06 April 2008

Chicago 2008: Gesher Galicia's murder mystery

Chicago 2008 conference attendees are beginning to learn about SIG luncheon speakers. Gesher Galicia's luncheon program - Monday, August 18 - is spotlighted today.

Gesher Galicia research coordinator Pamela Weisberger announced that Columbia University professor Michael Stanislawski will speak on "A Murder in Lemberg: Politics, Religion, and Violence in Modern Jewish History," based on his book of the same name.

He asks the question: How could a Jew kill a Jew for religious and political reasons?

The book's research took place in the Lviv Historical Archives, a topic that Stanislawski will continue discussing in the first part of the Gesher Galicia SIG meeting at 3:30pm the same day.

Many people asked this same question after an Orthodox Jew assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Itshak Rabin in 1995. But historian Michael Stanislawski couldn't forget it, and he decided to find out everything he could about an obscure and much earlier event that was uncannily similar to Rabin's murder: the 1848 killing - by an Orthodox Jew - of the Reform rabbi of Lemberg(now L'viv, Ukraine).

Eventually, Stanislawski concluded that this was the first murder of a Jewish leader by a Jew since antiquity, a prelude to twentieth-century assassinations of Jews by Jews, and a turning point in Jewish history. Based on records unavailable for decades, "A Murder in Lemberg" is the first book about this fascinating case.

On September 6, 1848, Abraham Ber Pilpel entered the kitchen of Rabbi Abraham Kohn and his family and poured arsenic in the soup that was being prepared for their dinner. Within hours, the rabbi and his infant daughter were dead. Was Kohn's murder part of a conservative Jewish backlash to Jewish reform and liberalization in a year of European revolution? Or was he killed simply because he threatened taxes that enriched Lemberg's Orthodox leaders?

Vividly recreating the dramatic story of the murder, the trial that followed, and the political and religious fallout of both, Stanislawski tries to answer these questions and others. In the process, he reveals the surprising diversity of Jewish life in mid-nineteenth-century eastern Europe. Far from being uniformly Orthodox, as is often assumed, there was a struggle between Orthodox and Reform Jews that was so intense that it might have led to murder.

Allan Nadler wrote in "The Forward:"

"Beyond the sheer literary pleasure of his captivating narrative and the inherent novelty of a Galitsianer Jewish murder mystery, the author adds important insights into the complex, now vanished, world that was Jewish Galicia ... Michael Stanislawski has written not only an important historical morality tale about the dangers of religious extremism, but also a cautionary tale about the unforeseeable perils unleashed when governments try to force modernity, or, for that matter democracy, on a deeply traditional religious society."

Stanislawski is Nathan J. Miller Professor of Jewish History at Columbia University, where he also serves as associate director of the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies and chair of the Interdepartmental Program in Yiddish Studies. His books include "Autobiographical Jews and Zionism" and the "Fin de Sicle."

Weisberger says the talk is of interest not only to Galician researchers but to anyone interested in world history and what happens when politics and religion collide.

While all conference registrants are invited to both the SIG meeting (free) and luncheon, the luncheon requires a paid reservation ($39) through the conference website; click this page. If you have already registered for the conference but not the luncheon, log in and add this event. Luncheons with speakers like Stanislawski sell out quickly, so don't wait too long to make your reservation.


  1. Oh, I wish I could be there. I would love to hear this talk,as I am (a) have Galitzianer roots and (b) am very interested in Victorian/historic crime. Thanks for writing about it!

  2. Hi, Laura,

    It does sound like an excellent program. I plan to sign up myself. It's sure to sell out very quickly.