Tag Archives: Belarussian Jews

Jew of the Week: the Alter Rebbe

Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) was born in the shtetl of Liozna in what is now Belarus. A child prodigy, he wrote his first commentary on the Torah when he was eight years old. Shortly after, he was sent to the nearby town of Lubavitch to begin advanced Talmudic studies, and was sent back home at the age of 12 as he had surpassed the knowledge of his teachers. He married at 15, and around the same time was first exposed to Kabbalah by two Bohemian refugees that settled in Liozna. They also taught him math, astronomy, and philosophy. A few years later, Rav Schneur Zalman met the Hasidic master Dov Ber, “the Maggid [Preacher] of Mezeritch”, who was himself the disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement. Rav Schneur Zalman became the Maggid’s devoted student, and when the latter died in 1772, was recognized as his successor. Unfortunately, there was still great opposition to the Hasidic movement at the time, most notably from the Vilna Gaon, who attempted to ban the Hasidim. Rav Schneur travelled to Vilnius in an effort to assuage the Gaon, but was refused a meeting. Despite the opposition, Hasidism flourished across Eastern Europe, and many Hasidic masters were emerging in towns large and small. Rav Schneur Zalman’s approach was unique in that he placed rationalism and thought above all else, and held by the mantras of “mind over matter” and “intelligent, not blind faith”. He therefore called his branch of Hasidism “Chabad”, based on the acronym for the Kabbalistic sefirot of Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at, loosely translated as Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge. Rav Schneur Zalman would become known as the Alter Rebbe, the “Elder Rabbi”, the founder of Chabad. His magnum opus, known as the Tanya, is sometimes considered the “Bible of Hasidism”. The Alter Rebbe also put together a new Hasidic code of law, a prayer book, and multiple discourses on Hasidic teachings. During the Napoleonic Wars, he sided with the Czar, despite the fact that the Russians oppressed the Jews while Napoleon brought emancipation to them. He believed that while the Russians threatened the Jewish body, Napoleon threatened the Jewish soul, as his “emancipation” would lead to mass assimilation of Jews in Europe. History would prove him right. In 1812, the Alter Rebbe fled Napoleon’s approaching armies, and succumbed to an illness on the difficult journey. His disciples split among two potential successors: some supported Aharon Horowitz, based in the town of Strashelye, while others supported Rav Schneur Zalman’s son, Dov Ber, based in Lubavitch. Over time, the Strashelye branch dissipated, leaving the Lubavitch stream. This is one reason why the movement is still known as Chabad-Lubavitch. The organization has become the most successful Jewish outreach group in history, mainly due to the work of the seventh and last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Today, there is a Chabad House on every continent (except Antarctica, for now), with over 1300 Chabad-run institutions around the world. Yesterday, the 18th of Elul, was the Alter Rebbe’s birthday.

A Secret History of Zionism

Words of the Week

A little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.
– the Alter Rebbe

In a letter to his grandson, dated 24 Tevet 5583 (December 1812, shortly before his passing), the Alter Rebbe wrote: “I no longer see a table, a chair, a lamp… only the letters of the Divine Utterances.” As we read in the Torah, God “spoke” the world into existence, and all material things are only a reflection of their spiritual inner essence, composed of a combination of Hebrew letters, the building blocks of Creation. Like other great Kabbalists before and after him, the Alter Rebbe saw through the illusory material world, and beheld the spiritual “code” within, reminiscent of this famous scene from ‘The Matrix’.

Jew of the Week: Abba Kovner

“The Jewish Avenger”

Abel “Abba” Kovner (1918-1987) was born in what is today Belarus and grew up in Vilnius (then part of Poland). As a young man, he was a member of HaShomer HaTzair, the Zionist youth movement. When the Nazis invaded Vilnius in 1941, Kovner escaped to a convent, but soon returned to the Vilna Ghetto to organize a Jewish resistance. At the start of 1942, Kovner secretly published a manifesto inside the Ghetto to inspire the Jews to fight back, writing that it was better to die than “go like lambs to the slaughter”. Along with several other young men, Kovner formed the United Partisan Organization, possibly the first armed underground Jewish group in Nazi Europe. Before they could launch their first large-scale attack, the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated in 1943, forcing the group to flee to the surrounding forests. From there, they launched a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Nazis. The small group began calling themselves “the Avengers” (HaNokmim) and were successful enough to draw the attention of the Red Army. They would go on to coordinate with the Soviets to crush the Nazis in Eastern Europe. Once the fate of the Nazis was sealed towards the end of 1944, Kovner was among the founders of a new group, called Bricha (“Escape”), which worked to get Jewish refugees out of Europe and to the Holy Land. Over the next couple of years, they would successfully move 250,000 Holocaust survivors to Israel. Having seen first-hand the horrific devastation inflicted by the Nazis, Kovner yearned for revenge. He started yet another group, called Nakam (“Vengeance”), seeking to punish Germany for the Holocaust. “Plan B” was to poison the water supply in Allied prisoner-of-war camps where Nazi SS soldiers were kept. The far more controversial and shocking “Plan A” was to poison the water supplies of several major German cities in order to kill 6 million Germans, one for each Jew lost in the Holocaust. Thankfully, Plan A was soon abandoned, though Kovner was still arrested by the British and held in a Cairo prison for several months. He did aim to accomplish Plan B, and Nakam members infiltrated a POW camp bakery in April 1946, coating the loaves of bread with arsenic. Over two thousands German soldiers fell ill, though no deaths were reported. In December 1947, Kovner joined the Haganah and fought in Israel’s Independence War as a captain of the Givati Brigade. Following this, he lived out the remainder of his life in a kibbutz, working tirelessly to strengthen the nascent state. He also helped to design several Holocaust museums, and testified at the Eichmann trial. More famously, Kovner wrote a series of poetry books (in Hebrew and Yiddish) describing the struggles he faced during the Holocaust and in Israel’s early years. This made him one of the country’s most celebrated poets and writers. For this, he won the Israeli Prize for Literature in 1970. A heavy smoker, Kovner succumbed to tracheal cancer before his 70th birthday.

Words of the Week

It is perfectly clear that the Arab nations do not want to solve the Arab refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront against the United Nations, and as a weapon against Israel… Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.
— Sir Alexander Galloway, former head of UNRWA

Abba Kovner (Centre) and his Avengers.