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My parents were immigrants, but they were different. The vast majority of newcomers who had been arriving in America since the beginning of its history left Europe in order to break with the past and to become new men and women in the New World. My parents had brought their past along with them. They held on to it with pride and even with defiance. They had not come to America to forget their ancestors, who had been writing commentaries on the Talmud and the Kabbalah for centuries. My father was a rabbi and a Hasid ("pious one") who was profoundly learned in classic Jewish texts. My mother was totally selfless. She kept an open house for the hungry and hopeless even in the years when she had little with which to feed her children. Growing up in such a home, I have never ceased feeling inadequate -- I have not attained the learning of my father or the charity of my mother -- but I am ever more aware that I have always looked at the world through their eyes.
The past that my parents brought with them stretched back through many generations. My father remembered, and he taught his children to remember, that we were descendants of Elimelech of Lizhansk and his nephew Zvi Elimelech of Dinov (after whom my father was named). They were among the founding figures of the Hasidic movement in Judaism one and a half centuries earlier. This new religious fervor erupted in Eastern Europe in the late 1700s to teach that the service of God demands more than formal obedience to the ritual laws. God requires our hearts and our moral passion for justice for people who seem to be of no consequence. There were also eminent rabbinic scholars in our ancestry leadingback to some of the commentators in the sixteenth century on the classics of Jewish law. It was at once exhilarating and intimidating to hear from my father, and sometimes my mother, that an author of a weighty classic of the sacred literature in the Middle Ages or early modern times was an ancestor.
My parents taught that these ancestors still lived. They were immediately present in my grandfather -- my father's father, Avraham Herzberg -- and his four brothers. Each was more pious than the other, and together they were known everywhere in their region, eastern Galicia, as the "Five Books of Moses." After his marriage in Dinov to my grandmother, Breindel, Avraham Herzberg was given a modest dowry and a commitment from her parents that they would support the young couple for several years so that he could spend all his time studying the sacred books. After a few weeks he ran away, and he was soon found in the court of the Hasidic rebbe of Belz. For the rest of his life, he came home only for special occasions, such as when his two sons were born. He spent his life being a yoshev ("dweller") in Belz. Such people were intimately connected to their teacher, much more so than the majority of the rebbe's adherents who came for an occasional visit. The yoshvim made sure that they were present whenever the rebbe spoke, and they were always alert to every one of his actions. They tried to fathom the deep meaning that the rebbe was conveying by the way he stood, or sat, or, especially, by the attitude of his body at prayer. It was their special merit to share in the very food that he ate. To be a yoshev in Belz was, therefore, much more enticing to Avraham Herzberg than to go home to Dinov to study in isolation or, later, to Lubaczow, the town of his family, to help his young wife run the little store on the square from which she was barely making a living. Avraham Herzberg wrote a contract with his wife that half of the stake he was acquiring in heaven would be hers, in return for which she would run the small store in Lubaczow that supported him, her, and their two young sons.
One of the things to which my grandfather Avraham devoted himself at the court of the rebbe of Belz from the mid-1890s to 1914 was to be the rebbe's librarian and the Talmud teacher of the rebbe's children. As librarian he edited and published a kabbalistic manuscript in the rebbe's collection. The book is so rare that the next time I saw it outside of my father's library was in Gershom Scholem's hands in Jerusalem in 1971. Occasionally, Avraham Herzberg would come home to Lubaczow to visit his wife, and once he suddenly found himself alone in the house with an eight-year-old niece, the daughter of one of his brothers. To build a wall against sexual temptation, the Talmud had prescribed strict prohibitions against yichud -- that is, being alone with an unmarried woman. Grandfather could not wait to walk out the door, because by crossing the room he would be prolonging, by a few seconds, the period of transgression, so he jumped out of a second-story window. Fortunately, he landed on soft dirt and did not hurt himself, but even in his family, and among the pious in town, this jump became part of the local folklore. It added to the legend of the "Five Books of Moses." Sometimes this honorific was translated into a more relaxed, and mocking, description of the brothers as meshuge frum -- crazy pious.
But that was only part of the essence of the man. There was the matter of how he died. My father, Zvi Elimelech, found it difficult to talk of his father. He felt guilty all his life that he was gone from Lubaczow in 1915 when his father died at the age of forty-two. This guilt was unreasonable. My father could not have been there. He was then a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, fighting on the front against the invading Russian army.
In 1915, eastern Poland was a major battleground of the First World War. The Austro-Hungarian army crumbled, and the Germans were forced to intervene to stop a Russian advance. When the Germans recaptured Lubaczow they found that hundreds of people were near death with cholera. The army doctors had neither the medicine nor the personnel with which to take care of the sick, so they ordered that they be abandoned, most probably to die. Everyone in Lubaczow obeyed the order except my grandfather. He would not walk away from the sick. Within days he contracted the disease, and he was soon dead. The others had saved their lives by leaving. Some were, no doubt, upset with themselves, but they could assure themselves that they had no choice. Did not the Talmud teach obedience to secular authorities: "The law of the state is the law"? My grandfather had not taken refuge in this maxim. He chose to disobey the military doctors, so he tended the sick, and he died among them. And so I was named after him.
Avraham Herzberg's elder son, my father, had been born in 1894, and he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. The Austrian authorities had found him in Oswieþcim, which the Germans renamed Auschwitz in the next war. My father had been there for several years studying with its famous rabbi, Joshua Bombach, who ordained him just before the First World War broke out. He served all four years of the war until the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) were completely defeated and the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated. The Austrian army made no exceptions for young rabbinic scholars, so he began as a frontline soldier and was wounded twice in battle, but he talked little about combat. His favorite subject was the world before the war, which he regarded as a kind of golden age for Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and he loved to tell peaceful tales of his work as a soldier after he was no longer fit for combat. If it is true that children look back through a golden haze at the youth of their parents, it is certainly true in my case.
Let me tell three stories from the days of my father's youth. He was wounded for the first time in 1915 at the battle of Tarnopol in Galicia (southeastern Poland) as the Russians were advancing against the Austrians. He later took several bullets in a leg, and soon infection set in and he was evacuated to one of the large military hospitals in Vienna. The doctors there decided that his leg had to be amputated, but he resisted that conclusion. A volunteer nurse who was working in the hospital, a very Westernized Jewess, took an interest in him and fought his cause. There seems to have been some remnant of a supply of natural rubber that could be used to treat the leg, but the doctors had no intention of using it on him. The nurse intervened very forcefully, and my father's leg was saved. He later discovered that she was a daughter of the Austrian Baron von Rothschild. This story came back to me with particular force lately when I found myself writing an essay about the meaning of the Rothschild family in the life of Jews. I did not know until I had finished the essay why I had always felt so warm about the Rothschild tradition of concern for Jews in trouble.
When my father was discharged from the military hospital in Vienna, he was sent to Warsaw, which was then the center of the military government of the Central Powers for the territory of the Russian czar that they were then occupying. In Warsaw, my father's job was to work in the office that censored the civilian mail that came through the central office. He read the letters in Hebrew, and especially those that were written in rabbinic Hebrew, to make sure that these languages were not being used by Russian spies as means of communication. Very often, these letters were from one rabbi to another and concerned matters of Jewish religious law and practice or of interpretations of the fine points of the Talmud. My father told me that he could not resist the temptation to write in the margin, very often, some comment of his own on the subject at hand. Of course, he never got an answer, because he did not dare tell them who he was, but he could not resist the role of arguing with, or even correcting, these learned gentlemen.A Jew In America. Copyright © by Arthur Hertzberg. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.