Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz. Chachmei Yisroel B'America: The Nineteen Biographical - Historical Works of Rabbi B. Z. Eisenstadt. Lakewood: American Jewish Legacy Publication Society, 2013. 3 volumes, 1072 pp. $300.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-9846180-0-2.
Reviewed by Shaul Stampfer (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Published on H-Judaic (January, 2017)
Commissioned by Matthew A. Kraus (University of Cincinnati)
It is not customary to review a book that was published three years previously. However, this book has a special publication history--and given its exceptional importance for a variety of fields of Jewish studies and the fact that it could easily be overlooked, it merits attention and discussion even at this time.
Nothing is simple about Chachmei Yisrael B'America (in English: The scholars of Israel in America). The core of the text is the reproduction of all of the biographical publications of r. Ben Zion Eisenstadt--nineteen books of rabbinic biography published in Hebrew and Yiddish over a period of almost fifty years starting in 1895 and ending in 1941. Most of them are volumes that contain multiple short biographies of rabbis, scholars, and authors. Some of these volumes deal specifically with rabbis who lived in America and this was the justification for the title. However, most of the biographies in the other volumes deal with rabbis and writers (some quite secular) who never set foot on American soil. Moreover, two of the books reproduced in this set are devoted to biographies of individuals: one on r. Yehoshua Isaac Shapira, better known as r. Eizel Harif and the other on Kalonymos Zev Wissotsky, founder of a Russian tea empire and supporter of r. Israel Salanter and of the Hibat Zion movement (and employer of Ahad HaAm). In short, this three-volume set is an extremely important collection of biographical information about rabbis and other learned individuals both in Europe and in America.
This book, as is common in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, was not published by a trade or general publisher but rather by an organization, the American Jewish Legacy Publication Society, which was founded by r. Yaakov Horowitz. He served as editor of this multiyear project and he took the trouble to consult with leading scholars in American Jewish history. Relatively few sets of this collection were published and it will probably become a bibliographic rarity. It is not inexpensive but the price reflects the immense amount of effort that went into the volume, its bibliographical significance, and the high-quality printing.
Rabbi Ben Zion Eisenstadt was one of the more colorful characters in the American Jewish world at the beginning of the twentieth century. R. Eisenstadt was born in 1873 in Kletsk. He was not a student in any of the famous Lithuanian yeshivot but he studied with well-known rabbis and received a solid rabbinic education. He also began, as a teenager, to publish articles in decidedly nontraditionalist publications such as HaMeliz and HaZefira. At the age of thirty he emigrated to the United States and served as a rabbi in various congregations. In the last fifteen years of his life he devoted all of his time to his writing.
The genre of rabbinic biography--or, if one wishes ,orthodox historiography--developed rapidly in eastern Europe in the nineteenth century. There was a market for books on the history of communities and on rabbis, well known and not so well known. This was not modern historiography but reflected a popular interest in the past--and in the present as well. R. Eisenstadt corresponded with many rabbis and solicited their autobiographies, as well as their photographs. The books in this set are the product of decades of collection and organization.
Until now, Eisenstadt's publications have been, for all practical purposes, useless. Many, if not most, of the volumes are difficult to locate. Moreover, it was a major chore to determine whether Eisenstadt wrote a biography of any given individual. To do so, it was necessary in almost every case to go through of the volumes, one by one, in the hope that a name would appear.
This set, Chachmei Yisrael B'America, makes Eisenstadt's lifework accessible. It contains two detailed indices of individuals that cover all of the volumes in this set. One index is by first names and the second by last names. It is thus possible to determine in seconds whether Eisenstadt wrote a biography of a given individual. The dual index is important because rabbis were often known by their first names and sometimes their family names were almost unknown to the general public. (How many people know that the family name of r. Israel Meir HaKohen or the Chofets Chaim was Poupko?). Easy identification of biographies is important because almost all of the volumes are in Hebrew (a few are in Yiddish) and not all users will find Hebrew user-friendly. However, if a needed biography is located, it should not be difficult to get help with translation as the Hebrew is relatively simple.
This is not all. Eisenstadt was apparently fascinated by the new technology of photography and he made major efforts to include photographs of rabbis in his biographical collections. All of them are reproduced in this volume. Moreover, he also published a volume just of photographs, which appears in this set. The editors did more than simply reproduce Eisenstadt's volume of photographs. They undertook to supplement the collection of photographs of rabbis by adding as many as they could find--and they were surprisingly successful. In many cases of early American rabbis, they seem to have found the sole surviving photograph. There are over a hundred pages of photographs in volume 3 (usually four photographs per page) and viewed together, they are fascinating evidence of changing patterns of beards, hats, and the construction of self-image among rabbis (mostly traditionalist and of eastern European origin). To begin a study from scratch of how American rabbis looked at the dawn of the nineteenth century would seem an impossible task. With this collection in hand, such a study should be quite doable. The third volume also contains very useful introductions by Moshe Sherman and Abraham Eisenstadt that describe the life and personality of r. Ben Zion Eisenstadt.
The scope of Eisenstadt's work and his aspirations for inclusiveness make his biographical works useful not only for information on individuals but also for a general, prosopographic study of the early twentieth-century American traditionalist rabbinate. Until now, most studies of American Jewish leadership, rabbinic and otherwise, have focused on notable personalities. There are excellent reasons for this. Their contributions to the American Jewish community can justify the effort needed for an academic biography and the sources are (sometimes) readily available. However, concentrating on an elite inevitably provides an incomplete picture of the reality. Collections of biographies, such as that of Eisenstadt, make it possible, with a reasonable amount of effort, to give a picture of an entire group of individuals, in this case rabbis, and in turn, to get a much clearer picture of the dynamics of leadership in the general American Jewish community.
Ed. Note: The book can be purchased by contacting the American Jewish Legacy at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Shaul Stampfer. Review of Horowitz, Rabbi Yaakov, Chachmei Yisroel B'America: The Nineteen Biographical - Historical Works of Rabbi B. Z. Eisenstadt.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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