Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Fifty Shades of Greatness: The Archive of Rabbi Chaim Bloch (1881-1973) and his colorful personality

One of the most enigmatic figures of 20th century Rabbinic literature is that of Rabbi Chaim Bloch (1881-1973). Born in Galicia, after his ordination, he moved to Vienna where he served as chaplain in the Austro-Hungarian army during WWI. He started his career in writing by translating several Jewish works and authoring a book on the legendary Prague Golem, a book of Eastern European Jewish Humor and much else. He emigrated to the United States via Great Britain in 1939. Bloch continued his literary work in the United States, and died in New York City on January 23, 1973.

Much of his writing in later years focused on his extreme Anti-Zionism and his fights with other Rabbis of his day. He devoted a book attacking Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and several against Rav Henkin. At least 3 of his books were determined by scholars to be forgeries. The Lubavitcher Rebbe in his Iggerot (באגרות קודש, חלק י"ט איגרת ז'קעא) wrote that letters that Bloch ascribed to the Rogotchover were forgeries . In 1981 Shmuel Weingarten penned a book titled מכתבים מזויפים נגד הציונות proving that Bloch forged numerous Anti-Zionist letters by prominent rabbis to bolster his opinions.

I recently acquired a large collection of letters from his archive, containing approx. 300 documents. Aside from much interesting content, the letters as a whole aid in the understanding of what appears to be a broken, confused man, rather than the self-righteous man which his books sought to present him as. In addition to the collection I acquired, another part of his archive is currently housed in the Leo Baeck institute and can be viewed online here.

Amongst the letters, we find Bloch fighting with Rabbi Dr, Shimon Federbush, forging a strange friendship with Rabbi Dr. Stephen S. Wise, debating his anti-Zionism and complaining about life in general. We also come across an audacious request from Dr. Samuel Belkin for an honorary degree, and correspondence with the likes of R. David Zvi Hoffman, Prof. Alexander Marx, R. Reuven Margolies and Prof. Ezekiel Kaufmann. Of note is the request he received for evidence of letters of the Sfas Emes he quotes, which the family of the Sfas Emes had no other knowledge of.

Below are a few sample letters from the collection of interest:

A letter written to Bloch by grandchildren of the Sfas Emes. The grandchildren state that they saw Bloch referencing letters of the Sfas Emes of which they have no other knowledge of. They requested copies of the letters and other relevant information that they can publish in the forthcoming book of the collected letters of the Sfas Emes. 

Bloch? writing to Samuel Belkin, telling him that he studied under great scholars in Europe, Buber, Rosenzweig etc and wrote a book on Hasidism and Philosophy. Bloch? requests if he can receive a degree from Yeshiva University in light of his previous work, stating that receiving a degree would help him in his projects. 

Letter to Bloch by Alexander Marx

Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, responding to a birthday greeting sent by Bloch. Wise was a Reform rabbi, and Zionist leader, a very unusual "friendship" for Bloch

This letter and the following one document the attempts of the fierce Anti-Zionist Bloch requesting assistance in making Aliyah

A letter addressed to Bloch by the Israel Broadcasting Authority in reference to Bloch's lost manuscripts of his writings. Notice was made of  his lost manuscripts in all the daily papers and no response was received.

Letter by R. David Zvi Hoffman to Bloch

An acquaintance of Bloch, N. Mandel apologizing that he could not make a visit to Bloch's home, as this summer, him and his wife were too weak to go leave the home and their air condition served as their vacation.

Letter by Rabbi Yaakov Avigdor of Mexico City

Lengthy letter sent to Bloch by Mossad Harav Kook in reference to Bloch's bitter fight with Dr Shimon Federbush. Bloch later published an entire book devoted to his fight with Federbush titled משא פדרבוש. Bloch claimed to have edited and put together the entire work and prepared it for printing, and gave it over to Federbush. When it was printed, Federbush's name appeared on the title page, while Bloch received no recognition at all.

Letter by Reuven Margolies to Bloch

Rabbi Yoel Beer of Sao Paulo, Brazil, comforting Bloch telling him that all his troubles with Federbush etc. will clearly atone for his sins..

Letter by Alexander Marx to Bloch

In response to Bloch's request in finding a copy of Federbush's work, Eliyahu Sternbuch of Bnei Brak denounces Bloch for having anything to do with Federbush, who apparently "abandoned his Judaism"..

