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A Fire Burns in Kotsk

A Tale of Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland

Menashe Unger
Translated by Jonathan Boyarin
Introduction by Glenn Dynner

Jewish Studies, Jewish Life and Tradition, European History, Translation, Yiddish Studies

Paperback
Published: February 2015
ISBN: 9780814338131
Pages: 256 Size: 6x9
Illustrations: 1
eBOOK
Published: February 2015
ISBN: 9780814338148

Half a century after Hasidism blossomed in Eastern Europe, its members were making deep inroads into the institutional structure of Polish Jewish communities, but some devotees believed that the movement had drifted away from its revolutionary ideals. Menashe Unger’s A Fire Burns in Kotsk dramatizes this moment of division among Polish Hasidim in a historical account that reads like a novel, though the book was never billed as such. Originally published in Buenos Aires in 1949 and translated for the first time from Yiddish by Jonathan Boyarin, this volume captures an important period in the evolution of the Hasidic movement, and is itself a missing link to Hasidic oral traditions.

A non-observant journalist who had grown up as the son of a prominent Hasidic rabbi, Unger incorporates stories that were told by his family into his historical account. A Fire Burns in Kotsk begins with a threat to the new, rebellious movement within Hasidism known as "the school of Pshiskhe," led by the good-humored Reb Simkhe Bunim. When Bunim is succeeded by the fiery and forbidding Rebbe of Kotsk, Menachem Mendl Morgenstern, the new leader’s disdain for the vast majority of his followers will lead to a crisis in his court. Around this core narrative of reform and crisis in Hasidic leadership, Unger offers a rich account of the everyday Hasidic court life—filled with plenty of alcohol, stolen geese, and wives pleading with their husbands to come back home.

Unger’s volume reflects a period when Eastern European Jewish immigrants enjoyed reading about Hasidic culture in Yiddish articles and books, even as they themselves were rapidly assimilating into American culture. Historians of literature, Polish culture, and Jewish studies will welcome this lively translation.

Jonathan Boyarin is the Mann Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at Cornell University and the author of Jewish Families and Mornings at the Stanton Street Shul.

A Fire Burns in Kotsk is a wonderful, rich, and highly imaginative depiction of one of the most controversial and misunderstood Hasidic dynasties in Poland. The author, Menashe Unger, who traversed from the Hasidic community to the scholarly world culls from hagiographic sources to construct a colorful, funny, and heartfelt portrait of the darker side of Hasidic life. Jonathan Boyarin’s felicitous translation and notes bring to life Unger’s Yiddish original with panache and candor. Glenn Dynner’s historical introduction aptly sets the stage for the drama that follows. A significant contribution to the fleshiness of Hasidic life and a delightful read for both scholars and non-scholars alike.

– Shaul Magid, Jay and Jeannie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington

The vast majority of the works produced by Unger and his peers are completely unknown to readers interested in Hasidism or Eastern European Jewish history and culture in general. Jonathan Boyarin’s translation of A Fire Burns in Kotsk thus represents a milestone in English-language publishing on Hasidism. It opens a window into a period when Eastern European Jewish immigrants continued to enjoy reading about Hasidic culture in Yiddish articles and books, even as they themselves were rapidly assimilating into American culture. The book itself is a historically significant account of an important phase in the emergence of competing branches of Polish Hasidism and the rise—and fall—of various Hasidic leaders.

– Nathaniel Deutsch, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement

It is wonderful to see Menashe Unger's marvelous novel finally translated into English. Unger is a vivid writer who brings to life the intense and complex world of Polish Hasidism. The excellent introduction by Glenn Dynner and translation by Jonathan Boyarin make this a worthwhile read!

– Samuel D. Kassow, Charles H. Northam Professor of History at Trinity College

Originally published in Buenos Aires in 1949 and translated for the first time from Yiddish by Jonathan Boyarin, this volume captures an important period in the evolution of the Hasidic movement, and is itself a missing link to Hasidic oral traditions. . . .Unger's volume reflects a period when Eastern European Jewish immigrants enjoyed reading about Hasidic culture in Yiddish articles and books, even as they themselves were rapidly assimilating into American culture. Historians of literature, Polish culture, and Jewish studies will welcome this lively translation.

– Scholarly Book Services