Monday, September 28, 2020 -
Print Edition

Astonishing stories of return

As we approach this Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath that falls between the “inscribing” of Rosh Hashanah and the “sealing” of Yom Kippur, teshuva, loosely translated as repentance but literally meaning return, is on my mind.

I have long been intrigued and fascinated by teshuva personalities. In Tanach, even before the famous instance of King David’s sin and repentance, there was the People of Israel whom Moses did not give up on after the debacle of the Golden Calf. Moses believed that change was possible, so instead of dooming the nation he fought for it — for it to have a second chance. The personal stories of Judah’s and King David’s mistakes, change, repair and, in David’s case, his haunted life, are all part and parcel of a complex, flawed person of greatness.

These personae of teshuva speak to the possibility of transformation; to the hard inner emotional work of change and new possibilities.

The Talmudic vignette of teshuva about Elazar ben Dordaya, who stoops so low as to visit prostitutes, concludes redemptively with the famous maxim, “some acquire their world in a single moment.” Then there was the story of Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, the head of a band of thieves who ultimately rises to the stature of one of the greatest Jewish sages. These stories have always captivated me. I would read them again and again, and notice new insights each time.

Many years ago, when I met one of my younger sisters in the Boston airport as she was about to begin university, a very dear and brilliant friend of our family, Joel Orent, was kind enough to meet us and drive my sister and I to her university campus. Throughout the drive, Joel Orent’s brilliant stream of knowledge flooded the car like a never ending river. His breadth and depth were both astonishing as he went from topic to topic. I wish I remembered all the pearls of wisdom he shared, especially when he was speaking about Job. One thing from that car ride long ago, though, has stayed with me: Hillel Zeitlin and his son Aharon Zeitlin.

As Joel mentioned something from Hillel Zeitlin, taking for granted my knowledge of this great thinker, I asked, who? Joel bellowed. The car screeched to a halt. I instantly realized I betrayed my utter ignorance and had totally dropped the ball. Joel was so kind, but he simply couldn’t internalize the fact I had not heard of these two great thinkers, journalists, writers and poets. “Tehilla, we have to talk.” Joel Orent imprinted on me the crucial importance of weaving these brilliant thinkers into the tapestry of my life, of any life.

This made such an impression on me — and this was before Google. I actually had to go to the library and look up Hillel Zeitlin and Aharon Zeitlin. Indeed, their writings are scintillating, one might say, like a blood transfusion for the soul.

But what struck me, and what has stayed with me, is Hillel Zeitlin’s amazing story of teshuva, of return, of change and transformation. Born into a chasidic Lubavitch family, steeped in tradition, as he grew into a teen he was influenced by the Enlightenment and left traditional Judaism. He became a student of philosophy, a renowned writer, journalist and editor. After much intellectual wrestling, he later in life found his way back to observant Judaism.

More than that, though, he died becoming a symbol of the death of Eastern European Judaism. In a drama of Biblical proportions, in a death reminiscent of an Elijah the Prophet who was whisked in a fiery whirlwind to the heavens, Hillel Zeitlin the defector not only returned to a Jewish way of life. He was murdered in the Warsaw Ghetto, wrapped in tallit and tefilin, clutching the Zohar in his hands.

Along these lines, the first time I heard the story of Franz Rosenzweig, author The Star of Redemption, it made me stop in my tracks. My father told me about Rosenzweig’s fateful Yom Kippur on the verge of his conversion to Christianity — how the power of one Yom Kippur in an Orthodox synagogue in Berlin changed his mind. As he experienced the prayers washing over him, the holiness of this 26-hour experience, so singularly transformational, was enough to move Rosenzweig back to Judaism, saying “he no longer needed” to convert out.

This past week I have learned of two more such personalities: a chasidic Polish rebbe, the Yabloner Rebbe, as well as that of Mark Halawa, a Kuwaiti Muslim, today building a Jewish home in Jerusalem. I will focus here on the Yabloner Rebbe. Stay tuned for Mark Halawa’s story.

Here’s how I came to the story of the Yabloner Rebbe:

I was up late, half asleep, packing for a trip the next morning, when I decided to click on a video my neighbor had sent me earlier in the evening, in the hopes of it keeping me up. The next thing I know a far-fetched sounding story was unfolding. It was definitely doing the job of keeping me up. I was hooked. Visiting my parents that Shabbat, I shared the story with them. They were both skeptical (especially since apparently in my half asleep state I had missed a couple of crucial details). After Shabbat I turned my computer on, and lo, the story had gone viral on social media.

It’s the story of the Yabloner Rebbe, as told by a Pini Dunner of Los Angeles. Honestly, you should just Google it for its full effect. It’s worth your 20 minutes. It truly is a wild story; there is even a Top Gun cameo in it.

To summarize, a chasidic rebbe from Poland, Rabbi Yechezkel Taub, was influenced by the rebbe Yehoshua Shapira, the pioneer chasidic rebbe who encouraged chasidim from Poland to move their communities to then Palestine. The Yabloner Rebbe was responsive to this call and encouraged his chasidim to join him in the land of Israel. In 1924, many followed him there. In 1925, as the Yabloner Rebbe founded Kfar Chasidim, among the many who lauded his efforts and came to be photographed with him were Lord Balfour, Lord Rothschild and Chaim Bialik.

However, due to poverty and hardship the project soured. Devastated, rejected by his chasidim, the Yabloner Rebbe left for America where his alias became George Nickel. He shaved his beard and pe’ot and stopped observing Shabbat.

After decades in the US, and after success in the real estate business, now an older man the Yabloner Rebbe aka George Nickel decided to pursue a university education. After earning a BA and an MA in psychology, and being recognized as one of the oldest people ever to do so, the Yabloner Rebbe found his way back to Kfar Chasidim. He reconciled with his followers. In fact, although they had been angry with him for impoverishing them in Palestine they now thanked him for saving them from the Holocaust — for saving their lives.

Had it not been for the rebbe’s harebrained scheme to leave Poland and build a chasidic community in Palestine, they would have all been murdered, which was, in fact, the fate of their families left behind.

The Yabloner Rebbe returned to a life of Judaism; he returned to his native identity and name, lived out his years in Kfar Chasidim and is buried there today. The inscription on his headstone refers to him as the Yabloner Rebbe.


Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

Leave a Reply