An acquaintance from Israel requesting help in contacting his brother in New York who refuses to respond to his letters and apparently abandoned his faith

Response from Prof. Yehezkel Kaufmann to Bloch

In response to Bloch's criticism, the author of this letter gives Bloch a response to his critique of Zionism and his assertion that it is forbidden to live in the holy land

Letter with Divre Torah written by Rabbi Yaakov Meskin

The letter to Bloch in אגרות קודש discussing the authenticity of the Rogotchover Letters that Bloch published in his דובב שפתי ישנים

Fascinating Inscription on the sudden death of Joseph Schlesinger's grandson and weather records - 1854

Free-ends of antiquarian books, often hold within the writings penned on them, a snapshot of the life and times of the former owners of the books. With paper centuries ago being at a premium, it is common to find that book owners would use the free-ends of the books they owned to write and document various different things, such as family birth and death dates, their family genealogy and much else.

Occasionally, you can find a volume which feels like a snapshot of the time, place and feeling in the room at the time when the inscription was penned. One such occasion, was with a set of Chumashim, printed in Vienna in 1794 which I recently acquired.

The Volumes were owned by a Joseph Dov Schlesinger, who used the free-ends of the volumes to inscribe a variety of prayers, halakhot and some of his life occurrences. On the final leaf of one of the volumes, Schlesinger details an event which appears to have had a powerful effect on his life, being the sudden and unusual death of his grandson, Avraham. From his Inscription:

"בשברון לבי.. בדמעות כי לקח ממני מחמד עיני הילד אברהם בן בתי אשר לקח אותו אלהים כמו רגע על ידי ברק..ביום ב יד לחודש תמוז תרי"ד כאשר ישבתי ללמוד עמו ועוד ד ילדים רכים והוא הצעיר בהם בן ד שנים וד חדשים טובת חן וטובת שכל והיה יודע כל האותיות ונקודותם ולהעתיק בעל פה יותר מן מאה וחמשים תיבות מלשון הקודש ללשון אשכנז תנצב"ה
וכל איש ואשה נער וזקן מבני עמינו וגם מבין הנכרים אשר הכירו את הילד בכו בכי רב על השריפה אשר שרף"

Translating as: "With a broken heart.. and in tears, the child Abraham, the son of my daughter was taken from us by God in an instant by a lightning strike.. On Monday, the 14th of Tamuz 5614 as I sat down to study with him and four additional children, him being the youngest of them, aged 4 years old and 4 months. An attractive and intelligent boy, he knew the Hebrew Alphabet and their vowels and was able to translate over 150 words from Hebrew to Yiddish...may his soul rest in peace.
All men and women, old and young from our people as well as from the gentiles who knew the child cried out in response to the fire which (God) struck us"

In addition, there are several other pages inserted in to the free-ends in his handwriting detailing unusual weather events that occurred in his lifetime.

Title page of one of the volumes

Signature and inscriptions of Joseph Dov Schlesinger who owned the books

Inscription at end of book
בשברון לבי.. בדמעות כי לקח ממני מחמד עיני הילד אברהם בן בתי אשר לקח אותו אלהים כמו רגע על ידי ברק..ביום ב יד לחודש תמוז תרי"ד כאשר ישבתי ללמוד עמו ועוד ד ילדים רכים והוא הצעיר בהם בן ד שנים וד חדשים טובת חן וטובת שכל והיה יודע כל האותיות ונקודותם ולהעתיק בעל פה יותר מן מאה וחמשים תיבות מלשון הקודש ללשון אשכנז תנצב"ה
וכל איש ואשה נער וזקן מבני עמינו וגם מבין הנכרים אשר הכירו את הילד בכו בכי רב על השריפה אשר שרף

Inscriptions detailing unusual weather occurrences that Joseph Schlesinger experienced 

Inscriptions detailing unusual weather occurrences that Joseph Schlesinger experienced 

Inscriptions detailing unusual weather occurrences that Joseph Schlesinger experienced 

Entries from The Diary of a Jewish Bookseller and recent acquisitions, Oct 2018

A request over the phone for Jewish books on Bitcoins, had me scratching my head, until it struck me that the customer was referring to בטחון Bitahon (trust in God).

A conversation with a customer somehow evolved to the fundamentals of Jewish faith, when the customer, clearly exasperated, exclaimed to me: "You're not even a real apikores!"

