Sunday, March 18, 2018

a 1920s Biegeleisen Bookstore catalog of exclusively Haskalah works

I came across recently an old and rather insightful Biegeleisen book-list from the old days when the business was in Boro-Park, before their move to the Lower East Side and eventual return to Boro-Park, Brooklyn. The list of over 1000 items, containing just Hebrew works of Haskalah literature, is a fascinating look in to the tastes and wide range of interests of Jews in Boro-Park of the day, something which may come as a shock to it's current inhabitants.

Much can be seen from what Mr Biegeleisen determined to be classified as Haskalah. Some of the expected authors are there, Krochmal, Sholem Aleichem, Ephraim Deinard, Bialik, Levinson but also many authors which not be expected. Some of these include R. Abraham Isaac Kook, R. Yehuda Aryeh De Modena, and R. Haim Hirschensohn. Somehow, Joseph Klasuner's book on Jesus, titled ישו הנוצרי makes a showing more than once as well.


  1. Thanks for sharing the interesting pages!

    Two comments -

    1) You seem to be assuming a certain narrow, negative definition of "Haskalah", which is not the way the word was always understood. Your's seems to be the one used in some Haredi circles, particularly Hasidic, with Haskalah meaning something like irreligious free-thinkers. On the other hand, among others, Haskalah (perhaps depending on the context) can be more positive, meaning also mean intellectual, open-minded believers. In some Hasidic circles too (I think Habad-Lubavitch, for example) maskil can be a term of praise for special thinkers who are above the masses.

    2) I question your assumption that Biegeleisen's customers then were necessarily Boro Parkers. On the contrary, I think such a list is/was often made for non-locals, mail-order customers, who are not nearby to easily visit (then, as now, Biegeleisen was not just yet another local Jewish bookstore). And even for the locals that may have shopped there, they then, as now, were not necessarily representative of most of the neighborhood population at large, being rather a more literary group.

    1. Haskalah can definitely have different meanings in different contexts, though I am rather certain that Biegeleisen was not intending it in the Chabad setting. In the Hasidic circles where the Biegeleisens grew up and lived, it most likely conveyed a more "secular" tone.
      I don't intend this in a condescending way, as the saying goes, "some of my best friends are Maskilim".

      I have indeed found Biegeleisen receipts in libraries I have acquired that were not in any way local to the Biegeleisen stores, so I would concur that many of their customers were not local. My reflection was on the evolvement of their business and the local community, I highly doubt such a list would be accepted warmly in today's setting.

  2. Boro Park was also full of a lot more modern and OTD Jews, like my grandparents, in the 1920s. They were raised religious in Volhynia, but lived non-religious (if traditional cooking) in Boro Park in the 1920s. So there probably was a fair market for such works locally. The main body of Chasidim came after the War, remember. In fact, my grandparents weren't happy, having been raised among Chasidim, and thrown it off, moved to a nice mixed Jewish-Italian area, and then 25 years later, they're surrounded by Chassidim again.