Nov 14, 2019
Martin Buber did more than any other individual in history to introduce Hasidism to non-Hasidim. Reared in his grandparents’ home in Lvov, Galicia, his anthologies and essays sought to recapture the Yiddish “spokenness” of Hasidic teachings through his German reworkings of Hebrew translations. The fruits of that labor have been studied from philosophical and cultural standpoints, but this absurdly mundane artifact—a receipt for a load of books that Buber had shipped from a bookshop in Przemyśl, near his old hometown, to his current home in Berlin—reminds us of the most concrete textures of his engagement with Hasidic sources.
The year in which Buber made this purchase was a turbulent one for Przemyśl’s Jews, who constituted about one third of the city’s population. In spring 1915, occupying Russian forces deported all Jewish inhabitants. Most returned after the Central Powers drove the Russians back out of the city in June, but of course many landed as immigrants on the streets of central European cities like Berlin. Those so-called Ostjuden, “eastern Jews,” sparked scorn and fascination. Many regarded them as backwards denizens of an unenlightened world, evidence that Jews were unworthy of citizenship and integration. Other onlookers romanticized the Ostjuden as images of spiritual authenticity, untainted by the soul-sucking alienation of modernity. Such orientalism fed the demand for Buber’s Hasidic writings and surely motivated the author himself, too. In October, just a few months after the return of Przemyśl’s Jews, the Berliner Buber purchased thirty-three Hasidic books from Buchhandlung Amkraut & Freund. Here, in the very heat of World War I, after publishing his first two “mystical” Hasidic anthologies and soon before launching into his most sophisticated and voluminous Hasidic anthologies, we behold Buber’s undiminished appetite for that literature.
Looking at the receipt, I wonder what book titles corresponded to those catalog numbers. I wonder what the unnamed bookseller with such elegant handwriting had just experienced that year. I wonder about the fate of Amraut & Freund. Left to daydream, color catches the eye. Within just a couple years of bloodshed, border changes, falling kingdoms, and rising states, that beautiful Austro-Hungarian stamp would no longer be relevant for a bookshop in Przemyśl.From this material perspective, we see Buber poring over the pages of his new seforim. This story enchants him, that one repulses him. Here is a twist that should be accentuated, there is language that muffles the message. In my own intertextual studies of Buber’s tales, I seek to recapture such moments from his readings. The receipt is a most palpable representation of that hermeneutical encounter.