“Hasidism: A New History” by David Baile, David Assaf and Benjamin Brown, et al.— A Comprehensive History

Biale, David, David Assaf, Benjamin Brown, Uriel Gellmab, Samuel Heilman, Moshe Rosman, Gadi Sagiv, Marcin Wodainski. “Hasidism: A New History”, with an afterword by Arthur Green, Princeton University Press, 2017.

A Comprehensive History

Amos Lassen

I have always been fascinated by and curious about Hasidim. Being from New Orleans, I did not have much access to Hasidic Jews since back then there were none so I what I knew about them, I learned at weekly religious school and it was not until after I graduated from college and moved to Israel that I was able to know a Hasid on a one-to-one basis. Of course, I could not ask questions and so I began to read. Now, with the publication of “Hasidism: A New History”, I have everything I ever wanted to know.

Hasidism is a pietistic movement that shaped modern Judaism and here we get a combination of intellectual, religious, and social history as well as perspectives on the movement’s leaders as well as its followers. We see that Hasidism is a product of modernity that forged its identity as a radical alternative to the secular world.

Hasidism originated in southeastern Poland, in mystical circles that were centered on the figure of Israel Ba’al Shem Tov, but it was only after his death in 1760 that it began to spread as a movement. Some have stated that Hasidism stop being a creative movement after the eighteenth century but we see here that the golden age of the movement was in the nineteenth century, when it conquered new territory, gained a mass following, and became a mainstay of Jewish Orthodoxy. Eastern European Hasidism was severely hurt by World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the Holocaust. Then following World War II, the movement entered a second golden age and really grew. Today, it is once again experiencing a renaissance in Israel, the United States, and other countries around the world. In this book we get the work of an international team of scholars with information for anyone seeking to understand the movement. This is a very readable comprehensive history that kept me mesmerized as I read.

We get a new understanding of many of the myths about Hasidism as well as new insights that place the movement at the center of European Jewish history and as a movement that shaped history and not just a marginal group of Jews. The collective wisdom we get here from eight of the modern sages of Judaism give us a complete portrait of Hasidism.

Because of their unique dress, Hasidic Jews are highly visible. They are also the fastest growing of all the world’s Jewish subcultures. Along with that they are also among the least understood and enigmatic of Jewish communities. We learn what brought the movement into being and how it survived. I decided that instead of reading it at first from cover to cover, I looked for the answers to the many questions that I had and they were all answered here.

This is the first real comprehensive history of Hasidism that spans the entire movement from its beginnings to the present. There are more than 800 pages and not one is wasted. What is interested is that the work is truly collaborative.

This will be a ready resource and primer for the next generation of pious and doubtful inquirers into the history of Hasidism, especially for outsiders. It is written with inclusivity and invites us to understand. I can imagine that the religious insider might find this to be too broad and too historical but then they are supposed to know all of this anyway. The purpose of the book or so it seems to me is to give a thorough and even-handed history of the movement.

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