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  • Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America by Samuel C. Heilman
  • Debra Kaufman (bio)
Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America. By Samuel C. Heilman. Oakland: University of California Press, 2017 xiii + 318 pp.

Even if one has no particular interest in Orthodox Judaism, whatever Samuel C. Heilman writes is of interest to Jewish studies scholars. At first, both the title and description of the stories of five Hasidic dynasties and their handling of succession problems seem somewhat esoteric, geared for an audience interested in the internecine dynamics of a few aberrant dynasties: Munkacs and Boyan/Kopyczynitz (with a leadership vacuum), [End Page 446] Bobov and Satmar (with competing successors) and Chabad (with no successor). This seems especially true since the transition from one leader to the next in most Hasidic communities goes relatively smoothly. However, in the hands of a master storyteller and a keen observer of both time and context, Heilman creates a book that is anything but esoteric and one that is frankly quite absorbing. By focusing on the anomalies rather than the rule, we learn much about the fraught processes and the politics of ambition and competition that attend leadership transitions, religious or otherwise.

In the prologue, Heilman makes clear what his book is not: it is not about theology, or ideological arguments, or the teachings and writings of Hasidic rebbes, or the devotion of their followers. It is a socio-historical analysis of the patterns of contemporary Hasidic succession. In those same pages, he also makes clear the inherent difficulties of writing a book about a sacred community, which, despite its extraordinary status, presents the same ordinary conflicts that beset all studies that deal with biography, personality and history.

Heilman's initial discomfort is a part of the success of the book. He makes clear that despite his deep respect and regard for the Orthodox communities of which he writes, he is writing first and foremost as a social scientist, one who does his best to put his biases "on the shelf" and to maintain an "ethical neutrality" throughout the book (xvi). In his prologue, Heilman makes evident the ways in which the roles of researcher and Orthodox Jew may collide in the writing of his book, in which an analysis of succession may, by necessity, reveal the nitty-gritty and sometimes less than admirable processes that go into leadership transition. In part as a way of explaining why so many of his insider sources are anonymous and in part as a way of accounting for potential pushback from the Hasidic communities under study, Heilman appeals to the reader by asking the following questions: " Is it mortifying to describe a break between a father and his son if it was an essential step in what led to succession? Is it upsetting to describe the unflattering views that some hold toward their competitors in a struggle over succession? Is it embarrassing to describe the misgivings a rebbe has about his role and his desire to occasionally escape its constraints?" (xvi-xvii).

For researchers this kind of discomfort is not uncommon, nor should it be taken lightly. It points to an important tension in scholarly research. In all our writing we must maintain a delicate balance between our roles as "objective" researchers and the need for empathy in understanding our respondents and subject matter. What motivates our research and what often makes it so brilliant is our ability to make the balance between objectivity and empathy explicit. This is especially true when [End Page 447] we are re-telling and/or investigating the power politics that govern all communities, not just the Hasidic dynasties of the past century.

Because Hasidism represents a world dominated by men's perspectives, motivations and experiences, women are often invisible in the public/ political world of succession. But Heilman takes us behind the scenes to family intrigues, and most particularly to dowager claims, for a more nuanced view of leadership succession. Some of the best stories are of early battles within some Hasidic dynasties while still on European soil. In one of his strongest chapters, Heilman chronicles the unsuccessful succession...


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pp. 446-448
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