Tag Archives: jewish legion

Jews of the Week: the Genius of Rogatchov and Joseph Trumpeldor

An Unparalleled Genius and a Zionist Icon

Joseph Trumpeldor

Joseph Volfovich Trumpeldor (1880-1920) was born in Russia, the son of a cantonist (young Jews forcefully conscripted into the Russian army). He became a dentist, but in 1902 enlisted in the Russian army. Trumpeldor lost his left arm in one battle of the Russo-Japanese War, yet wanted to continue serving, reportedly saying “I still have another arm to give to the motherland.” He returned to the battlefield and was captured by the Japanese. Trumpeldor spent most of his captivity studying, learning more about Judaism, Jewish history, and the Zionist cause. He even started writing on Jewish topics and found fellow Jewish prisoners who dreamed of settling in the Promised Land. Upon his release, he received four medals, and was later made an officer, making him the most decorated Jew in the Russian army, and its first Jewish officer. Unable to return to the military, he became a lawyer. In 1911, Trumpeldor made aliyah and settled in Kibbutz Degania. With the outbreak of World War I, he went to Egypt to establish the Jewish Legion (which fought for Britain) alongside Ze’ev Jabotinsky. The legion, also known as the Zion Mule Corps, is considered the first entirely Jewish military unit in two thousand years, and a precursor to the IDF. It helped the British conquer the land of Israel from the Ottoman Turks. Trumpeldor was a key soldier in that effort, and was wounded in the Battle of Gallipoli. After the war, he returned to Russia to gather more young Jews to settle in Israel. In 1920, while working to build the new town of Tel Hai, a band of Arabs attacked the Jewish community. Trumpeldor was shot twice, and succumbed to his injuries. According to legend, his last words were “Never mind, it is good to die for our country.” Trumpeldor immediately became a symbol of Jewish strength, self-defense, and resilience, and an inspiration for a new generation of Zionists. The day of his death, the 11th of Adar (this coming Monday), is a minor holiday in Israel.

Rabbi Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover Gaon

That same date is also the yahrzeit of Rabbi Yosef Rosen (1858-1936). He was born in the town of Rogatchov (in modern Belarus) to a Chabad family. By the age of 13, he was recognized as a genius and was sent to study with some of the great rabbis of the day in the town of Slutzk. At 31, he was appointed one of two chief rabbis of Dvinsk (in modern Latvia), and served in that role for nearly five decades, until his last days. Rabbi Rosen ensured the survival and flourishing of Jewish life under Russian Imperial, and then Communist, rule, often with great sacrifice to himself. Meanwhile, he published several important works of Jewish commentary and Jewish law. Some of his best writings were published only after his death, under the title Tzafnat Paneach, “Decipherer of Secrets”. Rabbi Rosen was known as the Rogatchover Gaon, the “Genius of Rogatchov”, and was famous for his unbelievable breadth of knowledge on just about any subject. After once meeting him for a lengthy discussion, the renowned poet Bialik said that “from the mind of the Rogatchover could be carved out two Einsteins” and that he is “a great spiritual national treasure.” Rabbi Rosen had many students, including Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who also received his rabbinic ordination from the Gaon. The Rebbe once said that Rabbi Rosen was able to simplify all of Judaism into ten ideas, and quoted him as saying: “Were I a little bit smarter, it would be only one idea!”

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Words of the Week

Love and work are the two things you have to do in life.
– Sigmund Freud

Jew of the Week: David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion

David Ben-Gurion

David Grün (1886-1973) was born in Poland and at just 14, already started a Zionist youth club with friends to promote immigration to Israel and study of Hebrew. While a student at the University of Warsaw in 1905, he was arrested twice as a member of the socialist Poalei Tzion party. The following year he made his way to the Holy Land and settled there. Just 20 years old, he became the chairman of Poalei Tzion in Yafo. Due to various disputes, Grün left politics and focused on farming in Petah-Tikva and the Galilee. He joined an armed defence group in 1908 to protect Jewish settlements increasingly under attack. In 1912 he temporarily relocated to Istanbul to study law, and it was there that he Hebraized his name to Ben-Gurion (and would convince countless others to do the same over the course of his life, wanting them to drop their old “diaspora” names for a fresh start in a newly resurrected Jewish Homeland). He returned to Jerusalem, only to be deported to Egypt due to World War I, then made his way to the U.S. where he toured for 3 years raising support for the Jewish cause. In 1918 he enlisted in the Jewish Legion of the British Army. After the war, Ben-Gurion resettled in Israel and established the Histadrut, Israel’s first labour union (which is 650,000 members strong today). By 1935, he became the chairman of the Jewish Agency – the largest Jewish non-profit organization in the world – overseeing the immigration and settlement of Jews in Israel. He served in this role until 1948, when he became the new State of Israel’s first Prime Minister. One of his first acts in the ensuing War of Independence was the fusion of all militias into one unified army: the IDF. After the war, he worked tirelessly to establish the state and its institutions, overseeing massive construction projects and mass immigration of Jews from around the world, not to mention an international hunt for Nazi war criminals. Although he worked to create a free, modern, non-theocratic state of Israel, he ensured that the Jewish essence would remain, setting Shabbat as an official rest day, kosher food in all state institutions, and autonomy in religious education. He also focused on Israel’s military might, ordering the creation of special operations units while pushing heavily for attaining nuclear capability. He would serve as prime minister in two stints lasting nearly 14 years, in addition to being minister of defence. After retiring in 1970, he wrote an 11-volume history of Israel’s beginnings, adding to two previous tomes he had written. He passed away shortly after, and is commemorated as the central founder of the modern State of Israel.

Words of the Week

Oil, which saturates everything it comes in contact with, represents innerness. Wine, which causes the heart to spill out its deepest secrets, represents outwardness. Chanukah is oil, Purim is wine.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe