The Hasidim: An Underground History
Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidim
by David Assaf
Brandeis University Press, 360 pp., $55
Postwar American Jews learned of Hasidism largely through the romantic renderings of Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, the photographs of Roman Vishniac, and—after the 1960s—through the popular evangelism of Chabad or the liberal appropriations of the Havurah and Jewish Renewal movements. Of course, some encountered Hasidim in the streets of New York or Miami, but for most of us, Hasidism was what our treasured authors wanted us to believe it was: a movement in love with God, the world, and fellow Jews. Many of us read the books of Buber & Co. because they seemed to reflect our values, our non-conformity, our spiritual restlessness. As the historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi wrote in 1982, "The extraordinary current interest in Hasidism totally ignores its theoretical bases and the often sordid history of the movement."
In Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism, Israeli historianDavid Assaf uncovers some of that sordid history, but he isn't much interested in its theoretical bases. Assaf's book isn't about Hasidic texts or ideas, nor is it about Hasidism; it's about Hasidim. Assaf recounts a series of lurid and pathetic tales from what one might call the "clandestine history" of the 19th-century Hasidic movement: the rebbe's son who converted to Christianity, sainted Hasidic leaders who went insane or found themselves in embarrassing circumstances, and still others whose piety primarily consisted of beating up opposing sects and using their rivals' sacred texts as toilet paper. Assaf introduces the reader to Hasidic rebbes who ride into small towns like aspiring cattle barons, terrorize the inhabitants, and take over the place. (If cowboys were Hasidim, this would be Deadwood.) However, in the last chapters of the book, Assaf also introduces us to three enlightened Hasidic teachers who have been largely erased from Hasidic memory. The book ends with a reproduction and translation of a long, tragic letter by one of these figures, Yitzchak Nachum Twersky of Shpikov, lamenting his life in this "tiny, ugly world."
Assaf does not narrate the history of 19th-century Hasidism directly. Rather, he proceeds by examining the self-representations and polemics, the histories and counter-histories of Hasidim and their opponents, who included both the modernizing proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment (maskilim), and of the anti-Hasidic mitnagedim of the rabbinic establishment. Untold Tales shows us the mudslinging, biting, and nail-scratching way Hasidic history was first made, unmade, remade, distorted, concealed, and contrived. It also suggests that the polemics against Hasidim by the maskilim and mitnagedim were no better, and often worse, than the one-sided, paranoiac Hasidic self-fashioning. Like the writings of the neo-Hasidic romantics, those of the Hasidim, maskilim, and mitnagedim reveal at least as much about their authors as they do about the Hasidim they depict. Nonetheless, out of these juxtapositions, the elements of a raw, unsettling clandestine history do emerge.