Inventing Tradition: The Scroll of the 19th of Kislev and Polish Chabad

 The interwar period saw dramatic developments for Hasidism in Poland. Hasidic groups, faced with the losses of the war, mass relocation, urbanization and rampant secularisation, looked for new ways of engaging their current and potential followers. Within the Hasidic world in Poland, Chabad occupied a particular place. Born and developed in Belarus, the Chabad movement cultivated a distinctive identity, based on idiosyncratic teachings and rituals. The war, revolution and the anti-religion persecutions stifled Chabad communities in the new Soviet state and forced many Hasidim to emigrate. Some, including the rebbe Yosef Yitshak Schneersohn, resettled in Poland, hoping to rebuild their communities there. In addition, a network of Chabad yeshivas attracted students from non-Chabad families. Schneersohn’s original literary production and institutional activity were aimed at translating the Chabad experience for the newcomers and keeping them connected with other Chabad communities around the world. Shneersohn's input involved, among other innovations, inventing a new ritual: the reading of The Scroll of 19th of Kislev.

Since the 19th century, Chabad has celebrated the 19th of Kislev as the anniversary of the release of Shneur Zalman, the founder of Chabad from a Russian prison. While it was customary for Hasidim to gather on that day and study, in 1936 Schneersohn sent out a letter from Otwock, ordering his Hasidim to celebrate by reading out the Scroll of 19th of Kislev – his Yiddish account of the “miraculous” deliverance of Shneur Zalman. Soon after, a series of reports from various communities on the reading of the Scroll was published in the Hebrew journal ha-Tamim – a mouthpiece of the association of Chabad yeshiva students. While the celebrations of 19th of Kislev, however, have become increasingly formal in post-Holocaust Chabad, the reading of the Scroll diminished in importance.

My paper will discuss Schneersohn’s unsuccessful attempt to establish a new ritual against the background of his project of transplanting Chabad into Polish-Jewish community. It will explore the message of the new Scroll of 19th of Kislev and its place within Schneersohn’s corpus of Yiddish literature and quasi-historical writings. Besides the content of the Scroll, the paper will examine the meaning of the new ritual of the Scroll reading. Finally, it will provide a hypothesis for the ritual’s demise in the post-Second World War reality.

5th Annual International
Polish Jewish Studies Workshop

“Centering the Periphery: Polish Jewish Cultural Production Beyond the Capital”

Rutgers University
the State University of New Jersey

March 5-6, 2018
Rutgers University Inn
178 Ryders Lane
New Brunswick, NJ  08901