Tag Archives: Polish Jews

Jew of the Week: Neil Diamond

“The Jewish Elvis”

Neil Leslie Diamond (b. 1941) was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish family of Russian and Polish heritage. In high school, he sang in the school choir alongside classmate Barbra Streisand. Diamond was inspired by a Pete Seeger performance at his Jewish summer camp, and as soon as he returned home got a guitar and started writing songs. Meanwhile, he was on his high school fencing team and got a fencing scholarship to attend New York University. (He won an NCAA fencing championship in 1960!) Eventually, Diamond dropped out of his pre-med program and went to work for Sunbeam Music writing songs for $50 a week. He then went off on his own and formed a singing duet with a friend. Finding no success, Diamond decided to go solo and got a recording deal with Columbia in 1962. Unfortunately, despite good reviews his first album was a commercial flop. Diamond was dropped by Columbia and lived in poverty for the next several years of his life, at one point barely surviving on just $3 a day. In 1965, Diamond started writing hit songs for The Monkees, including “I’m a Believer”. Soon, Diamond became a popular songwriter and composed for the likes of Elvis Presley and Deep Purple. He had his own first hit in 1966 with “Solitary Man”, followed by “Sweet Caroline” in 1969 (later selected for historical preservation by the Library of Congress). After that, the hits kept coming and his shows sold out night after night. During one San Francisco show in 1979, Diamond suddenly collapsed on stage and couldn’t get up. It turned out that he had a tumour in his spine, and went through a 12-hour surgery to remove it. His 1980 hit “America” became the most recognizable song in the country, and is sometimes likened to a second national anthem. All in all, Diamond had ten Number 1 singles, and 38 reached the Billboard Top 10. He has sold over 100 million records, making him one of the most successful musicians of all time. Diamond has always been open about his Jewish faith, sang “Kol Nidre” in a famous Yom Kippur scene in the film The Jazz Singer, and has been called “the Jewish Elvis”. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, won a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2018, Diamond retired after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, though he still spends much of his time writing songs.

Words of the Week

Noah was told, “Make a tzohar for the ark.”  [Genesis 6:16] The word “ark” in Hebrew is teivah, which also means a “word”. A tzohar, meanwhile, is something that shines. So the verse could be read to teach us: “Make each word you say shine.”
– Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760)

Jew of the Week: Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

The Polish Nobility’s Hasidic Pharmacist 

A 19th century woodcut engraving of Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Simcha Bonhomme “Bunim” Bonhart (c. 1765-1827) was born in Vodislav, Poland, the son of a wealthy German-Jewish merchant father (who was also a rabbi and rationalist philosopher) and a mother that came from a long line of rabbis going all the way back to Rashi. After studying at the top yeshivas in Hungary and Czechia, Simcha Bunim went to Leipzig to also get a solid secular education at one of the world’s top universities. He studied science and majored in pharmacology. After marrying, he settled in Peshischa (Przysucha) and opened up his own pharmacy. His concoctions were so potent and famous that he soon served the Polish nobility. He also continued his father’s merchant business, sold exotic woods, and regularly appeared at the Danzig trade fair. Meanwhile, Simcha Bunim joined the local Peshischa Hasidic group, then under the leadership of a rabbi and mystic known simply as HaYid HaKadosh, “the Holy Jew”. When the Holy Jew died in 1813, Simcha Bunim took over as the new leader. Unlike other Hasidic groups, Peshischa was all about enlightenment and rationalism. Their aims were to synthesize science with Judaism, to develop each member’s personal autonomy, and to inspire people to discover who they are and to think critically on their own. They encouraged people to pray when they really felt like it (instead of praying by rote three times a day) and to walk confidently with an upright posture. Instead of wearing the classic Hasidic robes, Simcha Bunim dressed in a regular suit. His internal Hasidic revolution spread like fire across Eastern Europe—causing Simcha Bunim to nearly be excommunicated by other Hasidic rabbis! Simcha Bunim is also credited with being perhaps the first kiruv (“outreach”) rabbi. While other Hasidic groups at the time simply ignored the secular Jewish world, Simcha Bunim went out of his way to bring secular Jews back into the faith. In fact, he would regularly go to theatres on Jewish holidays in the hopes of inspiring Jews there to come with him to the synagogue instead. While the Peshischa Hasidic movement itself died out shortly after Simcha Bunim’s death, it sparked multiple new Hasidic groups, and had a significant impact on the wider Jewish world as well. Today is Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

I know who I am irrespective of how I am perceived by others.
– Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa

Jew of the Week: Martin Buber

Father of Spiritual Zionism

Mordechai Martin Buber (1878-1965) was born in Vienna to a religious Jewish family. His parents got divorced when he was just three years old, so Buber was raised in what was then Poland by his grandfather. Despite growing up in a richly Hasidic home, Buber began reading secular literature and returned to Vienna as a young man to study philosophy. Around the same time, he became active in the Zionist movement and soon became the editor of Die Welt, the main newspaper of Zionism. It wasn’t long before Buber became dissatisfied with the secularism and “busyness” of Zionism and returned (partially) to his Hasidic roots. He saw in Hasidic communities the right model for a new Israel, and a better alternative to the entirely-secular kibbutz. Buber ultimately saw Zionism not as a nationalist or political movement, but as a religious movement that should, first and foremost, serve to spiritually enrich the Jewish people—along with the rest of the world. He would later be credited with being the father of “Hebrew humanism” and “spiritual Zionism”. In 1908, he was invited to address a group of Jewish intellectuals known as the “Prague Circle”, and to “remind them about their Judaism”, as the group’s leader had requested. Among the members of the Circle was (former Jew of the Week) Franz Kafka, who was greatly influenced by Buber. During World War I, Buber established the Jewish National Committee to provide relief for Jews, especially those suffering in Eastern Europe. Throughout all these years, Buber wrote penetrating works on a vast range of themes, including philosophy and psychology, mythology, mysticism, and Hasidism. He co-produced a new translation of the Tanakh into German, and published his most famous essay, “I and Thou”. In 1930, Buber became a professor at the University of Frankfurt. He resigned in protest three years later when Hitler came to power. The Nazis forbade Jews from participating in public adult education classes, so Buber founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education. In 1938, he made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem, becoming professor of anthropology and sociology at the Hebrew University. Several years later, he was a founding member of the Ihud party, which prioritized making peace with neighbouring Arabs and worked to establish a bi-national state. Buber was nominated for a Nobel Prize a whopping 17 times (ten times for Literature, and seven times for Peace), though he was never awarded one. He did win the Israel Prize and the Bialik Prize, among many others. Today, the 13th of Sivan, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

The real struggle is not between East and West, or capitalism and communism, but between education and propaganda.
– Martin Buber