For more than twenty-five years, Jonathan Halberstam’s father shared Chassidic stories weekly over Yiddish radio. After finding a box containing 250 of these stories, Jonathan Halberstam has chosen thirty-seven to thoughtfully translate into English.
Although the broadcasts were made in the mid-twentieth century in New York City, Rabbi Tovia Halberstam’s tales reflect struggles of Jewish life in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe. Here, tavern keepers are often at the mercy of anti-Semitic provincial noblemen; impoverished fathers desperately seek money to secure their daughters’ marriages; abandoned wives despair of receiving a divorce; and Chassidim face challenges posed by gentiles and secular Jews. Sharing legends of the rebbes’ mystical insights into solving daily problems was considered holy, a way to transmit values and moral lessons to followers within this movement of religious revival. Over twenty-two master rabbis are featured. The Ba’al Shem Tov, Reb Mikhel of Zlotchov, Reb Dov Ber of Mezeritch, and Reb Yoshe Ber seem to see beyond what is apparent to emphasize the importance of balancing Torah study with celebration; of helping when help is asked for; and of setting things right in this world and the next. Through their stories, the rabbis show how Chanukkah can be seen as a time of renewal, why it is important to petition God, and how larger truths hide beneath small questions.
The tales themselves are complex; an opening dilemma often leads into another story, sometimes seemingly unrelated, which then astonishingly connects to make a point. As the titular story begins, the mother of a daughter who is deathly ill reaches out to the Tzaddik of Sassov. The wise man mysteriously instructs the mother to bring her silver menorah to his Chanukah celebration that night and tells an artisan there to take it. Only then does the tzaddik reveal the reason for his request. Long ago, the woman’s father, with flawed motivation for performing a mitzvah, had taken possession of that very menorah made by the artisan’s grandfather, who parted with it only reluctantly. This caused a blind angel to wander with the father’s soul after his death, endlessly searching for the gate to Paradise. Now, the tzaddik tells them, light has been restored for them all — father, daughter, mother, and artisan son.
Jonathan Halberstam writes that translating these stories involved retelling them in order to capture their rhythm and soul for modern readers. He divides the collection into five sections: Heavenly Matters, Life Lessons, The Rebbe’s Insight, The Rebbe’s Foresight, and Character and Compassion. Most of the stories will be new for readers of general Jewish folklore. Though some of the teachings, roles, and rules may feel strict, they reflect the realities of the time in which they take place and the values of a religious group that continues to flourish. The retellings themselves are fresh and lively. Halberstam the translator has captured the humor, wisdom, and surprise with which the rabbis pivot to make connections. Rabbi Halberstam the teller would enjoy hearing these tales rekindled by his son. Foreword, notes.