The Kosher Bookworm: Tisha b'Av reading for adults


Issue of July 24, 2009 / 3 Av 5769

By Alan Jay Gerber

The upcoming Fast of Tisha b’Av gives us an opportunity to re-learn and relive past tragedies of our people in a depth of scholarship that would benefit all. Learning from past error and tragedy serves to help prevent repetition of same, or so we hope and pray. Given the events of these past weeks, watching our “leaders”  interact with administration  leaders who do not have the our  best interests at heart,  we can only hope that the lessons of Tisha b’Av will help give them the strength and fortitude for the next round. Just maybe, some of them will have the opportunity to read the volumes cited below and learn to comport themselves in a more mature and responsible manner in the future.

This essay is devoted to a brief summary of two books dealing with themes of the Nine Days and Tisha b’Av, namely the destruction of the two Temples, the loss of national sovereignty, and the Holocaust, and the lessons to be gleaned from these events.

The first book I wish to suggest is titled, “Tisha b’Av: Season of Mourning...and of Consolation,” by Rabbi Zechariah Fendel.

Within this 190 page volume will be found a fount of information, inspiration, history and Jewish law, tables, maps, charts and graphs detailing the tragedies faced by our people — devastating events that no other nation has ever faced and survived to tell about.

From a detailed yet concise narrative of the history of each major tragedy, massacre, pogrom and murder spree faced by our ancestors to a precise commentary of the Book of Lamentations and the cognate laws governing the proper observance of Tisha b’Av, Rabbi Fendel gives to the adult reader a mature and informed presentation in an unemotional manner, mercifully absent the rancor, heady passion and crass mythology so common in lesser works by other writers. What we have here, and in all of his works, is straight Torah learning, giving the learner the opportunity to grasp the full meaning of the significance and importance of this time of year’s theme.

One story in this book, detailed in the chapter dealing with the Holocaust, resonated with me more than any other, and for good personal reason. Drawn from reliable eyewitness sources, Rabbi Fendel, in a brief and succinct manner, details the martyrdom of Rav Elchanan Wasserman, and his disciples. This brief recollection struck me hard for the following reason.

Over fifty years ago, as a very young student at the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on New York’s Lower East Side, I heard this same exact saga, in all its horrid detail, told to me and our awestruck class. The very young rebbe who related to us this tragedy was himself a student at our yeshiva and a recent musmach (newly ordained rabbi) of RJJ. His training both at RJJ and at Lakewood Yeshiva prepared him to accurately impart this story, not only as a lesson in history, but as an example of what Jewish leadership of our community must entail: the sacrifice for, and love of one’s people. In Rav Wasserman’s example we learned that lesson.

In truth, this was to be the first story that I ever heard relating to the Holocaust, the first of many that I was to hear as a student and the first of many I was to share, with my own students, years later, as a teacher of Holocaust Studies at FDR High School in Brooklyn.

The very young rebbe who inspired this then young elementary yeshiva bochur was... Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, to whom I am eternally grateful.

To Rabbi Fendel, a veteran educator himself, this review was written, motivated in gratitude for his relating the bravery and mesiras nefesh of Rav Wasserman for all to read and to be inspired by during this coming Tisha b’Av.

The next book that I wish to bring to your attention is titled, “Hasidic Responses to the Holocaust in the Light of Hasidic Thought,” [Ktav, 1990] by Rabbi Pesach Schindler, one of Israel’s premier historians of the Holocaust.

This unique volume deftly brings together the theology, sociology, and history of the Hasidic world and thought to help the reader better appreciate the horrible sacrifice that East European chasidus sustained during the Holocaust experience.

Schindler accurately demonstrates how, for the most part, the chasidic response thwarted the de-humanizing of these Jews by the Nazis, and further explains the actions many took in a spiritual realm to resist Nazi blandishments under the cruelest conditions.

Detailed herein are chasidic doctrine, the concept of evil in Jewish theology, and chasidic hashkafah, kiddush Hashem and kiddush hachayim, the relationships between the tzadik and the chasid and chasidic concepts related to  resistance. Rabbi Schindler demonstrates great respect for his reader. This book is written in a dignified and scholarly manner, and is fully footnoted and annotated for future reference by the reader.

Most intriguing to me was the chapter dealing with exile and redemption, especially with the teachings of Rav Teichthal and the Piazesner Rebbe, both of martyred and blessed memory, Hy’d. This particular chapter is a must-read by everyone if they, we, are to better understand current events both here in our relationships with the regime in Washington, and with events as they unfold on the streets of Jerusalem.

These two martyred rabbis, through the teachings that survived them, have a lot to teach us so as to better appreciate the great sacrifices of our brothers and sisters in Israel. In addition, their example, taken together with  the many other Jewish leaders of that time who gave of their last full measure, “al Kiddush Hashem,” aptly serve as role models for our contemporary Jewish leadership here on these blessed shores to emulate in the face of the adversary in our nation’s capital.

May I conclude with a personal note. Once again, this coming Tisha b’Av will witness Rabbi Weinreb’s leading the Kinot Service at the Young Israel of Woodmere. If your schedule permits, try to attend and learn from a most gifted teacher and master of the teachings of our faith. From the Kosher Bookworm, have a meaningful fast.