Tag Archives: Hasidic Jews

Jew of the Week: Marc Chagall

The Colour Master

Moishe Shagal (1887-1985) was born in the shtetl of Liozna, in what is today Belarus, the oldest of nine children in a Hasidic Jewish family. Shagal went to a religious heder school until age 13, but wanted to learn a wider breadth of subjects, so his mother managed to bribe a local high school to take him in. (Jews were then forbidden from public schools, and the bribe was a whopping 50 roubles—three months salary—a small fortune for their impoverished family.) This is where he discovered his passion for art. He soon enrolled in Yehuda Pen’s art school in Vitebsk, and was given free tuition since he was so poor. While most Jewish artists in Russia at the time hid their Jewishness, Shagal embraced it. He would later say how Hasidism greatly influenced his artwork, and many of his pieces are deliberately meant to preserve Jewish culture. He wrote that every single one of his artworks “breathed” with the “spirit and reflection” of his childhood home and memories. In 1906, Shagal moved to St. Petersburg and joined a prestigious art academy (using a friend’s passport). A few years later, he left to Paris and henceforth went by “Marc Chagall”. Among his biggest influences were Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and (former Jew of the Week) Pissarro, though he did not want to be associated with any particular type of art. An exhibit in Germany in 1914 first brought him wider renown. He then returned to Russia to get married and start a family. In 1917, while broke and going hungry for days, Chagall was offered a job as arts commissar in Vitebsk. He accepted, and went on to found the Vitebsk Arts College which would go on to become the top art academy in the USSR. A few years later, Chagall moved to Moscow to be the stage designer of the State Jewish Chamber Theater, where he produced some of his most famous murals. In 1923, Chagall moved yet again, back to France, and partnered with Ambroise Vollard. The latter commissioned many of Chagall’s greatest works, including illustrations from the Tanakh. For inspiration, Chagall moved to Tel-Aviv and stayed at the home of Meir Dizengoff, the city’s first mayor. (That home was where the State of Israel would be proclaimed in 1948, and is today known as Independence Hall.) The Holy Land made a huge impact on Chagall, causing him to become something of a ba’al teshuva and return to his Jewish faith. He immersed himself in Jewish studies, and worked diligently on his “Old Testament” collection (which took until 1956 to complete, and was then hailed as being “full of divine inspiration”). Chagall returned to France shortly before the Nazi invasion. He was imprisoned and had his citizenship revoked. Pressure from the United States got him released, and he arrived in New York in the summer of 1941. His favourite hangout was the heavily-Jewish Lower East Side, where Chagall felt at home and spent much of his time socializing in Yiddish. Meanwhile, Chagall worked as a set and costume designer for the Ballet Theatre. He would return to France after the war, and in his later years produced sculptures, ceramics, tapestries, and stained glass. He painted the ceiling of the Paris Opera (covering 2400 square feet and using 200 kilos of paint), and wrote an autobiography, too. Chagall has been called the “greatest image-maker” of our time, and Picasso said that he was “the only painter left who understands what colour is.”

Words of the Week

I did not see the Bible, I dreamed it. Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.
– Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall’s “Abraham and the Three Angels”

Jew of the Week: Temerl Sonnenberg Bergson

Europe’s Greatest Jewish Businesswoman

Tamar “Temerl” bat Avraham of Opoczno (c. 1765-1830) was born in Poland to a wealthy and deeply religious Jewish family. She married young, but her first husband tragically died soon after. She got remarried to a young businessman named Dov Ber (“Berek”) Zbytkower. He went on to become immensely wealthy, and supplied the Polish and Russian armies. He took on the last name “Sonnenberg”, and was nicknamed the “Polish Rothschild”. Meanwhile, besides being a devoted mother of six children, Temerl was busy supporting the nascent Hasidic movement, founded just a few decades earlier by the Baal Shem Tov. Temerl played a huge role in bringing Hasidism to Poland. In fact, she financed the construction of Warsaw’s first Hasidic synagogue. She paid the salaries of numerous Hasidic rabbis in Poland (along with non-Hasidic rabbis), including the great Simcha Bunim of Peshischa. Temerl was a huge philanthropist and gave to all kinds of other causes as well. In 1818 alone, she donated some 54,000 rubles to Polish charities. After her husband passed away, Temerl took over his business. (In honour of their father, her children changed their last name to “Berekson”, or “Bergson”, which is why she came to be known as Temerl Bergson, too.) She also founded her own new bank. Temerl was one of the top businesswomen in all of Europe at the time. She was so influential that the Russian government gave her special permission to buy an estate, making her only the third Jew to own property outside the ghettos. She continued to do everything she could to assist the plight of the Jews. In 1824, she used her influence to rescind a government decree against Jewish pilgrimages. In fact, some Hasidic leaders came to refer to her as Reb Temerl! (A title traditionally reserved for men.) In her will, she left 300,000 zlotys to charity. Temerl was called the “Polish Hasidah”, and her tombstone states: “To her nation she was a protector against oppression—a helper during distress. To the poor she was a mother. She was a virtuous woman, powerful and famous.” The renowned philosopher and Nobel laureate Henri Bergson was her great-grandson.

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Words of the Week

The Sabbath is the day we focus on the things that have value but not a price, when we neither work nor employ others to do our work, when we neither buy nor sell, in which all manipulation of nature for creative ends is forbidden and all hierarchies of power or wealth are suspended.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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.

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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”