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Monday, September 16, 2019

Reviewing: “Untold Tales of the Hasidim: Crisis and Discontent in the History of Hasidism,” David Assaf. The Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry. Brandeis University Press. 2011. English. Paperback. 336 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1611681949.

In the seven chapters of this study, David Assaf, a professor of modern Jewish history at the department of Jewish history, Tel Aviv University, has unearthed much of the “hidden and forgotten—or perhaps more precisely, what has been concealed or deliberately suppressed,” information about “anomalous individuals” and dramatic events that occurred between the ninth and early 20th century due to the uneasiness and sometimes the embarrassment it would cause if exposed to public view.

In the process of researching this study, Assaf says he assumed the role of a detective “illuminating dark corners with his flashlight.” When first published in 2006 in Hebrew, the book generated immediate attention, becoming the subject of many articles in newspapers, academic journals and in debates on the internet.

Though each chapter stands alone as a separate section, every one explores the lives of different individuals born into leading Hasidic families, who were unable to adapt to this unique lifestyle. By connecting the experiences of the “scions of Hasidic rebbes,” who never found their place in this very distinctive social group, Assaf explains what occurred to them and why, and shows how what transpired was either concealed or given another explanation or rationalization.

Are there some characteristics about the descendants of rebbes, especially those drawn to “poetry, art and beauty” or was it the response to the pressures of their rearing? Assaf asks. A basic hypothesis of this work is the direction these children took was not accidental. They were subjected to the contradictory forces that transformed the lives of Eastern European Jewry from the late 18th century until the Shoah.

This is not an easy read for those who have an affinity to or revere Hasidic life. These stories are painful to read, yet they are a part of the history of a segment of the Jewish people that has had, and continues to have, a profound influence on our way of life.

By Alex Grobman


Dr. Grobman, a Hebrew University-trained historian, is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.