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Munkacz’s Nine Minutes of Fame

Aharon Rubin

A lost world. A rediscovered film. How was the Minchas Elazar’s eternal message of Shabbos given over to American Jews in movie theaters?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

black and white photo of munaczThe entire film is less than nine minutes.

“Jewish Life in Munkacz,” a rare piece of filmed history, includes just a scant few scenes. But those scenes of a vanished era tell the tale of the two worlds that co-inhabited Jewish Munkacz — the fiercely traditional chassidim and the passionate young Zionists — and they feature one of the most prominent leaders of prewar Jewry, the Minchas Elazar, Rav Chaim Elazar Spira.

The first scene captures the joyous, chaotic wedding preparations for a momentous event: the wedding of the Minchas Elazar’s only daughter, Chaya Fruma Rivka a”h, (“Frimaleh”) to the distinguished young genius Reb Baruch Yehoshua Rabinowitz ztz”l, the son of Reb Nosson Dovid Rabinowitz ztz”l of Partzev. The wedding was especially joyous, as it signaled the continuation of the Rebbe’s line: the Minchas Elazar, who had worked miracles for so many others, waited 20 years for his personal miracle, the birth of Frimaleh. The shidduch has been finalized four years earlier, when the young genius had been just 14. Now, on 17 Adar – March 15, 1933, the wedding day that would herald the future of Munkacz had finally arrived.

Streams of people — over 20,000 men, women, and children — fill the main street, vying to catch a glimpse of the ornate carriage making its way into the city. A tight ring of police officers encircles the crowd, pushing the people to the side of the road to make room for the wagon driver to direct his vehicle, with its distinguished occupants, to their destination.

The camera then zooms in on the Rebbe himself. Wearing a kolpik, the Minchas Elazar directs his gaze at the cameraman and raises his voice with his characteristic passion. He shakes a raised finger as he exhorts, “The Midrash says that Shabbos is alone; it has no partner. I tell you, my brothers in America: If you keep Shabbos, it will be good for you. I do not mean only to keep it by davening; I mean not to desecrate it with your actions! You can preserve its kedushah,” he calls out forcefully. Footage of the chuppah quickly replaces the close-up of the Rebbe.

Then the scene shifts to a large group of children singing. The tune is familiar, the words slightly less so. These are young adherents of Munkacz’s Zionist movement singing Tikvateinu, the precursor of Hatikvah. At that time, the Zionist movement infused its anthem with biblical references like “the age-old hope to return to the land of our forefathers, the city where David lived.” The children were completely unaware that, only a few short years later, this stanza would be altered, and the yearning to “return to the land of our forefathers” would metamorphose into a desire to “be a free nation in our land.”

The camera then segues to the other end of the spectrum: religious cheder children reciting brachos with their rebbi, a traditional young man bargaining with a seforim peddler over the price of a Chumash, a bearded Jew supervising the production of tzitzis.

The final scene features rings of young men and women spiritedly dancing while singing a strangely haunting and still popular tune to the holy words v’al yedei zeh yushpa shefa rav b’chol ha’olamos.

In less than nine minutes, the film comes to a close. But the images remain, and questions linger. Who were the real Jews of Munkacz, the devout chassidim or the spirited young Zionists? What had prompted the Minchas Elazar to address his fellow Jews in America? Who had produced the film, and why?

In honor of the Minchas Elazar’s 75th yartzheit this month, his grandson, along with an elder chassid, shed new light on the famous footage.



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