In 1964, a match was arranged between 18-year-old Surah’le Hager (b. 1946) and 16-year-old Yisachar Dov Rokach (b. 1948). At the time, Surah’le was the granddaughter of the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Hayim Meir Hager (1887–1972). Her father, Rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager of Vizhnitz (1916-2012), would go on to be the next Vizhnitzer Rebbe.
The groom, young Yisachar Dov was the acknowledged leader-in-waiting of the Belz Hassidim. The previous leader of Belz Hasidism, Rabbi Aharon Rokach (1880-1957), together with his younger half-brother Rabbi Mordechai Rokach of Bilgoraj (1901-1949), had narrowly escaped Nazi occupied Europe reaching British Mandate Palestine in February 1944. The brothers’ escape and the assurances of safety they gave their communities in Europe, before leaving raised difficult questions, which are still debated today.
Rabbi Aharon of Belz lost his wife and children during the Holocaust. After arriving in Israel, he married a widow, Chana (1915-2013) who has two children. The couple did not have any children of their own. Thus, when he died in 1957, there were no descendants to take his place.
Rabbi Aharon’s younger brother, Rabbi Mordechai, also lost his wife and children in the Holocaust. In 1947, he married Miriam Gluck (1922-2017), and two years later, the couple’s only child, Yisachar Dov, was born.
Yisachar Dov was only nine years old when his uncle passed away. As the surviving descendent of the Belz dynasty, he was the heir-apparent, with much expectation surrounding his future.
A year after the engagement between Yisachar Dov and Surah’le, in 1964, the marriage took place in what was hailed as the largest hassidic wedding since the Holocaust. News outlets in Israel covered the event, describing the preparations and filing reports the following day. Reporters recounted how challenging it was for the authorities to maintain order and safety, as people poured into Bnei Brak from all over Israel.
The wedding of a generation
According to the press, 10,000 invitations had been sent out. This was to be the wedding of a generation – perhaps one for the ages. In addition to the hassidic faithful, newspapers reported that Israeli state dignitaries were invited to attend. For example, the then-commander-in-chief of the IDF Yitzhak Rabin (1922-1992) received an invitation written in rhyming Hebrew with an acrostic of his surname:
“The head of the general staff of our glorious and mighty army!
In the Israel Defense Force on the land, at sea and in the air.
He subdues peoples under you and nations under your feet.
They will be smitten before you. God will deliver our enemies into your hands.”
The gushing invitation is remarkable. The glowing description of the Israeli army in the first line is unexpected, considering the fact that both Belz and Vizhnitz Hassidim do not identify with the Zionist movement, nor do they advocate service in the Israeli army. The second line echoes a phrase in the prayer for the safety of Israeli soldiers – a prayer that is not publicly recited in Belz or Vizhnitz synagogues.
The final two lines allude to biblical verses: “He subdues peoples under us and nations under our feet” (Psalms 47:4); “God will deliver your enemies that rise up against you to be smitten before you” (Deuteronomy 28:7). Reworking the syntax of the biblical verses to praise Rabin suggested that his role as the head of the armed forces is orchestrated by the Almighty, and that he and the IDF act as the agents of the Jewish people. This is not a theologically surprising position, though public recognition of a secular Israeli leader by hassidic masters is not standard.
It is difficult to fathom the unbridled praise of the invitation. Perhaps this was a cynical ploy aimed at currying political favor, or perhaps Belz and Vizhnitz Hassidim sensed that this was a momentous occasion that called for a stately approach, a perspective that transcended party loyalties and religious differences.
The wedding festivities began at five in the afternoon and they continued until the wee hours of the morning. One newspaper tried to convey the magnitude of the event by reporting that, at the wedding feast, about 5,000 bottles of beer were served, 3,000 bottles of soda water, and about 5,000 bread buns.
On the wedding day before the ceremony, some of the Belz Hassidim quietly tried to give young Yisachar Dov kvitlach – slips of paper with names and requests for blessings. Giving a kvitl is a sign that the petitioner views the recipient as a hassidic master, whose prayers will be answered. Receiving and reading a kvitl is the mark of a hassidic master.
On this occasion, the young groom refused to take the kvitlach, as he was yet to accept the mantle of leadership. The hassidic elders declared that even though he was yet to be acknowledged as a rebbe, that particular day could be considered an exception: “Today it is another matter. Today, he is a groom on his wedding day.” The implication of that declaration was that the status of a groom-on-his-wedding-day sufficed for his ability to be a conduit for divine blessings. Immediately, kvitlach piled up on the table.
Though some people thought that the wedding feast would mark the official appointment of Yisachar Dov as leader of the Belz Hassidim, the Belz elders decided otherwise: It would be better to delay the appointment for three years and allow the young boy to learn from Surah’le’s esteemed grandfather, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe.
But the younger generation of Belz Hassidim was less patient; they were already clamoring for official communal recognition of their leader. The press noted that pressure to formally appoint the leader would undoubtedly increase. Indeed, a year and a half later, in the summer of 1966, Rabbi Yisachar Dov was crowned as the hassidic master of Belz – or in the words of his followers: The Belzer Ruv.
As a result of this marriage, Surah’le Hager – now Surah Rokach – became the link between two key hassidic dynasties that have grown to be two of the most influential hassidic communities in Israel, today.
Together with her siblings, Surah’le stands at a nexus in the contemporary hassidic world, connecting different key dynasties. Her two brothers currently serve as Vizhnitzer Rebbes, one sister Haya Hanna is the wife of the Skverer Rebbe, and another sister Sasha is married to one of the Satmar Rebbes. ■
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.