A man who remembered when Hasidim waved the Israeli flag
IN PICTURES: Yochanan Twersky was a bearded distant relative with a rabbinic countenance and a wealth of stories. He was also the last link between old- and new-world Jews.
Could Yochanan Twersky, had he chosen to follow the footsteps of his rabbinic-Hasidic forefathers, have transformed, or at least bridged, between modern-day Hasidism and religious Zionism in Israel as we know it?
He was my distant relative, and the thought still occupies my mind, two months after Twersky – scion-turned-Israeli underground member, IDF soldier, and Israeli Trade Ministry official – died in Jerusalem at the age of 87 following a protracted illness.
"You simply have to meet him," my brother Yitzchock – the meticulous researcher of the Twersky family genealogy for nearly 25 years -- urged me back in 1999, after I made aliyah from New York. "You'll see. He is one of a kind."
He was a bearded man with a rabbinic countenance, and he was affectionately known as "Yochanan." He was not a close relative of ours; a glance at the Twersky family tree shows that four long generations ago, his paternal great-grandfather and namesake, Rabbi Yochanan of Rachmastrivka (1816-1895), and my paternal grandfather, Rabbi Aaron of Chernobyl (1770-1837), were brothers.
But I was irresistibly drawn to this warm, affable man and his repository of age-old stories. Over time it became very clear: I was in the presence of our family's last witness to a union now rendered extinct, if not totally unfathomable.
"My father was a Hasidic rabbi," Yochanan told me during our first meeting at his Jerusalem apartment 13 years ago, in his deep, distinctive baritone voice and his British-Austrian English. He pointed to a wall where framed pictures of bearded Hasidic men hung alongside an image of Theodor Herzl. "And he was a Zionist."
Yochanan's father, Jacob Joseph Twersky, was a fervent Zionist among a small cadre of Austrian Hasidic rabbis influenced by Herzl and Laurence Oliphant, the British author and diplomat. Twersky led Vienna's religious-Zionist Mizrachi movement and aided Israel's early pioneers, among them the father of Israeli Supreme Court, Justice Yaacov Bazak, as they set sail for the Land of Israel from the Italian port of Trieste.
"We constantly had chaluztim in our home," recalled Yochanan, using the Hebrew word for pioneers. "There was never enough room. They slept four across in my bed, and my mother cooked. I slept in the bathtub."
Yochanan's father bought shares in Bnai Zion, a turn-of-the-century company that purchased tracts of land near Hebron for Jewish farming and cultivation. At the annual Zionist march in Vienna, Rabbi Twersky walked with other Hasidic rabbis, waving an Israeli flag.
"My father wore his best holiday clothing when he visited Herzl's grave in Vienna," Yochanan, who bore a striking resemblance to his great-grandfather, told me.
In a long line of rabbis, a sudden twist
His grandfather, Nachum, was the first Hasidic Grand Rabbi to settle in Palestine, in 1924. Jacob Joseph visited him briefly that year and even considered settling there, before his poor health forced him to return to Vienna.
One can only wonder what would have become of Jacob Joseph's variety of Hasidic-religious-Zionism had he settled in Palestine – and had Yochanan, his only son after three marriages, succeeded him.
In 1931, when Yochanan was 6 years old, his father collapsed and died while praying. Seven years later, during Kristallnacht – the Nazi pogrom known as the "Night of Broken Glass" -- the Nazis broke into the Twersky home, ransacking it and dragging 13-year-old Yochanan from his bed.
"They ordered me to tear up our holy books and they beat me," Yochanan told me. He said that he watched in horror from his window as the Nazis forced Jews to clean the streets with their beards.
In the aftermath of that atrocity, he salvaged one scorched volume from the flames, which he would later bring to Israel. He pleaded with his mother, Miriam Frieda, to abandon the family's sole source of income -- her late husband's pension -- and flee via an illegal transport to Belgium, and then to England.
"We just wanted to get to Palestine, but we couldn't get a certificate from the British to enter Palestine," said Yochanan. In a 1999 interview about the rise of Austria's extremist politician, Jorg Haider, Yochanan recalled his childhood memory of the annexation of Vienna on March, 15, 1938, and the Austrians' enthusiastic welcome of the Nazis.
In an unpublished family memoir, "Life's Incarnations," which he co-authored in Hebrew with his wife of 58 years, Ruchama, Yochanan described how Vienna's Jews were pelted with stones and rotten fruit for years during its annual Rosh Hashana Tashlich ritual on the banks of the River Danube. The attacks only ceased after a group of 200 of Vienna's local Betar Youth organization fought back, "beating the anti-Semites with bats and clubs so severely that they had to be hospitalized."
