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About the Hasidic movement
Hasidism arose in the 1700's as a mystical, populist movement within Judaism, a call to spiritual renewal. It emphasized joyful observance of the commandments, a focus on attachment to God, and a desire to sanctify every action, every moment.
Now, Hasidic men are identifiable by their distinctive beards, long coats, black hats, and sidelocks. The Hasidim (plural of Hasid, or pious one) in the U.S. follow religious leaders (rebbes) who came to the U.S. in the wake of the Holocaust. They have succeeded in preserving their beliefs and customs, their language (Yiddish), and a traditional way of life. Their customs include a large body of stories and songs.
About the words "rebbe," "rabbi" and "Reb."
One distinctive feature of Hasidism is the prominence of the rebbe. A rebbe is not the same as a rabbi.
A rabbi is one who teaches and helps with questions of Jewish law; in recent centuries, rabbis also, like Christian ministers, give sermons and pastoral counselling and preside over weddings and other ceremonies.
But in Hasidism, a rebbe is a tzaddik, a "righteous one" who serves as a spiritual master, whose holiness is such that he can form a link between others and God. Hasidic communities are presided over by rebbes.
The term "Reb" is an honorific roughly equivalent to "Mr." but suggesting even more respect.
About the spellings
All the foreign words and names you'll hear in this program are originally written in alphabets other than the Roman alphabet. The Hebrew and Yiddish words and names are natively written in different versions of the Hebrew alphabet, whereas the Ukrainian and Russion place names are written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Even Polish or Czech place names are written in special versions of the Latin alphabet.
Therefore, each term or name has multiple spellings in English rather than a single, standard spelling. Thus, you will see "Hasidic" written as:
The name of Zusia, the rabbi mentioned in Story 2 and other stories, is spelled variously:
Virtually every foreign word in this program has multiple variant spellings. Therefore, if you look for one of them in books or on the web, you'll need to check more than one spelling.
Story 1. The Joyful Rebels (introduction)
Yes, a group of us in the Boston area began an open story sharing in 1979. It still continues today! If you want more info about story sharing in Boston, go the LANES page (League for the Advancement of New England Storytelling, www.lanes.org). To find the storytelling organizations near your U.S. location outside of New England, try www.storynet.org (The National Storytelling Network).
The storyteller who introduced me to Hassidic stories was Eric Chaim Kline. I believe that he now works as an antiquarian bookseller in Los Angeles. http://www.ericklinebookseller.com
I don't think Chaim actually gave us this much background on Hassidism. But I decided to put this important info in his mouth, since someone needed to give it to you. Call it artistic license.
The storyteller who encouraged me at that "Stories of Peace" concert, Penninah Adelman, is the author of numerous books on Jewish women's spirituality. She is also a social worker and public speaker.
In story #1, "The Joyful Rebels," I teach the first of several wordless prayer songs (plural, "nigunim"; singular, "nigun"). I learned this one from folksinger Merle Schlesinger (now Merle Roesler). She learned it, as I recall, from Maia brumberg. It was embedded in a story told by the father of the prominent Israeli folklorist, Dov Noy.
It's hard to give titles to these songs (nigunim), since they have no words. So (following the example of Penninah Adelman) I give them private titles that help me remember which song I'm referring to. The second part of this first nigun has a melody that reminds me vaguely of a theme from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," namely the "Great Gates of Kiev" section. So I call this the "Great Gates" nigun.
Most nigunim have three or four sections or parts. Some, like this nigun, have only two parts.
Story 2. Zusia's Question
The rebbe described in this story is Rabbi Zusia of Anipol. You can read about Reb Zusia in Wiesel, Souls, pages 112-120 and Buber, vol I, pages 235-252.
Of all the stories in this program, this one has had the most personal impact on me.
I first learned this story from the late Reuven Gold, who told it at an early National Storytelling Conference held at Washington College Academy in Jonesborough, TN. You can read my tribute to Reuven.
I have published versions of this story in several places, including:
I based this original story on a saying attributed to the school of Aaron of Karlin. I found the saying in Wiesel, Somewhere, page 40.
Song 2. Nigun ("Saxophone nigun")
This nigun is from the followers of the Rabbi of Modzitz.
I began to learn to play the alto saxophone about the same time I learned this song from Velvel Pasternak's Songs of the Chassidim, Volume 2 (page 186). I realized that, even though I knew only some of the notes on the saxophone, I knew enough to learn to play this song. Since it is the only nigun I know how to play on the saxophone, I think of it as the "Saxophone nigun." The full nigun has four parts, not just the two I sing here.
Velvel Pasternak is a remarkable institution in himself. Among other major accomplishments, he has run Tara Publications, a premier source of Jewish music. When I ordered my copy of Songs of the Chassidim some 25 years ago, he included a handwritten note: "Anyone who wants this book must also need a discount." Without being asked, he took a generous percentage off the price.
