(photo credit: YAAKOV LAPPIN)
Prague is hardly a city remembered for its rich hassidic tradition.
fact, one would be hard-pressed to recall a hassidic master who journeyed to
Bohemia. Even hassidic tales featuring Prague are scarce. In the interwar
period, however, one Czech Jew surprisingly found inspiration further east in
the heartland of hassidism.Jiri Langer (1894-1943) was born into an
assimilated Jewish family in Prague. His Hebrew name was Mordechai Dov, but he
was known by the Czech equivalent of George – Jiri (written with diacritical
marks on top of the “r” and “i” and pronounced “yizhi”).
When he was 19,
Langer left Prague on a quest to find his Jewish roots; in his own words, he was
“inspired by a secret longing.” But writing 25 years after leaving what he
called “European civilization with its comforts and achievements,” Langer
admitted that “even now after the passage of so many years” he still could not
explain to himself what precipitated the journey.
Langer’s wanderings led
him to Galicia, to the hassidic court of the charismatic Rabbi Yissachar Dov
Rokeah of Belz (1851-1926) – a place that Langer would later call “the Jewish
The short visit in Belz left an indelible mark on Langer, and he
returned to Belz a few months later. Years later, reflecting on the journey to
Belz – that is, the spiritual journey to the world of hassidism – Langer
observed in his book Nine Gates to the Chassidic Mysteries that “[o]nly a few
children of the West have accomplished this journey, hardly as many – when I
come to think of it – as there are fingers on the hand that writes these
Langer remained in the court of the Belzer rebbe, and became part
of his inner circle of hassidim. Langer would later recall that “[t]he site of
the saint’s mystic dance fills us with godly fear” (Nine Gates, p.
Toward the end of World War I, Langer returned to Prague and began a
teaching career. There, he became friendly with leading Jewish authors and
intellectuals such as Franz Kafka (1883-1924), whom he taught Hebrew, and Max
Brod (1884-1968), who in his autobiography credited Langer with helping him
finish some of his works.
During the interwar period, Langer wrote a
number of works in German about Jewish ritual and mysticism. In 1937, on the eve
of World War II, he published his hassidic work in Czech – a fascinating
compilation of vignettes, recollections and hassidic tales. “The Chassidic
legend,” wrote Langer, “is not without its cloudy moods. On the whole however it
can be said that the mysticism of the Chassidic legends is bright and joyous,
which gives it a great charm and appeal without in any way detracting from its
depth” (Nine Gates, p. 28).
Two years after publication, the Nazis who
had occupied Czechoslovakia banned the book and confiscated existing
In 1941, Langer fled occupied Prague and clandestinely reached
the shores of British Mandate Palestine. A year later in Tel Aviv, he published
a short collection of poems in Hebrew, entitled Me’at Tzori, thus becoming the
first Hebrew poet from Western Europe in the modern period. His poetry is
generally written in rhyme and meter, and resembles the Hebrew poetry of
Langer died in Tel Aviv in 1943 after suffering illness.
He is buried in the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery in Givatayim.
Langer’s hassidic work was translated into English and published in London.
While Nine Gates was subsequently translated into other languages, it has yet to
be translated into Hebrew.
Before his introduction to Nine Gates, Langer
wrote a short but moving few lines: “When you have read my book seven times, you
will say, perhaps with justice: ‘It is a bad book; however, one incident in it
pleased me.’ Which? – Each of you will say something different… Each according
to the roots of his soul and the glimmer of the worlds through which his Earth
flew on that night.”The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of
Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.
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