Review of The Rebbe’s Daughter: Memoir of a Hasidic Childhood by Malkah Shapiro Translated, with an Introduction and Commentary by Nehemia Polen

Shapiro, Malkah. The Rebbe’s Daughter: Memoir of a Hasidic Childhood. Translated, with an Introduction and Commentary by Nehemia Polen. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 2002.

Reviewed by Rivka Chaya Schiller, YIVO, NYC

 

The autobiographical account of Reizel Malkah Bat-Zion Hapstein Shapiro (1894-1971) by the above title, originally appeared in 1969 in Hebrew as a volume of prose work known as Mi-Din le-Rahamim: Sippurim me-Hatzrot ha-Admorim (From severity to mercy: stories from the courts of the hasidic Rebbes),[i] published by the Israeli publishing house, Mossad Harav Kook. The original Hebrew version includes three collections of stories, of which the first collection, entitled Kozienice, includes seventeen chapters and focuses on the pre-World War I life of young Malkah Shapiro (then Hapstein) growing up in Kozienice, a small-town in Poland that possessed a strong hasidic presence. It is this first and most sizeable collection of stories that Nehemia Polen has made accessible to an English-reading audience in the form of The Rebbe’s Daughter: Memoir of a Hasidic Childhood.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine reading this work without the immensely helpful background information provided by Polen in his synoptic introduction, or without the extensive and well-informed endnotes, he provides throughout this book. Furthermore, Polen’s inclusion of an illustration based on Shapiro’s description of the Hapstein family’s Kozienice compound; a map of Kozienice and other hasidic centers in Poland, c.1905; a family tree of several of the intramarried hasidic dynasties mentioned by Shapiro; a list of family members and other figures; a glossary of elusive, mainly Hebrew and Yiddish terms found throughout this text; and a timeline of events related by Shapiro, makes for greater readability and comprehension on the part of the reader.[ii]

Malkah Shapiro was born Reizel Malkah Hapstein on April 27, 1894 in Kozienice, a town in what is today central Poland. At the time of the author’s birth, it was still a part of the Russian Empire. A scion of the Maggid of Kozienice, Yisrael ben Shabbeta Hapstein (1737-1814), Shapiro’s father was Yerahmiel Moshe Hapstein (1860-1909), the then Rebbe of Kozienice. Her mother, Brachah Tzipporah Gitl Twersky (1861-c.1930), herself hailed from “a prominent early Master in Ukraine,”[iii] Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl (1730-1797). In 1908, the author married her first cousin, Avraham Elimelekh Shapiro of Grodzisk (1896-1967), who at age thirteen was slightly younger than she. In 1926, Shapiro immigrated to pre-state Israel, where she lived first in Haifa, then in Kefar Hasidim,[iv] followed by Jerusalem, where she died in 1971. 

Shapiro’s account is set mainly in c.1905, at which time she was eleven and twelve years of age, on the verge of biological maturity, and as indicated above, soon-to-be married. In this vein, The Rebbe’s Daughter is, at least in part, a coming-of-age story told through the hindsight vantage point of several decades. At the same time, it is more than simply Shapiro’s own account of hasidic life in the Poland (an offshoot of the Russian Empire) of the early twentieth century. For Shapiro’s own accounts are likewise peppered with family history dating back several generations. Indeed, incorporated within her own storyline are chapters devoted to the family lore related by her mother, the younger Rebbetzin, Brachah Hapstein, and the older Rebbetzin, Sarah Devorah Shapiro (1844-1921).[v] As the recipient of this both orally transmitted and recorded hasidic dynastic history, the reader is left to perceive herself as part of a direct chain that dates back – possibly to the time of the Maggid of Kozienice.

Although at first glance, The Rebbe’s Daughter may appear to read like a work of fiction – due particularly to its third-person voice, which is used up until chapter fourteen (of seventeen) – in reality, Bat-Zion, the protagonist, is simply the alter-ego of Malkah Shapiro. According to Polen, Bat-Zion was in fact one of Shapiro’s given names, although not one with which she was born. This given name was added on to her birth names, Reizel Malkah, when she was yet in the crib, as a means by which to insure that she would not die from the diphtheria that she had contracted. Furthermore, this very episode is attested to by the author, in the following excerpt:

… they spoke of the diphtheria that had spread among the children, and that she herself had contracted … Her mother, the Rebbetzin, accompanied by her grandmother, her aunt, and a number of other women, spent the entire night at the cemetery prostrating themselves. The air was filled with words of supplication from the Psalms and prayers for mercy on behalf of the child. Within the sepulcher, her father the Rebbe added the name Bat-Zion to the two names she already had.[vi]

 

Polen’s explanation for Shapiro’s use of the third-person voice is that it was intended as a means of distancing herself from many of these events that had occurred early on in her life (as the Hebrew version of this work was published when Shapiro was around seventy-seven years old), some of which may have been a source of embarrassment to her in her later years.