I encountered 2 customers in the store, one an older Ashkenazi American Jew and the second a young Habad Hasid, in a deep conversation in fluent Arabic! Somehow, in conversation, they both discovered they have been learning Arabic on their own, without finding who to converse with. They both took advantage of this rare opportunity for them and the conversation in Arabic shifted from books, to politics and the Lubavitcher Rebbe until they had to part ways.

Context is everything, but it was still unusual to receive a request from a customer for 2 titles, an English edition of Duties of the Heart and an English copy of Mein Kampf.

A local homeless man, rings the bell and asked for a book about the Holocaust. Turns out he is rather educated with 2 masters, though unfortunately, with a host of medical issues and no home.

A package with 5 rare books I sent to the Upper West Side was stolen from inside the building after delivery. A few days later, after already hitting a dead-end with the post office and nearly giving up hope, a middle-aged haggard looking man shows up at the customer's door with 2 of the volumes. Stating that he found the books in a nearby park in a box with recipient's address, he exchanged the volumes for a $20 tip and disappeared into the night. A few hours later, he shows up with 2 additional books from the shipment in exchange for $10. Alas, the fifth volume appears to be lost forever.

Following up on book requests we received from years back, at times finds the customers at a time when they no longer have an interest in the book. One case of the opposite extreme occurred when I notified a customer that a title of Sarah Schenirer she requested years ago came in. By (divine) coincidence, she was precisely in the midst of working on writing on the specific subject she needed it for when the email that the book arrived showed up in her inbox.

An angry message from a customer was received, complaining that the bibliography of Maimonides she ordered was not a biography.

Some prominent recent acquisitions include the libraries of:

Dr. Joseph Badi ob"m
Born in Poland, Joseph Badi survived the war, eventually reached Palestine/Israel, and immigrated to the United States in 1953. Dr Badi earned his graduate degrees at NYU and The New School, authored several books on Israel, and was a professor of near/mid-eastern studies at The New School.

Rabbi Meir Goldberg z"l
Rav Meir Goldberg, Rav Hamachshir of the Vaad Hakashrus of Flatbush, formerly known as Vaad HaRabbonim of Flatbush. Rabbi Goldberg passed away in 2017

Gerhard Salinger ob"m
Salinger was born in in 1922 in a town that used to be called Stolp, not far from Koslin (now Koszalin). There he witnessed the deportation in 1942 of the remaining Jews, including his parents, from his town to 'the East', the destination thought to have been Auschwitz, where he himself survived between 1943 and 1945. Having lost his entire family in the war, Gerhard moved to New York after the war, where he worked as an accountant. His wife whom he married after the war, died in the 1970s, they did not have any children. He made it his mission to preserve and record all obtainable information on lost, small and dying Jewish communities throughout the world.  He authored numerous works on various Jewish Communities, from Hungary, to Tunisia, in English and German. His library is a testament to his mission and devotion to preserving a record of every Jewish community and synagogue that he could find any mention of. Amongst the many hundreds of books on various Jewish communities in his collection, are stuffed thousands of his correspondences with various historical societies in his attempt to obtain records, relevant newspaper clippings, photographs that he was able to obtain and endless local publications of synagogues and communities recording their local history. He died recently aged 94.

Gerhard Salinger 

Azriel Golawa ob"m

Azriel was born in a DP camp after the war in Halain, Austria. He was brought to the USA when he was three years old. He grew up in Crown Heights and went to Yeshiva Eastern Parkway and afterwards to RJJ for high school and semicha. He learned in Israel for a year in 1966-7 in a yeshiva in Kefar Chassidim. He got his bachelors in English from Brooklyn college and a masters in Jewish History from Yeshiva University Bernard Revel. His interest was in the second temple era and wrote his thesis on the book of Tobit.  His father, Avraham Golowa, was a talmid chochom and learned in yeshiva in Kletsk and with Rav Ahron Kotler, and later served as a Shochet and Mashgiach in the USA.

A 1939 Proposal for importing Etrogim from Palestine to Canada

The days when international commerce between Jews was based fully on trust are quickly fading out, but here is an interesting example of this phenomena.

The letter, written by Samuel Kirschenbaum, to Rabbi Yehoshua Herschorn (1893–1969) of Montreal, offers Rabbi Herschorn a business proposition. He will send, at no up-front cost, Etrogim to Rabbi Herschorn for resale, at an agreed upon price of 80 cents to $1.50 per Etrog, and payment will only be made after the holiday of Succot and upon the satisfaction of the Rabbi.

