Our brother's killer

The murder of Rabbi Kohn provides a glimpse into the tensions of a 19th-century Orthodox community.

lemberg 88 (photo credit: )
lemberg 88
(photo credit: )
A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion, and Violence in Modern Jewish History By Michael Stanislawski Princeton University Press 141 pages; $21.95 I can still remember my childhood, and the 1960s Long Island home where we lived almost entirely among other Jews. My parents would shudder when any world tragedy struck - Kennedy getting shot, then Bobby and Martin, finally the pope. Relief would only come when the perpetrator's name was announced and it became clear that a Jew wasn't involved. They were always worried that any travesty committed by one of us would bring condemnation on us all. In my parents' somewhat tortured diorama of the universe, there were only two categories - Jew and other, and the thought that one Jew might harm another was inconceivable. Michael Stanislawski, distinguished professor of Jewish history at Columbia University, was tormented by the notion of one Jew hurting another. Shaken when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Orthodox Jew, Stanislawski wondered: "How could a Jew kill a Jew for religious and political reasons?" And so he began to examine the tensions between Orthodox and Reform over the past two centuries. His book focuses on the murder of esteemed Reform rabbi Abraham Kohn of Lemberg (now Lviv, Ukraine) by an Orthodox Jew. In telling us the life story of Kohn, Stanislawski manages to shed light on the problems all Jews have had carving out individual identities. The Jews who lived during Kohn's time had to negotiate and plead about every crucial aspect of their existence, where they could live, work, study and even whom they could marry. A world of indignities was thrust upon them, and they struggled for their own integrity. Kohn was no exception. The author was able to gain access to the complete documentation on Kohn's murder from the now-independent Ukrainian state; this information had been unavailable under the Soviets. It lays out a chilling scenario. On September 6, 1848, Abraham Ber Pilpel, an Orthodox Jew, entered Kohn's kitchen and poured arsenic into soup being prepared for the evening meal. Hours later, Kohn was dead and so was his infant daughter, the rest of the family barely clinging to life. Kohn was born in Bohemia to a desperately poor family that struggled to find the resources to send him to school. By all accounts, he was a brilliant young man who simultaneously studied Talmud and enrolled in the philosophical faculty of the famous Charles University in Prague. Early on, he was drawn to the Jewish Enlightenment, which called for Jews to integrate socially and politically with their host nations. As the Reform rabbi in Lemberg, Kohn attempted to abolish what he viewed as meaningless ceremonial practices that he felt kept his congregants from a more genuine relationship with God. He spoke out against traditions long held as sacrosanct, such as women covering their heads in synagogue, the requirement that one not wear leather shoes during the shiva period, and the custom of tearing a garment at a burial. A charismatic speaker, he warned his congregants that "our coreligionists sorely lack any knowledge of the essence of our religion, since their education has either been neglected or perverted, so that the Judaism of so many Jews has become nothing more than a collection of prohibitions, demands and habits inherited from their fathers, which they obey unselfconsciously and in an unholy manner." His words provoked the ire of the Orthodox community, which repeatedly berated him. When his wife begged him to consider leaving for another position, he is reported to have said: "I am after all among Jews. What will they do to me in the end?" Stanislawski has written a finely researched and compelling narrative; his tone is simultaneously scholarly and personal. His work reveals the complexity and intensity of the new ideas that erupted among Jews during the 1840s - a time when "the passionate goal of Jewish modernists all over the world, whether doubting Talmud students, secularizing young merchants, university students, doctors or lawyers already plying their professions - was to forge a Judaism that was intellectually coherent and spiritually satisfying to them." The reader can't help but feel moved by the author's affinity for his subject; obviously, there is much about Kohn's life and work that he admires. Yet Stanislawski seems torn between his own modernist impulses and ancient callings. While researching his book in Ukraine, where he walked the same streets Kohn once walked, he looked everywhere for remnants of Jewish life. Dismayed, he found little more than a few shoddy memorial plaques and an eerie and uncomfortable silence in what had been a thriving metropolis of more than 110,000 Jews, all killed by the Nazis. He ends his fine book with a uniquely Jewish howl of grief.