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Worldwide Maggid bringing back an old tradition

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Worldwide Maggid bringing back an old tradition
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Rabbi Paysach KrohnA schoolboy brings his expensive watch to the yeshiva one day and leaves it on his desk during recess. When he returns to the classroom, the watch is gone...

An Orthodox couple divorces after years of unsuccessfully trying to have a family. Shortly after the divorce is granted, the wife learns that she is pregnant...

A young Romanian Jewish girl, who watcher her father being slain by the Nazis, is given a doll and a watch — and a chance to gain freedom and safety by escaping to Israel — but she refuses the offer...

Thus begin three true stories, a tiny fraction of the hundreds  that constitute the life’s work, religious mission and personal passion of Rabbi Paysach Krohn, raconteur extraordinaire — or, to use the term that has come most succinctly to describe him, maggid.

Over the past two decades, Rabbi Krohn has authored and published nine books, seven of which are collections bearing the word maggid in the title, the most recent of which is In the Spirit of the Maggid. More than 200,000 of them are in print today.

He has also delivered hundreds of public lectures and presentations, including a series of them last week in Denver at EDOS, DAT and BMH-BJ.

Whether writing or speaking, the rabbi’s intent is the same: to entertain, in the way that only a good storyteller can; and to educate, in the way that only a maggid can.

An enthusiastic, outgoing, informal and articulate man, Rabbi Krohn told the Intermountain Jewish News last week about this mysterious figure known as the maggid.

In the Jewish golden age that once flourished throughout Eastern Europe, he says, the maggid served as a spiritual and educational supplement to the rabbis and rebbes who served as community leaders.

Unlike the rabbis, however, who lived within the communities they led, the maggidim were mostly wanderers, itinerant preachers who moved from shtetl to shtetl.

They also employed a different approach.

“The maggid was a type of person who went from city to city to city and would lecture in a different style from the rabbi,” Rabbi Krohn says. “The rabbis’ sermons were very strict and didactic, but the maggid would always tell a parable, then he would open up the people and then he would zing it.”

Today’s maggidim — among whom Rabbi Krohn is easily the best known and most visible — are no longer itinerant wanderers.

But they are still preachers and storytellers, and they still use a style quite distinct from the traditional rabbinic sermon.

And, as the rabbi’s success as a writer and speaker dramatically evinces, they are still very much in demand.

Rabbi Krohn — a fifth generation and still-practicing mohel in his other life — deserves a lot of the credit for resurrecting the maggid tradition from relative obscurity into its current popularity. In many ways, his work served as the bridge between the venerable maggid of the shtetl to the modern role that he fulfills.

That bridge, however, did have another side.

In Rabbi Krohn’s case, his link with the traditional Jewish storyteller came in the form of Rabbi Sholom Schwadron (1912-1997), a renowned Israeli Talmudic scholar and author who practiced the spoken art of the maggid in his Jerusalem community and internationally.

When Rabbi Krohn was a child, Rabbi Schwadron was a visitor to his New York home on a number of occasions, some of them for extended periods, and the elder rabbi became a fast friend of the younger Krohn’s father.

The family quickly learned to love the powerful and moving stories that the maggid brought to their home.

“The two of them became like brothers,” the rabbi says of the elder maggid and his father. “My father was not an emotional person like I am. He was more low-key, the more sophisticated type. I never saw him so enamored with a person as he was with Rabbi Schwadron.”

Rabbi Schwadron once spent six months in their house, and “every moment that he was there we had the tape recorder on. That’s when we got to hear the stories.”

After his own father’s death, “Rabbi Schwadron became sort of our surrogate grandfather,” Rabbi Krohn says, “and every time that he came to America afterwards, he always stayed in our home.”

The friendship was so close that the maggid attended Rabbi Krohn’s wedding, to the former Miriam Bryks, which took place in Denver at the old HEA on the West Side (now, Yeshiva Toras Chaim).

The idea to translate Rabbi Schwadron’s stories into English came to Rabbi Krohn several years later from the ArtScroll publishing house, which had greatly expanded publishing options for Orthodox subjects.

“So I approached him and said, ‘Why don’t we do these stories? You tell them to me, let me look at your notes, I’ll come to your house in Israel and let’s put together a book.’”

Rabbi Schwadron, whose own writing was devoted to more scholarly Talmudic subjects, loved the idea. Still, Rabbi Krohn recalls, putting together that first book — The Maggid Speaks — was a challenging and time-consuming process, since Rabbi Krohn often understood the maggid’s stories in a different way than the originator did.

The two storytellers chose a cooperative approach, with Rabbi Krohn articulating his interpretations in introductions and interpolations in the stories, and Rabbi Schwadron’s interpretations constituting the main section. The two were distinguished by differing column widths.

The Maggid Speaks was an instantaneous hit, selling well over 10,000 copies, attracting considerable notice among Orthodox readers. It wasn’t long before Krohn was under pressure to come up with a second book.

“Well, where was I going to find other stories? I went back to Rabbi Schwadron and told him that they wanted us to write another book. He said, ‘Well, I gave you my best stuff, but I have some others.’

“But they weren’t of the same quality. So the second book was called Around the Maggid’s Table.  What happened is that once I started telling stories people started saying to me, ‘Hey I’ve got a great story for you.’ So in the second book, out of the 100 stories, 40 were from him but 60 were from others that I heard in other places. That was the idea.

“By the third book, it was called In the Footsteps of the Maggid. In other words, the maggid is out — his picture is not on the book jacket anymore. Then came the fourth and the fifth and so on.”

“All of a sudden this was a niche that I got into,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘Well, wait a second, you could really inspire people.’ I couldn’t believe it in the beginning. When I was speaking I was talking to maybe 20 people. But then people would call me from out of town and say, ‘we heard your lecture.’ So I realized that I was reaching thousands of people, and affecting them. Now it goes on the radio, on the Internet.”

Rabbi Krohn says that Rabbi Schwadron was fine with the idea that his own cache of stories was not large enough to sustain the demands of Rabbi Krohn’s ever-expanding readership and audience. Rabbi Schwadron seemed to recognize that the younger rabbi had found his own unique calling, and didn’t regard the transition as a passing of the torch.

“I don’t think that he necessarily looked at it that way,” Rabbi Krohn says. “But I think the world looks at it that way. We had totally different styles . . . and he never said, you know, ‘you’re going to be my mouthpiece.’ It just never came up.”

Eventually, the day came when Rabbi Krohn’s work had grown well enough known and respected that the coveted title was finally conferred upon him.

“The first time that somebody introduced me as a maggid,” he says, “I was at the top of the world. To me, to be a maggid is to be the epitome.”



Last Updated ( Friday, 27 March 2009 11:32 )  

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