17 March 2007

A Galitzianer murder mystery

Last Friday's Forward was a great read, and has a book review of an historical murder in old Lemberg (Lvov, Lviv, Ukraine). I loved the review's headline - "Law & Order: Special Galitsianer Unit!"

Although I am wary of the viewpoint of the reviewer, Allan Nadler, who is described in his bio as a "nonviolent Canadian Litvak," I'm putting this book on my to-read list. It's got all the elements of a major movie.

A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion, and Violence in Modern Jewish History, by Michael Stanislawski(Princeton University Press, 2007).

On September 6, 1848, a young Orthodox Jew with the very inauspicious name of A.B. Pilpel (Hebrew for pepper), bearded with sidelocks and dressed in a black hat and a long caftan, entered the kitchen of the district rabbi of Lemberg, Abraham Cohen, and, pretending to light his cigar from the stove, poured arsenic into the Cohen family’s soup. Within hours of their supper later that evening, the entire Cohen family was severely ill. And by 3 o’clock the next morning, Rabbi Cohen and his infant daughter, Teresa, were dead. Rabbi Cohen’s wife, Magdalena, and his four older children survived the poisoning. The rabbi is reported to have said, as he lay dying, that “no Jew has done this.”

Author Michael Stanislawski, writes Nadler, demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt in his riveting new book that the rabbi was wrong.

This controversial, liberal, Hapsburg government-appointed rabbi of the capital of Jewish Galicia (Galitsia), Lemberg (Lwów, in Polish; today the Ukrainian city of Lviv), became the first Jewish leader to be assassinated by a fellow Jew since the second-century Judean revolt against the Romans.

Readers will be introduced to the Jewish religious and political culture of 19th-century Austrian Galicia, where many of our ancestors lived.

The book also debunks myths about Galitsianers, such as that they were primitive and uneducated Hasidim in contrast to the Yekke German Jews or the Litvaks of Lithuania.

Nadler, a Drew University professor of religious studies and director of the Jewish studies program, calls the saga an important historical morality tale about the dangers of religious extremism.

Read the entire review here.

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