Polen also concedes that the shift from the third-person voice of “Bat-Zion,” as demonstrated in chapters one through thirteen, to the first-person “I” of the final three chapters – fourteen through seventeen – is a literary device indicating “the move from innocence to dreadful knowledge.”[vii] It is worth noting at this point, that the final few chapters of The Rebbe’s Daughter draw from Shapiro’s later knowledge of the Holocaust, as well as her awareness that most of her immediate world had perished under terribly tragic means. This sentiment is indicated in the following interrelated excerpts: “Those areas were filled with Jews, but now the Jews are gone and their blood cries out from the ground. From every corner of that holy city the blood of our martyrs cries out; may the Lord requite their blood.”[viii] …”Rabbi Asher Elimelekh, his righteous memory a blessing, whose entire martyred family rose as a burnt offering on the altar of their Judaism in the Nazi Holocaust”[ix] …“I imagine myself between my sisters, the martyred Hannah Goldeleh, and the Rebbetzin of Piaseczno, Rahel Hayyah Miriam of blessed memory, the wife of my uncle Rabbi Kalmish’l, his righteous memory a blessing, who along with his dear children were burnt offerings in the Nazi Holocaust.”[x]

Among the assorted themes that are introduced by Shapiro in her autobiographical account – each of which readily lends itself to a broader discussion – are: the institution of child marriage among Hasidim; intramarriage among hasidic dynasties; Gentile-Jewish relations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Russian Empire Poland; the role and education of hasidic women around the turn of the past century; superstitious and folk practices, as well as religiously based customs common among Hasidim; the centrality of Eretz Yisrael to the Rebbe’s court; and broader historical events in independent and Russian-controlled Poland dating back to the Middle Ages. Owing to the needs of brevity, this review will only highlight a few of these themes, beginning with the matter of child marriage.

As previously mentioned, Malkah Shapiro (then Hapstein) was fourteen years old and her husband-to-be was thirteen at the time of their 1908 marriage. A reference to Shapiro’s upcoming betrothal and the juxtaposition of this ultimate plunge-into-adulthood act and the author’s yet child-like actions and ambivalent sensibilities, may be seen in the following:

`There’s an unladylike wayward spirit in you, Bat-Zion. Don’t you know that soon you’re going to be betrothed!’ … Now she had grown taller and just by standing on her tiptoes she could grab hold [of the rungs of a ladder] and swing, but the activity no longer seemed appropriate for a young woman her age. She was already twelve years old. She recalled the old woman’s words about her betrothal and sensed that her face had become red with embarrassment. She was glad that no one was looking at her.[xi]

 

Similarly, a generation earlier, the author’s own mother, Brachah Shapiro (then Twersky) married the author’s father, Yerahmiel Moshe Hapstein, at the age of thirteen: “And Aunt Leahnu, too: her mother would always admire her beauty, for Leahnu was not only her sister-in-law—since Bat-Zion’s mother was thirteen, when she married the Rebbe—but her friend as well…”[xii] Another such case of early marriage may be seen in conjunction with the author’s great aunt Malkahle, who had then reached the tender age of twelve.[xiii] The man, whom she married, was in turn, a “dear thirteen-year-old groom.”[xiv]

According to Polen, who likewise draws from other scholars, the tradition among Ashkenazi Jews to marry off their children at a very young age was once a common practice. This may be seen in light of the fact that Glückel of Hameln (1646-1724) – a far more recognized autobiographer than our Malkah Shapiro – was betrothed at the age of twelve and married at age fourteen.[xv] In Russia, for example, this tradition persisted until the first half of the nineteenth century. But by the second decade of the twentieth century in Poland, this practice had apparently all but been forgotten among most Jews. Clearly, though, this was not the case in families such as that of Shapiro, in which the practice seems to have been endemic – even up to such a late twentieth century date. Furthermore, Polen asserts that Shapiro and her husband-to-be must have been aware of the unusual nature of their marriage, and that that in itself may have “caused considerable discomfort and awkwardness.”[xvi]

Another one of this work’s major themes, as mentioned above, is that of Gentile-Jewish relations. This is seen both in terms of how the Polish peasant population related to members of the Shapiro – the Maggid of Kozienice’s – family, as well as the mutual respect shown and the parallels drawn between members of the Polish nobility and this particular version of Jewish nobility. For example, there is a reference by the younger Rebbetzin Brachanu (Malkah Shapiro’s mother) and her sister-in-law, Feigenu, to Lady Strykowice, who had been a friend of their respective mother-in-law and mother, Sarah Devorah Shapiro. According to this interchange, the venerable noblewoman, “Lady Strykowice and her entire household were hasidei umot ha-olam, saintly gentiles.”[xvii] 

Similarly, there was a certain reverence among the neighboring Gentiles of Kozienice – even among those who would otherwise not behave kindly toward Jews – for descendants of the Maggid of Kozienice (as seen in the following excerpt):

And even gentiles who were ill-disposed toward Jews and who were plotting violence were shaken out of their evil intentions when, as they went out to work in their fields or factories, they heard the melodies coming from the house of the “Rabbi Maggid.” Their reverential awe for the Maggid, which went back many generations in their own families, was rekindled by the sacred music, awakening a benevolent spirit within them.[xviii]

As exemplified by these and other such vignettes present throughout Shapiro’s autobiography, it is evident that although Gentile-Jewish relations were not always benign, for the most part, Jews and Gentiles seem to have reached some common level of understanding with one another. At least, this was the case until the Second World War, at which time, the picture vastly changed for the negative. Whether this had something to do with the fact that the Jews portrayed in this account were connected to the hasidic dynasty of the Kozienicer Maggid is an intriguing question that cannot be addressed here.