Story 4. The Poor Man and the Rebbe
I adapted a story told in Wiesel, Somewhere, page 66. The tale is told about Rabbi Wolfe of Zbarazh.
This story attributes to Noson the washing away with tears of a notebook of sins, but I see that Wiesel also describes Zusia as having done exactly that (Souls, page 119).
Story 6. Fasting Like the Master
From a story in Wiesel, Somewhere, page 193. Told about Rabbi Izthak of Kalish.
Song 3. Nigun "I Love the Harvest"
I learned this nigun, too, from Velvel Pasternak's Songs of the Chassidim, Volume 2 (page 196). Pasternak doesn't attribute this one to a particular Hassidic community. This song has only the two parts I sing here.
Years ago I borrowed this melody to use with a story I created for the Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot. I made up words for it, beginning, "I love the harvest." Therefore, I think of this nigun as the "I love the harvest" nigun.
Story 7. One Word of Talmud
A story about the Maggid of Mezheritz - and his student, Rabbi Zusia of Anipol. This is another story that I first heard from Reuven Gold. (See Story 2.) Reuven said that he first learned it from Buber, Volume 1. It's also in Wiesel, Souls on Fire, page 116-117.
Song 4. Nigun Dveikus (The "Slow Walk" nigun)
This nigun is from the Lubavitcher (Chabad) tradition. I learned it from the recording Chabad Nigunim Volume 4, where it is credited to the Hasidic rabbi, Reb Hillel Paritcher (1795-1864). You can listen to Hasidim singing this (as Niggun D'Veikus) at http://www.chassidus.com/audio/enign/
The word "dveikus" (also spelled "d'veikus") is the Yiddish pronounciation of the Hebrew word "devekut." In mystical Judaism, it refers to the state of deep attachment to God, also described as cleaving to God or communion with God. (It is said to come from a Hebrew root which means "glue" or "bonding".) A nigun dveikus ("melody of devotion") is sung while in deep contemplation.
This particular "nigun dveikus," like some other Hasidic songs, is believed to have a particular spiritual effect—or at least to mirror a spiritual process. The first section of the melody begins with soft notes of devotion to God; the second and third sections build to the highest level of spiritual attachment to God (I don't sing the third section). Then it returns to the second section, where the devotee now resolves to carry out his spiritual mission through earthly acts of study and observance.
Since this melody begins with a rhythm that reminds me of slow walking, I think of it as the "slow walk nigun."
Story 8. Blessing a Bad Day
Another story about the Maggid of Mezheritz - and his student, Rabbi Zusia of Anipol. I learned this one from several written sources, including Buber, vol I, page 237-8 and Wiesel, Souls, page 118. As with all the stories I tell, I have modified it to suit my understanding of the story's meaning and context. I published a briefer version as "Who Has the Answer?"
Story 9. How I Learned to Study the Torah
A story about Rabbi Aaron of Karlin. He was the teacher of little Mordecai, who grew up to become the rabbi of Lechovitz. Like stories 2 and 7, I first heard it from Reuven Gold. It also appears on my recording, Milk from the Bull's Horn: Tales of Nurturing Men. Buber's version (vol I, page 200) is titled "Conversion." Reuven added a great deal to this story, and I added a little more.
This is a true story. Some years after Mike told his story one night at the story-sharing group, I asked his permission to tell it. He said, "I don't remember the story!" I told it to him, then he gave his permission, saying, "It's a good story. And I'm glad you told it to me. Otherwise, it would be gone from my memory."
The story-within-a-story about the two brothers appears to be known as a Hasidic story on its own, but I have yet to find a printed version in my English-language sources.
Story 12. Your Last Hour (song/story)
When I told this story to Penninah Adelman many years ago, she said that she liked it. "But I changed one thing," I confessed. "I added the echo-singing, so the audience could participate."
Penninah laughed and said, "That was the most Hasidic part!"
I first heard a version of this from storyteller-turned-therapist Elizabeth Dunham. She said that she learned it in 1977 from a member (or former member) of the Open Theatre offshoot, "The Talking Band." The person she learned it from attributed it to Arthur Strimling, an actor, director, storyteller and author. Years later, I met Arthur and asked him if I had his permission to tell and adapt this song-story. He said, "I have told the story, but someone else added the melody." He was happy for me to tell the story, but I'm still seeking the storyteller/actor who added the tune.
For more Hasidic stories and information about Hasidism, either through books or on the webs.
A large archive of stories (mostly Hasidic), presented by a group in the historic "Holy City" of Tsfat (Safed), Israel. Among others, several famous Jewish mystics, whose work influenced Hasidism, lived in Tsfat.