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Grudge Match

When bris attendees turn into brawlers

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“Market day in the crowded Jewish quarters of Warsaw,” 1916 (Library of Congress)

When Yiddish journalism came into its own, just over 100 years ago, its writers and editors used the forms of reportage they found in the general press. For the first time, Yiddish readers, many of whom could not read anything but that language, were treated to editorials, cartoons, crime blotters, sports reports, and human interest pieces about their own community.

One particularly interesting feature of these publications was their coverage of Hasidic life. Far more important in Warsaw, where Hasidim made up a large proportion of the population, than in New York, Hasidic news was provided by journalists who had grown up in Hasidic families or who had a foot in both the Hasidic and secular worlds, but still lived and looked like traditional Jews. With around a third of Warsaw’s 350,000 Jews claiming membership in one of the 50 or so Hasidic sects based in the city, Hasidic newsgathering became a significant component of the Yiddish press. In the wake of World War I, dozens of Hasidic rebbes made their way to Warsaw, which had become the Jewish cultural capital of Eastern Europe. Leaving their shtetls, they retained the names of their locales: from Porisov, the Porisover rebbe; from Aleksandrov, the Aleksandrover rebbe; from Ger, the Gerer rebbe; and so forth.

What follows is a small window on such Yiddish press reporting. The event in question took place in January 1926; three articles from different newspapers are condensed here:

Just as the rebbe’s home in a shtetl functioned as his office, so did his new home in the city. His disciples would come to ask advice and request divine intervention, in close proximity of other Hasidic sects and their rebbes, making inter-sect disputes far more in-your-face.

Such disputes occured for a variety of reasons: within the sects themselves, they usually had to do with rabbinical succession. Between them, anything went. Disagreements could arise over when to start praying, which nigunim (melodies) to use, or what kind of kugel to eat on Shabbos. Certain sects suffered from such long-term feuds, for example that between the Sandzer and the Sadagurer, or between the Belzer and the Munkatcher Hasidim, that nobody remembered what initially set off the antagonism. These were essentially the Hasidic variants of the Hatfield and the McCoys. It was similar with the Porisover rebbe (Yeshoshue Osher Hurvitz-Shternfeld) and the Kolibyeler rebbe (Uri Yehoshue Osher Elkhanan Ashkenazi), whose disagreement had an unknown cause that resulted in bad blood between both of their followers.

In early 1925, the Porisover, a widower, had remarried. A year later, his first child, a son, was born. In an attempt to bury the hatchet with the Kolibyeler rebbe, the Porisover rebbe invited the Kolibyeler rebbe to the newborn’s bris. Moreover, he designated the Kolibyeler to serve as his sandek, the godfather who cradles the child as the circumcision takes places and holds the child still while the mohel performs the circumcision. This was a beautiful gesture. The Porisover, however, neglected to inform his own followers of his changed attitude toward the Kolibyeler. After having no doubt heard censorious homilies from their rebbe against the evil Kolibyeler, the Porisover Hasidim were flabbergasted by his largesse and didn’t quite know how to react.

The bris was huge. Rabbis packed the Porisover’s apartment; all of Hasidic Warsaw was in attendance. Wine poured like water. The Porisover Hasidim got drunk, and courageous; protesting their rebbe’s decision to reconcile with his former arch-enemy, the Kolibyeler, they defied their leader’s call to join in the opening prayers beginning the bris ceremony.

Taking note of his followers’ silence, the Porisover rebbe then invited the Kolibyeler rebbe to recite a blessing, further infuriating the Porisovers. “Raboysay, mir veln bentshn” (“Gentlemen, let us make a blessing”), the Kolibyeler intoned. The Porisover Hasidim couldn’t take any more and met the call to prayer with hysterical laughter. Their rudeness was shocking, but given the number of celebrants and the noise, their ruckus died down and the ceremony soon continued.

One of the Porisovers chimed in with the Harakhmones section of the ceremony and was joined by his peers. But a guest, the son of the Zvoliner rebbe, refused to let their outburst pass without incident, and blurted out, “it’s more appropriate to laugh at your singing than at the Kolibyeler’s.”

Their patience already thin, the drunken Porisover Hasidim were quick to react. One particularly inebriated fellow, Avremele Gritser, stuck his face into that of the Zvoliner’s son, called him a brat, told him to shut up, and cursed him as a “villain of Israel.” (Like their clothing, Hasidic cussing is relatively modest.)

Seeing his son berated infuriated the Zvoliner rebbe, who grabbed Avremele Gritser and warned him that if he didn’t stop insulting his son, he’d get punched—twice for good measure. Gritser looked at the Zvoliner and replied, “Oh yeah? And you’ll get four punches.”

With that, the Zvoliner rebbe’s son dropped Avremele with two blazing fists.

The crowd jumped on the Zvoliner rebbe and his son, beating them mercilessly. They did what is known in Yiddish as “taking out a mortgage on someone,” which entails holding someone down with a sheet while others pummel him. This was most likely performed with the men’s prayer shawls.

Hearing the inhuman yelps of the Zvoliner father and son, neighbors came running. They rushed into the rebbe’s apartment and found the Zvoliner rebbe and his son lying immobile on the floor, their clothes torn to shreds.

The two pummeled men were dragged out of the building by a gaggle of Porisovers and thrown into the street. Only with the help of two passers-by were they put into a droshke (horse-drawn carriage) and taken home. Inside, the party continued as if nothing was amiss: the bris was completed and merry-making and dancing followed.

Shortly thereafter, the daughter of the Zvoliner rebbe burst into the apartment with a policeman. The officer asked the owner of the house, the Porisover rebbe, to step outside. His followers, however, would not allow the policeman to approach the rebbe and the daughter—described by one Yiddish press reporter as “a girl with a sharp tongue”—began to howl that her father was beaten and stomped on and that she demanded satisfaction. After a tense standoff, the Hasidim relented and the policeman returned to the station house with the names of the rebbe and the other brawlers.

The Zvoliner’s daughter told the group of Yiddish journalists that had assembled to report the story that they had not heard they end of her. She would press charges. But like many of the small, internal convulsions in the Hasidic world, this episode would ultimately be dealt with internally. Charges weren’t pressed; the incident was smoothed over. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Zvoliner rebbe didn’t at least hold a grudge.

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Grudge Match

When bris attendees turn into brawlers

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