Our Big Kitchen’s CEO Rabbi Dovid Slavin has attained a PhD from Sydney University for a twenty year study of Jewish yeshiva life in Poland between the two World Wars of the 20th century – “Successful Innovation to Preserve Tradition”.
Although conducting a broad study on Poland, Rabbi Slovin focused much of his work on the life and times of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, head of the Lublin Chachmei Yeshiva.
JW: What motivated you to take on this enormous task?
RDS: In 1994 I was the newly appointed executive director of the rabbinical college here in Sydney where young men were studying to become rabbis. One of the first things I did was to get the program recognised by both Federal and State governments for the purposes of visas, medicare and funding. I wanted to get the Yeshiva courses recognised as being consistent with the highest level of tertiary education in Australia. Having done this, I felt I was in a position to be accepted as a PhD student and to write a doctorate. I chose to study Eastern European Jewry which was sadly destroyed during the Shoah…the Holocaust. A great deal of books, movies and museums have looked at the method of the destruction of Eastern European Jewry, but there has not been a great deal of emphasis placed on what was destroyed…what was there. And what was life like for the Jews who had lived in Poland for almost 1,000 years. It was a very beautiful intricate life on all levels of the Jewish experience. I wanted to rebuild, albeit only academically, a part of it. I chose the training of rabbis, an area I was familiar with. That study has created an insight into a very fascinating aspect of our people which has physically been destroyed but spiritually lives on.
JW: Are you aware of how the community was split at that time between the observant and non-orthodox Jews?
RDS: The period between 1918 and 1939 was incredibly active. There were an enormous amount of ‘isms’ which were being introduced into society. Zionism became very real after the Balfour Declaration, nationalism became important with many Jews becoming involved in the Bund and many Jews were engaged in communism…it was a community very much on the move. The Jews were given rights with other Poles in terms of representation at all levels of government and that in a sense became the battleground between various types of Jews who trids to get the votes of their communities by advancing their own particular ideology.
JW: In the immediate post-war period, in the developed West, rabbis were almost statesmanlike and it took many years to get smicha. How long did it take to train a rabbi in the Poland of your doctorate?
RDS: This is a topic that I analysed very closely in my thesis. There were very many different yeshivas and there was a very clear distinction between those who taught young men to become rabbis as a vocation. I spent a great deal of time studying Yeshiva Chachmei in Lublin. This yeshiva had been set up specifically to instil in young men the value of continuing education. Many yeshivas only granted smicha only after the students got married and obtained a position. So the students had a provisional document when they left the yeshiva and it became fully functional only when they became married and had obtained a position with an approved orthodox community. With the interwar period being so involved in the social developments of the various community with regard to all the ‘isms’, the drive by the yeshivas like Chachmei to keep their students within an orthodox community makes this period so fascinating.
JW: Obviously after the war, the Jewish presence in Poland became very thin. How important was the community in Poland in the interwar period?
RDS: There were 3 million Jews…representing 10% of the Polish population. But they were heavily concentrated in particular areas. They were in cities like Warsaw, Bialystok, Cracow, Lodz etc plus cities in Galicia. The populations of the cities could be a third or even a half Jewish. Plus there were the stetlach..the small Jewish towns where the majority of the inhabitants were Jewish.
JW: In the large cities, were the Jews mainly orthodox?
RDS: Depends on which city. You had major orthodox communities. Those who were not practising orthodox were very vocal but they were the minority. But that was changing all the time. During the interwar period there was a constant flow of young men and young women who were well educated and ambitious and who were looking to get away from orthodoxy. Many were determined to go to Palestine…to eretz Yisroel. Many wanted to get ahead within Poland and became part of the Polish intelligentsia and they blended into Polish society. Until the war they were accepted but that changed after the beginning of WWII. Many had intermarried and were turned over to the Nazi authorities by their own families. In the main, Polish Jewish community ran different lives. They rarely spoke Polish and even had their own names for the main Polish cities.
JW: Did you study Polish Jewish lives outside of the yeshivas?
RDS: I read newspapers of all persuasions at the time and my thesis is truly about Jewish life in general during the period. Depending on where you came from, the values changed. For some it was getting the right sort of rabbi. For others it was developing as industrialists or scientists. The Polish community was polarised. The traditional orthodox Jews felt very strongly that the way to survive was through Torah using the ways that had been taught for hundreds of years…some were living using the methodology of the past. Study would take place at every free moment. Study was ingrained in their lives. This was a harsh world. Rabbi Meir Shapiro’s Chachmei Yeshiva in Lublin broke with that tradition. The students would study. The staff would provide their welfare needs and proper meals.
