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Fire Ice Air. A Polish Jew’s Memoir of Yeshiva, Siberia, America

Rabbi Simcha Shafran, left, recounts his experiences during the Second World War at a Kristallnacht commemoration event at Kehillas Bais Yehudah Tzvi in Cedarhurst, Tuesday, November 9, 2010. Also pictured is his son, Rabbi Avi Shafran, right. (Claudio Papapietro)

-After the great turnings in the history of the Jewish people, new forms of expression of Judaism, mainly new kinds of writing, responded to crisis. The Pentateuch reached closure in the aftermath of the destruction of the first temple, the Mishnah was formed in the decades following Bar Kokhba’s defeat, new forms of mysticism responded to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492, and scholarship in the Western secular mode came into existence in the aftermath of the change in the status of the Jews in central Europe in the nineteenth century. In Rabbi Shafran’s story we are given an instance of a new mode of writing, the intense personal composition of an autobiography in the aftermath of the Shoah: “this is what happened to me, here is my life.” We do not possess in the context of the holy books of Judaism large collections of autobiography prior to the Shoah.

The survivors effort to preserve the story is illustrated in this lovely and moving book, which benefits from the participation of the author’s son, Avi Shafran distinguished author in his own right as the authentic voice of Agudat Israel and now as editor-at-large and columnist for the newly formed Ami Magazine as well as contributions written by others who preserve their memory of Rabbi Shafran’s life.

That life started out in Poland, but fortuitously young Simcha Shafran went off to study in Vilna just before the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and was shipped off by the Russians to Siberia as part of a small group of yeshiva students and their master and spent the war in Siberia as a slave laborer. Declining Soviet citizenship in 1939 proved a fortunate choice, because after 1945 he was given the right to return to Poland and continued on to Germany and the U.S.A. He tells the story of his life in Baltimore where he served as rabbi and teacher.

The book is elegantly written — Avi Shafran is a master of American prose — and tells its story with clarity and wisdom. The book would serve as a reading in a course in basic Judaism, telling the story of authentic Judaism through the life and experiences and messages of this remarkable man. Eli Wiesel on a world stage and Simcha Shafran in private life in Baltimore accomplish the same goal. Both of them illustrate the response of the authentic Judaism to the Shoah in a form of writing that has no broad prior counterpart in the authentic tradition – from scriptures to today.

Jacob Neusner is Distinguished Service Professor of the History and Theology of Judaism and Senior Fellow, Institute of Advanced Theology of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

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