Yeshiva student by day, revolutionary by night
In England, Yochanan studied at a yeshiva in Manchester and later earned his matriculation from the University of London before obtaining work as a diamond cutter. Stunned by continued reports of atrocities against Jews, and eager pry open the doors of immigration to Palestine, Yochanan joined a local branch of the LEHI -- the underground Zionist movement founded in Palestine by Avraham ("Yair") Stern.
"It's a pity I wasn't there [in Palestine], but at least I could do something in London," recalled Yochanan, who under the code name, "Yehuda," kept a stash of weapons and explosives beneath the floor of his London apartment. "I made some contacts, secretly, and I joined the LEHI. There I did what I could. I did all kinds of activities against the British, and we succeeded."
In 1949, he and his mother set sail for Israel on the vessel "Negba."
For his underground and IDF service, Yochanan later earned two medals. He was offered a senior rabbinic position in the Israeli Air Force, but declined.
"I came to Israel to be a soldier just like everyone else and to defend the land," said Yochanan, who served in the Imports Department of Israel's Ministry of Industry and Trade for 38 years. "I didn't want the rabbinate."
Yochanan wasn't ordained. But as a learned man with charisma and compassion he could have been a contender of the Hasidic variety. Instead, he did things his way. He decided to forgo the Hasidic garb of his father, opting instead for a knitted yarmulke and placing himself firmly in the religious-Zionist camp. "My father most certainly would have led the religious-Zionists, had he made it to Israel," Yochanan told me in an interview a year before his death.
"Might you have, too?" I asked.
"I wasn't worthy," he said after a deep sigh, recalling that at the time of his father's death he was given a black fur hat and told to sit in his father's synagogue chair. He only 6 years old at the time. "They tried, they pushed me. But it wasn't for me," he said.
Yochanan was modest, but he was also a pragmatist. Arriving as a refugee in the new-born state of Israel at the age of 24, he knew he had a life to build. In 1949, his Haredi uncle and Grand Rabbi was already cementing the family's 25-year-old Hasidic court – although he was also concerned about his children's future leanings.
"Thank God my children are not members of [the anti-Zionist] Neturei Karta, and they're not Communists," Yochanan's uncle, Rabbi Dovid of Rachmastrivka, once confided to him. "But I fear my grandchildren will one day become [religious] zealots."
"It was quite an eye-opener for my Haredi relatives that a member of their family walked around in an Israeli uniform, wore a knitted yarmulke, and placed an Israeli flag outside his home on Israel Independence Day," Yochanan once told me. "But they didn't dare say anything."
Are trousers holier than soldiers?
Though he enjoyed praying in the synagogues of Israel's diverse ethnic congregations, Yochanan refused to daven at a synagogue that omitted the prayer for the State of Israel and the welfare of its soldiers. "It's a defamation, an ingratitude, not to say it," he once told me. "If you can praise God for a new pair of pants, you can bless Him for Israel's rebirth."
Asked in 1999 to discuss Haredi draft exemptions from the IDF, Yochanan preferred instead to recall an era when the majority of Israel's right-wing underground members were religious. But in his last interview more than a decade later, Yochanan would not conceal his feelings toward draft-dodgers.
"I am embarrassed that there are Jews of this kind," he said.
I pressed Yochanan further, and went back to the issue of succession. Did he feel a sense of guilt over severing the family's rabbinic line?
"I have 21 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren, and all of them are religious-Zionists who performed their army and national service," said Yochanan, ever the straight-shooter. "I, too, felt I am continuing the path of my father. I have nothing to be ashamed about. I have no regrets."
He remained optimistic that Jews would one day "overcome their differences and unite," citing a number of examples when Jews came together "in the face of real danger." But he tempered his statement with realism, adding: "I'm sure that even when the Messiah arrives there will be Jews who won't accept him."
In one of his last recorded statements, Yochanan acknowledged that Israel "needed some miracles." But he remained ever hopeful.
"If we look at our past, it gives us hope that we can succeed again. We can have peace and success in all of our efforts,” he told me.
Last year, when I asked Yochanan whether his brand of religious-Zionism had, in essence, replaced his father's class of Hasidic Zionism, he didn't miss a beat.
"It didn't replace it," he said. "It renewed it."