JW: So far we have discussed the lives of Jewish men. What about Jewish women?
RDS: I make very significant mention of Sarah Schenirer. She revolutionised study for Jewish women. Jewish girls had been going to public schools learning their Judaism at home through their mothers or other family members. This was causing huge issues for women understanding their place in the Jewish world. Sarah set up the Beis Ya’akov Jewish school in Cracow. Within a very short time Beis Ya’akov schools mushroomed throughout the country…bringing Jewish study to the country’s Jewish women.
JW: Did this change their attitude to Jewish men?
RDS: At the time many women were attracted to men from outside the Yeshiva community. But Rabbi Shapiro wanted to change the perception of bocherim. In most societies they were seen as schnorrers who could not make a living. Rabbi Shapiro wanted to create a special status for those studying at his Chachmei Yeshiva. They were to be seen as future community leaders and men who could make a real contribution to Jewish society. Many women had become more modern and were exiting their Jewish lives. Beis Yaakov brought them back into the fold.
JW: I understand that in your research, you discussed with academics Jewish life in Poland outside of the yeshivas. If you were to write a novel using Jews from different walks of Jewish life to head say ten chapters, how varied would their stories be?
RDS: The communities had grown very far apart…the languages, the values, the ambitions. Some felt it their duty and honour to serve in the Polish army. Others had maimed themselves to avoid serving. Some felt that the earth in Poland was burning and that all Jews should get out, with Palestine being the number one destination. Some lived fabulously wealthy lives and others lived in incredible poverty…a breeding ground for communism for those who sought what they saw to be justice and equality. This ripped families apart. Some families sat shiva because A child had idealogical differences.
JW: Do you think the Jewish community in Poland today will be successful in rebirthing itself?
RDS: I spent so much time studying this that I would sit down at the breakfast table with my family and they would say “Dad, last night you were back in Poland, weren’t you?” I did immerse myself in their culture. When I visited Poland I saw that in the countryside not much had changed since the period I researched. Communism however removed any vestige of the Jews who had lived in these small towns. Today the Polish community is asking who are all those people who built those synagogues and industries. Many Jews who disappeared into the woodwork are starting to re-emerge. Countless individuals have told their children that they are not their biological offspring…and that they had been Jewish children whose parents had given to them to look after. The parents never returned. So there is today an amazing number of Jews appearing who are rediscovering their Jewish roots. Poland had not been an independent country since 1795 but regained its independence after WWII.
JW: What would you say to those Jews today who believe that Poland remains an anti-Semitic country?
RDS: I spent a lot of time with very fine Polish people. It could be seen to be biased as those people were very willing to work with the me and the meetings had been pre-arranged. There were things said to me from time to time and my Polish contacts were highly embarrassed. But these things happen everywhere…even in Sydney. Today’s Poland is developing rapidly. The Polish government has been very supportive of Israel and many Israelis are living there. Academics are divided. Many were victims of the Nazi regime themselves while others had collaborated.
JW: In the interwar period, did many Jews abandon their faith?
RDS: Being accepted into the the non-Jewish world wasn’t very easy. The Jew who didn’t feel comfortable within the Jewish community didn’t really have many places to go to where he would be accepted as an equal unconditionally. It was easier to disappear as a Jew and to fall off the Jewish map. But this has happened in many other countries too. Many did that. Many left Poland physically. Many were proud of their heritage but simply felt it had become outdated. This is why Reb Meir Shapiro is the central character in my thesis. He recognised the spirit of the times and realised that if orthodoxy was to continue to be an important voice within Judaism he would have to reinvent it which is what he did on a number of levels. He developed a system of study called Daf Yomi where Jews the world over study the same page of Talmud on the same day. He created excitement and warmth. He was a very charismatic man with a wealth of one-liners who avoided confrontation. For a student to get into his Yeshiva you had to study and commit to memory 200 pages of Talmud by heart. He made Torah study exciting. He wanted the best minds to populate his yeshiva. He attracted young men who appreciated an intellectual challenge. So for the yeshiva it was those who could memorise 200 pages and for the others it was Daf Yomi…study one page per day.
Rabbi Slavin told J-Wire: “My thesis is based on the Yeshiva world and its challenges in Poland in the interwar period. Rsbbi Meir Shapiro was one of the great men in Poland in the pre-second world war period”
Rabbi Slavin will receive his doctorate early next year when will become known as Rabbi Doctor Dovid Slavin. His thesis was edited form 132,000 words to 100,000 in accordance with doctorate standards. He studies around 300 different books during the preparation of his thesis.