                  In conclusion, this reader found The Rebbe’s Daughter: Memoir of a Hasidic Childhood to be a unique literary entry into the world of several hasidic dynasties as they intersected around the turn of the twentieth century. Moreover, the fact that this autobiographical account was written from the perspective of a hasidic woman who always remained within the hasidic fold, makes it all the rarer. In terms of this book’s possible shortcomings are the fact that much of the subject matter is so specific, that it practically necessitates some degree of background knowledge of Hasidism. In addition, certain readers will likely find the multitude of characters, the confusing family relationships (since many of Malkah Shapiro’s family members – including her own husband and she were related multiple ways), the non-linear progression of various vignettes,[xix] and the stories-within-stories to be difficult to digest. Nonetheless, there is no question that Nehemia Polen has done a great service to an English-reading audience with his aforementioned highly informative endnotes and other helpful comprehension tools.

The one lingering question that this reader has is that of objectivity and authenticity. Because Shapiro’s autobiography was written so many years after most of the events she recounted actually occurred, this reader cannot help wondering about the accuracy of all of her passages. What further leads this reader to ask such a question is that to a certain degree this work is an elegy to many of Shapiro’s family members and acquaintances who met tragic ends in the Holocaust. Shapiro could not help but feel a great deal of nostalgia and perhaps even guilt, in light of the fact that she had left Kozienice as early as 1926, and apparently, never returned before the outbreak of World War II to visit her extended family. This must surely also have influenced, on some level, Shapiro’s objectivity and the manner in which she depicted certain individuals, events, and landscapes in her autobiography.          

Notes:          



[i] The transliteration and translation of the original Hebrew title of Malkah Shapiro’s autobiographical account are those provided by Nehemia Polen in his introduction to The Rebbe’s Daughter. See: Malkah Shapiro, The Rebbe’s Daughter: Memoir of a Hasidic Childhood, trans. Nehemia Polen (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2002), xvii.   

 

[ii] The illustration of the Hapstein family compound was created by Polen with the help of his own family members. The map of Kozienice, et al. appears on page xxiii, while the family tree of the Hapsteins, Twerskys, Perlows, Shapiros, and other hasidic dynasties dating back to the Baal Shem Tov appears on pages 230-31 of The Rebbe’s Daughter. The list of the numerous and easily confused family members and other figures mentioned by Shapiro, may be viewed on pages 232-35. The glossary, in turn, may be viewed on pages 236-38, while the timeline appears on pages 247-48.

 

[iii] Shapiro, The Rebbe’s Daughter, xvii.

 

[iv] Shapiro’s impetus for residing in Kefar Hasidim stems from the fact that her younger brother, Yisrael Elozor Hapstein (1898-1966) was one of the settlement’s founders. For further information about this, see: ibid., 233.

 

[v] Chapter nine, “Grandmother’s Tale” and chapter sixteen, “Contending Spirits,” each pertain to an account heard first-hand by Shapiro from her grandmother and mother, respectively speaking. See: ibid., 101-14; 171-82.

 

[vi] Ibid., 34-35. The act of changing or adding a name to a sick person’s already existent given name(s) is a time-honored Jewish tradition still performed today. It is used for the purpose of fooling the Angel of Death and thereby hopefully insuring that the ill person’s life be spared. For further insight into this ceremonial practice, see also: ibid., 209, endnote 15.   

 

[vii] Ibid., xl.

 

[viii] Ibid., 186.

 

[ix] Ibid., 187.

 

[x] Ibid. The Rabbi Kalmish’l mentioned here is the well known, Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapiro of Piaseczno (1889-1943). He was both an uncle and a brother-in-law of Malkah Shapiro.

 

[xi] Ibid., 72.

 

[xii] Ibid., 91.

 

[xiii] The bride was an aunt to Malkah Shapiro’s mother, Brachah Twersky Hapstein, and the granddaughter of the tzaddik of Apta. See: ibid., 179.

 

[xiv] Ibid., 180.

 

[xv] See: Glückel of Hameln, The Life of Glückel of Hameln: A Memoir, trans. Beth-Zion Abrahams (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2010), x. 

 

[xvi] Shapiro, The Rebbe’s Daughter, 195, endnote 15.

 

[xvii] Ibid., 93.

 

[xviii] Ibid., 188.

 

[xix] Polen addresses the above point regarding the general lack of textual linearity in The Rebbe’s Daughter as something that appears to be a pattern in the autobiographical narratives of many women. Often, women’s autobiographies are “irregular, disconnected, and fragmentary” and present facts in “bits and pieces at different points in the narrative” (Shapiro, The Rebbe’s Daughter, xlv).  

 

 

 

 

Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal Fall 2012 Volume 9 Number 2

ISSN 1209-9392

© 2012 Women in Judaism, Inc.

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