The Dance Goes On

Hasidism: A New History

by David Biale, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellman, Samuel C. Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, and Marcin Wodziński, with an afterword by Arthur Green
Princeton University Press, 875 pp., $45.00
Magnum Photos
Jerusalem, 1972; photograph by Leonard Freed

In 1945 Shlomo Halberstam reached New York. He was a broken man, his faith shattered and his will to live shaken. He and his son Naftali were the sole survivors of their family: Bluma, Shlomo’s young wife, and two of their children had been murdered by the Nazis.

Shlomo had been born in 1907 and raised in the town of Bobov in Galicia, where his father, Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam, was the rebbe (leader) of a thriving Hasidic community. In September 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, Ben Zion, his sons, and his sons-in-law managed to flee eastward to the town of Lwow, seeking refuge in the then Russian-controlled zone of Poland. Their fragile safety didn’t last long; on July 25, 1941, following the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, Lwow was conquered, and Ben Zion was immediately arrested by the Germans.

Aware that he would soon be murdered, Ben Zion donned his festive Shabbat clothes and prepared himself to be martyred. Resolved to his fate, he was marched through the streets of the city and humiliated and beaten by his persecutors. Ben Zion and other members of his family were shot three days later in the Yanover forest. They were among the first victims of the genocide of European Jewry.

At the time of his father’s arrest, Shlomo barely evaded capture and death by concealing his identity, shaving his beard, cutting off his traditional sidelocks, and exchanging his Hasidic garb for modern clothing. With a forged Hungarian passport, he was smuggled to Hungary in a coal truck and fled, after many travails, across the border to Romania. My own father grew up in the same area of Galicia as Shlomo, in a village near Bobov. He belonged to a Hasidic family related to the Halberstams who pursued the same route eastward in Poland to escape the Nazis. Only my father and uncle survived.

When Shlomo Halberstam arrived in New York after the war, the Bobov community consisted of no more than three hundred members, a small remnant of what was once a thriving Hasidic center. With the encouragement of his loyal followers, he reestablished a Hasidic Bobov community in Brooklyn, which today includes around 120,000 people, more than during its pre-Holocaust days in Poland. In the aftermath of World War II nobody could have predicted such a resurrection; it felt as if the old world of Eastern European Hasidism had been extinguished forever.

The court of Bobov (as such communities are known) is not the only visible and confident Hasidic group in the US. Today the Hasidic world consists of thriving communities such as Satmar, a Hungarian branch named after its town of origin and the most zealous and insular Hasidic group; and the Lubavitch movement, a Russian branch of Hasidism known as Chabad, which, in contrast to Satmar’s…

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