Kirschenbaum makes note that all the Etrogim came from orchards owned by Jews and all the employees on the orchards are Jews. The etrogim came with the Rabbinical approval of the Jerusalem Bet Din.

Of note is the address on the letterhead of Kirschenbaum, which states that during the year his address is in Jerusalem, but in the Summer months, he has an address in Tel Aviv.

R. Aharon Hakohen, the Chofetz Chaim's son on biographies of his father and "Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim"

The Chofetz Chaim's youngest son, Aharon Hakohen (Kagan), and his mother, the second wife of the Chofetz Chaim, Miriam Freida, ended their lives residing in New York, both being buried in Mount Judah Cemetery in Ridgewood, Queens. Aharon Hakohen never married, he died a bachelor in 1957. As can be seen on the title page of the Nidche Yisrael / The  Dispersed of Israel that he published, he had a PHD though I was not able to find records of where and what he studied. On the Hebrew title page, he states that he is the Rabbi of Cong. Rabbenu Chofetz Chaim in New York. 

The book included Hebrew, Yiddish and English versions of his father's book Nidche Yisrael, and was published by him in 1951 in New York. In the introduction to the book, he makes known his opinion on the various Rabbis and authors, as well as family members that were monetizing on his father, the Chofetz Chaim's name.

From the Hebrew introduction:
"ספרי אבא הם הישיבה היחידה שהשאיר לנו לברכה אחריו על שמו אחרי שנחרבה ישיבתו בראדון. ואין לנו ישיבה אחרת במקומה רק הספרים האלו ממלאים את מקום אבא"

From the English introduction:
"These books of my father, of sainted memory, are THE ONLY YESHIVA in his name that he left to us for a blessing after him after the destruction of his Yeshiva in Radun, and we have NO OTHER YESHIVA of like inspiration and glory to replace it, in it's original site or elsewhere."

From the Hebrew introduction:
"עדיין לא יצא לאור עד עתה שום ספר אמיתי מחיי אבי זצ"ל ומדרכיו והליכותיו בקודש. והביבלאך מסוג זה הנמצאים בשוק הספרים אודות חייו ומפעליו של אבי זצ"ל אשר העולם טועה בהם וחושבים שהם ביוגרפיות של החפץ חיים זצ"ל, לא רק שהם אינם מציגים דמות דיוקנו של אבי זצ"ל כלל וכלל אלא הם לפי דעתי קובץ של שטותים הבלים ופנטזיות מעשיות ספורים ופתגמים של קורי עכביש שלא היו ולא נבראו ואין להם שום שייכות לחיי אבי זצ"ל..."

translating as: "There has yet to be published any true book describing the life of my father, and his holy walks and manners. The pulp fiction (for lack of a better translation of ביבלאך) that is available in the market today about the life and work of my father ob"m, that the world errs and believes are biographies of my father the Chofetz Chaim ob"m, not only do they not convey the life of my father in any way at all, rather in my opinion they are an anthology of nonsense, silliness and fantasies. Stories, anecdotes and proverbs like cobwebs, that never happened and were yet to be created, and have no relation to my the life of my father ob"m"

Aharon Hakohen (Kagan), seems to be directing his attacks on the biography of his father written by Moses S. Yoshor, published in 1937 and against the various Chofetz Chaim Yeshivas operated by his nephew, R. Avraham Gershon Zaks in Monsey and by R. Dovid Leibowitz, at the time being led by his son, R. Henoch Leibowitz.

See the lower half of page above

from English introduction to book

Hebrew Title page of the book
The Tombstone of Aharon Hakohen in New York

Verso of Business Card of R. Aaron Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim's son, from the Zalman Alpert Collection

Recto of Business Card of R. Aaron Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim's son, from the Zalman Alpert Collection

A window in to the finances of the Rabbis of Old, Rabbi Yehoshua Herschorn (1893–1969) of Montreal

Reading personal letters of long-gone Rabbis of old, can often allow you to glean much Halakhic information and records of Jewish History at the time. On occasion, you get an insight in to the personal life of the correspondents as well. One such case is this letter below, which I recently came across. Rabbi Samuel Alter, of Brooklyn writes to Rabbi Yehoshua Herschorn (1893–1969) of Montreal, complaining that a check, which Rabbi Hershorn sent him, written out for $3.50 has bounced due to insufficient funds.

Rabbi Alter states that he is not sure what is going on, as he does not speak English and can not communicate with the Bank, and requests that Rabbi Hershorn replace the check and cover the fees imposed by the bank.