Tag Archives: Hasidism

The Age-Old New-Age Approach to Judaism

by Kelley Kidd

This morning, I woke up feeling extremely grumpy. Too little sleep the night before combined with looming stress put me in a supremely bad mood from the moment I heard the first screech of my alarm. Somehow, in the midst of my fog of negativity, I realized I didn’t want to feel miserable all day, and there was only so much that coffee could do to help my endorphins—I was going to have to help out a little if I wanted to survive the day. So I grabbed my iPhone and Googled “Jewish morning prayers.” I found a website (ironically, a resource for Christians) that provided me with the Hebrew, transliteration and translation for Modeh Ani, the prayer of thanks said upon waking up, and the Birchot HaShachar, the traditional morning blessings. With some assistance from the wonders of modern technology, Jewish prayers enhanced my life in a real, immediate way—something that people often forget religion has the power to do.

Perhaps this is why many are drawn to Do-It-Yourself Judaism. DIY Judaism, also referred to by Jay Michaelson as “empowered” Judaism, entails “creating and adapting Jewish rituals to fit [our] own needs.” Rather than trying to force a constrained version of faith to be meaningful, this approach promotes the idea of being an active participant, “a co-creator” of one’s own faith, tradition and Jewish life. Judaism becomes interactive, rather than strictly instructive, and thus takes on more meaning and substance for each individual.

This idea has gained substantial ground recently, as demonstrated by the East Side Jews, who search for a sense of Jewish identity and community outside the traditional “walls” of synagogues or temples. They aim to provide a resource for Jews who have separated themselves from Jewish life and don’t feel at home in traditional Judaism through programming that feels “ spiritual instead of religious, cultural instead of traditional.” For instance, each year at the High Holidays, the East Side Jews gather for “Down by the River,” a “mod, urban, earnest version of tashlich” that has in the past included Buddhist style meditations, theatrical interpretations of Torah stories through “Storahtelling,” and “flash-mob” rabbis: people chosen to create and share stories, poetry and personalized versions of prayers with the assemblage. Though it is an unusual approach, it has the potential to appeal to people who never considered their Judaism more than a chore, and bring them to a space where they engage in a community of people with similar interests, helping people become engaged with Judaism.

Though this sounds “new-agey,” the method of the East Side Jews is far from new to Judaism. The Hasidic movement, founded in the 1700s by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, was dedicated to “injecting vital energy into Jewish life,” and the Chabad movement places that responsibility upon individuals by putting Judaism and its teachings into each person’s hands, so that each can invest it with his or her own personal vitality.  One famous story relates that a student of Rabbi Schneur Zalman  came to his teacher complaining that, despite his austere focus, he could not muster the same passion for prayer that his friend seemed to have. He tried to block out anything but the rebbe’s teachings, and was unable to attain any sense of inspiration. This demonstrates that it is the man who brings his passion for life, his joie de vivre, his experiences and reality to prayer whose praise for God is truly inspired, while prayer that arises from obligation alone may lack the same enthusiasm.

My morning prayers today were admittedly unconventional, but they infused my day with meaning and gratitude. Similarly, the prayers and practices of the Do-It-Yourself Jews may veer from tradition—they may lack a rabbi by choice, or due to limited resources. Either way, today, anyone with a computer or smart phone can Google their way to Scripture, Torah, prayer, and information that holds the most meaning for them, allowing Judaism to adjust and thrive in a modern, technological world. This adjustability and personal appeal is what has always allowed Judaism to survive, and what can keep it alive and thriving in a world that is ever-changing.

Renewing Galicia

by Gabriel Weinstein

My grandfather always chuckled when we spoke about the Galicia region of northwestern Ukraine and southeastern Poland. He’d cackle, “Galicia! We used to make fun of people from there in Rovno [his Ukrainian hometown].”  His depiction was a bit skewed. He failed to mention Galicia was a cultural incubator that produced Hasidic dynasties, the writer Shai Agnon and modern Yiddish music.

My grandfather is not the only person to neglect Galicia’s rich Jewish heritage. According to Yaroslav Hrystak, director of graduate studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University, Ukraine’s Jewish history is “ …like a whole subject that [has] disappeared ”.  Galicia’s once-majestic synagogues and sprawling Jewish cemeteries are now decaying shacks and unkempt meadows.

Although Galicia was home to a diverse Jewish culture, the region’s traditional religious leaning was one of its most distinguishing characteristics. Galician Jews were seen as more religiously observant than their other Eastern European peers. Hayim ben Shelomoh Tyrer, author of the major Hasidic work Sh’ar ha-tefilah and Galician native, helped spread Hasidism throughout Ukraine and Romania. The cities of Belz, Ruzhin and Sandz were all strongholds of major Hasidic factions during the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

The Galician cities of Brody, Lviv and Ternopil were also hubs of the nineteenth century Jewish enlightenment movement known as the Haskalah. The Haskalah was similar to the eighteenth century European Enlightenment in its embrace of literature, philosophy, mathematics, nature and astronomy. The movement, comprised mostly of writers, doctors and civil servants known as maskilim, promoted integration of the Jewish population into mainstream secular society while simultaneously maintaining firm Jewish identities.

As Galicia established itself as a center of religious life, it also nurtured a nascent Jewish artistic community. Beginning in the 1850s the Broder Singers of Brody, regarded as the originators of Yiddish music, began crooning tunes to traveling Jewish merchants. They would soon be playing to international audiences. The Broders dressed in Hasidic garb during performances and were known for their songs mimicking Hasidic practices.

Galicia’s vibrant Jewish atmosphere quickly vanished during the Holocaust. Around one million Jews lived in Ukraine and 700,000 in Galicia at the beginning of the Holocaust. At the Holocaust’s conclusion, the figures plummeted as the Nazis doused the region in Jewish blood.

Galicia’s Jewish past and bloody Holocaust horrors quickly evaporated from the minds of the current citizens in the region after the Holocaust. When the region fell under Soviet rule following the Holocaust, Soviet leaders shut down many Ukrainian synagogues and Jewish institutions. But over the last few years a cadre of American, Israeli and Ukrainian scholars has led a resurgence of interest in Galicia.

Brown University professor Omer Bartov, author of Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, is at the forefront of the charge of renewed interest in Galicia. Bartov explained in a 2007 interview with The Forward that the main reason Galicia has lost its once-distinct Jewish flavor is because of Galician Ukrainian’s virulent anti-Semitism and staunch nationalism. Ukrainian and Jewish authorities’ contrasting versions of Holocaust history have also contributed to the disappearance of Galicia’s Jewish past. Ukrainian texts rarely mentioned Jews as victims of Nazi oppression, and when they did, often underestimated the number of Jews murdered.  Ukrainian collaboration with Nazi authorities is hardly mentioned.

Bartov is not the only scholar with an interest in Galicia’s Jewish past. Over the past two years, Hebrew University’s Jewish History in Galicia and Bukovina project has sent teams of professors to Galicia to visit the region’s dilapidated synagogues and cemeteries with colleagues from Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU). In October, Hebrew University announced it is establishing with UCU the first Judaic studies graduate program in Ukraine.

For years, Galicia’s sprawling Jewish structures rotted into oblivion and Hitler’s goal of eradicating Jewish culture and life appeared to have been accomplished in the region. But the Jewish world’s belief in Am Yisrael Chai and pride in Jewish culture has prevented a celebrated and integral former Jewish community from becoming a forgotten reality.