hasidism to deal with the movement in its early days, when it was, in their view, a revolutionary and innovative factor, while maintaining their distance from the Hasidism of their own day, which they saw as decadent and fossilized. Thus it is not surprising that Dubnow's magisterial History of Hasidism ends its discussion in the year 1815, just as the movement was beginning its ultimate "conquest" of most of the region.

In the past two years there have appeared two works that have made an important contribution towards achieving the goal of a more general picture of Polish Hasidism: the books by Marcin Wodzinski (Haskalah and Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland: A History of Conflict, 2005) and Glenn Dynner. Despite some major differences of opinion, the two books complement one another and rely on the same combination of internal Hasidic material and a rich variety of Polish archival sources. Together they do much to correct the historical picture of later Hasidism that has suffered from the open hostility of Dubnow, or, alternatively, from the over-identification with the movement based on a tendentious, politicized portrayal, as done by Raphael Mahler.

Dynner's book attempts, for the first time and with a great degree of success, to sketch the mechanics of Hasidic ascendancy in Poland. Dynner discusses the nature and extent of Polish Hasidism in its first stages (Chapter 1); the varied methods of Hasidic takeovers in selected Polish communities (Chapter 2); the close connections between part of the new business elite and Hasidism (Chapter 3); the social structure of the Hasidic leadership and the importance of "yihus" (Chapter 4); the attitudes of the leadership to the masses, in image and reality (Chapter 5); and the marketing of Hasidism using various media, ranging from sermonic literature for the intellectual elite to songs and dance for the simple folk (Chapter 6). Three appendices round out [End Page 215] the volume: on marriage strategies among the Hasidic elite in the first generations of Hasidism (which serves as the background for Dynner's discussion of "yihus"); the translation of a fascinating archival document describing the exorcism of a "dibbuk" from the body of a young boy in Warsaw in 1818; and finally, a listing of books by Hasidic authors until 1815. The latter appendix serves to bolster Dynner's argument about the importance of the printed word in Hasidism. He could have strengthened his argument had he also included reprints of kabbalistic texts that presumably would have interested the learned adepts of the new movement. The author mistakenly includes the collection of stories Shivhei ha'Besht (In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov) among those books attributed to the Baal Shem Tov as author (p. 247).

Dynner's book is innovative in the wide variety of its sources, ranging from Hasidic tales to British missionary journals and Warsaw police reports, but no less in the treatment of those sources (especially his methodological approach to Hasidic tales). Particularly worthy of mention is his systematic use of Polish archival materials to a degree not yet witnessed in historical literature on Hasidism. The author has a first-rate ability to weave these diverse sources into a smooth and coherent narrative. Of the large number of significant findings in this engaging book, limitations of space allow...


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