An Ultra-Orthodox Saga

Ultra-Orthodox Jews generally venerate religious books, but can be unforgiving when it comes to works, that challenge popular perceptions of sages who are supposed to serve as role models. Sensitive topics include evidence of closet Zionist leanings; support of secular studies or even having a profession. Take the checkered history of "Making a Godol, A Study of Episodes in the Lives of Great Torah Personalities," written in English (with a Hebrew translation) by Orthodox Rabbi Nosson (Nathan) Kamenetzky, 77, son of the late Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, a Toronto sage who escaped from pre-World War II Lithuania. A 2002 edition was banned by prominent non-English reading Israeli ultra-Orthodox rabbis for portraying, they felt, Torah personalities too candidly - admissions which included, for example, that the senior Kamenetzky had read Russian translations of Jules Verne and Sherlock Holmes in his youth and had even obtained a Russian high school diploma. In that vein, in early December, an ad hoc coalition of ultra-Orthodox leaders, established in 2006 to monitor the use of communication devices (they banned text messages on cellular phones), lifted a rabbinical ban against the Internet, allowing its limited use at home for "purposes of income alone," although Internet use was anyway said to be widespread among ultra-Orthodox. So it was with great care that my father, Israel Cappell, readied his own independently published book "Emet l'Yaakov" (Truth unto Jacob), for release last November. Though modern Orthodox, Dad's roots are in the ultra-Orthodox world of pre-Holocaust Europe when affiliations were blurred and businessmen were often (also) scholars and pious Jews were lovers of Zion. Shaped and translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Shraga Zalmanov, an ultra-Orthodox communal personality in Bnei Brak, the Hebrew-language book is a sefer (Hebrew for book) in the ultra-Orthodox sense of the word. It bears no photographs of women and opens with a haskama, or letter of rabbinical recommendation from my father's Bnei Brak-based cousin, Rabbi Shaul Haim Taub, the current grand rabbi of Modzhitz, a 19th-century hasidic dynasty established in the Polish borough of Deblin-Modzhitz (in the province of Lublin) and famous for their popular melodies, or niggunim. The first chapters are devoted to hasidic biblical commentary penned by my paternal grandfather Jacob Emanuel Cappell, a Lodz-born businessman (1887-1972), whom Zalmanov carefully describes as a "vestige of that knowledgeable generation of Polish Jews... who earned his living from commerce" but for whom "Torah determined [his daily routine]" and was the a source of "delight." Part II consists of previously unpublished letters to my grandfather from, among others, his brother-in-law and close friend Rabbi Shaul Yedidyah Eliezer Taub (b.1886), the second "Modzhitzer rebbe" who died on November 29, 1947, the date the United Nations voted to create the State of Israel, and was the last Jew to be buried on the Mount of Olives before the outbreak of the War of Independence. Confirming the work of Israeli historian Mendel Piekarz that some ultra-Orthodox factions (including the Modzhitzer) had a Zionist bent, Taub made three pre-WW II journeys to Palestine and in 1925 letters from Jaffa, he writes of "maintaining neutrality" in meetings with ultra-Orthodox separatist leader Rabbi Yosef Hayyim Zonnenfeld (1849 - 1932), who actively opposed all cooperation between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish communities and pro-state Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, Palestine's first chief rabbi; a warm encounter with British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel in which the latter requested the rebbe's help in "making peace" between the vying ultra-Orthodox factions; and his admiration for fellow ultra-Orthodox who "come to work the land, raise its cows and reap its fruits." The tone changes to panic with a 1939 letter from Taub describing his perilous flight from Poland to Vilna (he eventually made it to the U.S.). The last letters are about the dimensions of the horror, "which destroyed the glory of Polish Jewry as we knew it" and the joy in discovering that daughter Golda and grandchild, Kayla, had survived. Hidden during my grandfather's own Nazi ordeals in Belgium (which he survived), the correspondence was brought to America in 1950 and found decades after his death with a note asking "to publish my memories of the sages and righteous men," who inhabited pre-war Poland, "so future generations can know what was lost." My father, his youngest child, saw the book's publication as fulfilling a religious obligation to honor his father's wishes. So far, there have been no complaints from ultra-Orthodox censors and a second printing is planned due to the book's popularity. Not that prohibitions are so bad either. Autographed copies of the outlawed "Making of a Godol" are now said to be fetching $2,000 a piece.