I am so very grateful to Marcin Wodzinski for this Historical Atlas of Hasidism — and for his generosity with the material: he allowed me to use some of it in a printing for my tours. This book is the most helpful reference for anyone interested in the history of Hasidism. And it’s beautifully put together too.

The best bet for learning about the History of Hasidism is to buy this alongside the other major new tome (lots of activity in a sleepy field, ey?) “Hasidism, a New History“. Together, these books can be referenced again and again as our understanding of this unique history deepens. 

With the Atlas, you get a really solid breakdown of the geographic movement of the dynasties, both within specific major dynasties as well as within Hasidism as a whole. I also came away with a better sense of Hasidism regionally rather than divided by dynasty. 

Illustration of origins of sects. See how far north the Lubavitch dynasty began, in contrast to Satmar.

For the Hasidic history buff in your life (ehhem, lol), surely a great gift.

I’ve just listened to the pilot episode of the new podcast by the Association of Jewish Studies. They discuss how the Jewish Appetizing shop came to be – a really interesting story. Who could bother to prepare their own herring and smoked fish in the overcrowded Lower East Side tenements? It made sense to buy it at the pushcart, or the upgraded version, the “Appetizer”, where you got herring (with, presumably, kichel?), sour pickles, smoked lox (salmon) and various candy shop items.

It’s worth a listen! 

AJS Podcast

Also, as with many things Jewish history, the Hasidic part of the story is often neglected and history is told only from the viewpoint of the pre-holocaust Eastern European immigrants. But in Hasidic Williamsburg, a lot of the traditions of the first half of the twentieth century were taken over by the Hasidim, so that Flaum’s Apppetizer on Lee Avenue (where our food tour stops) was established in 1918 and is now, a hundred years later, still run by a fifth generation family member.

Now Flaum’s is not only an Appetizing, they updated their store to include a large salad bar (a twenty first century mishigas in delis everywhere, Hasidic included) and they have an ice cream option. In other words, they are the dairy equivalent of the Fleishig Deli.

They are even better known for their line of containered appetizing foods; pickles, spreads, various delicious dips for the shabbes challah.

I love how much of the nostalgia for “home” in Europe (which is another thread connecting earlier Jewish immigrants to post Holocaust immigrant Hasidim) is captured in the food. You can apparently try different herrings for Breslov (from Ukraine), Volozhin (Russia) and Kotzk (Poland). I wonder how much of the various regional herrings are grounded in history, or are they just assigned names to give a sense of a connection to the past? It’s time to pick up some eyer-kichel from Tiferes Heimishe Bakery and go do some field research…

I’ll be sure to put some notes (with pictures, of course) of that up here.

My, my. All this “field research” is not good for my figah.

Among Satmar Hasidic Jews, women never smoke. It’s really unheard of. But quite common for men, even though it’s officially frowned upon. Smoking is seen as deviant and often a way men try to be “cool”, but it’s not the kind of transgression that can push someone out of the fold.

The reason Hasidic men often smoke probably goes back to ‘tabik’, or tobacco. Hasidic rabbis famously thought favorably of tobacco and often smoked/snuffed it themselves.

For example, Shivhei Habesht, [3] the legendary biography of the Baal Shem Tov, refers to the famous lulke [4] which the founder of the hasidic movement used to smoke. While recent scholarship [5] tends to treat this work with less skepticism than did earlier scholars, even if all references to the Baal Shem Tov smoking tobacco [6] are fabrications, it is true that hasidim were known to smoke, for their early opponents, the mitnagedim, repeatedly castigated them for wasting time on smoking, which the hasidim believed prepared them for prayer.[1]

As you can see, the early Hasidim not only didn’t reject tobacco but believed it prepared them for prayer!

I grew up in the US in the 80s in a Hasidic family, and by then it was well known that smoking wasn’t a-okay. It was no longer a part of Hasidic life the way coffee is. Even with cigarettes now seen as a vice, there were remnants of earlier embrace of tobacco. I remember that people still had tabik pishkelech, which were Snuff Boxes. Here are some antique Jewish samples:

Here is a rabbi sniffing tobacco:

In the book “Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge”, which is about a little American Jewish boy who lived with his Hungarian Hasidic grandfather in Williamsburg in the 1950s, the author describes getting curious about the ‘tabik’ that all the Hasidim carried around. He asked to try. He was offered a snuff by one of the men in the synagogue and when the tobacco hit him he responded in such shock, all the adults had a good laugh. (this was long ago, even before Mad Men parenting days.)

I don’t know that Hasidic men really carry tobacco anymore except maybe on fast days, when you are allowed to smell it. It helps ease the hunger pangs. It helps with fasting.

In spite of some objections, snuff-taking was permitted at any time—Sabbaths, holy days, fast-days, and Yom Kippur [2]

On the Yiddish forum Ivelt, in a discussion in 2013 about preparation for a Jewish fast, someone wrote: “און לאמיר לויפן קויפן טאביק!”

“Let’s run and buy tobacco!”


What does the permissiveness vis a vis tobacco in pipe or snuff box mean for men smoking?

Well, once upon a time, back in der heim in Europe before the war, cigerattes made their way into Jewish shtetl life.

