Lost & Found
Brief Kvetches: Notes to a 19th-Century Miracle Worker
A young man falls into despair because running his tavern has left him less and less time for Torah studies. A husband is distraught because his wife, who is the family’s sole provider, has become possessed by a demon that recently flung her down into the mud and forced her to stab herself. A miller who was cursed by a Gentile shepherd claims that he feels his legs weaken day by day. A widow’s only son has been drafted into the tsarist army, where she fears he will be permanently lost to the Jewish people.
These colorful complaints by everyday Eastern European Jews appear in the vast collection of petitions (kvitlekh) sentto Rabbi Elijah Guttmacher, the Tzaddik of Grätz (Grodzisk Wielkopolski in present-day Poland), whose miracle-working practice flourished in the late 1860s and early 1870s, ending with his death in 1874. Housed in the YIVO Institute in New York, these approximately five thousand petitions open rare windows onto the lives of East European Jews, providing glimpses of their business and family affairs, sex lives, magical beliefs, pious hopes, and grim tenacity as they grappled with the new and unpredictable challenges of modernity. The collection is so rich as to beg comparison with the famous Bintel Brief advice column in the Forverts Yiddish newspaper a generation later, or even the famous Cairo Geniza.
Rabbi Guttmacher, a student of the distinguished mitnaged halakhic authority Rabbi Akiva Eiger and the official rabbi of Grätz, was an unlikely miracle worker. He was one of the first rabbinical leaders to advocate settling the Land of Israel, arguing that it was not sufficient for Jews to simply hope and pray that “suddenly the gates of mercy will open . . . and all will be called from their dwelling places.” Despite this apparent political realism, however, he was much more willing than other non-Hasidic rabbis to intercede with God on the behalf of his petitioners.