From Kishinev to Monsey

Kishinev, more than a century ago, was the capital of Bessarabia in Czarist Russia.

A man holds a sign outside the home of rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, New York, U.S., December 29, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/JEENAH MOON)
A man holds a sign outside the home of rabbi Chaim Rottenberg in Monsey, New York, U.S., December 29, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/JEENAH MOON)
"It is all in the hands of God." This was the response of a Jewish resident of Monsey, New York – a son of the Maccabees, the Zealots, and Bar-Kochba – to a television reporter when asked about his reaction to the recent attack by a machete-wielding assailant on a rabbi’s home during Hanukkah in his community. This answer takes me back to Kishinev in 1903 and the great Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik.
Kishinev, more than a century ago, was the capital of Bessarabia in Czarist Russia. The town had a large Jewish population – 50,000 Jews lived there. On April 6 and 7, 1903 – during Easter – Russian peasants attacked the Jewish community in a pogrom remembered for all time for its savagery. The Russian authorities did nothing to stop the attack that was sparked by rumors of Jews kidnapping and murdering a Christian child as part of Jewish ritual. Forty nine Jews were hacked to death, 500 injured, and the pogromists destroyed the town’s Jewish quarter. Worldwide condemnation of the attack followed but did not prevent a pogrom in Kishinev two years later. The 1903 Easter attack was a brutal orgy of mutilation and gang rape. Jews wanted to bring the pogromists to justice.
The Jewish Historical Commission in Odessa sent Bialik to Kishinev to interview those Jews who survived and to prepare a report on the pogrom. Beside chronicling the infamous attack, Bialik’s goal was to collect evidence to prosecute and punish the perpetrators of the horror. This latter aspect of the mission failed as the Czarist authorities were hesitant to punish the pogrom attackers. But the Kishinev Pogrom produced two iconic poems by Bialik – “On the Slaughter” and “The City of Slaughter.” In the latter poem, composed in 1904 after his journey to Kishinev, Bialik galvanized the emerging Zionist movement and spurred the formation of self-defense units by Jews in the Russian Pale of Settlement and the formation of armed defense by olim against Arab attacks in the Yishuv. While there is much to say about “On the Slaughter – composed in 1903 – I believe the Jews of Monsey and all Jews could learn much from the later poem.
Bialik’s investigations in Kishinev left him with little sympathy for the victims of the pogrom. Bialik introduces the poem by describing Kishinev after the pogrom: “Behold on tree, on stone, on fence, on mural clay/The splattered blood and dried brains of the dead.” One can imagine the scene in the Monsey rabbi’s home after the recent attack: the blood on the floor and bits of brain of one man who was stabbed repeatedly in the neck and the head (he survived but will likely never regain consciousness). Then, Bialik moves on to describe the Jewish reaction to the attack. During the gang rape of their wives and daughters, the Jews of Kishinev hid in the corners of their homes, witnessing the violation of their women: “Crouched husbands, bridegrooms, brothers, peering from the cracks.” Bialik continues later in this condemnation – “Perhaps, perhaps, each watcher had it in his heart to pray: A miracle, O Lord – and spare my skin this day!”
The next day, all the Jews of Kishinev could do after their wives were gang raped do was go to their rabbis and ask: “Tell me, O Rabbi, is my own wife permitted?” Bialik cried in anger that the “heirs of the Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees/Concealed and cowering – the sons of the Maccabees!/The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!”
“The City of Slaughter” was a clarion call for Jews to stand up for themselves, to defend themselves, to fight back. The harassment of Jews in Brooklyn this past Hanukkah by young African-American men and women should have galvanized the community – as well as that in Monsey – to be self-reliant and organize defense. Instead, as in the past in the Exile, the hassidic communities relied instead on protection from Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the New York Police Department. While I admire the efforts of the Guardian Angels, led by Curtis Sliwa, to defend the persecuted Jews, we should not rely on the gentile world to protect us, especially when the governor and mayor talk and do nothing. Yes, it is in the hands of God. But God gave us hands to shake in friendship but also to punch an attacker or squeeze the trigger of a rifle to survive in the face of our enemies. A representative of the hassidic community in Brooklyn recently told a television reporter that what was needed was not self-defense but “education.” Good luck: Imagine trying to sensitize Russian peasants to the glories of Judaism in Kishinev more than a century ago. Education does play one part in improving community relations. But it does not provide protection from assailants who hate and harass Jews.
The first hassidim in Jewish history were martyrs, sanctifying the name of God by killing themselves and their children rather than betray the Torah in the face of the evil king of the Hanukkah story. I am sure they believed that “all was in the hands of God” and they would be rewarded in the Garden of Eden and an afterlife, ultimately resurrection. They refused to fight the Hellenists on the Shabbat, lest they violate the sanctity of the day. They were slaughtered. It was only with the emergence of Judah Maccabee that martyrdom was set aside. To survive as a people we had to fight on Shabbat. Judah believed that God engineered his victories and the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. But he took action that was inspired by his beliefs and his defense of the Torah. His were the hands of defiance.
 Rabbi Menachem Ziemba was a hassid and one of the last rabbis in the Warsaw Ghetto before the April 1943 rebellion. In a gathering of the remnant of Warsaw Jewry’s leadership he stated clearly and passionately: “[W]e are faced by an arch foe, whose unparalleled ruthlessness and total annihilation purposes know no bounds. Halacha demands that we fight and resist to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sake of the Sanctification of the Divine Name.” He said this, with the deepest regrets that Jews of the ghetto had only months before been deported to death in Treblinka by the Germans. The chosen people of God did nothing but accept their fate.
Is it really “all in the hands of God”? To their credit, the Jews at the Monsey Hanukkah party tried to defend themselves by throwing chairs and a table at the assailant. But that was an act of desperation. No more depending on gentiles for protection from those who hate Jews. The time has come for self-reliance. Have we not learned the lesson of our history and, especially, that of the past 100 years?
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach Florida. The translation of Bialik into English is by Abraham M. Klein in his The Complete Works of Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1948).