Category Archives: Extraordinary Individuals

Unique Jews In a Category of Their Own

Jew of the Week: Harry Haft

“The Survivor” of Auschwitz

Herschel “Hertzko” Haft (1925-2007) was born in Poland and orphaned at the young age of 3. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, he ran a smuggling ring with his brother in order to survive. In 1942, he was sent to Auschwitz. An SS officer noticed his muscular physique and decided to train him to be a boxer. Haft was forced to fight other inmates (at the neighbouring Jaworzno camp), often to the death, for the entertainment of the SS officers. He won and survived through a total of 76 fights. With the Soviet Army closing in, the Nazis forced all the inmates on a death march, which Haft also managed to survive. During his escape, he killed a Nazi soldier and put on his uniform. He eventually made it to an American DP camp, and finally settled in New Jersey in 1948. Haft became a light heavyweight boxer and had 21 fights, of which he won 13. His last fight was against a young and up-and-coming Rocky Marciano, who later became heavyweight champion and one of the most famous boxers in history. The Italian mafia threatened Haft and forced him to lose the fight to Marciano. Haft decided to end his boxing career. He got married and opened a small grocery store in Brooklyn, where he lived the rest of his life quietly. In 2007, he was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. A film about his incredible story, The Survivor (starring Ben Foster, Danny DeVito, and John Leguizamo) was released yesterday in Israeli theatres and on HBO in honour of Yom HaShoah.

Words of the Week

We, the God-fearing, criticize and prosecute the secular state, while the secular Jews take action and create facts on the ground. I also used to think that this was the proper approach, and I would curse the heretics with great fervor, anticipating that my curses would be fulfilled. But that did not happen. On the contrary, I saw that they were becoming stronger and stronger. So, I said to myself, that perhaps it is better if we switch roles. I will build the land of Israel in holiness and the seculars can curse me!
– Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, renowned Hasidic leader and Holocaust survivor, on why he made aliyah.

Jew of the Week: Adele HaNeviah

First Lady of Hasidism

The Baal Shem Tov’s Synagogue in Medzibuzh

Adele bat Israel (c. 1720-1787) was born in Podolia (in what is today Ukraine), the eldest of two children of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. Adele (sometimes alternatively spelled “Odel”) grew up learning with her father, and was one of his greatest disciples. She served as his assistant and advisor. Adele went on to be a Hasidic teacher herself and a famed mystic in her own right. In fact, she was known to have divine inspiration, and was sometimes called Adele HaNeviah, “the Prophetess”. When the Baal Shem Tov sought to make aliyah to Israel, he only took with him his two children. They experienced many hardships along the way, including the capsizing of their ship, and being stranded on an island. Adele had been thrown off the ship into a stormy sea, and survived miraculously. The three ultimately returned to Europe. Before her twentieth birthday, Adele married a young Jewish scholar. Together, they made a living by running a shoe shop, and had three children: Her eldest son, Moshe Chaim Ephraim, went on to be a great Hasidic leader and wrote the famed text Degel Machaneh Ephraim. Second son Boruch was instrumental in getting the Hasidic movement going from its new “capital city” of Medzibuzh. Her youngest, daughter Faiga, was the mother of renowned Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Adele was a key link in the chain of Hasidic tradition, and served as the “matriarch” of its first few generations. She has been called the “First Lady” of Hasidism.

The Surprising Story of Russia, Ukraine, and the Jews

Words of the Week

Anyone who has truly practiced a religion knows very well that it is that [which] stimulates the feelings of joy, inner peace, serenity, and enthusiasm that, for the faithful, stand as experimental proof of their beliefs.
 Emile Durkheim, “father of sociology”

Jew of the Week: Licoricia of Winchester

A Medieval Jewish Banking Pioneer

Licoricia (d. 1277) was born to a Jewish family in medieval England. After becoming widowed at a young age and being left with four children to take care of, she survived by working as a moneylender. As women did not have the legal right to be involved with banking at the time, she was able to cut deals using a male attorney. Licoricia grew her business rapidly. By 1242 her reputation was so impressive that she married David of Oxford—then the richest Jew in England—who actually divorced his wife, with permission from King Henry III, in order to marry Licoricia! Unfortunately, her new husband died just two years later and the king used the opportunity to imprison Licoricia in the Tower of London and extract from her a whopping 5000 marks. She paid the fine, and from it 4000 marks were used to rebuild Westminster Abbey. Licoricia returned to Winchester and further expanded her finance business. Aside from King Henry III, her other notable clients were Queen Eleanor of Provence and Simon de Montfort. In 1275, King Edward I prohibited Jews from moneylending. (This didn’t help him: while Jews only charged 2 or 3 percent interest, the Lombards that replaced them charged up to 50 percent!) Two years later, Licoricia was murdered in her home in an unsolved mystery. Licoricia’s son Benedict was the only Jew in medieval European history known to have become a guildsman, allowing him to be an official citizen and permitting him to own real estate. He was ultimately hanged. Her other son Asher was temporarily imprisoned in Winchester Castle, where he inscribed the following message on the wall of his cell that still survives today: “On Friday, eve of the Sabbath in which the [Torah] portion Emor is read, all the Jews of the land of the isle were imprisoned. I, Asher, inscribed this.” In 1290, King Edward expelled all Jews from England, and they would not return until the 1600s, partly thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Menashe ben Israel. Last week, the city of Winchester unveiled a statue of Licoricia, on Jewry Street in front of her historic home. At the base of the statue is the Torah verse to “love your fellow as yourself” in English and Hebrew.

12 Women in History Who Impacted Jewish Scholarship

Practical Jewish Meditation

Words of the Week

The worst offenders are preachers who preach and expound to the masses what they themselves do not understand. Would that they keep silent about what they do not know.

– Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204), “Maimonides”