When we were Hasidic kids, I knew this Yiddish song, called “koyft zshe papirosen”, which means “buy cigarettes”.

Buy cigarettes…

Dry and from not ruined…

Buy very cheap…

Buy and have mercy…

Save me from hunger now.

Buy matches that are old…

With it you will nourish an orphan…

For naught is my screaming and my running…

No one wants to buy from me…

I will perish like a dog…

Here is an ad from Warsaw, Poland in Hebrew where a Chaim Leib Shpitsz advertises that over the last five years, cigarettes in his factory substantially improved.

Obviously, the papirussen and tabik made its way to Americhke with our immigrant grandparents, albeit not for all of them.

And while in America it became increasingly problematic as its health consequences were understood, relics remain.


Here is a Hasidic rabbi lighting another’s smoke. Although not a common sight, I found it on the Ivelt thread on smoking. All the men there drool as they speak of their next tsigeret’l.


Last I heard (a few years ago), the tradition is still that when a boy gets engaged at about age eighteen, he goes to his yeshiva and to celebrate and share his mazel tov with his friends, he hands out pens and cigarettes. The cigeratte is called a חתן ציגרעטל…A groom cigarette. I’m not sure if the majority people even light it or just throw it out.

Of course there are those who smoke it or their own packs. Young men of marriageable age who want to look cool and be rebellious will often take up smoking.

When I was a still a kid my oldest brother came home one day with his long Hasidic coat drenched in the smell of smoke. We were all sent to our rooms. I remember how terrified I was of what was to come next, fearing my brother was on the road to self destruction. I worried that this was the beginning of his downward slide from smoking to a small yarmulke to trimmed sidecurls to a downward slide into an unrecognizable brother.

I was so relieved when he soon got engaged and didn’t smoke again.

I recently asked a Hasidic restaurateur who was smoking outside his shop why he smokes.

“Why I smoke? You know, because I can’t stop.”

“Why did you start?”

He knows I’m ex-Hasidic, so he nodded like it was obvious. “I was a bochur, nu.” Meaning, he was a young boy of marriageable age. He might have started as a small act of rebellion, but those things from our youths follow you, and now he’s grown and I’m sure hoping his kids won’t do the same.


So Hasidim are more lax about smoking than about many, many other things. And often when that’s the case, you can often look into its history and see that long ago, a seed was sown that made it okay. And once it starts to flow in the cultural veins, it’s much harder to remove.

Footnotes

[1] Tobacco and the Hasidim – Friends of Louis Jacobs

[2] TOBACCO – JewishEncyclopedia.com

The Jewish comedian Jackie Mason who grew up in NYC during the period of most cultural output from New York Jews (he was born in 1931 and was of the Borscht Belt generation), has recently been visiting Gottlieb’s restaurant in the Hasidic community for a bit of deli-style Jewish food.

This is where the deli food is moving to: the Hasidic and ultra-orthodox communities.

I know it hasn’t yet taken off, but you can find many of the specialties that people rave about when they think “Kosher pastrami” in the meat restaurants in Borough Park and Williamsburg. I’m guessing people will realize this sooner or later, and this will only further feed the Hasidic/Ultra-Orthodox kosher deli niche.

As others have noted, the delis disappeared because of changes in the culture. Many of the early immigrants assimilated and moved away, changed their diets, became more American. Now the mantel has been passed to the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who in resisting assimilation are holding on to their culinary imports from Eastern Europe.

We recently had divine chollent at Grill on Lee. I’ve had also excellent chollent from the Satmar Butcher. Deli rolls and kishka on the grill from VIP Grill. Dips and overnight kugel from Dips. Pastrami sandwiches and chicken soup and pickles and cucumber salad. So much kosher-deli food, if only you know where to look.

PS: I give food tours of this community. I’m going to start a regular schedule in Borough Park come fall 2018, so check out my website sometime and come decide for yourself.

Oh, yeah. I grew up Hasidic in Kiryas Joel and all four of my grandparents were holocaust survivors, all of my friends were grandchildren of holocaust survivors. Our Yiddish paper ‘Der Tseydung’ ran a column in every weekly paper, telling a different person’s war story. I remember reading some pretty horrifying stuff at the kitchen table, while eating soup, as if it was normal literature. Something about being experimented on with extreme temperatures. I also remember sitting on the stoop with the neighborhood girls, eating our chips and ice pops and casually telling war stories the way modern kids might tell campfire spooky tales. We didn’t really get it, I at least didn’t. I was a carefree kid and it never felt real to me, in my safe village where you never locked the doors and you could go to any part of town without worry. But the stories were in every aspect of our lives, and only as I became an adult did the weight of it begin to register with me.

When I went to the Holocaust Museum as a mother it felt like all of these childhood stories were suddenly given a kind of unbearable life, a mother watching a child killed, a man learning his wife and kids were killed while they tried to flee — ugh, it’s so painful to realize what this all meant.

  1. We never saw our restrictive community as a response to the Holocaust. We never had fancy terminology of trauma to describe our experience with the holocaust. It didn’t feel as mired in time, in a past, as it was an experience that permeated every aspect of life; like ghost stories that haunt, only those were very, very real. As were their implications on the Hasidic community, as unacknowledged as they might have been.